Meghamalai, a mountain range situated in Theni District, is a part of Western Ghats. I had to visit the misty mountains on an official trip. Being a commercial photographer- who embarked on a photography journey shooting wildlife- working anywhere close to the forest is an exciting trip for me. The nightmare however- I wasn’t going to drive. I was given my client’s company Bolero with a driver accompanied by the Hospitality Manager of the group.
Being a very keen driver myself, I have done some crazy stretches, some times driving for 14 hours straight without taking a break. As much as I enjoy driving, I am terrified to be a passenger in a vehicle with a driver that I don’t know of! I comfortably ride with only a handful of drivers like my brother, cousins, and a few close friends. Having said that, I was going to be a passenger for 550 kilometers with an unknown driver, a vehicle that doesn’t handle well, unknown terrain, and a friendly co-passenger, Mr.Tharani Tharan. Although our driver was going slow, my eyes were constantly on the speedometer trying to have a check on the speed. I may sound weird, but this is sort of a phobia that I have! Another group of two gentlemen were supposed to join us on the trip and they were arriving from Cochin. Since they did not know the route, we were waiting for them at the Kollam-Theni / Kochi- Dhanushkodi intersection where we witnessed a spectacular scene. Six Auto Rickshaws, painted in funky colors, had sign boards all over them, luggage trussed up on specially designed roof racks, with some crazy drawings of Tigers, Chicken Curry etc, it was a sight like no other. All 6 Auto Rickshaws, had only 3 members each in them, the best part was all of them were foreigners. A bunch of white people, driving funky colored auto rickshaws, is not what you see every day in India. I had to walk up to them and with their permission take some pictures. From their accent, I could tell they were from the US. I couldn’t interact much with them since our friends from Cochin were about to reach any moment. It was a wonderful scene nevertheless.
The Cochin duo, John Mathew and Biji Kurian arrived just after the rickshaw rockstars left. In two cars, we started proceeding towards Meghamalai. We had to stop over at a junction to park Biji’s 300 kilometer old VW Polo GT and shift them over to our Bolero because the roads to Meghamalai is in horrendous condition and no vehicles other than SUVs and Jeeps can go there without scraping a good portion of the car’s underbody.
Finally after all the wheel locking, understeering, crank knocking, clutch burning we reached the main town of High Wavy Mountains. It was a very beautiful and scenic place with huge mountains, deep valleys, ever green forest carpet folding one on top of the other and a huge reservoir which was bone dry. About 20 minutes to our destination, Tharani got a call from the resort saying the lunch was ready and he also promptly warned us about elephants right in front of the bungalow. Like a boy was I excited! Hoping they wouldn’t wander off before we reached, I got busy being awestruck looking at the beautiful forest patches in between the Tea plantation. In no time, we had reached and before even getting my luggage and camera gear out, I asked the staff if they could take me to the elephants. Without wasting time, we walked towards where the elephants were and finally spotted them about 500 meters from our guesthouse. It was hardly a sight because they were behind a huge thicket busy feeding. Hungry ourselves, we headed back to the guesthouse for a hearty meal followed by a hot cup of home brewed tea.
After the refreshing cup of tea, John Mathew, Biji and I went out for a walk with our camera hoping to take pictures of the elephants we saw an hour back. As we were walking down the service road, I was surprised to see Grey Breasted Laughingthrush / Kerala Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron fairbanki fairbanki) perched about 20 feet from us. As much as I was excited to see these “Near Threatened” species of birds, I did not want to scare them off. To my surprise they never flew away, like they were posing for my camera. John and Biji were very supportive being quiet spectators while I went trigger happy shooting these elusive birds. Few photos are attached below.
While I was shooting the bird, John Mathew called out to show me another of the same species perched on tea plantation. Moving in slowly trying not to freak them out, I went down on my knees to get an eye level shot of the bird. Only after looking through the view finder did I notice that the bird was wet by the rain. All in all, it was a great sight with great light.
After the Laughingthrush episode, we settled down nearby to review the images, while one of the staff walked towards us saying the elephants were out in the open. We walked a few meters down the road and across the hill were 3 beautiful elephants crossing the forest land to get to the other side of the hill. The family of 3 was lead by a sub-adult bull, followed by a few months old calf trailed by the mother. Mid-way, they encountered a slippery patch of rock which they had to cross to get to the other side and for a while the sub-adult male was hesitant. Building up all the courage he went for it and the others started to follow right after.
Almost 90% of the slippery patch was over and we witnessed something that was heartwarming. Right after the male elephant cleared the slippery patch and just about when he entered the thicket, he stopped. Leaving the baby and the mother waiting on the slippery rock. The baby was spooked! In a gesture of reassurance, the mother elephant immediately supported the calf with her trunk, holding her from slipping off in to a 50 meter fall. The male elephant immediately moved into the thicket as though they had a silent conversation about what was happening. This gesture by the mother elephant surprised all of us and I was glad I made an image of this scene.
After this incident, strangers Biji, John and I became friends. Happily, we walked back to the guesthouse for another cup of hot tea and we endlessly started talking about wildlife and all our experiences. The following day, 3 of us went on a morning drive and the lighting was just spectacular. A whole new world opens up when the early morning sun meets the long staying mist. We took some landscape shots before heading back to the guesthouse, and here is one of the photographs.
Our stay in Meghamalai was coming to an end and we were getting back with fond memories of the mountains, rain, birds, elephants, beautiful weather, Meghamalai (Cloud Mountain in Tamil) and of course the grueling ride. My job in Meghamalai is not over yet, gladly, and I cannot wait to go back during Monsoon. We were headed towards Valparai that day. I’ll probably save the stories from it for the next post.