Summertime in the Satpuda

The Satpuda.

Long ago, someone told me – or I read somewhere – I cannot remember which as my memory now fails, but I remember what was said or written: Himalaya is always the Himalaya, not Himalayas, and by extension, Satpuda – the seven hills of Mahadeo – are the Satpuda, not Satpudas. The mountains, it said, are individual entities, the name should be identified as proper noun, not common noun. As someone who boasts of belonging to the mountains, it ticks me off when technical reports miss out on such nuances creative writers take to heart.

Sahyadrica has been on the longest hiatus ever, the whole of five months, but I promise this has not been for nothing – I worked on some bigger things in this period which I hope see the light of the day sometime in the coming year. Coming back to Sahyadrica is made possible because of a short summertime respite in the mountains of the Satpuda (also spelled Satpura), the Satpuda Tiger Reserve to be specific: where bright shines the sun, gentle blows the wind, and summer greens adorn the sandstone escarpments under a blue sky. It is everything a traveller of central India would ask for, save for the shrunken rivers – their waters sucked up by agriculture in the plains and a raging heatwave ravaging the mountains.

A Langur baby playing in the evening sunlight.

I took a deep breath in as our jeep bounced off the rocky path towards Panarpani as the sky turned dark. This is the time to reach the tiger spot, we were told as we sped past many-a-birds-and-snakes that we would never see save a baby langur sitting behind its mother playing with a branch poking its left-eye. As we reached the banks of the Denwa dam, the post-sunset pastel-blue reflected in pastel-browns with dabs of green for leaves and streaks of grays for trunks and large blotches with horns for guaurs.

Just as the journey was a respite from the grind, this article is a respite for my fingers and my mind. As I write this I realise that not all of my journeys are complete without an account of the same; narratives I’ve been writing as a hobby piling up as pieces of memories since 2008. This defined Sahyadrica for the most of its existence. In doing so I was – am – bookmarking memories along the way, notes that the naturalist in me cherishes. And so, as I write now while it rumbles in an overcast city, I am drawing this memory that shall remain with me.

It’s a failsafe memory box: I want to remember the promise made to me that twilight is best for sighting tigers and leopards. I want to remember that tree by the bank of the Denwa backwater under which a tiger made a kill of a sambar and dragged it uphill under the watchful eyes of safari-goers not unlike myself as I sat in about the same spot sniffing the putrid smell of the skin-and-bones. No peacock or langur called, the cock pecked on the ground and the langur munched up a tree. And then, in the cover of the darkness, on a roundabout from this bank of the reservoir, we heard a subtle alarm-call of a langur, and as we listened that faded into the darkness too. Deep slumber settled upon the hills as my eyes started to feel heavy – it was I, not the hills, of course, who wanted to nap. The forest, unwatchful under our weak eyes, was just waking up.

A small herd of Gaur one late evening by the wide banks of the shrunken Tawa.

The occasional stop inquiring of the whereabouts and sharing notes by a passing jeep is a necessary culture but redundant, as I’ve come to realise. More often than not the animal has moved on. As it becomes pitch dark and the headlights are switched on, the night safari becomes a lonely venture as the vehicles scatter in the hopes of the big cat on a night prowl. It’s not impossible to see a big cat in the night. I’ve seen it a few times in other reserves. One day while returning late from a camera trapping session in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, our vehicle caught a tiger in the headlights as it crossed our path. Another day, we found it walking on the road often used by local residents to commute.

Writing was never out of compulsion. It was mechanical. It was driven more by what I saw than what I felt. I think I’ve come a long way since then, but this kind of writing always served as a stress-buster. The process was simple, first you get consumed by the wilderness, then get consumed by recollecting the experiences, being fully aware that nature is becoming less and less, and the only way to protect is to learn more and more. Last fourteen-years of Sahyadrica have been about knowing, being fully aware that it is not enough to protect it. This much I know, but I also know that the more of us who know it, the more we can protect of it.

The Leopard hunters of the night safari; while night safari is an excellent experience,
it should not be regularized like day-time safaris, and restricted to three-odd days per week
to maintain the sanctity and leave the forest undisturbed for nocturnal hunters.

The night safari was all about nightjars mesmerized, like moths, by the headlights; their flight reminds me of moths too, as does the oceli on their under-wings and bristles on their faces and their behaviour that is more moth-like than some moths which are very bird-like. Somewhere along the way we saw searchlights light up a ghostly tree. A leopard walked past here, we were told, as we watched the searchlights trail across the edge of the hill. Someone saw a pair of eyes shine and someone else saw a tail disappear behind a fallen tree. It was to be etched as a ghost of a leopard in my memory.

A larger herd of Gaur munching on the grass along the shrunken river as seen from weaving trees.

That night was warm, we settled only to be up before the sun rose. Driving all the way to the middle of the Tawa River we parked our car and crossed over a floating bridge to Madhai, where a jeep awaited us and the rising sun awaited us and the birds and the animals – I said I wanted to see some birds, and our guide kindly added a few more that we would, to my delight – they all awaited us, but only I know that they didn’t. The morning when we started was pleasant, unusually nippy for this summer heatwave. A few River and Little Terns crossed our path as they scanned the scant waters. That light was promising, it lit up the whole forest within a few minutes of our arrival. A soft glow first dappled the yellow-green grass of the riverbank. From amidst the branches we see a herd of gaur down in the broad valley.

A Jungle Owlet, out and about hunting in the day, giving as the stink-eye for ruining his hunt.

In Satpuda, there are many trijunctions offering two paths everywhere you turn. One path will lead you to a forest, the other to another part of the forest. The one we took led us straight to a pair of Grey Junglefowl hens scratching by the roadside, as an arch of colourful summertime leaves crowned the path. The Indian Scops Owl – both mom and chick – sat in their tree, the mom relied on her camouflage as the chick – a fledgling – took to cover but soon popped its head out again to take a careful look at us curious googly-eyed smiling creatures. Few paces ahead we saw a Jungle Owlet, this owl a diurnal one, hunting about the trees, this one gave us a stink-eye. Among the branches again our jeep flushed a Sirkeer Malkoha, a bird that appears like the Grey Hornbill, only smaller, wearing smudge eyeliner and a rose-pink beak bearing a Russian name. For all its glamour, it never has posed for me and it continues to elude me, rightly so, I think to myself as I look at it peering through the branches, beak curved into a sly smile. I’ll always remember that.

I fear forgetting. Being a forgetful person, I took to writing early on by making notes. Reading alone did not do justice, and I discovered that writing helped match my pace of understanding. It felt like I had cracked a code – writing, and reading what I had written, helped my forgetful mind. As a naturalist, I had to take notes of the names as I learnt to identify plants and animals, and repeat what I wrote into my newly acquired skill of using Microsoft Word, punching at the keyboard all the common and the scientific and the fancy names nature was identified by. Making memories with words soon followed, it was an obvious choice.

One of the beautiful dry deciduous trees - Saja.

As we rode on, the heat intensified. The colour of the trees became more apparent as the sun hit the earth with fervent intensity. The greys of the saja tree stood out starkly as if someone rinsed and scrubbed them with vigour. One particular saja caught my eye, and I remember calling attention to it; look at that tree, I marvelled, just look at it: framed between two brown trees, it elegantly shot straight up for the skies, its girthy trunk a monochromatic grey, like the girthy back of a crocodile, and I remembered when it was first introduced to me one pleasant monsoon drizzle in the Western Ghats, a long time ago, by my Botany professor as the Crocodile-bark tree.

The upper reaches of Denwa are known for the humongous tumult of sandstones.

As we climbed up from where the Denwa flows down, we were witness to the chaos of the mountains. The sandstones are broken as you reach further up, broken and fallen into a tumult as the river carves slowly and steadily into the bedrock each day. And then in certain places it flows through the wide sandy banks – this sand compressing the sand below it and forming more sandstones, a process that takes millions of years, forming a new mountain as the old crumbles, only to be transformed again into crumbling rocks for someone else to marvel at.

A handsome Rock Agama male strutting it on a rock next to the river Jamun.

Along this bank sat animals that share a very ancient lineage, Indian Peafowl, Tickel’s Blue Flycatcher, a Rock Agama, and an Indian Mugger: living as their ancestors once lived along the sandy banks of riverways, changing slowly over millions of years – from dinosaurs to birds and lizards, and crocodiles. As we stood and looked beyond this crumbling mountain, a foreboding feeling overcame me, we were witness to a moment in the billion-year history of this planet. The overwhelming feeling was shot down by the rising sun and the rising temperature.

An Indian Pitta, a summer visitor, arrives to provide song and colour to the Satpuda.

A herd of Sambar deer crossed our path, the youngest the first to stop and look. Another Jungle Owlet sighting later, a kingfisher of the woods, the White-throated Kingfisher, sat panting upon a bare tree, keenly looking to its left for something, paying no attention to our presence. It felt hotter, but the weather was made pleasant by the loud whistling call of the Indian Pitta. I saw one singing atop a branch that had a built-in platform – a flat portion from where the pitta perched and sang. Soon the bird came down to the ground to join another, they both proceeded to upturn litter to find insects. From then on, we saw and heard pittas like sparrows. For some reason, it happens to be one of my favourite birds of central India. There’s just something about this summer visitor, perhaps it is the splash of colours that it adds to the parched landscape. Perhaps it is the colours they add to the summertime slumber that settles upon the mind once in a while. They’re refreshing to watch.

Indian Pitta, catching a break from eating.

Whenever I took to narrate an account, I would weave a story of the events as a matter-of-fact report. This gradually changed. An account with a checklist soon transformed into a narrative with natural history observations. Sahyadrica serves as the change in me as a naturalist but also as a person who loves to write. In making this personal observation apparent, last few years have been personal indeed, which is to say that perhaps Sahyadrica, through me, is still evolving, and might continue to change – rather, age – as I do.

The expanse of the dried-up Denwa.

Nothing beats the summer woes like a delightful episode in the woods that makes you forget sleep, slumber, and the want to walk off from the back-breaking ride. I must caution that Satpuda is all about breaking back; I’d like to note that the jungle paths of Satpuda (and by extension Pachmari) are not for those with backpain – the paths are quite bumpy and some rather steep and gravelly, and the drivers less sensitive towards backaches than those of Kanha or Bandhavgarh jeeps.

While coming downhill on an exceptionally quiet part of the woods, my friend saw something pass down the valley and casually exclaimed that the tail could be that of a langur’s. We proceeded casually, too, for langur on the ground makes up for the exceptional quietness. As we moved on, the two of us in the back spotted not a langur with its forward-curved tail galloping but none-other-than a tiger sprinting down the hill. Tiger! I remarked, but to my chagrin our drive and guide seemed to only believe their eyes, which saw the tiger a few seconds late as it sprinted away as the jeep came to a slow halt.

A tigress glances back as we watch with our jaws wide open.

A few seconds is all it takes for a sprinting tiger to vanish into the forests the colour of her summer coat. As she went away, its despise for human company became apparent. This wasn’t a tiger used to humans or even the sound of the jeep, but then in that moment with my eye to the camera and all the other eyes peered at the tiger, she stopped. For a few seconds that followed my memory froze as she looked back, the sun shining on her face, right at us, either assessing us as a threat or as nuisance, and then stuck to her path and dissolved into the thickets. She was a young mother with subadult litter, and had likely gone to the river, possibly not far from where we were staring at the rocks and the crocodile, to drink from and return to her cubs.

The Grey Junglefowl is rather common in Satpuda TR; whereas the Red Junglefowl is
more common to the west, in reserves such as Pench, Kanha and Bandhavgarh.

Naturally, I sunk back into the jeep’s uncomfortable seat that suddenly felt comfortable, road that broke my back seemed to float us. Sun that bore into our skin tickled. The greens of Anjan stood out of the mountain browns and a Magpie Robin from the grass. A pair of Grey Jungle Fowls squandered on our easy approach, dust sprinkling and shimmering around us – we were delighted, I must exaggerate. A passing jeep complained for now calling out to them, our guide explaining that it happened all of a sudden in the utter quietness of the forest, and he still complained.

A pair of Gaur.

It was already hot by 8:30 AM, driving the way we came from, we met a herd of gaur, the youngsters grazing and the bull trying to woo a cow. We passed another Jungle Owlet on the hunt that did not acknowledge us. At our last route we stopped by the nest of a Wooly-necked Stork on a tree by a lake against the backdrop of the dry deciduous forests of Satpuda. Two full-grown fledglings sat eagerly waiting for their parent to return.

A parent Wooly-necked Stork feeding fledglings.

Soon, the parent bird arrived. We saw the parent feed them something which the chicks were eagerly consuming. After many moments of watching them feed, without watching what they were feeding on, we saw a few drops fly out. The temperature might have been nearing the 40s. Peering through the cameras and binoculars we realised what it was: water. The parent fed them both plenty of water, one by one, for a good two-minutes.

A chick tries fervently to drink water streaming down the parent stork's beak.

Seeing them settle after a hearty drink – it was getting hotter – we too sipped from our bottles. The daytime temperature would reach 43C. To grow up exposed directly under the sun is a feat I cannot fathom any bird undertake, least of all a medium-sized stork with jet-black wings and a wooly neck – not cotton, mind you.

A safe family under a hard sun.

I’m sure the chicks would take to wing within this month, possibly with the first of monsoons in the mountains. What a sight that would be. The young storks in tux graduating in a green forest by a fresh blue pool. We passed through the banks of the Denwa and returned to the riverbed.

The next morning was a morning like any other, except that it was quite hot by 8 AM. We set out for a walk around the premises to look for the White-browed Bulbul. We walked past a sounder of wild pigs that resided in a thicket, and a few Pioneer butterflies that rested along the path-side bush. We tasted the fruit of chhind and saw a Little Green Bee-eater preen itself on a mahua tree. And then the morning turned unlike any other, save that day, the 29th of May of 2018, to be exact, when, just as this day, I saw a creature unlike any other in central India.

When I started getting creative about my nature writing, I started to switch from the linear, chronological narrative to the one that fit the premise. It wasn’t just about memories, it became also about how creative I could get with them. Turning the journal into stories have helped me work on longform narratives that I haven’t made public yet.  For this narrative, what I saw on my walk comes a little later towards the end which is not very far – I apologize for that.

The Sal forest at the end of a check-dam. The Sal forest of Satpuda is isolated from its present-day distribution, making it the most west-ward Sal forest in central India. This indicates that Sal trees once spread farther west than they do today.

Satpuda has two distinct sides to its mountains. The place you can explore in the west is largely dry deciduous and to the centre-east in Pachmari it is evergreen along the slopes of tall mountains where a cove of sal trees – the westernmost distribution in central India – exist isolated from its largely easterly distribution. Pachmari being settled higher up in the mountain is less hot, and the real charm of the mountains lies outside of the main town – up in the natural amphitheatre of Dhupgarh where one can witness the sun set into the ancient mountains, by the foot of Chauragarh the abode of Mahadeo, by the gurgling springs originating in the cracks in the mountain crowns.

The other side of the more popular view from Dhupgarh, this one on the way to Neemghan.

We decided to make one last safari to Neemghan, a village nested on the top of a mountain surrounded by more mountains, far from the reach of civilization or the reach of anyone unwilling to trek for miles on end. It was relocated a while ago, the emptiness converted into a vast grassland with ginormous mango trees. This 20-km ride goes up-and-down at least three mountains until you reach Neemghan, but offers very little in terms of wildlife the way Madhai does.

This ride is about birds, rock paintings, and a small garden-nursery where we took a break from the back-breaking safari. This route is not for those who have backpain, and I cannot emphasise it enough. While munching on the rose apple (Syzygium jambos) fruits in the garden, I found an Orange-headed Thrush peering through the break in the canopy and by the dam on a stream sat a Black Rajah basking and drinking water.

An Orange-headed Thrush, looking out from the vibrant-greens of the Rose Apple tree.

A decade ago, I wrote an article about finding the summer angel. I borrowed it from Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills quote ‘No one – man or woman – feels an angel when the hot weather is approaching.’ This is true for most of India, its worst now with the recurrent heatwaves. As I wrote it that day ten years ago as I do today, monsoon was – is – about to begin. It was about my search for this summer angel which I found “everywhere in the subtleties of life. If you’ve ever felt the calm and coolness provided by a tree in the corner of the street, or felt an ethereal breath of fresh air while you’re travelling in a crowded train – with the fan not working, or, when most stressed, feel a sense of respite by watching a pair of sparrows – or crows – nesting and caring for their young, that is the touch of the angel.” That was poetic. Today, this reality is calamitic. I also wrote that I barely survived many of the summer trips I made back then, that I was waiting for the first rains. For June 9, 2012, I wrote, “It is here now. The fledglings have fled. I experienced the first premonsoon showers on June 7. It is time I talk about the summer angel before I mollycoddle with the monsoon!” On June 9, I returned to the first rains of Mumbai. It was delightfully humid, my crackled lips and nosebleeds from the dry hot weather of the Satpuda thanked me.

The soft pastle-green flush of Anjan tree (Hardwickia binata)
- one of the earliest to sprout new leaves in the summer.

And when I look back now, the nosebleeds weren’t all too bad, the summertime in the Satpuda was as beautiful as it is in any other season if you remove man-induced heatwaves. When we walked on the ground slowly baked by the rising sun, many ants too were about, some going on a hunt, some to forage, some to scavenge, some returning with a tiny morsel or empty-handed. Among the many ants was another ant – small, too, but glossy and longer than the rather drab Pheidole ants (the Harvester Ants) that were all-too-common around. I stood there, breaking my friend off from the conversation about birds – I think we heard the White-browed Bulbul but we never did see up a tree again – as I crouched to see it closely. It was indeed different. Returning to the room several hundred yards away to change my birding lens with my insect lens, we returned to search for the nest opening again. It was a tiny burrow in a vast barren field.

Anochetus sp., the Trap-jaw Ant of central India.

Crouching over the nest entrance, we saw the first ant venture out, and then the next, and about a ten of them if not more, moving about individually to scout or hunt and returning with little termite bodies back to the nest. I know this ant, I said to my friend. This was the first for Satpuda Tiger Reserve, I exclaimed – the trap-jaw ant, Anochetus sp. (cf madaraszi) and second for Madhya Pradesh after I found it perchance in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in 2018.

The Trap-jaw are modified mandibles, this species contains three dentated-endings on each mandible.

This ant is special because it has a highly modified mouthpart unlike most ants we see around. Its mandibles are longer than most ants we know, and unlike most ants, these ants keep it wide-open when they move about – like a walking, open foot-trap.

A worker Trap-Jaw Ant carrying a termite clasped in its mandibles.

When on a hunt, they charge with their wide-open mandibles which contain fine, sensitive hair between them which act like trip-wires. When the prey comes in contact, their mandibles snap shut tightly – exactly like a foot-trap around a leg – crushing the prey, which is then carried back to the nest.

The trap-jaws have fine sensitive hairs which help trigger the jaws to shut fast, although they are also moved willingly by the ant, but only slowly.

There are some amazing behavioural and morphological modifications seen among ants of India, but not so much in central India that one can call unique. This ant is probably the only one to carry a morphological modification that lives here. As for why it has been unnoticed for so many decades of research, this is probably because studies have never intently focused on invertebrates of central India, it has mostly been to the credit of naturalists and hobbyists who document these creatures.

An ancient Ficus tree in one of the relocated villages. I wonder if it misses humans, especially kids, playing among its boughs. At one point this was a holy site where local folks worshiped village gods.

Everything I saw is the hallmark of my leisure trip, for I went without the intention to see anything in particular but everything in general, that included the fleeting glimpse of the tiger too, and now I come back to write that there exist places removed from the friction and the rust and the grind, where creatures big and small exist unbeknownst to man and his machinations – nay, rather, man unbeknownst to them, and that is a great feeling.

Remembering.

Great as it may be, the many impending threats overwhelms the feel-good factor that wilderness offers. How do I celebrate, do I celebrate at all with the realisation of ecosystem destruction always in the back of my head? When I said Sahyadrica has changed, that writing articles such as this is now rare, I mean it with the sense of an urgency, the ending planet – not just climate change but also wanton development at the cost to nature and peoples, development in the name of lopsided growth, prosperity in the name of skewed GDP scores. For this piece, I take comfort in knowing the trap-jaw ant and the tiger as being a part of my world – rather, in knowing that I am a part of their world.

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