Far from the city bustle, SOMA BASU spends a quiet day in the grasslands of Kookal

All through our 45-km journey from Kodaikanal to Kookal, it drizzles. “There have been four-to five leopard kills during the last five months.” Founder of Chennai-based The Nature Trust, K.V.R.K Thirunaranan shows me photographs of the kill on his digital camera. I swing between thrill and fear missing out on the first 15 minutes of the view when driving past the stunning shoals.

“This is the last batch of shola forests in upper Palani Hills” says Thirunaranan. “The evergreen tropical forests are shrinking due to the monoculture of imported pine, eucalyptus and wattle. The ground ferns are also affecting the grasslands in Kookal, which hold four types of ecosystems — the swamp, freshwater, shola and grassland.”

“The Government should step up its efforts to protect the area. The Kookal lake has to be conserved. There are lot of endemic birds here,” he continues as I begin to appreciate the flora and fauna of the area.

Though the road is bad and the car drives through potholes, my eyes are feasting on the wooded slopes and verdant hills in the distance. Suddenly we reach a scenic ‘sangam’ of rolling hills, verdant valley and water body. The Kookal Lake curves and runs exactly through the middle of the sholas. Mist continuously plays hide and seek over the lake. There is quietude even as an occasional car passes by, three adults exchange banter while washing sacks full of hill carrots at the lake’s edge and two young boys laugh and play with each other holding fishing rods.

When the sun shines bright, Kookal is a wonderful place to trek. Deciduous forests and waterfalls beckon en route to Kudiraiyar Dam. There is another walking track to natural cave formations on a hill top, believed to be home to the descendants of the leaf-clad Paliyan tribes till the mid-1980s.

But on this day, I am advised to hang around by the lake as rains make the trekking route leech-infested. Left with no other choice, we sit on the bank trying to spot animals on the other side through the binoculars. Birds appear closer even though the chirping is faint. You suddenly discover that even your whisper echoes here. I look through the binoculars and see a big bushy tail hanging from a tree across the lake. That’s the Malabar giant squirrel. There is instant jubilation as we spot more.

Taking in lungs full of fresh air, a leisurely walk around the lake is like being in a Botany class. Amidst rare single fern trees, rudraksha, jamun, cinnamon and shenbagam flower trees you sight butterflies and birds such as the Black and Orange Flycatcher, Grey Headed Flycatcher, Grey Breasted Laughing Thrush, the Nilgiri Flycatcher, the large Pied Wagtail, the Oriental White-Eye, the Nilgiri Wood Pigeon and the Nilgiri Pipit that are relatively uncommon.

The grasslands that circle the lake make a wonderful site for day picnickers and night campers too. But the Forest Department’s permission is mandatory. Thankfully, the leopard stays off and by the time we leave I have all forgotten its kill. And as we leave Kookal, an Indian Gaur waits for us at the exit road as if to say bye.