Bhutan 2004 May Part 1

A Partner Friendly Birding Trip To the United Arab Emirates, Bhutan And India – 15 May To 6 June 2004 – Arab Emirates, Bhutan & India

This report is from John McAllister and is about a trip mostly organised through Fatbirder’s Anytime Tours. It took place between 15th may to 6th June 2004 and combined birding with culture. The participants were the “Chicken Chasers” (Birders who had Red Jungle Fowl as a major target species) – John McAllister and Elize McAllister of Wakkerstroom, South Africa and Jo Johnson of Cape Town, South Africa and the “Culture Vultures” (the Non-birders) – Shirley and Lisa Johnson of Cape Town, South Africa.

Planning And Logistics

Our initial planning started way back in early 2003 when Elize and I were looking for a reasonably affordable place to spend our Silver Wedding on 31st May 2004. Our first thoughts turned to Nome or Point Barrow in Alaska – icebergs after all seemed suitably silver in colour. This proved to be way too expensive, particularly with the weak South African Rand of the time.

Other thoughts included Svalbard off northern Norway and a cruise from Iceland to the Faeroe Islands and Denmark. These were likewise far above the limits set by our pockets. Our thoughts then turned to the southern hemisphere and we gave the Falkland Islands some serious consideration. Unfortunately May was a really bad month for here – the austral winter is just not a good time for these fascinating islands. The austral summer is our busiest time in South Africa so this was not a proposition either.

It took the visit of two Sri Lankan birders who were working in Mafikeng, South Africa, to our B&B in Wakkerstroom, to turn our thoughts to the East. This rekindled a boyhood dream of mine to one day visit the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon – Bhutan). It then became a series of short steps and many enthusiastic e-mails via Bo Beolens’ excellent Fatbirder and Birders Travelwebsites to find two wonderful birding tour operators in Bhutan and India – Karma Jamtsho’sNature Tourism-Bhutan and Mohit Aggarwal’s Asian Adventures respectively. The next step was to invite close friends Jo and Shirley Johnson from Cape Town and Dries and Julia Laubscher from Johannesburg to join us. In the event Jo and Shirley and their daughter Lisa joined us, but Dries and Julia were unable to do so.

Sure Travel in Newcastle and Fish Hoek were responsible for flight bookings from Johannesburg to Delhi, hotel accommodation and car hire in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and getting the necessary visas for the UAE and India. Nature Tourism-Bhutan organised visas for Bhutan and booked the flights from Delhi to Paro and back. Return flights from Johannesburg to Delhi were with Emirates with a 24 hour stop-over in the UAE on the outward bound flight. Flights from Delhi to Paro and back were with Druk Air, the Royal Bhutan Airline and the only airline to fly into Paro International Airport.

In the UAE we stayed over in the Emirates Wing of the Airport Hotel on a room only basis. The very comfortable accommodation was more than adequate for our needs. A really great feature was that the rooms were available to us from the time our flight from Johannesburg landed at Dubai International airport (00:25 on 16th May) until we took off for Delhi at 22:40 on the same day. This was very useful and allowed us Chicken Chasers to go off at ‘sparrows’ after new birds while the Culture Vultures could sleep late and visit the souks of Dubai at their leisure without having the hassles of luggage to look after. We hired a car through Thrifty Car Hire in Dubai who gave us a very comfortable and new Toyota sedan for the day.

In Bhutan we followed a very well-organised itinerary arranged especially for us by Nature Tourism-Bhutan. It was really two itineraries in one. The Chicken Chasers were very ably guided by Tshering and driven in a Toyota Hi Ace van by star driver Shatu. The Culture Vultures were guided by Karma himself and driven in a Musso 4-wheel drive vehicle by Dawa.

In India we followed a similarly smooth itinerary arranged for us by Asian Adventures. On 17th May we were guided and driven by Sibi and visited a local Park on the outskirts of Delhi for a few hours birding while waiting for the onward connection to Paro. On 31st May we were met at the airport by Iqbal in a 10-seater minibus.

Shirley had broken her hip in a fall in Bhutan and she and Lisa had stayed behind in Thimphu so the three of us changed at very short notice to a smaller vehicle very ably driven by Singh. The change over went very smoothly indeed and Iqbal had changed all our reservations by cell-phone by the time we got to the change-over point in downtown Delhi.

Singh drove us along India’s incredibly congested roads with their seemingly chaotic traffic to Agra and Bharatpur over the next two days. Driving in India was easy he told us – all you needed was a good horn, good brakes and good luck. Our expert Bird Guide, Rattan Singh, met us at the entrance to Keoladeo Ghana National Park and accompanied us on the rest of our Indian adventure. We travelled by train (1st Class Air-conditioned) from Agra to Lal Kuan where we were met by Anil Tiwari, our driver for the rest of the trip.

Books & Maps

I bought a copy of Birds of the Middle East by Porter, Christensen and Schiermacker-Hansen for the United Arab Emirates which is probably the best available for the region. I found the book on the web through Book Brains at Unfortunately the distribution maps only show breeding ranges for the birds and this can be quite confusing. Unlike Southern African Field guides the illustrations, status and habitat descriptions are separate from the description of the birds and I found this quite frustrating.

The Shell Birdwatching Guide to the United Arab Emirates by Colin Richardson is a MUST for anyone visiting the UAE. I got a copy together with a UAE road map by GeoProjects from Subbuteo Books in the UK but be sure to get the latest updates from Colin Richardson in Dubai.

For Bhutan and India I bought A guide to the birds of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives by Grimmett, Inskipp and Inskipp as well as a road map for Bhutan from Amazon but this is a very comprehensive, heavy book along the lines of Roberts Birds of Southern Africa. I have the same criticism of it as I have of the Middle East book – the distribution maps show breeding ranges only and the text and illustrations are in different parts of the book. There is a much lighter field guide version of the same book and this is adequate for normal use. Jo bought a copy of Birds of Bhutan by the same authors through a request he put out on UK Birdnet. I bought a copy in Thimphu for future use. It could probably be ordered through Nature Tourism-Bhutan. This is a very useful book for birders going to Bhutan only, but it has no distribution maps – only text describing in which Bhutanese provinces the birds have been recorded.

Accommodation & Food

The food on the Emirates flight from Johannesburg to Dubai and back to Johannesburg was excellent – nothing short of amazing for airline food. On the flight to Delhi and back to Dubai the food was more typical of airline food – very iffy. Unfortunately the food on Druk Air was very mediocre even by airline standards.

The accommodation in Dubai was very comfortable. We had some delicious sandwiches and chips at the Picnic Café in Um al Qawain mentioned by Colin Richardson in his very useful book – the Shell Birdwatching Guide to the United Arab Emirates. We had a very good, if quite expensive, Club Sandwich for an evening meal at the airport.

While accommodation establishments and restaurants in Bhutan are often somewhat frugal by western standards they were always adequate. Contrary to trip reports we had read, we found the accommodation very comfortable. In stark contrast to the comments in the Lonely Planet Guide we found the food in Bhutan very good indeed. If you do not like spicy food however it might be a bit bland when these are omitted from the cooking. Jo, Elize and particularly me enjoy spicy food and thoroughly enjoyed the different cuisine. My favourite dish was a concoction of bracken shoots, cheese and chillies. I even managed to eat cabbage and cauliflower – something I’d never dream of doing at home – when they were prepared with cheese and chillies.

I never managed to follow Tshering’s example and eat raw chillies with salt though. Butter tea was drinkable, but nothing to write home about. The tea was generally great if drunk black, but unfortunately the coffee was all of the instant variety. The camping on the Lingmethang road was a bit rough (smallish tent with a sleeping bag laid on two ‘duvet’ type things on the tent floor). Foodwise we were excellently catered for by Leki and his camp crew, however.

Accommodation in India varied from comfortable at Jungle Lore Birding Lodge to opulent and even deliciously decadent at the Jaypee Palace. I am a great fan of Indian food so was really in my culinary element with the food through-out India. I could not bring myself to drink masala tea though.

In both Bhutan and India all the accommodation establishments were extremely birder friendly.

Everywhere, with the exception of the Jaypee Palace Hotel in Agra, there was staff available to make and serve us breakfast at whatever time we wanted it – whether it was at 04:00 or 10:00. Only at the non-birding Jaypee Palace were we told that breakfast is served between certain hours only.

Accessability

None of the accommodation on the entire trip was accessible to wheelchairs. Shirley had a bad fall at Gangtey Goempa and was unable to walk or get in and out of vehicles for the rest of the trip and, if you are prepared to suffer the indignities of manhandling, the guides and drivers managed this very well indeed. Showers and loos would pose problems though. The camps would be impossible for anyone with mobility problems.

Climate & Birding

While the trip was definitely a birding trip it was primarily organised as a celebration of our 25th Wedding Anniversary. This meant that we were limited to May/June which was far from the ideal time of the year. India in particular was extremely hot and waiting desperately for the onset of the monsoon.

The TV news consistently reported maximum daily temperatures of 450 C and over for the Gangetic plains (Delhi and Agra) with minimums in the low to mid 30s. In the higher altitudes of northern India and Bhutan the temperatures were quite pleasant with maximums in the high 20s for the most part. In Bhutan it rained most days and this disrupted the birding somewhat although we were able to get at least some in on each day. The high Himalayas were always under a heavy blanket of cloud so we got none of the views of the high mountains mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide Book for Bhutan.

On the return flight from Paro to Kathmandu, however, the weather cleared and we got wonderful views of Jhomolhari Bhutan’s highest peak, and a whole range of peaks in Nepal including Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Everest itself. There were a load of other peaks whose names remained unknown to us.

Many Himalayan birds are altitudinal migrants and move up to around 5 000 m during the summer months. Intra- and inter-continental migrants are for the most part winter or passage migrants to the area. The best time to visit the area appears to be during March-April with the winter months being a close second. Once the monsoon starts in mid-June I would imagine that many places become totally inaccessible. Corbett National Park is closed during this period. In spite of all this we still managed to see a total of 324 birds which, from the trip reports that I have read, seems to be about par for the course for a three-week trip.

Contrary to what some trip reports and promotional material suggest we did not find the birds tame and easy to see – not by African standards at least. Many were super skulkers that were very vocal, but took a great deal of time and patience to see. The one exception was Keoladeo where the birds were indeed easy to see. This must be a wonderful birding spot at the right time of year and I look forward to returning sometime.

Itinerary In Brief

DAY 1 – 15 May

14:15 – Depart Johannesburg International Airport aboard Emirates Flight EK 762 for Dubai, UAE

DAY 2 – 16 May

00:25 – Arrive Dubai International Airport, clear Customs and Immigration, collect hire vehicle and transfer to Airport Hotel.

06:30 – Leave hotel for Khor al Beidah, Um al Qawain. My somewhat ambitious plans to visit the interior of the UAE and Dibba on the east coast were severely curtailed and we returned to the hotel for some dearly needed sleep by

15:30. Birded in the hotel gardens from 17:30 until dark. Took the shuttle to the airport.

22:40 – Depart Dubai International Airport aboard Emirates Flight EK 512 for Delhi, India. Saw 34 birds for the day

DAY 3 – 17 May

03:15 – Arrive Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi. After clearing Customs and Immigration we are met by Sibi and another driver from Asian Adventures. Go birding in Sanjay Van Park after an hour’s drive through Old Delhi.

11:30 – Depart Indira Gandhi International Airport aboard Druk Air Flight KB 203 for Kathmandu, Nepal and Paro, Bhutan.

15:05 – Arrive Paro International Airport. After clearing Customs and Immigration we are met by Karma (MD and Cultural Guide), Tshering (Bird Guide) Shatu and Dawa (drivers) of Nature Tourism-Bhutan. Culture Vultures leave us and we do some local birding before leaving for Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan.

Overnight Hotel River View, Thimphu

Saw 49 species for the day, 37 of which were new for the trip

DAY 4 – 18 May

04:30 start. Birding at the summit of Dochu La (La is a mountain pass in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan) at around 3 140 m. Breakfast at Dochu La Café. Birding from Dochu La to Punakha for overnight stop.

Overnight Meri Puensum Resort

Saw 62 species for the day, 44 of which were new for the trip

DAY 5 – 19 May

After an early breakfast at the hotel we birded along the Mo Chhu (Chhu is river in Dzongkha) valley up to Tashithang and the Jigme Dorji National Park. Meri Puensum burnt down while we were out birding so we had to change hotels when we got back. Tonight we were reunited with the Culture Vultures.

Overnight Zangdho Pelri Hotel

Saw 62 species for the day, 28 of which were new for the trip

DAY 6 – 20 May

Morning spent birding along the Mo Chhu valley again. Return to the hotel for lunch and spent the afternoon birding south of Wangdi Phodrang along the Puna Tsang Chhu valley as far as Kamichu.

Overnight Zangdho Pelri Hotel

Saw 64 species for the day, 11 of which were new for the trip

DAY 7 – 21 May

Spent the day birding along the road past Wangdue Phodrang, up the Dang Chhu valley and across Lawa La (3 360 m) to Gangtey Goempa (Gangtey Monastery).

Overnight Gangtey Goempa Guest House

Saw 68 species for the day, 14 of which were new for the trip

DAY 8 – 22 May

Birding along the road to Trongsa crossing Pele La (3 420 m). Shirley had a bad fall at Gangtey and later proved to have a broken hip. Karma took her on to Trongsa where she was examined by a Doctor and referred to the hospital at Jakar for X-rays.

Overnight Sherubling Lodge

Saw 44 species for the day, 12 of which were new for the trip

DAY 9 – 23 May

Jo joined Shirley for the drive to Jakar. Elize and I had some early morning birding along the Trongsa-Shemgang road, returning to Trongsa for a late breakfast. Later birding along the road to Jakar and the Bumthang Valley. Cross Yutong La at 3 425 m. Shirley had been x-rayed at Jakar Hospital, but the X-rays picked up no fractures. She still could not walk so she and Lisa did not go on the three-day hike in the Bumthang Valley that had been planned for them.

Overnight Mephang Guest House

Saw 62 species for the day, 13 of which were new for the trip

DAY 10 – 24 May

Make an early start from Jakar, cross Sheltang La (3 590 m) into the Ura Valley and climb over Thrumshing La (3 750 m), past the village of Sengor.

Overnight at a campsite on the Lingmethang road.

Saw 52 species for the day, 10 of which were new for the trip

DAY 11 – 25 May

Birding mostly in the vicinity of our campsite.

Overnight at a campsite on the Lingmethang road.

Saw 58 species for the day, 15 of which were new for the trip

DAY 12 – 26 May

A.M. birding along the road above the campsite. Afternoon birding lower down at Yonkala.

Overnight at a campsite on the Lingmethang road.

Saw 84 species for the day, 9 of which were new for the trip

DAY 13 – 27 May

Birding along the long drive back to Jakar where we were reunited with Shirley and Lisa. Shirley was still unable to walk.

Overnight Mepham Guest House

Saw 60 species for the day, 11 of which were new for the trip.

DAY 14 – 28 May

Today is essentially a cultural day visiting Kurjey Lhakang (Kurjey Temple), Jampa Lhakang and Jakar Dzong (Jakar Monastery-Fort) in the morning. Shirley and Lisa joined us for the drive back to Trongsa.

Overnight Sherubling Lodge

Saw 49 species for the day, none of which were new for the trip

DAY 15 – 29 May

Essentially a driving day as we take on the long and winding road to Thimphu. Shirley taken to the Thimphu Hospital where the x-rays showed a fractured femur. Tonight we had a farewell dinner with Karma, his wife Pema, Tshering and Shatu.

Overnight Hotel River View

Saw 30 species for the day, 1 of which was new for the trip

DAY 16 – 30 May

Morning spent at the Craft Market and Emporium in Thimphu followed by a visit to the Thimphu Zoo to see a Takin – Bhutan’s national mammal. After many phone calls to and from the travel insurers – Discovery Heath and First National Bank in South Africa – it was decided that Shirley and Lisa should stay in Thimphu from where they would be evacuated to Bangkok in Thailand for further medical examination. Later Jo, Elize and I drove to Paro and got views of Paro and Drukgyel Dzongs (the latter a ruin) and Taktshang Goempa or Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Visit Kyichu Lhakang.

Overnight Rinchen Ling Lodge

Saw 10 species for the day, none of which were new for the trip.

DAY 17 – 31 May

07:30 – Depart Paro for Kathmandu and Delhi. Met at Delhi by Asian Adventures representatives and driven to Agra. Paid a late afternoon visit to the Taj Mahal and a marble craft shop.

Overnight Jaypee Palace Hotel

Saw 22 species for the day, 2 of which were new for the trip.

DAY 18 – 1 June

Due to misunderstanding with the driver made a late start for Bharatpur and Keoladeo Ghana National Park where we met Rattan Singh, our Bird Guide for the rest of our trip. Birded until around midday when we retreated to the Bharatpur Forest Lodge. By 16:00 the temperature was still well over 400 C so we decided to give up birding and head for the air-conditioned comfort of the Jaypee Palace before catching the 21:30 overnight train from Agra Fort Station to Lal Kuan

Overnight on the train

Saw 62 species for the day, 31 of which were new for the trip.

DAY 19 – 2 June

08:30 – arrived Lal Kuan and were met by Anil Tiwari, our driver for the next four days. Anil and Rattan took us through Haldwana, Kathgodam and Naini Tal to the tiny village of Pangot high in the Himalayan foothills. Later in the afternoon we went for our first walk in the rain forests that surround the village.

Overnight Jungle Lore Birding Lodge

Saw 36 species for the day, 9 of which were new for the trip.

DAY 20 – 3 June

Birding in the forests above and below the lodge.

Overnight Jungle Lore Birding Lodge

Saw 53 species for the day, 11 of which were new for the trip.

DAY 21 – 4 June

Today we descended the Himalayan foothills to the edge of Corbett National Park. We were to stay in Tiger Camp on the edge of the Park. In Mohit’s words they had a rather noisy group staying over so he had us moved to the rather upmarket Corbett River View Retreat. In the late afternoon we went birding in the Corbett National Park buffer zone.

Overnight Corbett River View Retreat

Saw 78 species for the day, 20 of which were new for the trip.

DAY 24 – 5 June

An early morning start saw us waiting in a 4-wheel drive vehicle at one of the entrances to Corbett. We birded in the Park from 05:30 until 10:00 after which we returned to the Retreat for a late breakfast and packed up for the long trip back to Delhi and onwards to South Africa.

After a nightmare drive to Delhi we stopped at the Hotel Sunstar. We were able to freshen up here before going on to dinner at the Delhi-o-Delhi Club with Mohit and Suchita Aggarwal. After dinner we bade farewell to Rattan. Anil took us out to the Indira Gandhi International Airport for our flight back to South Africa and we said goodbye there. Saw 60 species for the day, 11 of which were new for the trip.

DAY 25 – 6 June

04:30 – Depart Delhi for Dubai aboard Emirates Flight EK 513 for Dubai.

06:45 – Arrive Dubai International Airport

09:55 – Depart Dubai for Johannesburg aboard Emirates Flight EK 763

16:15 – Arrive Johannesburg International Airport where, after clearing Customs and Immigration, we are met by Cheri Heber-Percy, Julia’s mother. Jo flew on to Cape Town with a British Airways (Comair) flight. We stayed at the Laubscher’s Johannesburg home for another two nights before returning to Wakkerstroom.

Lisa and Shirley were evacuated by charter aircraft to Bangkok where Shirley had a hip replacement before being flown back to South Africa – a good example of why all travellers should take out adequate travel insurance.

See the full day by day Account in Bhutan 2004 – Part 2

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