I had a lingering desire to visit Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary for quite some time. So when the opportunity was presented by a colleague of mine, I grabbed it both hands. Though we planned the visit for the last week of May, 2001, which would have been ideal, the tour fructified only in the first week of June. Located in the valley between the Nelliaympathi ranges in Kerala and the Annamalai ranges in Tamil Nadu, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary is an un-flecked abode of nature. Even though Parambikulam is located in Kerala, it cannot be accessed from Kerala. The only entry point to the reserve forest is through Top Slip in Tamil Nadu which is just over an hour’s drive from Pollachi near Coimbatore.
We (myself, Sridhar, Vadivelu, Jayaraman and Alex) left Chennai by around 7 in the morning with the intent to reach Pollachi by 5 and reach the Tamil Nadu forest check post by around six in the evening. Though we did not have too many stops en- route, our lunch break at Salem where we indulged in the succulent biriyani at Selvi Mess took almost an hour. At around five, as we were nearing Pollachi the organizer of our trip who is at Parambikulam informed us that the entry from the TN forest check post closes by 3.30 and as a special case he had requested them to extend the time till 5 pm and as we were over shooting that limit too, we may have to possibly spend the night at Pollachi. This information was a dampener and by the time we reached the check post, calls were put out to all those who could influence the decision of the forest guards so that they allow us entry. Surprisingly, the personnel at the forest check post were more than courteous and allowed us in without even a perfunctory frown. Pleased as we were with the magnanimity of the forest guard, coerced him to accept a couple of beer cans as a mark of our gratitude and eased ourselves up the slope into the virgin forest.
Rain clouds had started rearing its heads from the evening itself. No sooner did we start driving into the young night, it started drizzling creating an eerie atmosphere. Soon, the roads started winding up and pot holes were increasingly becoming regular. Combined with the rain and darkness, the pot holes had become slush pools making driving perilous. I was driving behind the head vehicle as my car had a low ground clearance than the MPV ahead of us. Maintaining a distance of about 15 feet we moved up. Our eyes were transfixed on the slush pools and did not notice our head vehicle making a sudden stop. Though we could not fathom out the reason immediately, we halted a few meters behind and started looking around. It was then that we saw the herd of Gaurs just ahead of us. The herd consisted of two mothers with their infants and could prove to be very menacing. But the massive animals with white socks like feet were a treat to watch in the light of the headlamps. As we waited for the herd to move away, a vehicle approached in the opposite direction which too halted in its way. After a few minutes the vehicle which came in the opposite direction crossed over and emboldened by this move, we too started movingly slowly and cautiously expecting the gaurs to come charging at us. Despite their sardonic looks, they decided against moving either towards us or away from us. Our first tryst with the wild was exhilarating. We laughed to drive away the latent fear. In the next 1 kilometer we had two more sightings and the last sighting was even more dreadful. As I negotiated a hair-pin bend ascend, my friend who was seated in the back seat and peering on to the road and around kept prodding me against slowing down despite large pot holes. Before I could gather my thoughts, a large gaur was standing towering above us on the road side. It was so close that perhaps if the window shutters were down we could hear it breathing. Though we had cameras handy, none dared to click. All the fatigue of driving 500 odd kilometers from the morning petered out after these two rendezvous. In another half an hour we reached Top Slip where we had to register again. Our night’s halt was arranged at a place locally called Karadi (meaning bear in Tamil) Bungalow or Stuarts Rest House. This rest house built in the year 1883 was located deep in the forest some 8 kms from Top Slip.
As we drove to the bungalow, this time accompanied by 4 forest guards fright among us was palpable. But unfortunately there were no more sightings and soon we reached the rest house nestled on a high ground in the core area and bounded by electric fence. There was no electricity and we had to make good with one solar lamp provided by the forest department. It was then that I wondered as to how the electric fence would work and how could we possibly be safe. The forest guard allayed our fears by saying that it works on conserved solar power which we realized in the morning, was only a consolation. Having changed over to our shorts and T’s we sat in the verandah basking in the cold air and darkness all around while the forest personnel cooked our dinner. The darkness was overwhelming and amidst the loud chirping of crickets, we knew that wilderness in just a few feet away. After a sumptuous dinner of chicken and rice we retired to bed.
Though we had planned an early morning trek, venturing out early was deferred due to intermittent rain. But in the brief intervals provided by the rain, we did explore the area around. All around, it was splendid green cover and impenetrable forests. The rains had washed away all the dust from the leaves and in the brief interludes of sun, the tress shone sparkling green. On one side of the rest house was a slope to the valley with a waterfall on the fringes. As I was trying to photograph the raindrops on a lemon tree on the periphery, a wild boar appeared from nowhere. Though we were a little apprehensive initially, as the boar too could have been, soon a strange camaraderie developed between us and we fed him with dosas and he in turn posed merrily for photographs!
After a lavish breakfast of dosas and sambar we set out from the rest house. While leaving the place I felt we haven’t had enough of this place. Had rain not hindered our movements, the place could have been explored more comprehensively. Our next stop was supposed to be the forest check post of Kerala State and we were warned sufficiently in advance that they would not be allowing any plastic items or liquor inside the reserve forest and that they would check the bags and vehicles threadbare. Accordingly, we had packed all that is impermissible in separate bags and left it at Top Slip. It is then that we realized our over dependency on plastics. As cautioned, the forest personnel carried out a meticulous inspection of the first car and the bags therein. Being convinced that we were eco-friendly the check of the second car was only blasé. The pot holed roads soon gave way to well tarred roads which made the drive pleasurable. Even though there was enough opportunity to step on the gas and accelerate, the scenic views at every bend was so captivating that you tend to move haltingly. The unsullied forests with various hues of green interspersed with the vibrant red of the flame of forest, swaying bamboo bushes and the rainbow appearing intermittently were a treat to the body and soul. We lowered the window panes to absorb the cool fragrant mountain air. Clouds descended often making the panorama further ethereal. The elephant dung still warm indicated the presence of pachyderm in the near vicinity. As we halted to see a small reservoir, looking down at the road ahead, we could see a meadow below. There were number of deer, peacocks, sambhars, monkeys, langurs all basking in the sun after a spell of rain. Soon we wound our way down and the meadow presented a picturesque spectacle. The peacock was fanning out its feathers and its prunes. The pea-hen appeared indifferent to the advances of the several males vying to grab her attention. It’s a woman’s world, no doubt. All the animals with their respective off-springs were lounging around completely oblivious of the others. The young ones were jumping gay abandon. The elder were keeping a close watch on these young ones. The leaping young deer appeared so engrossed in his game that he was totally unmindful of even humans getting down the cars and photographing it. Overwhelmed would be an understatement. I was reminded of a poem by John Keats.
O SOLITUDE! If I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
The poem appeared to be so apt for the day to me. We moved further and each move ahead was filled with scenic extravaganza. Reaching by noon at the Parambikulam village we indulged in a hot meal of rice and freshly caught fish fry. The sumptuous meal dulled most of us, but the rain which followed was invigorating. Leaving one of the vehicles in the forest office we scrambled on to the MPV and drove on in the company of a Guide who would be our friend, philosopher, cook and et al for the next 12 kilometers. The road to civilization ended there and we crossed over a wooden bridge hearing the gurgling water beneath us. We started trekking and soon crossed a tribal hamlet and then uphill the thick forest in the company of singing birds and twittering crickets. Peacocks would squeal heralding the intrusion of humans into their habitat. At times the sound generated by the crickets in this part of the world can be so loud that you would start wondering whether such a puny insect can create such a cacophony. After a wearing trek of about 3 kilometers, we arrived at our destination- the island of solitude.
Very tentatively we crossed over the creaking wooden logs to enter the small area of around 100 meters radius surrounded by a deep moat. A tree house made entirely out of logs, bamboo and dry leaves was to be our chalet for the night. The climb up the slippery stairs made again of bamboo was very demanding as they were placed at near perpendicular angle and at a considerable height. It was just a room of 15” length and breadth, just enough to accommodate 4 or 5 people. The bed was made of bamboo and appeared to be very comfortable, perhaps owing to the fatigue of the trek. Unloading our back packs we straightened our backs and some had a brief siesta while some just lazed around. Our guides warned us in no uncertain terms that at any cost we should not cross the moat and then left to fetch us dinner. This sound of jungle was reverberating. Soon the rain too came pouring down adding to the din, or may I say music. We were told that the marshy land behind the tree house is a place frequented by a number of animals. The very name of our tree top rest house itself was Sambhar House suggesting that the tall grasses around is an ideal place for these antelopes. Unfortunately, as it was raining, we were not able to make any sighting. But the milieu was more than compensating for the lack of animal sightings. Dinner of chicken curry, fish fry and kurma with rice and rotis were served by our guides at around 8 and we retired to bed with lullabies from the crickets and numerous birds. As we trekked back we had a rare sighting of a pack of hyenas which appeared to be more scared of us than we were with them. We had on our way up tried in vain to get a composed picture of peacock but had failed in our attempts. As if realizing our disappointment, a vibrantly colored peacock ambled around giving us enough opportunity to capture its multiple hues. We left Parambikulam after breakfast.
It was a fleeting trip and hence the longing still remains. Much remains to be seen of this verdant forest, particularly the island where animal sightings are most regular. Despite the briefness of the tryst with this verdant land, it was a humbling experience. Nature nurtures and its brawn to mould over our thinking is more pronounced here than anywhere else. Truly, it is a Nature’s abode.
I was accompanied by my colleagues Sridhar, Jayaram, Vadivelu and Alex during this great outing.