Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Last Great Indian Unknown

Published as cover story in Outlook Traveller Oct 2006

The bridge washed away in May and no vehicle could cross the boulder-strewn, mischievously gurgling M’pen River. There was no choice but to walk the 18 km to Deban. Once we got there, there would be no guarantee that we could cross the Noa-Dehing River and the Deban Nullah into the Buffer Zone of Namdapha National Park where we hoped to camp for the following week. We'd just have to try our luck.

It was an embarrassingly large entourage for two people to camp in the forest for a few days. There were seven porters, two tour guides, a cook, his assistant and a mass of things to carry that included literally everything but the kitchen sink - stove, gas cylinder, tents (different ones for sleeping, dining, shower and toilet), provisions, toilet seats, etc. I vetoed the blankets, pillows and a folding dinner table. I tried to veto the rasogolla tins but the cook wouldn’t hear of it.

The M'pen River wrapped itself around us, firmly nudging us downriver with the muscular persistence of a large python. It was already mid morning and the forest was quiet – you quickly get used to the steady metallic droning of the cicadas. The only other creatures about were large wood spiders and leeches. There were plenty of the small plain brown leeches but the ones that took my breath away were what I consider to be the world’s prettiest leech – a spectacularly beautiful large velvety brown one with sparkling emerald green stripes. They sat inert on leaves angling for passers by. Once onboard, they worked their way to a patch of bare skin and sucked their fill of blood. Given a choice of bloodsuckers like mosquitoes, ticks, horse flies, I’ll take leeches any day. They do not have parasites or transmit diseases the others are notorious for. They just suffer from a bad PR machine that promotes the larger-than-life prejudice against slimy, wormy limbless creatures.

As the road skirted the boundary of the Park all we could see were Chakma settlements and fields. Namdapha itself was hidden from view by a steep embankment. The commonest plant along the way was a colonizer I was familiar with - eupatorium. A weed that came with ships’ ballast from the West Indies in the late 1880s, it has colonized most of our National Parks and Sanctuaries. It was easy to fantasize being a pioneering explorer in this remote jungle; this weed brought me down to earth. Eight km later, when the road swung into Gibbons Land, we got our first real view of Namdapha National Park. The towering trees occluded the sky, the variety of birds heard but not seen, and the occasional glimpse of a forested mountain were tantalizing. I had learnt not to hope for too much, as the rainforest is very miserly in revealing its secrets. Namdapha is reportedly the only place in India to see the four cats - tiger, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and leopard. But I knew that if I saw even one of them here, I had the good deeds of all my previous births to thank. What I could, however, hope for were butterflies, birds like hornbills and hoolock gibbons, India’s only ape.

At Deban, it was clear that we were never meant to get to Namdapha’s Buffer Zone. Deban Nullah was declared treacherous (too deep and the current too swift), the boatman had been transferred and the captive elephants were loose in the forest until the tourist season began in October. So we were going to have to chuck our carefully considered plans and instead make the best of the Miao-Vijoynagar Road. The guesthouse and its grounds looked like a Government guesthouse franchise – the concrete construction, the marigolds and crotons, the pine trees and the lawns. But on the bright side, it had a comfortable bed with a mosquito net.

MV Road, as it is marked on the map, was actually non-existent. In 1974, the Public Works Department (PWD) set out to build the road but twenty-four years later, they had reached only as far as Deban, a distance of ten km (that’s forty metres a year!). In 1998 the Forest Department decided that enough progress had been made and threw the PWD out. The only route to Vijoynagar is the Lisu path which wove along the southern bank of the Noa-Dehing River. The Lisu are forest people whose settlements, Gandhigram and Vijoynagar, on the other side of Namdapha, hugged the border with Myanmar. Their knowledge of the flora and fauna of this forest is unparalleled. During the open season they worked as porters and forest guides but with the rains all the Lisu, down to the last soul, had migrated back home to emerge only in October.

Although we were so far east, Arunachal Pradesh still patriotically followed Indian Standard Time. This meant that the sun rose at 4 am. At 7.30 am (about 10 am daylight time, long after the dawn chorus of birds and gibbons had ended) we headed for Hawa Camp, a spot five km further up the MV Road.

Lush, waist high vegetation lined the path. With shirts tucked into our pants and leech socks protecting our legs, we were all right. Leech socks look like Christmas stockings, made of woven cotton or canvas that cover the leg below the knee. They are worn over regular socks and inside the shoes. While the fashion-conscious would shudder at its crude cut, it effectively protected your legs from becoming a bloody mess at the end of a forest walk. The leech was to become the undeniable mascot of the trip. Pronounced "leese" by the Assamese, Wancho and Singpho people alike, we halted every ten yards, for de-leeching. It was a futile exercise – the longer you stood still removing leeches, the more the leeches got on.

It was too late in the day to see any animal and I contented myself with horticultural delights. Rocky outcrops covered with ferns, philodendrons dripping from tree trunks, the translucent green of the birds’ nest fern, a spectacularly large black orchid flower, the pink flowers of Impatiens (balsam) and colourful begonias lined the path. It was difficult to take one’s eyes off the slippery path to see the beauty of the forest above. Recent rains had churned the earth into a chocolate sauce consistency that threatened everyone’s ability to remain on two feet. In places the path wound around the sheerest edge of the slope and losing one’s step here could mean a rapid and bone-jarring descent of a km or two. Japang Pansa, a Wancho tribal, who was our guide warned that this was no place to lose one’s balance and fracture bones as it would take two days just to reach anyone at the bottom of the slope. Two captive elephants had tumbled down the slope and died, he said. Ouch!

The sheer size and spread of this forest made my head light; most of the rainforests I knew in South India were finite little oases hemmed in on all sides. Namdapha is one of the two largest protected rainforests in India at 2000 sq km, a whopper compared to that other iconic rainforest of the South, Silent Valley which measures only about 90 sq. km. Namdapha is also contiguous with Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (21,000 sq.km) in Myanmar, the world’s largest tiger reserve making it one of the most extensive rainforests in all of Asia. When we arrived sweaty and breathless at the wayside clearing that is Hawa Camp, I gulped in the rare view of the Noa-Dehing River below and the forested mountain slopes beyond. Japang said aloud what was on my mind, “This is just one day of our lives but for the Lisu, this is their entire life.”

How do the Lisu survive in this remote corner of India, out of reach of medical help? Japang answered matter-of-factly, “If anyone is seriously ill, they just die. Every July-August a lot of them die of malaria.” In clear weather, it would take a healthy Lisu five days to walk from his village, across Namdapha to Miao. To survive in Gandhigram or Vijoynagar means complete reliance on one’s knowledge of medicinal herbs and edible plants with no outside support of any kind. Do the Lisu wear leech socks, I wonder? Japang says, “No, they just brave it; their skin is too thick for leeches to get through.”

On the way down, a raucous, piping birdcall echoed through the forest. Rufous woodpecker. Japang filled me in on the peculiar breeding habits of this bird. It lays its eggs in an ant nest about 2 to 3 m off the ground. Don’t the ants eat the baby birds when they hatch? He said the village elders told him that the chicks smelt like ants so they were left alone.

Although Japang had served in Namdapha for many years and patrolled its paths all year round, he had never seen a tiger here. There was no rancour in his voice when he said that visiting tourists had seen one in November. Such is the way of the forest.

After that ten km trek and nary a hide of any animal, the sight of a troop of Hoolock Gibbons feasting above the Deban guesthouse was welcome. As I watched a hairy arm shoot out of the foliage to grab handfuls of fruit, I noticed something moving around next to it. It was a baby gibbon – a recent addition to the 2500 left in the world – fuzzy and blond. It seemed an odd time to have babies but we were to see more of them throughout the trip. Papa gibbon was disconcerted by our focused interest on his baby although we were 75 metres below. Even at that distance you cannot mistake who the father was; he was black while she was blond.

Japang, pointing to the northern horizon where the clouds obscured the sky, said that on a clear day one could see Daphabum, the snow-capped mountain that presided over Namdapha. No outsider has ever gone there, Japang said. An army expedition ended in failure a couple of years ago and the only people who have been there were the Lisu. They had described Daphabum as a place littered with plane wrecks from the Indo-China War of the early 60s. They scavenged the scraps, and melted them to make woks and other kitchen utensils. A Chinese pilot crash-landed his plane there and the intact cockpit is still used by the Lisu to sleep in when they visit the mountain. I was incredulous. Japang insisted that it could be true, as he had recovered pieces of aircraft from the Namdapha River which originates in Daphabum.

It rained all through the night and into the morning. My plan of going down to Gibbons Land with Japang had to be canceled. I thought if we put on our raincoats we could go but Japang held me back, “The path would have become a river. Wait till it stops.” Instead we watched the Noa Dehing rapidly turn into a roaring muddy river, carrying heavy tree trunks like matchsticks. Japang mentioned that the M’pen River, on the way home, may also be running full with this rain and we might have to camp there for a couple of days until it subsided. As we sat out of the rain watching the river fill up, Japang recalled an incident when he had been on patrol with a party of eleven Forest staff in the Buffer Zone. They had been marooned by a flash flood. They had run out of food quickly and the Chakma fed them for three days until their supplies ended too. “So those of us who knew about such things went into the forest for edible leaves; others went to the river to catch fish. There were so many fish in the river then. We could stand in the water and wait for a large fish to swim by and we’d hit it with a machete or club. We cooked the fish and the forest leaves together and lived on that for a few days. Despite that we became weak and could barely move. In the meantime our families were very worried. They were finally able to get the boatman to rescue us after 12 days.” If the M’pen was flooded we would be stuck in a similar position and I had no illusions about how the team would fare.

Leading this team was a novel experience for me. Until then I had always been part of a team led by an experienced and hard taskmaster – wake up before dawn, instant noodles the only sustenance, and jungle walks late into the night. I had felt inadequate, a novice naturalist and on this trip I felt like a one-eyed jungli leading the blind through the rainforest. I had to make concessions for the rookies on the team who had never been in a forest before. A couple still suffered from aches and pains of the trek to Deban. Our walks would have to be limited to no more than 10 km a day.

Optimistically I made plans to leave for Gibbons Land with Japang at 5.30 the next day. The others would follow after breakfast. The day was bright and clear with the haunting ululating songs of Hoolock gibbons. All worries of swollen rivers receded from my mind. As we walked in blessed silence watching Great Indian Hornbills at fruiting fig trees, I nearly jumped when a loud “aar aar aar” came out of the bushes to my left. A moment later a small yellow and brown weasel-like animal shot up the embankment. Yellow-throated marten. Even before we could react, a young marten ran across the path and dived into the bushes. Japang moved forward to investigate when another marten crying similarly in alarm scrambled up the embankment. They had been feeding on a flying squirrel – just the head, skin and intestines remained. We left them to it and continued on. Japang surmised that the squirrel might have come down to the ground where it may have been killed by the martens. Why would it come down? Because it couldn’t fly, its skin may have become heavy with the rain. Or the martens killed the squirrel up in the trees and it fell down and they followed it. We’ll never know.

Numerous pugmarks of various small mammals were imprinted into the fudge-like mud; if we were better jungle watchers, these could tell us many a tale. But neither Japang nor I were that well-versed and we had to let the jungle hang on to its mysteries until the next time when I promised myself I’d go out with a Lisu. While Japang was invaluable, there was a lot he didn’t know. Without his aid, I’d probably never have seen the yellow-bellied leaf bird, long tailed minivet, dollar bird, great barbet or the racket-tailed drongo. Namdapha is a bird watchers hotspot where names such as purple cochua, green cochua, beautiful nuthatch and Blandford’s rosefinch come alive. The Park encompasses a range of altitudes - all the way from the floodplains of the lowlands to the snows of Daphabum. Such diversity of habitat spawns unique plants and animals, many not even known to science. The vast expanse of forests on the southern and northern banks of Noa-Dehing haven't been explored at all.

While waiting for others to show up at the Forest Department outpost in Gibbons Land, a flock of Brown Hornbills flew from tree to tree. Japang explained that these birds were unique in the hornbill world. Most female hornbills incarcerate themselves in a tree hole for the entire time it takes to incubate eggs and raise their babies. The male hornbill is the sole provider of the family during the female’s confinement. Should the male get killed, it’s curtains for the female and babies. Brown Hornbills, however, live in family groups and therefore the female hornbill has not only her mate but also her sons to provide for her.

Moti Jheel is a pond atop a hill, the only other "sight" to see along the MV Road. Although we had done ten km already, the fair weather wasn't going to last long. The team agreed to do the additional ten km that afternoon. Before we set out, the team bargained with the cook for the last spoonfuls of salt with which to thwart the leeches. The path to Moti Jheel was quite different from MV Road that we had been on so far. The canopy was entirely closed with minor breaks over streams. The forest was dark, leeches thick, and the climb steep. Birds’ nest ferns graced tree branches and there was hardly any undergrowth at all. It seemed like no one had been here in years, but Japang insisted he had come up in March. A wild pig guarding her family grunted in warning. We stood stock still until the pigs moved off into the forest and Japang gave the all clear. About an hour and some later, we unexpectedly arrived at a primeval pond coated with green algae. None of us would have been surprised if a Loch Ness-like monster or a hand holding Excalibur emerged out of the water. This was Moti Jheel. Mythology aside, it was hard to imagine what life forms lived in this pool. Japang looked at the water thoughtfully and wondered aloud if a huge snake could live in there. In reality, it was probably home to nothing more than a few turtles, frogs and assorted insects but then, there could well be a few surprises in store if explored further. The walk downward was slippery and our tired feet slipped and slid with leeches hanging on for dear life.

We spread out along the road intent on getting rid of leeches from our footwear. It was a black day for leeches – they were tortured with salt, sugar, tobacco and DEET. Within minutes those gorgeous green and brown leeches had turned into flaccid, colourless, lifeless bodies lying along the road. That night, one of the leech-paranoid members laid a white trail of salt around his sleeping bag like medieval Europeans hung garlands of garlic to ward off vampires.

It began to rain seriously that night. By morning the campsite was flooded. Japang sounded dire warnings about M’pen in spate. Tawang, a Wancho porter, was dispatched at 6 am. If he didn’t return by 10, he had crossed M’pen and we were to follow. At the appointed hour, already driven stir crazy, I picked up my knapsack and began heading out. Not even ten yards down the road, I met Tawang. Bad news. It looked like we may have to camp here one more night at least. I was worried. If we were marooned here we would not last very long – we were not forest-hardened enough to survive on forest leaves and roots. So far the rainforest had granted me more than I had dared to hope. I fervently wished our luck would hold a bit longer. An hour later the rain abated and we decided to give it a shot. The river had subsided since that morning but it was a lot fuller than the last time we had crossed it. Big smooth boulders underwater were a hazard and many a time we nearly fell into the swift current. Shikari, the Chakma porter, had the big tin trunk with crockery. This was going to be a challenge. But Shikari just tied a rope to the handle of the trunk and floated it across the river looking for all the world like a man walking a big rectangular dog on a leash.

Just after everyone had crossed without mishap, we heard a distant rumbling. I looked questioningly, pat came the answer “the mountain is falling” – a landslide. Soon the clouds closed in over Namdapha and the heavens opened up as we sped towards Dibrugarh blasting Assamese folk songs in our wake. As I gazed at the white clouds receding in the distance I knew I'd be back to explore that last great Indian Unknown.

1 comment:

Warren said...

I can't believe I'm making the first comment on this amazing story!