Friday, 19 October 2007

The real netherworld

‘Zhili bili’, as SJ Gould substituted for the dull phrase ‘Once upon a time’, the grandmother of the lord Thunder wanted to change the course of the Someshwari river, now called the Simsang river and she picked up a huge boulder from an area notified now as the Balpakram National Park. She wanted to block the river and divert the waters to make the land fertile for agriculture. Tired as she was, she went on slowly when suddenly a cock crowed and Thunder was awakened. In fear she deposited the boulder in what forms now the Chutmang peak and scurried away. Now the Garos say that the Chutmang peak is the exact shape of the valley upturned and have kept the story alive for many generations. Both the pictures below are at the same scale on google earth. Doesn’t seem like a good fit!

Chutmang peak forms the north-western part of the Balpakram national park which is spread over an area of about 300 sq. km. About three months earlier when I visited the peak, we did find tiger pug marks close to the peak near a cave. The park is unique because it was actually bought from the communities by the Forest Department in an effort to protect the wildlife of the region. I had been working with the group ‘Samrakshan’ for about five months and was waiting for an opportunity to get to the park. Such a fortune knocked at my door when Dr. Kashmira, Dr. Christy Williams and Nandini from Valparai came by to Baghmara to do just the same. Christy had earlier done a study on elephants in the region about a decade ago and was very excited to be there.

Nimesh from Samrakshan and the rest of us reached the Mahadeo guest house by about 2 pm and later we went to the famous helipad within the national park, yes a helipad inaugurated by none other than the late Shri Rajiv Gandhi. From there we saw a little less grand canyon. Christy told us that no one had explored the depths of the valley and I thought that for once I did see virgin forests in my life, so that’s a life not wasted! We returned to the Mahadeo camp and took a walk into the park in the evening and the first sighting that excited us was a tusker that Christy claims he had seen earlier during his study. Here is the picture of the big-guy.
Later in the night we took another walk in the forest looking for nocturnal mammals and Nandini had promised us she would show us flying squirrels. But we walked for almost an hour and didn’t see any and we got back to the camp and dozed off into a pleasant sleep. Morning me and Nandini started our walk at 530 am and in the next 15 minutes spotted two Himalayan yellow-throated martens. It was a misty morning and photography was not an option. By the time I ran back to the camp and called Christy and Kashmira, the martens had scooted, and we carried on our walk ahead looking for other mammals and birds.

Later in the day, Kashmira told us about hoolock gibbons, whom she had studied for her PhD. She told us that gibbons start calling late in the morning after they have fed for a while and she imitated the calls to perfection as well. Later in the day we saw a Malayan giant squirrel, up close since the guy was habituated to people and lived close to the forest department quarters.
In the evening we decided to get back since Kashmira and others had to leave the next day. But on the way we got off the vehicles and walked in Baghmara reserve forest which was dominated by Sal trees. After walking for more than an hour looking for squirrels, we found a loris, it was my first sighting of the slow loris, so I was ecstatic.

So, for a trip that lasted only about two days we had quite a few sightings! In fact it seems that in the land where souls of people and not people reside do support a lot of wildlife!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The trip to zuko, zuko...

‘Have cool, will travel’ was the motto of that trip in the year 2005, obviously picked up from a Megadeth’s song, who picked it up from where? I will let images speak louder than words, but to give you the general sequence of things…

Me and a good friend from Manipur, Bobby and his friends met at Kohima in July 2005, to get to Dzukou valley. We spent an evening buying supplies, with the adventurous thought of living up in a cave, trying to feel nostalgic about what homosapiens did thousands of years ago. Apart from that, more importantly, we wanted to see the valley half submerged in pink with the mass-flowering of the endemic lily, Lilium chitrangadae.

Thats Jakhama, the place (12 km away from Kohima) the trek begins from. The walk from Jakhama to the valley took us through a gradient of disturbed evergreen forests; initially up heavily human-modified forests and later into rhododendron patches and then down to the valley. Bro, our friend, who likes to be called nothing else but 'Bro', told us we need to keep shouting "Juko juko", if I could post an audio clip on the blog, I could tell you phonetically!

The walk was a bit tiring, amateur trekkers that we were; the walk took us six hours, I think the valley is about 10 km, not counting the angle-effort from Jakhama. We reached, and lo the valley was breathtaking, take a look...Mount Iso from Manipur is hiding behind the clouds.

Once we saw the valley, everything was relaxed and it was as if we just switched in to a zone where time stands still! We walked on and on looking for caves to stay. The ones nearby were all taken since July is the prime season when local kids visit the valley too. Here and there small shrubs were in bloom some white, some yellow and most pink, for the lily was in bloom. Everybody we met seemed happy; it was as if in the tranquility of the valley everyone was at peace. We moved on and found a small cave, enough for four of us and we parked. Heres the cave we booked for two days!

Next what, we needed a bath, enough to override the fact that the water was chilling. We braved in and bliss drowned us. Don’t we look happy? That’s me and bro.

The night was full of stars and we saw three satellites moving together in a triangular shape, and we couldn’t believe it was happening. Bro had taken some smoke before and we were wondering if we were affected too! We cooked noodles and in the small fire we made, bro dumped in the corn we bought. It was only then I realized that corn, when put into fire without peeling gets boiled and not roasted. We had forgotten chillies, but in the cave somebody had left salt, some masala and chilles in a cover(for us?). After the corn was ready with the dao our local friend ‘Pashchata’ carried we cut in strips of corn into the maggi and it was a sumptuous meal. We did not tell the maggi company otherwise they would have patented this recipe!

Morning was full of walks around the valley. We did see the lily up close and its looks subtly beautiful, check it out.

And in the gently undulated grassy slopes, Bobby was occasionally meditating, the person in the picture is bobby and not a girl!

We spent another two days in the valley, meeting and greeting people and occasionally grabbing a bath from the nearby dzukou river. The river freezes in winter and me and bobby promised we would be back some winter of our lives; that hasn’t happened yet. As the convention goes whatever we could not finish, like food and goods we left in the cave for the next batch that would live in the cave, just the way somebody left chillies for us!

Here are some of the conservation problems in the valley. As it happens, there might be few places on earth un-affected by the destructive ways we humans adopt.
* Everybody who comes to the valley writes in their names on the rocks, take a look at the cave picture. If there was a way to prevent this, the valley can retain its natural state.
* People dump covers all over the valley and these look definitely out of place.
* The locals burn the rhododendrons and once the trees are leafless, call it dead wood and use the same for fuel wood. There must be something the Forest Department can do about this. Afterall there could be an alternative of less conservation value for fuelwood than rhododendrons.

Me and Bobby also promised we have something to give back to the valley, a campaign to follow up the above, hasn’t happened yet and these thoughts are indeed cached in our head and hearts somewhere and we will return to follow up on the cause.

Cheers to other wander-lusty people.