Monday, October 22, 2012

Authors, Poets & Woodcrawling - Part 2: Agumbe & the elusive Hamadrayd

Link to previous post is here

6th October, 2012

As I had mentioned in my last post I was in Udupi to be a part of the Alumini Meet hosted by my college. The meet was scheduled to for 6.30 PM on Saturday but since we had taken a night train from Palakkad we were deposited in Mangalore station at 4.30 AM. Fortunately, the taxi agency had sent the car to pick us up and we were in Udupi by 6.30 AM.

We had 12 hours at our disposal so I had planned to utilize the day to make a trip to Agumbe. The road passes through Someshwara WLS and the drive itself is beautiful.

Agumbe, for those unfamiliar with the name, is nothing more than a little junction with a few houses and government buildings clustered around. It's claim to fame is that it is the 'rainiest' place in all of South India and second only to Cherrapunji. It was identified as the perfect habitat for the Hamadryad or the King Cobra by Romulus Whittaker and the main purpose of my visit was to drop in at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS), established by him in 2005 for research on the King Cobra and the ecology of the rainforest in which it lived.

I lived in Manipal between January of 1985 and June of 1996 and had traveled up the Agumbe Ghats or more than one occasion, mainly as a part of the team conducting cataract screening camps in rural Karnataka. Agumbe was just a village on the route because there was nothing much there to stop over for. The only place, in those days. to get decent food was in Thirthahalli, 30 kilometers away.As a student and later as faculty the beauty of nature in and around Udupi and Shimoga bypassed me. Perhaps, the beaches and parties were to blame!

As I researched Agumbe I realized that 12 hours was too short to explore this pristine area but since I had made up my mind I decided I'd use this opportunity to recce the area before planning a longer trip. One of my friends put me through to someone in Karkala who informed me that the smallest trek around Agumbe would need half a day. It was disappointing. My search for the Hamadryad would have to wait. Besides, it seemed that the rain God's aren't partial to anyone. The failure of the monsoon had its effect in Agumbe too. The reputation as the second most 'rainiest' place in India sounded hollow as we reached Sunset Point at the top of the ghat road.

 The bonnet macaques were also busy grooming themselves in the warm sun occasionally reaching out for the tidbits thrown by passing tourist.

One of them seemed pretty upset with a hoarding that was blocking it's route up the hill and it was going about systematically tearing it up. I guess the simian's action was justified since the eyesore was put on the road side where there is hardly any space for parking.


There was not a rain cloud in sight and the place was crowded with day trippers. It was supposed to be a bandh in Karnataka to protest against the Supreme Court's decision on release of Cauvery waters to Tamilnadu but the people in this part of the world were seemingly unaffected.

The view was great but it was not time for sunset so we drove on towards Agumbe.

No rains meant more crowds & less chances for an encounter with leeches and king cobras. We decided to push on to Kuppalli and do the ARRS on our return leg. (So the rest of this narrative is actually the part of our drive on the way back from Kuppalli.)

The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS), is not on the road side and there is no board or sign post to show you the way. Once you reach Agumbe, from Udupi, the road that goes straight ahead from the junction is to Sringeri.

The road to Thirthahalli and Shimoga turns left and goes past the bus station on your right.

 A 100 meters down the road is a group of houses with a board of the local chicken center hanging on the fence. Turn left onto the mud track between the houses and follow your instinct! If you happen to cross a church or a bridge after Agumbe on the main road, you have most likely shot past the track to ARRS (like us!). Make a U-turn and keep your eyes peeled for that little board  with the picture of a chicken!

The ARRS lies at the very end of the track. The forest department has started fencing off the jungle now so I guess you'll have a fence to guide you in the not too distant future. The issue is that as the track proceeds it becomes narrower, barely sufficient for a car to pass. Even if a motorcycle comes opposite to you you'll probably have to back up. A better option would be to park your vehicle just before the narrow stretch and walk down the last 100 meters or so.

The ARRS is an old farmhouse, renovated to be used as a research center. The researchers usually stay onsite with a few permanent staff. We were hoping to meet Gowri Shankar but we were a little too late. He was away, apparently doing a PhD somewhere. I was told that the King Cobra project was for a period of 5 years and the Karnataka forest department (KFD) had not renewed the permit for the team to enter & research in the surrounding jungles. The current researcher was doing something on the snake headed fish but he was still waiting for his forest entry permit! KFD also has been grappling with a naxalite problem which is probably why they are wary of give new permits now.

The elusive Hamadryad would continue to remain elusive till our next visit. I walked down the track for a little distance hoping to see some movement in the undergrowth but the only thing that caught my eye were a pair of amorous bugs!

As we drove back towards the village my wife spotted three hornbills on a tree. I wasn't prepared for birds. I had come with a head filled with images of reptiles, amphibians and bugs so the camera I had packed was not meant for birding. Even if I could switch lenses the reach of a 150mm would have been inadequate from our position. Besides, birds aren't going to be waiting for you to do that. I just jumped out of the car and scampered back to the tree. Unfortunately, it wasn't going to be my day. The birds were off looking for better prospects on some other tree. From one grainy shot (due to the inbuilt 2x Digital Teleconvertor) it looked like juveniles of the Malabar or Lesser Pied Hornbill.

Back at the village we dropped by at Doddamane, made famous by R.K Narayan's  creation Swami. The TV serial "Malgudi Days" was shot in the 150 year old house and it is the only option for home stay in Agumbe. I have posted a separate blog for Doddamane because I think the BIG HOUSE deserves it.The inspection bugalow is apparently the other alternative but I didn't even bother to ask. I have a phobia about getting booted out of Goverment property at odd hours because some "babu" turned up!! Another option is the ARRS provided there are no volunteers of ongoing research staying.

We didn't stop at Sunset Point it was more crowded than the morning and cloudy too. Besides, we had a party to attend in Manipal......

(Please note: All the words highlighted in YELLOW above, open links related to that word)

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