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In the king's trail

travel Updated: Apr 26, 2010 17:36 IST
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It rained and it rained, for five days and five nights. Whenever there was a momentary respite, birds would sing from trees that had long back disappeared into the mist. It was the second coming of the monsoon. Just when everyone thought it was the end of the season, it met us on the border of Goa and Karnataka, and travelled with us all the way to Udipi, and then up into the magical mountains of Agumbe.
Agumbe in the Western Ghats receives the second highest rainfall in India. And it has 54 square kilometres of pristine rainforests teeming with wildlife. Apart from being home to an exotic variety of insects, flowers, birds and butterflies, it's also the land of reptiles, and the capital of the most mysterious snake of them all, King Cobra.

Family rituals
Walking past the snake shrine and the temple pond near Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, I was reminded of a similar shrine in my ancestral home in Kerala. My great grandmother used to feed milk to the snakes that inhabited the shrine, once a year. Family folklore has it that once she forgot all about the ritual, and a golden snake crawled into our house to remind her, perhaps, of her lapse.
My early memories of that snake shrine are of fear and fascination. Made of black stone, it instantly invoked respect. And it stood majestically under a canopy of ancient, intertwined creepers that looked like snakes. Every day a stone lamp would be lit, and I would accompany my grandmother in the hope of catching a glimpse of the golden snake.

A pilgrimage through a forest
We reached the Research Station at Agumbe and immediately set off for the Onaki Abbi Waterfalls. We walked through curtains after curtains of rainfall, and despite the heavy rain gear that we had worn, we were drenched to the bone within minutes. Suddenly the forest path narrowed, and in front of us there was a carpet of decayed leaves teeming with leeches. As we continued our march into the heart of the rainforest, it dawned on me that leeches are a forests' first line of defence, keeping unwanted guests at bay. After an arduous pilgrimage, we reached Onakki and saw the breathtaking sight of a waterfall taking a sheer drop of over 300 feet into a valley of mist.
Our next trip was at night.

The woods at night
Armed with searchlights, we ventured into the forest. Right near the gate was a lime tree on which all the four stages of a butterfly's life were displayed on different branches: an egg, a larva, a pupa and a butterfly.
On a tree top, snuggling into each other, was a shy, elusive pair of Slender Lorises with large eyes gleaming eerily in the light of the torch.
Next up was the exotic Malabar Gliding Frog, camouflaged so perfectly that only Vipul, our guide and research assistant at the station, could have spotted it. He picked it up gently from the leaf and it glided from his hand to mine. Though green, it had two thick red lines running along its sides. To camouflage itself on a leaf, it flattens itself to hide this 'manufacturing defect'.
Back at the camp, we were lulled into sleep by the soothing raga of the brooks and the pleasant rhythm of the raindrops falling on our roof.
There was no respite from the downpour next day. After a few hours' joy of wearing dry clothes, we were back in torrential rain heading to a picturesque hill called Kundadri. We reached the top after a steady climb along a road that was lined with yellow flowers on one side, and white flowers on the other. The serpentine road ended abruptly at a stone sculpture of a snake. Beyond it lay a dilapidated Jain temple. And to the right of the temple was a pond, where, we were told, the water level remains the same in the height of monsoon and the peak of summer.
In the evening, we set out to discover Vipul's secret waterfall. Walking dangerously through a rivulet in spate, drenched by endless sheets of rainfall, we reached a massive tree, its buttress roots measuring a whopping 40 feet across. And right behind the tree was the sight of a friendly waterfall; the kind that's gentle and soothing, rather than awe inspiring. It's where Vipul retreats in his private moments for meditating on life and its meaning.

In search for the king
Here at Agumbe, the very first study of the King Cobra in its natural habitat is under way. Its behaviour is being observed by implanting a transmitter in its body and then tracking its movements with a receiver. The cobra currently being tracked was in a self-imposed exile in a termite mound on the outskirts of a village called Kesargonda. It had disappeared into the mound and hadn't come out for two weeks.
A lot is known about the King, but there's much that isn't. It's known that the King Cobra is the only snake that eats snakes. It's also the only snake that builds a nest to lay its eggs. The world's largest venomous snake doesn't normally waste its venom on humans, since the venom is in short supply. And when the eggs hatch, the 'Queen' slithers away, lest its instinct to eat other snakes overpowers its maternal one.
When we were returning in the night, Gowrishankar, the head of the Research Station, was at the wheel. Suddenly he pressed the brakes, and the vehicle came to a screeching halt in the still forest. He got down and gently picked up a little keel-back snake that was about to cross the road. And walking in the rain, he deposited it safely on an overhanging branch, and came back with a smile that had traces of relief in it.
The next morning, right in front of the cottage were three large egrets and a pair of white-necked storks swimming silently in the mist. Passing by Gowri's house, I remembered the warmth with which he had carried the little snake back to where it belonged: the dark, mysterious rainforests of Agumbe. And I knew in my heart that one day the elusive Kings of Agumbe would reveal all their dark, mysterious secrets to him. Sooner than later.

Gangadharan is a wildlife writer and photographer. He is the president of Junglelens, an NGO working for nature and wildlife conservation

Getting there
Agumbe is in the Tirthahalli taluka of Shimoga district in Southern Karnataka. It's a 60-km drive from the temple town of Udupi. From Mumbai, you can drive down to Udipi, or take a flight to Bengaluru and then take the road, or take a train (the Netravati Express and Matsyagandha Express) to Udupi.
The easiest time to visit Agumbe would be in May. But if you prefer a little rain, June would be ideal. For real adventure though, head there during the rains.

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