The highest parts of the Nilgiris are home to the Neelakurinji, which blooms once in twelve years. This simple looking blue flower apparently give the Nilgiris its name. The western ghats are full of Strobilanthes which bloom after many years. The neelakurinji is the Strobilanthes kunthiana, and is expected to flower again in 2018. I may not have seen the flower, but I did see the plant (photo above).
In spite of this, the Eravikulam national park near Munnar is a big draw. We learnt that you are bussed up to a trail where you walk through the forest; no cars are allowed. You park your car in a huge parking lot 14 Kms from Munnar along State Highway 17, and stand in queue for tickets. Alternately, you could pay in town for an option to buy a ticket the next day, and bypass the queue. We did this, and then took the bus up.
We did not expect the treeless open meadow and a climb along the steep metalled road along the flank of Anamudi. It was hot and I was soaked immediately. Fortunately we had enough water to last the 2 Km trek up. But the wonder was the cars and autos which came down the path. Apparently the road is open to locals, and the Tatas, who own a part of the land above the Sanctuary. The Family couldn’t be bothered at 9 in the morning. Let’s walk, she said.
The path was fenced to prevent walkers from trampling the flowers which grew alongside. Someone had started labelling the plants without much enthusiasm. A patch of neelakurinji was labelled, as was a patch of the white kurinji a few paces on. But a couple of hundred meters on the labels straggled to an end. We were on our own. Although the weather was so warm and humid, technically it is spring, and therefore the flowering season.
It was too warm to bend down to take photos of the really small flowers among the grass. I concentrated on those at roughly eye level. The sanctuary is supposed to have many species of butterflies, some special to the area. I did not see any; perhaps they were all in the bushes we were fenced away from.
We heard many birds in the shrubs behind the fences. I stopped at a particularly tuneful song. Peering through the growth we saw something which I did not recognize. Further on we saw a pied bushchat fly above us and sit on an electric wire. Yes, there were electric wires in this protected forest. Soon after I took the photo above, I saw what the hordes had come here for.
One of the rarer sights in nearby Valparai was the Nilgiri Tahr. The Eravikulam NP apparently has the largest population of this highly threatened species of mountain sheep. A young one was grazing by the path. As various people tried to take selfies with it in the background it came on to the path. The paparazzi now mobbed the poor kid. As word spread, families ran to take photos. One set of children ran up to touch it. Although the parent didn’t say anything, there was a murmur of disapproval from the crowd. Those of us who have spent some years doing trips to the wilds, birding, watching wildlife and walking in mountains have learnt from each other how fragile the mountain ecosystems have become. The behaviour of the crowd here showed us that the message about conserving endangered wildlife seems to be slowly sinking into the average Indian tourist as well. There is hope then that the fragile mountain ecosystems may last for our grandchildren to experience.
I did not realize that we were almost at the end of our walk. I paused to take a photo of some flowers. The Family was bored with my pace and walked ahead. Without her pacing, I slowed down even more, so that when the next few Tahr appeared near the fence I was the first to see them. I moved away again as the paparazzi gathered.
One more turn, in the road and I came to an open gate. A forest guard was standing nearby warning people that this was the end of the walk. The land beyond it apparently belongs to the Tatas. I wondered whether Tata, or any other company which owns forest land nearby can decide to convert it to plantations. When I asked someone later, I was told that this is not easy any more.
The rolling hills covered with tea plantations are a mockery of the shola forests which once covered these slopes. Even in these little remaining patches, the immense biodiversity is visible to any person who cares to look a little close. I just wish I had some way to find the names of these flowers.