Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Greener Side of Andamans - Part 2 : Mt. Harriet's Trekking Secrets

Prologue: I am a certified 'green' guy and that is why I coined the term 'woodcrawler'. One free day, and I'm off searching for some place green to wander around in. So when the trip to the Andamans came up my green antennae started quivering. I wanted to do something different and go off the beaten track. Andamans have, besides the beaches and coral reefs, large tracts of virgin rain forests. While researching for detailed information on trekking in the Andaman's rainforests I realized how little information is available on this. The purpose of this post is to help other woodcrawlers make a start.

Of Leeches & Lizards....

When you get off the flight in the Veer Sarvarkar International Airport at Port Blair the thing that is very obvious are the clothes worn by the passengers disembarking with you. There are all  sorts of reds, blues, yellows and oranges but rarely green! I guess that has something to do with what most people do when they go to the Andamans; jump the clear blue waters of the Bay of Bengal! It is therefore, very rarely anyone gets off the plane in olive green because that is a colour associated with the forests. I belong to this breed of creatures who will search out the nearest patch of green even in a city!

I realized very quickly that my grandiose plans to do three treks and some snorkeling would not materialize for two reasons. The book release function, mentioned in the last post, itself was not sorted out fully so I could not 'fix' a plan. The weather was not looking very good and the timing of our trip to Havelock was also uncertain.  I just about managed to squeeze in a trip to Chidiya Tapu on the evening I landed (see previous post) but a trek there had to be abandoned. Mount Harriet was the next on the agenda and I was determined to do at least one serious attempt, weather notwithstanding.

5th September, 2013

It seemed that the 'best laid plans of mice & men' jinx was following me. I had instructed the driver of my cab to report at my hotel at 8 AM. The drive to Mt.Harriet itself passed through a lot of areas rich in water birds so I thought I'd go by road instead of taking a shortcut by ferry. 8.30 AM and no sign of my transport so I called the driver but he tells me his boss hadn't given him any instruction. I wondered if that driver was deaf or had poor memory. He was the one who told me that he would be there outside my guest house at 8 AM!

Anyway, the taxi operator sent a substitute vehicle a little after 9 AM but I was wondering if it would be worthwhile anymore. As I mulled over the possibilities I realized my car was standing in a queue to board a ferry at the Chatham Jetty! For a moment I felt my blood boil. It seemed that all the drivers I got were either  deaf or morons. I had told him I wanted to go by road and here he was waiting to board a ferry. Then realization dawned on my muddled head; Providence had intervened.

If I had driven by road I'd have reached Mt.Harriet for lunch, considering the amount of time I usually spend coaxing the feathered kind to pose for me! My lunch, Gagan's biryani, was to be picked up by my sister and carried to Ross Island where we were supposed to meet and have a picnic with some carnivorous chitals! So there was nothing on me, save a bottle of water and chewing gum! If I had gone by road, I'd have collapsed due to hypoglycemia in some corner of Mt.Harriet National Park! Luckily, my driver decided that I was an idiot and did the next sensible thing!

The alternate route, and the shorter one is to take the ferry (one every half hour) to Bambooflat across the channel. The ferry ride is 15 minutes and you may have to wait for 10 to 15 minutes after boarding. If you don't have a vehicle of your own you can cross by ferry and hire one of the rickety jeeps standing outside the ferry terminal.

From Bambooflat it is a 15 minute drive uphill. The Mt.Harriet National Park gate is about 3 kms before the summit where you have to pay a small fee for your vehicle and yourself. The nice gentleman did not charge me for my camera. Once you reach the top there is a forest rest house like in Chidiya Tapu, which can be booked from Port Blair. Unless you are very keen on a trek early in the morning you'd be better off staying in Port Blair. There is a short path from the FRH to the view point and there is a board showing the direction to the trek path beside it. The actual trek is some 14 kilometers and goes all the way down the hill to the Madhuban beach. If you can get a boat to pick you up (I'm not sure if it's possible) you can make it back to Port Blair faster.

 It is a downhill trek mostly with a few ups and downs. Going forward is less tiring but the return can sap you if you are unprepared. It is a RAINFOREST on the coast. Humidity is high, and the canopy does not let in much sunlight but it makes you sweat in bucketfuls so carry plenty of water. If you are afraid of encountering wild animals, your fears are misplaced. There are wild pigs but you rarely see them. Reptiles will be there but they won't pounce on you unless you get careless with them. Don't mess with them, just let them be.

The walk had me floored, literally. I had arrived in the wrong season so there was an intermittent drizzle. The ground underfoot was covered with rotting leaves so it was difficult to assess how firm it would be. Sometimes my feet sank into the mud, sometimes it gave way that I almost slipped on my bottom. Throughout the two hours I spent walking the trail I only encountered six people. It was like being in an Indiana Jones movie.

Sunlight rarely penetrates to the forest floor so it was wet and slushy. Even the trees were wet and covered with green moss.

I was hoping to encounter some snakes but it just wasn't my day. There wasn't enough sunlight to draw them out for their warming up. Lizards were everywhere and I'd have missed them if I hadn't been looking for the snakes.

It was obvious they weren't exposed to the presence of humans because they did not attempt to run away even when I went close to them. They just hunkered down and waited for me to pass.

Every step forward took me into a totally different world. I was alone, with no particular agenda or pressures of the outside world. Gagan's biryani had disappeared from my thoughts 10 minutes into the trek! I do not know how the rainforests of South America or Borneo are but this was a special place, and it is in India!
"My personal pool"

A strange snail

Obstacle course

Reaching for the skies

When you walk this track, it is like God envelopes you in your personal cocoon, with music from the invisible birds and insects around you.

Love does strange things! A tree hugging giant creepper.

Straight out of the movie 'Avatar' ...Mother Tree

I was too busy searching the roots and rotting logs for signs of reptiles that I lost sense of time. The rain forest does that to you. Every step brings into view something beautiful that your feet don't move.

When your feet don't move they are magnets for a certain friendly little creature called the LEECH! Mt.Harriet's forest has it's share of leeches but even the most queasy individual will fall in love with them! They are brown, slimy & very, very tiny compared to some I've seen in other places. I guess that is because there are no warm blooded creatures worth mentioning in these forests. The occasional wild pigs are the only ones the leeches on the forest floor can feed on.

Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw a sudden movement and I thought "Snake!".  Unfortunately it wasn't a snake but there was this little fellow on a fallen log with one leg up in midair.
Spot the reptile!

If that shaft of sunlight hadn't hit his head and upraised leg, he'd have got away without any attention from me. He kept his posture despite my poking my camera almost into his nose. The only thing that moved was that shifty eye!

He was so well camouflaged and I'd have missed him 8 out of 10 times without that sunshine falling on him. It was as if he was part of the moss on the log! That leg was always in the air. I let him be and moved on.

There is a small clearing about a kilometer and a half from the view point, with two narrower paths going off at right angles to the main track. They looked like potential areas for snakes so I went into one of them. It was getting narrower and steeper as I progressed and there was clayey wet soil underfoot. I was alone and with a bad back I decided that discretion was better part of valor. If I went slip-sliding down no one would know. I back tracked, marking a way point on my GPS. I have to come back here again.......

There is so much on Mt. Harriet if you are a woodcrawler. I was thinking, if I could go down to Madhuban beach on the first day, camp over and look for the robber crabs and salt water crocs, then return early morning back to the top; it would be a wonderful experience. Any takers?!

On the way back my driver stopped at a point where you could see the light house. Apparently this was the scene printed on the back of the old 20 rupee note! I didn't have a 20 rupee note, old or new,  but you can check it if you have one on you!

As we reached the bottom of the hill I sighted the only significant bird that morning. A juvenile white bellied sea eagle sitting high on a bare tree. Too far for a good picture but still a picture for my records.

I'm coming back to Mt. Harriet and want to spend two days there........

Travel facts:
  • The best place to stay will be the Forest Rest House on Mt.Harriet so you can get an early start. Dawn comes early on these islands.
  • If you are staying in Port Blair you can reach Mt.Harriet in two ways. A longer (55 kms) drive by road through farm land and forest (if there is a birder in you), or the shorter route by catching the ferry from Chatham Saw Mill jetty to Bambooflat jetty (15 mins on the ferry). You can hire a jeep from Bambooflat to Mt.Harriet but ensure that the waiting time is discussed properly. The jeep drivers usually give you only an hour's stop at the top!
  • Carry food and water. There is nothing on top. The Forest Rest House will arrange food if you are booked in. High energy chocolate bars with water should see you through the trek. Of course, you can carry Gagan's biryani for lunch!
  • If you want to trek, wear a pair of trekking shoes. Your beach sandals are useless. Once the slush get on the sandal you have no grip and your sandal goes one way and foot the other!
  • If you dislike leeches wear a long pant or use gaiters. Leeches are harmless and their bites are painless. As a matter of fact, allowing them to feed on you cleanses your blood!
  • If you have a hand held GPS, carry it along with you, there are no guides for trekking. My Garmin could pick up the satellites despite the dense canopy. AGPS on your mobile phones might be useless.
  • Mt. Harriet is also supposed to be a good spot for birding but I guess my timing was wrong. I heard a few, saw next to nothing. If you plan to carry heavy gear for bird photography be very careful while walking, especially when it rains. Light is not good, and the trees are too tall so you need very, very long and fast lenses. The routine zooms may not be adequate for these forests. 
  • It is a good place to try out your macro & wide angle lenses. Carry them along. I assure you that you'll get better pictures than what I got. I was on a 'test trek' and had a light camera bag!
Watch this space for more on the Andamans............

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Greener Side of Andamans - Part-1

I'm not still sure which itch I enjoy most the most. A friendly leech bite in a rain forest or a sandfly nip on the beach. One thing I know, the friendly leech does not transmit any disease but the sandfly does. So if you plan a trip to Andaman's beaches make sure you pack some insect repellent along with your sunscreen lotion!

Having said that, I'm sure you are wondering why you are reading a blog about Andaman's friendlies in a page for woodcrawlers. Yes, this should rightfully fit in my earlier blog on Andaman because the word itself conjures up images of white sandy beaches and blue seas. However is has found it's place in the Woodcrawler's Journal because my trip this time had an agenda the did NOT include the beaches! I wanted see what Andaman's rain forests hid from our eyes, so this would be a trip to test the terrain for future trips!

Havelock Island has the best beaches in the Andaman's and the Radhanagar beach (Beach No.7) is reputed to be one of Asia's best. I had been here earlier, courtesy my sis & bro-in-law, and this time too I would not have been standing on this beach if not for their pushing!

4th September, 2013

I wasn't there for a holiday. I was doing a short trip of the islands because my brother-in-law's latest book, 'Adrift', was set in Andaman's. Since the book was based on a real life incident and most of the people involved were still in the Andaman's it was appropriate that the book also had an official launch in the place the events unfolded.

I had three and a half days to squeeze in a bit of green with the blue. I was probably the only person who got off the flight on 4th September with the intention to avoid the beaches and take in the greenery of Andaman instead! Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men are bound to go awry occasionally. For starters, the Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands had not been able to give a time so I couldn't fix up anything. Since the entire trip was centered around this event I had to be flexible. I wasn't sure how to be flexible, especially when the places I wanted to go to were is extremely different directions and sometimes across the sea.

Chidya Tapu or 'bird island' needed an overnight stay because evening wasn't ideal in Andaman's in September. Rains and the early sunset would ensure photography was severely restricted. I was told that a four hour trek in the morning would yield results not only in the form of birds but also reptiles. Unfortunately, that never happened because of our fluid agenda. I only got to make a quick evening trip.

Munda Pahar beach

In that half an hour I spent there I saw the emerald pigeon, black eagle, red breasted parakeet, Andaman wood pigeon, collared king fisher, a long tailed parkeet and what looked like an Andaman crake (but I'm not sure because it disappeared into the mangroves quickly). The last five are endemics in these islands. Photographing was an exercise in futility because of the weather and low light. Not only that, I had made the mistake of leaving my favourite birding lens, the Zuiko 300mm 2.8 + EC20 2x teleconvertor behind. I thought, since I was on a short trip I would be better off with less baggage! What a regretful decision?

Here are a few bird pics from Chidiya Tapu......not good at all, but will pass muster as record shots!

Andaman wood pigeons, (too far into the mangroves for a good shot).

Red breasted parakeet

Collared kingfisher

Long tailed parakeet
This pic below is just to show you how bad the light can get in the evenings.
Unedited pic (except resizing), to show the light at 5.12 PM in Chidiya tapu

If you are going birding in Andamans keep the following in mind.
  1. Never combine it with beach trips! Decide if your priority is birds or beaches! 
  2. Days start early, by 5 AM, and night falls quickly. It is almost pitch dark by 5.30 -5.45 PM!
  3. Carry your birding gear, however heavy it might be.
  4. Leave your slow lenses behind (see point 2 above).
  5. A 300mm lens will become a cropper here. Even the 400mm without a TC will be a tad inadequate. The trees in the Andamans are 'HUGE'. You could probably kiss the clouds if you climbed them so if the birds land on the top branches as they always do, you would really have a hard time! 
I know you are laughing, but the fact is, I goofed up and I want to make sure you don't! This was only day one. If you are a true Woodcrawler, you'll have the patience to wait for the next part.....Onam is here. Let me celebrate with my family.

Note: All the words highlighted in reddish-pink are links. Please click them for more info

Travel Facts:

  • The best option to get to Port Blair is by air unless you want to take  long ocean voyage! 
  • All flights land & take off before afternoon because landing and taking off with heavy tail winds is a problem for aircraft
  • This means you land around lunch time and leave before lunch! Since it gets dark early there is very little you can do on the day you land. You can take drive to nearby spots like the Corbyn's cove, visit the marine museum, shop and top off the evening with the Sound & Light show in the Cellular Jail. 
  • Chidiya Tapu is 25 kms from Port Blair. The only place to stay is the Forest Rest House for which the booking is done at the Chief Wildlife Warden's office in Port Blair . A new resort is coming up, owned by Commander Baath who figures in the book 'Adrift'. 
  • Early morning is the best time for birding. You can go scuba diving or snorkeling off Chidya Tapu rest of the day. You can contact Karan Baath, son of Commander Baath for your diving needs.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A leopard in wet weather

It was early August, with a monsoon that seemed indefatigable our hopes of a visit to Athirapalli, Meenvallam and the like had been effectively washed away. My son was getting restless and Bandipur was tugging again.

Monsoon wasn't the best time for Bandipur if the idea was to meet one of the predators. However, to us, a trip to Bandipur wasn't about tigers, leopards or dhole. Bumping along the familiar tracks was something we both enjoyed, even if it was wet weather. I decided a day off from school would not be a problem and we packed up and drove off.

9th August, 2013

The rains had been playing havoc with the highways and our usual route through Nilambur would have been risky. We had been reading about landslides all over Kerala and some had occurred on the road we usually took. It seemed, driving through Coimbatore, Satyamangalam and Chamarajanagar was safer though we would be traveling an extra 55 kilometers. An early start was in order since the four lane, widening work on the NH-47 had been revived. An hour's trip to Coimbatore now took twice as much time if you got the timing wrong. We decided to take the longer route through Velanthavalam off the Pollachi road. After breakfast in Coimbatore, we hit the Sathy road as the morning traffic was building up.

The stretch between Bannari and Hasanur goes through the Satyamangalam WLS. We had encountered gaur, elephants and sambar on some of our previous trips. We always slowed down on this part hoping for the unexpected. Nothing interrupted our drive except a grey francolin. These birds are found in small groups, foraging in gassy or scrub forests. I had been seeing a few of them the last few weeks but never managed a good shot of them.

We reached Bandipur Safari Lodge in time for lunch but an overcast sky wasn't  particularly mood elevating. The garden lizard cocked an eye at me, bobbed its head up and down and posed for me, despite a light drizzle.

The evening safari was a wet affair. The terrapin in the muddy pool looked like it had no care in the world. It was obviously enjoying our discomfiture since it did not disappear into the water at the sight of us!

The peacock was drying off.....

.... and even the normally shy black naped hare continued cropping the grass unperturbed by our presence!

The rain had slackened and the sun was peeping out of the clouds. My son suddenly hissed, "Papa, leopard!" At first I didn't see it because I was looking everywhere but forward. Then I saw it. Lying on the grass, not 50 feet from us. It was enjoying the warmth of the sun on its coat. The rain must a have made it cold and it was probably just starting to enjoy the sunshine when we blundered into it's presence.

It lay for a few minutes trying to ignore us but it seemed the clatter of the diesel vehicle made it uncomfortable. It got up and walked off....

.....then it turned back looked at us, went back off the track and marked its territory. Perhaps, it was ensuring that we knew who was the master of this part of the jungle.
 This was an unexpected bonus. We expected a green jungle with dense undergrowth that would hide all the predators but we ran into this magnificent creature, a male leopard in it's prime. All the leopards we had encountered in our trips to Bandipur had been in wet weather. I wonder if I should during the rains if I felt like seeing a leopard again!

10th August. 2013

The rain had let up overnight and the morning's drive seemed full of promise . I hadn't been down the Moyar valley for a long time and the monsoon seemed the best time for that. The jeep track divides into three at Mulapura. The track on the left goes to the dam and it was overgrown. With plenty of water animals wouldn't want to go there. Birds, of course, had no such restrictions!

The track to the right goes to the Moyar valley. It is very tortuous and runs downhill almost all the way. There are times I have wondered what we'd do if we encountered an ill tempered elephant as we went downhill but that has never happened. However, this time we met with this romantic pair.

She was sedately tearing up the succulent grass and munching on it calmly but her boyfriend wasn't looking very friendly.
He didn't seem very happy to see us and was showing signs of his annoyance. Signs of immaturity!
His girlfriend seemed to realize that her buddy was about to lose his cool and ambled over to calm him.
 Her presence seemed to soothe the young tusker and they turned around together to go deeper into the forest.
As the driver revved the engine, the pair turned around, trumpeted at us. Perhaps, reiterating their triumph over us puny creatures.
There are misfits everywhere but none like this chap I saw. He just couldn't avoid his iPad for a two hour safari. I wonder why they holiday in place like Bandipur?!

We got off for a brief stop at the Moyar view point. The river that separates Bandipur and Mudumalai was in full flow. The forest around was lush and green, looking very ideal for a trek!

The evening safari was practically, a wash out as this really wet and miserable peacock will testify.
It kept trying to shake itself dry but the rain wasn't making things easy. 

It just gave us a dejected look before it went back to staring a that 'middle distance', perhaps praying like us, for the rain to stop. 

Even the langur looking heavenward seemed to have a prayer in it's heart, "God. Please stop this rain."

Bandipur is good in summer but it's in it's greenest best after the Monsoons. Besides, the leopards always put on their show for me when it rains!