Macro Expedition No.1 – Agumbe

It was early 2017.

I was in contact with YuwarajGurjar to involve me in the next macro destination. Yuwaraj always goes to Amboli and Goa. But this time we discussed to explore a new forest. We wanted to go someplace where people from Maharashtra have not explored it yet in a way for macro. Given the distance of Amboli from Mumbai/Pune, everyone was visiting Amboli as a biodiversity hotspot but not beyond. So it was set. We zeroed in on Agumbe and Vihang Travels of which Makarand Joshi and YuwarajGurjar are founders, decided to make the arrangements.

Agumbe has two main options to stay. One is ARRS which is the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station. The other is KCRE – Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology. We chose the latter. The first daunting task was the waiting game. Staying in Hyderabad for the past 5 ½ years and away from the camera, the trip was a welcome break. One month before the trip I spent in researching about the place, the stay and what KCRE is and what to expect there. Finally it was around 2-3days left for the trip. Given that we were going to an isolated place, I preferred to pack my stuff light and in a backpack so that my hands are free. Given that Agumbe is considered as “Cherranpunji of the South”, I made arrangements to buy rain covers for the camera backpack and the main backpack. Finally it was time for the trip.

Day 0:

I have a history of something odd happening with me in time of important trips. Either the taxi will not come. Or the auto will not start. Anything and everything. I was making my last-minute packing and once done, booked my Uber. Unfortunately the cab came late and on top of that, he was standing in the opposite lane of my house. If this was not enough, both of our phones were not working. After a brisk walk here and there, I did spot him. Quickly put my luggage in and told him to drive a little fast otherwise I am going to miss my train. The driver understood my urgency and was clever enough to wade through the pathetic evening traffic of Pune. My eyes were hooked to the time in my watch, monitoring each second. But for the time I thought I was going to cover it. And it had to go down. Major traffic jam just one km before the railway station. All cars stuck. The situation had almost come to where I abandon my cab and run towards the station. Instant marathon mode if you say. Soon the traffic cleared and I was at the main entrance of the railway station. Rushed towards the foot-over bridge to catch my train which was standing on platform 2. My friend Avinash was already seated when I reached my coach. Phase 1 cleared. Sigh of relief and took 5 mins to catch my breath. Called mom and informed I got the train. The plan was like this. I and Avinash were going to reach Thane from Pune by Indryani Express, have dinner at Thane station/nearby and meet the Mumbai participants at Thane Railway Station. Our train to Udupi was the CSMT – Mangaluru Jn 12133 Superfast Exp at 10.33pm. The Indryani Express reached Thane late because of rains in Bhor Ghats and usual suburban traffic on the route. We decided to have a quick dinner on platform 1 and come back to the meeting point. Avinash chose to have wada pav and I decided for sandwiches for a light dinner. By 10.15pm all of us had gathered at the meeting spot and proceeded ahead where our third AC coach was expected. The train was late by 10-15mins but it was a short wait. Soon we boarded our train and the official trip started. With the mandatory greetings and short introductions we chit chatted about almost any topic. Office gossip, photo topics, what to expect at Agumbe etc. Nobody looked at the time. Finally at around 12.15am we decided to call it a night as almost half of the next day will be with us. Udupi was not expected before 1pm.

(Yuwaraj Sir checking his luggage weight.)


Day 1:

The 12133 takes the Konkan Railway route to reach Mangaluru. As such the night sleep was peaceful. No unnecessary jerks and speed runs. It was as if the loco pilot did not have any urgency to reach there. When I got up in the morning and checked by pockets, my heart sank. My wallet was not in there. I started to search frantically. Seeing my sudden movements, Amish asked what happened. He realized the wallet that he had picked up in the night was mine. Gave it and told to keep it properly. So the tip to myself – wear jeans/cargos where you can zip up the pocket so that the wallet will not fall out.

(Our train at a scheduled halt to let the other train pass).

(Typical monsoon scenery)

(passing by a goods train)

(outside Verna)

(chugging along)

The train was cruising at a decent speed. Being a rail-fan, no trip is complete without standing in the door and absorbing the scenery and the train sounds. For breakfast, we decided to get down at Madgaon Jn, Along with train food of goli bhajji, idly-wada we also had fresh bread omelets and sandwiches.

(mandatory breakfast photo)

The rest of the time was spent in reading, talking about random topics and waiting in anticipation. As photographers, we were hoping that it will not rain heavily at the camp otherwise half the time will be spent staying inside. Till Madgaon the weather was bright and good. But as we got closer to Udupi, the weather grew darker than before. It was as if our nightmare was going to come true. We reached Udupi an hour late (typical in monsoon on the Konkan Route). Our innovas were waiting for us.

(got down from the train.)

(photo from the FOB of Udupi Station.)

Makarand rang Prashanth (the manager handling the KCRE campsite) that we are on our way to Agumbe. Prashanth informed us that it’s raining very heavily in Agumbe so we have our lunch outside of Udupi before Shivamogga Ghats. As we heard, it’s raining heavily there was instant chit-chats that the trip has its first hurdle etc. Still knowing that we are going in a “rain-forest” rain is obvious. The Innovas filled up diesel outside of Udupi and we stopped for lunch at Shivamogga. Since we had to climb the Ghats, we preferred light snacks and went for idly/dosa. Lunch was not complete without the famous filter coffee. It would have been straight evil that we came to Udupi and didn’t had filter coffee.

(outside the lunch place)

(eagerly waiting for food and enjoying idly dosa)

(Filter Coffee!!)

The drivers advised that we move fast. If the rains pick up in the Ghats then it is difficult to drive. I thought to myself, why he is saying so. But as we started to climb the Ghats, I realized what he was saying. The Ghats is a single lane and requires precise skill to maneuver your vehicle. One wrong move and you either go down in the valley or scratch your car. The local transport buses show it as if it’s a child’s play. As we drove up, the clouds had descended and it was lush green all over. It was a wonderful scene.

(Agumbe is top over there)

(our Innova convoy)

(Ascending the Shivamogga Ghats and the gate of Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary)

Soon we entered the gates of the Someshwara Wildlife Sanctuary.  Up ahead, Prashanth was waiting for us outside of Agumbe town with his modded Tata Safari. He mentioned that the road to campsite was narrow and the innovas were not capable to take such load and cover the distance. So four of us transferred in his SUV and we started on the approach road to the campsite. The road got thinner and thinner than before. Finally there was a patch of road where the innova barely managed to get across. Our SUV was cruising along.

(On the way to the campsite)

We reached our campsite within the next half hour. We were told to carry our luggage till the campsite from the parking spot as the campsite was below from the parking spot. Luckily my planning came to use as I had brought my haversack. We made our way to the campsite which is a 5mins walk.

As you get down the steps you start to realize the atmosphere and expanse of the rainforest. You are literally “inside” the rainforest. This is not an edge of the forest or arrangement or so. The campsite is bang inside the forest. Supari trees and other trees surround you. Cicadas welcoming you with their loud decibel mating calls. Other insects making their presence felt. The campsite is divided properly. The tents accommodation is to the left, the dining hall/luggage room/meeting room is to the right. There is a kitchen and staff quarters diagonally behind the hall. The big hall serves as the luggage room. There are these big bamboo racks to the left where you keep your luggage. The arrangement serves two purposes. The tents are Quechua T2 tents. With the limited space, the luggage is kept in the hall. Also the tents stay clean as you don’t bring in outside dirt inside the tent. The dining arrangement is to the right where the staff brings the food. The hall is dominated by a big log of wood cut properly that serves as a single table. The campsite has common bathroom/toilets for usage. A brilliant rule for usage of the bathroom/toilet is to use the dedicated slippers kept outside of the main door of the room. This way the bathroom building remains clean from outside mud and dust. Full marks in thinking for this aspect. We were told to settle down while the tea and snacks were getting ready. All of us were busy in observing the new area and atmosphere surrounding it. Rains had started in as we reached the campsite but it was not pouring cats and dogs. It was manageable. Post tea and sumptuous snacks, Prashanth advised to roam inside the campsite limit as an early dinner was planned out. Soon all of us were wandering in the campsite to spot potential subjects.

(Avinash going towards the tent to check the arrangements)

A two tailed spider greeted us right inside the hall. A boxer mantis was next. Outside a bicolored frog was waiting for us. Pair of jewel beetles was next. Just ahead near the pond, different subjects – metallic grasshopper, properly camouflaged hawk moth, jumping spider, bull frog, miscellaneous insects were all over. We soon returned to the hall as the rain had picked up speed. As darkness grew in the forest, the atmosphere changed. The voices of the cicadas were louder than before. Crickets were in a competition, whose call is the loudest. But the biggest of them all introduced themselves as we came from the stroll. LEECHES. And lots of them. They were spread out everywhere. I am still fascinated by how they work. They are blind, rely on their thermo receptors to detect heat and LOVE moisture. We are warm blooded and being in the rain-forest, generate sweat in buckets. While typical anti-leech techniques such as applying tobacco snuff cream on your body may deter them from coming near, you are in their favorite territory. They are not going to leave you. We joked that none of us will leave the campsite without a single leech bite. So for the next 2 days we were a feast for the leeches. Contrary to the popular fear spread on social media and friends, common leeches do no harm. Tiger leeches do cause pain, but the normal ones tickle. You don’t know they are on your body until you see a blood stream coming from either your hand/neck/shoulder/arm/leg/foot etc. When a leech bites you, it injects two main chemicals, the first is to let your blood not clot. The second chemical is local anesthesia, so the animal/human does not know it’s there. The leech happily sucks up the blood, gets fat and falls down. If you spot a leech on your body there are two main options as how I was told by Prashanth. The first one is obviously let the leech do its job and it will fall itself. If you don’t want to give blood and the leech is beginning to bite you, you have to “scrape” out the leech with your nail. The risk to this technique is the teeth of the leech may stay inside and supposedly cause infection. He has done it for years and never faced a problem. His point was, if a leech is going to bite you, it takes time to place itself before the bite happens. If you use the scrape technique there is no harm. So for the next two days I was scraping leeches from all over my body. The weird part is not the scraping out of the leech. It’s the after part where the leech stays attached to your nail/finger and tries to grasp that. They don’t go down without a fight.

While dinner was getting ready, we did a formal intro session about Vihang Travels, KCRE and its programs. Dinner was simple veg food. The locals of the area work at the campsite and cook food. So it was tasty sambar, sabzi, curry, salad, curd and local rice grown at the campsite/locals. The rice was not polished rice or brown rice. The rule is you have to wash your own plates-spoons-glass etc. and there is a tap in the far end corner. If you have to rinse your mouth, either you take some water and do it outside of the hall or do it in the common bathroom area.

(Introduction and Dinner)

Post dinner, we began our night trail. The path chosen was start from campsite-climb up the stairs-go via the path parallel to the parking spot-walk till the edge of campsite area-return back via the staircase way of the main entrance. As we walked out, towards the right there was a pond and had some activity. Golden Backed Frogs were the guests at the pond and were either relaxing or waiting for their prey. To approach the frogs from a suitable angle meant one foot had to go inside knee deep mud. While all of us were taking photos of the frogs, Prashanth called us to come up the stairs. He had spotted something beautiful. Something that was on my wish list. A freshly moulted Cicada. We were advised not to go too near to the cicada as it may fly away even if the wings were still wet. Because of my weird setup, I decided to give space to others to take frontal photos. I forgot to come back to the spot to take frontal one so I only have a sideways photo. Below the cicada was a bright red stick insect. We then decided to move ahead. The rest of the trail was muted. We did spot a cat snake but it went away by the time we could get a proper look at it. Major part of the trek, I and Yuwaraj were pointing our UV torches at the mud wall to track scorpions. We were marking the spots where-ever we could find them. Soon at 10pm, it was time to return back to the campsite. Exhausted with the travel – rain – sweat we walked our way back with heavy feet to the campsite. There was one last hurdle remaining. If you have never used Gum-boots before, you will not know the struggle of removing them. The problem with gum boots is the size. If you take one plus size, you will not be able to walk properly. If you take one size less, your feet will lock up and the boots will bite you. As the gum boots were layered with mud and moist, getting a grip to remove the boots were futile. The situation was, one boot will always come off easily. But for the other you needed a support. That’s when Esmail pulled out a trick. There were these small rocks protruding outside of the hall. These served as the perfect grip to remove the boots. We labelled the rocks as Gumboot remover rock. The rain had stopped. The atmosphere was full of insect noises and frog calls. Quick change of clothes, check for leeches and we were off to bed. Soon I realized that being inside the rainforest, there are some hiccups. Rainforest is Humid with a capital H in monsoon season. If it does not rain, heat starts to build up. And certainly this was the case inside the tents. But after some time it did rain again and a gentle breeze kept the air pleasant and comfortable to sleep.

The next whole day was waiting for us.