Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Anamalais Tiger Reserve – Super 'Tahr-dom'

The elusive Nilgiri Marten

The sighting of a lifetime! I actually saw and managed to get a picture of a Nilgiri Marten. This small is so elusive, even people researching this animal don’t get to see them much, forget getting photos. Truly blessed to be at the right place at the right time.

The plan to visit the Anamalais started with my desperate desire to see the Nilgiri Tahr. Originally, I’d planned to head to Eravikulam (near Munnar) to see them, but Ramki suggested I head to the Anamalais, with easier sightings of the Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM), Nilgiri Langur, Great Hornbill and the Frogmouth as well. So we planned to head to Coimbatore and hit Topslip for the Hornbill and Frogmouth before heading towards the tea estates of Valparai for the others.

But the powers that be at the Tamil Nadu forest department shut down entry into all the state’s forests due to fear of forest fires. Which meant that the only open patch of forest bordered the winding, climbing highway from Pollachi (near Coimbatore) to Valparai, the tea estate town deep in the Nilgiri mountains. And believe it or not, we saw every one of these species (except the Frogmouth) from the main highway.
The Lion Tailed Macaque
Malabar Giant Squirrel
We stayed at the Waterfall tea estate, on the 29th (of a total of 40) hairpin bends on the Valparai road. Even as we were en route there, we saw our first Lion Tailed Macaque and Nilgiri Langurs. After a quick lunch, we headed back out on the road. Our plan was simple, drive up and down the road and look out for the animals in the forest alongside the road. Not that we had another option!

Our guide Ganeshan took us to Valparai town to meet Divya Mudappa, a researcher who’s been doing pioneering work in the Nilgiris for well more than a decade. She recommended that we hit the 5th through 13th bend early the next morning to catch the Tahr, there’s a herd of 11 that usually moves through that area. And with that advice, we headed back to Waterfalls, seeing more LTM and Langur (which proved annoyingly difficult to photograph) and Malabar Giant Squirrel on the way.

Nilgiri Tahr Male
Tahr calf trotting through a vertical rock face

Calves on the road
Just the way I'd always wanted to see one - on the edge of a sheer cliff
The next morning, we drove back and forth through bends 5 to 13 but no Tahr. Then we stopped for a break and joined other tourists at a lookout point to admire the Aaliyar dam and lake below. And there, a few metres from the lookout point sat 3 Nilgiri Tahr. The sighting was so sudden and so close, I really couldn’t react at all! They were then joined by the rest of the herd as all of them made their way down the steep, rocky slopes with astonishing ease. Not once did they lay a false step or slip on the near vertical rock-face, even the calves. An amazing hour we spent with these incredibly beautiful and rare goats.

Marten in action
And on the way back, the highlight of the trip and maybe of the whole three months. I saw a movement in the trees and first thought it was a giant squirrel. But the yellow patch on the neck meant it was a marten and I quickly motioned the driver to stop as we quietly lined up our cameras and got a couple of quick pictures, as he jumped from one tree to another, posed for a second and vanished into the undergrowth. It was only as we drove on did the magnitude of this sighting really sink in!

That afternoon we drive beyond Valparai passing through some interestingly named villages like Rottikadai (literally meaning Roti-shop). Near Puduthottam village, Ganeshan stopped at a patch of forest and whispered ‘LTM’. And there they were, more than a hundred of them, adults and youngsters and a mum with her little one.

After a great half hour or so, we headed further towards the beautiful Nirar Weir and the ever-green forests beyond. As rain clouds gathered, we spent the whole evening enjoying the view, the breeze and the rain.

Tahr nursing on the highway
The next morning, we headed out for Tahr again and followed them down again, we took the winding route and they got the shortcut! At one point, the whole herd was on the road and one mother actually nursed her calf right there. In the middle of a highway!

Tea Estate views
That afternoon, we spent watching birds around the tea estates. At the Anamalai Estate, one of the largest, we went all the way to the edge to get unbelievable views of the forests below, said to be so thick that light doesn’t reach the forest floor at places. I also got a glimpse of the enormous Great Hornbill, though from really far away.
Virgin Forest
Bonnet Macaque
Bee-eater struggling with prey
On the way back, we got saw a green bee-eater trying to swallow an insect that was too big for its mouth. After a few minutes struggle in the open, he flew away, as if embarrassed to display his ‘incompetence’ so publicly. We also saw a red-whiskered bulbul with his snack, oblivious to our presence.

Our last day and the only thing really left was a picture of the Nilgiri Langur. There are hundreds around but extremely skittish and would duck their heads or disappear every time I raised my camera. Frustrating for a photographer, but great survival instincts for the langur; after all that lens could well be a gun barrel.

Patience my friend, the langur seems to be saying
It was finally on our way back to Pollachi that we finally managed to spot one guy in the open, and willing to pose. He sat and stared at us till we clicked to our hearts’ content, then limbered off to the higher branches. And as a good-bye present, a couple of Nilgiri Tahr, right next to the hairpin bend marker (No. 12), as if to provide us with a reminder.

We’d only seen a fraction of the Anamalais and we’d seen everything we’d set out to see – Tahr, LTM, Langur, Hornbill. The next time, I’d love to go into Topslip and walk around to explore this amazing forest some more. After all, if we have luck even a fraction of this time, who knows what amazing sightings are in store?

What's in this picture?

Anamalais (Valparai) Trip Guide

Getting there
Pollachi is the nearest town for both Valparai (65kms) and Topslip (35 kms). Coimbatire (40 kms from Pollachi) is the nearest rail and air head with excellent connections across the country.

Road Travel
Best to hire your car and driver at Coimbatore. You’ll be better served by a driver who knows the area and understands wildlife, especially if you’re into photography.

We had a Tavera organized through A1 Travels in Coimbatore (owner Mr. Karuppaswamy - +91 98942 33555) with Ramakrishnan (+91 90920 28484) as our driver. I would rate him very high – reliable and enthusiastic, good steady driver, excellent in the hills, and does a fair amount of wildlife spotting himself.

Stay, food and service
There are several options available on the Valparai road, almost all in the tea estate bungalows. We stayed at the lovely Waterfall tea estate (on Hairpin Bend 29), in their ‘Tennis’ bungalow. It’s a lovely 3-bedroom cottage, very well maintained and we were looked after really well and had excellent home-cooked food by the caretaker Mr. Veeran.
To book, you can call the owner, Ms. Rasha Karumbaiah on +91 94433 37022

Safaris and Guides
There are no real safaris, at least not on the Valparai stretch. So all you have to do is to get your car and drive, back and forth on that stretch of road. If the forests are open, you should be able to drive or walk in them. Best to check with the TN Forest Department before getting there, so you can plan your trip.

As guides go, we had probably the best. Ganeshan, a 20+ year veteran of the area (he lives in Erumaiparai – near Topslip) is amazing. He knows the area, the animals and his spotting is near miraculous. He's assisted several research projects over the years, so the experts turn to him as well. You can reach him on + 91 94881 74221.

Other tips
Coimbatore - Annapoorna’s is a must for their amazing breakfast. There are many around, so make sure you ask your driver to take you to the big one.
If you need to freshen up, there are many good hotels around the station who let out their rooms for a short while for a quick wash before you hit the road.

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