December 10, 2006

To Annamalai in the Nilgiris - Part I

In the Nineties, I traveled to Tamilnadu to trek five days in the Nilgiris. The Annamalai Wildlife sanctuary sounded a mystical place to be in, and I was majorly into trekking India’s Wilds. It was a long journey this one, and traveling alone gave me time to reflect, but mostly to anticipate, and contemplate. I wrote a diary of my stay there, and of the time I spent trekking the Nilgiris, mostly short notes, nothing comprehensive. In these disconnected notes, I seek to relive my memories again. Needless to say, I don’t have many pictures from those days, a point-and-shoot camera loaded, and no extra rolls to spare, thirty-five frames to last seven days. I was in my teens then. How I wish now I had been meticulous in writing down everything I saw and heard. I didn’t, and I’m left with a scribbling here and there that I intend to publish as parts, and leave out some.

It was the sort of hill you would fancy rolling down its length for the sheer thrill of it. A bloated belly of a hungry land, bereft of the edges, notches, valleys and ridges characterizing the Nilgiris elsewhere in the Annamalai wildlife sanctuary. If it were flat, minus the gradient, kids might have loved to have it for a park. I almost half expected it to burp the first time I saw it after getting off the bus that had groaned all the way up the Annamalai hills from Pollachi, on its way to Parambikulam in Kerela. They called the hill Topslip.

To get to Topslip, I took a bus to Mangalore from Goa, then a train to Coimbatore. From Coimbatore I rode the forty kilometers to Pollachi by bus, before changing over at Pollachi for a bus to get to Topslip in the Annamalai hills. The bus took over an hour to cover the 12 kilometres from Pollachi to Topslip. It was the second of the four buses that plied passengers from Pollachi to Parambikulam via Topslip. On reaching Pollachi, I learned that the first bus for the day had broken down. It left me with an unenviable task of spending what was a bright cheery morning in the bus-stand asking, “Does this one go via Topslip,” to anyone who looked remotely like a Tamilian each time a bus pulled up into the bus-stand.

All the signboards were in Tamil. Each time a bus pulled up into the slot reserved for the Pollachi-Parambikulam bus, I turned to a different passenger each time for help in reading the signboard, lest I irritate the same person all the time; it was a busy bus-stand. Fresh steaming idlis served on Plantain leaves at a small, busy hotel a short way off the bus-stand rested easy as I kept my eyes peeled out for any bus that seemed to suggest from its demeanor that “I’m the one you are waiting for. Come on in now.” I hardly moved from where I waited, for, each time I needed to go anywhere, I had to lug my entire luggage with me, and I was fearful that were I to miss the bus, it might mean more waiting to do.

In the restaurant where I had my breakfast, fairly late in the day for one, there was hardly any space in the narrow passageways separating columns of small tables minus the trademark Sanmica tops. Plantain leaves and Sanmica make for strange bedfellows. It didn’t seem to bother anyone particularly as they stepped over my luggage to get to empty tables on their way in. It was no different on their way out. It must have been a happy morning for some reason since most people in the restaurant seemed cheerful; maybe it was the steaming idlis and dosas that did the trick. Their good humour rubbed off me, and I had settled in nicely, tucking in the featherweight idlis and searching for a mental toehold in a vibrant mesh of voices speaking an alien tongue. Eventually, the bus arrived, and I very nearly would have missed it if I had given in to my temptation for an extra plate of idlis. Fatigued from asking umpteen people to read the Tamil signboard on each arriving bus, I had looked on silently as this one came in, thinking “this cannot possibly be the one,” as if the bus to Parambikulam would be any different from the lot I had seen all morning. Seeing me make no move to get in, a fellow passenger who had heard me ask others for assistance with Tamil signboards caught my attention with a wave of his hand.

“It is this one. It goes to Parambikulam via Topslip,” he said in ‘broken’ English. And I almost hugged him in relief.

The Annamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, famous for the Nilgiris mountain ranges, is one of Tamilnadu’s prime ‘sanity’ spots, a hot favourite for campers and trekkers alike. It was Christmas time when I made the trip. I traveled alone from Goa in the Christmas vacation to attend the five-day wildlife camp in the sanctuary, organised by WWF-Tamilnadu and open to Higher Secondary schools and colleges with active Nature Clubs. I had finished with Secondary School the year before.

After getting off the bus the first memorable sight that has stuck in my memory was of this quaint little hill. It could be that after passing through dense vegetation all the way up, tense moments and all when the bus had threatened to roll backward in face of some sharp gradients at irregular intervals, the very sight of this ‘clean cut’ gentle hill was almost like chancing upon a matronly pensioner in a Last Chance school for juveniles who didn’t fit anywhere else but here, and the pensioner, who fitted everywhere else but here. It is not easy to forget the hill then, nor the pencil-thin whine of the bus-engine as it squeezed out the last imagined whiff of power in inching up the incline past tricky bends. I cannot forget them both.

The grassy area that sloped down made up only a part of the hill; the rest of the hill was consumed by cottages that ran along its upper reaches, and along its periphery. If anything lay beyond these white match boxes, I didn’t know of it.

Topslip is a small hamlet in the sanctuary, located at a height of 800 metres above sea level. A narrow path led up its gentle curve; on either side of this intruding ribbon stretched lush green grass, exuding an almost Zen-like calm, belying the true character of the Nilgiris. The steamy vibrancy of wildlife lay tucked away in a mesh of shifting shadows hiding ways of life unchanged from the time they first appeared on the planet. Hide and seek was more than just a game out there; it was the essence of the play nature had initiated – hide to seek, seek to hide.

From the top of the hill the view carried only a short distance away after passing the lone squat structure, our base camp, before coming up against a phalanx of green, made up on the outside by an uneven row of tall trees, and setting off a stark contrast with the grassy, treeless foreground marked by a touch of ‘civilization’ that encircled Topslip with cottages at the top, and a road at the bottom that ran on to Parambikulum. Looping up from our base camp, past the road that ran its length along the base of Topslip on its way to Parambikulam, it almost seemed that the hill which rose in a gentle curve, given its manicured feel, was left unfenced and cleared of mysteries, so that man could feel safer where he could not hide; it was so out of character in the midst of the undercurrent of a roiling ‘civilization’ of the ‘other side’.

After getting off the bus we, by then I had learnt that some of my co-passengers were participating campers, were met by the organizers. We heard the news that a man had been ‘taken’ by a Tiger a few days ago, and that another man had his face opened up by a Sloth Bear recently. Then, we were introduced to a tribal who was to be one of our guides on our treks deep inside the jungles. He was dark, small, and wiry, and wasted no time in hitching up his lungi to show deep gash marks that had healed to a messy looking memory. We crowded around the exposed inside of his thigh, the Sun hard on our backs.

“A leopard got him there, but he managed to get away. He was one of the lucky ones,” said one of our wildlife instructors as the tribal rolled down his lungi, having made his point and taken in the appreciative nods and murmurs. And he stood by silently, looking at us looking at him. He’d earned our curiosity and possibly awe, more surely our respect.

And, though I thrilled in the unconventional introduction we got, and couldn’t wait to get into the thick of it, I had looked up the placid Topslip and wondered if all this could be true as my eyes swept the grassy knoll of calm demeanor and an inviting embrace of the openhearted. Harpreet and I succumbed to the invitation that evening, before the trekking schedule unfolded to its occasionally excruciating character and length.

It was only after a forest guard shouted at us both to get off the green, grassy belly of Annamalai that evening as we lay on our backs in the middle of the gentle roll, watching the skies and the general activity below on the road a short distance from where we lay, near the Base camp, did we realize that this was where the bisons came to graze. At least this was one of the places frequented by a herd.

“You are not allowed to step on the grass around here,” he called out to us at the top of his voice, both hands describing rapid quarter arcs, taking in the contented green bulge that had seen erstwhile British loggers roll logs down from the top of the hill, to be picked up below for loading; hence the name Topslip.

“Human scent gets left behind in the grass,” he explained as Harpreet and I prepared to get up, dusting our backsides as he came up in our direction at a brisk pace. He was built wiry, a trait not uncommon among the older forest guards. "And it can make the bisons wary. GET OFF. GET OFF."


sarala said...

I too wish I had recorded more of earlier travels. Great blog and photos. Makes me want to go to India.
Thanks for visiting my blog.

Anil P said...

To Sarala: Thank you. Do visit India, it can be an unforgettable experience in more ways than one.

anan said...

your blog is addictive

Pranay said...

Wow you write really well. I had the feel of the place sitting here.

Uma Gowrishankar said...

I reckon that your unhurried writing takes a while. I had been impatiently waiting for this blog.Was happy to read the vivid recall of your visit to Topslip. This is part 1, and there is more to come. Shall knock your door everyday to check if you are in!

Anil P said...

To Anan: Thank you :) I suppose one can only hold the mind as one would hold sand, in an open palm, free to rest, and free to leave.

To Pranay: Thanks. I felt the same when I was writing it, to still time, because the only way I could stay with it is if I stilled it.

To Uma: :) I wonder whether its unhurried character makes me unhurried about wanting to post. Sometimes, yes, but most times no, because I'm as keen to post myself.

Topslip was good, because it was so away from the hustle of the city. I'll try and be 'in' sooner :) Thanks for visiting.

Karen & Mike said...

Enjoyed your recollections; I'll be visiting again. Thanks for your nice comment in my blog.

Arun said...

beautiful. I love your attention to details.

These areas are something I so much want to visit, havent made it yet.

Anil P said...

To Karen & Mike: Thank you, you're most welcome.

To Arun: Thanks. Like the Devil, I suppose even God is in the details :)

Anni said...

I can't wait for the next part!
By the way how do I best contact you regarding an interview?

bluemountainmama said...

"a bloated belly of a hungry land"... that's the best description of a hill i've ever read! thanks for taking me on the trip with you! :) the last part reminds me of one of my camping trips.....when a park ranger came and woke us up in the wee hours of the morning and yelled at us for not putting our cooler in the car overnight.... b/c of bears, though, not bison.

Partha said...

Reading this has been and incredible experience. It really transports you. It wouldn't be out of place to thank you for doing such a wonderful piece...Thanks its always a pleasure to read your blog

Partha said...

And I forgot to mention... though I'm quite irregular, I look forward to your next post

Anil P said...

To Anni: Thanks, for the comment, and the offer of interview.

To Bluemountainmama: Thank you, and that sure would have made the camping trip something to remember if the bears had come calling :)

To Partha: It's a pleasure to know that you enjoyed reading the Nilgiris experience, makes all the effort feel worthwhile. I'll be out with the next one shortly. Thank you.

Shailja said...

Thank you for visiting my site. I havent spent much time reading blogs but yours is quite interesting and I loved the way you write - one can almost reach India through your travelogue :) Great writing and I also liked the snaps that you took.

Cuckoo said...

Your blog is AWESOME !! You write really well, well descriptive post and the pictures are equally descriptive. Looks quite interesting, will read through it slowly and assuring you of my regular visits here. :))

You are quite an old blogger (I am just 4 months old).

Thanks for visiting my blog. Keep visiting.

Gangadhar said...

wow..i can visualise for myself..nice travel tale...liked it,Anil..
'll wait for next part..
btw gud to see u on moi blog..
keep visiting.

Anil P said...

To Shailja: Thanks.

To Cuckoo: :) Not that old, picked up steam over the year. Thank you.

To Gangadhar: Thank you. The next part is in the pipeline.

Anil P said...

To Sachin S: Thanks for the message. Send me your mail id. Howz the new job getting on?

backpack_everyday said...

Wow a lot of those things sound much familiar....Btw ur writing is extremely good .I would need a little more time to explore ur previous posts.
Great job Anil...

Ash said...

Sounds like a great trip!

Thanks for visiting my blog Anil!

Arunima said...

I was transported there for a moment.

Been planning to write about my trip to Mulshi at Pune but have't been able to.

Good one.

anan said...

when is the next piece coming

Anil P said...

To backpack_everyday: Thank you. To anyone who's traveled many a Indian mile, there is a familiar undercurrent to all that is different, and even new. That is what I would call a common pulse to the land we breathe of so freely.

To Ash: It sure was. It's a pleasure.

To Arunima: That was the whole purpose of writing it, to transport. Thank you. It's nice to know that it is possible to identify with a piece of India that we call our own.

To Anan: Today. It's already up on the blog.

saran2sai (R.Saravanan) said...

Really your blog was an excellent piece of journalism.. i hope you would very much fit in as a travelogue writer... of course, your use of terse words, though of some tough vocabulary, gives a very descriptive narration leading to a logical climax... both the content and tone of the blog is very nice... why don't you send it to the newspaper magazines so that people who have no access to internet (old people) can also enjoy it if they like travelogue as a subject...