Thursday, March 05, 2009

Trekking to Tala Kaveri

A Black Eagle, skimming the treetops, slips over us in a shallow, hesitant glide, as we emerge from the verdure vaults onto the main road. It disappears over the tree line as quickly as it appeared. Its brooding, dark plumage displays the bulging reined-in power of a raptor. Its diagnostic yellow legs seem sinister in their contrast. Quickening heartbeats and a deep sense of satisfaction at this sighting encapsulate the joys of this trek. But let me start at the beginning. 

The hamlet of Bhágmandla (880 m.) is beginning to stir when we reach it at 7.45a.m. on the last day of the millennium. We had started from Peremboocolly Estate (coffee, cardamom, pepper) near Chettalli (1,390 m.), where we are staying, while it was still dark, at 6 a.m. The drive via Madikere (1,170 m.) is bracingly cold and uneventful, except for some spectacular views of the fog-filled stillness of luminescent valleys lit by the spontaneity of a lightening dawn. Pausing to admire one such panorama, we see humps of hills porpoising away into the distance in fading hues of blue as they merge with a silvery horizon. The air we inhale is as fresh as a cut cucumber, and as refreshing. 

 Entering Bhágmandala we spot some pilgrims, returning from a dip in the sangam of the Káveri and the first of her tributaries, the Kannike. "Yes, there is a short-cut to Tala Káveri. You can walk to it," informs a dripping gentleman, wrapped in a soaking white cotton dhoti, shivering in the early morning zephyr, or perhaps with the religious fervour of his cleansing! For it is 
believed that once a year, even the mother of all Indian rivers, the holy Gangá, travels through subterranean channels, to bathe in the Káveri, and purge herself of the detritus of sin left behind by an overload of repentant sinners. Such is the purity of this Dakshin Gangá (the southern Ganges). 

 A helpful police official directs us to park the vehicle in the police station's compound. I suppose that is the safest place he can think of when we tell him our plan, promising to come for the vehicle after five to six hours! While Amitabh drives away to park the car, Prakriti and I ready our packs, stamping at the cold and watching our breath hang in visible clouds as though 
we exhale steam. Soon Amitabh joins us and we start off down an inconspicuous path, leading away from the open area (used by buses to make a 'U' turn) past a school and some government offices. Here we walk under large canopied trees growing on either side of the path. A Black-headed Oriole flits from one to the other, calling as it disappears inside the foliage. Excitedly we peer into the greenery, but the golden bird has vanished. 

 Ahead is a narrow, cultivated valley across which begins the hill we've come to climb. The entire golden-yellow field is covered with stacks of the dry brown crop, neatly arranged in rectangular blocks. The rising sun lights up the entire valley like a richly textured, warm quilt. Little and Median Egrets and a Paddy Bird (in breeding plumage) peck about almost desultorily 
in the fallow field. A White-breasted Kingfisher glowers down its scarlet beak from an overhead wire, concentrating on the field below. In the distance, Red-rumped and Common Swallows appear like musical score on an azure sheet, as they perch in rows on stretches of overhead wires. A few glossy black Jungle Crows mope around for they haven't yet found a victim to chivvy. Some confident Jungle Mynas strut and swagger in a part of the field, as though optimism at the break of day is an auspicious sign! It is at least contagious, for we stride across the fields with alacrity, giddy with lung-fulls of invigorating oxygen and eager for some good birding. 

 Our destination lies a short five km. away (eight km. by the metal road) – not the sort that is reached after hiking a couple of days through uninhabited country, where even the sound of a distant engine's roar does not intrude. But we are promised a trek punctuated with intervals of solitude and top-class, deeply satisfying birding! Since there cannot be a better way of ending one millennium and ringing in another, we jump at the opportunity. 

Scarred paths 
 We find ourselves climbing a slope that is devastated. Habitat decay due to overuse of resources radiates like concentric ripples on the surface of a pond around all human settlements, and Bhágmandla is no exception. On our left, shrubs and trees have been thoughtlessly hacked for firewood. Debris of this carnage lies around on the much-used path, as mute evidence. On our right is a barbed wire-enclosed private estate with young bushes of coffee. I wonder for how long nature will allow our myopia to ravage her finiteness. 

 Taken aback by this unexpected scene we grit our teeth in helplessness and hope that the vegetation ahead is intact. Pausing to survey the damage I espy a movement in the tangle of woody undergrowth. Black-capped Babbler! The adaptability of birds is amazing! It seems like we've stumbled upon a small mixed feeding party. Four Black-capped Babblers rocket exasperatingly from twig to twig, denying me the view that is balm to a birder's soul, till one pauses, bewildered at this contorted thing with enormous eyes! In that moment I have my bird! A few White-eyes, emitting their Tanpuraesque background drone and, a male Monarch Flycatcher, brilliant highlighter-blue, are fellow-hunters. It's amazing how such dazzling birds as the Monarch do not stand out in their surroundings, like neon signs do in urban malls. There are others too, hunting behind the bush. A Tailor Bird "towhits", followed by the mysterious calls of unfamiliar birds. My peninsular birder's ear cannot decipher them. But this sense of mystery is essential for the enjoyment of wilderness. What is there to relish in life if all is known and catalogued and the uniquely human sense of wonder, lost? A lone Brown Shrike observes the scene, perched at the tip of a twig, so still in its vigil that the two seem to merge. Ahead, mercifully, greens begin to dominate browns. 

Greener horizons 
 The sound of avian arguments floats from ahead. Walking past a screen of vegetation we see a tree with a profusion of small blood-red flowers. A species of Erythrina perhaps? The entire feathered neighbourhood seems to have descended for breakfast on its branches. Prominent in numbers and belligerence are Black Bulbuls. They seem to spend more time squabbling and chasing each other than feeding. A Crimson-throated Barbet raps out his monologue from the topmost branch. Four Black-crested Bulbuls guzzle nectar among the higher branches. They belong to the southern race Pycnonotus melanicterus gularis – evident from the telltale ruby-coloured spot on their throats, as though stained in the act of stealing nectar from these blossoms! 

 An hour has passed and this seems a good spot for a bite and a steaming cup of cheer. Sandwiches, fingers of tangy sweet oranges, wafers and hot tea – and before us this amazing drama of nature. Better birding is hard to come by! 

 Rapidly approaching shrill whistles are heard from beyond the tree line. Four male Scarlet Minivets burst into view overhead, pursuing a single yellow female. They seem inflamed with passion while she seems drained of all blood! There is a temporary respite for all when they too settle into the resplendent tree. Two Bronzed Drongos traipse after aerial insects from its branches. A dashing Blackheaded Cuckoo-Shrike arrives. 

 The blossom-studded tree stands in the private estate and may have survived the axe for precisely that reason. But here is an example of its role, its vital nuts-and-bolts utility as an ecological fulcrum in the wilderness. We savour the interdependence that hums here, the co-mingling of life. In the simple act of flowering – a manifestation of its sexual effusion suffused with colour, fragrance and plentitude – it procreates with the unwitting help of other, altogether different Classes of life! Insects, birds and mammals! Unaware of their bizarre dual role in this little skit except that of the gourmand, they descend to the orgy. From flower to flower and from tree to tree they pub-hop, clandestine pollinators and dispersal agents. Its sex for some and food for others. Nature works in intricate ways. Even cyberspace pales when you begin to think of the inter-connectedness of a hundred million species! 

 With orange-scented fingertips we brush at crumbs, rinse cups and rise to proceed. The path begins to climb and the estate gives way to woods that slope away from us, affording good visibility into the canopy. The hill rises on our left, also shrouded with vegetation. Ferns decorate its dew-drenched shoulder. The path itself seems infrequently used and is generously tenanted 
with a variety of mosses and lichens. A gentle silence breathes through the world, reflected in the wholesome satiety of moist leaves carpeting the forest floor, in the companionship of duetting Indian Scimitar Babblers, in the convoy of black ants marching purposefully across our path. Conversation ceases as we realise the worth and effectiveness of other senses. 

 Coming around a bend I see a brown flycatcher perched low in the sun-dappled undergrowth. Muscicapa muttui! According to the Hornbill, 1966 (2):9, the bird was named after a favourite servant "Muttu" by the famous expert on Sri Lankan avifauna, Layard, while he was based in Sri Lanka, the Brown-breasted Flycatcher (also known as Layard's Flycatcher) leads an enigmatic, seemingly furtive existence in its peregrinations across the subcontinent from the northeastern tip to its wintering quarters in the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka. Dull brown in colour, except for a glistening white throat, a pale lower mandible and large eyes like moist dark brown papaya seeds, it seems uninteresting after the panorama of colour we've just left behind. It is confiding. It is quiet. It hunts flying insects with deadly accuracy, flitting after them in the shadowy region below the canopy, like a well-oiled avian missile. The mystery that shrouds its life, its ecology, its mysterious wanderings through our country, its stubborn insistence on inhabiting patches and corridors of evergreen and moist-deciduous forests at just that altitude – knock me onto the floor. I am non-existent in its world, except as the perpetrator and destroyer of its habitat. I wonder whether this exasperatingly beautiful, intricately mysterious world will ever forgive humanity's hard footfall upon its soil! 

 Amitabh has gone ahead, after an orange-skirted apparition. The Malabar Trogon has him thrilled to bits. Neither of us has seen one this close or so clearly. Such a perfectly square-tipped tail! Speechlessly we gape at its exquisite symmetry. At the drape and finery of its plumage. At its uncanny ability to juxtapose a bit of greenery between us. What wouldn't I give to metamorphose into a branch of that leafy hillside, and be blessed by the touch of a Trogon!  

Prakriti, tiring of the climb and impatient to end it, points out a Greater Racket-tailed Drongo. Suddenly we are surrounded by birds. Sunbirds, Minivets, Flycatchers, Yellow-browed Bulbuls, a White-throated Ground Thrush. This is another mixed-hunting party that moves through the forest in an incredible show of cooperation, understanding and, non-violence. Its members cannot comprehend such human values but have none-the-less been selected by evolution to enact them! Each species exploits a unique niche for its food. There is no transgression, no trespassing and no bad blood. 

 Near the top of our climb we emerge from the tree cover to see another estate on our right. This one has very few trees on it. The plains of Kodagu stretch to the horizon. On a lone, pepper draped, densely foliaged tree, as though clinging to the last vestiges of its disappearing world, is a White-bellied Tree Pie. It hunts caterpillars and swallows them with relish, wiping its 
beak beside it on the branch like a truant child might use a tablecloth! Then preens its feathers. I have never witnessed a better distribution of white, black, grey and brown on such a small canvas! I would love to loiter and soak up more 'atmosphere'. As I am sure would Amitabh. But there are promises to keep. 

Nature's thespians 
 On the edge of the hill's shoulder, above and behind us, is a tree that's taller than its neighbours. Five Chestnut-headed Bee-eaters sally-hunt insects from its branches. After a concentrated chase they return in a sweeping, satisfied arc to their perch where the snack is swallowed. Again and again they perform. In this magnificent amphitheatre – with its azure backdrop, its chequered earthy coloured surroundings lit by the oblique rays of a rising sun – their act is so graceful in its simplicity, so unattainable in its perfection and alas so threatened by our callousness that a mixture of emotions – rage, helplessness, futility – jam in my throat. From a branch of the same tree, cantilevered over the valley, a Golden-backed Woodpecker hangs upside-down and knocks on wood. 

 When we hit the main road, we can see the temple-complex at Tala Káveri, still about a kilometre away. It is noon and we are hungry. Perching on the parapet of the road, facing another valley, we pass around soft juicy apples, bone-dry biscuits and another steaming cup. A Kestrel wafts delicately overhead. With effortless ease she slides on eddies of thermals, surveying the 
slopes of the valley for victuals. At the suspicion of one she hovers in mid-flight, as though pinned against the blue sky. Dissatisfied, she planes away to a different part of her beat. Another hoverer, the exquisite, ruby-eyed, Black-shouldered Kite plays the nearby thermals, produced by the gradual heating of the bald hilltops. In the southern portion of the Western Ghats, forests give way to grasslands after a certain elevation. But here I suspect the denudation of these precincts by human hand, not biogeography. 

 It would be simplistic to say that the Káveri exists because of creatures like the White-bellied Treepie and the Brown-breasted Flycatcher. But they wouldn't survive in another environment without the forests that blanket these Western Ghats. And where would the river be without these trees? And us? Where would we be, our history, our culture, the very fabric of our civilisation, without the river? The presence of these birds, as indeed of all other creatures in their appropriate habitats, indicates the health of our surroundings. If we view them as traffic lights on the super highway of our un-controlled 'development'– we might avoid accidents. In their happiness is our happiness. In their survival, ours. Would you now rather say that we exist because of the Flycatcher? 

King of the river: 
The Káveri is home to the Mahseer, a Cyprinoid fish with such spunk that sport fishing aficionados make a beeline for its banks. This magnificently multi-hued, large-scaled fighting fish has a wide-ranging, omnivorous diet that includes fallen flowers, aquatic plants, seeds, insects, earthworms, molluscs, crabs, smaller fish, water-snails, and shrimps. Hundred-pounders 
were often caught 60-70 years ago, five foot monsters with 38-inch girths! The record fish was hooked by G.P. Sanderson and was estimated to weigh 150 lb! Officially, J. deWet Van Ingen landed the granddaddy of south Indian Mahseer in 1946 from the Kabini River, an enormous fish, 5'6" long with a 41" girth and a 10" diameter maw. It weighed all of 120 lb! These sizes are the stuff of dreams today, with the 20-40 pound fish found that inhabit the waters mere shadows of their ancestors. When caught, these fish are promptly released back into their waters. Nirad Muthanna of Bangalore holds the record for an Indian angler (see picture), a massive 99 lb. Golden Mahseer landed along the Kabini after an hour-long battle in September 1999. But life is not easy for the Mahseer any longer. Large fish survive only where commercial angling is allowed. Elsewhere they are not allowed to vegetate at leisure in the fertile waters of the Káveri and its tributaries, not allowed to feel the river run through them when they propel themselves upstream to spawn in slow flowing stretches of clear water. The despicable use of dynamite has devastated vast portions of the river and the life that it supports and dams prevent Mahseer from swimming upriver to their breeding grounds. 

Pittie, A. 2000. Trekking to Tala Káveri. Sanctuary Asia XX (6): 34–38.


AB Apana said...

Truly well written. More please!


Seshanka said...

Wowww!!!! do I need to say more....keep writing and I will keep reading!!!!