Skimming old photos, I came to this one, featuring a beetle. I’d taken it seven years ago on a walk through an unspoilt wildlife sanctuary an hour north of Shillong. It was my first visit to this wet, wild, and wonderful part of India. I had a rough plan in mind for a day’s walk of about five kilometers through forest. Permits were needed, but that worked out quickly. As I was getting that, I learnt that the kind of walk I’d planned was not going to work; instead I had to walk with a ranger. Twenty minutes into the walk I stopped to take the photo that you see here.
Big mistake! As soon as I stopped, a mass of leeches found me. With the ranger’s help, I tried to pick a couple off my arms. But then I found several more under my shirt. The ranger then pointed out blood on my trousers. That’s when I noticed that he kept flicking off leeches with a sickle as he talked. He wore shorts, a tee, and slippers, and kept a close watch on his skin. This was my first encounter with leeches, and it hadn’t gone well. The ranger suggested cutting the walk short. At least I got a couple of nice photos out of it!
A wildlife sanctuary should be full of fearsome beasts, and Nameri is no exception. The most fearsome are the leeches. The evening we reached our camp, we met a group of six French tourists with blood-drenched socks who were still removing leeches from their legs. Leeches are abundant when the forest is wet; our previous trip to Nameri had been in the dry months of February and March, when we had not come across these blood-thirsty creatures at all.
Our five kilometer walk through the forest began with a sighting of the stunning Tokay gecko which posed for photos high up on the trunk of an immense tree. After that we saw a variety of insects. Large red bugs scampered through the dry leaves underfoot: their bright colours a warning to predators that they are poisonous if eaten. Large red ants foraged in military lines along the trunks of trees. I startled a huge grasshopper, which sprang away and then was still. It took a lot of searching to find and photograph it. It was interesting to see all this with the Victors, for whom it was their first visit to a jungle. In their company I noticed things which I’d got used to over the years. This also made me understand what Sushil Ngate, our guide, and the armed forest guard with us might feel walking through the forest with us.
The ground was often swampy. Some tree-tunks had been thrown across these patches on the route, and you had to climb over them to cross the slushy ground. We managed this with some help from the guards. I was happy that my body-core exercises paid off in a better sense of balance. I guess we get better and better at physical activities with age until the body fails. The path came to a little rocky stream which would eventually empty into the Jia Bhoroloi, and followed it for a while. As we approached the stream, we could hear alarm calls of a barking deer from inside the jungle on the other side of the flow. I wondered whether it was a leopard; they are shy creatures and hard to spot. Sushil said it could be.
We walked on. Now the terrain turned grassy with damp patches: ripe with leeches. I’d tucked my trousers into my long socks, emulating the forest guard. He told us to walk quickly through this stretch and not stand in one place too long: that’s when the leeches begin to climb up you. As we crossed the next swampy ground, the guard pointed out a pug-mark in the mud: a tiger’s. It was fresh. The marks continued next to the path for a few paces and then disappeared in to the grass towards the stream. The alarm calls were explained.
We walked single-file through the forest with the guard and Sushil leading, and The Victor bringing up the rear just behind me. Suddenly The Family pointed into the foliage and said “Elephant”. I peered at the shadowed bulk. Sushil and the guard noticed a baby and told us to be quiet and keep walking. I saw the mother quickly move to stand between us and the baby, and turn her head to watch us. If she decided to charge, the guard’s gun would have been useless. More than that, I would not have wanted an elephant to be hurt in its natural habitat only because we intruded on it. We walked quickly past, but I managed to click a photo in passing. The mother kept turning to stay between the baby and us; so the small elephant is visible in the photo only as a shadow.
By the end of the walk I had collected two angry and unfed leeches on my shoes. The Victors and The Family were not so lucky. In the last stretch of the walk they picked up a leech each. We sat in the visitor’s refuge and inspected our wounds, and got rid of the blood-suckers.