Walk, connect, revive ….
Last Spring, Sara and I joined Sussex Songbirds to walk with the group. I found myself walking beside a woman who had been on several WalkingWomen holidays and, like so many others, was keen to continue her support as we build and develop WalkingWomen.
As we walked, she talked of her friend in India who had recently set up her own travel company Rainbow Journeys – all women tours with women guides. She asked if we wanted to be connected. “Absolutely, “ I said, as so many of our new holidays are developing because of women we are being connected to via the wonderful WalkingWomen community of women. We seek out women who are leading women-only tours in the travel industry and who are supporting more women to be able to have a fantastic career in travel. Previously the domain of men. Rainbow Journeys seemed a perfect collaboration. We started planning with Sheetal owner and founder of the company.
Nine months on, and our 1st group was in India. A small group as we specialise in small group tours, especially when we go further afield. On this tour, we walk the lower Himalayas on paths used by villagers. We walk beside them, we stop for tea with them, and large groups would overwhelm. This is for a maximum of 8 women.
We started in Delhi; we were met and whisked straight to our hotel. It made for a very easy start. Long flights and time changes to adapt to make a few lazy days in Delhi a welcome start.
And then the trek began. A Dawn wake up to catch the train to Kathgodam. The main train station in the foothills of the Himalayas. Breakfast on board and the chance to chat and get to know our group more as we travelled through the Indian countryside to the north. Train travel is such a great way to travel, and so many choices in India with the extensive rail networks.
From the train, we had a 5-hour car journey to our destination, the Binsar Sanctuary and home to leopards and more than 80 species of birds.
It was dark as we arrived, and the first thing we saw as we drove up this small track was two eyes looking at us at the side of the road. And then the leopard appeared. It just sat and stared, and we all felt thrilled to see it. We soon learned that leopards only come out at night, but they will always be around as you walk in the areas. We were told not to walk alone at dusk or early morning. “Always walk in two’s they said and never run if you come face to face with a Leopard – or tiger, for that matter! “ Luckily, we didn’t need to test this out as these big cats are actually very shy.
The next morning we awoke to the most spectacular views of the Himalayas – snow-capped and slightly misty. We stood outside with our coffee in silence, soaking it all in. Fresh, strong Indian coffee that was delicious. On one side are the peaks of the Himalayas, and on the other the rolling hills of the lower Himalayas. At this time of year, you see bright red rhododendron scattered through the green trees, and it makes for beautiful walking.
Over the next six days, we trekked from place to place on paths through the forest that links villages. We walked between 9 and 15km a day up and down hills and around the valleys as we journeyed on. Each day staying at different spots and experiencing the different types of accommodation. The ex-colonial house built by the British at Binsar to camping on the side of hills to wake up to immediately see the snowy peaks and the most gorgeous sunrises. To be woken with a hot tea or coffee delivered to the door of your tent was a joy! Bucket Baths became the thing and a very environmental way to get clean as you don’t waste so much water.
We also tried homestays created by villagers and supported by the government to bring tourism income to villages that have been dying out with the youngsters leaving for the bright lights of the city. Homestays are rooms right beside the villager’s houses – all very well designed with ensuite facilities carefully created. Each HomeStay has a dining area, and the food was so tasty and delicious. We ate all vegetarian and the variety of veg, all grown in the village, was amazing.
We had rich, ripe oranges, freshly made lemon juice, teas made from various herbs growing in the area, and a favourite was rhododendron juice made from the flowers – a tonic for the heart. It is a land full of natural medicines, which we heard all about as we walked. For those wanting to learn more about the power of plants, herbs and immune-building tonics, this is the hike for you.
Having Sheetal with us made it so special and such a unique trip. To hear stories of her time living and working in the Binsar Sanctuary. To stop for tea with villagers she knew and hear about the real lives of these tiny mountain villagers. She was a wealth of knowledge, and it was an enriching experience to walk and talk together. Always supported by other experienced naturalists who helped us spot birds and wildlife and shared their own stores of the forest.
We saw loads of mountain goats …
We ended our stay visiting Jageshwar to be part of the start of Holi month – a Hindi celebration in northern India. It focuses on the full moon and the official start of summer. Colour is the theme, and it is thrown everywhere to land on whichever person happens to be passing by.
And then a very special treat. A visit to Sheetal’s village to stop for lunch at her very own pizzeria. Fresh pizza’s in a little gem of a place – we were suddenly transported to Italy in the centre of a Himalayan mountain village. I’d never tasted such great pizza. The senses were exploding!
From here, we visited woman’s projects so we could experience what the women of the area are doing to improve the lives of the village women.
A cooperative UMANG http://www.UMANG-Himalaya.com
Has been formed where women work making knitted clothes and products from the fruits of the land – tea, spices, porridge, and flour for bread. All are sold with income going to the women so they can do this kind of work instead of chopping and carrying logs all day.
We visited https://needlestosaymore.com/?v=1ee0bf89c5d1 encouraging women to knit and sell produce. All can be bought online if you would like to support them.
Then on to the Jim Corbett Park and protected sanctuary for tigers, elephants and a rare mountain goat! We all felt quite sad to be at the final stages of this incredible tour, but spirits soon lifted as we sat listening to barking deer and the many sounds of the forest. We stayed in an eco-lodge alone and deep in the forest. We hiked tracking tigers and ate breakfast by a waterfall last frequented by elephants. We swam in the clear flowing river feeling safe as the crocodiles sighted were upstream!
And then back to Delhi to prepare for the journey home but still with time to immerse ourselves in more of India. A trip to the Taj Mahal to sit and be wowed by the enormity of it – to hear about the love story and reflect on our own love stories. A very rare treat, and there were a few watery eyes.
Back home and words cannot capture the true wonder of the last two weeks. To experience this, other courageous women didn’t really know what to expect but were ready to sign up and join in. Sometimes we want to venture further afield but feel unsure alone, and we are anxious about being a solo woman traveller. Sometimes we wonder about how it is for gay women. To travel with other like-minded women and be hosted by a local company run by a woman makes all the difference. We were safe, we were so well looked after, and we were shown a side of India many never see.
Thank you to Sheetal Thakur and her wonderful team. Look forward to next year – this holiday will be on our website soon – same time in 2024 . And if you want to visit India this year we have a trip to Kerala Nov 17th to Dec 2nd.