Day before yesterday, at about 9.30 pm, my student Mr. Aarif called me up and said: "Sir, we are planning a trip to Muthanga tomorrow. We would like you to come with us. Dr. Hameed is also coming." Ok, I thought! Anyway, its vacations, and for some days I am free. Why not use it for such a journey which I always cherish?! Thus started the trip.
We started from Calicut in a transport bus at 7 in the morning. I was a bit apprehensive at the start. Its the height of summer and at a place like Muthanga in Wayanad the sun will be at its scorching high when we reach there. And you cannot be too sure of a trek! Better be optimistic, I thought. We reached at Muthanga (its a part of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary) at about 12 noon. Now.. the entry to the Sanctuary is after 3 o' clock only. So we walked along the banks of the Noolpuzha river and got content with the sight of three Malabar giant squirrels (Ratufa indica) and several Southern-plains grey langurs (Semnopithecus dussumieri). The langurs have a creamy tint to the grey coat compared to their counterparts in the Anamalais (Tufted grey langur S. priam, best seen at Chinnar wildlife sanctuary) which are more slaty grey. The hair tuft on the top of the head is also smaller and flatter. We walked for six-seven kilometres along the road and in the process crossed over to Bandipur National Park in Karnataka. But even people could never notice the change, let alone animals. How are they to know its Karnataka or Kerala?! After the exit of Veerappan from the scene, both parts are the same for the wild denizens.
We had to get a vehicle for Rs. 250 and had to dish out 250 more towards entry fee, etc, etc. There were five of us: Me, Dr. Hameed (my colleague, a PhD in Wildlife Biology), our students Aarif, Rajan and Sayid. A tribal guide, Mr. Mohanan accompanied us in the jeep. On the short trip of 75 minutes, we could not stop thanking god that we took the pain! We stopped counting spotted deer (Axis axis) very soon and started neglecting the guys who grazed here and there, everywhere. But occassionally, by the sheer magnificence of its antlers, a stag or two invited our astonished gaze. They are a sight indeed, they are like some girls who know they are pretty and like to advertise it. Here and there a peafowl (Pavo cristatus) would trot away from the nearing vehicle or try to take to wings which it not so efficiently does. Soon after the start, we were welcomed to an elephant party by the continuous calls of a Red-wattled Lapwing (Vanellus indicus). They were in a valley populated by marsh reeds and grasses called by the locals as vayal. There were eight of them, but no tusker. We could not venture nearer as the wind was blowing towards them from us and it will be suicidal to approach an elephant herd in such an open place such a way. Later, we came across a herd of 13 Gaur or Indian Bison (Bos gaurus) as they popularly called. Gaur is famous for its temper especially when calves are around. Hence we were content to watch from a distance as they moved slowly and deliberately away. At each turn in the dusty path in Muthanga, you will encounter scores of Cheetal with three or four majestic looking stags among them. More so, since the wildlife dept has dug up several ponds along the sides of the path where these animals congregate for an afternoon drink. The stags scout around here and there keeping the antler-clad head high as if they are task masters in a political procession.
The best moment of the trip was still waiting! I was hanging on the back of the jeep taking in the fresh air and scanning the forest for animals, when while going around a bend where two roads meet, I spotted some huge grey bodies to the right side of the diversion we were taking. We took the jeep in reverse towards them..and lo..there were some 14 elephants with very young calves grazing and mud bathing in a vast open area near a pond. A huge tusker was also feeding nearby. The wind this time was on our side and we could approach fairly nearer. Some 30 metres away he stood, lazily ignorant of the happenings around him, just concentrating on what he was doing. According to our guide, he had not witnessed such a magnificent spectacle in the near past, as the animals were positioned in such a beautiful landscape ready for a photograph. He was cursing himself that he forgot to take his camera. Our jeep driver kept the vehicle ready for any eventuality and was glancing continuously with a nervous eye towards the tusker. We had two cameras, mine a Nikon Coolpix 4500 which is no good for such moments. But we took as many shots of the herd as we can. I had several prior experiences with wild tuskers during my stint at SACON, Coimbatore and Chinnar and knew very well the ways of the wild and that of elephants. But my younger companions were not that experienced. Aarif got a bit more enthusiastic and was nearing the bad guy when he suddenly turned and looked menacingly towards us. He then slowly and deliberately took a stride towards the side. The path was in a semicircle and the jeep was positioned at the other end of it. It was easier for him to reach the jeep taking a diagonal path than for us..and be sure, that was what he intended to do. You have not seen how fast an elephant can run in the wild. It seems improbable to most of us novices that an elephant could attain that speed -let alone run -with that huge bulk, but you have to run to believe (only if you remain to finish the race)! Aarif was still engrossed in shooting pics, and it took some specific words from me to deter him. He was still looking confused as we hurried towards the vehicle. Probably he had not heard such words before. After safely seated in the jeep, we were more relieved to be away from the bull hearing that the tusker was in musth and he just days back had attacked and destroyed a Mahindra Scorpio which carried some tourists from Calicut. He was smart enough that we could see, but he seemed uninterested and not to care. After some initial stride forward, as he saw us retreating he remained stable and resumed his feeding. Why waste your energy on such lowly beings, he might have thought! Indeed fitting for the Lord of the Jungle!
After the feasting on elephants, we could not have asked for more. So we started our journey back. But we were greeted again by a cow elephant and her calf in a partly burnt bush. Her kin were not in view. Again we came across some peafowls and several deer and at 5.45 we came back to the entrance of the park. Our day was made!