ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Drop dead gorge!
It leaves you with haunting memories, writes SUBHA J RAO
PHOTO: K. ANANTHAN
TAHR HEARTLAND Enroute Devil's Gap in Western Catchment
This RLT was getting too perfect to be true. The driver came on time, the forest officials were courteous to a fault and our guide, Mani, was a pro who knew the Nilgiris inside out. And then, Murphy's law got to work. A bus with a burst tyre blocked the road leading to Western Catchment, our chosen destination. Alternately crushing a twig underfoot and stealing an impatient glance at the watch, two hours speed by. The fragrant eucalyptus woods and a bed of pine needles do nothing to cheer up an impatient crowd.
In between, we befriend an old Toda woman forced to wait it out in the bus because she cannot walk. As she embroiders a shawl, she talks about the good old days when all they ate was rice mixed with butter and curd. "Now, everything has changed," she points in jest to the tyre-less bus.
Finally, help arrives. And we hit the road, literally. Wide craters and mini boulders big enough to fatally injure the suspension of cars ensure we are all a nervous wreck by the time better terrain prevails. Who would want to be caught in the middle of an animal-rich shola with no way of calling out for help?
Men work in pairs to cut fire lines around the grassy mounds that make up these hills. Summer is nearing and the grass is dry. Perfect recipe for disaster. But, the fire lines work to contain any blaze.
A while later, Mani motions us to turn to our right. Finally, a blessed sight the Nilgiri tahr. A family of 14, with a couple of kids, grazes idly on the slopes of the hill. Then, the little ones scoot off and the herd follows. The photographer and the guide scamper up the hill to capture them at close quarters, but no such luck.
Providing some compensation are the rhododendron shrubs, some of which have beaten Nature's timetable to bloom out of season. The bright red flowers stand in contrast to the golden brown grasslands and bring back memories of a geography class.
For some Blackberry
The driver and guard disappear for a while. When they return, the driver's lips are stained red with juice. The guide runs in to pluck us a few fiery red mulli pazham (a variety of blackberry) too. Sweet with a hint of tart, it immediately refreshes. Bright flowers, cherry and white, complete the unspoilt landscape.
Soon, we reach Western Catchment II and III, the underground tunnels built to channelise water from the various mountain streams into Portimund Dam. Here lies Devil's Gap, called so because many workers perished due to suffocation during the dam's construction. It is believed their spirits still haunt the buildings nearby. The Gap offers you a great view of the entire area, the plains and the deep gorge-like valley that runs below.
Across, a long winding road leads someplace. "The New Amarambalam forest in Kerala," informs our guide. It is said that the tunnels between Catchment II and III are laid so straight that standing in one end, you can see light pouring in through a hole the size of a 50 paise coin from the other.
Walking back, the remnants of the workers' huts stand like haunted edifices. The homes, built in the 1950s, once bustled with activity. They were demolished when the area was declared a part of the Mukurti National Park.
Rich in wildlife
The area is rich in wildlife. When lucky, you can sight sambar, wild dog, tiger, panther, fox and also pachyderms during their movement from Kerala.
This area is not open to tourists. Only Nature lovers and those conducting research are allowed access, after permission. Nature camps are permitted but in specific areas for target groups. That shows in the clean surroundings. There is not a single plastic or empty bottle anywhere. Forget the bad roads. But for them, Western Catchment would not remain the idyll it is.
Write to The Wildlife Warden, Mount Stuart Hill, Udhagamandalam, The Nilgiris - 643001. Call 0423-2444098 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
How to go
Devil's Gap is 33 km from Ooty. Drive through Parsons Valley to reach the area.
Send this article to Friends by