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Volunteering with the good shepherds of Banbasa

In Uttarakhand’s Banbasa, volunteering at an agricultural and educational mission is a chance to see the jungle and its inhabitants up close

Clifton Shipway demonstrates catching a croc to the children of the Mission.
Clifton Shipway demonstrates catching a croc to the children of the Mission. (Courtesy: Rishad Saam Mehta)

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Kaisa hai yar, sab theek thak? Garam garam chai khaane ke kamre main hai, aur taaze taaze pakode bas aa rahe hain!” Not an unusual welcome to Kathmandu, you would think, except for the fact that the words were spoken by a tanned Aussie with a blond beard who looked like he had just arrived from the Bush.

Clifton Shipway had indeed arrived from a wooded area—the jungles of Banbasa in Uttarakhand, near the India-Nepal border. We were in Kathmandu to ride motorcycles to the Rongbuk Monastery at the base of Mount Everest in the Tibet Autonomous Region in China, the spot where George Mallory had first set sight on Mount Everest in 1921.

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Over the course of that adventurous ride, Clifton told me his story. His grandfather, Maxton Davis Strong, was an American professor who had taught agricultural engineering at the Allahabad Agricultural Institute in India in the mid-1940s. The government of a newly independent India allotted him 160 acres of fertile land along the foothills of the Himalaya on permanent lease to provide hands-on agricultural training to aspiring young farmers.

Strong returned to the US, raised capital for equipment and boarded a ship to India with his wife Shirley and their children, Jack, Maxine and Jay. They disembarked at Mumbai with a John Deere tractor, a four-wheeled trailer and a two-wheeled thresher as part of their baggage. Strong assembled the tractor, hitched the trailer and the thresher to it and started a 2,000km drive to his plot in Banbasa. Shirley and the children took the train.

In 1948, Banbasa was a border outpost, the jungles wild. It was in this area, a part of Kumaon, that Jim Corbett shot many of his man-eaters. Champawat is 85km north of Banbasa and the Champawat Man-eater was reputed to have killed 436 people before Jim Corbett finally shot it.

It’s not a getaway for the conventional tourist but people from around the world get in touch with Clifton and Rick to visit or hold workshops for the children as volunteers.

The American family soon realised they shared their home with tigers, leopards, numerous species of deer, wild pigs and deadly snakes. The local Tharu tribe befriended the family and taught them the ways of the wild. In return, Strong taught them agricultural techniques, allotted land, and set up housing for them.

Maxine, the eldest, fostered seven abandoned children and soon more locals were asking for help to care for other unwanted children. In time, their Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, a non-profit, also set up a home for destitute and abandoned children, which continues to provide shelter, food and education. Clifton, Maxine’s son, explains that his father, Warwick “Rick” Shipway, arrived in 1976 as a volunteer, with 25 high milk-yielding cattle. He ended up marrying Maxine and having three children.

Clifton had given me an open invitation to visit Banbasa, so last December I decided to take him up on it. It’s not a getaway for the conventional tourist but people from around the world get in touch with Clifton and Rick to visit or hold workshops for the children as volunteers.

The jungle starts crowding the road from Khatima, about 13km from Banbasa. The mission sits at the edge of this jungle, which itself is ensconced by the Khatima, Dogori and Kilpura ranges.

The moment I arrived, I was warmly greeted by Rick, the “young” volunteer who is now 70. “Make yourself at home, mate,” he told me before thumping away on his Royal Enfield Classic 500 motorcycle to do some errands.

In the mid-1980s, Maxine and Rick had moved to Australia due to visa problems; Clifton was born there. Shirley died in Banbasa in 1993; Strong followed 10 years later. During the last years of Strong’s life, the mission suffered, with the local mafia attempting to grab the land and the farm. In 2004, Maxine and Rick moved back to Banbasa with Clifton, who was 19. They revived the mission with the help of donations from friends and family.

Clifton gave me a tour of the mission, which includes the Maxton Strong School started in July 2013. I was particularly interested in the mission’s focus on sustainability, using a regenerative gobar (cow dung) gas system that Rick designed in 1978. This fuels all the kitchen stoves and the residue is used as fertiliser in the fields where fodder for the cattle is grown, completing the circle. They grow most of their greens, too.

The 65 children at the mission gave me a warm welcome and by that evening I was taking part in badminton games, maintaining the equilibrium of the seesaw, and telling them tales from my travels. Their friendliness made my stay truly memorable, as did Clifton’s knowledge of the local flora and fauna. He is often called upon to catch snakes or crocs that have entered homes, and release them into the jungle.

One of the elephants we came upon.
One of the elephants we came upon. (Courtesy: Rishad Saam Mehta)

On my second day there, we drove into Banbasa to get supplies. After we got off NH9 and drove down the dirt trail to the barrier at the entrance to the jungle, the guard greeted Clifton like an old friend and they conversed about marauding elephants in the local lingo.

Soon we came across telltale signs of the elephants crossing. “Let’s follow on foot, maybe we will catch up with the stragglers,” he said excitedly, starting off before I could ask him if it was safe to do so. I followed but the herd was marching too fast.

Another time, we parked the car on a narrow trail because Clifton pointed out wild berries that he swore were delicious. When we returned to the car, Clifton pointed out a tiger pugmark in front of it. While we had walked off to snack on berries, a tiger had walked out of the shrubbery, inspected the car and ambled off. It truly hit me then that I had just been strolling in a jungle alive with wildlife. Right now, the tiger responsible for that pugmark could be watching me. It was my own Jim Corbett moment.

Less than 2km on, a rustle made us stop the car. A large elephant stood a few feet away. Clifton jumped out to take a few pictures, leaving me gawping at the nonchalance of it all. I finally stepped out with a fair bit of trepidation and got pictures of him taking pictures of the elephant, which was meticulously stripping leaves off a 10ft branch it had plucked off a tree.

We drove further into the jungle, often crossing the Jugbora river, heading to Rajnagoat, a village in the jungle where we met Eugene, Kallu and Sunny, who work with the mission, and had dinner cooked over an open fire. As we drove back after sunset, the headlights caught a male leopard crossing the trail, as casually as a dog would saunter across the street in Matunga in Mumbai, where I live.

The nightcap with a bonfire on my last night at the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission.
The nightcap with a bonfire on my last night at the Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission. (Courtesy: Rishad Saam Mehta)

The next day, with memories of the tiger, elephant and leopard encounters still fresh, you can imagine my trepidation when Clifton suggested we explore the jungle again, this time on motorcycles.

I needn’t have worried: The morning was one of the best I have ever spent in a jungle. With motorcycles, we didn’t need to stick to motorable trails.

Clifton knew a waterhole where an old crocodile basks in the sun. We parked the motorcycles a fair distance away and approached on foot. We weren’t discreet enough because the crocodile quickly dived into the waterhole. Clifton told me he had a snorkel and a mask in one of his motorcycle panniers—would I like to dive into the water and get a closer look at the mugger? I politely passed up the opportunity, despite Clifton’s assurances that the croc was a “generally friendly fellow”.

We carried on, zigzagging through tall sal trees, riding across rivers and powering through slush, with Clifton pointing out more popular hangouts. “Here’s where a rock python usually basks in the sun” or “I once saw a leopard hide the carcass of a cow up that tree” and finally, “This is where I come and release venomous snakes.” He dropped this last bit of information while I was lying in a grassy field, enjoying the sun on my face and munching on sandwiches that Priscilla, Clifton’s wife, had packed for us.

Clifton said his staff and he have caught and released hundreds of snakes over the years; they released more than 30 venomous ones in 2021. This was just the perfect conversation to have sitting on that grassy knoll where kraits, cobras and other delightful darlings from the house of Slytherin had been released.

On my final evening there, we drove out to the jungle again, lit a bonfire and had a nightcap by the river, under the stars. It was the perfect curtain call.

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