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Travel: Among the clouds in Mizoram’s Phawngpui National Park

Birding in Mizoram’s Blue Mountains and the quest for the rare Mount Victoria babax make for a truly unusual experience

The mysterious Mount Victoria babax looks very similar to the Chinese babax and was considered the same species till 2005. The only record of the species in India, from Phawngpui, used to be from a specimen collected in 1953. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

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As I stand at the edge of a spectacular precipice, I wonder if riding the clouds might be the simplest way to navigate Mizoram. Perhaps it’s the season—April sees frequent rain. Or perhaps Mizoram’s clouds, unlike those of Meghalaya, are a closely held secret of the Eastern Highlands.

I am at Thlazuang Kham, in the Phawngpui National Park. The cliffs rise around me in a semi-circle and I watch the clouds caress the rocky outcrops on the far side of the yawning gorge, all tawny gold and emerald green. In the distance, Phawngpui Peak, the state’s highest point at 2,157m, beckons.

Also read: Do you know these common, endangered birds of the Himalayas?

It has taken us three days by road to reach the national park. We spend the first two days climbing hill after hill to reach Sangau, 229km from Aizawl in the state’s south-eastern corner, near the India-Myanmar border.

Four of us—a wildlife photographer, a naturalist, a film-maker and I—are on a two-week field trip to explore Mizoram and its wildlife. This far to the east, daybreak is around 3.30am. As we set off for the national park, the clouds play hide and seek with the towering blue mountains in front of me. Far below, the Chhimtuipui river, also known as the Kaladan river, glistens a pale blue as it snakes across the valley to the Burmese village across another hill. American writer Rebecca Solnit’s observation on the blues of horizons and distant mountain ranges comes to mind: “The color of that distance is the color of an emotion… the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go. For the blue is not in the place those miles away at the horizon, but in the atmospheric distance between you and the mountains.”

We hike up a ridge, watch Blyth’s swifts and Nepal house martins perform aerial acrobatics and wind our way through patches of thick montane subtropical forest. We turn a corner, to be greeted by a vast expanse of sprawling grassland—it’s Far Pak, the secluded forest lodge at the park, and our base for the next few days.

The dark-sided flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica)is a small, brown flycatcher that often perches on the tips of branches, making short sorties out to catch insects in flight.
The dark-sided flycatcher (Muscicapa sibirica)is a small, brown flycatcher that often perches on the tips of branches, making short sorties out to catch insects in flight. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

The Burmese connection

Sharing a 722km-long border to the south with Bangladesh and Myanmar, Mizoram rubs shoulders with Tripura, Assam and Manipur to the north. Phawngpui Peak is the highest point of the Mizo or Lushai Hills, part of the much larger Arakan Mountain range along the India-Myanmar border. In the south, the mountains and rivers connect Mizoram to Myanmar’s Chin state, forming a unique frontier zone for both biodiversity and culture.

The Phawngpui National Park is one of Mizoram’s two national parks. Visitors must be prepared for mud roads that become difficult to navigate in the rain, basic accommodation, and no electricity. The name Phawngpui is derived from the local Lai language—phongmeans “meadow”, pui means “great”. As I observe the grassy glades on all sides, I realise it’s a fitting name.

The park, which gets its name from Phawngpui Peak (known in English as Blue Mountain), covers around 50 sq. km. The grasslands are interspersed with thickly forested patches of Himalayan oak and Indian pine, bamboo, white orchids, rogue lilies, and the occasional blushing, late blooming rhododendron, all adding their myriad hues to a unique landscape.

The sunlight begins to feel harsh as early as 10am but the trilling song of mountain tailorbirds leads us, almost like the fabled Pied Piper, to a clump of thick bamboo. Further along, we come upon the seasonal water source that feeds the forest lodge. Here, a pair of yellow-bellied fairy fantails dance a complicated hopscotch on the bamboo fronds.

By 4pm, the sun starts waning, and the sunset is swift and dramatic. Temperatures dip drastically. Along with the howl of the wind, we hear the calls of a grey nightjar from the grassland in front of the lodge, and the booming call of a brown wood-owl from the wooded patch behind. Around 8pm, we get unexpectedly lucky—following the deep, loud hoo-hoo call of a Himalayan owl, we come upon the rather serious-looking bird, black eyes outlined by rims of bright white.

There are no lights for miles, and the night sky is dazzling. Days later, I discover my cellphone has been trying desperately to connect, routinely pinging a tower in Hakha, Myanmar.

Formerly considered a subspecies of the tawny owl, the Himalayan wood owl (Strix nivicolum) is an uncommon sighting, heard more often than seen in the montane forests of the Himalayas.
Formerly considered a subspecies of the tawny owl, the Himalayan wood owl (Strix nivicolum) is an uncommon sighting, heard more often than seen in the montane forests of the Himalayas. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

A search for a lost bird

One of the main reasons we have travelled to this remote corner of Mizoram is our search for a rather nondescript-looking brown bird, the Mount Victoria babax (Pterorhinus woodi). Bird Count India, an informal partnership of individuals and organisations, ranks the Mount Victoria babax as the eighth rarest bird species in India, among the 20 on their list. Belonging to the laughingthrush family and named after the highest mountain in Chin state, this species is restricted almost exclusively to the Arakan Mountains in western Myanmar. On this side of the border, the presence of the babax in Phawngpui is known from a specimen collected in 1953. The bird was sighted in the same region in 1997, and then, for the first time in 25 years, in January 2022. Would we be able to spot it?

The sheer cliffs featuring rocky outcrops with some vegetation are their preferred habitats, and we kept a sharp ear out for their calls. The bubbling whistle-like “puh-pooo-yih” seemed quite distinct in theory but we are ambushed by other laughingthrush calls on more than one occasion. We routinely scour the cliffs early in the mornings and evenings, hoping to hear them, but they are elusive.

On one of these walks, we see another bird that is found only in the Lushai Hills in Mizoram and the Chin Hills of Myanmar: the Chin Hills wren-babbler (Spelaeornis oatesi). At first, all that registers is a tiny bundle of brown feathers. But a closer look reveals the most charming features: a white chest flecked with dark spots, a head and upper body with lighter details that complement and contrast with the chest, and a distinctive long tail. We have just seen a “skulker”, which is how avid birders describe difficult-to-see birds. The Chin Hills wren-babbler prefers the understorey of evergreen forests and scrub habitats, and we are lucky to see one flitting in a bamboo patch.

A closer inspection of foliage and bark in forested pockets reveals stunning insect life. A longhorn beetle (Thysia wallichii) rests in the shade on a sunny morning.
A closer inspection of foliage and bark in forested pockets reveals stunning insect life. A longhorn beetle (Thysia wallichii) rests in the shade on a sunny morning. (Dhritiman Mukherjee)

In this remote landscape devoid of man-made sounds, it is easy to tune in to the soundscape. As I listen, distinct acoustic signatures become apparent. The brown wood-owl and the cicadas keep me company through the night. A pro ventriloquist, the brown wood-owl’s location in the woods behind the lodge is impossible to pinpoint. In another direction, two Himalayan owls appear to be having a conversation in the trees near the cliff. At daybreak, I hear what seems like the familiar urban sound of a generator coming on. My brain registers the sound even as I drowsily realise that we have no generator or electricity. It’s the whirring call of brown bush warblers (Locustella luteoventris) in the tall grass.

On our last day, we walk to the now-familiar ridge, listening carefully. We scan the habitat but there’s no sign of the bird we came to see. Unwilling to give up, we decide to walk to a more hidden outcrop. The naturalist, who is ahead of us, calls excitedly on the walkie-talkie, “It’s the babax, it’s the babax.” We hurtle down the slope. A pair has just flown across and settled on a tree but is now hidden from sight. After a few minutes, they hop on to a fallen tree and make their way up the slope, in plain sight, one after the other. The entire team has seen the babax. The blue mountain has bestowed on us the most memorable parting gift.

Divya Candade is a writer with RoundGlass Sustain, a social impact initiative telling stories of India’s natural world. Read a longer version of this article on Phawngpui National Park.

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