Tiger, elephant….made in millions of years

It is not as usual in Kanger Valley National Park in Bastar. Outsiders are advised to stay outside – for socio-political reasons. I stay outside. I have reached Jagdalpur Forest Rest House previous evening.

I am excited to visit the Park – Nothing like early morning. I get up at 5.00 a.m. and all done by 7.00 a.m. including breakfast!  But no, we leave around 8.30 only – the driver arrives late! I ask him for an explanation. He is candid, “I woke up late.”

An hour’s drive and we enter Kanger from Kotamsar gate. Sampat, well known local forester, joins us. The barrier is the gateway to more accessible of the two ranges of the Park i.e. Kotamsar range. I am overjoyed to be in forest. I am hoping to see at least a spotted deer. I know it is a wishful thinking. There is really no chance. The Park is 6 km wide strip along the Kanger River. It is surrounded by tribal villages. What to say of finishing anything on four legs, locals virtually do away with anything that flies or craws as well.

I set aside the gloomy thought. I enjoy the forest. I enjoy the river. I enjoy the valley. I enjoy the fresh air. That reminds me, clean air is rare commodity in India these days. And I enjoy a cup of tea at Kotamsar FRH. Kotamsar village is located besides the FRH. Incidentally, this is the only village that is actually located inside the Park area.

I love to be in forest. I love to go around the forest. I love to feel the bark of trees. I love the fragrance of the forest. I love the smell of soil. Time and again we stop. Maybe to see a flowering bush, maybe to admire the architecture of spider’s web, maybe to look in awe at an exceptional big tree, maybe just to stroll and brood… But it has be a stroll only.

These days, as a precaution, I warn my friends in wildlife or field personnel accompanying me in advance that I have a knee problem and I cannot do any stressful climb, descend or walk. They thus, do not have expectation of me climbing Everest. They would first explain hike distance or height to be climbed / descended. Thus, the control is with me, I may say ok or sorry.

Incidentally, Kanger is also famous for long subterranean geomorphologic limestone caves.  Literature describes them as ‘these caves have very fine structures of dripstones i.e. stalactites and stalagmites. Chemically these formations are re-crystallized calcium carbonate. These structures have taken million of years to form.’

Sampat tells me, Kotamsar and Kailash caves are famous and open for visitors. While going around the forest, we reach Kailash Cave. This is not for me. They just wanted to show me the spot and forest around. Sampat explains, “Sir, its 400 odd steps climb and further walk 200 m in the cave!”

Officials accompanying, cheer me up that of these unique caves, I shall be able to do, Kotamsar Cave. It’s around 11.00 when we reach here. I am taken aback to see about a score of cars and equal number of bikes in the parking area. I could see about 25-30 tourists in the parking area itself. Across, I see a big bus precariously negotiate a sharp turn in the hill to reach the parking area. Inch by inch, going back and forth, the driver manages. The drivers in India can drive you anywhere and everywhere. Only thing important is that God should be with you. Sampat tell me as a matter of fact, “It is not a tourist season.” I wonder if this is the situation in non-season, what will be the situation in tourist season.

I have no pre-conceived notion of what to expect. I am just excited. Sampat takes me to the edge of a narrow shutter gate, down which descend steps to the cave. He asks me to wait. He will take me down as soon as the opportunity arises. I am told, and can see also, that the stairs width is good enough for one person only. It’s either one can come up or go down. On both side rise virtually steep limestone vertical walls. Soon, there is commotion of kind and there emerges literal lava of people from the cave, shouting name of the Hindu God, Shiva, Jai Shiva, Jai Shiva… In single file, up the steps are coming all size, shape, sex, and age people. The terrified look on their face, exhaustion written all over their body, perspiring … This depresses me somewhat. I try to make an assessment, and find even the young girls and boys are out of wits. The question goes around my mind, should I do it or not?

Before I can decide, the local official arranges to stop this lava of emerging people by communicating with the guides with different tourist groups down in the cave to hold the people emerging from the cave at a somewhat larger area down there, so that we can go.

After descending about 25-26 steps, which are in open, we come to the actual gate of the cave – OMG its 3 feet by 4 feet entrance! It is like the first question to answer in the examination is the toughest. There are few persons still emerging from the cave entry. I am shocked to see the way they are struggling to come out. I am sure they may not have made that kind of effort at the time of their birth even. It is not simple narrow path. It is wriggling out. It is very difficult even on all four – crawl, duck, bend, twist between jutting rocks, striking any of which can cause serious damage.

Somehow, I am not discouraged. I have full faith in my friends – Sampat and local official. As a precaution, I ask them to keep warning me so that I do not bang into anything, which means rocks only.

As if negotiating the entrance has not been the test enough, I land up a very very narrow, iron, spiral staircase with about a score of steps –rusty and shaky. I feel it may break any moment. I thank god for I am under 80 kg.

Rest is amazing. We are in pitch dark if the torches are switched off. It’s all wet. Water is dripping from walls – at places collecting in small pools. There are those limestone formations which amaze one by their varied and myriad size and shapes.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It is remarkable to see that the minute droplets carrying limestone have made shapes like that of an elephant! The size of the development too is elephantine. We pass through sections of the cave, as if passing through a museum – small circular hall, large square hall, rectangular hall with low ceiling…all decked with different displays nature has crafted spec by spec, colour by colour…

Sampat shows me the wonder of nature, it has crafted in the ceiling of one section, the figure of a tiger! I think, “Oh, if the tiger is not in there in Kanger forest, it is very well here in limestone.”

We have gone about 150 m, when my escort suggests, “sir it may be slightly difficult further down.” He shows with torch light a very narrow passage which is water logged and rough. To sooth me he tells, “the cave is similar further down.”  One feature we may miss is seeing blind fish. This species must be here for ages! It must have evolved, finding no use of eyes, it lost it. Another feature is that there is limestone formation which looks like Shivaling – the ultimate religious structure for Hindus!

I go by the advice of my friends and we start back. The most difficult part is certainly getting out of the cave at fag end. I am worried with my less flexible body, I am bound to bang into one or the other jutting rocks. I request Sampat to keep guiding me every inch. I surround my head with my hands wherever it is possible. I do not want to hurt my small brain! Of course, I do not mind going on my all four.  Ultimately, as they say god is great and I emerged hurt-less but, of course, breathless.

I am still not able to believe that I have been able to make it and see all those limestone wonders including elephant, tiger…

Pushp

Advertisements

Am I in Paradise?

I arrive at Barnawapara Wildlife Sanctuary in Chhattisgarh around 1 pm. But have I come to the right place? Have I come to a mela (fair)? There are vehicles and more vehicles, may be two hundred plus!  There are people and more people. A peek into the restaurant puts me off. It has a long queue of people waiting to eat. All eyes are on the kitchen door – every bowl that comes out, many feel, it is for me.

I am in shock. What is happening? Why? I have been travelling for various activities in the State for last 5 days and planned one day in this wilderness. In work, more so in field, I forget day, date, holiday and all that.

I meet the Director. He is not happy with all the crowd and pressure but not stressed. What can I do if there is no accommodation or food for hoards of people? The place cannot take more than a score of vehicles and say around 200 people is now swarmed with 10 times pressure!! It turns out, it is a long weekend because of festival holidays and people from nearby towns have descended to Barnawapara for some quality time. Quality time?

I have been to Barnawapara several times. First, it was almost two decades ago in 1997. What to say of tourists even wildlifers were not aware of the Sanctuary. The Range Officer, in-charge of the Sanctuary, used to visit once in a while.  During last 5-6 years, Forest Department has been focused on this wilderness with intense management inputs. Larger positive change has been due to shifting of half a dozen villages from the Sanctuary which resulted in contiguous area being available to wild animals and lesser competition from man and livestock. I myself see sea change with common sighting of cheetal and Bison. In one visit, some time back, I even see three sloth bear in different locations during one evening. I have not seen so much of sloth bear during my whole life!

There has been some confusion in the beginning but ultimately they arranged for me to stay at the forest rest house, exclusive place far from the tourist complex and disturbance.

In the late afternoon, a guide accompanies me for a visit to forest. I am taken aback by the situation. There is not an inch of forest free from tourists – All along, there is a vehicle behind and in-front of my vehicle.  There is nothing more than dust. In two hours of going around, I see just one cheetal! One only, not a herd! This animal clearly appeared confused. Maybe slow-witted and is unable to decide on a hiding place.

When the Sun is down, I decide, let us wait at one place and let all the hulla-gulla be over and when it is quieter some animals may come out. We park at tri-junction to keep an eye on the roads and see if some animals emerge but nothing because there is one or the other vehicle noisily passing. I soon notice another vehicle has stopped 50 metres behind us. It waits behind us for half an hour. They probably think that we have some trick and they will share the booty we earn after all this wait. When we start, this vehicle follows us. There is nothing but disappointment.

On my return, I stop for a while at the Director’s residence. He offers me consolation, cup of tea and hope. It cheers me up. The deal is, on the morning round, a forest official will accompany me with a bunch of keys – keys for entering the wonderland i.e. the core of the Sanctuary, which is restricted entry with barriers all around.

At dot 6.00 am we leave the complex. There are vehicles and vehicles filled to brim with colourful lots. We take one of the roads to forest. We drive slow, taking a chance for some sighting.  Vehicle after vehicle overtake us! It’s rat race. After about three km of this madness, we reach a barrier. The official opens the lock, let the vehicle in and lock the barrier back.

Oh! It’s different world. There is no vehicle or human beings. It is melody of bird songs, smell of the earth and soothing sight of greenness. Here and there we see cheetal herds grazing and in no rush. We see few sambars also.

We go around a wetland on the way. There are some water birds. I notice a crested serpent eagle perched on a pole. I look at the tell tale signs on the sandy banks. It is clear, lot of action happens around. There were foot prints of cheetal, nilgai, wild boar, peacock and what not. I am keen on large carnivore. And there I find it. Very clear foot prints of a leopard – a trail of them. Seeing foot print of a carnivore sends a chill down the spine.

Sun is just about out. Chill in the air is lessening. Little mist is rising from the ground. The dust track is not trampled as rare vehicle passes here – grass is growing all over it.

I ask the driver to stop. There is good mix forest on both sides of the road. Sun light is filtering through the foliage. It lightens up the rising mist in shafts creating unique aura. I am entirely mesmerised by the sight. Am I in paradise?

I notice that this is particular to the location. Combination of n number of factors – the time, angle of the Sun rays, light intensity, mist, foliage pattern, gap created by dust track…

I ask the accompanying party to remain quiet. I fill myself with the sight, inch by inch, spec by spec, leaf by leaf, beam by beam…

I feel I am in thin air. Nectar is dripping. A pleasant fragrance has filled the atmosphere. It’s all surrealistic. My whole self is not me.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I brood, ‘What is paradise? Who has seen the paradise? What is the essence of paradise?’ My heart tells me ‘I am in paradise. I can feel this. I can breathe this.’

And there before my eyes I see
Such beauty that could never be
Revealed in places fixed below
As set before me all aglow
Such wonders ever outward flow

  • Valerie Dohren

My whole self is elated. I am floating in a different world. This is one of the rare moments of life. I envy my luck. I thank god for showing a bit of it very clearly.

I think, my day, my month, my year, my decade… has been made.

Pushp

Birding with Trip & Todd

Delhi traffic kills, virtually. To avoid the torture, I start early at 7 a.m. Though my destination, Zorba the Buddha, is only 35 km, I take 70 minutes to reach. But still cool, going by Delhi’s standard.

Zorba is an oasis in the concrete and car jungle, one among several farm houses in the area.  As one enters the gated complex, just off Ghitorni Metro Station, it’s far from the madding crowd. The difference is conspicuously visible. It soothes the nerves. One feels, the drive all the way has been worth it.

Zorba, in fact, is an exotic location for really exclusive meetings – rustic, green and charming. Everything has been tastefully done with sense of aesthetics. This 3-4 acre farm land has been converted into conference facility with 4-5 halls of different capacity and about 15 rooms for lodging. It’s a full boarding place. Good part is, it is vegetarian only but with immense variety – it’s not dal-roti only. Bad part is the timings for food are very rigid. Dinner at 7 p.m. is too American!

We are organising a three-day international ‘dialogue on transition to clean energy’. I am going to stay here for two nights. Incidentally, I have been allotted a three-person sharing room. Frankly, I love privacy but there is limitation of number of rooms. I check into the room and find I have a choice as the other two occupants have not arrived as yet. As luck would have it, the arrangement in the room is two beds on the main floor, and there is a mezzanine floor, half the room size, with a queen bed. It’s as good as private room. Though I have knee problem, I do not mind a flight of steps. I just grab this exclusive part of the room and feel happy.

About half a dozen international participants and about a dozen Indian participants have reached by last night and settled at Zorba. I find, some friends enjoying morning tea. I meet Ravi from Vizag and Ramesh from Goa. I chat with them for few moments. I notice, some distance away, three international participants are also enjoying tea. I know two of them, Todd and Ron. I am just thinking of reaching them, when, Todd walks toward me. We smile at each other, shake hands and exchange pleasantries.  Soon, Todd introduces me to the new guest, “Meet Trip, president of EJ and my boss.” I extend my hand, warm hand shake, its huge hand! While Todd joking adds “He has come to keep an eye on us!” I notice Trip is tall, past 6 feet, innocent looking attractive face. He is wearing a sweet smile. He is old but does not look his age. I develop a kind of affinity right away.

Puhsp with Trip at Zorba

I decide to meet participants formally and informally as they arrive for breakfast which starts at 8.30. The breakfast is from 8.30 to 9.30. I grab a plate and eat leisurely while participants come and go and I meet most of them here. Interesting part of the arrangement is there are no tables for meals – chairs are put in a circle in a lawn. About dozen of us are sitting around and talking. Most of the participants are known to me. We have organised such consultations at this very place about half a dozen times during last 4-5 years.

Trip is also sitting here. He hears a bird calling persistently, probably, wanting not to be missed. He asks me, “This looks like an interesting bird. Can we see this? What species?”

I tell him, “It’s Crimson-throated Barbet, also known as Coppersmith, more because of its habit of persistently calling throughout the day, took, took, took…” I wonder at the energy level! I know the bird is very difficult to spot in spite of one knows from where it is calling – remains hiding in the foliage. I try to help Trip but in vain.

Lisa Evan joins. She is fan of my blog, ‘Glimpses of Wilderness’, and never stops praising it and even passing on some of the postings to her colleagues. She informs Trip in detail about my naturalistic interests and keen involvement in wildlife watching. I am rather overwhelmed by the praise and sheepishly say, “Oh! Nothing great, I am just sharing some of my experiences in nature.”

Trip is now quite seriously interested. He wants to subscribe the blog. I tell him, “It’s free and open access blog.” He later Google and locates it.

During the stay at Zorba we continue of talk, off and on, about birds around. I tell Trip that there would be about two dozen species here. He notices a bird in the open grassland area. I tell him, “It is a lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing.” It’s amazing that peacocks are found roaming around the complex and we can hear them frequently.

Trip and I decide we will try a formal birding in the Zorba complex itself for first half hour of the breakfast time i.e. 8.30 to 9.00, on our last day of the conference. Todd gets a hint of it and suggests he is joining too.

I for one, get ready by 8.00 to be sure that there is no rush and I am ready to straight join the conference later. This means, I am all set for birding in a formal dress meant for conference. I am old school guy and like to wear formals for meetings.

Trip & Todd join on dot, equipped with binoculars. There are old trees in the complex, more so on the boundary. Natural bushy growth, decorative plants, bamboo, palms…  The land is not plain – it’s undulating, hillocks here and dips there, and small water bodies. All this increases the potential for birds. We start from the boundary from the rooms’ side. Most conspicuous of course, is peacock, calling shrill from roof top. Across the boundary, we notice a Red-wattled lapwing, in fact one more join it. Todd takes a good look; wants to make sure that the red wattle is there. I explain an interesting part of lapwing ecology, “it nests on the ground and in case some predator approaches the nest, it would drop one wing, appear to be injured, and walk away from the nest and attract the predator towards it and flies away when the animal is at a safe distance from the nest. Smart of it!”

Caw, caw, cav, cav… “Can you hear this? This is Crow Pheasant. (I see the literature later, and it more famous as Greater Coucal these days.) It’s larger than crow, black but with rust colour wings and back. It’s found in the bushes and often comes out in open area near the bushes.” We try hard to locate it but fail. Nevertheless, I assure my friends to count this in.

“Oh! There’s a quail,” Todd points out. In fact a pair, just at the edge of a bush. On good look, we all notice that this is much larger than quail and I identify this as Grey Partridge (Now the species in India is called Grey Francolin). I have not been expecting to find this but happy to see the pair.

In the meanwhile, one, less than a finger size bird is humming in a blooming tree– I ask friends to look whether it has a long curved beak. We find the bird is female of Purple Sunbird. Male is very easy to identify with radiant and bright blue-purple-black colour while female is drab and dull coloured. Trip is excited to know about the tree species as well. I tell them it’s Bauhinia (Kachnar). Soon all the leaves would be gone and tree will be entirely flowers only, a sight without parallel.

Bauhinia

Common Myna and rock pigeon are all over. One does not feel like counting them in. Several Pariah Kites (Small Indian Kite) are circling overhead.  I notice a Black Drongo for a moment but before friends could notice, it flies away. Trip tells me, “No worry, I have seen it yesterday.”

We reach a Ficus (peepal) tree in fruiting. It’s busy place. I suspect one grey hornbill in upper canopy but not sure. The tree is packed or sure with Large Green Barbets maybe 25-30 of them – all busy gobbling maximum possible. I hear Red-vented Bulbul. Yes, few are around in bushes and small trees and some arrive at the Peepal as well. Todd has verified the red vent, as well the triangular black crest.  I want to be doubly sure, am I watching white cheeked bulbuls? I could see long curved crest and white cheek as well as coloured vent. Interesting, I have not expected this as well. (Incidentally, later when I consult literature, I realise that this is Red-whiskered Bulbul or Crested Bulbul.)

We move to a small pool and for sure, a White Breasted Kingfisher is holding the fort. Trip has seen this species yesterday and in his search online, found another similar looking bird. I have suggested it can be White Breasted Kingfisher and he agrees now, “This is the one”.

It’s nine. We need to finish, otherwise we may miss the breakfast, while the birds are enjoy theirs. At the last leg, I show my friends common babblers. I amuse them with the story that they are called seven sisters (Sat Baheni). They are found and go around in a group of about seven birds!

I notice another species of Myna – Brahminy Myna. I show this to friends. Soon, Trip points to a barren pole like stem of a dried tree with few holes at the top end. “Are these some bird’s nests?” Before I form an opinion, a Brahminy too decides to explore the hole and it results in fierce drama. Within split second a Coppersmith emerges and strongly attacks the Brahminy. We notice, Brahminy, a much larger bird, is clearly in shock and meekly flies away and settles on a branch way away from the danger zone. Coppersmith sits on a naked branch, virtually puffing its chest and flexing muscle, telling one and all “I remain hidden in foliage does not mean I am meek. Anybody who dares to come near my nest will have it.” We decide it is better to leave and not get caught in cross-fire.

Pushp

 

 Post Script

Birds We See at Zorba 

Red-Wattled Lapwing – Vanellus indicus

Large Green Barbet or Brown Headed Barbet (Psilopogon zeylanicus)

Crimson-throat or Crimson-breasted or Coopersmith Barbet – Psilopogon haemacephalus

Myna Common – Acridotheres tristis

Brahminy Myna or Brahminy Starling – Sturnia pagodarum

Peafowl – Pavo cristatus

Grey Fracolin (formally Grey Partridge) – Francolinus pondicerianus

Rose Ringed Parkeet – Psittacula krameri

White Breasted (or throated) Kingfisher – Halcyon smyrnensis

Black Drongo – Dicrurus macrocercus

Pariah Kite, now known as Small Indian Kite –  Milvus migrans govinda

Purple-rumped Sunbird – Leptocoma zeylonica

Common Babbler – Turdoides caudata

Red-vented Bulbul – Pycnonotus cafer

Red-whiskered Bulbul or Crested Bulbul – Pycnonotus jocosus

Rock Pigeon or Rock Dove – Columba livia

Crow Pheasant now known as Greater Coucal –  Centropus sinensis