A personal travel blog by Reetwika Banerjee
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Kolakham is a virgin hill station with an average altitude of 6500 feet above sea level, inside Neora valley National Park on the foothills of Eastern Himalayas. We got to know about the place from a travel magazine. The captivating photographs were imperative to plan our next trip to Kolakham.
Last summer we spent a weekend there, spending splendid moments in the lap of Kolbong forest, the oldest Reserve Forest of the country rich in biodiversity, flora and fauna. Located at a distance of around 125 kilometres from Siliguri, it took us almost 7 and half hours by road to reach Kolakham due to unprecedented delays enroute.
This time we were travelling in a family of four and preferred to book a decent hatchback through a tour operator near Siliguri bus stop. But when we communicated our destination to the driver he immediately refused to accept the duty. As per him, a 4*4 SUV was the only possible four-wheeler to risk the last seven kilometre jungle drive through the Kolbong range of Neora Valley National Park. Needless to say, from the journey time itself, one may guess the road conditions in this route. In addition, the weather was very cloudy since previous night. It was mid-June, not an ideal season for this circuit of course and the possibility of rains made it even worse.
Kalimpong Mall Road
After a hassled start, we finally commenced our journey from Darjeeling More taxi stand at quarter past ten in the morning. Due to a landslide near Kalimpong, the road had become extremely narrow passing single way traffic at a time. From the district town, we took the route of Algarah towards Kolakham.
Algarah to Kolakham road trip
The road conditions for next 30 kilometres were satisfactory to cover in one and half hours. Kolakham was just 7 kilometres from here but the drive was the most difficult of all. We were at the entrance of Neora Valley National Park and Kolakham village is located within the verdant forest. As per our driver, though it’s just a few kilometres, it would take at least an hour to reach our hotel. There was no proper motorway inside the Kolbong forest. Only loose boulders are being laid for cars to traverse. Also, we were struggling against time because the road is not advisable for night drives. Not only natural risk, there could be wildlife attacks as well.
Entry gate of Kolbong Range – Neora Valley National Park
The network connectivity of Kolakham is usually poor and it got proved when we failed to contact our hotel in any way. We kept trying multiple times as I badly wanted to check if lunch could be arranged so late. On the other hand, a break was a must have so as to ease our driver for the remaining strenuous stretch. Therefore, we decided to have our lunch and then proceed for the final drive with full energy.
Way through the forest
It was already 5pm, high time to complete the road trip – the toughest drive ahead. Since there are no shops or ATM at Kolakham, we parcelled two big bottles of mineral water and dispensed emergency cash from the market. Keeping the monastery on our left, we took the road entering straight into the Neora Valley National Park. Within five minutes, the road disappeared and what we were left with were only boulders and thick forest all around – evidently we had entered the Kolbong range. It was going to be a natural blend of forest safari. Morning rains had made it so slippery that even an experienced hand was also missing a few times. The skidding sound of the wheel and our driver’s reactions made the difficulty too evident.
Due to the tall trees and unusual density at this part of Neora Valley forest, dusk light could hardly pierce through the foliage. The only source of light was the headlight. Now we could realize why the driver was so frustrated with our late start. Nocturnal tryst with wildlife wasn’t unforeseen. Red Panda, Clouded Leopard, Malayan Giant Squirrel, Black Bear, Musk Deer, Himalayan Monal etc are common residents of Kolbong range.
We did notice some movements behind the bushes and a dark fluffy bird incidentally crossed the road. Its speed was so high we could not see clearly what it was, probably Monal. Also the visibility was very poor. Nothing much could be seen against the headlight other than the rocky boulders.
At a distance, we could also hear the sound of an unknown animal, might be a barking deer’s call. It is said, the leader of any barking deer horde gives a loud call when it senses any carnivore around. My husband also reminded, a few years back even traces of Royal Bengal Tiger were also evidenced by the forest department. Sweats perspired even in the prevailing chills. As I pulled up the glass window, others too followed my action.
For the next thirty minutes, with complete stillness all of us were silently counting seconds as the motor vehicle slowly made its way through the woods. Undoubtedly, the natural sound mix of whistling cedars, wild cricket, chirping birds coupled with the motor noise created a mystic milieu. The perfect set to shoot a dark horror film.
Our hotel – Kolakham Retreat
‘Kolakham Retreat’ was the name of the hotel where we had booked our stay via Spring Vale Resorts group. It had become totally dark when we reached. Quarter past six here was as good as dinner time. It was not a proper hotel of course, neither a tree house. Small attic style wooden cottages facing north and a double storey concrete building – that’s all. We did not find any resort staffs as such. A Nepali family residing at the ground floor of the building took care of our needs during the stay. The Kolakham village is inhabited by sixty odd Nepali families of Rai origin and the caretakers too might belong to the same fraternity.
Attic style wooden cottages
As we alighted from the SUV, a mid-aged lady showed the way to our room K-7. We had booked the deluxe four bedded family room which was on the first floor. Luckily there was electricity when we arrived. Generally after sunset, there are instances of long power cuts in Kolbong forest. Chilly winds, forest stay, and dusty long drive – the combination demanded a round of hot tea and yummy munchies. Thankfully, the Nepali lady did not let us down. She agreed to serve the snacks immediately.
Our room K-7
We had to take a flight of steps to go to our room. Since it was double sized deluxe accommodation, there was only one room on first floor. Others were in cottages down below the slope. The backside of our building was open forest and to our sheer wonder there were no protections as such. The staircase was open on all sides with only a roof to prevent dews. Encountering a leopard or bear at night would not be absurd as the stairs might provide them a comfortable shade. The very ecstasy of adventure thrilled us, though not the seniors in family.
Night fall at Kolakham
Nestled amidst dense Neora Valley Kolbong Range at night was in itself a very exhilarating experience. The complimentary unpredictability made it more euphoric. The room was quite big with two double beds in a row. The attached toilet was clean. The overall quality was pretty average, more of a budget stay at the price of luxury – though quite justified at such a remote corner. The best part of the apartment was its open balcony. They said it faces north, so in the morning, if the clouds mercy us we would be able to see the snow caps right from our room.
After finishing tea, we had just reclined a bit when a loud knock on the door frightened us all. The slam continued without a pause and the strokes went harder as we took time to respond. My husband called out twice but his voice fainted behind the bangs. Any emergency? A dacoit attack? A ghost? Or some wild animal? Why banging so abnormally? Will it break the door? Thousand questions fizzed on our eyes. A weak door lock was the total protection. My husband was preparing to give a fight if the door breaks.
As we took time to open the door eyeing each other, a female voice came from downstairs, probably from the balcony side. I rushed out to check. It was the caretaker’s wife calling us at the top of her voice. Could not imagine such a frightening situation will be the outcome of a hilarious reason. She wanted to know if we were ready for dinner and to ask that she had sent one of her family members upstairs to knock us. An old dwarf, probably deaf too, was on the other side of the door.
The mysterious old dwarf
Dinner was served by 8pm and the village appeared dead by nine. Scarcely any traces of light could be seen, except a couple on the opposite hills. Chilly clouds poked us through the thin cracks on glass windows and wooden walls. A snoring sleep under double blankets was beckoning.
Birds of Kolakham
My eyes opened at the chirping of birds, a golden gleam of sunlight was touching my feet. Time was six in the morning. Had such a relaxing sleep after very long time. City hassles have killed our solace so much that barely any day begins without an alarm now.
Peeping through the open balcony
Opening the balcony door, I peeped outside. Oh what a fresh morning it was! The peaks were unfortunately not visible but the freshness of the air cleansed all fatigue. That was exactly the refreshment my heart was craving for.
Morning view of Kolbong Forest and Kolakham from room
There were a beautiful natural spring nearby popularly known as Changey Falls but there was no motorable road to reach by car. The only option was jungle hike of 5 kilometres. Keeping the family construct in mind, it was definitely not suitable for this time. But we all took a stroll around the untainted forest of Kolakham. The glimpse of Neora River from a natural view point was entrancing. Apart from our hotel, there were few more in vicinity, however the count of tourists seemed very less. Most of the lodges were of homestay type except ours.
Jungle hike in Kolbong
Next day was our check out. A leisure struck weekend detoxed our mundane weariness of metro life as we felt fully rejuvenated for the comeback. Mighty Himalayas did not disappoint us. On the third day, a mesmerizing view of the snow peaks completed our Kolakham stay. Mt. Kabru South & North, Kabru Dome, Talung, Kanchenjunga East & West and Pandim could be seen clearly.
View of snow peaks from our balcony
Kolakham, as they say, is truly an exemplary destination to experience wilderness amidst alpine beauty from a sheer proximity. A cloudless sky overlooking the evergreen valleys, coniferous forest, exotic wildlife and snow glaciers make it a perfect hotspot for nature lovers, star gazers, birdwatchers and adventure seekers.