It is difficult to describe the beauty of the place where we lived; a place that changes the scene from season to season. In the summer, when it is hot and dry, the waters of the Parambikulam Reservoir recede towards the dam and the submerged land becomes visible. It is a surrealistic scene of a Salvador Daly painting. Gaunt, dry, tree trunks dead for years, look like they have been blasted with dynamite. Crumbling walls of what had once been villages. Homes where people lived and from where they moved, leaving the homes to be covered by the rising waters of the dam. Earth that is black with silt and initially looks dead. Then as the ground dries out a little and the sun touches it, old seeds germinate, grass starts to grow and covers the land. Where did the seeds come from? What happens to them when the water inevitably rises and covers them??
Early in the morning, Barking Deer come to graze on the grass. They seem to find the sunny spots and warm themselves as they eat. In the evenings, the Gaur come down to drink at the water’s edge and then graze on the grass as well. Sambar also come and the big males roll in the mud which protects them from biting insects. Wild Boar come in family herds and root for worms, tubers, and whatever else they can find. All this activity is restricted to the early mornings and late evening because when the sun comes out fully the entire area is too exposed for them to feel safe.
Then comes the monsoon and the water of the reservoir reclaims its own. Slowly, the water rises and once again, all that you can see are the very tops of the tall trees, which sometimes stick out of the surface. Then you need a boat to get to the islands in the middle of the reservoir, the tops of hills that were once covered with tea bushes. Now they stick out as islands, rather bare but with some shrub growth, mostly lantana and some old tea which is now lanky trees.
One of the British planters had left behind a boat which I’d had repaired and used to get to these islands. There is nothing more peaceful and enjoyable than to sit on one of these islands in the late afternoon, enjoying the silence, listening to the lapping of the small wavelets on the edge, and watching the sun extinguish itself in the waters of the dam. The reservoir also had a lot of fish, and fishing was an interest that my dearest friend Bertie and I shared. One of our favorite fishing spots was at the bottom of the road going down to Manamboli Dam, from Uralikal Checkpost. If you drive down that road through some very thick forest, you reach the Power Generation Unit of the Dam. If you go past that on the Topslip forest road which runs parallel to the river, you come to our fishing spot. This is at the bottom of the rapids below the Dam where the river takes a right turn away from the Dam. There we would stand in rapidly flowing water below the sluice gates and cast for Mahseer while drinking in the atmosphere of the jungle. The water flowed fast but it was not deep and so it was safe to stand in. The Mahseer would be in the pools at the bottom of the rapids, feeding on what the water flowing from the Dam brought for them. There would be total silence except the gurgle of fast flowing water or from a bird celebrating life. There is nothing more relaxing.
One day we were in Manamboli fishing and one of the fish we had caught disappeared. “Dai Baig Dorai, you can’t tie a bloody fish properly man!!” yelled my dear friend. We had each caught a good sized Mahseer. His was still there. Mine had disappeared. What gave the game away was that the line looked like it had been bitten through. Just then I heard the whistles; two otters talking to one another, no doubt with evil intentions on Bertie’s fish. I called out to him in a low voice, “Yedo, noke awaday” and I pointed to the otters. Bertie laughed so much that he almost fell into the water. “What the bloody hell, so this is the bugger who stole our fish!!! Man, what do you expect? We go into their home and steal their fish, so they decide to freeload on our effort.” What memories!! But my friend is gone. So would have the otters. Nothing lives that long in the forest. Only I am alive to tell the tale and to remember my friend and to live once again that magical day, this time on behalf of both of us.
In Murugalli, was a small creek that eventually ran into the reservoir. The stream meandered through the cardamom fields, which we had planted on the hillside leading to the reservoir. In one place it made a little waterfall as it descended the slope and eventually it flattened and spread out as it entered the lake. At this point there were two very tall trees. It was on one of these trees that I’d had a machan (a tree platform for watching wildlife) built. In the summer, especially on moonlit nights, this was a wonderful place to sit up. Moonlight with its special soft quality blurs the lines and so the shapes become ghostly and ephemeral. And since the water recedes towards the dam, sometimes the animals are a long way off. However, because the intervening space of the lake bed is almost bare, they are still visible, especially if you use good quality binoculars. On moonlit nights you don’t even need special night sight binoculars. Ordinary lenses catch enough light to show the dark shapes, especially of Gaur clearly.
I stopped hunting many years ago and now spend all my time with a camera and enjoy myself far more than I did when I carried a gun. But the memories of those days are also very pleasant and exciting to remember.
One day Bertie and I went hunting geese in the area behind Krishnarajsagar Reservoir. These were Bar-Headed Geese which are migratory birds and come south from the Arctic Circle for the winter. We reached there late at night and spread our sleeping bags on the ground in the dry fields and slept. I should clarify – we tried to sleep while trying to hang on to the ground to prevent the mosquitoes from flying away with us. Never have I seen such strong and powerful mosquitoes. Must have been something in the air or water. It is a good thing that the passing of time has nothing to do with whether you sleep or not and so the night passed. The sky started lightening and then the sun peeked over the horizon to see if all was well and if it was okay to come out. Having assured itself it started its upward journey.
How can I describe how the light of the dawn first peeks over the horizon and how it then becomes a little darker before the real dawn breaks? The sky becomes first a deep shade of blue in which the wispy white clouds look almost transparent. Then it takes on an orange hue that gradually strengthens as the fire of the sun lights all it touches. Then it changes to gold and then the brightness of the full morning blazes forth. How can I describe how it felt to sit on the ground with my friend, both of us huddled against the cold in our sleeping bags, watching the first flights of geese? The V-formations, with the leaders breaking the force of the wind and the followers coasting in the easier flying they create; their conversations with each other as they fly, constantly in touch with one another by voice. Geese are highly social birds and talk to each other all the time. When they are feeding in a field, which they do in large numbers, you can hear them chattering a long way off. But in the middle of all that, there is always the sentinel who does not eat, nor does he take part in the conversation, but keeps a very alert eye open for any predators. After a while, one of the others takes over and he feeds. How can I describe the sight of a flight of geese flying into the sun from one end, disappearing in the glory of the light for a few instants and then emerging from the other side flying strongly in formation? We sat in silence and I praised the One who created the geese and the sun and who created me and my friend.
Bertie had a Labrador Retriever called Rocky which he had trained as a gun dog. It was a fantastic animal, true to its type with a nose that made you wonder if it was real or some kind of magic. He could smell at distances which we could not even dare to imagine. A mouth so soft that it would sometimes catch and bring the watchman’s rooster home and present it to Jenny, held firmly in its mouth, but not a tooth would touch it. Rocky had another neat trick when he felt he was not getting enough attention. He would go into the storeroom and pick one egg out of the egg tray and go to Jenny and sit before her, and stare at her with the egg in his mouth. When she put her hand out, he would drop the egg neatly in her hand. One day the egg trick misfired, and the egg fell and broke on the floor. The egg tray found a new home higher up where Rocky could not get to it.
One day we went hunting Imperial Pigeons. These are rather large birds which are migratory and pass through the Western Ghats on their way north. They have a deep booming call and usually sit on the topmost branch of the tallest tree they can find. They have good eyesight and are very wary of people creeping up on them. Consequently, they are difficult to shoot.
That day we walked up a jungle path along a hillside with Rocky in tow. The excitement of the dog was palpable. He knew that he was going to do the thing for which he had been bred and trained and which he could do better than anyone else. The joy of living to the edge of your potential is something that energizes all those about you, even if you are only a dog.
We walked along listening for the tell-tale cooing of the Imperial Pigeons. And then we heard it. The deep booming sound amplified by the hills. I looked up and there he was. A big bird sitting on the topmost branch of a Eucalyptus tree about seventy meters away. The tree was on the edge of the ravine we were walking along and below it the ground dropped away, covered by a thick blanket of Lantana and thorn bush. Through it were the usual pathways made by wild boar and expanded by Gaur, but not something that you looked forward to using yourself. Lantana is ideal habitat for wild boar, jungle fowl, and small predators like jackals, jungle cats, and the occasional panther. The thick growth hides the birds from the air and the fruit of the Lantana is relished by jungle fowl. Wild boar use the Lantana as a place to lie up in the heat of the day. The shade under the Lantana is so thick as to be almost dark. Water is retained in the soil and so it is also several degrees cooler under the growth. Gaur use the wild boar paths on occasion to get to water and such paths are consequently wider.
Bertie, always the gentleman, asked me to shoot first. I stalked the bird, and very slowly crept up under a clump of Lantana that grew near the Eucalyptus in which the bird was perched. Using a .22 rifle, I aimed and fired, and the bird dropped. As it fell, it flapped a little and so did not drop directly under the tree but into a large thicket of Lantana and thorn bush that grew all the way to the bottom of the ravine. “Good shot Dorai”, Bertie called to me with that wonderful smile that put deep dimples in both cheeks.
“Now let’s see how good this dog is.” Saying that he sent Rocky into the Lantana. We followed. It is a joy to see a well-trained dog and its master working. There is a bond between the man and the animal that is almost supernatural. The dog senses every mood and reacts to movements that are impossible for any observer to notice. Being a dog trainer and handler myself, I especially appreciated the nuances of great training.
Rocky took off and was soon lost to sight. But every now and again he would run back to tell us to hurry up. The ground was treacherous as it was wet and very steep. I was always wary of my game leg, injured in a motorcycle accident leading to a complicated operation and convalescence of almost a year. Bertie, ever considerate, would never tell me to move faster than I felt comfortable doing. As we walked along suddenly Rocky started barking. Now a Labrador works silently. It will bark only very rarely when it is in a situation where it needs help. As we rounded a bend, we saw him looking up into the thick Lantana overgrowth and he continued to bark. His tone was the high-pitched excited bark of the dog which is on its prey. Yet when we reached him, we could see nothing, no sign of the pigeon. Bertie sent him to search again but the dog refused and continued to bark and kept looking up at the roof of Lantana bush. When this had happened a few times, we decided to follow Rocky’s lead and started to search in the thick roof of Lantana branches and leaves overhead. Lantana is thorny with small thorns and so the search was not painless. But sure enough we saw what Rocky’s nose had already told him. The bird had fallen from the tree but could not break through the Lantana foliage and so was stuck overhead in the thicket. Some inspired climbing and we had the bird. For Rocky, this was heaven itself.
Many years later Bertie and I were in Ooty on a game drive for wild boar. These boars are considered a pest as they destroy the potato fields that are a mainstay of cultivation in Ooty and its surroundings. Consequently, where shooting all wildlife is banned, farmers are permitted to shoot wild boar on their land. The work of a herd of boar overnight on a potato field is awesome, to put it politely and so it is easy to understand why the farmers hate them so much. Boar can and do destroy all the farmer’s hard work and threaten his living in a couple of hours. The farmers therefore invited us planters to shoot boar on their land. The farmers liked the idea of me shooting boar also because I don’t eat pork and so they didn’t have to share anything with me. Normally hunters are given a share of the meat, but I took none.
On that cold, bright morning over the Christmas weekend, Bertie and I were standing, wearing Army camouflage jackets, our body outlines broken up by some scrub bushes listening to the farmer’s dogs barking in the distance as they started the drive. Suddenly the tone of the dogs’ barking changed to a high-pitched excited yelping as they sighted the boar herd and they were off. We expected the boar to break out into a short open glade before us before they would be gone into the forest on the other side. We would have less than 2 seconds of shooting time because a galloping boar with dogs on his tail is anything but slow on his feet. The dogs had serious respect for the boars because they knew from personal experience what an angry boar or sow can do in seconds to a dog. The result is not pretty, and in many cases, there is nothing more to be done than to use a bullet to put the dog out of his pain. Not a pleasant thing to do at all. For us, the complication was to make sure that we hit the boar and not an over enthusiastic dog which could also break out right behind. This takes much longer to say than what happened that day. As I stood there with my .12 bore shotgun loaded with rifle shot, I suddenly saw bushes violently shaking as the boar galloped through and suddenly a boar and a sow broke through at full gallop. I lifted the stock to my shoulder and took the boar in the head and without moving the gun from my shoulder, panned it a little to the left before firing the second shot and both animals somersaulted to a halt. I can still see the huge smile on Bertie’s face and his shout of, “Brilliant shooting Baig Dorai.” And he came across and hugged me hard.
He is the only person I know who would be happier when I succeeded than he would be for his own success. What a friend I had! And how much I miss him today!