Sunday, 11 September 2011

A rainforest engulfs...

Meet Velu. He apparently saw god one morning, by the temple, as he came to pray. The temple is on a plateau overlooking a beautiful valley, filled with trees and waterfalls. It’s been over three decades, yet, Velu comes here every day to offer prayers. In the rare circumstance that he’s unable to come, he ensures that his son does. I stand there looking at the valley and talking to Velu, his proficient Tamil challenging my limited ‘city Tamil’ vocabulary. He tells me how he remembers seeing a ‘jyoti’ (divine light) shortly before god manifested. I watch his animated face as he describes how young and incredibly handsome god was. He goes on to describe how he felt a sense of peace and, at the same time, a contradictory feeling of excitement at having seen the lord. He also speaks of his values and his belief of compassion to others being above all else; even above these rituals that he holds dear. You can still see a glint in his eye at the very thought of that day. 

As we bid adieu to Velu, he blesses us by calling out to his god, Lord Muruga, Ganesha’s elder brother. Hands up in the air, he cries out, and it reverberates in the tranquil surroundings. He isn’t putting up a show; he isn’t doing it for any money; what touches me is that it is his belief and it keeps him going. I admire his dedication and the fact that he risked being laughed at by skeptics, by claiming to have seen god. This place has now been christened ‘Seen God’. Walking back through the tea plantations towards our car, I ponder over the last couple of days. If you can simplistically define god as somebody you revere, you bow your head in deference to, you hold in esteem, you are in awe of, then yes, I too have seen god - I bow my head to the forest.

What a difference the rain makes to the forest! And what a difference the forest makes to the rain! There are no traffic jams, no frayed tempers. In fact, it’s just the opposite - the rains wash away your worries and bring out the child in you. Jump into puddles. Splash your friends. Get wet. No worries about ruining those expensive shoes or that branded bag or that laptop. Instead, goggle at fungi emitting spores and snails dripping water. The bright purple Impatiens flowers glow, bejewelled with raindrops. Even the humble grass or fern glistens that much more than in the summer. The Crested Serpent-eagle sits on a stump in the middle of the pond, as it rains, looking…well, wet! Where was I?

Rewind to a couple of days ago: I drove down with friends from Bangalore to Coimbatore. And what a wonderful drive it was - great roads, a great car, good music, yummy munchies and some lovely company. The next morning, we assembled with the rest of the group to begin our drive to Valparai, our home for the next 4 days. After breakfast at Pollachi, we hit the road to Valparai, 40 hairpin bends away. We’d already been briefed on the ‘hot-shot’ species to look out for & we did just that, in all earnest. I eagerly unpacked my camera from my bag; it would see the insides of the bag again only four days later, when I reluctantly left for home.

I left my ‘city mood’ far behind the minute we began tackling the hairpin bends, each hairpin progressively taking me far from the madding crowd. At the 9th hairpin, the Nilgiri Tahrs awaited us. It almost seemed like they chose the appropriately roomy hairpin to display themselves, where people could pull over their vehicles, admire them and do justice to the fact that they are terribly elusive and difficult to spot. We watched the Tahrs playfully spar with each other. We looked on while they took in the fabulous view of the valley below. Sometimes, we made eye contact - and what captivating eyes they have! Some Bonnet Macaques who had been holding sway over the 9th hairpin were disturbed by the arrival of the Tahrs. They took fancy to one of our vehicles and clambered all over it to investigate. Soon, they were back on the road as we returned to reclaim the vehicle, having had our fill of the Tahrs (not quite; but the Tahrs had left, having had their fill of humans). We continued our ascent, and by the time we approached Valparai, we had seen amongst many things - a camouflaged Green Calotes, a Scarlet Minivet, a huge Ficus tree and the endemic Nilgiri Langur that had us all thrilled. By then, it had also begun raining and despite the fact that our view of the Nilgiri Langur had been poor due to the rain, we reached our accommodation in high spirits.  

There was a time when tea estates enamoured me with their verdant beauty. Then, one fine day, I discovered how tea estates were established: by cutting down forests. I now smile at my naiveté. They don’t hold that allure for me anymore. The irony - we were staying at a tea estate. But, a quick chat revealed that the Parry Agro Estate has been, in fact, one of the ardent supporters of forest restoration.The NCF has been undertaking this commendable work of restoring patches of forest land, one amongst their many endeavours in this fragmented rainforest. They’ve been working with locals including tea-estate owners, to restore land using reference sites for information. Restoration is done using only native species of plants as opposed to reforestation which is typically characterised by plantation of alien species. Restoration can hope to increase wildlife habitat in the region and aid connectivity between fragments of forests by providing corridors.

Walking in a forest is a beautiful feeling and something that the larger, predator-filled forests don’t afford you. Walking gives you a chance to stumble across orchids with un-pronounceable names, plant mucous and carnivorous plants. Then there are leaves producing a tattoo on your skin, the spiny Cullinea fruit and other assorted ferns, fruits and seeds. Of course, we’d be stumbling about in the dark if it weren’t for Divya and her encyclopaedic knowledge. While we revelled in our serendipitous discoveries, warmth-seeking leeches would gladly crawl all over us. We soon learnt to roll them off using our fingers and undertook periodic leech-checks of each others’ ponchos. You can’t blame them; with weather as cold and wet, who wouldn’t like some warmth, right?

Well, partly wrong. A day into the forest, being wet was becoming second nature to me. I always forgot that my camera was wet or that I myself was wet because I’d forgotten to wear my poncho in the drizzle, busy as I was, looking at some fungus or bird. My camera, though, plotted its revenge, by fogging up the lens just when that very cute Lion-tailed Macaque passed by or just as the Hornbill took flight. A lot of us faced this problem, which we remedied by turning our cars’ heating systems on our lenses. Having leeches crawl over me too seemed to be a part of life now. At night, I would instinctively get up to check for leeches and pluck nothings off my arms and legs before realising that we were back in the room and I was actually in the middle of my sleep.

Guiding us through the forest was the trio - Kalyan, Divya and Mandy. There’s so much to be learnt from each of them and so much that they patiently teach, never too tired to answer yet another question, never too tired to spend some more time on the road. As enthusiastic as any of us, this wasn’t one of these trips where we were promptly dropped to our rooms after the fixed ‘6-8 hour’ schedule each day - once all of us were out in the forest, food was forgotten; sleep was forgotten; time was forgotten.

Nothing’s more blissful than to have tea every morning, with a view of the valley and the Malabar Whistling Thrush serenading you. Being away from our offices, for a change, the toughest decisions we had to take were of this nature: do we walk into the stream or photograph moths? Do we look for frogs or the elusive leopard? With it raining cats and dogs, the stream had swollen, ruling out the stream walk. Instead, one night, we decided to set out in search of smaller subjects; maybe snakes and frogs if we were lucky. And lucky, we were. We had the opportunity of witnessing a birth: a grasshopper emerging from its molt, wings slowly uncurling. Then we headed into a tea bush to drool over the beautiful Anamalai Gliding frog. A few in the group were lucky to see the Pretty Bush frog calling out to a mate, throat puffed up and threatening to explode. Then there was that rain-drenched grasshopper. Mandy was like a magician, disappearing into bushes and seemingly conjuring up frogs at will. Some were so tiny and incredibly camouflaged that it would take me minutes to spot it, despite being pointed to.

Sprawled on all fours trying to get ‘eye-level’ shots of something that’s 1/100th your size and sitting near the ground is when you are at your most ungraceful! Not to mention the various other inelegant poses we struck while photographing. They did make for good candids, though. Sometimes, despite all the acrobatics, I got terrible pictures. This trip was my initiation into macro photography and my photos made me cringe; even a breath inhaled or exhaled before the photo was clicked made the shot out of focus. But, I’m not giving up soon. I’m hooked on to these tiny life forms.

Yet another night, the highlight of our walk was a flying squirrel party; I say party because that’s exactly what it seemed like, with 4-5 of them gliding from tree to tree. Usually, a squirrel would probably glide once just to find food, and having reached it, would sit down to eat. The number of glides each squirrel made that day had us ooh-ing and aah-ing each time. 

Lion-tailed Macaques (LTMs) had us enthralled during the day. A large group had decided to pay a visit to tea estate workers’ houses within the forest, probably drawn to the guavas drying in their yards. We spent a lot of time watching these endemic, endangered primates as they explored the area for food. There were mothers with babies, fathers sometimes joining them, youngsters fighting with each other and some greedy ones with their faces and hands stuffed with fruit. We even saw a newborn; probably not more than a couple of days old. Pink and hairless, it was fiercely guarded by its mother and tucked-in snugly; we just had glimpses of the top of its head or an arm or its tiny feet, as it stretched to make itself more comfortable.

I also had my first sighting of the Great Hornbill; in fact, a pair courting, as a juvenile watched. On the last day, we waited patiently at a spot where we were above the canopy level, as a Hornbill called out to its mate. Cameras all focused and ready, we’d spent over 15 minutes waiting. And then, as he flew over the tree-tops, I just watched, camera forgotten. One morning, as we were eating breakfast, we saw a Crested Serpent-eagle on a tree - a very close sighting and an eye level one at that. Breakfast was forgotten as all of us raced out in unison to photograph the beauty. There was never a dull moment; all things, big and small, drew our attention in the forest. These birds, animals and insects had us wrapped around their little fingers, nice and tight! 

We fed off each others’ energy and enthusiasm. The enthusiasm continued even once we returned to our rooms. A bunch of us met at midnight, intending to practise some recently learnt photography techniques while also catching up on some talk. Soon, amidst much talk and laughter, photography was all but forgotten. We dragged ourselves to our respective rooms in the wee hours of the morning, just so we could catch forty winks before the next day in the forest. Strangely, the lack of sleep didn’t seem to have affected us; none of us were tired the next day. 

I realised how out of tune my senses were, abused by city living. I’d slowly attuned them over the first few hours of reaching the forest. Soon, I could spot the tiniest of things, hear even rustles, faraway calls or smell a scent. Alas, good things don’t last. Only too soon, I was back in the city, heightened senses et al. And now this was bad, because I could hear the neighbour’s TV, loud car stereo music, honking cars, smell burning garbage and see miles of traffic. I felt lost; I yearned for something else. I was restless and grumpy. It rained here too, but that just made me miserable. 

Our descent back to Coimbatore was the saddest thing I endured that week. Momentary joy overcame me when I saw a Nilgiri Langur jump from one tree to another. The only other consolation was a Tahr at the 9th hairpin, perched high on the rock face, glimpsed in the rapidly fading evening light. Then, it was back to being glum-faced. The next few weeks, I lived off memories of the forest and the trip - all the fun that I shared with friends, all the moments that I shared with the forest, all the knowledge that was shared with us, and in between all this, slivers of solitude I sneaked in for myself.

Link to the entire set of photos (monsoon):
I travelled to Valparai: as part of an expedition led by Kalyan Varma