Trekking through the wild –an adventurous experience like no other
It Happens… Or was it decided? (22 July 2013)
Messing up with the three-inch long instrument called ‘GPS’ in the morning I thought this orientation trip is going to be a tragedy rather than fun. Neither was it exciting for me to go to Landsdowne and Corbett since we had already been to the adjoining Rajaji National Park. I could never imagine that this trip wouldn’t be like any other…
The weather was clear and we, the team of twelve students, five teachers and trackers reached Saneh forest rest house by midday. DFOs of Kalaghat TR Division and Landsdowne Forest Division briefed us about their activities in respective working areas. The Kalaghat TR Division falls under Corbett TR and it also includes Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary. The Landsdowne Division, on the other hand, is not a protected area but a territorial division comprising of four ranges, extending from Kotri Range adjoining Corbett to Laldhang Range adjoining Rajaji. So, essentially this division is a corridor for many large mammals including the tiger. The tiger movement is periodically recorded in the camera trap. The Landsdowne Division is rich in wildlife like elephants, bears, leopards, ungulates etc. The talk further extended to the tribal community called ‘Gujjars’ residing in the forest. Seemingly a forest dwelling community, yet the Gujjar problem is no longer trivial since huge political intervention is there meddling with the departmental activities. Their lopping and cattle grazing had shifted from a sustenance level to commercial level due to intervention from local people. The ‘one panchayat’ system was still in effect even though there are 327 of them. Added problems of tiger poaching by ‘Bavaria’ tribe, human-leopard conflict, illegal mining etc. make the management of these forests a Herculean task for the officers.
We started to trek towards Kolluchaur in Kotri range of Landsdowne; the massive Bombax ceiba tree and the shady Cretiva religiosa and Mimusops elengi trees were standing near the forest office waving good-bye to us…A peahen flew up giving us the green signal and the Indian Roller gave the loud metallic call. A tiny fellow was trying to make himself distinguishable from all the hubbub; it was the Five-striped palm squirrel.
The mules were carrying our backpacks. Crossing the first stream which was muddy on one side and sandy on the other, we entered into the forest surrounded by Oroxylum indicum tree or the Indian sword tree whose inflorescence quite resembles the medieval swords. The river banks were infested with the weed Parthenium hysterophorus. We followed the trail along the river distinguishably marked by riverine species like Albizia procera, Acacia catechu, Holoptelea integrifolia, Limonia acidissima etc.
We crossed the ‘Kollu’ river. I tried to identify butterflies and a few of them like the common emigrant, common grass yellow, common mormon, psyche, common crow, striped tiger etc. showed up. The Kusum (Schleichera oleosa) trees hid its colourful young leaves within. The Indian Grey Hornbills made an occasional appearance. In between, we were crossing many streams and the water was muddy, must be raining uphill, I thought. I was delighted by the sight of the Grey-headed fish eagle. Again I was interested in a new species of Jamun, Syzygium hymenium with larger and broader leaf, unfortunately without fruits and the Haldu or Haldina cordifolia with horizontal branching and large leaves. The Anogeissus latifolia trees were heavily lopped. The trees namely Bischofia javanica and Hymenodictyon excelsum were used by tigers to mark their territory due to their soft bark. I was enjoying the walk since it was not humid.
And the apprehensions came true, it started raining. I wrapped mine and my friends’ precious equipment in the polythene bag. The sightseeing was almost over and it was all about survival thereafter. We had to climb up the slippery hills to avoid crossing the rivers. It reminded me of how unpredictable these rivers are and the soil was so loosely bound that everything reaches the river after a shower. And finally, we had no choice but to cross a river to reach the camp shed. It was both daring and stupid. The water was too deep and the current was strong. I still don’t know how I jumped back into the river, after reaching on the shore, to save my drowning friend. I was almost numb when I reached the river bank. I had lost my spectacles…the thought of living in this jungle without glasses for next few days literally terrorized me.
Soon after, we reached the camp shed at Koluchaur, all wet but safe. A cup of hot tea seemed like soul food. I thought to myself ‘What I have seen in Rajaji is just an iota of this experience.’
The ‘Blindie’ is Not Bad After all (23 July 2013)
The following morning, the non-stop cackling calls of white-crested laughing thrushes brought back some of my senses. Struggling through binoculars, I got a glimpse of the beauty. The coppersmith barbet and the lineated barbet were also proclaiming their presence. We soon set out for Chaukambb, our next destination. While trekking, I noticed the abundance of Mallotus philippensis trees in this forest. The stream sides were infested with Lantana camara and Parthenium hysterophorus. To my excitement, I saw the King vulture for the first time in my life. The once most abundant scavenger sitting lonely on the snag saddened me.
While crossing the next river a pair of Golden jackals (Canis aureus) made a quick appearance. Soon the forest changed into grassland, well not grassland actually but a Parthenium-land due to overgrazing. Even the small waterholes were occupied by Chromolaena sps. Yet the place was a habitat for quite a few birds like Blue-bearded bee-eater, White-throated Kingfisher, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Baya Weaver, Small green bee-eater, Paradise flycatcher, Brahminy Starling, Spotted munia etc…Most of the birds were silent and only the Indian Pitta made the loud shrieking call which I could recognize. The valley was surrounded by hills and to my astonishment, the silhouette of the trees on top appeared to be skeletonised, without a proper crown. Wonder why?
We again entered the forest trek path, lined by Calicarpa heterophylla. My taxonomical experience stretched out from the finely toothed leaves of Ehretia acuminata to the yummy taste of Antidesma diandrum leaves to the acrid smell of Kattunarakam dumetorum. Sal trees were found scattered throughout the forest. Now we are between the hills and I saw those skeletonised trees close by, they were heavily lopped Anogeissus latifolia trees.
The ‘what?’’ question by Bivash Sir haunted me all along the way. I tried to tuck in as much as I could in my mind, whether it’s the long petiole of Sapium insigni or the sweet smell of Aegle marmelos leaves or the pungent smell of Murraya paniculata contrasting to its cousin M.koenigii’s pleasant smell. The Malvacean tree Kydia calycina, the liana Bauhinia vahlii and the broom grass Thysanolaena maxima were very interesting. The occasional call of drongo cuckoo and hornbills reminded me that my birding is still poor.
While climbing uphill, we noticed on the other side of the river, the bare hills with soil exposed. These were the rich mineral sources for animals like elephants. Further up, the vegetation began to change with Himalayan elements interfering like the Pinus roxburghii and Salix alba. The ground vegetation became thicker. While the muddy-walls were occupied by Saxifraga ligulata and Colocasia sps, the trek path were covered by Oplismenus compositus and lined by Urena lobata.
While moving from hill to hill we had to cross the rivers including the Mandalti river; they were still angry. The Chaukambb camp was located on top of a hill which I felt as a kind of secondary vegetation. Later that afternoon I tried to identify the specimens I collected. I drew a few diagrams. At night we had a short trekking to the forest, lead by Karthik Sir. We spotted a couple of frog species like Hoplobatrachus tigerianus and Sphaerotheca maskii. Sambar and Chital peeped between the trees to see the invaders. Even to my poor vision, the moonlit forest was so beautiful. I closed my eyes and soaked into sounds of the forest…Amazing!
When it Rains in the Forest… (24 July 2013)
We set out for Haldupadavu early in the morning. I walked through the finest tiger habitat in the country and entered Kalaghat TR division. White-tailed nuthatch….Woodfordia fruiticosa…Small minivet…Toona ciliata…melancholy of their sounds filled my senses. The trek path was clear and any animal tracks could be easily seen. It was no wonder that the Royal Bengal tiger left so many pugmarks behind in such a fine habitat. From the square shape of pugmark outline we assumed it as a male tiger.
The common hawk cuckoo was quite feverish today that its loud calls became a little annoying. We were walking along the ridge of the hill, from there we descended down. Tracks of Sambar, Barking deer and Chital were seen all through the way. The Elaeodendron glaucum, Flemingia stricta, Dalbergia oojeinensis, Flemingia stricta, Randia sps. trees all were new to me. We finally reached a point where the catchment of Mandalti river ends and that of Palain begins. The small streams in the forest are the only source of water for animals in summer. The forest floor was very damp and at many a places small ‘dug outs’ were seen; Indian porcupine- they are targeting the tubers, especially Millettia auriculata.
The day belonged to woodpeckers…I saw the lesser yellow-naped woodpecker on the snag, the large Great slaty woodpecker and we even got a chick of Fulvous-breasted woodpecker. An interesting tree, Phoebe lancelata was seen all through the river course. Some damselflies were merrily flying around the river…and it started raining. The hills were covered with lush grass of Imperata cylindrica and the vegetation dominated by Shorea robusta- an ideal habitat for sambar deer. The forest in these areas was well managed before, for felling, so that the canopy is very open. Walking through the slippery hills, I was far behind and left alone. The dripping sound of raindrops on Cissampelos leaves, the cold water gushes in the streams, the smell of mud, the bowing young trees filled with water in their heads, the splashing of water in boisterous rivers….rain is something else in the forest.
Afternoon we reached the plains covered with tall Parthenium. Interestingly in between there was Cannabis sativa plants with flowers. The rivers here are well tamed and shallow and I wondered why so many colourful stones are there in riverbeds. We reached the Haldupadavu rest house and within no time I went to sleep.
Mistwalk or… Walking Barefoot (25 July 2013)
The Haldupadavu got its name from the presence of so many Haldina cordifolia trees. We were going to Khandikaal. The lesser fish eagle made the first appearance followed by the crested serpent eagle. This was very hilly terrain and is a sal dominated patch. The distinct call of oriental pied hornbill echoed through the hills.
The undulating hills shivering in the mist reminded me of the Jim Corbett books. Before enjoying too much, my floaters damaged and I had to walk barefoot for the rest of the trekking. I was delighted to do that…it’s wonderful to connect with the Earth, specially in nature, when you feel what tiger feels while walking! I was not trying to study new trees but distinguing what I had already seen. The Sterculia pallans & Sterculia villosa the former with 3 lobed leaves and the latter 5 lobed, Kydia calycina, Holoptelia integrifolia, Hymenodyctyon excelsum & Sapium insigni the former with red midrib and the latter having latex, Mitragyna parviflora & Haldina cordifolia the former with inter petiolar stipule and the latter with clustered leaves,Semecarpus anacardianum & Careya arborea the former not serrated and the latter serrated. On the way we saw the tiny Uperodon globulosus frog.
The view from the watchtower was exhilarating; we saw the Ramganga reservoir lying between the misty mountains. Tiger scat with porcupine quills and a whole foot in it! The best part of the trekking was sighting of the collared falconet, the tiny fellow with a funny shrieking call.
After reaching back at Haldupadavu we went for a bath in the river, the Hanuman langurs were playing around and later, to the birders’ delight, we saw the Stork-billed Kingfisher with nest, the largest, Crested Kingfisher and the spangled drongo. While going to sleep that night, I was thinking, how pathetic my knowledge about these forests was as I am exploring more and more.
A Mind Full of Questions… (26 July 2013)
The following morning I was wondering why my GPS map looked like a solar constellation, probably I might have forgotten to switch it off last night. I am still not used to this. I was so ignorant about the trees standing near the camp. Buchanania lanzan or chironji, Miliusa velutina or the dom sal (its leaves resemble sal leaves), Ficus roxburghii, Ehretia laevis, Cordia dicotoma all of them were near the camp shed. We started trekking to Lalbagh region in Palain range.
The massive Pallas’s fish eagle was sitting elegantly on a snag. While crossing the shallow stream we could also see otter tracks on the sand; both footprints and tail mark. Why can’t they just show up? We saw fresh elephant dung, they were passing by, yesterday. How can they move so silently? The exotic Ricinus communis and the Glycosmis pentaphylla were new faces. I was wondering why most of the plants are not flowering now. White-crested laughing thrushes were again noisy along with melodious song of black-hooded oriole. The hanging pendulus nest of Baya weavers was a delightful sight. Unlike many other birds, they were breeding during monsoon. Intriguingly, I started recognizing some species associated with the ecosystem; the loud echoing call of oriental pied hornbill was something that I expected when we entered into the woods. Why are they being so specialised while some others are not? Same was the case of certain riverine trees. Seemingly even the ecosystem itself is stratified.
The Perilla frutescens and Ipomea quamoclit were new understorey plants. Even the understorey plants change; at some point it was dominated by Urena lobata while sometimes by Millettia auriculata and other times by grasses and herbaceous plants. I was disappointed because we didn’t get to see the Maroon oriole except its sweet call. The velvet-fronted nuthatch gave us a show. These birds seem to be associates like trees while foraging. Where you find a bee-eater you find a flycatcher, where you find an on oriole you find a minivet and where you find a raptor you find no one nearby! I felt that it’s not just their food that determines the groups, rather how they find the food, how different is their body size, their self-defense skills, whether they are single or in groups; all seems to have an influence on their co-existence. On the way back we took bath in the Palain river.
Later that evening Suresh Sir explained how to identify bird feathers from their size, shape, colour etc. We got a Kalij pheasant feather. We had a nice discussion on a bunch of books that we, students should read. I had almost forgotten that we were on a tour. It was my last night there and that wasn’t a good feeling.
Nothing Left But Footprints… (27 July 2013)
Walking in the forest is not always nice as it is written in the books. You will often forget to notice half of the things out of exhaustion and hunger. You can’t brood over something for too long, for it’s a jungle and you have to be alert. You have to battle with the elements- the rain, heat, humidity and more. It’s worse with helpless poor vision. Yet the five days were so remarkable for me, for it was not just learning but feeling this wilderness.
Crossing the Palain river we were on our last trekking. We were headed towards the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary. A pair of oriental pied hornbills were souring in the sky, making the landscape a bit dramatic. Such a beautiful bird! It seemed that the final day was hosted by raptors, for we could see the Changeable-hawk eagle, Oriental oney-buzzard, Crested serpent eagle, Pallas’ fish eagles – all not too far away. They were not ready to give this glorious day to the minions like Great tit, Velvet fronted nuthatch, Oriental white eye and Small minivets, who were desperately trying to make a show. On one instance, we could see Changeable-hawk eagle and Oriental honey-buzzard soaring together! And it was revision time for me. I tried to identify each of the plants that I had already seen. In between, I got new species like Securniga virosa, Bauhinia retusa, Erythrina suberosa etc. The Terminalia chebulaleaves without petiole were fallen on the ground. They were signs of langur feeding on them.
After three hours of trekking, we reached the entrance of Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary. The college bus was moving up from the valley through the winding roads and I was lying down, thinking…this time I couldn’t quite see the forest, but I heard it, smelled it, touched it and felt it…How can one not marvel at this beauty even if visiting for the 1000th time?
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds…”Edward Abbey
Read also: Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India
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