Good sightings in more ways than one, writes SUBHA J RAO
This is photogenic territory. Playful Nilgiri langurs take part in a swinging match on the trees, the hill slopes blush in shades of green, there are unending slopes of coffee and tea plantations and the sun that plays hide-and-seek with the shola forests making you go click, click, click... Manamboli (Maanampalli in Tamil) in the Western Ghats. A valley rich in wildlife, it packs quite a variety. Treats include sighting herds of bison, elephant , bear and wild boar, listening to the shrill calls of birds and insects and watching a carpet of wriggling leeches. The really lucky can spot a tiger or leopard. Our destination is Mandhiri Mattam, a swatch of plain land amid dense forest and imposing hills. A vantage point from where you can see the backwaters of Parambikulam, frequented by everything from sambar to spotted deer, bison and elephants. A recent addition to this pristine spot is a rudimentary anti-poaching camp that can be reached after more than an hour of trekking from Manamboli. Set in picturesque surroundings, even pachyderms seem to have been smitten by it and keep frequenting the place. So much that the forest department has been forced to dig a deep trench.The scent of rain is in the air and the forest guards accompanying us urge us to walk fast. Since leeches abound this time of year, we liberally powder our shoes with snuff to keep them away.
The eight-km walk amid muggy jungle is punctuated with tales of animals sighted and the not-so-friendly bears that populate Karadi Kaan, a tract of land named after them. Suddenly we get to see marble-like porcupine quills, the pugmark of a leopard near a puddle and the droppings of bears and bison. It raises hope of some animal sighting. Meanwhile, prancing langurs shower leaves, as if to welcome us. Lion-tailed macaques swing joyfully from the trees. So does the flying squirrel. The hornbill too is frequently sighted here.Accompanying us are members of Chennai-based The Nature Trust, an NGO that works in the field of conservation. On the way is Karuneer Paalam (black water bridge), a bridge made up of wooden planks, below which meanders a clear jungle stream. The bridge is called so because the water turns almost completely black during the monsoon, trundling down the hills, gathering dust and grime. This bridge also demarcates the trek route. Thankfully, the track can accommodate a four-wheeler. It's now time to walk briskly as the the terrain changes. The clouds turn ominous and lightening flashes across the dark forest. The clap of thunder gets magnified many times over and our scared group walks fast, hoping to beat the rain. We step into the shed at Mandhiri Mattam and the skies open up. Peering through the windows, one can see a herd of spotted deer grazing languidly near a waterhole. Soon, we careen down a slippery path to reach some rocks close to the waterhole. The rocks offer a picture-perfect view of the hills, the sholas and the water body. The white rocks are the centre of attraction here. Looks like someone placed them there for effect. A herd of sambar is unaffected by our presence and goes about its work silently. The sky turns grey, indicating that it's time to return. How to get there:Manamboli is 25 km from Valparai. Go up to Urulikkal check post. From here, it is an eight-km downhill drive through 35 hairpin bends to Sholayar II powerhouse. Mandhiri Mattam lies between Parambikulam, Manamboli and Top Slip.You can stay at the two suites (Rs. 250) in the forest inspection bungalow situated on the bank of a stream. For permission, write to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Panagal Building, 1, Jennis Road, Saidapet, Chennai - 600015.