My wife constantly complains about our honeymoon trip eventually turning out to be more of an adventure trip where nature and animals gained precedence over her. She laments over the pictures we took and wonders if we should be sending it out to friends and family or to Nat Geo and its likes.
In my defense, however, Kerala is not the place for honeymoons. There is so much to explore and so much yet unexplored that your soul continues to thirst for more of the sereneness, the tranquility and the beauty of God’s own country.
Thekkady was no exception and its claim to fame is it’s being the gateway to the Periyar Tiger reserve. I shall overlook the boat ride, the elephant ride and the hotel stay which I might address in another post and around which you’ll find hundreds of other articles.
Instead, I will try to direct my pen to the three hours we spent walking right into the blackness of the jungle with the moonlight, our flashlights, the fireflies and the gleaming yellow eyes of the jungle beasts being the only sources of light.
I have no qualms in holding Sweety responsible for this trek. It is a well designed conspiracy that finds me responsible for the same today. While at the hotel, Sweety’s eyes fell on a pamphlet which was a summary of the things we could splurge our hard earned money on. Ayurvedic massages at Rs, 900 and above were good for the body but not good enough for my feeble heart. The jungle, however seemed to be much more inviting with its trails and treks.
We (read she) decided to go for the night trail. Organized in batches of 5 by the Kerala Forest Department, this trek is made with the forest guards who periodically go out on their night patrols. A 3 hour affair, there are three slots you can chose from….7 to 10 pm, 10pm to 1 am or the 1 am to 3 am slot. We chose the 7 to 10 pm slot as I wanted to be in a managable state of preparedness for the twists and turns through the hills the next day.
At 7’0 clock we were in the guards’ cabin, signing a declaration that, if there was to be any mishap, the forest department was not to be held responsible. For that matter no one can be held responsible for a tiger getting hungry and deciding to pounce on you or an elephant charging at you assuming you to be his sworn enemy.
The 3 other adventure seekers included an aunt and her niece from the U.S and a tall German who somehow reminded me of the eucalyptus trees in Munnar.
We were all provided with flashlights with the guards getting the biggest and powerful -lest of them all and me getting one that would have also passed as a flickering lantern.
Complaints aside, we started on the trail, with 2 guards leading the way and a third watching our backs.Rosewood, teakwood, Sandalwood, Poached Sandalwood…this wood that wood…their scientific names…the understanding of the jungle flora by the guards was appreciable. The malayalam helped the guards in easing out and soon we adorned the role of translators while the guards emptied their grey cells.
We soon spotted our first wild animal : The Sambar Deer. An animal that hitherto existed only in text books and on the National Geographic channel stood just a few feet away from us. The light right into its eyes didnt seem to intimidate it and it stood its ground whiffing the air for the scent of a tiger (The Sambar Deer is a favourite of the tigers, we were told).
As we advanced deeper into the jungle we saw many more of the species,all with their noses in the air. The trail was along the river bed and the guards constantly flashed their lights onto the banks in the hope of spotting an elephant, bison or a tiger.However the moonlit night was playing spoilsport.The moonlight ensured that there was enough light within the shadows of the jungle for the animals to move around less warily. On a dark night, all the animals would have come out into the grasslands, by the river banks to be easily able to spot the wolf among the sheep.
A little disappointed but nevertheless hopeful, we still trudged on.Enroute we spotted more deer, a herd of wild boars and the gleaming eyes of a bison.
As we were approaching a resting bench, I saw a dash right ahead…a porcupine.We took our first break of around 10 minutes. Tired but eager to move on we impatienly waited for the break to get over. The guards in the meanwhile filled up some registers and files. We were soon ready to move on.
On this second leg we spotted the nightjar, a nocturnal bird that doesnt even build a nest but relies on the soil to camouflage it during the day. A non vegetarian, the bird feeds on moths.
We also chanced upon a shed cobra skin and the recent footprints of an elephant and her calf. A 3 feet circumference of the elephant foot meant that the elephant would be close to 9 feet!!
A few more meters ahead, we heard a thundering roar across the silence of the jungle. The king had made his presence felt.The Periyar Tiger Reserve is one of the few sanctuaries in India where there is plenty of food for the king and where he has marked territories. 42 tigers, each with 25 sq. miles of jungle land to itself.
The guards suddenly became wary and sternly told us to shut up. Ahead into the jungle with only a stream separating either side were the eyes of a beast, menacing and angry. As the guards flashed the light into its eyes, the beast’s head bobbed up and down and without warning dashed off deeper into the safety of the dense vegetation. It was the Asian elephant and the most aggressive of the lot in the reserve. With only a dry stream bed to cross, the encounter could have gone awry had the beast chosen to attack.
With the danger having passed, we made our way to a watchtower, a remnant of the medieval ages, this structure is made of tin and constantly creaked and croaked as we made our way up. At times elephants would lay seize to the tower,the guards informed us, and would chose to remain for hours playing in the mud and throwing up trunkfulls of water, while the guards watched helplessly from above.
We were now on the final leg of our trek and the cold had started gnawing at my sweater. Winter in the jungles is defined by the cold, frosty nights and our paces across the dry leaf laden jungle floor quickened in the anticipation of warmth and food at the hotel. Humans after all, I mulled, had chosen to tread the urban path and in the process had lost most of his instinct for survival. He was now at the mercy of governments and economies.
We crossed the final frontier, a trench built with just the right width to ensure that elephants couldnt cross over into the forest department quarters. Many wild life photographers,the guards informed us, had tried to take photographs of these beasts at close quarters, in the night, by settling themselves in this trench and then luring the elephants through salt.The elephants came, had the salt but a perfect proffessional photograph could never be taken owing to their dark colours.
Photo Credit : http://flickr.com/photos/sarahandiain/
It was soon time to bid adieu to the vast expanse of evergreen,decidious vegetation and grasslands. As we shook hands in gratitude with the guards, I couldnt but help see the irony of it all. Here were some brave men, protecting what was left of the earth’s character through their instincts, their knowledge, their years of experience and their love of the jungles and what they got in return was a dirty uniform, an aging rifle which they could fire only in defence, boots so they could travel miles into the jungle, flashlights in abundance and a paltry salary and here was I, being served because my proffession was regarded to be more urbane and receiving a salary which seemed to justify the business of it all…greed, deception and frustration.