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Trekking On The Trachycarpus Trail. Part 2

The ascent of Palm Mountain.
Martin Gibbons
Chamaerops No. 2, published online 23-11-2002

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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 locals...

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 all wrong!

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 peter out.

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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