Archive for September 2009
This year India experienced an abnormally erratic monsoon season. While a deficit of rain was reported from many parts of the subcontinent, northern Kerala was drenched in a deluge in early July. I had a chance to enjoy experiencing the full rigor, and power of the South West monsoon during a short visit to the Nilgiris and Wayanad with my friends Bob & Tanya from the Vattakanal Conservation Trust. On our fleeting visit to the Nilgiri Hills we visited the remote area of Bangitappal in Mukurthi National Park. Given the difficulty in securing permission we felt fortunate to be granted the single night at the rest house. However, the relentless monsoon showers, which came in at 360°, severely limited what we could do. Later we drove up through Mudumalai, Bandipur and then Nagarhole to visit our friends at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad. The journey proved to be quite an adventure with knocked-out roads, raging streams, muddy landslips, a circuitous deviation and finally a submerged road to navigate in a rescue boat. The rewards of communion with friends and the tranquility of Gurukula, albeit in pounding rain, were well worth it.
As a student we rarely encountered snakes on the hikes and adventures we took out into the Palni Hills almost every weekend. Despite having been exposed to Rom Whitaker’s wisdom and love for snakes at an early age I was not one of the adventurous ones picking up and investigated the few snakes that we did find. My friends, father and I had an unforgettable experience with a pit-viper near Kukaal Cave soon after we graduated from KIS in 1988. My pictures of it were ruined when I slipped, dunked my Olympus camera in a pool and barely missed breaking my leg when a boulder came tumbling in after me.
It was only as an adult working at the Mahindra United World College of India near Pune that I became fascinated with reptiles and amphibians. They shared the campus with us and we encountered numerous species frequently. Necessity intervened and I found myself assisting faculty members and students in catching and rescuing snakes that had found the way into school housing and classrooms. As I’ve sought to widen my documentation of the Western Ghats I’ve been looking for opportunities to photograph endemic amphibians and reptiles.
This summer, with five weeks in southern India, I was especially keen to find and photograph a few Western Ghats endemics snakes with my new medium format close-up equipment. I’ve been on the lookout for the Large Scaled Pit Viper (Trimeresurus macrolepis) for the past three-rive years and what a thrill it was when one of the VCT members found a beautiful specimen near the shola nurseries at Pillar Rocks! It became our family pet for the next several days, while I photographed it under different conditions. As with the other close-up work I used a Hasselblad mounted with a 120 mm Makro Planar (+ 55 extension tubes), mostly with Kodak T-max 100 film. I used a strobe for a few of the images though I still aspire to Ashok Captain-like lighting! The color was shot on a digital camera (D-200) using a 105 mm macro lens. My father, Merrick, played a key role in all of this. He’s a genius- Merrick took apart and rebuilt the extension tubes when they jammed the Hasse in June. When we started catching shieldtails (Uropeltis sp.) in the garden he crafted a very useful aluminum snake stick for bigger finds. During the various shoots he assisted with holding various props and keeping the very curious kids at bay!
Just before we returned to Colombo, Merrick, the kids and I took a hike with our snake to Gundattu Shola. We found it a home in a bed of nettle set aside a stream. In the future I’d like to visit the nearby Highwavys to attempt to track down the highly elusive Tropidolaemus huttoni first discovered by Angus Hutton1948 but not seen since.
The Nilgiri Mountain railway is not to be missed if you are interested in Western Ghats scenery, unhurried travel and the allure of steam locomotion. Like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the southern cousin in the Nilgiri Hills has been recently (2005) notified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site . The train connects the plains town of Mettupalayam (on the south slopes of the Nilgiri hills) with the 2,200+ meter hill-station of Ooty (Udhagamandalam).
The route is a total of 46 kilometers, which ascend at a fair gradient and must, thus, rely on the rack and pinion apparatus to zipper the train up the mountain. I took the ride this last July with my father and son, both of who are steam enthusiasts, albeit at different levels of interests based on their age disparity. The ride is slow and offers ample opportunity to appreciate the gradual change in vegetation from dry-scrub to moist deciduous and then evergreen forest. We encountered a herd of elephants, spotted a variety of birds and also enjoyed frequent lizard sightings. There are numerous tunnels, chasms and waterfalls to appreciate. There are also still signs of the 1994 landslide, which caused such damage to the line, not to mention human life. I had motorcycled up to Ooty from the Palnis shortly after and personally witnessed the utter devastation. The train line had been knocked out for a significant period after the landslide.
The steam locomotive is exchanged for a diesel at Conoor Station, which is a large mid-elevation town, known for its military cantonments. We got down to wander around the workshop with cameras while the train continued on up the last stretch up to Ooty.
These images were shot in July 2006 and 2009 with a combination of cameras and lenses: Mamiya 6, Hasselblad 503 cx and Nikon D-200.