Silence in the tree

IT WAS ONLY WHEN I FIRST visited India (in January 1994) that I first saw animals that I had only ever seen in captivity, in zoos. It amazed me that in the heart of a big city such as Bangalore I could see monkeys running wild, cormorants drying their wings in the sun, and large birds of prey (eg kites) swooping high above the ground and occasionally making brief landings to steal food of outdoor tables.

During our honeymoon in South India we spent a night in the Bandipur National Park (in Karnataka close to its border with Tamil Nadu). While we were there, we were shown the fresh footprint of a tiger and saw elephants. The highlight of our visit to the place was taking a ride on the top of a large elephant. As it padded serenely through the jungle, it snacked on the grasses which it plucked from the ground with its trunk. Our guide on the elephant pointed out wild deer (sambar) that seemed unperturbed by our passing. It was a delightful experience. We also saw termite mounds that were almost six feet high. I had never seen such things before, except in photographs.

The elephants we met in Bandipur and have seen in other places in India are not usually ‘wild’ animals. They are usually beasts of burden in the employ of mankind. It was only when we visited South Africa in 2003 that we saw truly wild elephants. We visited the Addo Elephant National Park, which is not far from the city of Port Elizabeth. For the first hour or more, we drove around the park, not seeing any elephants. We saw plenty of other tourists’ vehicles but no pachyderms. At about one o’clock, lunch time, the other visitors’ cars and camper vans disappeared from the roads in the park. We continued driving, somewhat disappointed to have only briefly glimpsed a few elephants sheltering in a clump of trees some distance away from the road.

We were about to give up on the Addo park when we rounded a curve, and found the roadway blocked by several huge elephants with one baby. A couple of adults were gradually demolishing the foliage on a large tree, and the others were standing around motionless. We stopped our car. One of the elephants looked at us, menacingly so it seemed. We stared at the trunked creatures and some of them stared at us. The roads in the park were one way. The elephants showed no sign of moving away. We knew that we should do nothing to antagonise the beasts, especially as they were likely to have been very protective of the baby. We could not drive forward safely. “What to do?”, as people often say in India.  There was only one practical solution. That was to turn the car around and drive along the one-way road in the wrong direction. We did this without problems because there was no other traffic on the road at that time of the day.

Another of my wild animal encounters also occurred in South Africa, at Boulders Beach close to Cape Town. I was surprised to discover that in this part of Africa, admittedly one of its places nearest to Antarctica, there is a large colony of penguins living in the wild. They are so-called African penguins (Spheniscus demersus). They settled on Boulders Beach as recently as 1982. Other colonies of this species can be found on the southern African coast between Namibia and Algoa Bay (near Port Elizabeth). A raised boardwalk has been constructed at Boulders Beach to allow visitors to wander through the penguins’ habitat without coming into contact with them. It was delightful watching the creatures going about their daily life. However, the fish smell they create is very strong.

In early 1995, a few months before our daughter was born, we visited California, driving to San Francisco along the coast from San Diego. It was in the latter that we encountered another marine creature living in the wild. We stopped at an inlet of the sea favoured by wild seals. Many years later, I enjoyed watching wild seals gambolling near to Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall.

Our friends, who live near to San Francisco, took us out to Point Reyes one afternoon. The aim of the excursion was to watch whales. We were not alone at our destination. I looked out at the choppy ocean and saw nothing but the white crests of waves. Meanwhile, around me people were becoming extremely excited as they saw what they believed to be whales. It was a pleasant place to see, but as for spotting whales, I drew a blank.

Returning to Bangalore in India and sightings of wildlife, let me describe what happened one Sunday afternoon in the southern suburb of Koramangala, where my parents-in-law had a second floor (third if you are from the US) flat. The living room had windows that looked out towards a huge old banyan tree. It was a tree that provided endless entertainment for the observer. It was full of chirruping birds, busy squirrels, and often troupes of monkeys. There was never a dull moment in its complex network of leafy branches.

One Sunday afternoon, my in-laws had invited Dr and Mrs Srinivasan to take tea with us. We sat by the window with our chairs arranged in a semicircle so that we could enjoy the lovely view of the tree. The windows were open. After some time, I noticed that there was no sound coming from the birds in the banyan. The squirrels were not scuttling about in the branches. It was unusually and eerily silent. Then, I noticed it. At the base of the tree, there was a cobra, its head posed as it is depicted in Hindu temple sculptures. The presence of this motionless, almost statuesque, reptile had silenced the birds and stilled the squirrels. Dr Srinivasan and I were spellbound. I did not have my camera with me. I did not want to leave the cobra lest it disappeared and, also, realised that the camera I used then would not have captured the reptile adequately. Eventually, after we had finished our tea and snacks, the snake moved on and normal activity resumed in the branches of the banyan. This experience of wildlife was for me more exciting than the elephants, monkeys, kites, and the penguins.

Tragically, the owners of the land (who should best remain unnamed) on which the banyan tree grew, a protected plant, illegally felled the banyan one night to clear the land for a building project. Fortunately, this happened after my father-in-law had passed away because he would have been heartbroken if he had been alive to see it. The view of the banyan tree is what endeared him to the flat that he and my mother-in-law bought to live the closing years of their life.

Returning to London, another big city, it is not difficult to spot wildlife. After dark, foxes are commonly seen even on streets quite near the centre of the city. Our local open space, Kensington Gardens, is well-populated with green parakeets. They are wild but at the same time very tame. They, like the ubiquitous grey squirrels, are happy to feed from the hands of visitors. Although I have yet to see a truly exotic wild creature in London, plenty of marine fowl take advantage of the rich pickings available in the capital. Years ago, my PhD supervisor, a keen naturalist, explained to me that the vegetation growing on the banks of railway lines serve as corridors or extensions of countryside that reach right into the heart of London. It is along these that wildlife makes its way into the centre of the city.

Although I would not usually go out of my way to visit a nature reserve or safari park, I do get a thrill when I spot a creature that I normally associate with zoos in the wild. I will bring this to an end with one more tale from India.

There is a wildlife reserve close to Mysore in the State of Karnataka. We visited this with our then small daughter and three members of the Karnataka State Forestry Police, who were looking after us as guests of the then Commissioner of this police force. Looking after us was clearly more fun for the three officers than their normal routine. When we entered the reserve, they noticed that a boat was just about to set off for a trip around a lake. It was a large rowing boat already crammed full of Indian tourists. All six of us squeezed into the boat and we cast off. There were no life-jackets on board and the boat was so full that its edge was less than an inch above the surface of the lake. Being of a slightly nervous disposition, my heart was in my mouth as the boat swayed port to starboard and vice-versa. Had I been prone to panic attacks, I would have had one when I realised that what I thought were logs floating on the water were, in fact, crocodiles. Luckily, I survived the trip, but still shudder when I think that we were far closer to the crocs than we were to the fearsome cobra.

Far from the maddening crowd

THROUGHOUT THE ‘LOCKDOWN’, our wise leader, Mr Johnson, has encouraged us to take exercise, to get out and breathe some fresh air. And, we have been following that sound advice, walking in our neighbourhood anything from two to five miles every day. Since the ‘lockdown’ has been eased recently, we have been driving out of London far enough to escape from the hurly-burly of the city.  Our latest excursion took us out westwards to a village on the River Thames called Hurley, which is upstream from the small town of Marlow. We chose our destination, the starting point for a riverside walk, almost randomly and had no idea what to expect when we arrived.

HU 12 temple lock

Temple Lock

Hurley is a gem of a village. A ford across the River Thames might well have existed at Hurley before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Many of the older buildings near the river and including the heavily restored Norman church formed part of a Benedictine priory that was established by Geoffrey de Mandeville, who died in about 1100 and was one of the richest men during the reign of William the Conqueror. His pious action at Hurley was strongly influenced by his second wife, Lescelina. The monastery was ‘dissolved’ during the great Dissolution of religious institutions carried out by Henry VIII, Some of the buildings including the priory’s cloisters have been picturesquely incorporated into newer buildings, most of which are used as dwellings.

A wooden bridge crosses a stream of the river to reach an island where Hurley Lock is located. We watched pleasure boats being lowered in the lock that allows ships to avoid the weir nearby. At the end of the island, another wooden bridge crosses back onto the right bank of the Thames. We walked beside the river, enjoying glimpses of it between trees whose branches dipped down towards the water. In addition to boats of all sizes from canoes to large cruisers and barges, the water is populated by ducks, andgeese. We also spotted plenty of insects that rest on the water’s surface and flit about hither and thither: water boatmen and pond skaters. Much of the path was flanked by deciduous woodland, mostly private property.

Another bridge, a long sweeping wooden structure took us to the left bank of the river. A short distance downstream from it, we reached Temple Lock. The river was so busy that boats had to queue up to wait for admission to the lock. With the river on our right and fields on our left, some with grazing cattle and sheep, we headed towards Marlow. The path was flanked by a profusion of wildflowers, many of them being ‘serviced’ by a rich variety of different kinds of insects. Before reaching Marlow, we had good views of Bisham Abbey across the river. The former Abbey was built in about 1260 as a manor house for the Knights Templar. Now, much of it remains, and is used as one of the UK’s National Sports Centres.  Close by, the reflection of the tower of All Saints Church, Bisham, shimmers in the water of the river that flows close to its western end. The tower was built in the 12th century, and, later, in the 16th century other parts were added to the original church.

Soon after seeing Bisham’s church, the elegant suspension bridge across the Thames at Marlow came into view. The present bridge was built between 1829 and 1832 and designed by William Tierney Clark (1783-1852), who also designed Hammersmith Bridge. The famous Chain Bridge in Budapest (Széchenyi lánchíd), which is a larger version of Marlow Bridge, opened in 1849 was also designed by WT Clark. It was built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark (1811-1866).

A slightly sensuous statue of a naked woman, apparently a nymph, can be seen near the Marlow Bridge. This early 20th century sculpture (1924) commemorates Charles Frohman (1856-1915), an American who was a famous theatrical manager who was drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. According to a notice next to the statue, it was erected on the spot from which Frohman used to enjoy watching the Thames.  Apart from the bridge and the statue, there was little in Marlow’s High Street that attracted us, and we walked back to Hurley the way we came. On the way back, we caught good views of Harleyford Manor, a handsome Georgian home on a grassy rise overlooking the Thames. Designed by Robert Taylor (1714-1788) for its owner William Clayton (1718-1783), a Member of Parliament for Bletchingley and then Great Marlow, it remained in the Clayton family until 1950. Currently, this protected building houses offices.

We returned to Hurley, having had a hugely enjoyable stroll along the river and plenty of fresh air. We met numerous people along the way, all of them greeting us friendlily. Many of them had dogs, and almost all of them took care to maintain ‘social distancing’. We drove away from Hurley and about half an hour later we were caught up in the hurly burly of London traffic, which was moving at barely snail’s pace around the Hammersmith one-way system. Annoying as it was, it was worth enduring after having had such a wonderful day by the river, so far from the maddening crowds.

 

Puncher

THE HUMBLE COCONUT plays an important part in Hindu ceremonies because, to put it very simply, it is a very holy item.

 

OOTY BLOG

We had a Hindu wedding in Bangalore (India) in January 1994. A most important part of our more than three-hour long ceremony was to do the ‘feras’, that is walk around a sacred fire seven times. My wife, Lopa, and I were attached together with several garlands that had been draped around us earlier in the proceedings. At the end of the religious activities conducted by two pandits (‘priests’) near to the fire, we walked to my in-law’s small Maruti 800 car, a vehicle hardly larger than a Fiat 500. With some difficulty Lopa and I, still attached together by the garlands, squeezed into the back seat of the car. Then my brother-in-law started the engine and drove us forward over a coconut placed under one of the car’s front wheels. The coconut was broken. Breaking coconuts is very auspicious for Hindus and, therefore, a good thing to do at the start of a marriage.

After the lengthier than expected religious ceremony, the reason for its great length is another story, we had lunch in the lovely garden that surrounded my in-laws’ home. Later that day, we enjoyed a formal reception with a buffet vegetarian dinner at the Bangalore Club. As my wife’s grandmother had requested that there be no alcohol on the day of the wedding ceremony, we complied with her wish. So, just after ‘the stroke of the midnight hour’ (to quote the immortal words of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 15th of August 1947) we cracked open bottles of Marquise de Pompadour, an Indian champagne.

The plan was to leave Bangalore on a driving trip on the day following the ceremonies and festivities already mentioned. However, as Robert Burns famously wrote in 1785: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley [i.e. The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew]”, so did ours. My in-laws had planned for Lopa and I to go on a driving tour around parts of South India in the Maruti, driven by the family’s driver (chauffeur).  But the driver had other ideas.  On the morning of our departure, we learned that he had quit his employment with the family to take up another post elsewhere. We wondered ‘What to do?’ to use an Indian English set of words that appeals to me.

My wife’s parents made a quick decision. They decided to accompany us as far as Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), a hill station in Tamil Nadu state. From there, we would continue the planned trip using public transport and they would drive the car back home. Maybe, it would not appeal to many just-married couples to take their parents on a honeymoon, but we had no problems with it. Mummy and Daddy packed quickly and had the kitchen staff prepare copious amounts of picnic fare. We all piled into the tiny car with stacks of baggage.

Currently, it takes about eight hours to drive from Bangalore to Ooty without stopping. In 1994, it took longer. We did the journey in two stages, spending a night in the Bandipur nature reserve, currently almost six hours from Bangalore, at the state boundary that separates Karnataka from Tamil Nadu. As I was carrying my International Drivers Permit and I was younger than Lopa’s parents, I volunteered to do the driving. A rash decision, you might be thinking, if you are familiar with driving conditions in today’s India, but it was not. I had already made several driving trips in the crazily crowded central market areas of Bangalore and enjoyed the experience.

We set off and were soon out in the country. Outside Bangalore, there was little traffic on the roads except in the small towns through which we had to pass, there being no by-passes. In 1994, far fewer people had private cars than they do today. So long as one obeyed the informal rule that advised you to give way to cows, who seem oblivious to the dangers of traffic, and to anything larger than one’s own vehicle, there was little that could go wrong.

Well, that is what I thought as we drove along two-lane roads lined with ageing trees with thick trunks and shady foliage and plenty of colourfully dressed pedestrians, many of them carrying loads on their heads. Then, I realised we had had a puncture, or ‘puncher’ as it is often spelled (phonetically) in India. For some reason, we did not resort to using the car’s spare wheel. Instead, we drove a little further and stopped by a wayside ‘puncher’ repairer. This and most others, both then and now, were not what you would expect of a tyre repair station in Western Europe, for example a branch of ATSEuromaster or KwikFit, but something far more modest. Usually located under a tree (for shade), the typical roadside ‘puncher’ repairer consists of a pile of mainly damaged tyres and an assortment of scraps of rubber, once parts of tyres. Despite the unhopeful appearance of these waystations, the people who man them can get you back on the road with a tyre repair within minutes. The only problem, which I discovered soon enough, was that these repairs did not last long. Just in case you are wondering, there were no shops for new tyres along our route back in 1994.

Between Bangalore and our destination at the hill station, we limped along from one ‘puncher’ repairer to another. This problem was a result of the driver having deserted the family. Had he stayed on to drive us, he would have made sure that the vehicle and its tyres were roadworthy before our departure. Apart from the stops for repairing punctures, we arrived at Bandipur safely.

On the following day at Bandipur, we lucky enough to get a ride on a huge elephant. The creature carried us almost noiselessly through the jungle. As it moved, it seemed barely unaware of its passengers. It lumbered along, snacking on tufts of vegetation, which it snatched from the ground with its trunk. The only wildlife I spotted were deer-like creatures, sambars, which were not as exciting as the tigers that we were told lurked in the area. The elephant ride was a complete contrast to the ‘wildlife tour’ we joined at the nature reserve. This consisted of a large single-decker bus with a noisy engine, which was loud enough to frighten even the boldest of wildlife. Our fellow passengers included some boisterous Indian schoolchildren, who were observant enough to spot the occasional monkeys. Apart from them and us, there were some very earnest European tourists armed with costly, sophisticated cameras and telephoto lens. They were very dismayed by the racket being created by the enthusiastic children. At one spot, the bus stopped, and we were all invited to disembark to look at an indistinct footprint in damp mud. This was, we were told, the spoor of a tiger. It did not excite me, but I can still remember it.

We made it to Ooty without mishap. Lopa’s parents stayed in accommodation about a mile from ours. We stayed in an attractive guesthouse built in the British colonial period. Rather inappropriately for a honeymoon suite, it was supplied with the widest bed I have ever seen. Ten people could have slept side-by-side with their arms outstretched without touching each other. Its sheets and blankets must have been made specially for this enormous bed. Maybe, this bed had been constructed with great foresight, with  ‘social distancing’ in mind.

Lopa’s parents stayed on in Ooty after we set off to continue our holiday in Kerala. While they were in Ooty, they had new tyres attached to the Maruti, and then Mummy drove Daddy home.

It is now twenty-six years and a few months since Lopa and I sat in the family Maruti and were driven over the coconut. It is only now as I relate this story that a thought has occurred to me. And that is, I wonder whether one of the tyres was troublesome because it had been damaged by a sharp edge of the shell of the broken coconut.

Watching

It gives me great pleasure and sense of wellbeing watching the ducks, moorhens, geese, swans, seagulls, and other fowl, swimming in or sitting close to the water bodies on London’s parks.

Sometimes, I have spotted rarer birds such as herons, cormorants, and pelicans (in St James Park). Golders Hill Park in northwest London used to have flamingos. I do not know if they are still there.

I often wonder what the birds think about the humans, who come to visit them, that is if they think at all. Are we good company for them or simply an occasional source of welcome food waste?

It does not matter to me whether or not they think, so long as they are there to give us all a pleasurable experience and that they are enjoying life in an avian kind of way.

In a while crocodile

THE CROCODILE LYING LAZILY in the hot sunshine with its teeth lined jaws wide open lay motionless as we and many other visitors gaped at it with amazement.

We reached the Crocodile Bank at Semencheri (near Mahabalipuram) after a two hour drive northwards from Pondicherry along the East Coast Road (ECR), which as its name suggests runs close to the east coast of India. We drove through flat terrain with luxuriant vegetation. The road passes many picturesque backwaters and other water bodies, some covered with flowering waterlilies. We also passed a small collection of saltpans, alongside which there were small piles of white salt. This salt gathering area was on a much smaller scale than can be seen at the south eastern edge of Kutch. The road is dotted with numerous hatcheries for edible crustaceans such as shrimps and scampi.

The Crocodile Bank was established in 1976 by Romulus Whitaker and is now being run by his ex-wife, our friend Zai. It was started to breed cricodiles and other reptiles in captivity in order to counter the reduction of their populations in the wild. It is now an important centre for herpetology, education , wildlife conservation, and breeding reptiles. It is open to the public, who gain great enjoyment from seeing and learning about the reptiles.

We first visited the Crocodile Bank about five years ago. When we entered, my first impression was of looking at a sea of grey logs. On closer examination, these ‘logs ‘ were motionless crocodiles. We learnt that crocodiles and aligators are very somnolent unless they are hungry. Therefore, they tend to lie about motionless, basking in the sun or keeping cool in shallow water.

During our first visit, we saw a pair of beautifully coloured iguanas, which Zai and her colleagues were hoping would mate. She told us that they did produce a clutch of eggs eventually, and that some of the baby iguanas were enjoying life at the Crocodile Bank.

We were pressed for time on our visit in February 2020. So, we did not have a chance to have a good look around. On our first visit, Zai arranged for one of her team to give us what turned out to be a very informative tour.

I can strongly recommend a visit to Crocodile Bank. It is not far from the superb archaeological remains at Mahabalipuram and provides an interesting contrast to them. Instead of stones of historic interest, you can enjoy seeing creatures that have survived the passage of time even longer than the ruins.

The highest point

LAST BUT NOT LEAST on our visit to Mount Abu was a visit to Guru Shikhar, the highest peak of the Mount Abu district. Being a Sunday, the winding road leading to it had heavy traffic. Many of the private cars had Gujarati registration plates, and judging by the general lack of driving skill and courtesy I guessed that many of the drivers had little if any experience of negotiating mountain roads. There is an observatory perched on the very top of the mountain. It is part of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The views from the summit were spectacular especially because the air was uncharacteristically free of mists and heat haze. We were surrounded by lower peaks and in one direction there was a good view of the plain far below us. Mount Abu is the highest point in Rajasthan and neighbouring Gujarat. We left this peak to visit other sights dotted around on the far from flat Mount Abu plateau.

A short visit to Shankar Math will suffice all but the most devout of Hindus. A modern structure surmonted by an enormous lingam houses a much older and slightly older lingam carved in white stone with bluish grey striations.

Achal Garh has several attractions. There is a large attractive Jain Temple, which looked quite old. It was surrounded by newly carved sculptural fragments which were being used to replace worn out stone elements of the temple. Old parts were being exchanged for newly made replicas.

Close to the Jain temple at Achal Ghar, there is a market place catering mostly to tourists. Beyond the market a well made road winds upwards to Kapoor Tank, a peaceful water body where we saw women washing laundry in its calm water. Little children, including a tiny three year old girl, offered to guide us around the area.

The road continues to ascend above Kapoor Tank until it reaches the gates of an old fortress. It was built in 1452 by a local Rajput ruler, Maharana Khumbar of Mewar, on the site of an older fort. Not much remains to be seen. The area within the fort contains various Jain temples, which I hope to look at on a future visit.

The Jain temples at Adhar Devi, high up on a mountain slope, can only be reached by climbing more than 350 stone steps. I did not feel like doing that, so there is little I can tell you about them except that one of them is called Arbuda Devi Temple, Arbuda being the pre-British name of Abu, as in Mount Abu.

The highlight of our excursion was not the highest peak but an incredibly beautiful lake surrounded by rocks in the middle of a wildlife nature reserve. A badly surfaced road leads from the main road between Mount Abu and Guru Shikhar to Trevor’s Tank. This water body was created in 1897 by Colonel GH Trevor to breed crocodiles. A fading notice on of the huge rocks surrounding the pool advises visitors not to enter the water because of the very real risk of meeting these creatures. Some German hikers, whom we met, pointed at some crocs resting on a rock across the Tank, but I could not see them. The land for the wildlife sanctuary had been gifted to Trevor by the Maharaja of Sirohi, in whose kingdom Mount Abu is located.

The Tank has to be seen to believed. Its smooth water reflects the finest details of the rocks and vegetation surrounding it. Our new friend Dr Sharma told us that one of the joys of Trevor’s Tank is listening to the sounds of nature. During our visit, these had to compete with the sounds made by the excited groups of mainly young trippers. If there is limited time available when you visit Mount Abu, then Trevor’s Tank and the Dilwara Jain Temples should be seen before anything else. But, it would be foolish not to allot at least several days to savour Mount Abu.

We ate lunch in the restaurant of the Jaipur House hotel, the highest of the former Rajputana palaces in Mount Abu . Its windows provide superb views over the Nakki Lake, the Polo Ground and the rest of Mount Abu town. The former palace, now a hotel, is elegant without being flamboyant.

We strolled down from the palace through the town to our hotel feeling sad that on the following morning we would be leaving Mount Abu, which has captured our hearts.