When the search ends – musings from Kruger

By Geethanjali Monto. Photos by Monto Mani

Kruger-header01

I believe some of us are attracted to Nature because we resonate with some qualities in Nature – those that we seem to have lost in the process of evolution into intellectuals or in combating our own internal turmoil or in conflicts arising from dealing with people who try to control who we are or in the mundane everyday chores that seem necessary to sustain our physical bodies and our social lives. There are some moments in time when we suddenly become aware of the song of a bird, of clouds moving across the sky, of an eagle soaring or being blown by a particularly strong wind, of the silence. These are moments when we are free and open to receive, moments that connect us to Nature and to ourselves.

The following photographs were taken (by Monto) during our car drive in the surrounds of the Skukuza Rest Camp, Kruger National Park, South Africa in May 2015. The spontaneous expressions and playful behaviour of these animals seem rare in human adults, and we seem to smother impulsive, instinctive and natural tendencies in young children in order to conform to the standards set by society.

Simply sitting - contemplation?
Simply sitting – contemplation?

A normal human adult sitting like this baboon – simply sitting – may be labelled as being depressed, that something is not ‘alright’ — may be a ‘love failure’, or perhaps he has taxed his mind too much! This act of simply sitting has been suggested as one of the practices to be followed to aid one’s spiritual journey. The sitting meditation – only the mentally stable ones do it well.

The expressions on the faces of some of the birds and animals seemed as though they were far away, in a world of their own, untouched by petty concerns. Their eyes were filled with a mystical look, and their postures with a noble elegance and a humble confidence.

There is calmness in the way they carry themselves – whether they are eating, drinking, walking, flying or communicating – of being totally immersed in what they do, of being in the present moment.

And a delicate balance of life exists…

Vervet Monkey Steenbok Spotted Hyena Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill Southern Boubou Giraffe Plains Zebra African Fish Eagle

I do not know much about the history of national parks or the exact motivations of some humans who threaten the survival of species especially other than their own, of some who seek to preserve life, and others who are caught in between with conflicting interests. During our stay at Skukuza, we wondered whether in the name of conservation of threatened species, and as a source of revenue to ‘provide a good environment for’ them, humans are exploiting others to satisfy their selfish desires: charging people high for stay, food, memorabilia, car hire and safaris; organizing events that basically promote tourism; and disturbing Nature with air, sound and water pollution; intruding in their private lives by photographing personal moments between mothers and babies, between couples; threatening their existence (we found turkeys run over by speeding cars)?

African Elephant
‘Why would you go to so much trouble to get on a plane and fly so far only to see me?’ the elephant might wonder

If the elephant we met at the park were to think about this, would his thoughts go something like this?

‘I wonder why humans come in search of me in the wild scorching heat of Africa. They sit in their cars watching as I have my food, hoping I would look at them and come their way. And when I do come their way, they rush off saying that I am charging; and if I am a single male charging at them, I am dangerous and exciting! They are most happy if I am with a large herd or if I am alone; smaller numbers don’t seem to please them as much. My baby attracts them with her antics, perhaps reminding them of the child within and of the joy of living?’

African Lion

And if the lion we sighted during an early morning safari put his thoughts about us into words?

‘They planned for months. They hopped four flights. They came to Africa − to Kruger − to see me… They rented a car. They drove from sunrise to sunset. They combed the forest. They bore heat and cold. Giraffes, hippos, rhinos, hyenas, vultures, elephants, zebras, wildebeest, buffaloes, eagles, deer, crocodiles, the stately secretary bird and Obelix’s wild boars − could not fill the space reserved for me. A night safari offered a sight of an old lion, so feeble, that they wondered if he was planted there by the tour operators, who had lured him with the food that he was too weak to hunt. The next day’s early morning safari presented a glimpse of four male lions (including myself). We had just finished our meal, and were not bothered much about the proximity of the jeep.

They came – they saw me – they were happy – they will go away.

Now that their search has come to an end, will their fascination with me fade away? Will I no longer feature that much in their dreams and in their talk?

Will I cease to matter now?’

Geethanjali Monto has studied civil engineering and mass communication, and worked last as a science writing fellow in Current Science – Bangalore. She likes to read and write.

Monto Mani is an Architect and Civil Engineer, presently working as Associate Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He likes to photograph, cycle and work with his hands.

Posted from Kruger National Park, Limpopo, South Africa.

GHNP Trek Day 6 – Descent or plummet to Lapa?

Lapa, as seen from Jogni

Day 6: Dhel Thatch to Lapa (1,800 m) – altitude to be lost 1,700 m

The day dawns when we start our return journey four days earlier than predicted. Today, we descend to Lapa and the only thing that makes us look forward to it is the opportunity to have a bath. There is a forest guest house in Lapa with electricity!

Lapa, as seen from Jogni
Lapa, as seen from Jogni

We start early, in order to spend some time at Jogni. No wildlife sightings even today. Charan catches up and we start descending. Within five minutes, I start wishing that I had parasailed down instead. The trail is treacherous. It is steep, slippery due to the frost, and shit scary. We are descending a very steep wall of a mountain, the incline at times as much as 65 to 70 degrees. I stuff my camera into my bag to have my hands free and grab a long stave for support. We see a dazzling Golden Bush Robin (Tarsiger chrysaeus) flitting around the rhododendrons — our last spotting atop Jogni.

A kilometer into the trail, there are stone-cut steps between two rocks so close that it makes you feel claustrophobic. Someone has pinched a stay-wire from an electric post and has tied it taut along the steps as a consolatory handrail. With no room for bravado, we all shimmy down holding the wire so tight that our knuckles turn white. And soon we find another such tricky spot. And another.

And there were mountains, any direction you looked
And there were mountains, any direction you looked

Charan tells us, “Lean your weight against the mountain wall side and walk, so that if you slip and fall you fall onto the mountain than off it.”

Arun is pulling himself up, clutching onto some grass roots. A couple of porters run to him and tell him not to – that the grass roots could come off under his weight and send him rolling off. Beyond a turn, Beej who was leading the way looks back at me and implores, “Someone please tell me this is not the way.” I peer in and see a dizzying gorge to our right, sloping away at about 60 degrees with pool after pool of snow dotting it. Charan emerges like an angel and points “This way” in the opposite direction.

A little ahead we find some scat, with remains of berry seeds and fur, as big as a pile of cow dung. There are only two omnivorous animals in these parts that leave poop of this size — the Himalayan brown bear and the black bear — and meeting either wouldn’t exactly be pleasant under the circumstances. A little ahead we find a fallen tree trunk torn open and dug into. Splinters lay scattered around as if it was ruthlessly attacked by a shredder machine gone berserk. Again, signs of bears – they look for termites inside fallen logs.

We enter a pine forest. The ground is littered with cones and leaves, and the trail is full of loose earth. Every other step sends us slipping. I lean my weight on the stick. Sahastra has also picked one up. Knees are aching and the undersides of the toes are burning from too much braking. If you dislodge a stone, it goes bouncing down the hill, and could hit someone below, so we are extra careful about loose stones. Now and then there are huge fallen trees which we have to shimmy up and climb down. I slip atop one such tree and bang my palm against the stump of a broken branch, drawing blood. Sahastra is falling back and I stay back to give him company. Sahastra mutters, “If I find someone I hate, I would advise him to trek uphill this way.”

We meet Charan on the way, and I ask him, “Does anybody climb up this way?”

“Villagers may do it,”he replies. “Not trekkers. Too steep and too long with no camping spots in between. Mountaineers can probably climb up this way from below, but not tourists.”

We take off our shoes and socks to cool our feet. I look at the underside of my feet – each of my large toes has a bubble-sized blister on the underside already.

The forest stream where we drank from and rested after the insane descent from Jogni to Lapa
The forest stream where we drank from and rested after the insane descent from Jogni to Lapa

Finally, well past noon, we reach a small stream and we find Beej and Arun putting on a mermaid act in the water. Andy is reclining on the floor, looking deflated. We break for half an hour and walk towards Lapa. We are now walking along agricultural lands, devoid of the cover of vegetation, and the sun is beating down on us mercilessly. An hour of moderate climbing later, we reach the Lapa village guest house. The gatekeeper is absconding, and as we wait on the veranda, the porters make us noodles from the last of our packets. We gorge and lie down on the bare floor, our knees turned to jelly. High above, we can see the flags atop Jogni and it looks a long way off, as if it was placed on top of a steep wall.

And that is Jogni from Lapa, through a telephoto lens
And that is Jogni from Lapa, through a telephoto lens

The gatekeeper’s wife arrives with the keys and we get into a modest little room that feels like heaven after all these days of wild-camping. I look at my face in the mirror and marvel at a disaster. The skin on my lips and nose is all chapped up and peeling away, my face is soot-black from sunburn and the poor sleep has given me dark circles under the eyes. Beej and Sahastra have exhausted the hot water. And so, after seven days, I take my first bath in ice-cold water and, boy oh boy, it was liberating to say the least!

We all crash after a short meeting with Charan to settle accounts. Tomorrow, we release the porters.

Previous: Days 4-5 – Exploring Dhel and foiled plans

Last: Day 7-9 – Lapa-Neuli-Kullu and civilization

Posted from Mashyar, Himachal Pradesh, India.

GHNP Trek Day 2: Beyond the bridge, the wilderness

The campsite at Humkhani

Day Two: Shakti to Humkhani (2500 m), about 4 km of ascent, 600 meters of altitude to be gained

It is an early start at 8 am after freshening ourselves up in the (luxury) toilets at Shakti guest house. The sky is overcast and so is Andy’s visage. A forlorn puppy barks at us as we pass the last house we would encounter before we cross into the Great Himalayan National Park. Mobile phones are already useless. A creaky hanging bridge is crossed and we enter the broad-leaved forest. Once we are across the bridge, it feels as if behind us a huge wall of forest has grown, shutting us out completely. It is silent, dark and mysterious and the air too smells different, as if the bridge was our door to another dimension.

A butterfly spotted near humkhani- common leopard?
A butterfly spotted near Humkhani- possibly a common leopard (Phalanta phalantha)

Beej and Arun are left behind on the bridge as they stand photographing. We have already climbed a couple of hundred meters when we realise that they are not behind us. Chironji, a tall, active porter, runs after them and fetches them back on the trail as they stood lost at a fork behind. There is a light drizzle but Charan isn’t worried. The canopy is really thick and he says the drizzle will not get any worse and would clear off in a couple of hours. I wear my rain jacket and dump the camera inside the backpack to prevent it being drenched. The trail is very steep and is no longer paved, just a zig-zagging one foot wide path that keeps on climbing steeply.

I look back and see Andy clutching his solar plexus and groaning. He is sick and wants to go back to Shakti and possibly die there all alone. Beej brainwashes him in his inimitable Yoda-style, giving him instructions on how to do pranayam and get his breath back. Andy soon gets up and bravely saunters along. The porters have given up walking and are huddled under a tree, kindling a fire. We don’t want to stop, we have a momentum on our side, which we would like to keep going. While taking short breaks we realize that we start shivering when we stop walking. The sweat under our rain jackets is soaking us from the inside, and it can give us a cold. So, the breathers are kept short.

Nutcrackers are heard calling from the high canopy, though we are unable to spot any. The trees have changed; now we have pines and conifers all around us that do not branch out as much as the broad-leaved trees. It is quite dark here, moist from rains, and overall gloomy.

The campsite at Humkhani
The campsite at Humkhani

It takes us about four hours of this steady climb, and I call out for a dry fruits break. Simultaneously, Arun, who is at the head of the trail, signals, “We are there!” We emerge out of the woods to Humkhani, a marvellous meadow at the end of which we find a quaint wooden hut. All around us, we can see snowcapped peaks peeking at us. The sky is clearing up and the sun has started to peep out.

Snow clad peaks in the distance
Snow-clad peaks in the distance

I take off my jacket and shirt to dry and stand bare-chested, but Sahastra reprimands me to put them back on, “It may not feel very cold because your body is warmed up, but it is really freezing out here and that could give you pneumonia.”

Soon a glorious fire is roaring and we pass on a packet of soupy noodles to the porters who prepare it and hand it to us. We devour it messily in no time, not bothered about the slurping noises we make.

Arun peeps from inside the hut
Arun peeps from inside the hut

Warmed up, we walk around, birdwatching and photographing the hundreds of ladybirds that are everywhere. The porters pitch our tents near the hut. Arun is ecstatic for having seen a Chestnut-headed Tesia (Cettia castaneocoronata), a tiny rotund bird with a rusty red head.

After a round of birding, we assemble in the hut at around 4:00 pm and Sahastra delivers a lecture on the goodness of sattu and initiates us to it, with a glass each of sattu mixed with powdered sugar and water collected from a stream. It is difficult to swallow, but half a cup of it feels solid and filling, once inside. We roam around a little more until sundown trying to catch some birdlife.

Sahastra is at home, in the wilderness
Sahastra is at home in the wilderness

At seven, the porters are done with the dinner, which is served near a fire: hot roti, rice, dal and spicy bhindi (okra) curry. I generally hate bhindi, but somehow this one tastes different. For all I know, it could be the hunger. I have had nothing other than sattu and dry fruits all day. Andy seems to be better and has started cracking his trademark PJs. By the time the fire goes out, we are all yawning, and  I slip into my brand new sleeping bag inside the tent.

Sleep comes on swift wings to whoever climbs these mountains…

Previous: An oxymoron called acclimating

Next: To Dhel, and the layers unravel

Posted from Mashyar, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Great Himalayan National Park Trek – Day Zero – Warming up

Himalayan Bulbul

In the first of a many-part travelogue, Sandeep Somasekharan tells the tale of The Green Ogre trek to the Great Himalayan National Park in May 2012

Day minus one: Delhi

Boxed into a cab that rattles like a can of bolts in searing hot Delhi, I look at rookies Andy and Arun with the benevolent air of a veteran. And why shouldn’t I? I did survive a cloudburst and landfall-threatened Himalayan trek  a year and half before this, and thus earned the honour of being the one to give them the pep talk. I choose to quote two lines from my Himalaya gurus (Beej, who sits in the front seat of the cab with an all-knowing smile, and Sahastra, who waits for us at  the bus terminus), which have proven to be golden words of wisdom on my previous trek.

“One: You cannot bully, threaten or coax the Himalayas to give in and show you something you want to see. You will get to see something when Himalayas are convinced that you deserve it.”

“Two: The Himalayas can put the fear of the elements in your head. You can’t stand outside when it drizzles or rains. It may turn to hail, snow or a bloody landslide any time. So, every single time you see it rain, run for cover.”

Andy and Arun look more worried than reassured; so much for the pep talk. The cab ride seems to take forever, as the driver swears in Haryanvi at a car which cuts right in front. Time has slowed down. My wristwatch seems to be running backward. Can’t wait. Can’t wait to be there. Can’t wait to have my posterior whipped by the steep climbs and the merciless elements.

We are nearing the bus terminus to we board the bus to Kullu. It will take us on our way to the Great Himalayan National Park, Himachal Pradesh. On paper, the meticulously laid-out trek plan by Sahastra looks like this:

Day 1 >>  Ropa to Neuli to Shakti. Acclimating trek.
Day 2 >> Shakti to Humkhani. Moderate 3-4 hour trek.
Day 3 >> Humkhani to Dhel Thatch. Moderate to tough 5-6 hour trek.
Day 5 >> Tough trek to Ghumtarao of about 6-7 hours. (This is supposedly a foot-wide path on a rocky cliff overlooking a two hundred meter drop. The thoughts of this stretch has been giving me the legendary heebi-da-jeebies since the day I read various trek reports on this route )
Day 6 >> Rest at Ghumtarao
Day 7 >> Trek to Shilt 16 km of moderate trek.
Day 8 >> Rest at Shilt
Day 9 >> Moderate 15 km Trek to Ghusaini and reach Kullu from Ghusaini by jeep.

The cab pulls up at the bus terminus and we spot a beaming Sahastra right next to the bus to Kullu. We hug and spread contagious yawns. We are to alight at Aut in the morning. It doesn’t take us long to push back the seats and indulge in a slumber disrupted only by loud honks and occasional sudden braking by the driver.

We are up at 6 as the bus snakes up the Himalayan roads. By the time we are at Aut, the sun has risen above the mountains. Atul, a friend of Sahastra’s who has good contacts in the area, had connected us with an inn (pun-besotted Andy mutters, ‘The inn at Aut‘) . The guys at the inn arrive with warm smiles and there are hot paranthas waiting for us when we emerge refreshed from our baths. The innkeepers refuse to take payment; we can’t take money from friends of Atul saab, they say. The taste of paranthas and the pickle linger on our taste buds as we sit huddled in a jeep that is to take us to the guest house at Ropa.

Day Zero: Ropa
Before noon, we are at Ropa, our base camp, and check in at the forest guest house, which is going to be formally opened only a couple of days later. The walls are decorated with frames of medicinal herbs and the endangered fauna of the Great Himalayan National Park. We spend the afternoon loitering outside. There is a river (which, we later learn, is named Sainj Nala) flowing just outside, and on its banks, there are fields of wheat and isolated houses.

The view from near the Ropa Guest house
The view from near the Ropa Guest house

The birdlife around the guest house is stunning, offering us an indication of what to expect along the course of the trek. We notice that the dazzlingly colourful Yellow-Billed Blue Magpies (Urocissa flavirostris) are almost as ubiquitous as crows back home. There are also Brown-Fronted Woodpeckers (Dendrocopos auriceps), Blue Whistling Thrushes (Myophonus caeruleus) and Himalayan Bulbuls (Pycnonotus leucogenys) fluttering and foraging all around. With the exception of the magpies, everyone seems to be nesting. Each bird, carrying insects in its beak, disappears into a tree-hole here or beneath a roof somewhere else. We only catch fleeting glimpses of a Great Barbet (Megalaima virens), but we know it is always around, as we keep hearing loud crackling calls from the highest points in the canopy.

Yellow billed blue magpie
Yellow-billed Blue Magpie

We lose half a day negotiating with Thek Ram, who represents an informal cartel that caters to the needs of trekkers in that area. We are five and Thek Ram estimates that it would take seven porters to haul our stuff. We are flummoxed by the irony of it. Finally, we settle at six porters, by agreeing to reduce the load of supplies that the porters would need to carry. The deal is, we eat nutrition bars and dry fruits for breakfast, sattu (powdered roasted gram) for lunch and the porters would cook us just the dinner. Our guide’s name is Charan, and he leaves with Thek Ram, promising to meet us the next day morning. On their way out they point to a poster on the wall that screams, “Save Jujurana (King of Birds)”, wishing us luck to spot one. Jujurana or the Western Tragopan  (Tragopan melanocephalus) is the mascot of the park and is found only in these parts. The sun has set and we retire into the modest comforts of the guest house at Ropa.

Himalayan Bulbul
The curved crest of the Himalayan bulbul differentiates it from the similar White-eared Bulbul

We huddle together listening to stories, natural history, (stale) jokes and old Hindi songs by Yesudas, when suddenly the main door to the dormitory is flung open. At the threshold stands a hermit with a saffron smear on his forehead and round fiery eyes, glowering at us from the gap between the door panels. A moment later he withdraws, having realized that we were not the guys he was expecting to find. Shaken out of our wits, we look at each other and chuckle nervously. Before hitting the sack, we barricade the door (that is yet to be fitted with a latch) with a chair. None of us are in any mood to see that face once more, especially when getting up for a leak in the middle of the night.

Blue whistling thrush
Blue Whistling Thrush: Apparently, it had a nest behind the grocery shop. We saw it go there time and again with insects it had caught

We lie down for a shut-eye, but the embrace of sleep is delayed, thanks to our eager anticipation of the days ahead.

Next: Day 1: An oxymoron called acclimating

Read more Travelogues on The Green Ogre

Posted from Mashyar, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Chhattisgarh Diary: The Palace at Kawardha

Secularism throbs in Kawardha’s historic heart and its pulsing beat invited Jennifer Nandi to be one with it
Stretches of evergreen forest flank the western edge of the township of Kawardha. Towards the south flows the river Sankari. Baiga tribals form a significant segment of the district’s tribal population; although the erstwhile rulers of Kawardha were Rajputs there has been an assimilation of both cultures.
Italian, British and Mughal architectural styles are all represented in this regal palace of some 56 rooms with a splendid domed and filigreed Durbar Hall. Much of the ground floor of this palace at Kawardha has been converted into a heritage hotel run by the erstwhile royal family.
The enchanting palace at Kawardha
Adding texture and depth to Kawardha’s history is its importance as an erstwhile centre for the movement of the followers of Sant Kabir, a late-15th century poet and revolutionary social reformer. Akbar’s architectural eclecticism coupled with his eclectic curiosity had far-reaching consequences. It was the Emperor himself who sponsored and supported dialogue between adherents of different faiths. Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, author of the imperial memoir known as the Akbar-nama, notes that Akbar was only 19 when he began to show an unconventional interest in the spiritual matters of his subjects. His pursuit of reason and the practice of open discussion to address problems of social harmony were welcomed by representatives of several new creeds.
The palace at night

 

Stately hallways
Nearly two thousand years after King Ashoka had championed public discussions, thereby sowing the seeds of democracy, disputing divines from far and wide flocked to the bazaar at Fatehpur Sikri to debate issues of heterodoxy that later richly contributed to the emergence of secularism in India.
It was late afternoon when we arrived for lunch. The owner and his wife graciously gave us company while we ate a delicious meal. When we stepped out into the garden the light was perfect for a visit to one of the nearby villages. Here the women pulled up their sarees between their legs as is the custom in Maharashtra. Their adornments were Baiga-like but this was a Hindu village. The children were at home, having returned from school. We handed out books, pens and sweets, all of which were gladly received.
The tinkling of bells announced the return of the cattle in the capable hands of the elders of the village. They filed past in orderly fashion to their sheds – some were sheltered in the very homes of their owners. They were lovingly received by the children. It was a sense of being family, with family values – respect for nature’s cycles, harmony, and a kind of reciprocity which is an alien concept for urbane sophisticates.

 

Birthday champagne loosens up the author (left) into joining the dancers
Our guide Tapan conversed with all slipping easily from one dialect into another. He led us through the village with humility and respect greatly enriching our experience. Back at our hotel, our hosts had organised the locals to dance for us. It was an all-male team, very colourful and very loud. Not one to be intimidated, I stepped into the performance much to the amusement of all. But the drumbeats were enticing and I was heady from the champagne we had drunk, it being Ken’s birthday!
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Posted from Kawardha, Chhattisgarh, India.

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