Posted by: Radha | July 9, 2009

When I Saw God in Valparai…

I recently returned to the city after a 5 day photography workshop and expedition in the Anamalais range of the Western Ghats. From the very first minute into the trip, I’ve been making mental notes on how to describe this trip to friends and family and also how to draft a write up for my blog. However, the entire experience of the trip has left me completely out of words. Yet, here I am, making an attempt to describe my experience, fully aware that I will not be able to do enough justice. This is a detailed account of the expedition and I hope you will enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed re-living the trip by writing this.

I started planning this trip a few months ago when I came across a mention of this expedition on Kalyan Varma‘s website. I have been an avid follower of Kalyan’s photography, his LJ and his sites. I knew that I would never be able to forgive myself if I let go of an opportunity to travel in the jungles of the Western Ghats and also learn the art of photography from Kalyan himself. Having nominated myself for the trip, Kalyan’s email on the finalized dates came as an alert to me as I was yet to purchase an SLR for the trip. Based on his suggestion, I landed at Jayesh Mehta’s store and purchased my Nikon D90. This is also the only time ever that blowing up my bank balance brought me so much happiness πŸ™‚

I left for Coimbatore on the night of 18th with my camera equipment and all my rain gear packed up. Since this trip was going to be with a group of people I had never met before, I had received ample amount of warnings and suggestions from family and friends on how to be safe and how to judge people (my failure rate is quite high with this judging part!). I know their intentions were in my best interest, but once I got back, I ensured to tell each one of them about the people I met there and how they got worried unnecessarily. One of the participants in the expedition, Sumeet, traveled in the same bus as me. Kalyan picked us up personally from Coimbatore. After a quick stopover for breakfast at Pollachi, where we met Dilan Mandanna (Mandy) and the rest of the group, we were headed to our destination – Valparai in the Anamalais range.

You can go to my Flickr account to see photographs from this trip.

Day — 1
Driving through the well-laid TN state highways, Kalyan mentioned that he has made a list of 12 Hotshots which are the most special species from the Anamalai hills. Our job was to spot and photograph each one of them. We were around the 4th hairpin bend when we spotted a hunting party (mixed flock) and a mighty Crested Hawk Eagle in the dry bushes. The Scarlet Minivet was the first Hotshot we spotted there. Up on the 9th hairpin bend, we got off the vehicles to look for the endangered Nilgiri Tahr which has made these grassy peaks its home. We were lucky to spot two adults and a calf high up on the hill, however, the distance didn’t let us photograph them. But luck got luckier when we spotted two adult Tahrs engaged in a mock fight bang in the middle of the road. They gave us some lovely poses and the happy group clicked away. We also managed to provide some entertainment to the locals sitting by the roadside who must have thought we were crazy to photograph animals they see on a daily basis. How I wish they knew they were really lucky to see these endangered endemic species in their habitat every single day.


The endangered Nilgiri Tahr graze on the side of the road with traffic passing by..

Other Hotshots we spotted on the way up were the Indian Giant Squirrel, the Nilgiri Langur and the critically endangered endemic primates – Lion Tailed Macaque (LTMs as they are lovingly called). The fact that we could spot 5 Hotshots even before we reached Valparai gave us an idea of how rich the biodiversity of this land is. We also spotted a group of female Gaur on the way up. A couple of road kills on the way were stark reminders of the human invasion of their habitat. One of the road kills was a Pit Viper and was a part of the Hotshots list. The beautifully laid out tea estates covered with mist and clouds add to the beauty of these hills. They are also the reason why the forests have been cut short in these parts. As much as these tea estates add to the beauty of the valley and bring in revenue, they have destroyed the forests here. Forest patches have also been replaced by Eucalyptus plantations, which again bring in money. They do not suit any animals or birds. Animals are forced to interact with humans in such habitats and human-animal conflicts almost always result in some kind of loss for both parties.

40 hairpin bends up, and we were in Valparai. The group was put up in rustic English bungalows in the middle of the beautiful Parry Agro tea estate. The bungalows were over 70 years old and well managed. They also had the best cooks and care-takers. In the days to come, we realized how rich the estate was in terms of the bird population there. The birds we spotted in the estate during the length of the trip were – Malabar Whistling Thrush, White Cheeked Barbet, Lesser Coucal, Oriental Magpie Robin, Red Whiskered Bulbul, Common Myna, Common Hill Myna, Plum Headed Parakeet, Flame Backed Woodpecker and the Streak Throated Woodpecker.



A bungalow and surrounding view in the Parry Agro estate..

After a yummy lunch and a much needed nap, we headed out to visit a rain forest restoration plot created and managed by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). NCF has invested a lot of time and effort in restoring forest plots to assist animal movement in these hills. We met Divya, Sridhar and Anand who shared with us a world of knowledge about rain forest plants and their relationship with the animals there. We spotted some birds that evening – Malabar Grey Hornbill, Rufous Babbler and Malabar Parakeets. We also saw a Barking Deer in the distance.
My first day in Valparai also brought in my first ever encounter with the infamous Leeches which are widely prevalent in these rain forests. My first reaction to a leech trying to climb up my ankle was total panic and fear. Someone from the group gallantly pulled it off and then I turned into an over-cautious leech inspector. We were armed with leech socks for the next two days and eventually I just stopped worrying about them. I am proud (and not so proud) to say that I didn’t get a single leech bite throughout the trip. Though I suspect they didn’t like my blood, I should also give myself enough credit for always brushing them off at the right time.
The group was usually split into two and both groups took turns traveling with Kalyan and Mandy. The night was spent driving around the hills with Mandy looking for the Large Brown Flying Squirrel. It is a nocturnal animal that sits camouflaged high up in fruit-bearing trees. The only way to spot it is by looking for its shining eyes which light up when torches are flashed up in the trees. We found several squirrels but were not able to photograph them as Kalyan was far away with the other group and none of us could figure out the right camera settings. Two Sambar Deer grazing by the side of the road gave us company for a while. Kalyan and group also spotted a lone tusker. After a short bout of rain, we went around looking for frogs when Kalyan heard a Leopard call. We waited around for a long time but the elusive cat didn’t make an appearance. Following frog calls led us to an Anamalai Gliding Frog sitting in the bushes. This frog hasn’t been photographed much and is endemic to the Anamalais range. After taking record shots of the frog, we decided to retire for the night. Driving back to the estate, we spotted a majestic Brown Fish Owl sitting on a culvert.

Day — 2
Though Kalyan had described the melodious tunes of the Malabar Whistling Thrush, also called the whistling schoolboy, none of us were prepared for the actual experience. We woke up in the morning to a magical whistling tune and all of us assumed that its a very happy estate worker whistling away during his chores. When we realised the music was created by a tiny bird that resembles a crow, we were dumbstruck. We spent the next 4 days trying to listen to its call, enjoying it thoroughly and photographing the bird of course. One of the best memories I have of this bird is when Shiva, a fellow participant and me headed out one evening to photograph birds in the estate. We kept following a Thrush and realized that the bird had company somewhere in the distance. Standing right in the middle of two birds, we were treated to a musical concert while both the Thrushes kept whistling to each other. I wonder if they were telling each other how their day went!
On this day, we headed out to the Manamboly forest range, which is one of the best protected rainforest spots there and is excellent for bird sightings. Passing through the Puduthottam estate, we were greeted by dozens of LTMs which live in the jack fruit trees by the side of the road. This is also the only place in the world where these primates can be observed and photographed at such a close range, simply because they are used to us humans staring at them. Of course, they also attract a lot of noisy, insensitive morons (gay virgins – as Kalyan likes to address these types) who like to tease them. To handle these so-called ‘tourists’ and to track the LTM movements, NCF has appointed full-time guards. Other species spotted on the way were – Black Eagle, Chestnut Headed Bee-Eater, White Cheeked Barbet, Stripe Necked Mongoose (endemic to the Anamalais), Lesser Coucal and the White Throated Kingfisher.

Birding in the Manamboly forest stretch..

Driving and walking in the Manamboly forest stretch was one of the best day trips of this expedition. It gave us a golden chance to understand and experience evergreen rain forests, first hand. This forest is a work of art. It is so beautiful that every view has a photographic quality that cannot be ignored. A dry log which housed hundreds of pretty mushrooms, colourful leaves, tall evergreen trees, rare bird species, butterflies and dragonflies – these were the things that greeted us at every step. We also photographed another Hotshot – Impatiens Flowers – some of which are endemic to the Western Ghats. With constant guidance from Divya, we were able to identify and understand hordes of plant, insect and animal species. This is also where we spotted a Hotshot – the Great Hornbill. I will never forget the whoosh-whoosh sound made by the colourful, giant bird when it flies. I have to agree with Kalyan when he says that the beauty of this bird is when it flies and not when it sits up in a tree. We stopped for lunch at the electricity board’s scenic guest house where we spotted the Lesser Fish Eagle. All the bird books claimed that it is only found in the North-East, but we were amazed to spot the magnificent bird here. Other birds spotted in the day – Dollar Bird, Mountain Imperial Pigeon, Emerald Dove, Black Drongo, Changeable Hawk Eagle, Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo and Oriental Honey Buzzard. A couple of us spotted a Hotshot – Malabar Trogon, but were not able to photograph the beauty.
The find of the day was when Divya heard the call of the rare Wynaad Laughing Thrush. The bird is extremely shy and very tough to photograph. While we all stood on a culvert and watched the bird hop around inside a bush, Mandy decided to get a record shot. His never-give-up attempts only lead him to a Rufous Babbler hiding in the same bush but we came back with some lovely memories of the incident.

Trying to get a view of the rare Wynaad Laughing Thrush..

That night we headed out again to photograph a Hotshot – Brown Palm Civet – but the shy animal eluded us completely. We didn’t know yet that we were going to see one of the most memorable sights of the trip. Walking down the road, we saw a horde of Flying Squirrels sitting quite low down in the trees. All of us took turns using the external flashes to get proper shots of these squirrels as it is crucial to get ample amount of lighting. Also, we could not flash more than 2-3 times to ensure that the animal doesn’t get blinded or stunned. Kalyan pointed out that one of the squirrels was sitting on a fruit-less tree so it would have to glide over to another tree for food. True to his words, with a bunch of LED lights lighting up the sky, the squirrel made a mesmerizing glide from a tree at one end of the road to the other. There was absolutely no sound in the squirrel’s glide. As my eyes followed the glide, I couldn’t help but admire what a great creation that animal is. Once it landed, I realized that all of us had unanimously decided to drop the cameras and just devour the beautiful sight instead. Nothing in the world could have stopped our exuberant babbling after a sight like that.
The merry crowd returned to the bungalow, thrilled to bits.

Day — 3
NCF has an information center which is located at the entrance to the Parry Agro estate. The center has a lot of information about flora and fauna that can been seen in the Aanamalais range. The wildlife pictures in the center have been shot by some of the best wildlife photographers, including Kalyan. It was a treat to see all of them under one roof and the group realized that we were already getting better at identifying the various species.
We were headed to ‘Seen God’ on this day. En route we stopped again at the Puduthottam estate and photographed LTMs for more than an hour. This day, the primates were more in number and definitely in a more playful mood. Watching them leap from one high branch to another is a treat. They gave us some pretty poses and one particular male even bared his fangs at a group of guys who were trying to annoy him! The idiots were eventually shooed away by the NCF guards.

Bala, Kalyan, Geeta and Sumeet photographing LTMs at Puduthottam estate..

Seen God is situated high up in the hills and offers a wonderful view of the Anamalais, the Shola forests and the evergreen forest canopy. The place is called so because of a man who lives up there who claims that he’s seen God at that very spot. From that great height, watching a bunch of Great Hornbills fly high above the canopy was a splendid sight. Sitting by the edge of the cliff with an amazing landscape spread out in front of my eyes, it slowly sunk in that I am one of the lucky few who’s getting to experience such a pristine and diverse bio-culture. We have no place amongst these animals and birds, yet we are here. We inhabit and encroach into their habitat and call it ours. Worse, we destroy their homes. And we don’t even belong here. I don’t know which God the man kept referring to, but I for sure Saw God there.

Kalyan and Mandy scouting for Great Hornbills at Seen God..

By now, most of us had used up space on the memory cards. We spent the noon transferring pictures to Kalyan’s system and portable hard disks. Kalyan also did a mini-training session on reading Histograms and using them to work on post-processing of pictures.This night was more exciting than the previous two. The group headed out to a stream to spot snakes and frogs – Pretty Bush Frog, Purple Frog & Pit Vipers to be precise. Rain Gods played spoilsport and we weren’t able to photograph any rare species. However, wading through knee-deep cold waters while watching out for leeches, spiders and vipers was by far the best experience of the trip. I have to thank Shiva for ably guiding me through the stream walk and making sure that I didn’t tumble down into the water, camera in tow. We only managed to spot a Wrinkled Frog in the stream. A white umbrella and external flash lights provided for a simple studio setup in the dark of the night. All of us took turns taking macro shots of the frog. Kalyan said we need to be cautious about not flashing the frog more than 2-3 times. By now, I could manage decent shots in the night just by playing with the ISO. On the field photography training definitely worked well for me. After spending over two hours in the stream, we got out to the road.
Kalyan then got a call from Divya and group, who had spotted a Travancore Flying Squirrel in the Tata estate. While rushing to the spot, Kalyan explained that its a very rare species that was considered extinct for ages till it was spotted ten years ago, in the Anamalais. No clear record photograph of the species exists either. En route to the Tata estate, we found more Large Brown Flying Squirrels, Black Naped Hare, Wild Boar and a confused Porcupine that ran around in the middle of the road. The squirrel was smaller than a Large Brown Flying Squirrel and was rufous in colour. We watched it scuttling around the high branches, feeding happily on a Cullinea fruit. Kalyan, armed with his 200-400mm VR bazooka lens and a Nikon D300 tried for over an hour to get the best photograph of this rare species. Now, all of us belong to a club of less than 50 people in the world who have seen this animal.
We got back to the bungalow at 1:30 am, thrilled to bits again!!

Day — 4
This was the day when we all had committed to planting trees in one of NCF’s restoration plots. All of us went to the nursery maintained by the NCF and helped in loading the saplings into the jeep. Sridhar explained that it was important to select the right kind of rain forest trees to plant. The trees have to be beneficial to the soil and also have to attract birds and mammals to it. We also made the essential vada-tea stop at a beautiful little chai-kadai and gorged down yummy vadas.
En route to the plot, I spotted a wriggling tiny snake-like thing by the side of the road. Kalyan said we should stop and check. It turned out to be a semi-dead Large Scale Shield-Tail snake. It was run over by a passing vehicle. As I held the struggling snake in my hand, I realized what a beautiful creation it was. I wonder how many of these helpless animals have been destroyed by centuries of human habitat-building.

Trying to get a record shot of the semi-dead Shield Tail..

Upon reaching the plot, Sridhar gave us a demo on how to plant the saplings. It was then time to get down and get dirty. Touching the wet mud and leaf litter, digging up the ground took me straight back to my childhood when playing with mud brought me ultimate joy! I planted three saplings and I am now proud to say that I have contributed at the grass root level to work on restoring the rain forests of the Western Ghats. I could see a similar joy and feeling of content spread over all the faces around me as everyone got their hands dirty that day πŸ™‚ Together, the group planted over 50 saplings.
Three people from the group left that day. The rest of us had opted for an extra day’s stay. As we said our good-byes we knew that four days of togetherness had created a bond that would last a lifetime. Every time we recount these stories later, mentioning the people in the stories will be inevitable. Bala, who lives in Coimbatore left that day. He promised Sumeet, Shiva and Me that he would take us out to dinner when we reach Coimbatore the next evening.

The group tries to photograph Malabar Grey Hornbills hiding in the bushes..

When we signed up for the extra day, none of us had imagined that the highlight of the trip would happen on that very evening. To make best use of the rains that kept pouring down all noon, we ventured out looking for Bush Frogs in the estate. After photographing some of them, Kalyan and Mandy thought it would be best to head out to the area around the 38th hairpin bend as we would also be able to spot snakes there. We drove around slowly, looking out for snakes and frogs on the road when Mandy spotted a Leopard on the culvert, crouched, in position to leap down from there. We saw it hardly for a couple of seconds before it made the leap. Mandy insisted that we drive down the hairpin bend as the Leopard would cross that stretch next. We drove down real quick and exactly the way Mandy predicted, the Leopard crossed the road and got into a small stretch of bushes. It sat there, conscious of our presence as we were parked on the road looking at the cat. With torch lights to guide us, all of us sat there admiring the Leopard for about 30 seconds. While we wanted to relish the sight of this beautiful animal longer, two buses interrupted us as a stark reminder of the habitat we have given them. We were forced to move the vehicle to make way for the buses and that’s when we lost sight of the Leopard. Driving up and down the hairpin bends again proved futile and we couldn’t spot the elusive cat anymore. None of us thought that we would find a Leopard in the rain while we looked around for frogs! Well, that’s the charm of these lands. You never know what to expect and you can never be prepared for what you eventually see. For example, every single person in the vehicle had their macro lens on at the time when we spotted the Leopard. If even one of us had a zoom lens on, we could have photographed that beauty. However, the fact that the Leopard initially emerged out of an NCF restoration plot was the icing on the cake. Personally for me, this sighting made up for the elusive Leopard that dashed away into the bushes in Kabini, just a week ago.
The night ended early, but on a very high note.

Day — 5
On our last day in Valparai, we headed out to the Athirapally forest range, which is in Kerala. As Kalyan was busy, Mandy was with us on this trip. The Athirapally forests are much denser than the ones in Valparai. This is a great route for birding too. The canopy is so thick, 10AM looked like 6PM. However, rain played spoilsport again and we couldn’t spot as many birds as we expected to see. We drove up to a view point and then got back so as to make it back in time. Apart from the birds we had already spotted during the trip, we spotted – White Bellied Woodpecker, Shikra, Pacific Swallow, Pied Bushchat (male & female), Gey Jungle Fowl, Long Tailed Shrike, Flowerpecker, Purple Rumped Sunbird and the Common Tailorbird. We were also able to photograph the shy Rufous Babbler on this day. Of course, that required us to wait on the side of the road until the Babblers thought we were safe enough for them to venture out. The butterflies we spotted here were The Blue Mormon, Common Crow, Southern Bird Wing and the Malabar Tree Nymph which is endemic to these forests. Watching the Malabar Tree Nymph fly is a true visual delight.
This was our last day trip in the expedition.
By the end of this trip, we had managed to spot and photograph nine of the twelve Hotshots. The Brown Palm Civet, Large-scaled Pit Viper and the Malabar Trogon eluded us on this trip.

Woke up everyday to the tunes of the Thrush and this lovely view..

After another ritual tea-vada stop, we drove back to the bungalow. The afternoon was spent lazing around and transferring photos. None of us wanted time to pass. We didn’t want the evening to set in, or the taxi to come. Procrastinating packing didn’t help either and soon enough it was time to pack and get ready. As we said our goodbyes to Kalyan and Mandy, we knew that this wasn’t the end. The trip ended, friendships had begun.

The group poses at Seen God.. Photo courtesy Kalyan Varma..
(L-R) Arun, Selva, Me, Sumeet, Shiva, Bala, Geeta, Avijeet, Kalyan, Mandy..

Well, I don’t know what to say about Kalyan. Even for a minute in the trip, he didn’t make us feel like visitors. He participated in the entire workshop as if he was one of us. His dedication towards the cause of wildlife and conservation is impeccable. He gave all of us individual attention and the photography lessons I learnt from him will stay with me forever!
And then there is Mandy. Quick and nimble. Mandy can sense animals. He can hear them, feel them and spot them before most of us can even adapt ourselves to the surrounding. I can’t stop admiring his traditional and acquired knowledge of wildlife and animal behaviour. Both Kalyan and Mandy left me amazed with their ability to hear bird calls, look for animals, watch out for roadkills and drive at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking!
The drive downhill through the misty roads was quite uneventful except for a beautiful sunset and we stopped to photograph the landscape. Listening to the sound of traffic made me crave for the tunes of the Whistling Thrush. Getting back to the urban jungle also resulted in a headache, which stayed intact for another 30 hours.
Bala picked us up in Coimbatore and took us to eat dinner at the Heritage Inn. While we relished a tasty dinner of Appams on the rooftop restaurant, we exchanged stories and shared our best moments of the trip. None of the people at the table had known each other five days ago. Yet, here we were, talking-laughing-joking as if we have known each other for years. Put together a group of strangers with a common interest and an addictive hobby and bam! – you create a friendship that was hitherto unknown!
If you have read through this article in entirety, please do leave a comment so that I can personally thank you for reading through. I know it is lengthy, but a five day trip, this wonderful, cannot be explained in a paragraph.
Valparai, with its animals, birds, tea estates, cloudy mornings and misty evenings, vada and tea combos, melodies of the Thrush and most importantly the works of art we created with our Nikons and Canons has woven an invisible web around us. We are deeply entangled and will not be able to get out of these strings for life.
What a holiday this has been! What a hangover it has left!

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Radha, truly outstanding account of the trip! I can't think of anything that you missed.

    I will need to read it a million times more and make other do the same to enjoy and really live the pleasures of this amazing trip.

    Somehow, I feel that this was just the beginning of a journey …

  2. A perfect account Radha… You do have a keen eye for detail I must say! It transported me back to the place for a while, too bad I have to go back to my work now 😦

  3. Aveejeet and Sumeet,
    Thank you for reading through the article.. Am glad you liked it!
    Writing this has taken me back there again.. It will take more time for me to get back to work πŸ™‚

  4. This is simply beautiful!!!

    I checked the pictures on Flikr… Its been amazing trust me…Even m getting the worth of ur Nikon πŸ™‚
    good Investment πŸ˜€

  5. Thank you Prateek.. And thanks a lot for reading through! πŸ™‚

  6. Awesome pics… looks like you are turning into a poet, photographer…… next is what???? LOL.

  7. Thank you Kugs πŸ˜€

  8. Daddyo!! Flat buttedness in ever shot..!!
    But cool trip though.. Looks like fun.. πŸ˜‰

  9. Superb stuff….As good as your verbal account and the pictures you took!!

    Am proud of you!
    Will join you on such a trip next time! πŸ™‚

  10. Thank you dear!

  11. 5 dinagala ninna experience na hanchi kondaddakkagi dhanyavaadagalu. pratiyondannu kannige kattuvante barediddiya. adakke takka nidarshanavembante flikr nalliya chaayachitragalu chennagive.

    innashtu maja madu ……mattashtu bareyutta namagu muda needu emdu ashisuva,

    PrAKoPa,
    http://www.prakopa.blogspot.com

  12. Hey Praveen!
    Thanks kano.. that msg was very sweet.. am glad you like the photos πŸ™‚

  13. one place which I'm planing to visit for a long time… donno when I'll be going there…

    long post! will keep it for weekend read πŸ™‚

  14. came here through the twitter handle..an awesome and exhaustive account of the trip!!

  15. @Rahul – Am glad you liked the post.. thank you for reading it πŸ™‚

  16. Wonderful account. Loved some pix on the flickr stream, especially the white mushrooms

  17. @Arun – Thank you! Glad you liked the pictures too πŸ™‚

  18. Hi Radha, The summary of the trip is great. IF one is a good reader he can actually visualize the scenes since the language you used was simple. I have enrolled myself for the rain forest expedition sometime on oct/nov. Hope it turns out to be a great trip like yours.

    Some questions though:
    Can a 300 mm lens do or a 500mm is mandatory? I have a 55-300mm and a 18-105 mm lens. Also is a micro lens mandatory?

    • @Sachin – Thank you! Glad you liked it, thank you for reading through! In terms of photography gear, nothing is mandatory.. You can just take along the gear you currently have πŸ™‚


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: