En route from Pollachi to Valparai, scanning for sights of the Anaimalai hills near the horizon, I could find only a flat landscape. The roadside was dotted with Mayflower/Gulmohur trees (Delonix regia) which had started blooming mid-April. Bonnet Macaques made occasional appearances, only to be out-aped by their human counterparts indulging in acts of juvenile bravado on their motorcycles.
Nearing Azhiyar Dam one could sense a tourist spot approaching, thanks to the preponderance of Tempo Travellers and tourist cabs, and vendors with carts selling guava, tender coconuts and hot savouries. The fact that there is a rising megalith with 40 bends to negotiate on narrow roads and showboat novices displaying their skills on two- and four-wheelers prevent these visions from registering completely.
Stopping to register at the forest checkpost just before the climb I find more tourists packed into cabs. Disheartened, I tell myself: They are not here to see the Valparai I am here to see.
We are in for a rather warm welcome. A subtle pact between El Niño and El Sol has kept the mercury up. Our host had mentioned that Valparai was not as hot as Bengaluru, however it doesn’t bring any comfort when Bengaluru was inching towards 40 degrees on the centigrade.
Rising up the hair-pin bends, Azhiyar reservoir shows up like a picture postcard, though being on the wheel on a treacherous track I can ill afford a rubber-neck. The drive becomes a pleasure as the breeze picks up and fellow-travellers on the road display restraint and prudence while driving.
The appointment with the Nilgiri Tahrs is missed as we reach hair-pin bend #9 during the hottest time of the day. However the shy Nilgiri Langur shows its silhouette and calls loudly as we ascend higher. Arriving at waterfalls, I notice that the tall trees have gone missing. We travel though what would appear, from above, to be a carpet of tea leaves.
Anticipations accelerate as I cross the statue of Carver Marsh, whom many consider the architect of Valparai. Will Valparai satiate my thirst for a commune with nature in this parched weather, I wonder. I see the NCF Information Centre on the way and stop to ask for directions from the friendly lady at the reception.
We pass through a fragment of rainforest and arrive at Iyerpadi. It’s all tea gardens here. A monotonous mosaic of tea and Silver Oak. As flock of Red-Whiskered Bulbuls land up on the lawn a thought arises, questioning the decision to travel 450 kilometres, the thought is drowned under a deluge of a sea of emotions that the call of a Southern Hill Myna evokes. I see the Hill Mynas thriving in the mosaic of tea and Silver Oak.
The mosaic of Valparai
A walk through the mosaic gives me a closer look. Details emerge. Rufous Babblers create a ruckus that would put their jungle cousins to shame. A Chestnut-headed Bee Eater, Orange Minivet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Black-rumped Flameback and Vernal Hanging Parrots appear as though they have been swirled out of a tea cup. Fireflies take over after sunset. A Brown Fish owl swoops down onto the roof. Taking a walk in the night I spot a Common Tailorbird that has fluffed itself, an Oriental Magpie Robin and a Spotted Dove in slumber. It is almost three decades since I have seen birds in solitary roost. I choose against getting a photograph for the fear of disturbing them.
Sunrise brings the Malabar Whistling Thrush and a half performance by a male Indian Peafowl. As I drive towards the Anamalai Club and arrive at a fragment of rainforest, the shy Nilgiri Langurs calling loudly take evasive positions in the tall canopies which barely allow light to pass. Malabar Giant Squirrels forage busily, while Bonnet Macaques are huddled. A Great Hornbill takes flight from one of the trees. I am distracted by a comical interlude provided by a motorcyclist who, after having walked up to the fence of a tea garden to get a picture of a Gaur with his cellphone, panics and slips upon hearing the animal grunt.
The excitement of the sightings dies down for some time as I spot a limping Palm Civet trying to cross the road. Back in the tea estate, I am treated to a sight of a Crested Serpent Eagle on a dead tree to my right and a Stripe-necked Mongoose in the tea bushes to my left. I drive on as visions of a sumptuous breakfast cloud other thoughts.
Post lunch, heading toward Pudhuthottam, we come across the first troop of Lion-tailed Macaques. Followed by another less than a kilometer away. The NCF volunteer is diligently managing the crowd of passing tourist vehicles, two of which stop and I hear the occupants shouting “Pazha“. The plantain would have been handed out had it not been for the timely intervention of the volunteer. Seeing me take out my camera, he gestures to me and shows me the spot from which the light was falling through the canopy. He happily speaks about the troop, which numbered about 16 individuals, and told me about the other troops (one of which is 90+ strong). Another tourist van stops at the curve and the volunteer makes a sprint to dissuade the group from feeding the macaques. I wish him luck and thank him for his time.
A vendor transporting plastic wares on his 49-CC two-wheeler stops and asks, “Tamil?” I shake my head to indicate no.”Malayalam?” I shake my head again. “Hindi?” I shake my head. Seeing him perplexed, I mention “lingua franca”. Disregarding my sense of humour as an editor would trash an abysmally poor piece of work, he mentions in Tamil that there is a Hornbill on a tree nearby which he can show me. I gesture towards the macaque on the tree of which I was trying to get a clear shot when he interrupted, when another passer-by stops to offer unsolicited assistance. The vendor airs his disappointment to the newcomer that I am taking pictures of a “kurangu” (monkey) while he is trying to show me hornbills. I say thank you with a smile straight out of a counterfeiter’s stencil and turn back.
After observing the macaque troop, I head to the NCF office at Valparai, where I chat with the friendly researchers. One of them turns out to be from my alma mater. We discuss hornbills, Lion Tailed Macaques, leopards and mainly elephants. I gain tremendous insight into elephant behavior — such as elephants licking building walls for the calcium. I am told about an interesting gecko residing in these parts that I may be able to spot at the place I was hosted. I lose track of time in the interesting conversations akin to ones we’d have with friends we catch up with after a long time.
In a trek to the cross-hill I come across a pit dug by a bear the previous night. There are droppings of porcupines and other small mammals. Upon the ridge I spend time scanning for raptors, but it must be too early in the day for them to rise. By mid-day I am at the Nallamudi Pooncholai, a fragment of rainforest visible from a vantage on a cliff. A tree covered with moss is playing host to Orange Minivets, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and Grey-headed Canary Flycatchers.
I stand by the cliff, hoping to get a glimpse of a group of Great Hornbills flying over the canopy below, as I had seen in one of the photographs online. With the sun beating hard, it’s time to head back. On the way I spot a pair of Stripe Necked Mongooses in the tea bushes, they retreat swiftly as a vehicle passes close to them.
The evening is a relaxed affair, but a gecko chooses to make its appearance, an interesting one with a striped tail. The next day as we descend we run into a herd of Nilgiri Tahr, pushing the count of mammal sightings in this trip up a notch. Interestingly the mammals due to which the Anamalais get their name had retreated to locations with ample waters and had not made their appearance. Next time perhaps, I return content that Valparai, with the rainforest peppered amongst the tea estates, turned out an abundance of rewarding sightings.
Note: Human-elephant conflict continues to be a matter of concern in Valparai. Nature Conservation Foundation’s Elephant Information Network has recently introduced a novel voice announcement system aboard Tamil Nadu government buses to inform passengers about the movement of elephants on their routes. Read more about it on EcoLogic, the NCF blog, and watch this video.