The rain tumbles down, a gentle drizzle at first. It slowly gathers force, raising its tempo, drowning all sounds of nature. The green becomes greener but the sky wears a dark sheath of grey. The forests close in on us, the creepers magically entwining us into their world. I am warned that is going to be a wet and a wild weekend. But there is something about the rains in a tropical evergreen forest that brings out the real wild person in you. We are heading to Valparai, a plantation town, a hill station, a biodiversity hotspot and a tropical rainforest – all rolled into one. Located in the Anamalai range of the Western Ghats, this is one of the most pristine spots in Tamil Nadu.
The rains become a part of the landscape as we stop for the first glimpse of the Anamalais. The mountains are in your face and intimidating, but the scenery is breathtaking. Low-hanging clouds merging with the mist, playing hide and seek with the mountains, roaring waterfalls, quiet lakes – there is no dearth of them. I count the many shades of blues and greens as the weather turns nippy. The road curves and the winding hairpin bends treat me to some of the most beautiful vistas of nature. There are about forty of them and the mist comes calling as we climb uphill.
The rains come down in full force, but sometimes it is the gentle drop that drips from the ferns and leaves that refreshes you. I feel a gamut of emotions inside me. Initially it is all about gay abandon, then the rains rejuvenate you as the forests come alive. Then, as the earth gets wet and the skies are forever wrapped in dark clouds veiling the sun out of view, you long for some warmth. However, the rainforest eventually wraps you into a world of magic, a world which is green, misty and wet. There are ferns and orchids everywhere with droplets of water dripping from them. The mist and the rains take turns to come calling. The waterfalls beckon. I learn to ignore the leeches and lose myself in the roaring cascades. And, for a moment, I almost throw my umbrella and raincoats and rain poncho and let the rains drench me to the bone.
There are patches of tropical evergreen forests and then there are rolling tea and coffee estates. But it is in this rich biodiversity hotspot that some of the endangered and endemic species live, fighting for survival. And I am hoping to spot a few of them – from the critically endangered primate, the lion-tailed macaque, to the Nilgiri Tahr, to the Great Hornbill among several others.
Our journey comes to a halt as we have company on the road. A herd of Nilgiri Tahr is effortlessly climbing uphill, only to lock horns and engage in a mock fight. The birds call as a lone Nilgiri Tahr comfortably sits high up in the grassy patch overlooking the valley.
We look for the endangered primates -- the lion-tailed macaques -- and find them in their own world, blissfully unaware of the dangers that face them. Today, there are barely a few hundreds of them in the Anamalais. Locals, NGOs and wildlife conservationists are striving to protect these species in this pristine environment. Some villagers learn to coexist with these primates as we see them in their own habitat, busy with their day.
The birds are next on our agenda. We spot woodpeckers, eagles, babblers, coucals, thrushes and mynahs but the moment I have been waiting for is yet to arrive. We squint through the greenery and look for the Great Indian Hornbill. As we almost give hope, we see them hiding amidst the leaves. We wait patiently and see the majestic colourful birds fly away, a spectacle to behold and an image that will never fade away from my eyes.
We head out in the night to catch a glimpse of flying squirrels gliding gracefully from the trees. We look for frogs, civets, insects and several other nocturnal creatures and attempt to photograph a few with our macro lens.
Valparai is not just a tourist destination. It is a journey through the forests that opens our eyes to conservation, to the shrinking rainforests and to endangered species. We go on a wilderness trail across lush forests, encountering wildlife, soaking in the waterfalls and getting drenched in the rains, learning a bit about wildlife photography, and understanding the biodiversity of the region from conservationists.
It is an understatement to say Valparai is beautiful. The plantations and the forests present a fabric of green. The mists are everywhere; rivers and waterfalls follow you wherever you go. And, the legend goes, that an old man called Velu claims to have “seen God” in the human form here. Velu still comes to the viewpoint at Seen God or Nalamudi Poonjolai everyday, hoping for a second darshan. You should probably believe him, because in that rich dense canopy, there is a possibility that God does exist somewhere.