A day-by-day diary of our successful E. P. S. tour
to north-east India this April. Twelve intrepid travellers, twelve
exciting days, two thrilling parts. Part 1 Kalimpong. Part 2 (final)
Chamaerops No.26 Spring 1997
Left: Cottage-with-a-view, Orchid retreat
Right: Trachycarpus 'sikkimensis'
The European Palm Society April trip to north-east
India was, though I say so myself a great success and a wonderful
experience for all who attended. We saw countless palms, breathtakingly
beautiful scenery and, perhaps best of all, met some of the nicest
people you could hope to meet. Here is the story of the trip, in
the words of the intrepid travellers who went along....
April 16th, Wednesday
by Jacques Deleuze
After a bit of anxiety in a traffic jam everyone arrives
at Heathrow T3 on time: 8.30 am. Hello Martin, bonjour Dominique,
guten tag Reinhold, bon giorno Federico ... this is a truly European
group! Check-in and first surprise, next stop: Berlin! We take off
on time for Amman, Jordan, everyone looks happy and excited, books
pass from hand to hand and questions are numerous: What are we going
to see? What will be the weather like? Last re commendations, food,
people ... but above all what palms are we going to see? Nobody
seems to notice the time flying by and we land in Amman -boring-
airport. Nothing to do, and taking off for Calcutta is delayed by
an hour and a half. People are exhausted and soon after supper,
get to sleep.
April 17th, Thursday
by Jacques Deleuze
We land Calcutta airport at 7.10 am. The weather is
not too hot and sticky and everyone seems happy to set foot in India
but we quickly realise that this country is not Europe. We are welcomed
by our guides in Calcutta: Sanjoy and Bost. From outside, our hotel
looks like most of the buildings here - dilapidated - but soon we
get in (5th floor) we find an 'Olde English Guest House' where 1940's
style suites are offered to us. Breakfast and a little nap before
lunch in a very smart restaurant. Early afternoon the main course'
is a visit to the Calcutta Botanic Gardens. We cross the town (population
15 million) and from the new bridge we can see in the distance the
famous Howrah Bridge where 2 million people pass from one side to
the other every day.
The Botanic Gardens are very large and we realise
that it is going to be difficult to see everything. We are welcomed
by Dr Pikey in front of a Guinness record banyan 'Ficus benghalensis'
which itself covers 3.46 hectares and whose age is more than 240
years. Dr Pikey explains the garden was created some 210 years ago
and since that more than 110 species of palms have been introduced.
We have to kindly remind him that we came to see palm trees, and
there's plenty! Sadly, it seems that most of them are old adults
and there are no more introductions. Nevertheless, this is a superb
surrounding for us all :
Acoelorraphe wrightii, Calamus sp, Corypha, Cocos nucifera, Veitchia
merrillii, Arenga sp, Caryota sp, Elaeis guineensis, Latania sp,
Ptychosperma sp, Hyphaene sp, Phoenix sp and hybrids, Roystonea
regia Dypsis madagascariensis and lutescens, etc... to name just
a few. Everyone realises how difficult it is to put a name to a
plant. Time flies too quickly and we have to say goodbye and thank
you to Dr Pikey. Back to the human sea for an interesting Calcutta
City tour in an air-conditioned bus. After dinner at the hotel the
evening is free but everyone is tired and 'Calcutta by night' will
be left for an other trip.
April 18th, Friday
by Christian Dye
This is a transit day where, after just 24 hours in
Calcutta, we are heading northwards. There are two stops on our
Gawahati (north-east) and then Bagdogra. The crowd milling around
and crawling along in dense traffic does not cause any delay to
our schedule. We are welcomed by Mahendra, Ganesh's son, at Bagdogra
airport. He is going to be with us during most of the trip. The
route to the north by bus quickly starts up the first mountainous
spurs along a magnificent road in the monkeyinhabited forest. The
first palms - Calamus erectus - attract our attention, and after
a picnic stop not far from a river, it's the long climb towards
Kalimpong. We arrive there in the dark because of a power cut but
despite the stiffness, the tiredness and the lack of electricity
the welcome of Ganesh Mani Pradhan's family is so warm and strengthening
that it will remain the best part of the day.
April 19th, Saturday
by David Albon
After the arrival in darkness at the Orchid Retreat
and the inspection by torchlight of a few palms and cycads, a number
of people could not resist the temptation to get up early and appreciate
the garden with the rising sun. An astonishingly beautiful scene
was revealed. The Orchid Retreat is surrounded by forest-covered
hills and occupies a steep south-facing slope with the terraced
garden falling from the main villa at the top. Our bungalows, built
in traditional style with various products of bamboo, had balconies
which looked over the garden to the hills over the valley. The garden
itself was well maintained on the higher terraces, gradually becoming
more natural until it merged with the woodland in the valley.
The range and scope of plants was immense indicating
good growing conditions for everything from familiar annual bedding
plants such as marigolds and larkspur, to clumps of hippeastrum,
large bushes of poinsettia, bougainvillea and cannas to agaves and
euphorbias, an amazing variety all growing extremely well. Most
interesting, of course were the palms and cycads of which there
was a wide range of species. The garden was framed by a number of
very large and magnificent Caryota 'himalaya' remaining from the
original woodland clearance but many other species have been planted
including a fine specimen of Trachycarpus 'sikkimensis', Cycas pectinata
and a large Wallichia densiflora.
Also integrated in the garden were the propagating
houses for the orchids, which are the main activity of Orchid Retreat,
but we were also pleased to see numerous pots of seedlings of the
local palm species. The time before breakfast at 7 o'clock was very
well spent absorbing the delights of this Eden.
Soon after eight, despite the lack of inclination
to leave the garden, we boarded the bus to travel to Gangtok in
Sikkim. However, after a few hundred metres a fine specimen of Trachycarpus
'sikkimensis' in flower was spotted The bus was stopped and we all
got out to inspect, photograph and discuss: the pattern was established
for the next few days! We soon resumed the journey, passing through
Kalimpong, a crowded, vibrant hill town, then driving down through
open forest and roadside villages while various palms, bamboos and
conifers were regularly identified. Perhaps, most amazing were the
many species of orchid, in full flower, growing on the trees.
After following the river valley we crossed a bridge
and arrived at the traditional painted gateway to Sikkim. While
Mahendra went to the checkpoint to deal with passport and permit
matters we admired a large bamboo, at least 30 metres tall and flowering
- Dendrocalamus gigantea. Anticlimax - our permit did not allow
us to enter Sikkim by this route - the road which leads to Phoenix
humilis We must go to another entry point, obtain further permits
in Gangtok, then try again. So back we went over the bridge renamed
'Bamboo Bridge' and headed for the approved permit entry point.
We passed through increasingly dramatic scenery, the valley becoming
almost a gorge, noticing at one point Phoenix rupicola growing on
an almost vertical rock face just above the river. At Rangpo our
permits proved adequate and we drove into Sikkim, immediately noticing
two large specimens of Cycas pectinata decorating the forecourt
of the police station. The immediate impression of Sikkim is the
colourfulness of the roadside which was lined with bougainvillaea
in a wide range of shades.
The hills above the road are forested but along the
road itself is almost continuous settlement with gardens containing
a wide range of flowering and fruiting plants including coconuts,
areca catechu and bananas. Soon after leaving Rangpo we came to
halted traffic, which given the lively street market of itinerant
foodsellers and the mid-road activities of local chickens seemed
to be of some duration - so it proved. A rock scree just ahead had
collapsed and to allow heavy equipment to reconstruct the road it
was closed for lengthy periods, we had hit one of these. Over an
hour later the road was opened and we crossed the new rubble and
were able to resume the drive to Gangtok, climbing through wonderful
Despite the Gangtok traffic we eventually reached
the Tibet Hotel for a welcome beer and a good lunch while Mahendra
went to obtain the necessary permits to allow us the alternative
entry to Sikkim over 'Bamboo Bridge'. Lunch and permits dealt with
we had a brief visit to the 'Flower Exhibition Centre' in Ridge
Park where a show of orchids, mainly hybrid cymbidiums, was being
staged, before eventually leaving Gangtok at about 4 o'clock.
We returned to Rangpo by the same route and left Sikkim.
The bus driver used his skills to the limit to get us back to the
'Bamboo Bridge' crossing as quickly as possible but we re-entered
Sikkim in approaching darkness and it was a few more kilometres
before the bus suddenly stopped and we saw at the top of a road
cutting the profile of Phoenix humilis We drove on and found further
plants which we tried to look at by torchlight but eventually decided
to return to the spot on Monday. In this part of India and Sikkim
the roadside banks are decorated with thought provoking slogans.
At our first Phoenix humilis stop we noticed "Lost time is
never gained again". The morning hour at the roadblock and
administrative requirements in Gangtok certainly confirmed the truth
of this. We returned to Orchid Retreat for dinner in bright moonlight.
April 20th, Sunday
by Fritz Klaarenbeek
This morning it was not the friendly people of the
Orchid Retreat serving 'bed tea' that disturbed our sweet dreams.
This time it was the sound of a rock, hammering on a chisel that
disturbed the morning quietness. It appeared that some group members
were re-landscaping the garden in an attempt to take some of the
beauty with them to their own garden. (Just kidding!)
In three Jeeps we left for another very interesting
day. Our first stop was after just two miles, when we spotted a
Trachycarpus 'sikkimensis' in a nursery. All available seedlings
were bought, expecting them to be of the same species. Some still
have doubt. On the way to Latpanchur we admired Pinanga gracilis
and Calamus leptospadix in habitat. On our way to Darjeeling, right
through the most beautiful tea plantations where women were picking
the spring leaves, we spotted a gorgeous Wallichia disticha in full
flower. How sad to know that this great looking tree will soon die,
its flowering process marking the end of its short life.
While clouds were gathering some searched for seeds
and seedlings underneath a group of Phoenix rupicola, assisted by
the local youth, while others were admiring some Livistona jenkinsiana
While driving to a higher altitude the rain had changed into a real
hail-storm and all were glad to leave the draughty and cold Jeeps
for lunch at the famous Windamere Hotel. Through streets covered
with slippery hailstones we drove to the 'shopping area' to buy
ourselves some Darjeeling tea and commenced the journey back to
Kalimpong. This led us through many mountain-sides covered with
green tea bushes, rough nature and breathtaking views. It was another
very interesting day and all were glad to be back for a hot shower.
April 21st Monday
by Charles Wychgel
After yesterday, a long, gruelling day in open jeeps,
through hail and rain but with, for me, 'le moment supreme': the
sighting of two magnificent Wallichia disticha, one in flower, our
patient tour leader had scheduled a day of rest for the men and
an afternoon of shopping for the ladies. However, the palm hunting
spirit had not diminished and a morning trip was arranged to view
a stand of Phoenix humilis (=P. loureiri), a stand we had only seen
in near-darkness due to delays on the Gangtok trip. Off we went
in the bus, happy as larks, with splendid weather.
The first stop was just a couple of hundred metres
from the Orchid Retreat, to see a Trachycarpus 'sikkimensis' in
bloom. Our tour leader, patient as ever, explained once more the
differences between the various Trachy species, and our esteemed
French expert, M. Jacques D., thought that it was male since the
inflorescence was green, whereas the female, he said, had a yellow
colour. Unfortunately I am a little colour blind especially if the
colours are 10m high up in the air. Shaking the tree did not produce
a cloud of pollen, just several flowers which were, indeed, classified
as male. I wonder what the owner (had he been present) would have
thought of the spectacle of 8 grown-up Europeans shaking his tree!
On we went to the Sikkim border at Melli-baraan, spotting Areca
catechu, hundreds of them. The scenery here was breathtaking with
the snow-capped Hindu Kush looming on our right. The crossing of
the border was problem-free and we continued on our way up the north
bank of the river and after a few km's we saw our first Phoenix.
They were in a sorry state, a lot of dead leaves and
just a single shoot of a fresh green spear coming out of charred
trunks. We soon found out why, a fire had raged a few months earlier,
blackening the trunks and killing the lower leaves of the shorter
palms. Like the fabled Phoenix however, the new leaves soon emerged
from the ashes.
We continued on a few hundred metres, spotting a few
Calamus erectus on the other side of the river, then stopped again
top examine a steep slope on our right. This slope was covered with
thousands of Phoenix palms in every phase of their life-cycle, and
sometimes emerging almost horizontally from crevices in the rocks.
Inspection of the few seeds I was able to collect showed the typical
longitudinal groove on one side and the embryo at the centre of
the dorsal face. Returning the Kalimpong we drove across the bridge
again, spotting again Calamus erectus up on the hill. Water flowing
down had bared a natural path of stepping stones and it was here
that we climbed up, through thickets of ferns and Pandanus trees
to get a closer look at these spiny palms.
It is a shrubby, erect species up to 5m high with
stems 7-10cm thick. William Griffith (Palms of British East India,
1850) mentions that the seeds of this palm which are covered with
snakeskin-like scales, not unlike Salacca seeds, are used by the
poorest natives as a substitute for the Areca betelnuts. After examining
Pandanus, ferns and Bauhinias, activities frowned upon by our tour
leader who is proud of his tunnelvision on palms, we continued on
to Kalimpong where we were an hour late for lunch. This was served
on the lawn of a fine old colonial mansion, now 'The Morgan House
Later, after returning to the Orchid Retreat, we finally
got our well-deserved afternoon rest, our pre-dinner drinks in the
cozy lounge, and then of course, the fabulous food of Mahendra's
wife and his mother. An early night then, to get a good night's
rest, to build up energy for the next day's hard work.
April 22nd, Tuesday
by Federico Carnazza
As with every morning at six, we were awakened by
the gentle noise of rattling tea cups as Milli, a young Indian girl
working in the Retreat, brought in 'bed tea' to us in our bungalow.
Outside a thin mist surrounded all the plants of the garden with
total silence; not the normal view for Europeans to see: huge Caryotas
in the mist, framing the rising sun. The first gathering of the
day with the whole group:
breakfast. It was a perfect blend of European (English) and Indian
taste: everything we are used to was on the tables; only rare fruits
could tell us where we were.
Outside three jeeps were ready to go in search of
palms. We left Kalimpong at 8 o'clock, waved on by crowds of school
children, all wearing their colourful school uniforms: green, blue,
violet. After an hour of driving, during which the most anxious
of us suffered a bit for the steep curves and climbs, we stopped
in the narrow village of Mirik Busty; a few peasant houses, with
frames made of Phyllostachys bamboo. After leaving the jeeps and
the drivers, we began walking under the hot sun. We found a landscape
of small but steep and arid hills with a few fields of corn, or
lower down, terraces ready for planting with rice.
Then, at last, almost on the top of one of the tallest
hills we had the luck to see our targets, Trachycarpus sikkimensis
in the wild. Several of them were thriving on the bushy slopes of
the hills in full sun, often in groups of two or three, some tall
and bearing fruits. We only really understand a palm when we have
the chance to see it in its own habitat, smell the air all around
it, squash the soil where the roots live, feel the heat of the sun
on our skin! After admiring the whole scene, while some of us went
back slowly to the village to familiarize with the natives, others
went to check for other specimens of Trachycarpus quite rare, but
spread all over in the fields.
So we left this wonderful landscape at noon again
with the jeeps and went back towards Kalimpong passing the old Monastry
of Pedong, with the weather getting chilly and windy. Only when
the sun came out again we had a wonderful and peaceful lunch in
the jungle enjoyed with plenty of Indian beer. In the afternoon
the team was split again; some preferred to go to Kalimpong to do
some shopping as it was the last day there, others preferred to
go hunting plants in a gorge, where we found a wide range of tropical
Cyathea, Caryota, Angiopteris evicta. In the evening we all gathered
together but we were quite sad because it was our last night in
Kalimpong. Outside in the garden we enjoyed a mountain of marinated
roast chicken with various beverages and one of our number, Karen,
gave us a short but nice concert with her guitar; inside a complete
Tibetan meal was being prepared for us by the staff and friends
of the Orchid Retreat: we were tired and utterly satisfied with
everything but a sad sensation was in the face of all of us; we
were leaving a place where we spent such nice days and where we
met such nice people.
23rd April, Wednesday
Today we are up at the ridiculously early hour of
3.45am. But it is bright moonlight and the almost ghostly view of
the Caryota 'himalaya' in Ganesh's sloping garden alone makes the
early rise worth while. We are about to leave the marvellous hospitality
of Ganesh's family and home, the beautiful scenery of Kalimpong
and this very special corner of India and bead south, then west,
then north. We are leaving for Meghalaya province. Meghalaya means
'Abode of the clouds'. We were soon to find out why.
After breakfast (the whole family and staff are up
too) we climb aboard the bus that will take us to Bagdogra airport.
We are delighted Mahendra is joining us for the rest of our tour.
For the last time we took the steep road down, through green forest,
and along that extraordinary section of road where it loops round
and goes through a tunnel below itself (much more easily explained
with a few hand and arm movements). We drive along the Teesta valley
road, and fill nor eyes and memories with Calamus, Wallichia and
Phoenix rupicola Who knows when any of us will see them again? As
we descend the temperature rises and all too soon we are on level
ground once more. We drive out of the forest and onto the plains;
hot, sticky, dusty.
Another hour and we are at the airport, chaotic and
crowded but somehow we check in. One hour more and we are airborne.
Now we really are on our way.
On arrival at Cuwahati, just as hot, sticky and dusty
- it really is tropical here - we look anxiously for our bus. Modern?
Clean? Air-conditioned? Well the only bus here is old and beaten-up
with no windows. Surely not? Well unfortunately this is the one.
With some difficulty we all squeeze in, with our luggage under tarpaulins
on the roof, and set off on the four hour climb up into that 'abode
of the clouds' that we'd heard so much about. There are lots of
palms to see on the way: coconuts, tall Areca catechu in plantations,
and frequent stands of Caryota urens.
Finally we reach Shillong, and the Polo Towers Hotel,
new, clean and just what we needed. A hot shower apiece, a good
dinner and blissful sleep at the end of our long travelling day.
To Be Continued. Next issue: the second and concluding
part of our diary: Shillong and Trachycarpus martianus, New Delhi
and a quick trip to the Taj.
10-07-20 - 00:03GMT
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