Personal trials and official tribulations had stymied my creative instincts for quite some time now. Our visit to the idyllic 'Gavi' was inspiring enough for me to instantaneously pick up my pen and start scribbling away. But before I reached Chennai, I learnt that my dear first born was in ICU. God's grace and more importantly, my friends' prayers fared me through the crisis. All said and done, crisis was a bedfellow for the past two months and it is only today that my instinct prodded me “write bhai write”.
As we crossed the barricade of civilization into the Periyar Tiger Reserve we were cautioned by the Forest Department personnel in no uncertain terms-(a) Do not stop your vehicle anywhere on the way till you reach Gavi which is 19 kms away. (b) If you so desire, you could talk to your near and dear ones because you wouldn't be able to, till you come back here. I loved both the suggestions but felt pity for my friend Senthil who is strongly wedded to cell phone (hope his wife doesn't read this). Immediately, there was a rush of adrenalin, or say, whatever is left of it after 40, anticipating the adventure in store. As counseled, we did call up our respective homes and warned that we would remain incommunicado for the next 24 hours.
Monsoon rain forests are very inimitable in many respects to the forests elsewhere. As we drove down the impeccably laid, though narrow, road at 12 noon, we could only see a faint ray of sunlight passing through the canopy of pines, teaks, saals, and many other species of tress which are probably more than 5 to 6 decades old. Bubbling with enthusiasm, every now and then there was a desire to stop and enjoy the unruffled environs. But yes, the wise counsel was ringing in the ears, but more than that, fear prevailed over us. At every curve, my friend Senthil, who also doubled up as our navigator on all such trips, kept saying, “if there is a rogue elephant on the road can we turn back?” Others laughed. Laugh, yes we did to taunt him, but somewhere deep in me, I too felt the shiver of pain. But I couldn't afford to be candid, for if the driver is frightened then the team gets perturbed more. Nevertheless, the pleasure was more overwhelming. As we meandered through the thick verdant forest, we lowered our windows to savour the clean, fresh air peppered with the smell of fresh mountain flowers. Senthil's fear, we knew by now was real, for he kept pleading to close the windows and started taking count of his life insurance policies! The 19 kms drive from the check post, to use a very clichéd expression, was memorable. Then without notice, rising up from among the wilderness stood an electrically fenced tiny commune. It was Gavi- the tranquil island of serenity.
Gavi was a place straight out of the picture postcard. A placid lake on one side, thickly forested hill on the other, a stream flowing by, flowers of many hues, chirping of birds and the smell of the mountain herbs and spices permeating the atmosphere. We wondered aloud as to why this place is not on the tourist map, but again reconciled, good that it isn't for its is still unspoilt. We were famished and so rushed to the restaurant to have a heady meal. The forest department officers who received us were insistent that we have our meal. True to the Indian custom, they felt privileged seeing us enjoy the meal. No sooner we finished the lunch, the officers assigned us a guide who would be there to assist us and be in our company to take care of all our needs till we left the place. We felt privileged and at the same time couldn't but raise eyebrows at the very professional attitude of the Government officers who are often scorned for being unprofessional. Our guide advised to take a small nap and be ready by 4 for the trek. I was more than happy at the suggestion and hit the bed.
As we climbed on, while my friend was extolling the virtues of friendship, little did I realize the intent. He was saying “friends should stick together”, “they should not leave one another in times of crisis” et al. Only when he continued to sing paeans did I realize that he was scared and scared to the hilt. He needed reassurance that we would be there if a tiger or an elephant took him on. Scary? That was a very blimpish word to describe the feeling and incomplete too. As we trudged up the hill paving our way quite literally, I too was expecting a leap from the bushes. But in about half an hour we were again in the clearing, on top of the hillock. As we stood there with a sense of accomplishment, we had a bird's eye view, as they say, of the valley, the jungle and the unknown. A trumpet halted us in our steps and as our auditory senses scourged the vicinity our nasal instincts too brightened up. We could smell elephant dung in the immediate proximity. Our guide reassured us that the elephant whose trumpet we heard was a rogue elephant and very dangerous but is on the next hill and that for him to reach us, he would have to climb down the hill he is on and climb up the hill we are on. Though we knew that it is not very easy for him to reach us, the very thought of its presence in the vicinity created an eerie pleasure. Our guide then went on to educate us to judge the mood of the elephant from its roar or trumpet. It struck to me then that wildlife is learnt best by experience than reading books. Losing no time, we moved ahead and soon down the other side of the hill. After a brief halt, we were again on to the next hill. The sun which was scorching down on us with all its fury was fading away. It was sunset time.
Having seen many sunsets, on beautiful beaches, in the backdrop of Mount Everest etc., watching sunset again did not appear so encouraging an idea when it was proposed by the guide. But I vouch it was one of the most captivating sights I ever witnessed. A big ball in sublime red over the revered Sabarimala was painting the entire evening sky in all hues of red, yellow, pink and crimson. Being shutterbugs, our cameras went on a rampage at this great splendour taking brief breaks to assimilate the beauty. Cold winds laden with incense of the forest set up the best milieu to witness such a celestial magnificence.
Struck in stupor of a different kind, we failed to realise that it was dusk. Only then did we see a pack of bisons/gaur on the hill on the other side. We wanted a pictures and our guide was hesitant. We cajoled and coerced him into submission and he agreed, though reluctantly on the condition that we run both ways and make our way out of the jungle to the road before it is dark. Having been on tougher treks, I phoo-phooed the challenge and picked up pace to be followed by others. Soon we were within clicking distance of the pack of giant bisons happily grazing away momentarily lifting their heads to see the intruders in their territory. The leader of the pack was constantly keeping an eye on us so that he could alert others in case of danger. Our guide by now was getting impatient and implored us to leave. We were soon to realize the reason for his discomfiture in remaining in the forest.
Running down the slope had drained us of most of the energy and so struggle was the only option. Soon the twilight which was long and splendid soon gave way to darkness. Four of us led by our guide footslogged along the furrowed path one behind the other with thick bushes and shrubs on either side. The smell of herbs peppered the darkness. Then, suddenly, from ahead of us we heard a growl, nay an angry growl. For a moment as we stood frozen, all our bravado vanished not knowing as to what our next move should be. I could see Srinivas with both hands spread and still as if to take soar into a flight. Perplexed and frightened to the hilt, we wondered whether to run ahead or retreat deeper into the forest- a choice between devil and deep sea. Calm and composed guide of ours reassured us, as he always does and asked us to keep moving. One of us asked him again whether we walk silently or by making noise. His reply was ambiguous and told us to just keep walking. I tried humming a tune but out of fright I was shivering or may be due to the cold wind. In the silent darkness I think I heard hearts pounding. Somewhere behind us I knew that a pair of eyes was watching every move of ours. In ten long minutes we were out into the clearing on to the road. Though the road was through the forest, we felt very comfortable and safe as we could see ahead and behind and knew that at least we could run. Soon, we saw two pairs of headlights approaching us. Those were the Forest Rangers coming in search of us in their motorbikes. After severely reprimanding us for not returning to the resort before dark, they escorted us back.
To say we were tired would be an understatement. After a hot shower, we settled down to a quiet dinner in the restaurant. We took up a place out in the lawn under the umbrella there was constant drizzle. The restaurant closes at 7.30 after dinner. It took a little bit of cajoling and a couple of shots of Bacardi to convince the chef that he should wait for us till at least 9.30. Bacardi did work, and the Chef thereafter treated us with wafers and green salads as we enjoyed our drink.
Every session at Gavi had its own unique way of fulfillment. Soft drizzle, cool and fragrant breeze, and the eternal darkness around was a strange and invigorating concoction. Sounds of breaking of twigs , growls and roars could be heard just 100 mts away on the other shore of the lake. Though, the barrier of water separated us from the wild, our eyes were continuously scanning the water surface for any adventurous animal. It was fright, pleasure, peace, silence, contentment all rolled into one moment of happiness. I desired to sit there for eternity and savour the joy, but had to retire to bed by 11 as the next morning we were to be up on our feet by 5 for a Jeep Safari.
After a long cup of hot freshly brewed coffee we were on our way for the safari in an open jeep. We were six in the jeep including the driver and our guide who perched precariously on the back stand and was on the lookout for elephants. In less than five minutes we left the paved road and were in the core forest. The path was a mere five feet wide clearing. After driving into the forest for about fifteen minutes we saw the effect of last night's rain. Only 4WD jeeps can ply in this path. A giant tree lay on the path and the jeep couldn't proceed further. We got down and started walking soon to stop, realizing that leeches were all over our feet. Extricating the leeches is a very tough task and time consuming. They penetrate through every available pore in the trousers, socks and shoes and suck blood. They would release their cling only when their stomach is full of blood. While sucking blood, these leeches release a sort of enzyme which prevents blood from clotting and a sort anesthetic which numbs the area of bite. Resultantly, one would keep bleeding and wouldn't realize till blood starts oozing. Stooping every now and then to remove the leeches, we followed our driver and guide who appeared to more enthusiastic than us in sighting elephants. Though no elephants were sighted, the morning walk through core forest path strewn with fresh elephant dung and remnants of a rampage by elephants was exhilarating enough to drive up the adrenalin. After an hour or so, we sighted an elephant that appeared to be more scared of us than we were of him. He was crossing the path and the moment he noticed that humans were around ran into the forest and disappeared in the thickets. As we stood there reminiscing the coup d'oeil, a small ruffle could be heard among the bamboo tress just besides us. The elephant we thought to have vanished into the forest was there just there a few meters away gauging our move. We stood there and watched in admiration at the smartness and stealth of the jumbo. Lion-tailed-macaques and Malabar Squirrels were there in plenty often taunting us. Criss-crossing the jungle we enjoyed the sublime surroundings. By ten we were reluctantly back in the resort.
Soon it was time to bid good bye to this isle of peace and tranquility. The Foresters and our guide lined up and wished us farewell much like a grieving relative. Not only that they lovingly bade us good bye but also called up the next day to ensure safe reaching at our homes. Kudos to KSFDC (Kerala State Forest Development Corporation)!
For photographs follow this linkhttp://picasaweb.google.com/vnair1966/GaviKerala#
Gavi is approachable by road from Pathanamthita in Kerala. This road is very scenic but only fairly OK with many potholes and little traffic. Elephant sighting is very common on this road. The other mode is to reach Vandiperiyar either from Kottayam or Kumily and enter the Sanctuary. The distance from Vandiperiyar town to Gavi would be 24 kms of which 19 kms is through the sanctuary. There is no telephone connection and cell phone range at Gavi. Bookings have to be done in advance and the person concerned can be contacted on +919947492339 only between 4pm and 5pm.