‘The Land of Misty Mornings’:Travelogue by Rahana Habeeb

Here is a beautiful travelogue penned by Rahana Habeeb from Thiruvananthapuram. She were placed in the second position in the travelogue writing competition conducted by Kerala Forwst and Wildlife Department.

when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”!
Paulo Coelho,The Alchemist.

All human life is nothing but a journey. They keep moving each and every moment to fulfill it, make it worthy. To find out the meaning of life what people do and don’t do. They try out all possible ways. When it comes to me, I have taken a camera in my hand and started to explore. I found the journeys are the easiest way to learn, grow and explore the treasures in nature and thus to recognize how blessed we are. In a way it was finding the purpose of my life and fulfilling my dreams.

The winter season just got over and summer is yet to start. I took my backpack and set off to Nelliyampathy hills which is on the northern side of Kerala, to be precise in Palakkad district. I have to take the night train from Trivandrum to Palakkad and then from there two buses to reach my destination. But fortunately one of my friends who stay in Palakkad promised to drop me at Nelliyampathi in his car. People go to Paris to see the magnificent Eiffel Tower, to Canada to witness the mighty Niagara falls, though there are many such treasures there which are either explored or unexplored. Similarly my journey to Nelliyampathi hills was for something for which the place was quiet famous for. To witness the magnificent state bird of Kerala, The Great Indian Hornbill.

Locally known as the Malamuzhakki Vezhambal. The bird which I have seen only the pictures till now and which has many peculiarities to become the state bird.Palakkad, a north district in Kerala, quiet famous as the Granary of Kerala. Vast vistas of paddy field surrounded by swirling palmyras and a range of mountains at the backyard,a continuation of Nilgiri mountain ranges. But for me it is much more than that. It’s the place where the world famous novel Khasakkinte Ithihasam by the renowned Malayalam writer O.V. Vijayan has taken its origin. Each and every piece of landscape reminds me the scenes of the novel. But so far I haven’t explored the land other than passing through occasionally by train. At present, Palakkad is a call of the wild too for me since then I took a camera in my hand. The evergreen Silent Valley, The cool wilderness of Parambikulam Tiger Sanctuary and the hills of Nelliyampathi which are unknown to me till today. Without wasting much of time after breakfast we started off to Nelliyampathy as I was eager to chase my dream. Palakkad –Nenmara-Pothundi dam-Nelliyampathi.

This is the route map my friend gave me. While driving he gave me a complete note of Nelliyampathi as he is a journalist and explored the land a number of times in regard to his profession. Though still another month for summer, the tall teak trees near Pothundi dam shed down its leaves reminded me of the draught seen in some movies. A brahmini kite juvenile posed for me some seconds before swooping into the dam for its daily meal .It was rather easy for the bird to pick something from the dam as the water level went down due to the scorching heat.The sheer curiosity of a photographer aroused me when we saw a group of peopleholding their cell phones and pointing something down while covering the hairpin curves to Nelliyampathi top one by one .Suddenly we stopped the car and I ran towards them mostly expecting to see an elephant or herd of it .They were quiet amused to see my camera and said “Ma’m we were trying to capture something from there with our mobiles and you will surely get a good photo as you are have a superb camera”. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at the branch they were pointing .It was something unusual. A least expected thing for sure. A heavy thing coiled around the branch. I could see the face turn towards the other direction. The tail is somewhere down. My goodness it’s a huge snake my mind said. Rajavempala, someone said from behind. Very rarely I have seen snakes in my life, and that too many of them at the zoo and nothing much around my surroundings and they are one of the scariest thing for me forever. And here I see a King Kobra, one of the most venomous snakes on the earth!! For a moment I could went frozen. A gap of two seconds and I came back to my conscience. As soon as I checked out the shape of the subject, I clicked some snaps .And while I was taking the clicks I saw its face turning slowly towards me and check out me.Now we were facing each other and before that happened itself I was sitting down to get the perfect clicks. Immediately I got some head on shots. The camera in my hand is always a pillar of strength for me .It gives some sort of courage to handle any situationsduring my explorations.I heard someone murmuring from behind .It spit venom like a fountain and there is no anti venom in India, and its available only in Thailand. “May be I should listen to this warning than give the extremely wild species to do something strange”. I told myself. I vanished into the car leaving the crowd there to have more fun of the situation. I wanted to scream. I could not express the excitement of taking the pictures of a King Kobra. I have made it. Though I was silent my heart was bouncing with joy. I have got my first brownie points of this trip. Now what more are waiting on my way. Let it be as surprising as the first one. A small note on King Kobra here would be better I think. The King Cobra Snake (Ophiophagus hannah) is the largest venomous snake in the world. The King Cobra snake is also perhaps the most dangerous snake in the world where humans are concerned. Under conditions of high prey availability they can reach a length of 18.5 feet. Several people die from the bite of the King Cobra each year. A King Cobra can even kill an elephant.

Nelliyampathi forest IB was a cool place. I checked in before noon. Had a simple Kerala meal from the local dining place. My friend returned after dropping me. Nelliyamapathi a well-known place for the plantation crops right from the British Era. In the middle of the forest one can see a variety of plantations like tea, coffee, oranges, organic vegetables, spices and so on. Mostly the inhabitants are from tribal community and estate workers from the neighbouring state Tamil Nadu. The local Malayalees are less compared to the above two classes. My exploration started as soon as my guide from IB reported. He had arranged a jeep driver too, to take us to different places of Nelliympathi. I kept my eyes and camera open.

We parked the jeep on one corner of the road below the coffee plantations. While coming to the spot also we were looking at each and every big tree on the way for hornbills. I used to see some hornbills daily during my usual jeep trips, now when we are looking for it, there is none. My jeep driver said to pacify me as well as him. We walked on the road, checking all tall tress to get a glimpse. My guide,when down to check some of his familiar spots. I was having an intuition that this walk will not go futile. But still the sun is about to set and light is going down. The light starts diminishing in the forest areas very fast during sunset time. I was a bit upset about the ambience. The cab man went little ahead of me, searching for a familiar tree. As I was proceeding further I could feel something heavy going from the side of my left shoulder, like a heavy shadow. It went and settled on the branch of a jack fruit tree. I was awestruck. I wanted to scream at the driver that there is a Hornbill, right in front of me. But no voice came out from me. For the first time am seeing a mighty hornbill. The big yellow beak, the yellow casque, and the yellow neck, black body with white borders at the wings and tail end, the red eyes , the royal elegant look .A proud moment for me for being a Keralite, that I belong to a state where such a beautiful magnificent bird crowns as the state bird. A treat for my eyes as well as the camera. I was very much surprised also, as there was no sound of its coming. It was a silent entry. I went on clicking as many as possible. Suddenly I saw something in between its big yellow beak. It looked like a bunch of fruits. My happiness knew no bounds. I was expecting a frame of the hornbill with a fruit in its beak and here I got one with a whole bunch of fruits in its beak. Suddenly the bunch of fruits startedshaking. A moment of embarrassment for me. Suddenly I realized the bunch of fruit was nothing but a tiny bird. A Rufous woodpecker. That small bird was trying for its life from the big beaks. The hornbill has one of the wings of the tiny bird in its mouth. The rest of the body of the small bird is shaking. My third surprise for the day. Till then I never knew that hornbills would eat up small birds too. I heard some sound of exclamation from behind, turned to see my guide standing awestruck. Ma’m this is new information for me too. I never knew that Hornbills will prey on small birds too, he said. The return journey to IB was very light hearted one as we finished the main job of this trip. Three surprises in one single day. I could not ask for more. While coming back we had some superb tea and hot crispy snacks from some local tea shops. The three of us were very happy due to the unexpected sight we had witnessed just before a few minutes.

The next day again I witnessed one of the most dramatic scene in my life. A transparent curtain covers the entire Nelliyamapathi landscapes. It was so heavenly. The hornbills fly through this curtain like a dream happening right in front of your open eyes. I actually felt like watching a movie on the silver screen. And every morning I have witnessed this misty morning. I just reaffirmed myself that Nelliyampathi is most beautiful at the early \mornings. The dew drops on the grass blades, the beautiful stretch of tea plantations covered in a thick curtain of mist, the soft rays of sun peeping out from the fog is needless to say, truly blissful. I explored places one by one. Kesavanpara, where one could witness the most beautiful sunset ever, Seetharkund where one gets the view of the cliff and the mountain goat Nilgiri tahr , most commonly known as Varayad grazing on the cliff and a far view of Tamil Nadu at the other end of the valley. There is a general misconception that Nilgiri Tahrs are found only in Eravikulam National Park at Munnar Raajamalai. The fact is that they are found in most grass lands at the hill top like Ponmudi, Nizhalmudi at Silent Valley National Park and all. And above all I found Nelliyamapathi is a bird’s paradise too. One could see a variety of birds like parrots, barbets, pigeons, eagles, owls and the list goes on and ends in the malamuzhakki vezhambal , The Great Indian Hornbill. The helicopter sound of the hornbill flight, the curious look of brown fish owl, the green pigeon with nesting materials in its beak, the romancing parrots. My heart and camera were so full. One night we went to witness the elephant herd vandalizing a plantation area.

All these days I tried my best to get a frame, the flying shot of hornbill at the background of the blue sky. And so far I was not fortunate enough though. Today is the date of my return and the last bus to Nenmara is around 5.30. Now it’s almost 4.30 and I am still wandering for the shot. Someone said about a fig tree near one corner of the estate road where vezhambal used to come to collect fruits for its nesting partner. And here I am just some distance away from the fig tree, waiting to see the dedicated loving husband with my camera. I was tensed because if I don’t get the correct bus I may miss the train. I would then have to spend the night at the railway station which was not a good idea. My heart was swinging between the frame and the return journey. I became nervous, helpless. At five I decided to go back to the room to get my things and start off my return journey. My jeep driver and guide were praying wholeheartedly for me to get at least a glimpse of the hornbill. Day time we saw many hornbills sitting on the tree branches, preening its feathers, sleeping on the branch, making sound and so on. But all of them were in leaf clutter. It was difficult to get a clear frame. This is my last chance in this trip. But it is almost the time. We were about to turn towards the jeep, when suddenly I saw a black eagle. I have turned my eyes from the fig tree and focused my camera towards the black eagle. Suddenly my jeep driver called out “ma’m see a vezhambal. I turned towards the fig tree. Don’t know how to describe it, as a pleasant surprise or a god gifted moment. I saw big huge hornbill collecting fruits in its beak. The camera shutter went up and down suddenly for two sometime. Two three minutes passed by. Now the hornbill seems to have collected enough fruits. It was ready for its take off. And I do not know whether it will fly away to the other end or will come towards my direction. Giving me the last surprise for the day, it shook off its wings, gave the helicopter blade rotating sound and flew away over my head. I was with my mouth wide open clicked endlessly. Both jeep driver and guide were much happier than me as if God listened to their prayers. They smiled at me beautifully. I too was also full of smiles.

The return journey, as usual like other journeys, has been very difficult .Two buses and then train at night. And since it was Friday, the bus was fully packed with the estate workers going back to their places. I was hanging on the hand rail over my head with one hand, with my camera and stuffs as a shoulder bag and the other bag in my other hand. The passengers seemed quite amused to see me, showing each and every place worth for photography whenever the bus took a turn. And finally one more surprise on the way. My fellow passengers were expecting to see an elephant or a herd of it any .I found my last and final surprise of this trip on the road. An Indian Pita, a tiny migratory bird from the mighty Himalaya, sitting on the road. I could not believe my eyes. I could not even take a record shot of it as the camera and lens were in the bag in detached position. But still I was immensely happy .Seeing a rare bird itself is a happiest thing for me. It is a sign that I may come across this bird in a better circumstances next time. The land of misty mornings became one of my favorite spots since then!!