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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Vazhachal - In the kingdom of the Rain God

You’ve not experienced the monsoon until you’ve been drenched in the Western Ghats. One morning in August we set off across the Tamil Nadu border and into Kerala’s Vazhachal forests. It rained. Oh my goodness, did it rain! Mist rose from forest floors to spiral up and mix with clouds where you could not even tell them apart. Rain drenched leaves shone verdure and drip-dropped everywhere. Ankle-deep puddles threw up a neat arc of spray as we drove through them. Frogs and tiny toads jumped out of our way and eager leeches sensed us and stood on tip-toe (not really, you know), looking to latch on. Writer and photographer ARATI RAO shares glimpses of life from a fragile rainforest ecosystem.

Vazhachal Reserved Forest unfurled in front of us – wet, evergreen, wonderful and, as beautiful things go, fragile. The windshield wipers were ineffective at times and the going was slow. Which was as it should be, for the forest is breathtaking. Here, in Vazhachal, is where ferns still live.

Banks rose from the sides of the road, covered in roots and ferns, fungi and moss. Rock-faces seemed to melt into rivulets as water seeped through and over them. Boughs and lianas were smothered in moss, and epiphytes were everywhere. Creepers hung from branches like curtains and every bend in the road had a frothy, white, gushing waterfall. It looked like a set from the movies. The bigger characters in this drama –Nilgiri Langurs, Malabar Giant Squirrels and birds – seemed to respectfully give way to the small, the immobile, and the green. The setting breathed and pulsed with life – from the smallest snails chomping on leaves to the fairy lantern fungi that defied my camera to catch its color.

And then there were the impatiens – little pink, fuchsia and white flowers that grow on wet rock. Whole beds, small clumps, and lone sentinels bending and twisting but holding their own under waterfalls. The sun had pushed its way through the thick blanket of grey and briefly spotlighted a moss here, a fern there. Tucking two cameras and one pair of binoculars under my new rain-jacket, I jumped out and took in a lungful of fresh, drizzly forest air.

It was the paradise I’d imagined and longed to walk through. Vazhachal is a primary forest, albeit logged, and the trees were old growth. Electric transmission lines scarred the landscape at regular intervals, but around it foliage determinedly continued on. Fabulous as the scene was, there was a sinister undertone. A four-lane highway was to replace this 20-foot road. That meant that the ferns and the first few rows of trees would be cleared. It rankled, for with increased traffic and disturbance comes the scourge of the invasive species – the lantana, parthenium and eupatorium. And with that, this diversity of ferns and flora would be crowded out.

Light was low and photography in that rain was a prayer. But for me, the quest for tack-sharp images respectfully retreated behind the grand drama of green that surrounded me. The dark of the rainforest in monsoon is what it is. Raindrops on every blade, every edge, every petal, every moss fruiting body, is life – as it unfolds. Hence, if blurry, grainy, and high-ISO images were to be a legacy of this trip, so be it.

Soaking wet by now, finding a dry corner of my t-shirt to wipe my lens clean was nothing more than a dream. My knees were muddy from kneeling to take eye-level shots. I’d found a couple of leeches on my neck, one on my face and one on my lip. I’d no idea what else was inside my clothes. I was faced with a choice. Wetness and leeches can make one miserable. But I had one glorious day in such a forest, and a few hours to simply soak it all up. And so I took all my leech-bloody-wetness thoughts and locked it up in a small compartment in my head. Then I threw the key away. Access denied to negative emotions, I chased snails and sloshed across a stream to see insanely huge fungi. Clambering up mud walls and slip sliding on leaf litter, I was laughing inwardly at the sheer joy of being there.

It was dark by now – the sun had given up the fight with the clouds and called it a day. I looked at my camera. Surely the lens would be kaput the next day. Fogged up at a minimum. And we’d probably see the highly endangered lion-tailed macaques up close, and I’d have nothing to photograph them with. Well, I thought to myself, there is a way out. I would just have to soak up that experience so deep that I’d remember it forever. Leaning back on the by-now-oh-so-wet Scorpio seat, I smiled a broad, satisfied smile

1 comment:

  1. Wow, seems like the person who went to this place had great experience. Stimulating me to visit this place :)