The Neora Valley:
THE NEORA is a small hill stream in the Kalimpong sub-division of North Bengal, rising from near the tri-junction (3,200 m — 10,500 ft) of West Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan, and flowing southward for about 58 km before emerging on the plains of the Jalpaiguri district near Gorubathan. It is fed by nine main streams and sixteen subsidiary streams. Neora and its main feeder, the Thosam Chu,. lie enclosed in the valley formed by two roughly parallel north-south ridges, the Pankhasari ridge to the west and the Thosam danda to the east. The east-west ridge connecting these ridges at their northern end is dominated by the Rechi la, c. 11,200 (3414 m). A subsidiary ridge running south from Rechi la divides the upper basins of the Neora and the Thosam.
The singular thing about Neora valley is that its dense primeval forest cover and difficult terrain have, as far as is known, kept anyone from traversing it. It might sound incredible that a valley in West Bengal should remain unpenetrated by man in this day and age, but in fact the Neora valley had this rare distinction, along with one or two valleys in the remote areas of Arunachal. In addition to this, the area is of great ecological interest: the Neora and the Thosam valleys fall under eleven forest blocks of the Kalimpong (Special) Forest Division, covering an area of 16 X 103 hectares, of which 60% is estimated to be primeval, forest area. This makes the Neora valley one of the best preserved biomes in India.
The terrain of the valley is the usual one fori short, steep (the Neora drops 330 m in about 25 km) sub-Himalayan valleys, a complex of gorges, ravines and spurs, all under dense cover. Geologically the rocks of the Neora area are mainly metamorphic, much folded and faulted, with older formations superposed on younger ones. No important mineral occurrences are known. Rocks are of varying ages, the main types being slates, quartzites, schists, Darjeeling gneiss, white felspar and white and brown mica.
It is not possible to fix accurately what work the Survey of India did in this area, but the evidence available suggests that they kept to the bordering ridges, not venturing into the valley bottom except at isolated spots, like the one near the Neora-Thosam junction shown as a measured point on the map. The Survey sheet No. 78A/SE (½" — 1 mile) covering the area shows no pathways anywhere in the valley.
Three recent instances of peripheral penetration are known: the most serious one was by a team from the Forest Department, who followed the ridge track from Rechi la to Samsing through the nearly parallel Murti valley. They made a downward probe to the Neora river at a point of about 6 km south of Rechi la. The difficult terrain encountered forced them to retreat to the ridge.
A Zoological Survey expedition worked around Pankhasari, as also a Botanical Survey team. The ZSI team managed to descend to the upper Neora at a point north of Pankhasari.
Rumour has it that a British forest officer visited some parts of the upper valley in 1929.
The team left Howrah on 29 November 1982. Transportation of men and materials from New Jalpaiguri railway station to Labha forest rest house was arranged by the army. Then we went to Pankhasari block in trucks on 29 November. Our trek began at noon through a dense foilage, mostly bamboos. Along with 35 porters, we reached Rechila Chowk on the same day. The campsite was near the source of Neora river, on a clear-felled area. The cultivated area was 635 acres, distributed among ten families, one of which stays here throughout the year. Signs of introduced plants were visible in the terraced landscape. Except potato, others had failed.
24 November. Along with Prabhat and Sudev, I recceed the route southwards along Neora khola marking the entire route to the selected site for the second camp. Others went up NE towards the trijunction of Sikkim, Bhutan and West Bengal. They trekked through an abandoned mule track through dense temperate vegetation. Bamboo thickets were common. Jorpukhri, a perennial lake between Rechila I (3414 m — 1.1,200 ft) and II peaks showed signs of several endangered species. They were very late in coming down having lost their way and a search party had to go out. Our southward march began on 25 November. Neora river and its numerous tributaries had to be crossed now and then and several log bridges had to be built. The jungle was so dense that choppers had to be used to cut our way for a single file to sneak through. The foliage was so thick that darkness at noon was the rule, rather than the exception. Camp 2 was established in a natural cave, which we named as Mondol Cave. It bore signs of the working plan group of the forest department, who could penetrate upto this point. From here onwards the advance party of Prabhat, Sudev and myself went ahead opening the route, and others followed on the following day. Despite the fact that the route had been marked and opened, they found the going very hard indeed and few members confessed that they would have dropped out, had they known what they were going to experience.
Between Camps 3 and 4 some curious rock paintings were discovered under overhangs. Neither their source nor their age could be fathomed. Two secondary streams unmarked in Survey of India maps were sighted. The river started losing height through a series of falls — we noticed seven in 5 km. The area represented the transitional zone between sub-tropical and temperate forests. Cane and musa were seen among the oaks and maples. Orchids, algae and fungi were in plenty. Botanists, already bent under the weight of their 12 kg rucksacks, kept on adding to their collections.
The foliage of the virgin forest had become thicker and the gradient was steeper. Most of the stretch was traverse of precipitous cliffs, which turned more treacherous after a cloud burst. Thick humus, in places more than 2½' (0.8 m) deep, sharp edged rocky outcrops and loose boulders threatened the safety of the members and porters, despite the fixed ropes and steps cut by us on difficult ground.
To level the ground for a three-man tent was a tiring job. Tents had to be set far apart, on different levels. Dinner was usually over by 5 pm, after which a long night commenced. This was the time for the usual 'citizens' of the jungle, including bears and leopards, to sniff around and take a closer look at the intruders. Animals and birds and even trees and plants were turned to see a bunch of curious looking two-legged animals. Apparently these grounds were never trodden by humans.
Camp 4 was pitched in a tangle of cane branches near the confluence of Neora khola and Thosam river. Ten porters deserted us here and we had to stay on for another day to replan our strategies, particularly the ferrying of loads. The wages of the loyal porters had to be hiked up.
Camp 5 (1676 m — 5500 ft) was established on 1 December, at Thosam danda on the eastern rim of Neora valley. The stamina of the porters hit the rock bottom here and in spite of another hike in wages, only two agreed to follow the river route. We therefore were left with no alternative but to divide the team on 2 December.
Capt Dutt, Kisor, Rastogi and Bist along with two porters, Kaziman Tamang and Sibu Thamin retraced their steps to the point from where we started climbing Thosam danda. They carried a light VHF wireless, some camera equipments and minimum amount of provisions and gear. They could carry no more and with Rastogi and Bist having joined at the last moment, provisions were evidently inadequate. They established Camp 6 (for river) late in the same evening, to force a direct route along Neora river.
Next morning they began their march over the slippery cliffs on either sides of Neora. Maps carried by them showed no signs of the cliffs, which were their constant companions till about the termination point. They continued mostly on the eastern flank of Neora, as they found no opening to reach the river bed, not to speak of crossing it. Shortage of water and rations and frequent falls, never dampened their spirit. Wild squashes and leaves were their only food for three days and the compass showing SW, their only guide. There was some concern and anxiety as their radio link was cut off for four days. When helicopter search and rescue was being actively considered, they were suddenly back on the air on 6 December. Excitement ran high when the complete skeleton, except the lower jaw, of a naturally dead Himalayan black bear was discovered. In response to our query they advised that they were all right despite some food shortage, but could not give their location.
Next day they put up Camp 9 beside the river at last, where pug marks of bears, hoof marks of sambars and barking deers were visible. Nights inside the tents were heavy with smoke from pipes, as the members heard in silence the thomping of bears, whose domain was encroached.
Ropes had to be used at many places. Unaccustomed porters and members handling the ropes was a real sight. Rockfall was a constant threat. Finally on 10 December they reached Chilauni Tea Estate at the southern periphery of Neora valley. This is the only settled area in the valley after Rechila Chowk. They were however shocked to see the felling of trees.
From Camp 5, I had come down to Samsing via Mochowki with the rest of the team. The two groups had a re-union after 10 days. Neora river is only 35 miles (58 km) long but it took us 20 days to cover this distance. The nature of the terrain can be imagined from the fact that our progress was only 3 km per day.
Kamal Kr. Guha (leader), Provat Kr. Ganguli (deputy leader), Kishor Chaudhuri, Dr Raj K. Kakkar, Dilip K. Mondal, Himansu K. Ghosh, Santi De Sarkar, Chandra K. Misra, Hari N. Singh, Krishna K. Rastogi, Nimai C. Purkait, Capt Ajit K. Dutt, Signalman Kapur S. Bist, Signalman Suresh V. Kokate, Nanda K. Rai, Dr Sudev Saha.