Wildernest…

I am here on the strength of a promise, the words of a friend who lured me to getaway –for just for a day, on the assurance that it would take the stress away. I do not really believe him, trauma takes away the faith, but nature I know is a great healer, and the lure of the forest leads me away, away from the all that we deem civilised – the chaotic world of the city, with its offices, multiplexes, malls, skyscrapers, factories, away from the precise routine of business, away from the trauma of life — to enter a world that is surely of another planet (else we would have destroyed it all), an undulating sea of hills and ridges, valleys and peaks, coated in various shades of green – intense and dark, fluorescent, light as a blush, as many hues as you can imagine, and those that you cannot.
No sooner than this green planet meets the eye, it disappears, suddenly, at the bat of an eyelid, cloaked by a mist that envelopes the vast landscape, like a new bride that hides its fragile loveliness, lest such lust begets it the evil eye. But she is a flirt, she is, for slowly, tantalisingly the veil lifts — a game of hide-and seek that continues through the day — to reveal the startling beauty of the landscape, green, with sudden bursts of reds, yellows, mauves, blues, pinks of humongous flowers and fruits. At each bend, from every nook, water gushes forth, occasionally a narrow rivulet, more often than not, pouring down as an immense force, slithering, tumbling, twisting, dancing over stones, rocks, moss to fall free to form a pool below. Aah, how wonderful it is to see, feel water that is free and boundless, not bottled and captive.
Welcome to the Western Ghats, a good ten hours from the financial capital of the country, and many, many worlds away. The Western Ghats are mountain ranges along India’s western coast, starting as the Dangs near the Tapi river in Gujarat and run for over 1,600 kms till the southern tip of India. The ghats are identified as one among the 25 biodiversity hotspots of the world and are home to many endemic species of endangered flora and fauna.
But of course this trouble, even paradise is not inured to problems – only a fraction of the original forest remains, mines pillage and scar huge tracts of the ghats, tea and coffee cultivation has replaced forests, roads cut through the protected areas and there are plans to damn the Vajra waterfall – that incredible fall I can view from my verandah here –and blast the hills around to make this feasible.
My station is Wildernest at Chorla Ghat where the states of Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra meet, except the no boundaries bind these forests, a carpet of green as far as the eye can see. The resort was built to forestall bauxite mining – so they bought the approach road, augmenting the land slowly over the years, with support of various groups and villagers. effectively cutting off access to the mines. It was a slow, careful process, possible with the cooperation of the locals. In that sense it is a ‘true’ eco resort, built with Australian acacia wood, an unwanted exotic tree, instead of soaps and shampoo sachets, wash your face and hair with a concoction of herbs

Mine is a fleeting visit, a desperate bid to escape personal tragedy, but the lesson I learn is there is no great escape, the demons haunt you, a constant companion, clinging on to you like a ghoul that ensures that tranquility is kept at bay. That said, there is nothing more soothing for the troubled mind and aching heart then the gift of nature. She is the best stress buster, and there have been studies that list bird-watching and communing with nature as the road to inner peace. It’s coined as ‘ecotherapy’ and is gaining round as a health aid and includes simple things like stroking a dog, swimming with dolphins, bird watching, or going for nature walks.
Gradually, over my lone day in paradise, the demons are soothed, squashed if not exterminated, as I explore this green haven. Sit by the pond, amble over the plateau, walk at midnight. It is a time of endless discovery, an introduction to many creatures that I did not know exist at all. Tiny ones usually dismissed as irritants or not thought about at all, but with lives so incredibly fascinating. Insects that glow, beetles that stink, frogs that fly, birds that cage themselves in, mammals that hang upside down to mate…
It’s monsoon, and you haven’t experienced the season if you haven’t seen it in the Western Ghats, said to be the cradle of the monsoon. The Sahyadris, as they are also known, are worshipped as the Monsoon Mountains. As the moisture-laden southwest monsoon winds sweep in from the Malabar Coast and rise above the mountain range, they release more than 2,500 mm of rainfall. But because of the deeply dissected topography, some areas can receive more than 8,000 mm of rainfall throughout the year. This produces local variations in habitat types and localised centers of endemism.
Monsoons are the cradle of life and there is no time better than the wet season to indulge in your love for nature, monsoon is the season of plenty, and nature thrives. It gifts life, not just to parched fields and bone dry rivers, but to the forest. Grasses, fruits and flowers spring forth, lizards and snakes emerge, breed, frogs deep in slumber come alive, their song shattering the silence of the hills. Ungulates time the birth of their young with the wet season so that they can feed off the young grasses, elephants feast on the succulent fresh grasses and leaves, the rains spurs the growth of fruits and seeds that primates like the endemic Lion Tailed Macaques gorge on.
So, here I am, sitting by the pond, teeming with huge freshwater crabs, and tiny fish of indeterminate variety. The song of the Malabar Whistling Thrush (called the school boy for its lyrical song) is a constant companion, the jovial whistle occasionally rising above the deafening cacophony of the cicadas – huge insects with translucent wings that create the din by rubbing their legs together. It’s a mating call, and it appears that the insects emerge after seven years of hibernation and are understandably eager to meet, mate and reproduce. Why so long, how do they survive, what sparks the urge to emerge after such a long slumber is a mystery, and I wish I had the answer to nature’s complex ways. The Malabar Pied hornbill, a gorgeous black bird with bright yellow double bill takes wing above. I can see its yellow bill flashing among the thick woods, and dwell on its weird marital life, which would raise the ire of a feminist. The female lays two or three eggs in a tree hole, blocked off by the pair with mud, droppings and fruit pulp, leaving only a narrow aperture through which the male feeds its bride. If one is lucky enough to be a close observer, the harassed male can be seen flying to and forth, carrying huge amounts of fruits, seeds and the occasional frog or fish. Once the eggs are hatched, the female breaks free of this prison and returns to the outside world suitably attired in a brilliant new plumage. They then seal the opening and together take up the job of feeding the chicks.
My reverie is broken by a plop, a tiny ripple in the pond, and if I stare hard enough I can trace a tadpole, no, not one, but two, in fact, many more in the water. I look up too see white foamy substance –looking not unlike a beaten egg — that clings to the leaves of a branch hanging above the water. This whitish substances is created when the Malabar Gliding Frogs mate, and the amphibians are careful to chose a spot that hangs just above a pool of water; the sun hardens the nest, but within a couple of days or when the rain falls, the nest loosens or dissolves, slowly, releasing tadpoles that conveniently fall into the water. These frogs remain in the top canopy of the forests and it only in the monsoons that they climb down to lower heights to satisfy the mating urge. I search meticulously frantically for this amazing frog. Not easy, for its green countenance provide it the perfect camouflage for its emerald environs, but just as I give up I watch it in flight –its ruby red feet extended to glide from tree to tree. Wow! Why were my eyes closed to such ‘lesser creatures’, why were frogs just a noisy nuisance?
A spider has meanwhile mistaken my hand for a branch and scales up the arm, it looks evil with a large black body. It’s the wolf spider, but my squeamishness is controlled by the fact that its looks deceive – their touch mildly irritates but is non-venomous, and I gently put it away. My self-control vanishes, though, at the sight of a thin brown snake whose fangs I can see inches above my head. Nirmal, herpetologist and naturalist extraordinaire shushes me up, laying a warning had on my arm. He leads me away, and soon we are both peering at the snake, and believe you me, it’s beautiful, with an incredible brown-black pattern and catlike eyes that give it the name Cat Snake. It has hooked its thin, spindly tail onto a branch and hangs upside down to lunge at an unsuspecting morsel – most likely a gecko that it can grab for a meal. She poses beautifully – it’s a female, who else would model so patiently, reasons Nirmal — as we click away. I am told to keep my eyes out for the Shield-tailed snakes – a burrowing species witch emerges from its flooded burrow at the onslaught of the monsoons, but am not lucky enough. An eel, a freshwater species, tiny and slim and slimy, emerges from its watery abode- a tiny puddle-and wedges itself under a rock.
Butterflies buzz around— hundreds rise up like a luminescent blue cloud, a lone orange fairy settles on a flower closeby, there’s another I have christened Black Beauty, obviously jet black with a single golden stripe slashed across. I spot one huge yellow and black species, as big as a not-so-tiny-bird, and I understand the largest in the sub-continent.
All this viewed through the curtain of mist, which lifts at times to let in sunlight and give a glimpse of life within.
Then the heavens open, and how! Rain falls in torrents, sheets, an incessant, tremendous downpour, but minus the pain of Mumbai 26/7. It beats anything that I have seen and experienced before, a thunderous deluge, washing the greens, flowing down the hills in new-born streams, nothing else exists but the tremendous torrent. I turn in for the night.
It’s late, or rather early for a new day when I am awakened. The rains have stopped, at least paused, and night is consumed by the deafening orchestra of the frogs. Piercing through the cacophony is another sound. Somewhere into the night, faraway, I can hear a baby cry, or is it the desperate wail of a lost pup? The moan cuts through my soul, and I get up cautiously, at a loss for action. I cautiously peer out—to see tiny green lights flashing on the glass wall – a closer look reveals a small, black beetle with green lights flashing on its miniscule bum! Others have heard the wail too, and no, it is not baby, but a Slender Loris, a species of primate that haunts these forests. It’s a beautiful, golden-brown creature, with bulging eyes, and curious habits – it sprays its urine all over itself to attract a female, and having met its mate, the couple perform the act, upside down. It’s an endangered mammal – and despite the fact it is protected by law, there is a thriving trade for exotic pets and they are killed brutally for their eyes and bones, used in traditional medicine and black magic rituals. Here, in these parts though, the primate is protected, for the locals believe it to be their ancestors.
I have never seen the animal, and launch a desperate hunt for it, trying to follow the receding sound, squishing through the puddles and sludge, craning my neck up, but it’s a no show. I can hear a quick rustle in the bushes though, close to the feet, a hare, a deer, a jungle fowl, a civet, a jungle cat, sometimes it better not to know. The torch reveals an owl, diminutive in size and exceedingly bedraggled and wet. It looks like young, and alone in this wet, cold night and stirs the maternal instincts. Am informed that I look no better, bathed in mud, and slush, damp, disheveled. The bones ache, too, but the heart, it feels much lighter as we turn in for the night.