We got off at Pathankot and traveled 85km through mountains richly covered forests of pine and deodar trees. The air got chillier as the winding road took us nearly 2500 meters above the sea level. Every now and then we would see snow-capped Himalayan peaks against the serene blue sky. Down in the valley, gorgeous Ravi River was playing hide and seek with us at every turn.
The drive offered such breathtaking beauty and the crisp air carried an intoxicating jungle fragrance. The drive ended at Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary, also called Khajjiar as it falls between Dalhousie and Khajjiar in Himachal Pradesh. It is one of the most pristine and picturesque valleys. It has earned the name Kalatop, literally meaning ‘Blackcap’, because of the thick forest making a dark hilltop of the sanctuary.
We reached the Kalatop Guesthouse to be welcomed by the stunning views of Pir Panjal range of mountains. No wonder Khijjiar is officially known as the ‘Little Switzerland’ of India. We rested that night and decided to trek through the sanctuary at the crack of dawn the next day.
Wrapped in multiple layers of woolen clothing, complete with gloves and all, we embarked on the trek through the jungle. There were options of a bus or a car drive through the 20 square kilometer sanctuary, as there is a road through it. However, the best way to explore nature from close quarters is on foot and with a knowledgeable guide, it can turn into a valuable educational tour. Fortunately, there are well laid out pathways in the sanctuary for the tourists to walk on.
I felt like a Lilliput among the giant black brown trunks of tall blue pines, green oaks, rhododendrons, deodars, and firs. The forest floor was thickly carpeted with soft pine needles and had thick undergrowth. The sun-rays streaming through the canopy and mist gave the forest a dream-like quality. On the way, numerous little streams crossed our path, bubbling like little girls. All these would meet downstream to make mighty river Ravi.
This sanctuary also has its share of grasslands along with the thick forests. The combination makes it the perfect habitat for both herbivores and carnivores. We were warned about the Himalayan black bears as the sightings are common. It could be a dangerous encounter. The other residents of this sanctuary are Black Marten, Deer, Barking Goral and Langur. We got to see a lot of deer and Langur. Deer typically bolted as soon as they sensed us. The Langurs, on the other hand, were almost mocking us from the treetops and were at their usual attics. The Wildcats, mainly Leopards, are far more difficult to spot because of their camouflage and ambush technique of hunting. Jackals are slightly easier to see. Fortunately, or rather, unfortunately, we did not come across a bear face to face. We did see some trees marked with its sharp claws.
The jungle was a noisy place. It echoed with Langurs’ chattering, squirrels’ making ‘chunk chunk’ sounds, and a plethora of bird calls. The place was full of a variety of Jays, Blackbirds, and Thrush. The noisy Mynas were never far. We got to see the magnificent and vibrant Himalayan Monal and even spotted a beautiful Khalij Pheasant. Apparently, 120 different bird species live here.
The day-long trek was extremely exhilarating. I was repentant that we had given just a day to this nature lover’s paradise. There were other destinations to reach- Chamba Dam and reservoir on the Ravi River. But the exquisite pristine natural beauty of the Kalatop sanctuary will stay close to my heart for a very long time.