Destination India

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) next issue.
Various authors
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 flight:
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 rugged scenery.

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 Hotel'.

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 plants:
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.


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