Trekking on the Trachycarpus Trail

Martin Gibbons searches for the Chusan Palm's long lost brother.
by Martin Gibbons, Ham Street, Ham, Richmond, Surrey, TW10 7HA, UK

Chamaerops No.35-36, published online 15-04-2000 (7 pages)

Wilko Karmelk of Holland and I had, independently, become interested in the Trachycarpus genus over a number of years. Finding we had this strong interest in common, we resolved to attempt to solve part of the puzzle, and to go in search of T. takil, and try and shine some light into this dark corner of the genus.

Late in 1990 I received through the post a number of photocopies, made by Wilko in the Amsterdam library. They were from a selection of old botanical publications: “The Gardeners Chronicle of 1886“; “Kew Bulletin“ 1912; “Indian Trees“ by Brandis 1906; “Flora of British India“ by J.D.Hooker 1894, and others. They all mentioned Trachycarpus palms, calling them variously Chamaerops excelsa, C. martianus, C.griffithii, C.fortunei, Trachycarpus martianus, T.takil, etc. and they all alluded to an isolated population that grew in Northern India.
In our subsequent researches we never discovered who wrote the original description of the precise locality, but all the old books we read tended to quote the same words, "grows in great numbers, forming clumps and rows, on the Thakil Mountain in Eastern Kumaon, in the fork between the Sarju and Kali rivers, between 6,500 ft and 7,800 ft, where snow generally covers the ground from November to damp shady glens.. .chiefly on the north-west side.“

On a trekking map we located the two rivers, in Kumaon Province, Uttar Pradesh, about 300 miles north-east of New Delhi, near a village called Pithoragarh. There, in the fork between them, was an unnamed mountain, with a height of 8166 feet above sea level. As there were no others in the vicinity this had to be Mount Thakil. It was around this time that we learned that "thakil" is a Hindi word meaning "palm." The chance therefore of seeing "Palm Mountain" presented a very exciting prospect indeed.

We left London‘s Heathrow airport on October 14th for the flight to India, stopping en route at Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Kabul, Afghanistan. Due to fog and problems with the plane, we were delayed at the former for some 24 hours, but at least we had an opportunity to look round this recently emancipated city, which was very beautiful.

Our original intention had been to spend a day sightseeing in New Delhi, but because of the lost time we were eager to be on our way. We arrived at 10pm at night, and at 6.30 the following morning we were on a slow moving, east-bound train.

Indian trains leave much to be desired and they are certainly not for the squeamish. Even in first-class, the seats are hard and uncomfortable; the compartments, which are open, get grossly overcrowded; and people in rags sleep anywhere on the floor, amongst the food refuse that the other passengers continually drop. At each station, beggars and food vendors get on board doing what beggars and food vendors do, leaving the train at the next station, and presumably getting the next train back.

The stops were frequent and interminable, the countryside flat, brown and drab. Phoenix sylvestris was frequently seen from the window, but even that lost its appeal after the first few hundred had been sighted. After 8 hours we arrived at Bareilly and had had enough. We left the train hoping we didn't look too much like rich Americans abroad, and attempted to find a taxi to take us the rest of the way. In this we succeeded and found a mini-bus whose driver agreed to take us to Pithoragarh, some 9 hours drive away, for a mere 1000 rupees (£25/$50). In London this would just about get you to Heathrow airport.

We left Bareilly at about 3pm. The landscape was continually flat and uninteresting until we reached a town called Tanakpur when it changed dramatically, and we began to climb. We had left the interminable Indian plains and were at last in the hills. As the landscape changed, so did the vegetation. Endless fields gave way to forests, and farms to wooded hillsides. We began to see the Deodar (Cedrus deodara) and the beautiful Pinus longifolia, and the air smelt cooler and fresher after the stifling heat of the plains. We saw rushing rivers and deep, deep gorges, and drove carefully round one hairpin bend after another, on a good, modern road.

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