Five big ones

When you use the words five and big together in the context of East African safaris, people think you are going to talk about The Big Five: the elephant, the leopard, the lion, the rhino and the Cape buffalo. That’s not really what I want to show you here. Instead I want to introduce you to five things in Amboseli national park that came as surprises (and very pleasant ones) because I had no idea that I would see them. In fact, until Anthony pointed out a East African black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) I didn’t even know of this creature. The sight of it running through the grassland with a stolen part of a kill, an antelope’s hindquarters, was an exciting sight. I met this species later, for a much better sighting, but it wasn’t as thrilling as this.

Seeing an Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) for the first time also counts among my big memories of Amboseli. I should have been aware of this species, it is after all visible in ancient Egyptian artwork. For a moment I thought I was looking at a ruddy shelduck, but Anthony gave the correct identification immediately. The red eye and the patch around it is a dead giveaway.

The huge dust devils which spring up through the national park in this season also count as a big surprise. I’d noticed little whirligigs of dust spin across the plains for a while, but this spout was amazing. I’d read about the dust, and was prepared with a breathing mask and lots of antihistamines. But nothing had prepared me for these incredible tall devils.

Meeting the iridescent glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) definitely counts among the big ones. Not because it was a lifer, but because it was like meeting an old friend for the first time in a decade on a street car halfway across the world. This was something I knew, but hadn’t given much thought to. The fact is that it is one of the most widely distributed of Ibis species.

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is definitely one of the Big Five, no matter which way you think of it. I thought it surprising that it looked so much like an Indian water buffalo. But then I began to notice differences: its more robust build, and the way its horns meet at the center of the forehead. Fortunately I never got to test the bad temperament which has led to its genes never being mixed into domestic bovines.

Instant winter

When I booked tickets to Nairobi on a flight which left Mumbai before 6 in the morning, I was looking forward to arriving at 10 AM, with a whole exciting day in front of us. I’d forgotten that, this being an international flight, we would have to be awake half the night. As it was, we finished the formalities quickly and had a very early breakfast in the lounge before boarding. My first priority was to catch up on sleep. When I woke up we were halfway through the flight. The map told me that we were flying over the Carlsberg ridge. This is one of the more active zones on the earth’s crust, the border where the Indian and Somali continental plates are pulling apart. This geological feature is named after the brewery which financed the expedition which discovered the ridge. What a lovely and positive piece of advertisement; I promised to raise a glass of their brew to cheer their commitment to science. I peered across the still sleeping figure of The Family. The sea looked pretty calm.

A little later we were over Africa. A whole new continent! We’d sighted land a little south of Mogadishu. I gazed down at the parallel rows of clouds which you see in the photo above. I’d never seen this kind of weather before. I was to find later that these so-called cloud streets are parallel to the direction of the wind. So the cloud street showed me that a cool wind was blowing in from the sea as Somaliland heated up. The land below us remained brown as we passed over the equator. Another lifetime achievement for us; this was our first time in the southern hemisphere. In an instant we’d passed from summer to winter!

Everything would be new and different (even the style of artwork on the sachets of salt and pepper given by the airline). We peered out of windows eagerly as we landed in Nairobi. The landscape was brown and dry, as it had been as we flew over Somalia and inland to Kenya. “Karibu”, one of security men said in welcome as he showed us which way to go. The Family and I looked at the windows near the immigration queue; zebras and acacia trees, lions and elephants were painted on them. We would see them soon enough. I pulled a jacket over my t-shirt. It was colder than a winter’s day in Mumbai.

Flying through the monsoon

We flew in bright sunshine at the usual cruising altitude of around 10 kilometers above sea level. Below us the unbroken sea of clouds was interrupted by infrequent towers of cumulonimbus anvils. The towers form as clouds condense into rain. The heat released as water changes from steam to liquid creates a local convection which churns up clouds into these anvils. In mid-August more of India should have had rains, so the scene outside my window told me that rainfall is spotty this year.

Then, as we approached Mumbai, the plane began to lose height. At an altitude of around 6 kilometers above sea level we began a dive into the monsoon clouds. I’ve not paid much attention to it before, but this time around I decided to take a time-lapse video, the one you see above. This condenses a little less than half an hour’s descent into two and a half minutes. I was astounded by the changes in the nature of the clouds as we ploughed through the turbulent layer. Not having paid attention, I’d thought of it always as a mass of grey churn. But now I saw that there is much more structure to it. Interesting.

Raindrops keep falling

I have two favourite weeks of the year in Mumbai. One is the week called winter, when the temperature drops below 20 Celsius, and we start thinking of bringing out our sweaters. The other is the first week of the monsoon. This year I almost let the beginning of the monsoon pass by without saying anything about it. A taxi driver was kind enough to travel below the speed limit on the sea link, letting me take a photo of the skyline of the mill area and its stalled rebuilding, as the monsoon clouds finally blew in at the end of June.

Decades ago you could almost set the calendar by the arrival of the monsoon. It would arrive on 6th June, perhaps three days before or after. Over the years the gradual warming of the sea has delayed the monsoon. Warm seas also give rise to storms and hurricanes. This year a storm formed over the sea off the coast of Mumbai, brought a little rain, but blocked the monsoon winds for a substantial number of days. I took the photo above during the first monsoon shower. In the last four days or so of June we got all the rain that we usually expect over the month. Is this the shape of a warmer earth?

Love song of the bee

Winter has ended in the north of India, the only part of the country which has a clear winter. That is the season when gardens are full of exotic flowers brought from temperate countries. Bees are everywhere at the end of winter, in the last flowering of gardens, and continuing into spring, the season of wildflowers. On my trip to Dehradun, and up to the Garhwal Sivaliks, I saw lots of flowering gardens. I didn’t manage to capture the bees with my phone camera, but I got the flowers.

In response to an invitation for a villanelle (I had to look up a detailed description too), I had fun making up something which you could call the Love Song of the Bee. It could remind you of Vogon poetry, or you could think of it as a mashup of the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by Thomas Eliot, Theocritus by Oscar Wilde, and a view of a garden seen from a kitchen,

Still through the ivy flits the bee
While I finish in the kitchen
Before the taking of toast and tea.

The winter sun dips behind a tree
A pot and cups, in the light glisten
Still through the ivy flits the bee.

I hurry. The kitchen chores a fee
I pay for the pleasure of the garden
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Winter’s almost gone. I see
the leaves are touched with brown.
Still through the ivy flits the bee.

Kitchenwork’s done. It’s time for you and me
To walk in the garden, talk, listen
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Come, see the flowers. I’m now free
For the wicker chairs in the garden,
Where, still through the ivy flits the bee
Before the taking of toast and tea.

Three postcards from March

March is the cruellest month in the mountains. We often go for a short holiday to the Himalayas in March. The roads are usually open, but the weather is unpredictable. We found a hotel in the Garhwal Sivaliks where we were the only guests, and our room had a spectacular view. Our last day there had been clear (photo below) but clouds began to come in over the high peaks just before sunset. Sunset and sunrise paint the snow in glorious colours. The clouds muddied the colours.

Dawn had been even more cloudy, but it had cleared up soon after sunrise. During breakfast we kept our eyes on the clear view of the mountains. The day was great and the view was wonderful. We decided to travel along a route which would keep the high Himalayas in our view most of the time. This was a day when our luck held, until sunset.

March is cruel. The weather keeps changing, and predictions are not accurate more than a day in advance. When we arrived at the hotel the view we had was spectacular for a photographer (above) but disappointing for a traveler. Every year we keep telling ourselves “Next year we’ll come to the Himalayas in April.” Maybe next year we will.

Likai’s Leap

Evening was falling when we reached Nohkalikai waterfall five years ago. Thick clouds had descended over the waterfall. When we walked up to it all we could hear was the thunder of water in India’s tallest waterfall. The 340 meter drop would have been a wonderful sight, but the sound was impressive enough. We had tea in a stall nearby and waited for the fog to lift. I kept my hand in by taking photos of a work gang tarring the road. Later I would read the tragic legend of Likai, gory enough to rival Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The fog did not lift, and we never managed to go back. Sometimes the journey is all you have.

Gobsmacked by extreme weather

As I read the news about the weak polar vortex which is responsible for the abnormal, and abnormally long, cold weather as far south as Mumbai, I was reminded of the time when the tail end of the world’s most extreme weather hit me in the face, and I didn’t recognize it till later. A few years ago we visited Meghalaya at the end of the monsoon and decided to drive down from Shillong to Mawsynram. The village of Mawsynram is known to every Indian from their school days, since it is supposed to be the rainiest place on earth. It usually receives between 11 and 12 meters (yes, that’s meters; 430 to 470 inches if you prefer) of rain a year In 1985 it received 26 meters of rain (over 1000 inches) of rain.

The monsoon was just over in the rest of the country, but we’d seen storms and heavy rain while flying in to Shillong. I asked The Family, “What’s there to see apart from the village?” We consulted Raju, who was driving us, the web, and the hotel, and found a couple of cave systems and waterfalls. Meghalaya is famous for caves and waterfalls; although they are everywhere, the more famous ones are worth seeing. The recommendations were enough to tip me over into going along with The Family’s plan.

A heavy mist descended as we drove along the Shillong-Mawsynram road. The surface was pretty bad too (at least then) so between the mist and the road, Raju had to slow down quite a bit. We stopped a bit at a Khasi sacred grove to look at monoliths raised to the memories of ancestors, but after that the mist began to get heavier. Usually we could see a little way beyond the edge of the road (that’s how we spotted the group of cows having their mid-morning snack). Now and then we would hit a pocket which was fairly clear, like the stream in the photo above.

By the time we got to the Mawjymbuin caves it was well past the normal time for lunch and we were enveloped in very thick mist. The caves are meant to be open all day, but the person who mans the gate and collects tickets was not at his place. We walked in hoping to see him on the way out and realized that the mist had cut off all light inside the cave. We could vaguely see exotic shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, but there definitely wasn’t enough light to negotiate the slippery rocks. We walked around the caves outside, looking at the pools of water large enough to serve as swimming pools. A light drizzle had begun, and we came out. There was only one restaurant nearby, and it could serve jadoh, Khasi for rice and meat, or ja with eggs.

I looked out of a window at the back of the hut, and saw that we were at the side of a small stream. The fog was too dense to make out clearly what was on the other side. It looked like a wooded slope. As I took the photo, The Family discovered a wonderful sight out of another window: a spider’s web on which the mist was condensing. We had our meal, and a good strong chai. The lady who served us food suggested another cave system which wasn’t too far. Raju knew of it, but said he preferred not to drive in this light. We paid up, thanked the lady, and left. It was a wasted day as far as tourism went, we thought as we left. Over the years The Family and I came to realize that it was not. In the rainiest place on earth getting heavy cloud cover and a drizzle when the rest of the country was bone dry was exactly what we should have recognized as a great experience. Fortunately, we had photos which could jog our memories.

I hadn’t worried about the rains in Megahalaya for years, but recently, while I tried to read some papers on the geology of the Himalayas, I came across an image which explains this well. You see that Meghalaya lies on the so-called Shillong plateau, a 1-2 kilometers high plateau that juts out of the surrounding lowlands. When moisture-bearing winds come off the Bay of Bengal and sweep up north, this is the first rise that they hit. The Bay of Bengal is a warm sea, so the air over it moist even outside the monsoon. Only during cold winters does the moisture content of the air over the bay drop to a point where the southern parts of Meghalaya (land of the clouds in Sanskrit) is not full of megh. Several places on this plateau are among the rainiest parts of the world for this simple reason.

The very rare Neelakurinji

The weekend that we spent in Madurai was originally set aside to visit Munnar to watch the rare flowering of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthianus). Over dinner with old friends we talked about having to cancel the trip to Munnar because of the monsoon flooding of Kerala. One of them suggested that we go to Munnar that weekend since the flood waters had drained away. The Neelakurinji flowers once in twelve years, so this was an attractive proposition. All six of us agreed to take the Friday afternoon off, so that we could fly to Kochi in the evening and drive to Munnar the next morning.

As the designated “naturalist”, I had to brush up on my knowledge of the phenomenon. The Neelakurinji is a grassland flower, as media photos of meadows covered with purple flowers show. But these photos came from earlier flowerings. I was not sure how much damage had been done by this year’s record rain. The genus Strobilanthes has several species which have mast seeding: meaning all bushes flower in synchrony after many years. The Karvi (Strobilanthes callosa) flowered in 2016 and will flower again in 2024. The Strobilanthes agasthyamalana is said to flower once in 16 years.

Plants which flower so seldom have to make sure that each flower stands a very high chance of pollination. A study of the 2006 flowering found that the flower was sculptured to increase this efficiency. The mass flowering attracts the Indian honeybee in large numbers (look out for neelakurinji honey later this year). In unfertilized flowers, the receptive surface of the stigma faces the entry path of the bee, and moves away when the bee exits, and the flower remains fresh and produces large amounts of nectar for two days. From the mid-19th century CE there were reports that jungle fowl migrated to flowering meadows to eat the seeds of the plants. This mass migration has not been observed after the removal of forests in the Munnar area.

When we arrived in Eravikulam National Park, the sky was overcast, and the sun, already low near the horizon, was beginning to look decidedly tired of keeping us in light. There were a few flowering bushes, but nothing like the photos and videos which the media were displaying, without telling viewers that they were shot in 2006. The honeybees are most active just before noon, so we didn’t see them at work. It had rained hard since the middle of week, and the rain set in again while we were in the park. We had a sighting of the Nilgiri tahr in a meadow dotted with Neelakurinji. It seemed to avoid the Neelakurinji as it browsed. I wonder whether there are toxins which the plant secretes.

From the point of view of a tourist spectacle, this was a disappointment. As a budding wildflower enthusiast (bad pun, I know) I was happy to have seen this plant which one has so little chance of seeing, since it dies after flowering. I had a good time with my macro lens peering into the two meter high bushes where this flower grows. We later found that there is only one more spot near Munnar where the flowers were visible this year. Because of the extreme rain in August, few bushes flowered, and because of the renewed late rain in September, many flowers were not pollinated. I wonder whether this is a crisis for the species. I guess we will know by 2030, when it is next supposed to flower.