Beyond Darjeeling


Rufous Necked Hornbill Latpanchar West Bengal
Rufous Necked Hornbills, Latpanchar

When one thinks of touring West Bengal it's either Kolkata or Darjeeling. However, if you have a wild imagination and if it got the better of you, you may wander off to Sunderbans to witness one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. Little do people know that northern West Bengal has stunning nature, wildlife and flora many of which is yet to be explored and written about. Visit our Instagram page to see more photos of Darjeeling and beyond.

Hoary Bellied Himalayan Squirrel
Hoary Bellied Himalayan Squirrel

Recently, I went off the beaten path in north West Bengal and what I saw was definitely writing about. Unfortunately, the weather was not in my favor but regardless, the destinations way exceeded my expectations. If you love nature, wildlife and are constantly searching for places that are far from mass tourism, then you should definitely consider visiting these in West Bengal. These closest airport to is Bagdogra and most of these places are a 4-5 hour drive.

Singalila National Park

Singalila National Park is a 5 hour drive from Bagdogra Airport and 1.5 hour drive from Darjeeling. The National Park is on the border with Nepal and is ideal for travelers looking to re-connect with nature. The Park offers stunning views of the Kanchenjunga mountains and Mt. Everest on a clear day. Singalila is also the place you would want to visit if you're interested in spotting the extremely elusive Red Panda. 

Manebhanjang, entry point to Singalila National Park
Mane bhanjang, entry point to Singalila National Park

To get to Singalila, you need to first get to Mane bhanjang in West Bengal which is a three hour drive from Bagdogra airport. From Mane bhanjang it's a steep drive up the mountains which is best done in a 1950s four wheel drive Land Rover (left behind by the British but modified for present day travel). It is also at Mane bhanjang that you need to get permits for visiting the National Park and organize your guides and equipment if you plan to trek all the way up to Sandakphu.

Kanchenjunga range from Tumling Singalila National Park
Sleeping Buddha or the Kanchenjunga Range from Tumling

Singalila National Park is well known for it's Red Panda population. This critically endangered species mostly sleeps during the day and comes out to forage on bamboo leaves and shoots early mornings and at dusk. Due to bad weather when I was there, I didn't get a chance to spot any but the journey from Mane bhanjang to Gairibans and further to Kala Pokhri was beautiful. I didn't make it to Sandakphu (highest point) as the roads were snowed in. Spotting Red Pandas is not easy, you need to dedicate at least 5 days towards an expedition if the fire fox is on the top of your agenda. It requires a lot of man-power to search for them as the area is vast. Trackers are sent out every morning and it's only when they spot one that you get a call to get to the location. Other then red panda, the area is home to several species of birds and mammals such as the clouded leopard.

Spotted Nutcracker
Spotted Nutcracker

Other than a couple of lodges and home stays most hotels in Singalila offer very basic amenities and services. I stayed for a night at the trekkers hut which was very very basic and we had to check out the very next day in to a more comfortable hotel. The location was ideal but it was too cold to stay in the hut. Perhaps in the summer when it's warmer these trekker huts would be a more practical option to stay in.


From Gairibans we hiked in to the dense forests of Singalila hoping and wishing to spot a red panda and other elusive birds like the satyr tragopan but unfortunately it started raining and we had to head back. The forests are really dense and scattered with a variety of rhododendron trees (which bloom in April) and other vegetation primarily bamboo. As such, spotting fauna in Singalila requires a lot of hard work and patience.

Tumling, Singalila National Park
The other side of Tumling

The following morning, we made our way back to Tumling which is at 2,900 meters and actually falls in Nepal. The view of the Kanchenjunga mountains from Tumling was stunning and the place I stayed in was a major upgrade from the trekker hut. Hot food, warm clean rooms and a common dining hall where everyone got together in the evening to share their travel stories. 

Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary

From Singalila we made our way to the Himalayan foothills and arrived 3 hours later in Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. We were glad to get rid of our inners and hang out in one less layer of clothing. We stayed in Latpanchar, a small village at 1,200 meters which offers travelers several clean and friendly home stays at reasonable prices (no luxury, just basic). From Latpanchar, Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary is about a 10 km drive. 

Sapphire Flycatcher
Sapphire Flycatcher

To make the most out of your time here, a guide and a taxi is highly recommended to take you to various places including the wildlife sanctuary. Also, there is no organized wildlife safari inside the sanctuary, you have to park your car at the entrance and then walk everywhere with your guide. The wildlife sanctuary also has a two bedroom forest rest house, booking of which can be done by contacting West Bengal Forest Department. You may need to get your own rations for cooking so please check with the officials at the time of booking. 

Latpanchar is a bird photographer's paradise
Latpanchar is a bird photographer's paradise

Historically, the village of Latpanchar was developed by the British who planted Cinchona trees, the bark of which is used to treat malaria and other diseases. Today, Latpanchar is completely off the tourist radar and offers travelers an alternative hill town feel minus the traffic and crowds. 

It's close proximity to major cities (Darjeeling 2.5 hours and Bagdogra Airport 2 hours) and to the most part undisturbed forests offer several wildlife spotting opportunities with the most prized being the Rufous Necked Hornbill, Sultan Tit, Himalayan Newt (amphibian seen during the monsoon) and the Malayan Giant Squirrel, besides others.

Gajoldoba 

Home to the massive Teesta barrage on the Teesta river in Jalpairguri district, Gajoldoba is part of  the dooar or duar or in English the 'gateway' region. Dooar are the floodplains that are formed by the Teesta river in North West Bengal and is synonymous with the Terai region in North India. It takes an hour and half to get to Gajoldoba from Bagdogra Airport. Taxis can be booked at the airport and as of March 2019, no ride share services like Ola and Uber were operational at the airport. 


The barrage and surrounding forests are home to several species of migratory birds and you can see them up close by doing a boat ride organized by local fishermen. The boats are comfortable for two people, any more and you could be rubbing shoulders to feet. On a clear day (which we didn't get any of) you can even see the Kanchenjunga range. Best time to visit if you're interested in migratory birds is from November to March. 

Neora Valley National Park

A two and half hour up hill drive through scenic lush green spaces took us to the village of Lava in Neora Valley National Park. Lava is a 3.5 hour drive from Darjeeling. Spread over, 150 sq km, Neora Valley National Park borders Sikkim in the North and Bhutan in the East. Neora Valley's highest altitude is 3,200 meters and as such, the Park supports a wide variety of climatic conditions from tropical to sub-alpine. Because of this altitude variation, the Park is host to a variety of flora and fauna. 


Some of these are high on every wildlife and bird enthusiasts list - red panda (though very rarely seen), golden cat, clouded leopard, satyr tragopan, brown parrot bill, red headed bull finch, scarlet finch etc.

Birds of Neora Valley
Black Faced Laughing-thrushes

Lava was my base during my time in Neora Valley National Park. The Park's entrance is about a 10 KM drive from Lava. You could also stay in the next big town - Rishop, however the roads to Rishop are not at all great and bumpy to the most part. The stay options in this region are limited and not by any means luxury. West Bengal Tourism has a tourist rest house in Lava but I am not sure about the service it provides and I was recommended to stay elsewhere. Despite our guide's recommendation we had to change motels while there and were glad to have found a much cleaner and pleasant one the second time around. 


Hiking in Neora Valley National Park
Hiking in Neora Valley National Park

Neora Valley is not just for the bird watcher or wildlife enthusiast, you can have a pretty good time if you simply enjoy being outdoors and in nature. A 15 km walk through the forest from the entrance of the Park will take you to Zero Point. 

Lava Neora Valley National Park
View from Lava

Views of Nathula pass are outstanding on a clear day. A local guide and a vehicle is essential during your time here as the area is vast and there are leopards and black bears too.

Please feel free to email info@travelwith.in for a customized holiday to this part of West Bengal.

Comments

  1. This page certainly has all of the information I wanted concerning this subject and didn't
    know who to ask.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment