A journey into the wilds often takes me on a date with dawn. I rose one morning to greet the sun only to find it lost somewhere amid many layers of clouds. It took me a little time to realize that it was the mist that played the central character here. Lending a mysterious aura to the landscape, it teased the traveller, revealing itsy-bitsy patches of green and wrapping the scenery in its fold. A temporary facade of white blinded the eye until the mist just melted away. And then I saw it. Girdled by mountains, covered with dense forests, here was a landscape that a pantheist would write an ode to. And that is when you realize that the phrase “God’s own country” is not all marketing jargon.
I crossed into the Kerala border from Coorg in Karnataka just as dawn broke. The road was brimming with traffic as some of the heavy vehicles were heading into town. I have always found it a bit intriguing when I cross a border of the state and move into another. I crossed the mandatory check posts on either side of an invisible line and a handful of boards greeted me, but one could sense the immediate change of culture. The movie posters were the first indicator and then the tea stops on the way.
We drove through little villages bustling awake and reached the forest. The mist had melted and the sun’s rays stroked the cold damp trees that stood still in the breezeless morning. Plantations gave way to jungles as the tall silver oaks were replaced by clumps of bamboo. And the wet smell of earth took over from the intoxicating fragrance of the coffee blossoms, sparkling like little stars in the bushes.
I was in Wayanad, standing at the entrance of the Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary, sleepy and silent. A handful of wildlife enthusiasts like me waited patiently to be allotted a jeep, as a naturalist joined us. We were given a choice - should we chase a tiger that had been spotted by a couple of jeeps ahead of us, or head out to see the elephants that were on the road, a little ahead of us.
The driver wanted to forge ahead on the trail of the tiger, but the naturalist requested him to do a small detour, trying to get us a glimpse of both the elephants and the tiger. We were just in time to see the last of the flock disappearing into the dense vegetation. The driver cribbed that we would have missed the tiger as well. The naturalist explained that most tourists do not come to Tholpetty and they prefer Muthanga, as they do not get see the showstoppers here very often here; hence the drivers do not like to miss the opportunity if a wild cat announces its presence in the woods.
The sky was a fusion of golden brown and crimson red as we headed out on a wild encounter. The weather was perfect. I looked at the trees hoping to spot a leopard, if not the elusive tiger. We saw the Malabar squirrel leaping through the trees but the tiger seemed to have escaped into the forests. The jungle, however, was lit by a beautiful light and the birds sang for us. Streams were filled with kingfishers. Malabar parakeets rushed out of the branches. A white-bellied woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind, posed for us reluctantly as we spent twenty minutes watching it play hide and seek with us. A lone Crested Serpent Eagle looked dark and dusky, scanning the woods for breakfast, while an oriental honey buzzard flew ahead of us.
More jeeps whizzed past. Some stopped to exchange notes on wildlife encounters. Some tourists wore a disappointed look on their faces when they stopped alongside us to realize that we were looking at the winged creatures.
The trees swayed in the breeze. The sun was getting warmer. I was hungry and had a long journey ahead of me. The forest was dark and mysterious and it seemed to mock us as we slowed down, looking for wild denizens. Finally a herd of spotted deer crossed the road, bidding us farewell as we drove back towards Coorg.