The Hornbill Camp in Uttarakhand is serious about the ‘eco’ in ecotourism.
It was still dark and misty at 5.30 on a cold December morning, when I reached the camp where I was to spend the next three days. A torchlight bobbed towards me, and a young man emerged from the mist. He ushered me to my tent, which was pitch dark. It was a slightly unnerving introduction to Hornbill Camp at Kyari village, near Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand. Somehow, though, it gave me the feeling that here was something different from the run-of-the-mill ecotourism ventures sprouting up all across the country.
As dawn broke and more people congregated around some welcome hot tea (some campers had arrived the previous night), Naveen Upadhyaya, the young man who had greeted me, explained why there were no lights in the tents. “We want to give visitors a feel of how it is to stay in a forest, or in a village that has not seen electricity for most of its existence. We want to give you a different experience, leaving behind the luxuries of urban life.”
Over the next three days, I experienced a number of other features of Hornbill Camp that left me convinced that these guys were serious about the ‘eco’ in ecotourism. I was here for an orientation programme for about 30 birdwatching guides from various parts of Uttarakhand. Organised by the state’s Forest Department, it was part of an ongoing series of birding camps as also preparation for the forthcoming second Uttarakhand Bird Festival in February.
Set up in 2011, Hornbill Camp has succeeded a previous attempt at a community-based venture set up in Kyari village by a tourism company. That camp shut down in the early 2000s as the villagers felt it was run in a top-down, non-transparent manner from the city. It did, however, serve to provide Naveen and other village youth the experience that helped them set up a new camp. The difference is that this one is completely owned and run by people from the village.
“We have kept frills and luxuries to the minimum,” explained Chandra Shekhar Upadhyaya. Accommodation is in the form of tents, rustically comfortable with simple cots and bedding, and logs for tables. The camp can accommodate about 40 persons. The loos and baths are clustered in one corner of the camp, and, with a concession to the delicate nature of tasks performed there, do have lighting! A wood-run bhatti provides piping hot water.
A crescent-shaped mud platform, the dhaba, is used to serve food and chai. Next to this is a circular dome-shaped choupal, open on all sides, tastefully built to serve both as dining hall and meeting space. For meetings requiring a more closed space, there is a separate mud and thatch room that can hold 35-40 people. Power breakdowns being frequent, the team is seriously considering installing solar panels.
Do enough people come to such a no-frills camp? Naveen said they get a lot of school kids; in fact the camp is specially oriented to providing children an exciting exposure to natural and rural experiences. Urban kids are charged camp fees; rural ones are given a free stay. Both get the same range of activities: nature walks, birdwatching, soft adventure (rappelling, valley crossing, rafting down a canal, ladder climbing), mountain cycling. Of course, any adults who want these are not denied! And the absence of city comforts has not been a problem at all. “We have not had a single person complaining so far,” said Rajendra Prasad Sati, another team member. Somehow it’s a comment that reinforces my faith in humanity!
Even if someone were to be discomfited by the camp’s down-to-earth approach to facilities, one would soon forget it when experiencing the surrounds. With the gurgling, boulder-strewn Khichri in front, a winding forest path behind, and Kyari village on the side, there is plenty to see and absorb. A half-day’s walk through mixed forests can get you to Sitabani, with an ancient temple where apparently Sita rested. A Forest Rest House is perched over a scenic valley. On the other side is Pawalgarh, traversing tall sal forests and plenty of streams. Much of these surrounds are part of the recently notified Pawalgarh Conservation Reserve, increasingly becoming known for its plentiful wildlife. In the three days we were there, we saw over 150 species of birds, and came across evidence of tiger, elephant, bear, and other mammal life.
The youth managing the camp have set up an outfit called Mountainways Outdoors. Conscious of the fact that the camp should not be alienated from the village, the group has facilitated 10 households to set up homestays. It helps bring in visitors, first sensitising them to the cultural and ecological aspects of responsible visitation. People who stay at the camp are in turn taken to the village to experience its life and cuisine. There is even a special programme for corporates, to sensitise them to rural and conservation issues. Another camp at Raata village near Nainital is also integrated with the village economy and society, run by local youth Jeevan Dangwal and Birender Dangwal.
Unfortunately, not all the tourism managers are as sensitive. A few more resorts have come up in or around Kyari, and a couple are among the worst of a burgeoning, callous form of tourism that has plagued the surrounds of Corbett Tiger Reserve. One night we heard disco music blaring away at one of those resorts. The road through the village has also become a thoroughfare for tourists who have heard of Pawalgarh and are simply looking for fun, never mind at whose cost. Bacchi Singh Bisht, a local who has been seeing the changes in the region, rues the fact that increasingly it is becoming difficult for village women to be out in the late evening. With close links between the resorts and local or state politicians, the government appears to be unwilling to take strong action against them. Ironically, responsibly run places like Hornbill Camp find it difficult to stay on the right side of the law! For instance, to take visitors on the trails through forests, forest staff has to be constantly appeased.
At a late evening discussion one day, the participants of the camp asserted that the government needs to facilitate genuine ecotourism, while reining in resorts and tour operators who throw norms to the winds. Hopefully, the Forest Department’s designation of the Hornbill Camp as one of the key centres of the Uttarakhand Bird Festival will initiate such facilitation.
If at all there was something to complain about, it was that we were mostly served standard ‘north Indian’ food (the ubiquitous paneer!), till our hosts heard us and gave us some local cuisine on the last day. Also, I suggested that they put up some attractive signage on local plant and animal species, given the enormous diversity that was within such easy reach. Naveen promised to act on these issues soon; I trust he will!
Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune
Directions: From Ramnagar station (8 km), on Nainital Road, take Kosi Bridge, then second left to Kyari village.From Haldwani (55 km), road connecting to Corbett, take the cut on the right near Belgarh Forest Gate to Kyari.
First published in The Hindu