Monsoon Expedition: Mahuli Fort

My feet are happy. Scaling the tallest peak of Thane was no easy feat, but it was the most adventurous trek I’ve been on this month, and surprisingly my feet did not ache. Armed with only water that we weren’t sure will last till the end, but well equipped to document anything that we may stumble upon, we began our journey on one fine bright sunny morning, with the peaks hiding in the clouds.
The Rocky cliffs of Mahuli
A fine, bright sunny morning lasts for a very few minutes in the northern Western Ghats, however. Very soon it began to grow hotter and humid on the ground below the tall peaks – where lay a temple – the first and the last stopover for anyone who trudges Mahuli.

Over here, a few yards from the temple, runs a small stream teeming with life. With Guppy fishes swimming in the cool shades of Cattails and dragonflies occupying the tallest summit amongst these reeds, there were very many tiny damselflies along the banks that caught my attention. One of the cutest was the Golden Dartlets, Ichnura aurora. While tracking a male among the reeds, a Senegal Golden Dartlet, Ichnura senegalensis swooped in from the hiding and broke the neck of the poor I. aurora:
The Kinslaying in Damselflies!
Within no time, the I. aurora was alive no more, and the I. senegalensis had secured a nice brunch. They always start with the head. It was exciting to have observed this moment in action. A rather wild start to a long hike, I thought. Dragonflies and Damselflies, both in the order Odonata, are known to feed on their own kind – that is they will easily feed on other species (which may be conspecific) given a chance. But they are not merely hungry hunters of the wetlands. I have observed them hunt their own kind so willingly only around this season – of September and October, to maybe November. In other seasons they just drive them away.

Although Odonata larvae are known to feed on their own kind if their population is more than prey, there is a need for study regarding adults. I think it happens because they are most diverse in species as well as in numbers during this season – and hence are an easy catch, but they may also kill and feed on other Odonates to perhaps reduce competition amongst species (as is studied in Odonata larva). If this indeed happens, then Odonates are as smart as people that go to war. Another pretty damselfly present at the scene was Pseudagrion rubriceps.

Let’s recap a bit and go back to when we were coming through the kuchha road to Mahuli. While on the road, I happened glanced out and saw a Ceropegia vincaefolia creeper twining round a Gloriosa superba shrub. I thought I was hallucinating, but then I wouldn’t have photographed this flower:
Ceropegia vincaefolia
C. vincaefolia is an endemic plant of India, and seeing one is akin to receiving a blessing (yes, if you see Lord Vincaefolia, prey that you want to see a particular animal, say, a snake, and it’ll happen.) It is also a threatened plant, hence don’t ever try to pluck it, for the Lord may put that snake in your pants. On a serious note, this plant is threatened because of habitat destruction and degradation of the remaining habitats, therefore it was a relief to have seen it here. Its root is consumed by the tribal, who are unfortunately unaware of its plight.

Near the temple was a small homely hut that also served as a small one-stop-shop before the long hike, as well as a hotel. There on the verandah, in a corner, on a garbage-bin sat a fly:
Soldierfly, Ptectitus sp.?
This fly belongs to the family Stratiomyidae, probably in the genus Ptectitus. It is a small fly sharing the typical behaviour of flying to-and-fro and returning to the same spot as before, with many other flies in this family.

Now we began our uphill march in the hopes of reaching the apex in time. The weather had grown to be extremely sultry by then, and the climb seemed tough. We did not stop exploring however, and came across a sad site:
The fallen Sting
This large sting belonged to a Scorpion in the genus Heterometrus. These are indeed large scorpions with massive chelicerae, which they use to grab and crush prey. And therefore, this genus is said to be less venomous, although it can cause a significant allergic reaction. Now this murdered scorpion was most likely crushed by the foot of an ill-hearted murderer, who unfortunately wasn’t aware that this scorpion posed no harm to him.
Way through the Karvy
As we swooped – literally – from little gullies maintained by tall Karvy’s – that were now omnipresent on the gradually sloping walls of all the forts – we came to a ridge like an arm of Mahuli:
The path runs through this ridge
This ridge was high enough to provide a spectacular view of the ranges of the Sahyadri. We were spellbound by the far reaches of these dark green forests that stretched for miles and miles as far as we could see. On both sides of the ranges were the plains, with bright glittering reflections of towns and cities – a stark reminder of how close we were to nature, yet how far we’ve drawn ourselves from it. It was an eye opener, of how vital these forests are to provide us the selfless service of providing the basic requirements – of Oxygen and water; and of how insignificant are we in the vastness. 

And yet when I looked down upon the path I saw plastic litter – and may I crib a bit again, as in every post – that I simply fail to understand what goes through the mind of the Littering Folk. If there weren’t very many problems we’re facing already, it will be worth drawing some funds towards researching their minds. They’re different I tell you.

We were walking on a ridge for quite some time, taking our own time to catch up on our breath as well as to explore the surroundings. We were walking with the wide view of the Sahyadri ranges to the west:
The Sahyadri ranges
And tall peaks of Mahuli and the neighbouring fort to the east:
The split tree of Mahuli
The ridge that was nearly plain was worth walking onto – not only for the view it provided – but it was also a short recess from the ever steeper climb that lay ahead of us. Soon we were passing through steep slopes dominated by grasses and patches of Karvy, and in these ecosystems flew little dark faeries:
Beefly, family Bombyliidae
This beautiful fly belongs to the family Bombyliidae. I’m still awaiting its further identification. Flies in the family Bombyliidae are commonly called Beeflies because of their superficial resemblance to bees. They are very common throughout India, and more so in the Western Ghats. This fly was extremely camera-shy; hence stalking it on an inclined hill was super fun and exhausting, not to mention frustrating.

A little ahead, where the grasses now completely dominated the ascent and the descent of the mountain, there I found a colourful beetle that I also saw on Manikgad Expedition, but had failed to photograph:
Clinteria, the Flower Chafer
It is a beetle in the family Scarabidae, subfamily Cetoniidae, genus Clinteria. It is commonly called a Flower Chafer. Accompanying our Clinteria was a little mite (near its head), probably come to latch onto the beetle. Some species under this subfamily are considered serious pests on crops. This guy was far from any agricultural field, so he was innocent. He was probably here to meet the ladies (read hill-topping).

After a moment with the flies and the beetles, the cloud cover took over and it began to pour. It was a welcoming change though, unlike on many other expeditions. Climbing in the bombardment of rain was refreshing. The steep path was mainly large rocks with ledges to grab onto. These turned into little waterfalls. Although it seemed a little dangerous to climb through the escarpments, our pace was picked up due to the cooling of the weather, and with the thought of reaching shelter as soon as possible.

We reached the top when it was still pouring. We’re halfway through September, and such a heavy rain is not uncommon, although surprising. The summit of Mahuli is unlike any other fort that we’ve seen. It is flat, but with large trees and very few swathe of grasses. Our experienced trekkers, who had trekked Mahuli in the month of May (peak of summer), scouted little rooms carved in the protruding bedrock. These artificial caves – or shops I think they were – served as a shelter from the rain as we dried ourselves and had some snack.
The Main Gate of Mahuli Fort
This main gate of the fort, the Kalyan Darwaza, wore no crown over its head. It wasn’t even recognizable, save for the artifacts that were found around the door. The entrance went a little ahead and turning left fell into the valley – this was once the main route used by the rules of this fort. The one we took was carved from the opposite of this face. Outside this door were tall walls of stones – iron strong and withstanding still after over three hundred years. The water was flowing on the floor and down the valley – creating a small steady stream – and in here there were fishes. I was amazed to find Loaches in this little ecosystem, probably come down to this temporary water body from the overflowing lakes and streams. There were Craneflies, much like the ones I talked about here, that were ovipositing in the wet ground.

Now it may seem boring to read about fishes and bugs, but don’t forget that this little haven is actually a man-made ecosystem, and it is temporary – it lasts only for four months of the monsoon, and then completely vanishes, leaving no trace of life but only dark rock that bakes under the haughty summer sun. The fishes and the insects vanish too. But they do come back – how and wherefrom will be interesting to study.
The caves of Mahuli and the litter of the Littering Folk
I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to explore these caves. Since we were the only ones present, the caves were rather undisturbed – so we found over a hundred Craneflies dangling from the ceiling, as well as a Theridiid spider lurking in the dark depths of this cave. There was also a large nest of a Mud-dauber Wasp (family Sphecidae):
Mud-dauber Wasp nest
This nest has holes in it – which means that the eggs the parent wasp laid inside her room of mud and stuffed with food, were hatched, had consumed all the food, and had flown out as adults.

A little walk round this area we found a cute little Jumping Spider:
Rhene sp. loves blowing bubbles as well!
It is Rhene sp., blowing bubbles. She is probably just regurgitating as do ungulates and a number of insects.
Once we had done scouring the area, we decided to tread back to where we came from. And as on any trek, the return journey is as exciting as the beginning. It was mostly cloudy with a few breaks in the clouds – so the weather was rather pleasant.

Over the top and at the bottom, and during all our journeys, there was a butterfly that was very boldly fluttering around us:
Celaenorrhinus ambareesa
It was a Malabar Spotted Flat, a species common during this season than any other. The path that we traversed in rain was now open to us, and we explored it as much as we could. One of the interesting sightings was that of a winged Queen Ant:
The Queen, probably the Lady of the Weaver Ants
It is probably the Queen of Weaver Ants, Oecophylla smargdina. She was walking up and down a folded banana leaf – probably looking for something – perhaps a place to establish her colony.

A little way from here was the ridge I talked about earlier. With it in our sight, we were keen on walking on flat ground again and just then a friend of mine sighted something different. He called me in a hushed voice – there’s a snake!

This snake was something that I had never photographed before. I’d only seen one in captivity. It was rather small, but extremely venomous. In fact, it ranks first in causing most deaths in India. And no, it was not a Cobra – although another group behind us did see one – this snake was a Saw-scaled Viper:
Saw-scaled Viper, Echis carinatus
It was rather small and not fully grown, but it had a really big bulge in its tummy – it had had a nice lunch, probably a frog or a lizard. She was lying out in the open – on a thin branch that leaned on our path, basking under the sun. A snake loves itself some sun after a heavy lunch. It was our lucky moment, for they are not arboreal and are known to be nocturnal hunters, so this was a good record on that front. These snakes prefer living in burrows of other animal’s as well as in crevices and under rocks. There they hunt small prey in the dead of the night. They are known to come out above ground only to escape from flooding – and this snake had more than one reason to come up a foot from the ground and just sit as her stomach slowly digested the food. I photographed her where she was, without touching or disturbing her, and was on my way with a smile on my face.

From here on, however, we made sure we did not blindly hold onto any plant, for sighting this deadly snake reminded us that this is the wild, and there’s no rescue coming if we’re in trouble.

After crossing the ridge, I found a tiny spider under a banana leaf:
The Myrmarachne family
It is a male Ant-mimicking Spider, Myrmarachne sp., identifiable from the extending pedipalps just in front of its head. The silhouette to the left of the male is no ant – but Mrs. Myrmarachne. She seems obscure because she has covered herself in a thin film of silk – where she may, or has, laid eggs. Mr. Myrmarachne is only around to protect her – a quality we mostly associate with higher animals, is seen in tiny spiders as well!

We took a short break here, and a friend of mine showed me a Ground Beetle that I’ve always wished to photograph, but it flew off. I then peered deeper into the undergrowth, and there was something in there that interested me:
Midges in a Spider's web
You may think that the spider (in family Pholcidae) may have had a feast on all the flies in its web – but no, those flies are all alive! They’re just hanging out (literally) in the spider’s web – in other words – right in front of death itself, without even heeding it. They are Midges (probably in the family Cecidomyiidae or Mycetophilidae), known to do this weird antics. Diptera.info has an interesting article on this behaviour.

We were now on the last lap of a steep slope after a short walk on a flat hillock:
Treading the road already taken
And on that path ran a tiny spider that made me pause. A closer look at this fellow revealed its identity – it was a Ground Spider in the family Zodariidae. An Owlfly also flew past us and landed on a nearby branch. This place was so alive with little creatures that I failed to observe many birds. Soon, past the rushes past the reeds, past the marshes and weaving reeds*; we were down on the path and drawn towards the gurgling stream. The stream was swell and swift:
The rocks and the stream
The temple was now in our sight, and we reached there in no time. On the way we managed to record a Jumping Spider in the genus Thyene (probably Thyene imperialis). A new Jumper in my diary was a good end to this exquisite hike.

Since we’re at the end of Monsoon, the weather has been fluctuating a lot. This is a grim reminder that the following few months are going to be very hot and humid – an aftermath of the havoc monsoon created in the Western Ghats. But this weather is also the most productive when a number of plants flower and sow seeds for the next season, as well as insects and birds and mammals that make the best of this short-lived bounty.

8 comments:

  1. Incredible! Great writing and amazing photography! I don't know how you do it :)

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  2. Thank you for taking me on a lovely trek. Very enjoyable.
    Strange how people who presumably have an interest in nature, think nothing of spoiling it with litter.
    The Malabar Spotted Flat reminds me of my favourite butterfly in England, the Speckled Wood.

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  3. Thank you for visiting Ms Teacher and John! John, the Speckled Wood does indeed look like Malabar Spotted Flat!

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  4. Ani, as I sit here and read through all of these fabulous travelogues, I can't help but become increasingly jealous for the wondrous habitats your exploring and the fantastic flies you're encountering! The Western Ghats are on my destination list for sometime in my future so I can hopefully see, experience, study and photograph a portion of what you've shared here! Well done!

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  5. Awesome photography....now m confused should I carry my DSLR or not,it's raining heavily :?

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  6. Ohh, and forgot to mention...thanks for such a nicely written travelogue too :)

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    1. Thank you Punit. It will be wiser to carry DSLR with enough protection to protect it from the rain. Mahuli will be bustling with life in this season.

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