“ Location: Shimla / Himalayas „
~Welcome to Kufri~
Kufri is a small village and ski 'resort' (if the time of the year is right) not far from the city of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. A visit was included in the itinerary we booked for our trip to the Himalaya in November 2012 and since we'd been to Shimla before and seen most of what there was to see, we were happy to leave the city and head out to Kufri. The night before we were due to go I did a bit of research. Nothing too sophisticated or in depth; just a quick read of the reviews on Tripadvisor. They told me everything we needed to know - that the place had beautiful views but we should expect to be hassled to go pony-riding on ponies that would most likely be poorly kept and rather sad looking. The ponies would drag us up a muddy track and the handlers would do their best to part us from our money for tips and extras.
Forewarned is forearmed as the saying goes. We set off from our hotel at about ten in the morning and it took about an hour and a half to cover the 25 km to Kufri. The mountain roads don't encourage fast driving and multiple sets of crews applying tarmac to the many pot holes slowed us down even more. We pulled into a car park and discussed with our driver, Mr Singh, how long we'd need to look around. To be honest, it's an exaggeration to say it was a discussion. He talked to a man who was trying to rent us horses, we said we didn't want them, they both wobbled their heads disbelievingly. We said we would walk, making the international 'We're going for a walk' gestures with our fingers. A lot more head wobbling and Mr Singh held up three fingers. "Three hours sir, madam" and we strolled off up the hill.
~Take it easy - it's a long way up~
It's easy to forget you're at altitude even when the evidence is all around you in the form of massive great mountains. As he shot off up the hill I told my husband to slow down and take it easy or we'd both be collapsing in two exhausted heaps. As we walked up the road, every man with a pony wanted to rent us one but they soon realised that 'the pinkies weren't playing'. As the only non-Indians in Kufri we were more or less expected to behave oddly. The head wobbles converted into head shakes and they left us alone.
We took photos of the scenery and of the poor, sad, skinny ponies, feeling happy that we weren't going to be adding to their suffering. Even the man selling lurid bright pink candy floss in plastic bags got bored with our excuses and left us alone.If you do want to take a pony ride and you don't mind going nose to tail with hundreds of other people up a steep muddy track, then it's not an expensive experience. The basic ride will cost you just 250 rupees (a little over £3) with the longer ride at 380 rupees (less than £5). These are fixed prices set by the pony-men's union.Recognising that there was no way we could go up the pony track without walking through a lot of poo and being mown down by the ponies, we settled for a nice stroll up the road.
The air was sparkling clean and a refreshing relief after the weekend we'd spent in Delhi. We passed terraced fields and the 'Central Potato Research Station' which sounded fascinating but wasn't open to the public. Next door was the Himalayan Nature Park and slightly further up the road was the Indira Tourist Park.We kept walking a little further and realised that there wasn't much more to see than the places we'd already passed so we popped back to the Indira Tourist Park and paid 5 rupees each to go in, not really knowing what to expect. Actually that's not entirely true because I remembered the reviews I'd read which told me that the park was decidedly lame. However, we have a weakness for ridiculously daft Indian tourist attractions and this was, in its own way, rather a delight.The park has some historic significance since the building at its heart - Chini Bungalow - was used for some of the discussions between Mrs Gandhi and General Bhutto when they were negotiating the Shimla Agreement at the end of the war between East and West Pakistan which led to the creation of Bangladesh back in 1972.
What you'll find today is a very small park with both the old bungalow building and a small tin-roofed summer house. In the summer house you can get ice-creams and cold drinks whilst the main bungalow building contains a restaurant and bar. There are a few small souvenir stalls and a children's play area as well as an area where children can take rides on mini electric quad bikes. You won't need long to see everything that the Indira Tourist Park has to offer but I'm happy to spend 5 rupees for a super-clean loo and a chance to buy a cold drink and sit in a cute old summer house covered in nasturtiums.
From the Tourist Park you can see over the fences and into the nature park. We went back to the entrance and paid the entrance fee of 20 rupees each and an additional 20 rupees for my camera. In total this was about 75 pence which seemed a tiny price to pay with the promise of bears and leopards on show. The route around the park is about one kilometre in length and it's perhaps worth knowing that you don't leave by the route you went in so you'll need to walk back to the entrance along the road after you leave the park. In total, you should count on walking around a mile from the entrance to the exit and back along the road to the entrance. It's not a lot but factor in the altitude and take it slowly. The path is well paved but steep in places and there are a lot of steps so it might not be ideal for anyone with mobility issues or with a pram or pushchair.
The circuit starts with several large pens which are home to what were referred to as 'Barking Deer' or muntjac deer. We got the giggles about going all the way to India to see a type of deer that roams wild in much of the south of England. The cages were large and the deer had plenty of space to roam around and didn't seem at all stressed. There were also sambar deer, a local large deer with ears like a teddy bear, and we were quite impressed to see some Tahr goats, similar to the ones we'd walked miles to see in Kerala the year before.
Near the muntjacs we found a lot of local monkeys playing and having fun. These are not inmates - just visitors who like to steal the food and don't pay an entrance fee. Whilst locals might regard them as pests or almost vermin, I can't help but love watching them because their faces and their gestures are so 'human'. However, I have a bad record for being bitten by monkeys so I have to take care not to annoy them or provoke them.
As we moved away from the sweet little vegetarians towards the rather more aggressive beasts, the cages got stronger and more secure. The first big 'wow' factor came with a large enclosure which was home to three Himalayan Black Bears. These are big, fluffy cuties with thick black fur to keep them warm in the harsh winters. Clearly they like to climb since the trees in the enclosure had metal sleeves around them so that they couldn't climb high enough to get out. Not that they looked like they were particularly enthusiastic about running away. There was plenty of space for the bears to play, run and fight with each other. The next enclosure had brown bears, bigger, faster and much more lively than the sleepy black bears. For each of the bear enclosures there were multiple viewing points so if you couldn't see them from one spot, they were generally visible from another.
~Cats and Birds~
After the excitement of all those big bears, the so-called 'pheasantry' was a bit of a let down and we skipped by without taking too much notice, knowing that behind the pheasant pens we'd be able to find not just a leopard, but his cousin the snow leopard too. Both their enclosures had strong wire mess which made it just about impossible to photograph the big cats but we were happy to just sit and watch.
The best thing about the vast majority of tourists being on ponies heading up the mountainside was that we had the nature park pretty much to ourselves with only about half a dozen other people sharing the park with us. Zoos in India often attract people who want to shout at the animals and make a lot of noise, but our fellow visitors were probably animal-friendly like us and were also avoiding the ponies.
~Skip the ponies and go for the leopards~
The Himalayan Nature Park is clean, well laid out and the animals have plenty of space and interesting pens. If you are looking for glamorous beasties, then you might be disappointed by some of the deers and goats, but the bears and leopards more than make up for their more timid little brown friends.Kufri is a popular excursion from Shimla and we were happy to go because we'd been to the city before and knew that we'd pretty much seen the main attractions. However, if you only go to Shimla for a short time, I would not recommend using the time to go to Kufri, despite the delights of the Himalayan Nature Park. This is an interesting enough side-visit but if you don't have long, I'd suggest that spending your time in the city is more rewarding and offers much closer attractions like the Gaiety Theatre and the old Viceregal Lodge.
Please note, nothing at the park looks anything at all like the photograph at the top of this review.