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BW Businessworld

Their Lakes, Our Hills

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This piece is written with delight and pain. Over the past week, my wife Radhika and I spent some time at the Lake District of Cumbria in north England. Other than visiting Dove Cottage — William Wordsworth’s home at Grasmere by Lake Windermere where he lived with his sister Dorothy, his wife Mary and three children, and wrote some of his finest poems — we went on long walks along paths that meandered past the lakes and through ridges and valleys.
As we walked, we were delighted by small wonders. Of how well the countryside was kept and the bridle paths and tracks maintained. We never came across litter of any kind — toffee and chocolate wrappers, cigarette stubs or packets, empty cans and bottles, plastic, styrofoam, or anything that could take away from the natural beauty of the treks. All we saw was a pair of ancient, broken old shoes, tucked away in the corner of a track, mildewed, muddied and gradually becoming a dark brown bio-degradable waste, hardly different from the slushy underfoot where these were laid to rest.
Descriptions of the trails were exactly right in setting out the different stages of a walk from start to finish, in describing the paths and the turns, and giving accurate estimates of the distance, elevation, difficulty and time taken for each walk, including the stages in between. I’m not referring to detailed ordinance survey maps. These were simple four-page guides, with an unpretentious topographical map, followed by clear and detailed directions for each stage of the walk.
Then the markers. At each intersection or fork were clear markers. These were carved in wood; and while blending with the surroundings, were sufficiently clear. Neither of us missed a marker; nor did we feel lost in places that were often forested and quite some distance from any habitation.
Now to our hills. Let me focus on an area that Radhika and I know well — the Kumaon, particularly the region bounded by Binsar, Kausani, Almora, Ranikhet, Ramgarh and Mukteshwar. We often go to Sitla Estate, run by Vikram Maira. Located at 6,500 feet, it overlooks the magnificent Himalayan range stretching from Chaukhamba in the Garhwals to Api and Nampi in western Nepal with the Trishul, the Nanda Devi and the Panchachulis on your face. There are lovely walks everywhere — up the hillsides, and deep down into the reserved forests that open out on to sublimely beautiful little glens, each giving a different perspective of the mountains.
But guess what? Not even 50 feet of any trail is without lozenge, chocolate, biscuit and gutka wrappers interspersed with cigarette packets, tattered polythene bags and the odd broken quarter-bottle. Look up and you see heaven. Look down and you see human detritus. Some friends actually spent an afternoon cleaning one such trail. To no avail. Since neither locals nor tourists care a fig about dirtying the environment, it was back to normal in a week.
There are no maps worth the name in an area that literally has hundreds of trails, long and short, with different degrees of difficulty and complexity. Without some familiarity and a very good sense of geography, you could easily get lost. Unlike the Lake District, you will get no maps or direction notes, not even simple ones, except for a few well-known treks. As far as markers go, just forget it. There are none. You will never know if you are on the right track without asking a local. Even then, you will never quite know how far it is to your destination as hill people all over north India are famous for saying, “Bas, pandra-bees minute” when it is actually over an hour away.
How little it takes to do it right. To encourage villagers not to litter and ruin their landscape. To produce simple, easy to understand trail maps. And to put discrete but easy to read markers along the different trails. The second and third are trivial. The first is more difficult but can be done.
As it should. Because why can’t some of the most beautiful parts of India become trekking paradises. With views that are unparalleled. And with clean underfoot and clear signage. Is it too much to expect? 

The author is chairman of CERG Advisory.


(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 29-07-2013)