A very strong incident forced us to visit Kodaikanal in Palani hills of Tamilnadu knowing very well that it is one of the most popular hill stations of Tamilnadu and will be very crowded. We were on a trip to Belur to enjoy art and architecture of South India when this incident happened.
“I wish someone drops a bomb on these monuments. I am tired and bored of your art and architecture outings.” bursted my younger one, while we were busy deciding what a particular sculpture was about. Thankfully there were not many people within the earshot.
Alarmed by his extremism and fearing of his ‘radicalization’ at the hands of art-crazy parents, and fearing another travel post from the elder son, where he accuses us of ‘they take more time to view the sculptures than the sculptors took to sculpt’, we decided to drop another ‘Artsy tour’ for the next holidays and knowing perfectly well that there would not be an inch free of tourists, we headed to Kadaikanal in Palani hills of Tamilnadu.
We expected Kodai to be crowded to the hilt by Chennaites running away from awful weather and Bangaloreans from awful traffic and working hours. How to escape this crowd became a daunting task and before reaching there we firmly decided to not go to any tourist point at any cost. A few other options were thoroughly searched and one of it was to go for day hikes in hills surrounding the Kodai town.
Palani hills are the eastern most extension of western Ghats and Kodai is located centrally.
Shola forest is the local name of western Ghat’s tropical montane forest. These patches of Shola forest are found in the valleys and are separated by montane grasslands, the latter occurring on the higher elevated slopes of these hills. The shola forest and these rolling grassland together form the complex ecosystem of western Ghats in Southern India and are home to many endemic flora and fauna.
Shola forest have a dense upper storey formed by large trees, a low under-story and dense shrubland. Mosses and ferns grow in abundance here, with interspersed availability of light and shade in these dark, dense, wet forests.
Another peculiar characteristic of Shola forest is of serving as natural sponges soaking up seasonal rains and moisture from the fog cover and releasing them slowly to continue even in leaner periods. On the contrary, plantation forests species suck water and reduce the water table considerably.
This was our second day of going for hike in the forests, and it was to be in search of Bison in nearby Bombay Shola forest, where it is generally found. As generally as wild animals decide; for these wild beings do not have any sense of meeting at the appointed place. That is why they are still animals and we are humans. It does not matter that they are not interested in watching us. We are!
The morning call for Ajan, church bells and temple tolls asked the faithfulls to wake up and remember HIM but all were sleeping dead sound in the hotel rooms. Palani hills too were still sleeping in the white supple blanket of mist. They were waiting for thier own Ajan in the form of Sun. Sun came as a vermilion ball in the Kodai sky. Sipping tea in the garden of an old British bungalow, we looked at sun appreciatively, for it was yet to ride on the chariot of its rays. Red vented Bulbuls chirped and chirped and flew from one tree to another. White eye was not interested in being so obvious and played peekaboo.
As soon as we set foot outside the heritage bungalow, we found ourselves in the old area of Chicpet of Bangalore. Tourists were sitting tight in the car, looking anxiously outside if the car will be scratched by another car. Pedestrians were jostling for space, making their way in and out of whatever space was left in between and side of the cars. A monster size bus arrived loaded with more travelers and then nothing moved. Everyone thought that others have no right to make a peaceful hill town into a weekend metro. We squeezed our way through this perfect ‘jam’ session which was building its tempo with every kind of honking and cursing.
Leaving the flood of tourists-filled taxis, we went to the lower Shola road and then to upper Shola road. We were still walking on the tar road, flanked on both sides and canopied above by shola greens, and reached a fruit seller selling the local fruits. Mangostein and water apples were new to us, but red water apples were liked more.
Having bought some healthy and colorful stuff to munch on, we now left the tar road and ventured on a dark dense passage leading us to interior of the Shola world. This passage was dark but filtered sunlight falling on decaying leaves made the rich carpet of Rad-yellow-rust-brown hues glow intermittently. Now, away from the busy Kodaikanal town, we found the quaint Kodaikanal in woods to lose ourselves in it. There was nobody except the locals making a dash through the short jungle routes, busy with their work. Even the creak of walking on fallen leaves was absent for the earth was moist but not wet.
After half a km, we left this trail also and climbed down steeply through the unmade path by finding our ways through shrubs, hanging vines and ducking down the roots and branch network of large trees. Younger kid loved this Mowgli sort of adventure but longed to swing like Mowgli.
Walking under the big trees of Himalayan Cherry, Mahogany and likes, we reached Bear Shola fall, all left solely for us to enjoy amidst dense greenery all around. It was April and water was only trickling, still the solitude and the grand setting made this place mesmerizing.
We further ventured deep in the woods and then came up again on the road for a while, only to go again in the woods. It was a steep climb which led us to high up in the Sholas, revealing the layers of Palani Hills in front of us.
As I told you earlier, higher grasslands in Shola forests are home to Bison who forage on the grass. Our guide gave us stern instructions
“You are to be behind me all the time”
“Be quite as dead, no show of excitement in the form of Wows and and no show of fear in the form of running.”
“Do exactly as I instruct in all the situations.”
He further guided “Bisons do not attack unprovoked, but we must keep a distance and maintain silence.”
Now the excitement was mixed with fear. We reached to grasslands and looked here and there for Bison but all in vain. Up further, staying away from dense patches, as Bison might just be standing behind a tree and we might not even know. We waited at another place, tried to hear if there was any sound of foraging, tried to look behind the bushes and up and down, and here and there but all in vain.
So we left that area and came back to the trail and took another dig in some other area. As told, we were in a file behind our guide. At some point he ditched the route and climbed up and instructed all of us to stay put. We all, that is four of us and three of other youngsters who have joined this hike. We stayed there and waited for him to call us.
He came down again and spoke irritably-” Looks like no one is interested in Bison. I was the only one who went to look for Bison. For me, I have seen them many times.”
We were confused. He himself asked us to wait. He clarified, I asked to follow me. So we all misheard him. We told him so but anyways we had to retreat now as our time of four hours of hike was up. So we retreated back though jungle foliage, wild flowers and the different patterns of light and dark spots on the path. On our right were the layered display of Palani hills, nearest one looking green and then taking turns to turn blue and grey to finally faint in the skyline.
In the evening, the area around Kodaikanal lake was occupied by people, people and more people. So we ditched the main town again and climbed towards the Kodaikanal International School, popularly called KIS. This road was mercifully not trodden by the weary feet in the screeching cars, therefor letting us walk hand in hand, admiring the british bugalows and tall trees. Walking on the road, we just passed through the staff quarters of KIS. Something unusual caught the side view of eye through a heavily barred gate.
There lo and behold, were three bisons grazing pleasurably on its lawns. There was none on the road at that time. We were peeping curiously though the gate to these white socks wearing, bull lookalikes Bison, when a guard approached us to request us to keep quiet lest we disturb these might Bisons and they start running amok in the campus. We assured him of our sincerity.
Half an hour and traffic from all the sight-seeing crowd begun returning from the day trips in their cars. There was a sort of traffic jam just outside the gate of KIS campus. We removed ourselves from those Bisons and looked at the traffic. KIS guard appreciated our civility lest there will be a unmanageable crowd outside the school and Bisons will be panicked. As the cars halted and then crawled their way to Kodaikanal lake, we waited but it was dark before the caravan of cars could stop.
After spending the morning in search of Bison in the forest, we ultimately found him in the city where he is not supposed to be. But reducing grasslands are forcing Bisons to look for greener pastures wherever these can be found.
Be it in the School’s staff quarter’s sprawling lawns !!