The Stars Beneath Us

You never know when clarity hits you in the face. I couldn’t even imagine myself realizing my true interests in the middle of a rainforest, observing the movements of an earwick. A mad nomad had brought me to Agumbe. A rainforest in the north-western part of Karnataka. Little did I know, that this journey was going to be the most important learning experience of my life. It took me a while to write this blog only because I had no idea how to compile my experience in words that would do justice.

I was warned that Agumbe would be a life changing experience for me. However, I never expected it to affect me so deeply. We were about 8 of us including Sanjeev, who was to be the one taking our work shop. He was quiet for most of the time during the journey. He did, however, tell us about a few of his experiences that made us latch on to him to hear more. Sanjeev is very active in working for the welfare of wildlife. He is a field biologist and has an amazing way with animals. He is also an amazing story teller.

The journey kick started with a round of introductions and before you know it we were talking about paranormal experiences each of us had had. It was a proper camping trip, minus the torch in the face. Everyone present in our little party was a traveller. Stories of Spain, Greece, Ladakh, etc, were being thrown around. It was really interesting to listen to all sorts of experiences.

The next day, I woke up to a thick fog outside my window. The only other thing I could see were trees, peeking in and out of the fog. I couldn’t sleep after that. The irony was that it felt like a dream, but I couldn’t sleep.

P1450551When we reached the Agumbe Rainforest Research Centre, Sanjeev hopped out of the van like a child coming back home. He immediately left to talk to his friend Sunil, who also happens to be an excellent chef. I found out later that afternoon that Sunils chicken curry was just Devine. This was where we were to stay for the next two days. We were given a brief of the rules and then left to explore. We were to regroup in an hour.

I learnt from Sanjeev of a few friendlies we had around us. Bufo the bull frog was one of them. He would sit and relax all day (often difficult to spot) in his little pond, just whiling away the time waiting for a juicy fly to pass by. Also there was Charlie (a rather egotistical rat snake), who in spite of my numerous attempts, refused to grace us with his presence. The Research centre is beautiful. Surrounded by beetle nut trees, it is settled right amidst the rainforest without disturbing any form of life there.

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An hour later I went on the best nature walk of my life. Even though the stream had dried up, the moss hanging from the trees all around us, dripped water constantly. I was reminded of the magical forest in a book I had read as a child. Activity buzzed all around me. I was listening to the sounds of the forest. Crickets humming, cicadas too, a few birds chirping everywhere. I was definitely over whelmed. Everything was interesting, and Sanjeev made it better. He explained to us about the semi aquatic plants that were still alive in spite of all the water drying up from the stream. Apparently most of the time these plants remain submerged. He spoke about damsel flies and earwicks as we saw them in their natural habitats. We saw the bleeding tree and smelt wild jasmin flowers as we walked through the stream.

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I call Sanjeev ‘Tamylan’, the wild man in the book “Children of cherry tree farm” written by Enid Blyton. He would just stoop down and drink water directly from the stream. I mean, he would shove his face directly in the water and gulp the liquid down. What was even more shocking, I found myself imitating him and loving the raw taste of water and minerals run along my tongue. I didn’t care about infection nor did I care about all the life that existed in the little pond we had sipped from.

P1450610We returned after the walk to a rather inviting breakfast. While eating I met a lot of researchers who were staying there for months to complete their research. One was studying a yellow tailed bird and the other was studying the Draco lizard. I know a little more about the lizard because I actually sat for an hour observing the researchers at work. They were studying the physics behind the flight motions of the Draco lizard. They would release a lizard on a tree where they were to take off and land a few feet away on another tree. There were approximately 8 cameras recording almost every angle of the flight. Everything was set up and ready except for the lizard who refused to work quickly. During my time observing, one female lizard even decided to take a nap because things had gone a little drab.

That evening we met Keshav who was staying at the research centre with his mother. They had come down from Chennai and were looking for some peace amidst the nature. Keshav joined us for our adventures hence forth.

P1450533After a short nap, we had a delicious lunch and left for another walk through the fields. It is here where we were introduced to the tribals of the area. We were all parched, looking for any source of water to quench our thirst, when we conveniently found a well. We took turns in drinking the cold water (a few of us even poured some on our heads), while Sanjeev told us a story of how his dog had jumped into the well accidentally. Once everyone was satisfied we met the only remaining tribals of Agumbe. They lived in beautiful houses constructed by hand. Each house was quite spacious and sturdy. All materials used in the construction were sourced from the forest. All of them knew Sanjeev and were quite pally with him. To Sanjeev, these were old friends. We had a nice chat and left to go see the sunset.

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The plan was to meet our driver on the main road after our little walk was done. He was to bring our van, pick us up and take us to the sunset point. Well that didn’t happen. He was nowhere to be found and neither was the van. Also because of bad network coverage we couldn’t even reach his mobile phone. And so, we found ourselves walking towards the point. What happened after was the kind of things that happen in movies. A truck stopped next to us and the driver offered us a ride! Just like that, he stopped a group of 9 and offered to drop us. He even helped us get onto the back of his truck. Now this was a large truck. The kind with an open back for cargo. We stood here with our heads occasionally touching the leaves from the trees whose branches were stooping to form a canopy above. The wind in our faces, everything was falling into place in my description of the enchanted forest.

But fun only comes in pockets and it was time for us to move onto the next pocket. We bid adieu to the nice man and climbed up a small hill with the best view for a sunset. We played a few interesting and addictive games while waiting for the sun to set. It finally did, moving across the sky like a dancer. We could actually see it disappear inch by inch behind the horizon. Magical.

P1450653Dinner was once again excellent, after which we went for our midnight walk. We were to spot any signs of life on the trees or in the mud. Now, Agumbe is famous for harbouring the king cobra. It is also famous for being a home to many other snakes. Just before we ventured into the depths of the rainforest, Sanjeev spotted a ‘Checkered keel back’, a non-venomous water snake. The little guy had wandered away from the water and was on solid ground looking for shelter. To my utmost shock, Sanjeev picked up the snake as if it were his own child. He cradled it between his fingers and beckoned everyone to surround him. He explained about the snakes habitat and also how to handle it. He even offered to let us touch it. Everyone did but I was still in shock and a little bit nervous, so I refrained from touching the marvellous creature. It shined brilliantly in the moon light and it seemed completely unfazed about being manhandled.

P1450663Equipped with torches, we head out for a night amidst the forest. Sanjeev had given us prior instructions on how to spot a reptile or an insect or an animal, and we set out. In the beginning, we spotted a few lizards sleeping lazily on the branches of trees or small twigs on the ground. We even spotted a rather grumpy scorpion who refused to leave its hole in the mud wall, even to just give us a peak. It was at this point when Sanjeev stopped us and asked us to switch off our torches. He rubbed his palms together and then placed them on his eyes. He did this a few times and then he asked us to imitate him. There we were, the 9 of us, standing in absolute darkness applying heat to our eyes for some reason. He then told us to walk along with him. Now, let me tell you, the night was pitch dark, I couldn’t even see my hands let alone the person in front of me. Yet, we walked a few steps before someone decided to switch on her torch because she wanted to see what we were supposed to look for. This was treated by angry hisses by the rest of us because now the entire exercise had failed. We tried it again and surprisingly enough I saw a tiny glowing orb right next to me in the darkness. It was a glow worm! I had just spotted a glow worm! This turned out to be exactly what Sanjeev was trying to show us.

P1450759After that, I became quite good at spotting animals. We saw the tree frog, its green skin and red eyes standing out on the grey tree trunk. Now this species of frog is arboreal, which means that it lives its entire life on trees. Their feet are differently shaped from the frogs residing near or within water bodies. We even saw a Civet cat, expertly spotted by Sanjeev. Now the Civet cat is known widely in the coffee industry. The worlds most expensive coffee comes from the Civet cat. These cats are released into the coffee plantations where they eat the coffee beans. They then excrete these beans which is then used to make Kopi Luwak, the worlds most expensive coffee. Weird right?

P1450613We walked and walked till we reached a big clearing where we split up to look for any life in the trees. We didn’t find anything here and pushed on. We had reached the river again and Sanjeev asked us, once again to switch off our torches. This time we obeyed obediently and applied heat to our eyes. Before doing this however, Sanjeev instructed us to pic spots to sit. I picked a nice spot on a rock near a puddle and sat on top of it. We applied as much heat as we could to our eyes, and believe it or not, once we opened them I didn’t see anything. Nothing odd or interesting popped up in my view. All I could hear were the sounds of rustling leaves, crickets and cicadas and the wind whistling all around. Just then I looked near my feet and saw a glow worm, then I saw another one, and before I could blink again I saw about 40 of them right in front of me. I had unknowingly picked the best spot to witness this. They grew in number and they looked like stars on the ground. I even sat about trying to make constellations. Hundreds of these glow worms lay right in front of us, radiating fluorescence. Magical.

We sat there for about 15 minutes admiring the silence and the sounds. Nothing stood still, everything moved about. It was 15 minutes of utter bliss. To know that there is so much life around you and you just need to look to find it, is over whelming.

P1450737The next day, Ajay, a trained snake rescuer from the research centre called Sanjeev to inform him of a rescue call he had gotten for a King Cobra. We rushed to join him, without having any breakfast. We drove down to the foothills, and met with Ajay. He is originally from the Northern part of India but he speaks some of the best Kannada I have ever heard. We reached the home of one of the locals. Excitement reeked from our group, we were going to witness a rescue operation. We learned that it wasn’t a king but a cobra none the less. We watched as Ajay and Sanjeev expertly pried the snake from its hiding place under a few tiles and then guide it into a rescue bag. After Ahoy educated the farmers a little about snakes, we set of to release it nearby.

We received another call, almost immediately, informing us of a King cobra sighting and we rushed to another part of the village as soon as we could. The snake had already retreated inside an ant hill because of the crowd it had attracted. We waited eagerly and patiently for about two hours when our stomach gave way and began to grumble. Ajay insisted to let him stay while we had our breakfast, and that’s how I found myself eating the famous Mangalore bun. I must warn you that one of such buns is more than enough to fill your stomach for the rest of the day, also be cautious because once you eat one the next follows right behind without you even realising what you’re doing. We returned with some breakfast for Ajay and the wait continued.

It was about 4 hours since we had gotten there and the King refused to grace us with its presence. I wandered around a little and found a tiny pond (actually, the remnants of a stream) and observed the various creatures around it. I found dragon flies and tiny frogs, insects taking a nice swim in the water, a few butterflies fluttering across and one big fat toad who didn’t move the entire time I was there.

P1450724P1450723Bored now, a local farmer offered to show us his beautiful farmland. He had about 50 cows, coconut trees, rambutan trees and mangosteen trees. He also grew ginger and cloves. We learnt how to remove the husk of a coconut and also how the fruits were packaged. A few of us even bought quite a bit of ginger and clove.

Now Sanjeev has a piece of land in Bangalore where he plans to keep his animals, and he was looking out for a calf for his collection. He requested our host and voilà!! He was most happy to give him one. Now the question arose of how we were planning to take this little one back home. A few quick calls granted us the permission we needed and we were off to pick our little one. It so happened that Sanjeev ended up picking the most stubborn and head strong one amongst the lot. I had the honour of naming her Martha. Now Martha gave us her all. She threw fits and tantrums refusing to cooperate, and Sanjeev patiently dealt with her. We were taking her back to Bangalore in our tempo gravelled (Van).

P1450767It had been about 10 hours now, waiting for the big guy to come out of hiding when Ajay announced that the snake wouldn’t move once the sun set. And so, after quite a fruitful yet disappointing day we returned to the research centre. Just as we sat down for a meal comprised of our breakfast and lunch (Sunil was mad at us for skipping our meals), Ajay received another rescue call and this time it was for a King who was found on the roof of the house. We rushed, and as we got closer we received information that it had now lowered itself very comfortably underneath a pile of hay stacks inside the house. I felt so important moving around rescuing animals. It wasn’t a very tedious process. Ajay walked in swooped the snake from behind the stacks and put it in the rescue bag. He weighed it and recorded its length. The house owners were nice enough to pass around some refreshments while being explained and educated, by Ajay, about snakes. We then moved our little party outside to release the snake.

P1450769One thing struck me hard, the King cobra was a large snake, definitely, but it doesn’t hiss. King cobras growl deeply. It is quite daunting actually. The mere presence of the snake is not a fearful thing; however, its presence can make even the most toughest people whither in their seats.

We had seen what we had come for and much more. It was time to come back to Bangalore. Satisfied we filed into the vehicle. Except for the indignant huffs by Martha every now and then, silence prevailed in the van, for all of us had passed out because of our exhausted bodies.

 

 

Some info:

  1. visit the ‘A mad nomad’ website at http://www.amadnomad.com
  2. photo credits go to Anshul Chaurasia and Adarsh
  • Will-o-the-wisp
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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Nice clicks and interesting post

    Like

  2. Abhijit says:

    Well written naazdi

    Like

  3. Neels says:

    After reading this, I felt like I was there with you – even shivered thinking about the cobras! Lovely pictures too ! Shall definitely try to go to Agumbe with AMadNomad

    Like

  4. Shantha says:

    Well written. Did you make notes as you were going through ?

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    1. For all the animals I saw, yes I did. For all my other experiences, I managed to recall without notes.

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  5. I love traveling with a group of world travelers who all delight in sitting around talking of places they’ve visited. Such stimulating conversation!

    Like

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