“The waterfall is just a little bit further,” the forest guard enthusiastically announced. I was panting with exhaustion, as the trail — largely comfortable till then — had become considerably steeper. I stopped and looked around: a clear stream emerged from a narrow valley and hurried away through moss-laden boulders. In the backdrop of this verdant riverscape rose a series of high hills of the Western Ghats, their tops obscured by a mass of dense, rain bearing clouds. Somewhere up there, still half-a-day’s trek away, was our destination — the Brahmagiri Peak. We continued trekking, and as we turned a bend, a deafening roar took me by surprise. Before I could even absorb the first glimpse of the magnificent Irpu Falls, I was drenched in spray. As I was wiping my spectacles, a flash of brilliant emerald caught my eye. On the moist patch of moss sat a splendid, ethereal blue-green butterfly, shimmering with a metallic lustre. It was the most beautiful butterfly I had ever seen. I discovered later that it was the Malabar banded peacock, a species endemic to the Western Ghats.
We were trekking in the monsoons, perhaps an uncomfortable time to be up and about, but as our guide impressed upon us, the waterfall’s beauty was best enjoyed in the rains. In any case, the Western Ghats are undeniably charming in the monsoons. Heavy clouds moodily hang over the valleys, dissipating into frequent showers. Mere streams turn into violent torrents and crash down the hills in a churning medley of foam and spray. This abundant rainfall is considered to be one of the main reasons why an exceptional variety of life is found in the hills of Western Ghats, and this biodiversity was something that I could easily appreciate during the ascent towards Brahmagiri Peak. The butterfly was indeed a good omen. Would I be lucky enough to spot more rare species? It really didn’t matter, for the landscape in itself made my trip worthwhile.
The guard warned us of leeches, as he picked a piece of polythene littering the ground. Stashing it into his pocket, he said, “Most people prefer the dry season for trekking. There are too many leeches in the rains.” His warning came a tad too late — at that very moment, I noticed the telltale trickle of blood running between my toes. Leeches can’t be avoided in the Western Ghats, but one can find comfort in the fact that their bites don’t hurt. As we passed through one of the shola forests on the hills, the trail under our feet almost disappeared in the undergrowth. These forests occur in a mosaic of rainforest patches interspersed with rolling grasslands, and the juxtaposition of woods and grass lends a captivating beauty to the landscape.
The gnarled tree trunks around us were thick with a layer of moss and lichens, among which orchids grew. The darkness resounded with a chorus of cicadas and cricket-like calls of tree frogs. In the canopy above me, a hill myna shrieked and I tried in vain to get a glimpse of the bird. It is true what everyone says — one can hear the sound of life in the shola forest, but it’s difficult to see its source.
Without warning, the rain started coming down. Huge drops fell hard on the leaves with a loud patter that mimicked a waterfall. And then, above the din of the rain, we heard a lilting whistle that had an amazingly human like quality. Behind a curtain of ferns on a rock was a blue bird with iridescent patches on its shoulders, giving a live performance. It was the unmistakable Malabar whistling thrush, aptly known as the ‘whistling schoolboy’. Another endemic species to add to my list. The trek to Brahmagiri was full of such moments — the beauty of nature unfolding around us, embellished by the freshness and green-ness of rain. Some people have spotted elephants and leopards on this trek! The ‘schoolboy’ I saw was far smaller in size, but for me, the sighting was no less exciting.
Location: Near the Karnataka-Kerala border in Kodagu District, the coffee capital of India, in the Western Ghats.
Distance: 250 km SW of Bengaluru
Journey time: By road 5 hrs, By rail 3 hrs + 3 hrs
By Raman Kumar
About the author: Raman Kumar, an ecologist, has been associated with the Wildlife Institute of India and the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun.