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03 March 2006 @ 12:45 am
Thattekad  
The short forty five minute flight down south to Kochi takes a scenic route over the hills of Tamil Nadu and Kerala before it lands near coast. It was near midnight when we reached Thattekad and we had to take a boat to reach the watch tower since there were wild elephants around. The boat was actually a badly designed canoe and our guide was actually scared to row with three people in it. After a little thought provoking moments, we decided to go ahead and take this boat. I sat in the front, Giri in the center and Maani, our guide, took his seat at the rear. The first few meters of rowing were pretty unstable but soon the three of us managed to get the balance right and we were on our way. I had a strong torch in my possession and I was using it to look around the river bank when Maani told me to switch it off since it could annoy elephants. The quietness of the moon lit forest with a clear star-filled sky were disturbed by the sound of a million toads and frogs croaking away.



The ride through Thattekad





They usually row this boat close to the bank and more so today since there were three of us. Suddenly, midway through our ride we hear elephants close to the bank breaking twigs and digging out roots. The next thing I feel is the boat doing a sharp turn to the right to get to the middle of the river. The feeling of being so close to elephants and being totally helpless on a cold winter night in the middle of a river is something which cannot be experienced everyday! The uncertainity of what could happen next is definitely thrilling, but on a bad day it anything can happen. We heard elephants all along the way till we reached within a hundred meters of our watch tower and that's where the tricky part was. The last hundred meters was a shallow averaging between five to eight feet - enough for elephants to wade at great speed. People here had been seeing elephants bathing and hanging around at this particular place for weeks. We stopped the boat at the mouth of this shallow which was incidentally under a narrow wooden bridge and scanned the area for signs of pachyderms. After a good twenty minutes, when we felt safe enough to go ahead our boatman rowed at some great speed to reach the watch tower. Forest watch towers do not have electricity and good torches are a prime necessity. I walked upto my room on the second floor of the watch tower and just dozed off for I had a sleepless forty hours before that.

The next morning I woke up to the sweet avian calls as is always the case in the jungles and looked out of my window for the first time. This place was heaven! Heavy jungle surrounded the watch tower. In front was a moist decidious patch of forest and behind was a thick evergreen shola - home to rarities like Frogmouths and Bay Owls. There was a small island right in front of our watch tower and we were warned to not go lurking around there as it was home to King Cobras! Wow. I really didn't want to mess around with the world's largest venomous snake, but I wished I could at least catch a glimpse of this majestic snake in the wild.

That afternoon, it was typical Kerala weather - very hot and humid and it was time for elephants to come to water. They had been visiting a place very close to the place where we were every afternoon and they didn't disappoint us. First the matriarch walked into the water followed by the other females and then the young ones. Between us and elephants there was no cover, just seventy odd meters of shallow water. We couldn't say if they had caught our scent, but they didn't seem to care, for they rolled and indulged themselves in the green waters of the Periyar. That's when we caught sight of a small kingfisher dive in on the other side of the King Cobra island. We went to the island to get a closer look, but then the vegetation got a lot thicker and we really didn't want to face an angry snake, so Giri decided to walk over the bridge to the side where the elephants were taking a bath and see if it was indeed the rare and beautiful Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher like we were guessing it to be. After Giri left, KN and I were watching the elephants in the water. Just then, we saw the matriarch getting out of the water and getting onto the road where Giri would be by now. KN, who is a veteran of forests and elephants, immediately messaged Giri over the wireless telling him that an elephant was on the road and as soon as he had finished the message we saw this large female running at frightening pace towards Giri!!! I'm been to the forests a lot of times, and this by large is one of the scariest moments I've witnessed. KN and I ran towards the bridge hoping that Giri had crossed it to safety and a few anxious seconds later we met a panting Giri who was excited and scared at the same time - a strange feeling of having escaped narrowly from the most powerful creature on land. Giri is another experienced jungle-goer and he had managed to predict this amazing charge just in the nick of time.

As if we were not finished with our doze of adventure for the day, we were joined by a group of forest officials later in the evening who came down to see these elephants. After they had done with their observations, two forest officials climbed onto the canoe and it was the turn of the boatman to get in. The dude first kept his right leg into the boat and the boat moved up a bit and anyone would know that it's time to pull out that leg, but this guy tried to "jump" into the boat by quickly putting in left foot in an already unstable boat and as if that was not enough, he was even standing and trying to get balance and the next thing we hear is a loud splash and we see an overturned canoe with three people swimming around it! Well, the scene was absolutely hilarious and the guys who had fallen thought so as well and there was loud laughter all around - people do see the lighter side of things here!

Determined to see more around Thattekad, I decided to go on a drive with Vijay the next morning. After several kilometers and a few villages, we came to the Old Munnar road. The road was built and used during the colonial era and is not in use now and hence it's a very good place to find some really interesting wildlife but a really bad road to drive on, which means a road fit only for some good SUVs. After we had entered this mud road we didn't meet another human being for the next three four hours. During the drive, we crossed back and forth from semi-evergreen to mosit-decidious forest and as we went deeper the contrast increased. To our left was a tributary of the Periyar and the right was dense forest, partly converted to bamboo plantations to aid tribals. Several grey wagtails and junglefowl scurried from one side of the road to another as we drove slowly and quietly through the dangerously narrow jungle roads. Every now and then we'd stop and listen for sounds of the forest. Though luck was not really with us in terms of photograph on that day, the lonely drive through the core region of the forest was really satisfying. At one point, we came across a path to walk down to the river below. We decided to take that trail down and came to the rocky banks littered with elephant dung. The place where we were standing was yet another favourite place for elephants to hang around and the view of the shallow river and the surrounding forests from this point was absolutely breathtaking. As we were heading back to the forest bungalow and just when we were thinking we will not see any interesing creatures of the forest I spotted a small hare like animal standing on the road. I had just driven round a curve and this animal was trying to cross the road and was surprised to see us. It gave us a fleeting glimpse and dashed bank into the thick jungle from where it had appeared - it was a mouse deer!!!!!! I just could not believe this, such a beautiful deer and so small that I first thought it was a hare. Wow - the thrill of seeing a rare animal for the first time is something that cannot be put in words.


The following day, Giri and I decided to take one last drive around Thattekad and someone suggested we go to the Idamalayar dam site. We really did not know what to expect, but we were not disappointed since I got some birds which I've been wanting to see and photograph for a long time now and as usual there was the most spectacular forests we can expect in these parts. That rounded off the Thattekad part, but Giri and I had a long drive to Bangalore to look forward to. We had two choices: Thattekad-Coimbatore-Salem-Hosur-Bangalore and Thattekad-Coimbatore-Ooty-Bandipur-Mysore-Bangalore. Well, no prizes for guessing which road we took! The road till Coimbatore had some heavy traffic and by the time we reached the foothills of the Western ghats we were desperate to see some empty roads and good forests. In little more than an hour we had climbed from almost sea level to about two thousand meters to Ooty and we could feel the chill in the wind. After a quick dinner, Giri took over the driving and we drove the next hundred kilometers through the forests of Gudalur, Mudumalai and Bandipur and we saw a civet cat, a really angry porcupine (my first in the wild) and of course, a few herds of elephants in real close proximity. After some slow and watchful driving through the forest roads, the empty highway from Mysore to Bangalore was a real pleasure to be travelling on. And that ended another fantastic trip, which technically was the first of the year. Good stuff.




Sleepy birds at day break



Cormorants and the Periyar river



View from my room



Shola. Documentation shot taken by my P&S camera - Canon IXY 700



Thattekad Sunset



A lonely Dollarbird



Grey Junglefowl couple



Female Grey Junglefowl running. Know why?



Look who's watching. Moutain Hawk-Eagle - one of the largest and most powerful eagles we get in India.



Emerald Dove. The ornithologists did a good job while choosing a name for this one!



A Hawk-cuckoo. There's some confusion if it's a Large or a Common Hawk-cuckoo.



The matriarch gets into the water first



The cool shower!



Giri with Maani in the canoe



In the middle of the Periyar








 
 
 
IdahoSwede: Claraidahoswede on March 2nd, 2006 07:29 pm (UTC)
How exciting and great photos as usual.
suhassuhas on March 2nd, 2006 07:31 pm (UTC)
Do you have a picture of the watchtower?
Yathinyathin on March 3rd, 2006 05:19 am (UTC)
No. It's just a narrow three-storeyed building. :)
suhassuhas on March 3rd, 2006 07:06 am (UTC)
Aah. I was imagining something on the top of a tree :P
ZuZusuzan_s on March 3rd, 2006 01:11 am (UTC)
WOW! Great pictures from a great adventure. I can't think of anywhere over here you could drive for three to four hours and not see anyone! I had no idea there are deer as small as a hare. Thank you for sharing.
sandeep: enlighteneddeepsan on March 3rd, 2006 03:46 am (UTC)
That was a wonderful read.
Have you been to the forests near Kukke Subramanya? there are wild elephants here too. We saw a lot of fresh elephant dung on the path parallel to Marigundi Hole and later when we had gotten off the path to take rest by the stream, there were twigs breaking on the path a little ahead, the silence that follows was tense but then the elephant(which we caught a partial glimpse of) decided to head inside the forest.
Yathinyathin on March 3rd, 2006 05:25 am (UTC)
Yep, been there. I think elephants are rather uncommon there and you've been lucky to catch a glimpse of one. However, it's good that the elephant was not disturbed and it was going in the other direction.


Bhavanabhavanar on March 3rd, 2006 04:02 am (UTC)
Wow I love them all but the sunset is explendid!
thejutheju on March 3rd, 2006 04:34 am (UTC)
Wow, excellent entry, amazing adventure.
smiles_tinasmiles_tina on March 3rd, 2006 05:25 am (UTC)
Awesome!!
(Deleted comment)
Preethifiveonehalf on March 3rd, 2006 11:04 am (UTC)
Wow, what an adventure! That was a great read and great photos as usual :)
shruthi_dipalishruthi_dipali on March 3rd, 2006 12:09 pm (UTC)
hey this is the first time you actually gave us so many details of
your encounters with the wild.. must have been one heck of a trip.. please do that more often.. :)

and I have to mention that I am jealous in a way coz I will never get to experience these things.. anyways.. that was a great write-up..
kejnkejn on March 3rd, 2006 03:21 pm (UTC)
very exciting!

gosh, you were three in that little canoe?!
i like the junglefowl very much, and the emerald dove is excellent. wish we had those here... but ha ha, the hawk-eagle looks like he should ask "and how many fingers am i holding up now?" :-)
the elephant shower pic is just delightful... *sighs*

are the elephants usually that aggressive? don't they give any warning signals before they charge?
Yathinyathin on March 3rd, 2006 05:10 pm (UTC)
> gosh, you were three in that little canoe?!

Yep! And in the middle of the night as well. And the guy asks me "Sir, do you how to swim?" after we had left the shores!! I was honestly more worried about my rather expensive camera gear than anything else that day.


> are the elephants usually that aggressive?

No and Yes. By nature they are calm beings but certain things causes them to be very aggressive. They are very intelligent and remember everything and especially if they have had bad experiences with humans they tend to think all humans are evil and hence attack. Our population is so big that we are shrinking their habitat and there's man-elephant conflict almost everyday. Man uses fire and sound to chase them away and hence they retaliate. They also behave differently depending on their mood and their responsibility. Males in bad mood are best avoided and the bad mood may be because of a varierty of things - similiar to us humans. Females charge when they have young calfs in their herd and if they feel we are a threat.


> don't they give any warning signals before they charge?

Yes. Most do. At first they do a mock charge - a quick three four steps with a loud trumpet asking us to back off. If we don't go out of their comfort zone then, we're in trouble for the next charge will be out to get us. We should understand that elephants don't really want to kill us since we are something that they don't eat. And very rarely do animals in the wild hurt someone if they don't eat them. Obviously we are not their food, so when they charge it's for protection, or revenge or just to vent their frustration.

There are exceptions to these rules though, when elephants just want to kill humans and go after hapless people and unfortunately these elephants are named rouges and are usually captured or killed.


Also, elephants in southern India are a little less disturbed by man compared to the northern parts of India, so elephants in the north are very dangerous to man and charge without hesitation and most of the times it's a fatal charge for the victim.

maxaudmaxaud on March 3rd, 2006 05:29 pm (UTC)
i can feel the jungle in that post. beautiful.
depontideponti on March 14th, 2006 01:07 pm (UTC)
great post, great pics..
Never seen emerald doves before....thanks for posting these lovely photos.

Yathinyathin on March 14th, 2006 01:24 pm (UTC)
Re: great post, great pics..
> Never seen emerald doves before

They are fairly common in the western ghats and also foothills like in BRT and Bandipur - have had some good sightings of them everywhere. They are extremely shy though and blend amazingly with the thick forest growth.
depontideponti on July 19th, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC)
Lovely pics of the elephants...and....these photos, which I am seeing now, in mid 2008, give me great hope, because I can see how much you have evolved since then with photography. So I think, by the time I am 80 or 90, I will become reasonably good, too...! :)