I’m not one for slavishly following in the footsteps of ‘The Great Planthunters’. I can quite happily leave that to people who can’t think of anything original to do. Having said that, there are some very interesting parts of the world to visit that happen to have been looked over somewhat by one or two famous types. One of these places is Manipur, NE India and the celebrated Frank Kingdon-Ward spent some time there in 1946 and 1948 and wrote a book about it titled, rather appropriately, ‘Planthunting in Manipur’. So, rather than let that put my traveling companion Paul Barney and I off, we decided a botanising trip to this infrequently visited, remote corner of India was in order. Paul had done a brief reccy in Jan ’12 whilst visiting his wife’s family in Mizoram and had made contact with one or two people on the ground in Manipur, which made organising trips into the hinterland a relative doddle.
Manipur has spent a fair while as a place not easily visited by foreigners, due to insurgency problems. Various tribes reside within the State and historical tensions exist between them, with neighbouring States and also the Indian government. Fortuitously, things have calmed somewhat in recent years, leading to unhindered travel for foreigners holding a valid Indian Visa. That said, the British Foreign Office ‘advise against all travel to Manipur’…
For one interested in temperate flora, it is important at this latitude to aim for altitude. There are a few peaks over 2500m asl in Manipur, with a concentration of generally high ground in Ukhrul District, home of the Tangkhul people, a Naga tribe. These peaks head right up to the Burmese border, though accessing the more remote is no mean feat.
So, flying from Heathrow via Dubai, Kolkata, Aizawl in Mizoram and finally Imphal, the capital of Manipur, we found ourselves in Ukhrul, the ridge top District Headquarters, in November 2012. Imphal lies in the moist flat plains, mostly under cultivation for rice, at 786m asl, but Ukhrul to the NE, though not exactly alpine at nearly 1900m asl, enjoys a more temperate climate. The land is folded north-south (ish) into multiple ridges and valleys throughout the whole region, forming picturesque mountain scenery and Ukhrul straddles one of these ridgetops, commanding fine views in all directions. Kingdon-Ward rented a cottage here in 1946 as a base for his excursions.
Our first destination was Sirhoi Kashong, almost the highest mountain in the Eastern hills of Manipur at 2568m asl. Sirhoi lies within spitting distance of Ukhrul, if one is exceptionally good at spitting, making for easy excursions from the town. Vegetation on the lower slopes is typical of much of the hill country of Manipur, but as one gets above roughly 2100m asl the greenery gains a far more Himalayan element.
Long known in cultivation as Sorbus insignis, under Kingdon-Wards collection number KW 7746, his gathering from Japvo, Nagaland never quite fitted that species, though was obviously very closely related, as it is also to S. harrowiana. The name Sorbus keenanii has only very recently been assigned to this taxon by the planthunter and botanist Keith Rushforth. Named after the British botanist Jim Keenan, who also collected the same species in N. Burma in 1962, S. keenanii has more numerous, smaller leaflets than S. insignis with smaller more numerous fruits and differs in bud details. Kingdon-Ward also found it on Sirhoi of course, as it is fairly conspicuous on the upper reaches of the mountain, where a few specimens attain most un-Sorbus-like proportions. We found a tree (almost certainly the huge specimen K-W refers to in his book) with a crown equal in size to the big Quercus lamellosa sharing the same forest.
Kingdon-Ward was impressed by what was undoubtedly this climbing fern: ‘Almost every tree trunk was plastered with strips of fern, whose shapely fronds had turned a glowing orange, russet or champagne yellow. They lit up the forest as with neon lights.’
It should be mentioned at this point that the famed Manipur Lily, Lilium mackliniae, was originally discovered in this very same grassland by Frank Kingdon-Ward, back in 1946. It was named after his wife, originally Jean Macklin. Still thought by many, especially locals, to be only known from this one spot, it is in fact a fairly widespread species, being found on various high peaks in Manipur and also Nagaland to the north. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be found just over the border to the east in Burma. November isn’t, of course, the best time to see the Manipur lily in habitat, but we found the occasional dried up seed capsule here and there.
So, for our second day in Ukhrul District we headed straight back to Sirhoi for further study.
Back down amongst the good folk of Manipur one finds a fairly horticulturally aware society. Some rather special plants, often gathered from the wild locally, can be found gracing the gardens of the Tangkhul people. Trachycarpus ukhrulensis is a very recently described palm and is found in one or two gardens here and there. Kingdon-Ward mentions seeing this species in his book, but that was on the border with Burma, some miles to the east, and he merely passed them off as Chamaerops excelsa, an old name for what we now call Trachycarpus fortunei.
There are minor, but distinct botanical differences between T. ukhrulensis and T. fortunei, but to a gardener a more poignant fact is that it is simply a much better looking palm. The foliage, with numerous segments, is rigidly held, all coated with a layer of white powder beneath. Some argue that it is actually not a distinct species at all, being in reality a western population of the Thai T. oreophilus, but until that is resolved I shall call it T. ukhrulensis.
The large leaved Schefflera in the photos above was fairly common at mid elevations (this one being used as a garden tree) and went through a handsome juvenile stage, as seen below. There were at least 4 Schefflera species in the area and also other evergreen, woody Araliaceae like Brassaiopsis.
Further study on nearby mountains beckoned. As is always the case, many things that were no doubt hiding on Sirhoi started to show their faces, allowing us to build a much better picture of the general local flora.
Luculia is a deliciously sweet scented shrub, found commonly as a weed, especially in disturbed areas. The flowers are the size and shape of a large jasmine.
Kingdon-Ward mentioned finding Cornus capitata in the local environs and we were expecting to see it at some stage. However, the moment I saw the tree below I realised the old man had been incorrect in his identification. Yes, it is closely related to C. capitata, but it differs on some key characteristics. The leaves are virtually without hair, more like C. hongkongensis, and the fruit are huge, up to 6cm across and drop to the ground green. This is a very interesting find indeed and deserves further investigation.
At this point we had been considering attempting a trip up north into Nagaland to climb Mt. Saramati, smack on the Burmese border and standing at 3826m asl, but it seemed we probably wouldn’t sensibly have enough time. So, what to do next? Head out west from Ukhrul and explore some of the higher peaks, or do exactly the same in the opposite direction up to the Burmese border? The latter seemed like it would perhaps be considerably more difficult, due to the lack of paved roads, but Kingdon-Ward had described in some detail an expedition he had made in that direction, albeit on foot, in search of wild tea, Camellia sinensis. He got to the end of the bridle path, as it was then, as far as a village called Khayang and then climbed the mountain above the village; a peak he called Hkayam Bum, which stands at a very reasonable 2833m asl, making it the second highest peak in Manipur. We were informed its name was now Khayangphung, though I have also seen it written Khayangbung. The Burmese use Bum for many a mountain, so it no doubt means exactly that: Khayang Mountain.
After a few words in the right ears it seemed we would be able to do the same, by way of a man with an old Mahindra Jeep that ran the route reasonably regularly, or at least when there were passengers. The road was only passable, a few miles beyond Ukhrul, by this type of vehicle (basically an Indian take on the Willys Jeep) and then only in the dry season. Even then it would take 8 or more hours to get there over this God forsaken track, with the distance between Ukhrul and Khayang being just 18 miles as the crow flies. But what the hell, it sounded like fun, or something akin to it, so first thing the next morning we joined four or five others (including the head man’s son from Khayang) plus the driver and squeezed ourselves in.
There was much initial interest as to why we wanted to go. We were told we were the first Westerners ever to travel to Khayang, but we informed them straight away that Kingdon-Ward, his wife and entourage had been this way before, albeit 64 years previously.
Away from the heavily deforested areas lush vegetation accompanied us along much of the route, especially in moist hollows and streamside spots. Virtually the entire journey was spent at a fairly low altitude as we skirted the mountain flanks, around perhaps 1600m asl, and the vegetation was accordingly subtropical in nature.
Whilst at a quick pee stop I looked up to see we had parked under an arachnaphobe’s nightmare. This multi-storey web was literally metres across, covering the entire track and contained various large spiders. Each one no doubt with enough venom to wipe out a garrison of the Assam Rifles.
After a full day’s travel, with a few 5 minute breaks here and there, we arrived at Khayang at dusk. A few folk wanted to come and see a white guy in the flesh for the first time, including some old guys in their 70’s, except they had seen a white guy before; they remembered Kingdon-Ward coming in 1948. They even pointed out the house, or the site of the original house where he stayed and talked of the large entourage he brought with him. Everyone was extremely courteous, friendly and genuinely welcoming.
The next morning we met up with the village elders again and photographed them in their (partly) traditional dress. We then got ourselves a guided tour of the village.
In the photo above the palm to the left is perhaps Caryota obtusa or C. gigas; apparently there are two very large growing Caryota in NE India. This was seen wild in the shadier gullies below the village, mainly as an under-storey tree. The slimmer palms to the right are probably the plant that goes by the name of C. maxima ‘Himalaya’. As you may have gathered, Caryota is, in part, a poorly understood genus taxonomically. Khayang village.
Our plan was to reach the peak of Khayangphung and return to the village in three days, spending two nights on the mountain. There was no time to lose, so after a hearty breakfast we set off with a posse of hunters, the head man’s son and a few other friends and relatives. The hunters would be our invaluable guides, camp builders and suppliers of fresh meat for meals.
Before very long we were in pure virgin forest, where huge trees surrounded us most of the time. As wonderful as that is, it is often very difficult to identify them when you can’t reach any foliage or fruit.
After a strenuous full day’s ascent we dropped into a valley at roughly 200m asl to make camp for the night. It was at this point we found that our guides had not planned to erect rain shelters. “What if it rains?” was met with a shrug and a smile. It had rained quite hard the previous night back in the village, so we felt slightly perturbed, but not altogether distraught. The hunters were building a series of fires that were placed between every two sleeping positions on the ground; we would at least be warm, or in my case at least, so it turned out, hot.
We awoke to the sound of gunshot and so, in time, we were to dine on fresh venison for breakfast. I hope it wasn’t an endangered species such as Eld’s Deer, Cervus eldii, though it does rather resemble that species. No wonder it’s endangered…
Our hunting chums returned with more. This time a Leopard cat, Prionailurus bengalensis bengalensis. I was rather glad when they kept that one for their own personal consumption. I suppose I have eaten rat and dog, so cat wouldn’t be so very terrible, but initially we were rather alarmed; mainly because of fears for the species long term survival in the area. They may still be common; the forests here are very extensive and seemingly in an almost pure state, though how much game is hunted is anyone’s guess.
At about 2800m we reached a saddle which would be camp 2. It was windier and obviously cooler up here. After a brief time looking around we carried on up to the summit just a little higher, but far more exposed.
It was a chilly night, but with something like seven fires between us we were kept warm enough and luckily it didn’t rain. The main problem up here was constant smoke in your eyes due to air movement; the opposite of the previous night in a sheltered valley. The hunters erected a wooden frame above one of the fires to try and reduce the moisture content of the fresh meat they had caught that day, before carrying it back to the village.
We ascended to the peak again, passing the only Magnolia campbellii trees seen on the mountain. Like on Sirhoi, they were only to be found in the top-most forest. Three species of Rhododendron were at the peak also, R. maddenii, R. johnstoneanum and another.
The view above shows the tall peak in the distance that Kingdon-Ward reached, a false summit on the Khayanphung massif. He thought he had reached the top and says so in his book, but from his description he clearly went up the wrong lump by following the ridge straight up from the village. He also got there in a day from the village and it is impossible to reach the peak in such a time.
Our next objective was to descend the mountain in half the time it took us to get up. This would seem not unreasonable, but with a deep valley to cross, including a steep ascent, it was very tough going. We set off after breakfast and reached Khayang village at dusk.
After a solid night’s sleep, the next morning we had a good breakfast with our friends in Khayang and braced ourselves for the journey back to Ukhrul.
Back in Ukhrul the next day, the weekend brought out some well dressed ladies.
From Ukhrul it was just a case of heading back down to Imphal ready for our flight to Kolkata. On arrival in Imphal it turned out there was an international friendly polo tournament that had kicked off the day before. Manipur is apparently the home of polo (note blue sign below) and small teams from the UK, Germany, etc had come to celebrate this fact. We thought we’d better take a look and headed for the grandstand. As we tried to head for some average looking seats we were ushered into a prime spot reserved for wives, girlfriends and hangers-on. We made no complaints, especially when the free food and drink arrived.