Kerala is a narrow strip of land sandwiched between the Sahyadris and the Arabian Sea. Every drop of sweet water that originates in the Sahyadris reaches its saline grave within 12 hours. The only way to make optimum use of this water is to delay its demise. So there are bunds and check dams all over Kerala that slow down its rivers, creating unique waterscapes. Two extremes of these moods can be witnessed in Thattekkad near Kochi, and Athirappally near Thrissur. The first one is tranquil and as still as a sheet of mirror. The other one is a study in perpetual motion: cascading and angry.
Thattekkad is a sanctuary that is many sanctuaries rolled into one. Since its undulating terrain ranges from 100 feet above sea level to over 1,500 feet, it's a hot spot of bio-diversity. It was during his innumerable birdlife explorations in India, that Dr Salim Ali discovered these forests. He coaxed the Government of Kerala to declare it as a sanctuary way back in 1983. It has a wide range of forests ranging from tropical evergreen to semi-evergreen to deciduous forests and even large tracts of open grasslands. These are surrounded by a placid lake formed by the backwaters of Pooyamkutti Dam on Periyar River. Because of this unique landscape, there are land birds, birds of higher altitudes and even water birds.
It was on a trip, along the Western Ghats from north to south looking for a rare bird (then thought to have been extinct), that Dr Sugathan, a protÃ©gÃ© of Dr Ali, discovered the elusive Ceylon Frogmouth here. Once again Thattekkad Sanctuary shot into prominence in the bird map of India, now with one more winged wonder to celebrate.
The Adivasis living in the Silent Valley of Kerala have a unique custom. Once they collect nature's treasures from a particular area, they don't come back there till she has fully replenished herself. Taking a cue, the forest department has recently made a part of the Thattekkad Sanctuary out of bounds for tourists, allowing the wounds created by tourism to heal themselves. An example worth emulating in the over-exposed forest destinations in the rest of India.
The other extreme
Athirapally Waterfalls was a study in contrast: it was wet and wild. Here you felt humbled by the might and the fury of water at its wildest. This is a unique waterfall is controlled by the shutters of the Sholayar Dam up in the evergreen reaches of the Western Ghats. Thereby hangs a tragic tale too. When it rains, the shutters are suddenly opened without a warning. And what was a gentle, romantic fall suddenly becomes a roaring, angry fall that has literally sweeps people off their feet, leading to many a tragic death. Tread with caution here, and you can be privy to one of the most awesome moods of the Chalakkudi River as it plunges 80 feet headlong into a gorge.
It was during the first trip to the Sholayar forest 33 years ago that acted as my initiation into the mystical experience of being one with nature. Still reeling under its impact, we trekked downstream till we came to a spot where a bamboo raft bobbing gently in a flowing stream beckoned us. There was not a soul in sight. Quietly, the five of us scrambled into the raft, gently untied the moorings, and started rowing with a bamboo pole. Five minutes into our journey, we were startled by a man who was running along the river screaming, 'Stop! There's a waterfall ahead!' Shocked and awed, we tried our best to steer the raft but the current was pulling us away towards the waterfall.
Somehow, after the concerted effort of five souls on the edge of survival, we managed to touch the banks. And the man pulled us ashore, saying, "God saved you. Right at the next bend is a sheer fall of 80 feet. None of you would have survived!" And it was at that life-defining moment, I learnt not to take nature for granted.