Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

Tryst with life in the East coast and Eastern Ghats

— Part six of a six part series on my recent sojourn into this unique part of India.

Day 6: Mangroves, mosquitoes and madness

The lodge was right next to the bus stand. Every bus that came and went honked. Then there were some weird insects that kept biting. The oven like room only got hotter. Not being able to tolerate the heat, Dr. Ganesh opened the door. We tried sleeping but no luck. By morning, my feet were red by scratching. The beds were wet due to sweat. Somehow, that terrible night had passed.  

A quick tea and by 6 am we were out. We caught an auto and headed to Coringa Wildlife sanctuary. It was a large mangrove forest. Just outside the city of Kakinada. The auto guy was a crook. He tried to palm us off to another auto by saying the place we wanted to go was too far and fleeced money out. All the while, he bugged Vikram insisting he pronounce the name properly. The other auto took us to the place, dropped us off the main road and gave his number so we could call him to be picked up. We began walking. The sun was burning hot. It was highly humid. Sweat broke like rivulets. On top of it, I had forgotten my hat in the room. We heard a tractor approach. Before we could stop and ask for a lift, a group of people walking behind us got on to the tractor. There was no place for the four of us. We walked along. For the first time, we all saw cattle being kept inside mosquito nets. We wondered why.
Coringa was a nice place. It was known to have salt water crocodiles, the endangered fishing cat and all that. Excited we all were. We walked past several fish culture ponds covered with nets to prevent birds. A small wetland adjacent to it had water and there were several birds. We saw a big flock of what looked like Godwits. Prashanth quickly spotted a Brahminy Shelduck. A winter migrant. It was the first time I was seeing the bird. We also saw several golden plovers. A few black winged stilts were nesting on small mud islands in the water. It was the first time we were seeing them nesting out in the open. A few pictures and we finally reached the gates. 
Brahminy Shelducks
As we walked into the interpretation centre, the closed gates came in view. The place was not to open until 10 am. It was just about 7 am and heat was already unbearable. On top of it, we realized we were being hoarded by mosquitoes. Big ones. Their bite was penetrating the shirt and hitting the back. It was damn irritating. Now we realized why the cows needed the nets. We walk up to the estuary and saw a fisherman boat ready to head out to sea. We asked for a ride and they said no. We tried to enjoy the landscape for a short period. We tried hard but could not forget the mosquitoes. Finally, we decided to go. There was no point waiting there till 10. The auto chap was called and he came. Meantime, we went back to the wetland to see the godwits and were in for a treat. Over 1500 individuals were there and they all took to flight at once. It was a visual treat to watch. It was the biggest flock of any bird I had seen. For about 10 minutes, we all watched the natural wonder, oblivious of everything around us. 
Murmurations of Black Tailed Godwits
The auto got us back to the city and we had a quick breakfast. I went to check if there was any bus available to Bangalore. The train berths were still not confirmed. The bus too was full. It looked like we had no choice. We had to sit in the train and travel overnight. Meantime, Prashanth wanted to visit the mouth of River Krishna. It was close to Kakinada in a place called Yanam. A small fragment of Pondicherry that sits in Andhra Pradesh. If Kerala is gods own country, I firmly believe that Pondicherry and its pieces are Yamaraj’s (the god of death) own country. I had taken owe not to set foot into Pondicherry. But I thought the journey was better than being in the oven like room of the lodge. A bus ride under hot sun got us to Yanam. We took an auto and reached the beach. It was desolate. No person in their right minds would come there walking at 12 in the noon we thought. Temperatures had hit over 38 deg cel. A kid selling ice cream harangued us. We thought of humoring his enthusiasm and bought three. It tasted like sand. I wondered what water he used. None the less, we ate it before it melted off. Pondicherry tourism had a boat ride for public. The people there came and asked us if we wanted to go on the ride. We were not keen. They all said the river mouth was the sea. No one really knew where the sea was. Not unusual for Pondy I thought. The beach road was adorned with busts of political leaders, cast and religious pundits and was basically congress party’s propaganda. Statue of two elephants spraying water from their trunks to a Shiva Linga (Phallus) was a big thing on the beach.  Next to it was a Mosque built like a ship, sponsored by Reliance ltd. More propaganda I thought. 

We decided to walk back to the bus stand and not go in search of sea. While walking back, we noticed several bird droppings on the ground. Looking up, we saw night herons on nests! 

Bird Poop

 We were in for a surprise. They were not supposed to be breeding that time of year.  There was an average 4-5 nest on each tree and there were easily over 20 trees. A few cormorants too kept flying about.  We took counts and photos. 
Night Herons
Later, Prashanth got busy wiping off bird dropping from his bag. A crow or something decided to take a dump on his bag! The tissue paper he liberally used was manufactured in Beirut, Lebanon. Wow! Globalization has really happened. We were in godforsaken Yanam and wiping crow poop in paper made half way across the globe.  
Beirut to Pondicherry as crow poop wipe!
 Walking back further, we saw several tree covered with nests. Egrets, Herons and cormorants. If not for anything, the ‘discovery’ of the heronary was pleasing. We reached the bus stand and cooled ourselves down with chilled flavored milk and waited for the bus. It was lunch time and the bus was late. One bus came, we got in. The driver was fiddling around a new DVD player and soon, LOUD blaring music was on. We felt terrible. People did not know what personal space was. Nor did they care. For over half an hour, the bus did not move. The owner of the transport, clad in white dothi and kurta sat in the shelter wearing cooling glass. He was busy counting money. The bus finally left. We asked the conductor to tune down the volume. He partly obliged. Pondy was always like this. Every morning, when I would go to the university, I would be half dead because of the loud music. I think people are deaf there. Anyways, we reached Kakinada and were asked to get down and walk to bus stand. The auto chap who took us for a ride in the morning waylaid us and tried to make us get in so he would drop us at the bus stand. We kept walking and there was no clue of the stand. We were getting late. A bus came and we got in.  
 The last leg of our journey had begun. A hurried lunch and we began to pack up. An auto got us to the railway station. The train was packed. We had a reservation against cancellation ticket. We got in. The train left. No seats were empty. Evening, we saw Bitterns flying across in paddy fields. Several other birds kept us occupied till nightfall. After Rajahmundry, we sat up to look at the bridge along the Godavari River. The bridge was 2 km long. Train ran over it for like 5 minutes. A little over 1/4th the journey, Prashanth got a berth to sleep in. Dr. Ganesh and I decided to sit up and take turns to catch up on sleep. It was 10 in the night and we were hungry. Our co passengers had eaten early dinner and slept off. We too kept dozing off. At Vijaywada, we finally managed to get some food. Tonight too, it was to be continental food with Cheese and Veg Sandwich! We got back on the train and it moved. Middle of the night, the conductor woke me up and asked me to take up an empty berth. I went and slept. Must be 10 minutes when he came and woke me up. It seems the actual traveler was sitting elsewhere and he came back. I was asked to go back. I sat and slept off listening to music. Later, Dr. Ganesh asked me to go crash on the berth. I did. Morning light woke me up. We had covered over half the journey. There was a lot more distance to go. By noon, we reached Bangalore. 
Prashanth, Ganesh and I have had a lot of adventure together over the several years of working with wildlife. Those moments range from absolute hilarity to near death situations. Along the way, we have had the joy of observing wildlife, discussing ideas, talking about way of things and witness to several realization incidents. This time, Vikram, Allwin and Giri was party to the fun as well. The hot weather, sleepless nights, information overload by the amazingly varied experiences is something hard for me to forget. I am sure others think of it that way too. On the return trip, I was having mixed feelings. May be I wished to stay back for a few more days. May be I will go back some day. Till then, sunburns, insect bites and memories are all that is left. 
The team: L to R: Allwin Jesudasan, Vikram Adithya, Dr. Ganesh, Prashanth M B and Giridhar Malla.
Read Part five here

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