Pilgrimage for animal lovers

National park

We were in a decrepit jeep that rattled on the muddy road. I became aware of hitherto neglected body parts as they shook violently. As if the noise was not sufficient to drive away any wildlife, the thick dust that our tyres raised obscured visibility so much that we would not have spotted even if a lion tailed macaque, the flagship species of this national park, had crossed our path! Our reticent driver-cum-guide had warned us even before we got in that “no animals can be spotted as this is the buffer zone.”

Varied fauna

Silent Valley is spread over 237 square kilometers that consist of 89 square kilometers of core zone and 148 square kilometers of buffer zone. I was cursing myself for not taking the treks that had been mentioned in the Silent Valley website, which would have taken me nearer to the core zone. But telephonic conversation with the forest staff had been difficult because of the language barrier and it was with some difficulty that even the jeep ride had been booked.

As we drove past boards in Malayalam that I could not read, I was feeling dejected. The vehicle then stopped. “Malabar giant squirrel,” pointed our guide. We craned all we could but there was no sign of any squirrel. As the guide turned off the engine, there was silence and we suddenly found ourselves staring at a stretch of forest with beautiful tall trees. Calls of different birds and the smell of the woods made it seem like the perfect place to be. The brook by the side invited us to taste its fresh water and a little later we entered the virgin forest.

As we walked up the path, a giant watch tower rose incongruously amidst all the lush greenery. The climb up the 90-foot watch tower was worth all the huffing and puffing.

The sight that greets you at the top is panoramic — peaks surround the valley. While at some places the surrounding forest is totally green, at others, it is sparse and brown.

Suddenly, one of our co-climbers on the watch tower let out a scream — “See there, see there!” And yes, after much peering, we did spot what we were told was a herd of gaurs.

While I could spot only one as it changed directions while grazing, others said they spotted two or three. Seeing a sign of life at that great distance made up for all the initial disappointment. Thus, satiated, we got down from the watch tower and went down a winding path to the information centre, which provides a lot of interesting facts about the Silent Valley and its rich flora and fauna. As we went down, we could see the Kunthi River with shallow crystal clear waters.

We decided to send the jeep ahead and walk the distance. It was in this short trek that we could experience the true beauty of the Silent Valley. With butterflies dancing and leading the way, we entered into a path that was strewn with leaves and had sunrays streaming in. The colourful flowers beckoned but the swarm of insects (Silent Valley is home to 730 species of insects, 34 species of mammals and over 1,000 species of flowering plants) drove us out to another steep path that looked like Eden.

These rich forests would have got submerged long ago and generations would have lost this beautiful and critical biosphere, had it not been for the massive opposition that halted a proposed state government power project. The place was declared a national park in 1983 and is well protected by the forest staff. The biodiversity-rich Silent Valley is seen as one of the important milestones of environmental movement in India.

Even as we were silently trudging up the path, I wondered about the legend associated with this place. It is said that the Pandavas lived in these very forests during their exile.

Hence the name, Sairandhri Vana. Spotting elephant dung during our trek left us thrilled as we realised that we were walking on the same path that the gentle giants had trodden. Our guide, meanwhile, had walked back to get us. We reluctantly got into the jeep and returned to Mukkali from where the drive had begun.

A trip to Silent Valley is like a pilgrimage. It is with much longing coupled with preparation that you come here. Once here, you may get a fleeting glimpse of the deity, which will leave you in awe  and make you come back.

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