Into the Woods

Dachigam National Park sits nestled among Kashmir's Zhabarwan hills some 20 kms southeast of Srinagar. Famous for its hangul, the indigenous and endangered Kashmiri stag, the mountainous 141 sq. km. wildlife park also boasts himalayan langurs, black and brown bears, leopards, jackals, foxes, weasels, and marmots as well as an astounding variety of bird life, including babblers, redstarts, wagtails, flycatchers, wallcreepers, griffons, and tits.

For one April afternoon it also provided pleasant yet forbidding shelter to five bumbling conquistadors.

It all began in mid-March, when soon after the late winter snows melted my good man M. Farooq Shah proposed a little field trip.

"David, my dear, how would you like a nice spring visit to Kashmir's famous and very lovely Dachigam Park?" he asked with a winning smile.

I would like very much, but since Dachigam visitors require an officially-approved permit I spent the following month prodding him to make arrangements. The old enthusiasm shriveled.

"What's the status on Dachigam passes, Farooq?" I asked in late March.

"How many people should be we bring?" he asked in return. "Big group or small?"

"Doesn't matter to me," I told him, noticing the bright sun shining high in a clear blue sky. "Let's just go."

I asked again in the first week of April.

"How are we going to get there?" he shot back.

"I don't know," I said. "My bike, a bus, a SUMO; who cares, let's just go."

A couple weeks later he blithely ignored my waning interest.

"Dave," he served up in his sing-song, "I really think we should bring food for a picnic."

"Sounds great, Farooq," I responded dully. "Let's do it."

And then like a bolt of lightning the date was set, along with the crew. Your courageous adventurers were Noor - a chipper, middle-aged school principal, Mushtaq -- a kind, restrained restaurateur and businessman; Abrar - a young, laconic photographer, and sometime lackey of; Farooq -- renaissance man, leader-ever-in-training, and rebel; and Your Correspondent - intrepid foreigner. Abrar, Noor, and I had never visited the park, while Mushtaq hadn't been since he was a kid. Farooq was the seasoned vet.

On the appointed late April morning we gathered and tucked into a cup of tea.

"What do you think we'll see?" I asked Farooq, envisioning leopards and bears, even a glimpse of the shy hangul.

“Maybe everything, perhaps nothing,” he chirped confidently, eyebrows raised. "Let's just let nature take her course."

After securing our lunch in the trunk, five grinning, giddy explorers squeezed into Mushtaq's sub-compact and set off for adventure. At the front gate Farooq hopped out to show our permits to park officials as Mushtaq parked nearby and we hauled out the supplies.

"Hold on," said the comfortably seated security guard, raising his hand then pointing towards our bags of food as somewhere a gramophone pin scratched its way across an old '45. "What's this?"

"This is our lunch," Mushtaq replied.

"No, no," he told us. Standing next to him, an astute assistant frowned and shook his head. "No food or drink allowed."

We marched back to the car, popped the trunk, and shifted the food and drink from the plastic bags to our shoulder sacks, then strolled back through the gate and past the guards. A little semi-obvious deception appeared to satisfy all parties, and we entered at half noon.

Dachigam Park has been a protected area since 1910, first under the Maharaja and later under the state government. Initially created to ensure clean drinking water for the summer capital, Dachigam was not officially declared a national park until 1981.

As we enter the grounds over a quarter century later sun streaks through sheltering chinars, green mountains looming in the distance. White butterflies flutter by. In the front yard of the Woodland School just inside the park gates, a few dozen white and blue-uniformed girls sing in harmony with the rushing waters of the Dagwan River a few meters away. Wild cherry, peach, and apricot trees line its path as it wends from Marsar Lake in the park’s 14,000-ft high upper reaches towards the lower valleys. We cross a bridge over the rapids and hit the trail as fresh mountain air fills our lungs.

Within minutes we come upon the Animal Rescue Center and turn in to find three leopards lolling about in the mid-day sun. The largest and oldest emits a near-growl purr as we scratch the back of his head and neck through a chain-link fence. He rolls slowly over and sits up to face us. From a foot away I stare into the big cat’s shimmering gray eyes.

"Beautiful," says Mushtaq. "Just a beautiful beast."

Back on the trail we soon fall into a groove, around curves and over hills of dense green, making our way deep into the reserve. Now and then Abrar and I stop to snap pics of rapids, bridges, and the odd flower. Mushtaq, Farooq, and Noor chat amiably as they amble. I pick up a walking stick. Suffused with enthusiastic contentment laced lightly with guilt about duties left undone, we are boys playing hookey, and on a day custom-made for a leisurely stroll in a quiet wood. Indeed, after the Rescue Center we see no living thing bigger than finger-length lizards.

Recent Dachigam visitors complain regularly of a noticeable lack of wildlife, particularly hangul. Part of the blame can be put on Dogra rulers who used the park as their private hunting grounds throughout the first half of the century. But the lawlessness engendered by the conflict has nurtured illegal timber smuggling, wetland encroachment, and administrative neglect, significantly reducing wildlife habitat. Last week J&K Forest and Environment Minister Qazi Muhammad Afzal acknowledged that the state's hangul population was dwindling as a result of illegal hunting, and that other large mammals may also be at risk. Indeed, in the last few decades locals and even militants have taken to killing leopards, bears, stag and other big game for poaching purposes, but also for sustenance.

"Let's find a place to eat," suggests Farooq. We have paused in a dense thicket, with shards of sunlight fingering through thick branches over a grassy path.

A few hundred meters further I find a cozy spot along a burbling stream, with water for washing and large stones for sitting.

"No good," says Mushtaq. "We need a deck, to see the mountains, the park."

On we stroll, and after another luckless twenty minutes our moaning stomachs force us to park in the middle of the path and break out the briyani, rista, and roti. Soon sated, we clean up and resume the assault.

"Farooq is feeling good," he announces to noone in particular as he clambers to his feet. With stout walking stick in hand he assumes the lead, taking us deeper and deeper into the uncharted undergrowth of an overgrown Dachigam. Without warning the path peters out.

"We're lost, Farooq," I say.

"No, w'ere not," he replies. "Over here."

He tears through some thick, prickly bushes and climbs to the top of a small rise from which we can see the river. It's rushing loudly some two hundred metres below, over and around great gray rocks, its edges lined with poplar. In between us and the river looms an impenetrable wall of crisscrossed jungle fastness. Across the way a rust-colored hill rises sharply. Mid-way up, perhaps some two kilometers distant, a thin band of khaki snakes through the reddish brown.

"There's a road over there," Farooq says, gesturing vaguely.

"That one way up there, by the army post?" I ask, incredulous.

"No-oo," he responds with his classic two-syllable negation. "It's down there, just on the other side of the river."

"I don't see anything," I say, squinting.

The two of us look at each other and I get to thinking. This journey is fast becoming Conradian, an illogical quest to the heart of nothingness, or a race to nowhere, in which giving up means dishonorable defeat. And I'm not sure Farooq is the right man for pulling this motley bunch together and leading us back to civilization.

I take a deep breath and put my hand on his shoulder to keep him from heading down the path to our right.

"OK Farooq," I say, looking meaningfully into his eyes, "we wait here for the others and then take a vote."

"A whaa?" he responds, insulted. "I know there's a road right on the other side of this river."

He stomps away down the hill just as Mushtaq and Abrar catch up to me.

"So?" asks Mushtaq, catching his breath. "What now?"

"Farooq thinks there's a road over there, wants to keep going," I tell him. "I say we vote."

"Yeah, we should," he says. "It's getting late."

"One problem," I tell him, turning towards Farooq's fast-receding figure, "he's already gone ahead."

And so we follow, around looming hazards of tenacious, prickly branches, over and under fallen trees, through muck and marshes, and past several used firepits and a tranquil grove of wild orange blossoms. Around 4 p.m. I begin to wonder if there is a point of no return, and whether we have passed it, and if leopards pounce from trees. Ever positive, Mushtaq breaks up the plodding with tales from his youth.

"One time we were on boats in the Dal, and we had chosen this one guy as team leader for our group of rowers," he says, turning back to face me and stepping over a gnarled elm root. "Well, he didn't really know what he was doing so half the boat was rowing correctly and half of us weren't. So we just kept going round and round."

He laughs, and so do I. But then I realize that such circular movement wouldn't be so bad in our situation.

"Not a very good team leader," I say, grinning. "Let's hope Farooq is equally inept."

Finally as we approach yet another dirt rise with the river on our left, he comes around the bend in front of us, heading back our way.

"It's no good," Farooq says, resigned yet decisive. "The hill is too steep up ahead."

And just like that, more than three hours' walk into Dachigam, we turn the boat around. Amazingly, there are no moans and groans, just a quick time check and a sudden, determined focus on the task at hand -- getting out of the park before darkfall. The group walks steadily and remains mostly silent.

About an hour later I'm leading the retreat with long strides when I come upon two large trucks -- one a light blue animal release vehicle of the game department. About 20 mostly young men, a couple with video cameras shooting at a densely forested hillside, are milling about, chatting, and squinting in the direction of the hill.

I stroll into their midst.

"Hello," I say. "What's going on?"

In a single body the group turns to behold what must seem a strange beast: An English-speaking and white-skinned young man, unshaven and wearing patched-up jeans with a bright red bandanna wrapped around his head. He is brandishing a dead branch and strolling alone through the jungles of Dachigam as evening descends.

A 40-ish man dressed in silvery gray from shoes to cap bursts towards me, blue-green eyes shooting fire.

"Who are you!" he demands with grand melodrama. "What are you doing here!"

"My name's David," I respond. "I'm just walking around in the park."

"Where is your permit? Give me your permit!" he shouts, apparently certain I'm hiding three Kalashnikovs and a grenade under my t-shirt. "What are you doing in this section of the park!"

"I don't have it, my friend does." I tell him. "There are five of us."

"Five of you!" He is fuming yet strangely satisfied, perhaps wondering with whom we are in league and what sort of promotion he can expect for capturing foreign conspirators red-handed. "But how did you, what are you all...I need to see those permits!"

"Why are you yelling?" I ask. "And what are all you guys doing here? What is this?"

"Bears," I hear somebody say.

"What, you saw bears?" I blurt out, instinctively moving towards the hill and trying to follow the camera lenses.

"Right over there," a cameraman whispers to me, pointing to 11 o'clock.

"I'm still speaking to you!" the warden shouts. He is seething but begins to accept that his display has failed to put the fear of god into his subject.

"Where, where?" I ask of the bears in low tones.

Noor comes down the path behind me, followed soon after by the three others.

"Hey!" I shout, spying a couple bears moving up the hillside. "I see them -- there they are! A big one and a little one! Over there!"

A few of the men nearby laugh at my enthusiasm. I shrug.

The warden's assistant snatches the permit papers from Farooq and delivers them unto his master as another assistant conveys to me the gravity of the situation.

"You shouldn't be in this section of the park."

"Why?" I ask.

"Dangerous," he responds, nodding gravely. "There are bears and leopards, even militants."

With his minions gathered round, the warden examines the paper as if it contained a new key to the Rosetta Stone: bringing it close to his face, flipping it over once, twice and looking closely for clues or suspicious markings of any kind.

Mushtaq steps forward.

"Nobody told us not to come into this area," he explains to the warden. "There were no guides at the entrance or anything, we just walked in and nobody stopped us."

"Nobody told us this area was off-limits," I echo.

Realizing his dreams of the great catch and ensuing renown had vanished, the warden attempts to regain some authority.

"You have a foreigner with you," he tells Mushtaq sternly in Kashmiri. "You have to be careful and be aware of the situation. This area is not safe; there are many possible dangers here."

"Ok, yes Sir, we are sorry, Sir," says Farooq, "But we were never told."

"Well now you know," the warden says, putting a point on it.

The warden and his men get in their four very roomy SUV's and drive off, leaving us five neophyte explorers standing by the side of the trail without food, drink, weapon or compass in this very dangerous area of the park as the sun nears the horizon.

Yet as we resume our walk laughter consumes us as we recount the red-faced warden and his bumbling crew. My ostensible friends gleefully rehash my wild reaction at having seen bears "in the wild." Turns out our tormentors had released the mother and her cub into the wild just two minutes before I happened upon the scene. The last hour of walking passes in a flash.

After petting a caged, limping black bear and picking up a few kg’s of trout from the in-house fish farm we arrive, staggering, at the park entrance shortly after half six. The Kashmiri word Dachigam means ten villages, but by the time our weary gang settles into the car we feel as if we had crossed untold thousands of hills and vales. Mushtaq and Farooq estimate we have walked some 25kms on demanding terrain, and our legs are feeling every inch of the adventure.

A weary, contemplative silence reigns as we descend and edge around Dal en route to Srinagar. The place undoubtedly presented a pristine, natural beauty, but its failings were many. All of the large animals we encountered were either in cages or very recently in captivity, most less than completely healthy. All of the park employees with whom we interacted were unpleasant and uncertain of park rules and regulations. They hindered our enjoyment of one of Kashmir's most renowned public wildlife areas and generally made us feel unwelcome.

As we near the Boulevard, Farooq asks Mushtaq what he thought of the experience.

"I don't have the words for it right now," he says after a pause. "I will need to consider it for a while."

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