Avalanche, The Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu
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Tiger Sighting on New Years Day
Some hasty last minute plans saw us on the road to Avalanche (pronounced Avalanchi) just after Christmas.
Jagdeesan, our regular taxi driver from Coimbatore was unwell, so he arranged for his friend Vinod to drop us there via Karamadai, Ansur check post, Mulli forest, Veliyangadu, Geddai, Kundah, Yedekadu and Lawrence. The ghat section of this route is primarily TNEB road, hence traffic free and very scenic, traversing dense reserve forests between Ansur and Kundah, with 43 hairpin bends. The road is good except from Yedekadu to Lawrence which is so so, and the 8km stretch from Lawrence to Avalanche which is downright horrendous - unchanged from the last three years.
We stayed at our old haunt, the Forest Rest House. The 'official' Forest department cat, a beautiful chubby charcoal coloured fur ball, waddled over with a welcoming meow.
Avalanche never fails to transport the soul to a higher plane. The pristine forests, invigorating clean air, crystal clear blue waters, can not be adequately described; this must be experienced. Winter nights are freezing, with minimum temperatures ranging from -2 to -6C more often than not. Paradoxically, mid day can be uncomfortably warm under an excruciatingly bright high altitude, low latitude sun.
A herd of Toda feral buffaloes glared at us, visibly annoyed, as we walked through the large meadows towards the lake shore the next morning. They continued to glare, resuming grazing after a good fifteen minutes, hurrying into the forest as we approached. Surprising that these bison sized beasts are so shy. Over the days, they got used to our presence but would not let us approach closer than 30m before running away.
A troop of shiny black Nilgiri Langurs scampered across the grass from one thicket to another. That was the first time we saw them out of their trees. Presumably it is easier to run than to jump across! Colourful little orange and black flycatchers, blue grey Nilgiri flycatchers, bulbuls and assorted unidentified birds flitted in and out of the surrounding hedges and trees, regaling us with their sweet sounds. A deer ran into the forest some distance away. A white headed raptor perched regally on a dried up tree trunk in the middle of a gushing stream, master of all he surveyed. Idyllic surroundings straight out of a picture post card.
A bridle path linking the trout hatchery to Ooty, ran through the valley where Avalanche lake now is. Trout culture was established in the Nilgiris by Mr Henry C. Wilson, a pisciculture expert with the Fisheries Department of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Mr Wilson set up the Avalanche trout hatchery in 1907 in the rivers and streams of the Kundah basin. Presently, the lake is vastly depleted due to the failure of the monsoons of 2008. Just a year ago, the water level was a good 20m higher than what it is now. Consequently the lakeshore is very broad, varying from steep to gradual gradients, almost like a sandy beach in places. Nonetheless, the water remains crystal clear, perfectly reflecting the azure sky. The skies in this part of the world are always a brilliant shade of blue, quite a contrast to the grubby skies of Bombay. Closer to the heavens, with no pollution in between.
To get an idea of the great difference in lake levels from just one year ago, compare with the photos in my earlier report at http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/indianature/1/1200762060/tpod.html
Due to the presence of TNEB's Kundah Power House V at the lake, there are several grassy meadow 'corridors' in a broad swathe below the power lines. These go up and down over hills and dales, some steep, some gradual, always following the power lines. Walking these routes is most enjoyable, fringed as they are by dense shola or plantation forests with their attendant fauna. The crests of these 'corridors' afford excellent views of the lake and the surrounding mountain ranges.
The Kundah power generation project is an engineering marvel, commissioned under the post World War II Colombo Plan, with Canadian assistance. Water gushes through a 10 km underground tunnel from the Upper Bhavani reservoir, dropping sharply through the penstock at the Avalanche Valve house, to generate power through hydro-turbines by the lake. The water then flows through the Avalanche and Emerald lakes dropping through the Kundah penstock via another underground tunnel. The water then goes on, to drop through the ultra long and steep penstock at the Geddai power house. There are 8 power houses in the Nilgiris, 5 comprising the Kundah project.
Our friends Ramesh and Prema live at the small TNEB Colony at Power House V. Ramesh is a Nilgiris local, working with the TNEB for the past fifteen years. He has vast interest and knowledge about the forests of the district. We walked with them to the lake shore adjoining the power house. It resembled a broad Mediterranean beach minus the sunbathers, with the broad lake bed exposed due to depleted water levels.
Animal foot prints were everywhere - sambar, bison, and feline pug marks of varying sizes. One set of medium and small sized pug marks looked like those of a leopard with its cub walking next to it. The dense shola forests are home to a wide array of wildlife and leopards are often seen here. Our friends saw a tiger kill and take away one of their cows, just a few weeks ago. I asked sceptically if it was a striped 'Puli' or just a spotted 'Puli', and was indignantly assured that big puss possessed "proper black lines" and was therefore most certainly a Tiger "Puli"! More on this later.
The pretty Seven Steps waterfall came into view on the opposite bank. A sight to behold. Originating in the shola forests on the mountains across, it drains into the lake. In previous years, with the lake levels much higher, just the upper-most "steps" of this waterfall could be seen from the lake shore.
A jeep was organised from Lawrence to take us to Lakkidi and the Upper Bhavani reservoir one day. Setting out in the pleasant morning sun, we took the short cut restricted road from Avalanche. This road joins the Manjur - UB road, continuing all the way to Bangi Thappal in the Mukurthi National Park. En route, we traversed endemic dense sholas and grasslands, naturalised introduced forests of eucalyptus, wattle, pine, cypress and acacia; and the upper reaches of the famous Korakundah organic tea estates.
Our first halt was at the small Bhavaniamman temple atop a waterfall. Blood red Nilgiri Rhododendrons colloquially known as Pongal Pooh were in full bloom, somewhat early due to the drier conditions. A cross country path from here leads to the microwave link topped Kolaribetta peak at 2600+m AMSL. The temple was put up during the construction of the power generation sites following a series of mishaps. Following this, the project was successfully completed in record time. Ramesh and his friend Saga, the jeep driver, cleaned the temple thoroughly and performed a short ritual. Some forest officers from the hatchery came by and tied a net of trout fingerlings to a bush at the head of the waterfall. They were going to release some orange coloured trout roe further downstream downstream near Lakkidi.
Lakkidi is fringed by typical Nilgiri grasslands and light plantation forest on gently rolling slopes, with cobalt blue waters sparkling in the mid day sun. It is the catchment area of the Upper Bhavani earthen dam. Here too, the lake level is depleted due to the poor rains. A herd of sambars appeared on the grassy hillside across the lake. A whole day can be whiled away by the serene lakeside. Madhusudan, a Univ. of Wisconsin research scholar is currently conducting a site project here on grasslands conservation.
Onward to Upper Bhavani. The water level at UB Dam, though depleted, was not as low as in Avalanche and Lakkidi. At Upper Bhavani, the landscape changes to vast stretches of shola grassland mosaic typically associated with the Mukurthi National Park, interspersed with Rhododendron. Kerala is on the other side of the deep valleys with the Silent Valley NP immediately below. There is a plush newly renovated TNEB Inspection Bungalow here, as well as a Forest Rest House overlooking the reservoir at the other end of the road across the dam. This is a perfect spot for guaranteed sightings of wildlife, early mornings and evenings.
The person manning the check post here had disappeared with the keys, so we could not drive on to Bangi Thappal, but walked some distance through the side gate to the far end of the lake. Bangi Thappal (Cannabis tableland) was once a halting place at the top of the Sispara Ghat road, constructed in 1832 as a short cut linking Ooty to Calicut [Kozhikode] on the west coast. In the 19th century, it was a convenient halting place for traders of cannabis, tobacco and salt. Today, the area is a restricted zone, a core area connecting the Mukurthi and Silent Valley National Parks.
The guard showed no signs of returning anytime soon, so we decided to go down to the lower Weir instead. This road is in a truly pathetic condition. It had obviously not been used for a long time, with several fallen trees blocking the way. Ramesh assisted by our jeep driver Saga, hacked the branches with expertise, clearing the road in no time at all. A totally different experience for us city dwellers!
The lower Weir is surrounded by dense forest. The water from the spillway drains into Kerala. Some delicately coloured pink and white wild roses grew forth from the thorny undergrowth. Ramesh said he had seen a tiger with two cubs on the rocks below the spillway, just before the monsoons. We scrambled through the undergrowth to look for the tigers lair, without any luck other than a few pugmarks, the remnants of a feathered repast, and a tree trunk with marks indicating that the cat had sharpened its claws. Oh well ......
It was almost 5pm by now and we had to return to the main road before dark, so reluctantly we left this pristine wilderness. The drive back was rewarded with innumerous sightings of sambar, bison, barking deer and night jars at every turn of the road. A pair of cute, fat, furry, russet brown weasel like creatures scurried across the road. They may have been Nilgiri lemur, Ramesh called them "keeri". This is definitely the place to visit for assured wildlife sightings.
The next few days were spent exploring the surrounding Shola [Southern montane wet evergreen ] forests. The most easily accessible sholas are around the Forest Rest House. We ventured into a shola that we had not been into before. There were several narrow pathways going in, mostly animal paths - again sambar, with the odd bison hoof print and occasional pug mark. Flashes of brilliant sunlight filtered through the dark shola every now and then. We were fascinated by the dense undergrowth of ferns, ground orchids, trees dripping with epiphytic orchids, mosses and lichens. The intensity of sunlight at this altitude causes "green blindness" in the shola forests. This affected even the sensors in our Sony digicams, which could not get the light settings correctly in fully automatic mode.
Eventually, we ascended to a small grassy clearing replete with Nilgiri rhododendrons in full glorious bloom. We sat here a couple of hours basking in the mellow winter sun, with colourful birds flitting in and out of the trees. A pure white medium sized butterfly with a jet black border flew past incessantly, along with brilliant Graphium Sarpedons with broader turquoise bands than found in Bombay, and a huge Red Helen who came by a few times. The Helen seemed larger than his cousin in Matheran. None would halt long enough to be photographed. A small sized mongoose like creature with a fat furry russet tail crawled through the grass. He disappeared in an instant at the sight of us.
At 3.30pm we knew we must make our way out of the shola. Not surprisingly, we completely lost our way under the dark, dense canopy, knowing only that we had to go downhill to hit the road. Stupid not to have marked our way in, all the more foolish as we had plenty of old newspaper in our rucksacks to do so. Small waterfalls that were welcome crystal streams on the way up, now became intimidating obstacles on the way out. Lichens dripping off the branches suddenly mutated to eerie, ghostly spectres. The shola forests did not seem welcoming anymore. A fallen trunk used as support while crossing a stream, completely disintegrated under light pressure. My foot sank into moist mud, thankfully the ooze did not penetrate my shoes. Being mid winter, the leeches were presumably in hibernation. At any rate, they did not seek us out! And thank God we picked up some sturdy sticks on the way in - a great help in the moist, dark, squelchy undergrowth. With growing anxiety, we struggled our way downhill, finally making our way out through a most welcome patch of light plantation forest adjoining the road, albeit nowhere near where we entered the shola.
Palpably relieved, we crossed the road to discover a nice open, well lit meadow. A short walk led to the lake shore opposite a small tea estate. Relaxing by the lakeside in the evening sun was such a pleasant change to floundering around lost through a dark shola jungle - orchids and ferns notwithstanding! We resolved to always commence our departure from a shola forest by 2pm at the latest.
The 5pm siren sounded at the tea estate. Shortly thereafter, five lady workers came out from the opposite side of the lake, crossing over to the plantation forests on our side. We wondered where they were headed as there was certainly no habitation inside the forest. After awhile we walked along the road towards the tea estate. A forest guard on his way home greeted us, advising us to return to the rest house by nightfall.
Two little boys stood at a bus stop at a small junction at the tea estate. They greeted us in their best English, proudly informing us that they were Toda tribals from Mullimunth village nearby, studying at the government school. After exchanging some banter, we turned back from here. On the way we passed the five tea worker ladies, all of them laden with firewood bundles on their heads. We now knew why they had entered the forest. One of the ladies enquired whether we had seen the forest guard. They were relieved to learn that he had long since gone, and cheerfully posed for a photograph. Had the guard been around, the ladies would each have had to fork out a small fee. It was not such a big deal, as there are plenty of dried out twigs and branches lying all along the roadside. Fortunately, due to scanty habitation in this area, damage to the forests is minimal.
Subsequent expeditions to the shola forests in the days ahead were sensible - marking the path with small squares of newspaper strategically fixed on prominent branches along the way. We were privileged to observe several varieties of orchids and ferns, some which we have not yet been able to identify. Some of these were not displayed at the small, well maintained orchidarium at the Forest Check Post. The shola forests are truly a plant lovers paradise.
A particularly enjoyable outing was the walk to the Avalanche Valve House above the penstock. On our previous visit we went through the shola forest abutting the EB camp to steps going steeply up from the powerhouse. This time, we took the winding U. Bhavani road. It was a good 5km walk to the Valve House road junction, and another 3km thereafter, passing plantation and shola forests throughout, in the pleasing company of colourful Nilgiri song birds. A great feeling to have the road all to ourselves. Not a vehicle or human being passed us by in the entire 8km going up.
The bones of a hapless sambar lay scattered by the roadside, along with a big clump of fur laden scat and large sized pug marks nearby - mute testimony to a tigers kill. On our previous visit a year ago, the valve house road had been destroyed in a landslide and we had then seen large tiger pugmarks and elephant prints in the still soft landslide soil. Now the road is repaired. This time there were pug marks and hoof prints by the road side but no elephant prints.
The view from the valve house at approx 2379m, is breathtaking, encompassing Avalanche and Emerald lakes ringed by high mountains all around, with the penstock falling steeply down to the power house. Pretty pink and white mountain daisies grew in carpets along the penstock steps. The EB camp houses far below looked like little toys. We could see our friends children playing in the meadows in the distance. Nilgiri tahr frequent the huge rock massif above the valve house, we saw them on our last visit, now the sun was too much in our eyes.
After a long while enjoying the view, we debated whether to take the short cut staircase to the power house or to return along the 8km road. We chose the road route again, rather than the vertigo inducing climb down several hundred odd steps without any support railing. Madhusudan passed by in his Qualis, kindly offering a lift. We preferred the enjoyable walk.
That evening, our friends at the EB camp were worried as their three cows and a calf had not returned as they usually did by 5.30pm. The three cows came in later but the calf was nowhere to be seen. The mother cow refused to drink water, and the worst was feared. Ramesh set off to look for the calf. By that time, it was pitch dark and we decided we must return to our rest house, 4km away. We had torches but the road condition was so appalling, more so in the dark, that we could not walk too fast for fear of stumbling [and breaking our very precious glasses]! Halfway through, Prema called to tell us to be careful as awesome roars could be heard near the camp.
There is a thin line between excitement and anxiety and at that moment, we had tangibly crossed it. Pity. It somewhat marred our enjoyment of the night sky, a sight to behold with millions of stars sparkling like diamonds and the Milky Way clearly visible in the absence of any light pollution.
Eventually we reached the rest house. The caretaker and some resident labourers warmly welcomed us with big smiles. Later that night, Prema informed us that a tiger had seized their calf. She was obviously most distraught.
The next morning, Ramesh called to say that the tiger and dead calf were on a grassy clearing in the small hillock opposite their camp. He said everyone at the camp had seen it and wanted us to see it as well. By this time, we had already set off in a different direction, so decided to go there later. By mid afternoon, their son called urging us to come soon to see the tiger who was sitting near its prey. By the time we reached, the tiger was not around but the calf could be seen halfway up the hillock. Ramesh asked if we wanted to go near, of course we did. We have never run up a forested hill so fast .. ....
The tiger was nowhere to be seen. Crows converged around the carcass. The hind portion of the calf was half eaten, not a pretty sight at all. Ramesh broke down on seeing his calf, he hugged the lifeless head and had to be firmly pulled away.
At 5.45pm the tiger had still not returned from wherever it had gone. Disappointed, we decided to walk back before it became pitch dark. We consoled ourselves with the thought that we had seen the tigers prey up close, a sight not many are privy to. Taking a last peek through our binoculars before we left, we heard Prema cry out that the tiger was under a tree. What sharp eyes she has. Sure enough, there it was, sprawled majestically under a tree barely a few metres away from the calf. Perhaps the tiger had been there all along while we were up. Perhaps not, or the crows would not have come near. Nor was there any tell tale animal smell. All excited, we stayed put, eyes glued to the binocs.
It was undisputedly a tiger, Panthera Tigris, big, with "proper lines", gazing imperiously down at all of us - out of curiosity or sheer boredom - who can tell. All previous scepticism about tiger sightings here, rapidly evaporated. At a distance of about 120m in the fading evening light, our hurried photos did not come out well. Never mind. Who expected to see a real wild tiger, least of all here? What an auspicious beginning to the New Year.
By now, a small motley group had gathered - of excited children, some EB staff, a local policeman and us. As if on cue, the tiger got up, strolled languidly to the calf and dragged it slowly behind a bush.
The research scholar came running. He was the only person from the camp who was totally unaware of the presence of the tiger. To his chagrin, it was too dark to see it clearly by now. He opined that it must a leopard, but was assailed by a chorus of voices vehemently proclaiming that it was most certainly a "stripey" tiger. He then wanted to know if it was male or female ! I wonder if he would have appreciated the humour, had someone replied: "No one asked the tiger, nor lifted its tail to find out".
Ramesh said that during the night, the tiger would hide the carcass deep inside the shola to devour over a few days, to prevent other predators enjoying a free meal. Sure enough, neither tiger nor prey were seen the next few days. We learnt subsequently that a leopard killed a sambar kid near the Seven Steps falls on that same evening. That is the way of the jungle.
Halfway along our way, a jeepload of friendly Badaga men and women kindly offered us a lift back to our rest house. I sat on top of the largest ever cooking pot! They plied us with coconuts and bananas when they dropped us off. The Badaga tribals from the nearby areas, customarily celebrate the New Year in day long picnics on the grassy slopes at the Bhavani Amman temple. They come with their drums, cooking pots and booze in jeeps and trucks. They are extremely hospitable, gladly welcoming all to join in the merry making. This is the only day on which the restricted road is kept open. Presumably the animals retreat to the "Silent" Valley for the day, returning later for the picnic left overs.
The caretaker of the rest house said we are very lucky, as so many people come here but none get to see a tiger. He was most excited seeing our photographs, poor quality notwithstanding.
Friday saw us on a shopping trip along with the EB staff who get transportation to Ooty and back once a week. This week, it was in a truck, very apt for the appalling "road" upto Emerald. The 30km to Ooty took about an hour in the slow moving truck. Ooty was bustling and grotty as ever. It was very much warmer than at Avalanche. Following a sumptuous tiffin at Saravanas, we placed our order with New Ooty Bakery for their famous flaky "puffs" and butter biscuits. Yummy. Their bread and cakes are also very good. In fact, we found that Nilgiri district bakeries, even those in no horse settlements like Manjur and Emerald, offer excellent products. They have perfected their art. We also bought some newspapers. In all these days, we were in our own isolated paradise with nary a thought for what was happening in the world. The TV in the rest house was out of order, so the only source of news was through mobile internet or dish TV at the camp. Not that I was interested, but my husband certainly was.
Next stop - King Star Confectioners for their superlative fudge. To our horror, it was closed. Disappointed we tried Kings at Charring Cross Complex, good but not as good as King Star. Kings fudge stocks were expected to come in later in the day. We decided to while away some time at the Botanical Gardens. This year there were many more visitors here than in previous years. Nevertheless, there was plenty of space for everyone on the huge sloping lawns, and we found our own nook under the shade of a large cypress tree. Just before leaving, we phoned King Star and lo and behold they were open! King Star truly makes the best fudge ever. Fudge packed, we wound our way slowly back to the truck laden with goodies for ourselves and chocolates for the EB camp children.
That evening, we went on our last ramble, this time along some newly discovered electricity meadows. The fading light with a light mist descending over the mountains gave an ethereal effect. Reluctantly, we returned to the rest house.
Our driver arrived at 8.30 the next morning to take us back to Coimbatore. The trip down the mountains via Yedekadu, Kundah, Geddai, Mulli to Karamadai was spectacular in the morning light, with flocks of different birds flying out of the dense lantana bushes lining the road. It would be well worth walking down the 43 hairpin bends to Mulli at a future date. After a delicious tiffin at Hotel Sree Vaishnavi Ananda's at PN Palaiyam on the Mettupalaiyam Coimbatore road, we were ready to depart for home.
Getting to Avalanche: From Ooty, Coonoor or Manjoor, by taxi or public bus to Emerald and jeep thereafter. One bus per day plies from Ooty to Avalanche camp.
Pvt taxi from Coimbatore via Karamadai, Mulli and Geddai [shorter route, much more scenic, with no traffic than regular route via Coonoor / Ooty]. Jagadeesan Taxi at Coimbatore : +91 94423 70007.
Forest Dept. permission required from DFO to proceed beyond their check posts. TNEB permission required in their territory.
Upper Bhavani can be visited without going to Avalanche, by infrequent bus service or taxi from Ooty/Coonoor via Manjoor. Or by taxi via the restricted road from Avalanche with permission. Jeep or other 4WD is preferable.
Parsons Valley can be accessed through the road leading on from the bridge dividing Avalanche and Emerald lakes.
Jeeps for day trips from Avalanche can be hired at Emerald. Saga [Sagadevan] Jeep hire at Emerald:+91 94438 60913
Red Hills Resort and Destiny Farm Resort are located near Emerald. Very basic lodging also available at Emerald and Manjoor.
Forest Rest House and Trekking shed dormitory at Avalanche. Advance booking required through the DFO at Ooty. FRH also available at U. Bhavani, and Trekking shed at Bangi Thappal. Do not stay at Forest Rest Houses if you expect luxury or fancy cuisine.
Walking / trekking is the best way to enjoy this region, consequently sturdy shoes and sticks are de rigeur. Winter nights are usually below zero so adequate warm clothing is a good idea.
The day time sun is excruciatingly intense, even in mid winter. Those requiring sun glasses, sun block or hats should keep them handy.
If exploring shola forests without a local guide, make sure you mark your pathway so as to retrace your steps easily. An easy eco friendly way to do so is to affix newspaper squares onto prominent branches along the way. In winter, it will get very dark very soon and you should start getting out by 2pm. In warmer months, expect leeches in abundance.
Take along a good torch, binoculars, essential medications, extra memory cards and camera batteries. Very basic essentials and provisions can be sourced at Emerald, but the closest town for anything else is Ooty.
It is important to remember that this is a unique region in the protected Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. There is no entertainment other than what nature provides, and amenities are basic at best. For those seeking a faster paced holiday with conventional "fun" and creature comforts on tap, it would be preferable to stay at Ooty, and visit these places as day trips.
Interesting article in The Frontline magazine by reknowned wildlife conservationist Mr AJT Johnsingh: http://www.flonnet.com/stories/20090814261606400.htm
Where I stayed
Forest Resthouse Avalanche