Stories from the Indian wilderness


“Hey! There’s blood on your shirt!”

In that moment, all my fear vanished, and that’s when I actually saw how beautiful the forest around me was. I’ll never be sure if I was really over my fear or it was realising that leech bites were inevitable, but, I now saw things differently.

It was a late October evening, we were walking a trail in Agumbe Reserved Forest, a tropical evergreen rainforest in the Western Ghats. I’ve been to forests all over the country, I’ve hiked in a few as well, but this was unlike any place I’d been to before. Receiving upwards of 7500 mm of rainfall a year, some call it the Cherrapunji of the south.

I was staying at the prestigious Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) for a two day herpetology camp and I planned to make the most of every minute there.

A very foggy morning, Agumbe

One very foggy morning in Agumbe

Agumbe, even though classified as a reserved forest, is a biodiversity goldmine. It’s not only home to megafauna such as tigers, leopards, elephants, dholes and gaurs but also lesser-known reptiles and amphibians such as the King cobra – its flagship species, endangered cane turtles and blue-eyed bush frogs and is equally popular amongst birders who come looking for trogons, frogmouths and hornbills.

But Agumbe is more than just its fauna. Never have I seen a forest as mesmerising. One moment you’re walking on a trail barely wider than you, crisscrossing through the dense undergrowth, when suddenly you walk into a grassland half a kilometer wide. Sometimes you’re walking along a rivulet and in a moment you’ll end up knee-deep in a myristica swamp (a highly endangered freshwater swamp ecosystem).

Myristica Swamp, Agumbe

Agumbe is home to one of the two myristica swamps found in India.

Every inch of this forest is teeming with life. I remember seeing fungi growing on elephant dung – not even waste gets wasted here. Things like this make you realise how interwoven an ecosystem is.

After walking through the swamp for a couple of hours on another trail, we ended up at a two-stepped waterfall. An almost surreal setting in the middle of the forest. The sun was about to set, the last of its rays reflected in a shallow pool making it orange. It was a three hour walk, getting there but seeing what we were, it was worth every minute, and more.

Waterfall, Agumbe

The surreal sunset, Agumbe

I’d travelled to forests before and I’ve travelled to more since, but those two days are forever etched as a life-changing experience. Seeing nature at work the way I did there, made me realise a lot of things and made me see my life in a different perspective. I’m not sure how to describe how, but at the end of those two days I felt different, changed.  One thing I’m certain of is that I left with a lot more humility. I guess it’s all a part of Agumbe’s charm.

Monochrome landscapes: Lonavala. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

Monochrome Landscapes #2: Lonavala

Black and white photography has a different charm. I feel with no colour to distract the viewer, it captures a photograph’s true essence. I’ve wanted to do a series of monochrome landscapes since a while and I chose Lonavala as my second destination for the series.

The Place

Lonavala is one of the most famous weekend getaways in the state of Maharashtra. Halfway between Mumbai and Pune, it sees a lot of tourist traffic throughout the year. Once a pristine hill station, it has long since lost its charm.

Yet, there are a few pockets still undiscovered by the herds of revellers, accessible only by small dirt tracks winding through the mountains. It was driving through one of these tracks one stormy afternoon that I found the second destination for my monochrome landscape series.


Monochrome Landscapes #1: Malshej Ghat

Black and white photography has a different charm. I feel with no colour to distract the viewer, it captures a photograph’s true essence. I’ve wanted to do a series of monochrome landscapes since a while and Malshej turned out to be a great place to start.

The Place

Malshej Ghat is a mountain pass nestled in the Maharashtrian Sahyadris. Rumoured to receive the maximum rainfall in the state, the area turns lush green and has a large number of waterfalls, some of which fall right on the road cut through the mountain. The place is thronged by tourists during these monsoon months but sees little tourist activity otherwise.

By winter though, the waterfalls have all but dried up, the trees have lost their leaves and the shades of green brought in by the rains have turned yellow and brown.

At the foothills are dense forests where leopards roam and which are rumoured to be home even to tigers. Once up the mountain, the road leads to a beautiful lake created by a dam on the Ar river, which, surrounded by rugged peaks on all sides makes quite a surreal scene.

T-24 from Ranthambhore. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

The elusive tigers of Ranthambhore

The first place one thinks of when talking about Bengal tigers is Ranthambhore. Located in Rajasthan, it’s long been the world’s favourite place to see the tiger. Everything from its forest to its mountains to its fort are the tiger’s domain.

Ranthambhore is also a favourite amongst wildlife photographers. Especially those chasing the otherwise elusive big cat. The tigers there are known to pose for photographers. The most famous being Machali, one of the world’s most photographed Bengal tigers. Now 18 years old, she’s also the oldest living wild tiger in the world.

The Ranthambhore landscape. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

The landscape is a beautiful mix of forests, mountains, soil and rocks. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

Ranthambhore is surrounded by two rivers, Banas in the north and Chambal in the south. Between them, on the edge of a plateau lies this incredible forest. Most of Ranthambhore is characteristic of the deciduous forests found in central India. Yet there are parts where the terrain changes completely. Trees give way to mountains and the soil to rock, giving it the most incredible landscape.

I would be there for a week and I would visit the forest 10 times. At the time it seemed good enough, considering it was Ranthambhore. Everyone almost always saw a tiger. Almost always.

Crested serpent eagle, Ranthambhore. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

One of the twelve crested serpent eagles I saw in Ranthambhore. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

I saw my first tiger within 10 minutes of entering the forest on my first safari. It was one of the largest male tigers there, T-24. He was taking his afternoon nap. We stuck around for a while, then drove ahead and came back to the place just before sunset. Word had spread and there were many cars there. But luckily, the tiger walked out of the thicket right opposite my car. There he was, the King, looking straight at me. He was probably as big as the car I sat in, and he was hardly 15 feet away. It feels surreal to be that close to a tiger, let alone being that close to one looking straight at you. It didn’t last long, though. Seeing the number of cars around, he turned back into the thicket and disappeared.

Along with tigers, Ranthambhore is also an excellent place for birders. More than 200 local and migratory birds are found in the area and it’s easy seeing a bird up close. Never before have I been to a place where I’ve seen more raptors. Owls, buzzards, ospreys, shikras, vultures and eagles –  I saw them all. In my one week there, I saw a total 72 species of birds.

Oriental darter at sunrise. © 2015 Shaunak Modi

An Oriental darter at sunrise. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

By the fifth day, I’d had my fill of birds, mammals and reptiles, all but the tiger. The only tiger I’d seen was T-24 in the first safari. On my other trips, I would see at least one tiger a day. Here I was, in the heart of tiger country and I had seen one, in four days. But I wouldn’t see one that day either.

A part of me felt dejected. It was my last safari and I was desperate to see a tiger. A short drive into the forest we heard an alarm call and saw something move in the bushes. It was a tiger. But within a few seconds, it climbed over a mountain and disappeared. Having completely lost hope to see one now, we drove along. Then, out of nowhere – more alarm calls. This time they were close and we rushed toward them. We got there just in time to see a leopard grabbing a langur and running up a mountain. The entire hunt lasted a fraction of a second. The other langurs were confused and still gave alarm calls. Amongst them, a baby shrieked – its mother was between the leopard’s jaws. We sat there watching the leopard walk away with its meal, looking at each other in disbelief.

Leopard walking up a mountain with a langur in its mouth. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015.

Leopard walking up a mountain with a langur in its mouth. | Photo © Shaunak Modi, 2015

It’s uncommon to see animals hunt in India. To see a leopard hunt, is even rarer. Before long it was time to head back out of the forest – for the last time. But I was happy. I had seen something a few will ever see. And even though the tiger eluded me, the forest more than made up for it. I couldn’t have asked for a better going away gift!

Until next time, Ranthambhore.

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