Saturday, September 17, 2011

“On the Tea Trail”

Tea, which was to be in use in the North and North-East, has found its home in much of India and especially mountains of the Western Ghats. It is supposed to be the second drunk liquid apart from water! The large scale commercial production of tea began with the arrival of the British East India Company.  I am not aware as to when tea came into the landscape of Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR), but it surely has a fair ecological-socio-political lineage to it. From what I have heard and seen, the estates in KMTR were established in the fag end of the British era. The then Raja of Singampatti Zamin owned much of what today is KMTR. In a gesture of gratitude for helping him out in a confrontation, he gave away a large part of the forest for establishment of plantations which, later went to the hands of the british and is now in those of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. The land was given away on lease for 99 years and it is going to soon expire in 2028. 

I have purposefully kept the history part short as I am not aware of the details and cannot vouch for most of it. But this much should be enough to put things into a perspective of how the forest was given away and how it has come to what it is now.
Those days, as described by many and also in the Tirnulveli gazetteer, the forest was surrounded by lush fields and productive orchards of mango, banana and much of other fruits and vegetables. KMTR, often dubbed as the river sanctuary is home to as much as 14 rivers that take their birth in the wavy folds of the forest clothed mountains. The Singampatti zamin was on the banks of Riven Manimuthar, a major tributary to Tamiraparani and thus, it could support the fertility and prosperity of the region, which has had a lot of historical battles for power, control and riches.
Among the earliest plantations to come up was at “Manjolai”- the Singampatti Zamin gardens in the eastern slopes of the Ghats and close to the River Manimuthar. Manjolai, in colloquial tamil means “Mango Forest” for, many mango trees were and are still found in those forests. The estates were first started here and later around the late 60’s expanded further into Kakachi, Nalmukku, Oothu and Kudrevetti. Apart from those owned by the Singampatti Zamin, there were numerous Cardamom and Tea estates all along the forest. Kanni katti, Sengal theri, Chinna Manjolai, Valayar, etc are among the many estates that were active and were only recently abandoned due to many issues. 

Being a conservation science practitioner, it hurts to see how the forests have been ravaged in the desire to make money. But what strikes me in awe and wonder is the effort that is gone in establishing and managing the estates. Those days must have been dark ages for there was no electricity, no JCB, no GPS and no cellphones. The Zamindars must have been no less the tyrants that British are said to be. All this work must have been done by slaves or as overworked pheasants in a service to the kingdom. The terrain is wavy and arduous and those explorers who managed to go there and find places in the densest of the forests truly deserve appreciation. 
The Kandamparai trail, was something that we walked a couple of days ago and It was one of the trails that were established during the British Raj. This trail of about 20 km was the lifeline to the Manjolai Estate when it was established. The strategically planned route was a well beaten bridle path on which all life in the estate would depend upon. There must have been thousands of cattle and thousands more of people who walked on these trails in the forest to reach the estate and to reach out of it to get rations and sell the tea. The cattle must have been depredated by the many tigers that must have been there. Many might have been man eaters too and unfortunately, there is no Jim Corbett or no Kenneth Anderson who has documented such a thing. Many must have died of diseases, to snake bites and out of exhaustion while laying the trail. 

Moving along the gentle gradient from the plains, it goes along the course of Manimuthar river. The Manimuthar reservoir had not yet come into existence then and there were many bridges and culverts to cross the river along the winding path. There are numerous streams that feed into the Manimuthar while walking along the river and must have been so full of life.
Bogged down by the data collection that we field biologists routinely do, we decided to go out on a hike in the forest. It was a long overdue thing to have done. I was walking with my advisor Dr. Ganesh, who along with Drs Ganesan and Soubadra have practically walked much of KMTR. It is always a large opportunity to learn from their experience of having spent over 2 decades in the forests.  We decided after much debate and thinking on what trail to walk and ended up choosing the Manimuthar Road via Kandamparai to walk as it could be done within a day and we also had the prospect of not having the way at all as it would be covered up by the forest as it was stopped using about 4-5 decades ago. We prepared for an adventurous walk and picked up provisions to cook in case we end up somewhere at night in the absence of the trial. 

Taking the early morning bus to the estate, we got off at Manjolai and began walking at 630 hrs. A few white bellied Treepies and Malabar Parakeets greeted us. Many more black bulbuls and some lorikeets gave us company further. The trail goes through the estate and turns off into the forest and leads to a wide bridled path. We had some difficulty in finding the trail initially but soon after crashing through the forest in the rough direction, we reached the trail and were fairly surprised to find it well used and clear. The forest department, after all, has not been doing anything. They have put in some effort to save this trail and use it for the beats. The clues they had left behind were sachets of jam, beedi, confectionary wrappers and ghutka packs.

The forest was beautiful and nice, the moist deciduous forests are always good for birds and we saw a lot of them. The streams were like the nallahs beautifully described by Kenneth Anderson. The slow flowing streams with stagnant pools of water were surreal. We heard an occasional hornbill clear its throat and the cicadas were constantly buzzing all around. 

There were many ant nests which were much bigger than a football all along the trail. There were occasional moments of adventure when the trail would suddenly disappear and sometimes, the trail went up and down small hillocks which made us wonder if we were on the right track as no cattle cart would ever take such routes. By noon, we had reached a small serene pool in which, much to our amusement, we saw a scuba diving spider. Yes, a spider that goes underwater!

We encountered a lot of young frogs, of bronzed, of cricket frogs and of bi coloured frogs. Some, waiting, to be broken out of the bondage of tadpole stage and some, waiting to grow out into adulthood.  There was enough water for the parched throats to quench their thirst. By noon, we had covered much distance and were quite happy with the pace when one of the members was hit with casualty, albeit a minor one. 

Possibly a compressed ligament in the knee. He was quite in agony to keep pace and we often had to give him a head start so we could catch up with him enroute. This went on for almost the whole walk. 

While walking, we often kept an eye out for evidence- of tigers, leopards or any other creature dead or alive. We found a plenty. A few lizards, some very colorful but noisy cicadas and a beautiful Lantern fly! 

Through the day, we encountered as many as five scats of tigers and leopards. This was quite a number and the highest I have seen in the forests of KMTR. Walking non stop, we had pushed well beyond lunch time and by about 4 in the evening, we came close to the river Manimuthar. This was the place we had decided to have lunch. And we did. Two of the team members took a head start, somehow rock hopped and crossed the river and made some good “Upma”. Gulping down the hot food was not quite comfortable with the parched throats but the tea eased the task, to wash the upma down!

The river hopping was fun. The person with the paining knee was now using a prop stick to walk and it was quite a task on the slippery rocks and the fast flowing water with interspersed deep pools. Some managed to jump past easily while some like myself, needed help in passing on the camera and optics to safety before attempting to cross! Woodland shoes, known for their notorious ability to slip even on footpath stones, I did feel like risking my life doing what others did. Jump from one rock to another! Jump I did, there was not a choice and we had to cross the same river twice!

Continuing to walk, we were greeted by the recent presence of elephants and their doings- broken branches, uprooted trees and peeled off barks. Many bear scats were also evident. We had upped the ante by then and were walking pretty fast, much to the difficulty of the limping colleague… We had to pass through bushes forming tunnels on the road. Dr Ganesh told that most of these places that we walked through have remained the same since he had walked the trail 2 decades ago. The dry forests had quite a slow growth rate indeed!

Having descended over 700m we now reached the point where the river water enter the Manimuthar Dam. From here, we would either have to walk to the road and catch a bus to where our jeep was parked or some of us had to walk down the road and pick up the jeep and get back. Three of us decided to walk along the dam and get the vehicle. This we thought of covering in one hour. Walking in a line of sight mode, we made to the lights at the dam, which looked far away. The dam shore was rocky and full of hard stones making a comfortable walk impossible. To add to the problem, we had to cross a river and a canal to reach the checkpost to pick up the vehicle. What was left of the ancient road was not very great to walk on and the bridge was not at all safe to cross past. We had to walk an extra distance to find a shallow spot to cross and we did, by wading through marsh. It was already dark by then. We flushed a lot of roosting pelicans, plovers and other birds off the ground and managed to walk on, with the lights in sight. 

The last bit seemed endless. We had already walked 16 km by then and this damned checkpost never seemed to come any close! The bus we should have taken came and went, we were having hope on hopes that the other team would get into the bus and save the trouble of going back to pick them up. We tried desperately to call them but could not. The last leg was covered in 2 hours and was a total of 6 km. All this we did without even stopping for a drink of water. The bag seemed heavy as ever, the feet were hurting as bad as ever, the moisture in the shoes made the skin brittle and soft. Any pebble was like walking on upturned nails. But finally we reached the jeep. By about 8 in the night. The other team had not reached and we went to pick them up. We went straight to Chetti Hotel and ate nicely before going back and crashing.
We had covered a little over 20 km that day and had walked for over 19 hours! This seemed phenomenal but this was also due to the photographers and bird watchers that we were. Otherwise, the distance would have been covered in less than 6-7 hours! By walking the trail, we could see new habitats, explore areas and see so much life. Life that was there when the estate was established and life when the legacy had gone. The construction of the dam submerged the road and a much longer road was laid along the crest level and this was motorable. 

The Old abandoned road was underwater all the while and so was its legacy. Fortunately, the trail has been well maintained and used for the famed tiger census and that was how the walk was fun. Some of the trails, many culverts and bridges have still stood the test of time and pressure. It, sometimes is heart wrenching that we are losing this piece of history, but then, evolution is descent with modification and that’s what it is. Some things we retain in the process and some we don’t. 

1 comment:

  1. River photo looks amazing habitat for diatoms. Please collect some diatoms from these places. I will assure you that one species will be christened with as seshadrii.

    Another one point related to this post. I grandma's dad worked as a driver at Manimuthar dam construction.