Monsoon Expedition: Matheran

I visited an old friend of mine last weekend. We met after a long time. He was furious and cold for our first meeting in years – that was not very welcoming. For the most part of my stay, we argued over petty things, like the weather. He was always the bully, though – and you shouldn’t argue him. He can lift you and smack you and throw you off the cliff without thinking twice. His name was Matheran, and I was glad to see him, even in his darkest avatars.
Let it rain
The three of us decided to pay him a visit one Saturday afternoon. It was the bleakest of the bleak days in the month of August, and it had been raining since last night. With a bit of optimism and our fingers crossed, we decided to go ahead with our plan and finally were on our way to confront him. We took the road on foot and decided to explore the flora and fauna along its sides – on steep cliffs and naked rocks. I had no chance of being prepared for the best since it was raining.

We passed a family of Painted Grasshoppers, Poekilocerus pictus, both male and female and little nymphs munching on Calotropis gigantea, but I could not photograph them. A few meters ahead, where the habitat was reclaimed by the more plateauesque flora, we saw Eriocaulon tuberiferum, several grasses as well as a particular plant we were especially looking for:
Ceropegia attenuata
Ceropegia attenuata is a not-so-uncommon species in the Sahyadris. It is more-so-common at Matheran on steep slopes and rocky outcrops. This beautifully delicate flower is not endangered per se, but acts as an indicator of a healthy habitat. C. attenuata was also a sign that we may have good sightings ahead, or so we superstitiously thought. At the edge of the gushing rainwater drain (where I dropped my homemade flash diffuser), we saw a crushed Checkered Keelback – dead because of reckless driving. Sadly, it now seems that it’s a prerequisite for me to see a road-killed Keelback on my visits to Matheran.

As we marched on, we scanned the roadsides for some telltale signs of insects and birds, and reptiles and mammals. And we found none. After over an hour, god knows which one of us cursed the freaking rain (was it me?); it poured so heavily that we were drenched in a minute. Yet we continued our search for Orchids and the likes but found none to our dismay. We did find a nice, cozy tappri though, and devoured vada pav with a cup of chai. Just then we spotted a local bus headed to the top of Matheran. We rushed for it when the villagers there stopped it for us (which was very kind of them), and boarded it. We were now headed to the very top.

At the top, after being swarmed not by mosquitoes, but by agents of cottages and hotels, we finally settled into one room and headed straight to explore some more, and came back empty handed. Remember, it is still raining. We headed out again that night, gathering the last remaining hope of finding something to lift our spirits. And just as we were done looking at every shrub and forest floor, just when we were over stumbling in the dark and straining hard to see through the dim light of the torch, we stumbled upon it:
Plesiophrictus spp.(?): They have a naturally water resistant coat
A pretty little Tarantula in the genus Plesiophrictus caught our eye – pretty because it is furry and chubby, and Tarantula because it belongs to the family Theraphosidae. Without disturbing him much, and since it was raining, and since he wanted to get the hell out of it as much as we did, we photographed him and guided him to his burrow. This Burrowing Spider occurs commonly at Matheran, and one is bound to come across it if you strain your eyes in the night as they are out hunting. During day, they take shelter under rocks, or make small burrows. They don’t grow to be much big, and this one was just about an inch, probably the maximum length this particular one reaches. A good paper enlisting the described species of Theraphosidae can be retrieved here.

While stomping in the flood water that was now getting collected in little puddles, we saw little frogs scuttling through the way. They did not run for cover, however, and appeared rather cheerful in the dark and wet:
Philautus sp.
This inquisitive frog belongs to the genus Philautus, a diverse genus under which new species are still being discovered in India and abroad. This is a common frog of Matheran, rather easily seen on the paths than in the dense, dark leaf litter in the woods.

After walking for over an hour or two, we finally decided to trace back to our room. We were done with the rain. The morning will bring in sunshine, and Matheran will have cleared his mind. Or so we thought again.

I woke up to the sound of Macaques jumping over the roof, screeching and scratching as they prepared to raid shops and early morning birds. In the background of the monkey commotion, a light, intermittent rhythm of Philautus sp. was worth listening to. And in the backdrop of the song of the frogs, there was a constant cling and drip – it was still raining! I got into my dry warm clothes and headed out seeking another cup of chai on this early cold morning. The fog was heavy on the plateau and the rain sneaky. It had not stopped raining a bit since I had left from home.

We checked-out for good and headed to do some sightseeing at Charlotte Lake and Echo Point. Fortunately, and just in time, we came across the face of Matheran:
Vine Snake, Ahaetulla nasuta
Vine Snake is the face of Matheran for any naturalist. Anyone who does not see it has not been to Matheran – is what one thinks. Vine Snake are common in Matheran – but they are not everywhere. They’re very particular about their habitats, preferring denser, large-leaved areas, but they do occasionally occur on bare trees – as did this one.

There was an old house in ruins on one of the paths, trembling under its own weight. It was a good place to explore for some snakes, we thought, but did not find any. But we did find something interesting:
A Firefly larva (family Lampyridae)
It is a larva of a Firefly in the family Lampyridae, under Order Coleoptera, so they are all beetles, although the common name sounds like they’re flies. The Lampyrids lit their bums using a really interesting chemical called Luciferin. The word comes from Lucifer, the “light bearer”. Technically, it is a pigment that is catalyzed by an enzyme Luciferase to produce oxyluciferin and light. This is the light that we see, and that has inspired our great-great grandfathers and amazed us as little kids. The larva of Lampyrids also produces this light, which can be seen at their tail-end as they go out in search of prey in the dark. This morning, though, it was resting under the fallen roof – safe from the rain. They are excellent predators, having a taste for snails, and a knack to take down a large one.

We let it rest there and headed to Lord’s Point. Just as we were strolling we were bombarded by the largest, heaviest raindrops I have ever experienced. Very soon, the path turned into a river. We were getting anxious, hoping there isn’t a flashflood stalking behind us. It lashed us for over an hour, soaking my dry clothes as well as my camera (yet to my surprise, it is alive and well). Once the rain decided to ease a bit, I dared to take a picture:
The Tourist
As solemn as it looks, it was eerily beautiful and quiet (there were barely any tourists touting in the rain). The view was magical. We followed the end of a track that gradually lead us down where the rainwater had eroded away the loose soil, creating a network of hip deep alleyways zigzagging as they snaked off the cliff. We treaded through these to a pretty spectacle:
Upside-down waterfall
The rain was stinging, as the wind blew it on our faces from all sides. The wind was so strong that gravity had no hold on the water falling off the cliff, and most of it blew over itself and upon the mountain again. People yearn to see this spectacle, and not many witness it in their lifetime, but it is incredibly common in the Sahyadris. I breathed in the fresh air, forgot all about Bamboo Pit Vipers and Tarantulas, and Orchids and insects. I was at the mercy of nature, for it was her will to reveal her treasure, when and where she pleased. Matheran offered me whatever that he could on that day. And I made sure I did not leave any rubbish behind to make him angry.

Finally, we rode down to where we came from, and I can still smell the fresh air and feel the rain drops streaking down my back. Remember, it was still raining when I reached home, and it did so for all of the next day. Matheran is worth visiting in all climes. Don’t keep any expectations as I did. Just explore.

2 comments:

  1. Ani, you are blowing me away with these paradises and their delightful intricacies! How amazing to see a water-rise!

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  2. Very well put across. I love the scientific information added into the experience and feel more enlightened by it. I would love to visit the place at some point soon, and having an avid interest in snakes and microfauna would hope to see something like a Bamboo Pit Viper.

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