It looked just like a bit of plant creeper lying on the ground, until we saw that one end had eyes. The distinctive keyhole-shaped pupils marked it as a vine snake, one of the most graceful of serpents. The snake slunk rapidly away from our trail, up a tree, where it found a natural bowl between two branches. There it gathered itself into neat coils, turned its head towards us, and hit her threat pose, the impossible green skin contrasting with the pale pearly pink of her mouth as she bared her fangs, ready to strike.
Vine snakes are venomous, and while the poison from the fangs set well to the back of the animal’s mouth is quite unlikely to kill me, it will certainly hurt. I’m peering at her, aware that I’ve already gendered her with no scientific evidence whatsoever, well within the snake’s strike zone, and I’m inching closer because I want to get to where my macro lens works to advantage; I should be frightened, people are meant to be scared of snakes, and all I can do is to gaze and think, “Gosh, you’re utterly gorgeous.”
And then my camera battery dies and the moment of beauty is lost in a foresight- and electronics-cursing fit of rage. Not for long, though. It’s really quite hard to stay annoyed with mere technological details in a place as primevally beautiful as this. We’re trekking in south-western Karnataka’s Kodagu (Coorg) district, on a trail that connects the forester’s huts in the protected jungles that edge right up to the state’s border with Kerala. The trail broadly follows the Karnataka-Kerala inter-state border, usually between two and 10 kilometres within Karnataka, mostly running roughly north-northwest from the Karnataka state forest department office at Makuta near Virajpet for just over 90km up to Talacauvery, the source of the Cauvery.
Government policy has worked hard at preserving the forests here. Much of the area we’re trekking through falls under the Talacauvery sub-cluster of the Western Ghats biosphere that the Indian government hopes to have the United Nations recognise as a World Heritage Site, and is officially off limits to human exploitation. The climate also helps shape the area. Some parts of this stretch of the southern Western Ghats get between six and eight thousand millimetres of rainfall each year, making them among the world’s wettest places. The result is hills still cloaked thickly in evergreen forest; unlike much of India, teeming with non-human life. Even ‘trophy’ animals like tigers, elephants and gaur, hunted or harassed to near-extinction almost everywhere else, still hold out in these jungles, albeit in considerably reduced numbers
It has to be said, though, that it takes a certain mindset to really appreciate this jungle. If you’re the sort of wildlifer who rates their holiday by the number of tigers featuring in their vacation snapshots, you’re wasting your time here; crank up your car stereo and head to some decaffeinated corporate weekend getaway like Corbett or Ranthambhore instead. The pleasures of the Western Ghat evergreen forests yield themselves up much more subtly; the joys are often in the little details, and are quite definitely most accessible to people who don’t have a problem with creatures that slink, slither and scuttle. Most of the plants, fish and reptiles, and a great majority of the amphibians found here, are found nowhere else on the planet. So forget the tigers and elephants, they will show themselves to you when they feel like it. But meanwhile, when a tiny pair of orange and cream beetles with dazzling turquoise eyes hitches a ride on the back of your hand and hundreds of frogs, variously coloured purple, brown and black, dart out from under your tread with impossibly long springs, prepare to be enchanted.
These evergreen forests are also a unique view to a past long gone. Millions of years ago evergreen forests like this covered much more of the planet. A general drying of the earth since the Pliocene era of about 5.5-1.9 million years ago has made these huge, moist forests retreat tremendously. But in the pockets where they do survive, such as here in the Western Ghats, they offer visitors a fabulous time machine trip, a way to see the world as it appeared long before humans existed.
Walking through this jungle involves little of the machete-wielding, plant-hacking action so beloved of movies. The big trees let so little light through to the ground that not much grows there. There’s just a dense carpet of slowly decaying plant detritus and mouldy leaf litter underfoot, broken up here and there by exposed roots and patches of mud and rock. The grandeur of the trees towering above is such that the effect is not unlike walking through a cathedral with occasionally treacherous flooring.
This slipperiness and the rugged terrain make for hard going, though, and in the wet season it’s difficult for all but the toughest hikers to sustain 15-20 kilometres a day for long. When the trail goes through a swampy bit, which is whenever you’re close to a waterbody that isn’t flowing fast, the vegetation does indeed become extraordinarily dense. This is usually prime leech country because it’s so easy for them to get to any exposed bit of skin as you’re struggling through the grasping undergrowth. In spots like this, leeches are a secondary concern. The wealth of amphibians and insects near the water also means there are snakes around, and you don’t want to annoy a lurking viper by stepping on it. And while you’re worrying about that, you’ll probably walk into the stickiest spider web you’ve ever encountered. My first such encounter was as heart-stopping as it was spectacular.
I don’t even see the colossal spider until it’s just centimetres from my face — her web spans beyond my field of vision while she herself stretches further than my eyes (and will-power) can happily accommodate at this range. It’s a female Giant Wood Spider and at full stretch she’s almost 20cm across, huge. The death’s head marking on the back of her thorax seems scarily apposite, contrasting smartly with the elegant yellow and grey stripes down her long abdomen, all looking like some horribly toothy monster from an acid trip gone very bad. And on that belly is perched a rather brave male. He’s reddish brown and about 2 per cent of her size, but he’s looking for an opportunity to have sex or whatever simulacrum thereof it is that amorous males do with such giantesses. Presumably he’ll try and avoid getting eaten while he gets busy transferring sperm with his pedipalps. He’s perilously close to her fangs, which are almost half as large as he is.
The trek has no shortage of moments like this, because the forests support so much life. It’s hard to believe that what we’re seeing today is actually a considerably diminished version of the original, official protection notwithstanding. Even in these remote forests, where electricity, tap water and other such creature comforts seem a laughable dream, much of the most valuable forest produce, such as teak, rosewood and sandalwood has long been stripped away. Poaching, illegal logging and smuggling of forest produce still go on, though, at a considerably reduced level since some states in India began getting tough on green laws over the past couple of decades. Nevertheless, the lure of quick money is hard to resist, and there are many who reckon the forest and its contents as fair game. Civilisation in the form of roads, electricity, villages and, most crucially, businessmen with money and a flexible attitude to the law crowd right up to the boundaries of the protected forest — right up to the state border on one side, where the contrast between semi-urbanised Kerala and jungle-covered Karnataka is particularly stark. “Where the forest ends, Kerala starts,” as K.R. Rajesh, the state department forester at Arabhithattu, pithily puts it. Rajesh is our guide to the forest through the trek, and since illegal incursions do occur, he invites a couple of constables from the Karnataka Special Reserve Police to accompany us on a part of the trek. Apparently, the very occasional run-in with poachers and smugglers can be hairy. While we’re hiking with Rajesh and the policemen alongside a tumbling mountain stream, our thoughts aren’t on danger, though.
There’s nature’s jewellery to contemplate instead. All along the Western Ghats, streams are the best places to watch butterflies, which display here in numbers and colours found in very few other places on the globe. Here, by the water’s edge, they are everywhere. Tiny skippers land on us, attracted by the moisture on our clothes, big blue mormons flash past, their speedy flight a challenge to the quickest of would-be predators, and every now and again the local haute couture blazes by in the form of the brilliantly coloured iridescence of a paris peacock. There should be a few southern birdwings about, their wingspans of over 20cm making them the largest of all Indian butterflies, but this time we aren’t so lucky, though this is a likely habitat for them.
In the evening, we listen to a radio, the only man-made entertainment around, while we’re digging into a delicious dinner cooked by the forester based at Udumbe, Chandrasekhar. The Kannada news carries a surprise; a friend of many beers’ worth from what was only a few years ago in Delhi but currently seems like another universe has just won a major literary prize. I’m thrilled for Adiga. Yet somehow the sheer difficulty of explaining its significance in these surroundings only seems to underline what’s really meaningful about getting away to remote parts of the Western Ghats like this one. This is a unique and special place and, thankfully, the rest of the world and its distractions have somehow been kept at bay. The happy result is a forest whose treasures you can savour wisely but with all the pleasure they deserve.
Makuta is 18km/1hr by road from Virajpet, the nearest town, which in turn is about 250km from Bengaluru. There is a state-run Volvo service (Rs 353), which takes 7hr for the journey.
The trek begins from Makuta. The route is: Makuta-Arabhithattu (7km; 1st night halt)-Matre (8km)-Kulimakki (8km)-Udumbe (8km; 2nd night)-Korattu (8km; 3rd night)-Sikadu (5km)-Angaarakolly (5km)-Baykabbe (5km)-Mumbailu (5km; 4th night)-Murukumotte (5km)-Bandaarakolly (5km)- Munrot (5km; 5th night)-Talacauvery (18km)
The night halts are suggestions only; accommodation at most of the forest huts is basic but comparable, and the distance trekked per day will vary depending on the weather and your fitness. For experienced, fit trekkers, 16km in a day over this hilly terrain is achievable in wet weather; more is possible in dry weather.
The trail broadly follows the Karnataka-Kerala border. Nearly all the forest huts are within 10km of the Kerala border, from where you’ll get buses to major towns like Kannur. This means you can fairly flexibly shorten or extend your trek on the go as the situation demands.
All coordination for permits, etc., has to be done through the deputy conservator for forests, Madikeri at Virajpet (08274-257579). The food at the forest huts is basic; carry your own or expect to pay the forester Rs 100-150 per head per day for all meals. Some may be able to source a chicken or fish for you. Otherwise rice and sambhar is more or less standard.
When to go
This area is extremely wet for more than half the year. Monsoon hikes are beautiful, but for the experienced only. The best time is between December and March, when it is dry but rarely very hot.
What to carry
You’ll need a backpack, at least two changes of clothes, hiking shoes or boots, a light sleeping bag or a thick sheet, a flashlight, first-aid kit. Add leech socks and a raincoat if trekking during the wet season.