18th October. Zero km.
I woke up feeling a bit second-hand this morning, so Karen slipped next door and told our travelling companions that we wouldn’t be joining them on their early morning visit to the Happy Valley Tea Estate for a tour, whilst I had a sleep-in til about midday.
With the help of a local guy we rustled up a taxi jeep from out the front of the new restaurant just a bit down the hill from our hotel, and went on a crazy but fun drive along the ridge right through the centre of Darjeeling until we popped out on the northern side, where our driver dropped us out the front of the Darjeeling Zoo.
We spent a fascinating three hours or so wandering through the zoo, which included a walk through the museum of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) which was established by Prime Minister Nehru in 1954 to facilitate the development of mountaineering as a sport in India, following the first ascent of Mount Everest a year earlier.
The first animal we saw at the zoo was a big Asiatic black bear, sprawled out on a wooden deck in his enclosure and casually licking his lips with his big tongue. We walked up the hill, passing by various deers, two huge yaks (males can grow to weigh up to 1,000kg), and a jackal. We also passed by the lower sections of the leopard enclosures but couldn’t see these animals – fortunately we got to see them later through the day when we walked back along the top sections and saw these graceful animals from that side.
Just short of the entrance to the HMI we stopped at a little zoo cafe for an ice cream, and started chatting with an Indian gentleman – Rupam – and his daughter Roshni. Roshni is completing two masters at a local university, and Rupam had travelled from his home town of Guwahati to visit Roshni during the university holidays. We had a lovely chat with these friendly people, and were invited to catch up with them in Guwahati, as when we explained that we are travelling towards Myanmar Rupam pointed out that we would be passing through his town.
We had a great time looking through the HMI museum – completely unrelated to the zoo other than sharing the grounds – but a hidden treasure and full of I testing exhibits and information, much relating to the 1953 ascent of Mount Everest, including newspaper articles that covered the achievement in glowing terms, and climbing equipment used by Tenzing Norgay. We kept on bumping into Rupim and Roshni as we wandered through the museum – quite funny little coincidences that made us laugh every time.
Back out into the fresh air and down the hill a bit into the zoo grounds, we saw the leopards that had previously evaded us – a common leopard, a clouded leopard, a snow leopard and a sleek black leopard, like Bagheera out of Kipling’s “Jungle Book”.
We also saw a massive Bengal tiger strolling around his enclosure, pacing up and down, his muscles rippling under his shiny coat. He certainly looked like he was fit to be the king of any jungle.
In the bird sanctuary the most impressive bird I saw was the Golden Pheasant – ten male of the species sporting a head of golden feathers that made him look like he was wearing a gold crown.
We walked down the hill and came across the red panda enclosures. Karen explained that the Darjeeling Zoo was the first zoo to successfully breed red panda babies in captivity and then release them into the wild. There were three enclosures for the red pandas, and we were fortunate enough to see the pandas – and quite active they were too – stripping bamboo leaves from the branches laid out on wooden decks in their enclosures, or scurrying along the wooden poles and up and down the trees.
After seeing the last of the animals, including some snakes in the snake house, some monkeys, and a lazy oris rolled up into a furry ball, we left the zoo just on closing time, and caught a small taxi back to our hotel, scooping up Aad & Mike and Emiel & Claire as we saw them trudging along the road after a long day of walking. We all managed to squeeze into the minibus but Karen was wedged into the floor of the back seat. Claire explained to Karen that here in Darjeeling you cannot buy Darjeeling tea as 100% of it is exported overseas.
We had a nice relaxing afternoon on the simple deck of the hotel, overlooking Darjeeling as it clung to the mountainside, and we could look straight down on the train tracks. The steam train passed by as we had our Coke and potato chips, blowing ash and soot over us as it climbed up the hill.
We had all had a great day out, but Darjeeling hadn’t quite what we had expected – certainly not as far as accommodation had been concerned – so instead of staying here for four nights as originally planned, tonight will be our second and last night here and tomorrow we will return to Siliguri.