Trekking On The Trachycarpus Trail. Part 2
The ascent of Palm Mountain.
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Chamaerops No. 2, published online 23-11-2002
Left: A sight for soar eyes: Trachycarpus at last.
Right: On the slippery slope: In Trachycarpus valley.
The story so far...
Last October, Martin Gibbons & Wilko Karmelk
went on an expedition in search of 'Trachycarpus takil. In the last
issue we read of their arrival in India, the train then taxi journey
to remote Pithoragarh, 600kms north-east of Delhi, and their frustrated
efforts to find the palms, which, although reported in huge numbers
in century-old horticultural journals, now seemed unknown to the
Now read on...
We showed round the photos of Trachycarpus to the
villagers, but again, no one recognized them. Frustrating indeed,
but even this did not dim our determination to visit the actual
valley mentioned in the old reports to see for ourselves. It was
on the far side of the peak with the temple, just a few kilometres
away, but involving some serious climbing, up hill and down dale.
A young man called Hareesh then appeared on the
scene who said he would act as our guide and take us up there. We
showed him the photo expecting the familiar response, but to our
surprise and disbelief he said he knew of such a tree some 10 or
15 minutes away, in the direction we wanted to go. Our excitement
can only be imagined.
He donned our rucksack and we set off at a brisk
pace, some of the villagers following, Wilko and I hardly daring
to hope. We climbed up through a steep and pretty forest, and on
emerging from its far side I heard Wilko's exclamation, and looking
up I saw one of the most wonderful and welcome sights I have ever
seen. A tall and beautiful Trachycarpus palm, about 8 metres high,
growing on a steep slope, about 30 metres away from us! We rushed
towards it, hugging it and each other and everybody else. They must
have thought we were quite mad, but our excitement was infectious
because soon everybody was laughing and shaking hands and slapping
backs, though most of them had no idea why!
But could we see any difference between it and T.
fortunei? To be honest, no. Much as we wanted it to be distinct,
we couldn't legitimately claim a single unique characteristic.
Even so, we were ecstatically happy. Everybody had
told us it was mission impossible. Even the forest rangers had told
us that there were no fan palms to be found. But we had proved them
We took lots of photos, and we had Hareesh climb
up to cut a leaf. Before we could stop him he had hacked off four.
We screamed at him to stop. Nearby was a house and people were coming
from it to join in the fun. Our guide told us that the old man there
had planted the tree 50 years ago. We talked to him although he
didn't understand a word we were saying, and we shook his hand many
times. Through Hareesh's efforts we learned that he had found it
as a seedling a mile or two away and had transplanted it. He was
75 years old. Soon some 25 people had gathered and we assembled
for a group photo. Old men and women, young girls and boys, and
babes in arms.
After about half an hour we were on our way again,
just four of us, Hareesh and a second guide whose name was Karen,
Wilko and I, and with many backward glances at our tree, continued
the climb. Our initial destination was the temple at the summit,
a good way off and very much higher than where we were. At first
we passed through open forest and cultivated land noting occasional
Quercus incana (Grey Oak) and other trees. As we ascended so the
forest closed in, with just occasional clear areas. We saw a Rhododendron
bush - the first of many - and lots of other English garden plants:
Berberis, Cotoneaster, Roses, Ferns and anemones. As we climbed
ever upwards the Rhododendrons increased in number and size, eventually
becoming giant trees with trunks so thick that two men could not
encircle them. The quercus oaks became more numerous, as did Cedrus
deodara, the Deodar. Pinus longifolia, with such beautiful long
softly- drooping needles, so common on the lower slopes, began to
The view from our occasional resting places was
incredible - snow capped mountains seen beyond mile after mile of
treetops. The higher the altitude, the thinner the atmosphere, and
Wilko and I were both gasping. Our two guides, however, seemed to
take it all in their stride, and I think were faintly amused at
these two weak westerners, panting for breath. The sun was hot,
but the air was cool, and provided a welcome chilly breeze. Every
so often we caught a glimpse of the summit and its temple through
the thickening forest. Nearer and nearer and then suddenly there
we were, at the top. More handshakes with each other and the guides.
The temple itself was an open stone cabin, and inside was a small
statue of the goddess Shiva to whom it was dedicated. 'There were
flowers, candles and incense, and, hanging from the roof beams,
hundreds of brass bells, some just a couple of centimetres or so
in diameter some half a metre or more across. Our guides rang them
loudly and their clear notes rang out across the surrounding valleys
and echoed back from the distant hillsides, giving a scare to a
troop of large silver-backed monkeys, which went crashing off through
the treetops. Here we really felt as though we were on the roof
of the world, and close to heaven, both literally and metaphorically.
We stayed here for an hour, prepared and ate a meal
and took a long drink of water from our canteens - nectar - even
though the purification tablets made it taste of swimming pools.
As we were leaving I was distressed to see Hareesh take all my carefully
collected litter, arid before I could stop him, hurl it into the
forest below. Oh well, food for the monkeys I suppose.
We set off down by the same path but soon broke
off onto a sidetrack, and began descending the north side of the
mountain. It was noticeably cooler, and damper, as the sun doesn't
shine much on this face. The vegetation also was different. It grew
in thick, rich, moist humus, and generally looked more green and
lush. We came across a pretty species of bamboo with many tiny leaflets
giving it a foxtail appearance.
We had been descending for only a few minutes when
Hareesh spotted a tiny palm seedling growing by the side of the
track. Definitely Trachycarpus. Then we saw another and another,
and we left the path, more or less following their direction. They
became more numerous and larger, up to about a metre and a half
tall. Our excitement knew no bounds as we slipped and slithered
down from one plant to another, they getting bigger by the minute.
It became apparent that they were growing in just this one valley,
narrow and steep. If we strayed too far from its floor, the plants
diminished both in size and number.
We just had to find the adult trees that produced
the seeds from which the young plants we were looking at had grown.
We could see down into the valley to an extent but much of the view
was obscured by vegetation. We saw a fairly large plant on the other
side of the valley, about 20 metres away, and resolved to reach
it. Leaving the rucksack with Karen, we scrambled across the steep
slope, hanging on to other plants, and occasionally it must be admitted,
the palms themselves, to prevent ourselves from slipping. It was
quite dangerous in places; logs, which seemed solidly moored, slid
away at a touch and went crashing down the steep face. Eventually
we reached the tree and, with difficulty simply because of the angle
of the ground, posed with it for photos. The crown was covered in
chestnut coloured tomentum, as mentioned in Beccari's description,
written 100 years ago.
We made our way back to where Karen was anxiously
waiting, and by this time I was really beginning to feel the effects
of the altitude and my exhaustion, and felt nauseous. It was bearable
but I needed to rest every few minutes. But by this time it was
4pm and as we had arranged to meet Alook and the jeep down at the
bottom at 6pm, we had to get a move on. We saw many more small plants
of Trachycarpus, but as we neared the track they became fewer and
fewer, and soon we saw no more.
The descent was of course considerably easier than
the ascent and in places the track was just a gentle slope. Even
so it took 2 hours of quite fast work to get back to the village
where Alook said he would wait. Our guides took it all in their
stride; they were chatting away as though out for a Sunday stroll,
Wilko and I having from time to time to run to catch up with them.
At 6pm we reached the village and had some welcome
chai and a good rest. Alook duly arrived with the jeep, and we set
off back to Pithoragarh. By 6.30 it was quite dark, and we saw fireflies.
We had had a wonderful day and were quite elated
by our findings. However we were disappointed not to have found
any mature trees in the valley. We were convinced that these were
lower down; the plants had definitely seemed to get larger as we
descended, but then lack of time had forced an early end to the
search. We decided to rest for the entire next day, but spend the
night at Burapi, from where we would set off early the following
morning, taking provisions and equipment for a two-day stay on the
mountain. This, we felt, would give us plenty of time for a full
and thorough examination of the valley, where we would certainly
find the larger specimens.
To be continued....
* * *
Join the intrepid explorers in the next issue, for
the third, and concluding episode:
"Success and failure: The Awful Truth"
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