Saturday, June 19, 2010

Mistifying Masinagudi

Its Saturday again..., I had promised my wife that I will drop her at her home today. She had her things packed and asked me to pick her up  in the afternoon. I was idling around with the latest issue of Better Photography when Mohan called. Even before I answered the phone I knew what he was going to ask: a wilderness trip, what else?! Last several weekends he had called and I couldn't say yes, for various reasons. Its Saturday and we will be having only a single day on our hands for this trip. More often than not, our well thought-out plans  seem to vanish into thin air once we get in to the car and get going. If we  agree on going, only by Monday I can hope of touching Kerala soil again. Yes, as it often occurs to me, my decision was spontaneous and I said Yes!
            Anyways, I haven't got enough chances of trying out my new cam, a Nikon D80 digital SLR. Moreover, I needed a walk in the jungles very badly. It was 8 pm when I could finally take-off to Nilambur fully assured that I will be sleeping this night out at Mohan's place. But once at Manjeri, I suddenly changed plans. Abhilash was all alone at home and he needed company. Off to his hut at Mullanpara (famous for the Rajmohan Unnithan episode) where I watched Braveheart for the rest of the night sipping the purest grape wine  (Abhi says so, but it tasted sour, says its sugar-less!) specially imported from the US and munching on Cadbury's Fruits & Nuts chocolate, also from US. Plan was to start the journey at 4 am from Nilambur. Mohan wanted to reach Masinagudi early in the morning so as to film the mist-laden jungle in its full glory.
           Though it was only a short cat-nap of 3 hours, I woke up refreshed and ready at 3 O' clock. It took me only a while to get going and my Alto reached Nilambur in no time. Mohan was waiting and the journey began with a tea at Vazhikkadav. Nadukani Ghat road was its usual self: dark and silent as if hiding some deep secrets underneath its greenish veil! Among other things, we discussed  about the way in which newspapers presented the wild fire that broke out last week at the Gene Pool Project site in Nadukani. "Elephants, gaurs, bears, leopards and tigers were seen running helter-skelter to escape from the raging fire, said the forest officials" was the exact phrase used in news papers. What a sight it would have been, bad luck..; hey, I was tempted to ask, were they all sleeping when the fire broke-out?
           We passed Gudalur town on the NH 67 as the sun was slowly getting up from its slumber. The town was getting ready for the day. Another 18 kilometers and we will be at Theppakkad where the reception centre of Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (now a Tiger Reserve) is situated. We stopped for a tea near Thorappalli check-post on the border of Kargudi range of Mudumalai reserve. The guard at the check-post seemed to be in two minds looking for some quick bucks: stop them or not! But I didn't even give him a thankful look while we passed under the rope with no concern whatsoever for his presence. Be alert, we are entering wild country!
           What greeted us into the reserve was the sudden bleating of a lone Tusker somewhere off towards our right. We knew how to respect strength and here was the most powerful creature of Indian jungles. Its my kingdom, you better be aware of that: the hidden giant seemed to convey his message well and clear. Moving on slowly and watching for any movements or sounds, we couldn't spot any wildlife for some distance. "I don't know why, these forests have gone dry for the past few weeks", said Mohan. "May be due to the night-time traffic ban" was my reply. At night, herbivores find the banks of the road the best place to be safe from predators as it is always bustling with traffic. Lights and the noise generated by the passing vehicles seem to disturb the carnivores and due to the ban, nowadays the highways have ceased being the deterrent for predators which they used to be! Its only an explanation I cooked up, but perhaps it might be the truth! In spite of this, the traffic ban  could have succeeded in achieving its original goal, that of reducing road-kills effectively, I hoped loud!
          Mohan soon spotted an eagle sitting on a high perch some hundred yards to our left. Could be a Honey Buzzard, or is it a Crested Serpent Eagle? In the dim light of dawn, we could only see it barely better than a silhouette and by the dark colouration of its body and the slight crest on the back of its head, I thought it must be the Serpent Eagle (Spilornis cheela), a common resident of these jungles. 
         After a seven kilometer drive from the check-post, we reached Theppakkadu at around 6.30 am. By that time, the place was bustling with tourists. Theppakkadu is a tri-junction, drive straight and you will reach Bandipura Tiger Reserve in Karnataka and to Gundlupet and Mysore (90 km) beyond. If you turn towards the right here and pass over that narrow, rusty iron bridge across Moyar river, the forest road leads to a quite village town called Masinagudi, on the northwestern foot of the Nilgiri Hills (Blue Mountains). The ghat road from Masinagudi via Kallatty will take you to Ooty, the queen of hills, over 36 hair-pin bends traversing dense natural forests.
          Masinagudi recently was in news for all the wrong reasons. The first being the elevation of the sanctuary to tiger reserve status. The Government of Tamil Nadu declared Mudumalai as a Tiger Reserve in 2007, under section 38V of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, in an effort to help conserve the dwindling Tiger population. Subsequently, about 350 families living in the core area have been evicted from the park. Those in the 5 km buffer area around the park fear they too will be evicted and mass agitations have followed which still haven't fully settled down. Secondly, Wildlife activists believe that the construction activity of the proposed multi-crore Neutrino Observatory project at Singara, Masinagudi is likely to have significant impacts on local wildlife. The five-year work plan, high volume of debris and waste, blasting activities, extensive vehicular traffic for material transport and a large number of outside workers and their support infrastructure... all threaten to disrupt the wildlife corridor on the Sigur plateau, including Mudumalai Sanctuary, connecting the Western ghats and Eastern Ghats. The  serious implications of the project becomes clear when we study the significance of this corridor: 25 percent of the Asian Elephant population use this corridor for their annual migratory movement.
           Masinagudi was always a place dear to my heart: its here where I had my first leisurely glimpse of the Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus മടിയന്‍ കരടി) mother with a cub, where I watched a Blackbuck  (Antilope cervicapra കൃഷ്ണമൃഗം) family of three which, I was told is exactly half the remaining population of blackbucks in these jungles. It was near Masinagudi forests where I had my only fleeting, out-of-focus glimpse of the Tiger and where I hoped to see him again!
          As we started our drive towards Masinagudi, the banks of the road had become literally flooded with Peafowls (Pavo cristatus മയില്‍) of various ages and sizes. A short photography session followed, thoroughly enjoyed by both the photographers and the subjects. It was as if the Peacock takes pride in its colours and shows it off for whoever there is to watch and whenever it deems fit! What disturbed our modeling assignment was a slight movement on the bank of the road. Upon a closer look, it proved to be a Hoopoe (Upupa epops ഉപ്പൂപ്പന്‍) which was hitherto effectively hidden from our eyes by the earthen mound on the roadside. Even if the bird was in front of our eyes in full view, I don't think we would have noticed owing to the plumage colour of that bird which so effortlessly merges with the red soil and the brown leaves upon it. A pair of them were there and they flew off after pecking around for a while, unaware of our curious gazes. 
            Reaching Masinagudi town, we decided to drive on in the direction of the Moyar Gorge. Moyar River Gorge, also called the Moyar Canyon or Mysore Ditch, is a dramatic 20 km long gorge dug out by the Moyar River which plunges into the gorge  below in a roaring 260-metre deep water-fall popularly known as Moyar falls. The view of the chasm cut by the Moyar as it hurtles down to empty itself into the river Bhavani is breathtaking. I still remember the day when I went into the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board premises with my students from Farook College unaware that we needed special permission to go near the gorge. People there scolded us mildly, but seeing that we meant no harm, they let us have a look-around of the gorge from the Winch station. Wow, that view I will never forget, I haven't yet seen a geographical feature so captivating!! You can see the plateau on the other side of the gorge spreading away for miles, and in between us and the other side was the monstrous,  dark & deep canyon stretching across as far as eye can see! The Moyar river that flows below acts as a boundary between the Mudumalai Sanctuary and the Bandipur National Park (Karnataka).
           To get a full view of the majestic gorge, you have to drive down till Surgeshaft, 11 km from Masinagudi and take a winch till the Moyar power station (a journey of 20-25 minutes). The winch is run by the TNEB to transport staff to maintain the pipeline that supplies water to the power station.  One needs prior permission to board the winch.
           Driving down from Masinagudi village towards Moyar, we kept our eyes open to track any animal movement on the grassy patches that line either side of the road. Every time the dry grass rustles in a sharp breeze, we watch intently, hoping to catch the glimpse of a Sloth bear or a Gaur (Bos gaurus കാട്ടുപോത്ത്). But all that meets the eye are herds of Sambar deer (Rusa unicolor മ്ലാവ്), Cheetal (Spotted deer Axis axis പുള്ളിമാന്‍) or scampering Mongoose (കീരി). We scarcely came across any traffic and hence we pursued our vigil with renewed enthusiasm fully assured that nothing was going to disturb our watch-out. The country around is mostly open grassland interspersed with thick bushes and heaps of rocky boulders as well as some small trees here and there. It looked an ideal habitat for sloth bears. Mohan said he had his only encounter with a Hyena (Hyaena hyaena കഴുതപ്പുലി) on this particular stretch. Soon, I saw three huge Wild Gaurs looking squarely into my eyes from about 20 feet off the road towards our left. They stood there for sometime so that Mohan and myself managed to shoot some satisfying pictures of these magnificent beasts. Their huge black bulk packed with bulging muscles glistened in the rays of the early morning sun enhancing their charismatic aura. They wandered off effortlessly after watching us curiously for some time. Now, Mohan focused all his attention on photographing a Scaly-bellied Woodpecker (Picus squamatus) who had just settled on a low thicket to our left. Mohan didn't have his telephoto lens with him and used my Nikon D80 with the attached 70-300 Nikkor lens. I was happy to get the camera tested by a professional like him.
          We went upto the entrance of the TNEB premises and decided to turn back. As we haven't sought permission, we decided to settle for a view of the gorge from the plateau near the Chikkamman kovil, 11 km from Masinagudi. The temple premises were deserted, no human being in view.  Its a simple tribal temple with only two or three built-up structures. The gorge was visible alright, but the view was disappointing for me, not anywhere near the first! We started back to Masinagudi and drove as slow and cautious as we had come. We encountered Cheetal herds here and there and some occasional Sambar. As we neared the bend where the last time a lone tusker had chased our car, a mongoose was standing in the middle of the road inspecting something.

         I put the brakes on and approached it dead slow. He was an adult Ruddy Mongoose (Herpestes smithii ചുണയന്‍ കീരി). This guy was cautiously inspecting a large snake lying on the road. It at first appeared to me like a Russell's Viper  (Daboia russelii ചേനത്തണ്ടന്‍) and looked long-dead. Was dead alright but wasn't a viper as we soon found out. It was a young Rock Python (Python molurus പെരുമ്പാമ്പ്‌) unfortunate enough to encounter some speeding vehicle. We were pretty sure the snake was not there when we passed about half an hour earlier. Our mongoose friend appeared stubborn and very eager to make a meal of it. Even when a transport bus approached from the other side, he didn't budge. He had already pulled the bulk to the right bank of the road opposite us and was smelling and biting at it as if not sure whether the snake was dead. Our presence just ten yards away from him didn't seem to bother him a bit. 
          It was an excellent opportunity to observe a wild animal at its meal at close quarters and photograph him as we willed! Sometimes biting at the tail, sometimes going in circles around the corpse, and dragging the snake to a more suitable place to eat, the mongoose seemed forgotten that two human beings were watching his every move with wide open eyes. A passing jeep disquieted him and he left the corpse and scampered off behind a bush. I decided to take a closer look at the snake then, and found that its abdomen was open and the stomach contained an intact rat probably eaten just before it got killed. May be the food in its stomach weighed him down and made his progress slow as he crossed the road. We thought it better to leave the mongoose in peace to have a hearty meal!
             The time was well in to the day now, and we were feeling a little bit hungry. Our minds were full, but our stomachs were not! Let's continue on the search for our little pleasures in the Masinagudi wilderness, but not before we have our breakfast!!


  1. Let's continue on the search for our little pleasures in the Masinagudi wilderness, but not before we have our breakfast!!

  2. Oh ... the pleasures that only MEN have rights for!!!

    .. and what happened to Laila's plans?? You dint leave her at her place??

  3. Nisha,

    I am not saying only men have rights for these, but its true men feel free and liberated when they are not with a woman....hehe!

    I started late only because I had to go to Tirur to drop Laila before going to Nilambur.

  4. you story is good, and i would like to see some pictures of masinagudi in your blog...

  5. This story has been published in the 2010 College Magazine of Govt. College Kodanchery, Kozhikode. Had its share of controversies, by the way!

  6. Thanks for sharing such a significant information. Masinagudi situated in the foothills of the Western Ghats,blissfully blessed by Mother Nature,an asylum for the wildest of the wild animals.


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