Saturday, November 10, 2012

Weekend in Wayanad

After living in Bangalore, with it's cross-city drives turning out to be day-trips,Mysore seems like a small town. We drive a couple of kilometers and are soon out of the city, heading out towards Gundlupet. There is a steady procession of villagers driving goats, sheep and the occasional bullock towards the city. It's Bakrid, when pious Muslims sacrifice an animal to show their devotion, and the villagers want to sell their livestock when prices are high.

Gundlupet, like many small South Indian towns, has one main road where all the prominent landmarks are located - high school, college and government offices. However, it's clean, and the garbage and sewerage have not yet overtaken the town.

The roads are lined with decades-old trees as we turn South-West and approach Bandipur National Park.

We cross Bandipur and are soon at the entrance of Muthanga National Park. The entrance resembles the Bannerghatta National Park , choked with small kiosks selling junk food. We check at the counter for tickets and the young lady tells us that there are only a limited number of safari tickets sold each day. Tickets get sold out by 7.30 AM and the last safari in the morning is at 10 AM. We've reached at 10.15 am. The next safari is at 3 pm but we won't be able to wait for that.

We press forward towards Wayanad, but a few miles down we are pulled up by a group of Kerala police. There are a few other cars that have pulled up on the roadside and we join them. I step out and ask the policeman what is the matter. "Seatbelt," he says, "pay up the fine of Rs.100". I wonder if this is per unbelted passenger or per vehicle but do not bother to ask. There is a line to pay up the fine. All violators are asked name, father's name, address and the vehicle number is noted down. The person ahead of me is fined for not wearing a seatbelt as well as not removing the sun film from the vehicle windows. He tries arguing, in Kannada, that he is from Mysore, and that he sun film rule does not apply there. "This is Kerala", the policeman replies curtly and continues writing out the receipt. There's no verification of drivers license or registration papers and I mention this to our host at Wayanad. He says, the police ask for license based on their judgement of whether the driver looks licensed. I pay up the Rs.100 fine, strap on my seatbelt and we proceed.

The next major town is Sultan Bathery. The town, which gets its name from being associated with Tipu Sultan's armament battery, looks like it's a victim of Kerala's frequent bandhs, with all shops shut down. However it turns out that it's Bakrid and all the retailers are celebrating the festival at home. Traffic is light and we are soon at Meenangady. The roads are lined by tiled houses and we see Muslim women, dressed in the traditional coloured costumes in front of the houses. The urban Muslim's habit of imitating the Arabs by wearing a head-to-toe black burkha has not yet reached rural Kerala.

We reach an unmarked fork in the road on the way to Mananthavady. There are two old men enjoying a beedi and talking like old friends at the junction. I pull up, roll down the window and ask them which way leads to Mananthavady. They say that both will reach Mananthavady, but suggest that I take the right fork since the roads are good and they add, looking at my Honda City, that this road would save me some fuel given the vehicle we had.

The roads are good, with light traffic, apart from the occasional 3-wheeler transporting agricultural produce. However, there's no sign of reaching Mananthavady. I check with a small shopkeeper how far Manathavady is and he raises two fingers to indicate the distance. However, after driving almost five kilometres, we realise that he probably meant twenty kilometres and not two.

We take the Kannur Road from Mananthavady and after 8 km are at the Indian Oil petrol bunk at Thalapuzha. We call the manager,  Shabeer and tell him that we are at the pickup point. He promises to be there in a minute and soon we see a young man wearing a black cap, flipflops and riding a Royal Enfield approach.

We follow him, driving across the playground of the Thalapuzha High School, to park at his house. We transfer our bags to his Bolero and are soon bumping towards Fringeford. We are the only guests this week. Shabeer talks about the history of Fringeford as we start ascending the hillside. It was originally a thousand acre estate, growing tea, coffee and cardamom, but after multiple sales over the years and an ongoing litigation with the Forest Departmentthey now have five hundred acres of which only hundred acres are under cultivation because of labour issues. The jungle has taken over the other four hundred acres and it's now home to a group of elephants, bisons, deer and a couple of tigers.

We stop at a small plateau about halfway up. This is the last point where mobile coverage is available. We're asked to make any calls we have to make before our return.

The hill sides are packed with greenery, with the occasional flash of orange leaves. In the distance we see a streak of white - it's a 70-feet waterfall towards which we will hike in the morning.

The only sound is that of cicadas calling. One starts, the entire group picks up, and for a few minutes the valley is filled with the chirps The sound comes from all directions. After a few minutes they all stop and silence descends again.

We catch our first glimpse of Fringeford - tiled roofs with a courtyard and a mango tree in the center. We park and are greeted by Shaji, an enthusiastic twenty-something young man, who will be our nature guide for the next two days. There's also Muthuswami, the cook, who has been there for forty-five years. He came as a labourer, stayed behinds as the estate changed across multiple hands, and now with two helpers manages the kitchen.

The rooms are small but homely and comfortable.  A sign over the door states that the rooms were renovated  on 10 April 1957. The ceilings are made of dark wood and the floors are of dark red oxide, worn smooth by usage and cleaning. The rooms are minimally furnished - two cots, a small side table with a lamp and a large window that opens to the covered porch. The bathroom is large, with a sloped tile roof with a large portion set apart for the shower. The porch  has a table, chair and an ancient easychair that does not look like anybody has sat on since 1957. There is a common dining area with a bookshelf on the side.  There are many  books by and on Jim Corbett, by Kenneth Anderson and narratives of Bill Bryson, books on the wildlife of the Western Ghats and books donated by past visitors. There are many crushed leaves and chewed fruits lying near the bookshelf - Shaji tells us that the book nook is a favourite corner of a few bats which bring the fruits from the forest and come there to eat it at night before heading back to the forest to roost in the daytime.

Muthuswami serves up an excellent South Indian vegetarian lunch after which we set off on a exploratory walk. There's a hammock on the mango tree in the courtyard and two easychairs facing the valley. A metal wire fences off the compound around the building. Shaji tells us that until a few months back visitors might wake up in the morning and find elephants or bison in the courtyard. The fence was put up to prevent the visitors from doing anything rash.

The guava tree has a metal pipe with some nuts hanging on the side. This is an early warning system for elephant arrivals. 
The guava is one of the elephants' favourite trees and this contraption provides the alarm when the elephants arrive. 

There is a stream on the northern side of the property, flowing down from the hills, and the water is strikingly cold and refreshing. We follow the stream downhill to a small pond where a fish-trap - a vessel covered with cloth with a slit in the middle - has been set. There is a small fish and a just hatched young one in the trap. Shaji skilfully makes a water filled container out of leaves to transfer the fish and take it back up for examining.

When I reach back to the cottage I feel something wet on my toes. I remove my sandals to find an engorged leech falling off my toes and blood still dripping from the point where it had feasted. We are introduced to the concept of leech socks and salt sticks. The socks, made of thick khaki cloth, come up to the knees where they are tied in a tight knot. Salt is to leeches as garlic to vampires - gets rid of them very fast.

It's tea time soon after and it's served with unniappams - deep fried balls made with rice paste, jaggery, slices of coconut and cardamom. We set off on what Shaji calls a trial walk - a 4 km roundtrip. It's not too hot now, and as we walk we can hear the streams, cicadas and from faraway in the jungle, the harsh call of the grey hornbill. The mountains are blue in the distance and by 4 pm the fog and clouds have just started rolling in.

There are signs of the abandoned estate that has been taken over by the jungle - tea, coffee and cardamom plants still grow by the trail side where workers once tended to them. Giant wood spiders have taken over the plants now, building large webs that span multiple plants and waiting in the centre for an unfortunate bug to fly in. Leeches twirl on the wet forest floor looking for warm blood to latch on to. We hear woodpeckers and see the holes they have drilled, creating a fluted tree.

There are elephant and bison dropping on the trail, some of them less than an hour old. Shaji tells the story of the cook walking silently home one evening and running across a tiger on the path. Both stare silently at each other and then the tiger vanishes. Others who have gone looking for the big cat have only seen a tail disappearing or a flash of orange.

We turn back as the shadows start falling in the valley. The peaks of the mountains are now covered by clouds.  Barbets call out to each other - cuttur,cuttur,cuttur....It's a small piece of heaven, as Shaji puts it.

The night is pitch dark with the moon covered by the clouds. We see an occasional firefly flitting across the compound. The only sound is the stream gurgling and the chorus of cicadas.

We have dinner under the dim lights of the gazebo followed by a photoshow. we see Elephants and bisons in courtyard, snakes, butterflies, moths, scorpions pugmarks, birds, toads, frogs.

The morning starts with a few inquisitive bird calls. The first of the ubiquitous dragonflies makes an appearance at 630am. The bird chorus appears from all sides now - black bulbuls and drongos dominate.

We leave for the 8 km round trip to the waterfall at 8.30 am .  We are well-prepared for leeches this time - with leech socks and equipped with a pair of slat sticks. The trail is fenced by ferns on both sides and soon becomes narrow and only single-file progress is possible. We see elephant trails en-route but do not see any of the pachyderms. A rustle in the woods makes us stop and we get a glimpse of a lone bison heading into deeper jungle.

We hear many new bird calls but visibility is limited because of the dense greenery. We cross many rivulets and in the damp soil leeches twist and turn trying to make contact with a source of blood. Our leech socks and salt sticks make us impervious to their attempts.

By 1015 we are at the waterfall. Water beetles ran across small puddles incessantly. Drops of water created a rainbow after shattering on boulders after a seventy-foot drop. We run across 2 species of frogs and a full-grown adult king cobra crosses our path on the return.

Lunch is ready soon after we return, and after lunch, I am on the easychair reading Jim Corbett's account of the man eaters of Kumaon. The total stillness has a calming effect - it's easy to spend even two hours motionless and looking at the landscape.

We have a bonfire on the last night, and roast some apples in the open fire. Shaji tells how  he started getting interested in studying about nature as a young boy - finding a hornbill's nest and taking one of the fledglings home. They were prodigious eaters and when the young boy's caretaking abilities reached their limits, the fledgling died.

There is an unexpected guest at the dinner table - a slug crawling across one of the chairs leaves behind a slimy trail. We let it be, and by morning, the slug has disappeared - either by making prodigious progress through the night or by contributing to the local food chain.

There is no fog or cloud cover tonight and the moonlight is strikingly bright, casting shadows of the tiled building in the courtyard.

Muthuswami cooks up a traditional Kerala breakfast ahead of our departure in the morning -aapam and stew, puttu and kadala. We take a group photo and head back towards Thalapuzha.

 Heading towards Meenangadi, we see a sign saying Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary 14 km and take the deviation. Once again we're too late to get the safari. One of the safari jeep drivers tells us that not many animals were seen on the safari and that it might be better to drive slowly through Nagarhole. We take his advise and head out towards Nagarhole. The gates are closed and we are questioned about our destination. We provide our travel plans and the gates creak open.

The first animal we see is the Chital. They are totally unconcerned with the traffic, raising their ears when the bird chatter increases. As we turn around a corner, we find that traffic has piled up - there's an elephant grazing, only a few feet from the roadside, and nobody wants to drive by too close to it. Suddenly a silver hatchback zooms past us, either oblivious or indifferent to the elephant on the way. 

The elephant turns and takes a look but makes no indication of movement. The other cars slowly start moving after this.

A constant procession of signs warns visitors not to stop, not to play loud music, not to speed and not to litter. The most beautiful sight however is the flameback woodpecker and the racket-tailed drongo, flying in tandem.

After we exit the park, we see the impact of human settlements on animals - watch posts built on trees amidst the farms to watch out for elephants.

The last sign of nature we see before joining the traffic towards Mysore is a bunch of swallows swooping and twirling, feasting on insects that are buzzing around a bush.