ESTHER ELIAS is treated to an amazing spectrum of animal life as she travels into the reserve forests of Sathyamangalam

The road into Sathyamangalam reserve forest anticipates adventure long before the dry deciduous landscape appears. In the dim light of the rising sun, we drive alongside the Bhavanisagar dam, stop at the last chai kadda before the checkpost, clear our permits and enter a winding stretch with trenches on either side. For company, there’s a nip in the air, the scent of fresh cow dung, and silence, occasionally broken by cocks crowing. Past a few tribal hamlets, the tarmac abruptly stops. From here, it’s 30 odd km of dirt road through the forest to Gajalatty and Kulitharpatty, villages within Thengumarahada in Sathyamangalam forest.

“To spot any wildlife, keep your eyes focused three feet above the ground and watch for movement,” advises Ramesh Kutty, founder of Holiday in Wild and our guide for the day. Against the steady hum of his four-wheel drive, we inch forward at 10 kmph. It all seems a hazy maze of dull brown, dirty yellow and drab green at first, but as our eyes focus, we can tell knotted and gnarled bark from the stripped and silky smooth.

The excitement begins soon enough. Between the recent tyre-tracks of the morning’s bus out, we spot fresh tiger pugmarks. A five rupee coin placed in the pugmark’s centre leaves much room on the sides, revealing a fully grown male. The tracks extend along the path and are later joined by a cub’s pugmarks — sometimes overlapping each other’s, otherwise spread apart, and finally trailing off into the forest. To distract us from the disappearance though, the fastest member of the animal kingdom shows up — a peregrine falcon. Far in the distance, it nose dives at possible prey, at an astounding 300 kmph.

The circle of animal life is visible all around us. Electric wires swing loose from last night’s elephant walk, stripped-clean elephant thigh and skull bones lie abandoned from a good dinner, and a beheaded eagle carcass sits nestled in a tree’s nook, its white feathers scattered on the leaves below. The forest slopes down towards a dry stream bed, its grey stones now overrun by crawling black worms. We’re greeted by the whistle-like calls of two hawk eagles. They hide themselves initially but one later peeks out from between the branches for a quick photo shoot.

Past the stream, lady luck shines on us benevolently. An Indian black eagle and a common kestrel sing each other a leisurely love song, the eagle circling higher and higher rising into invisibility. A little ahead, we spot a creature that until recently, had altogether disappeared from Sathyamangalam: the critically endangered red-headed vulture. Evidently blessings come in bundles, for just below the vulture, six stately Indian gaur stroll before our jeep, the last pausing to pose for us headlong.

“For the last few years, we’d have to make five or six trips to spot even one vulture,” says Ajaikumar Ramamoorthy, head of The Photography Club of Coimbatore. “But of late, the ban on the veterinary drug diclofenac, which caused kidney failure in vultures, is finally taking effect and the vultures are returning,” adds Ramesh. On our left, a kettle of 15 vultures spiral in a massive column — little black dots against a pale blue sky. Further ahead, another 20 circle each other in wide hypnotic hoops. Two step apart to perform their own little duet. It is Nature’s sexiest slow dance.

We take a short break for breakfast at Gajalatty with our feet dipped in the cold Moyar waters but our road takes us upwards and onwards, travelling parallel to the river. It hence forms a common crossing for animals searching for water. Fresh elephant dung lies around, a herd of spotted deer run past and a rabble of bottle-green butterflies kisses our windshield as we drive by. We finally arrive at the Sathyamangalam forests’ edge with the Moyar river separating it from the Nilgiris that rise on the other side. Trees lean in to converse with the water, buffaloes bathe on the sides and women wade across, their sarees hitched up. Just when I’m convinced Sathyamangalam has whispered enough of its secrets to me, a fat crocodile crawls out of the water and sunbathes on the stones. I couldn’t ask for a more dramatic closing act.

Getting there

Sathyamangalam is a reserve forest and hence a litter-free zone that requires permit from the Forest Department to enter. The drive till the Moyar river is 90 km from Coimbatore.

Where to stay

There are hotels and homestays both in Coimbatore as well as in Erode district.

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