“No sir. The only way to Thattekad is to take a taxi.” Fairly predictable response from a Tourist Information Centre that’s also a taxi firm. “Where is it you are staying there?”
“Jungle Bird Homestay.”
“Oh! In the bird sanctuary! Very nice.”
“Thanks. How much would a taxi there cost?”
Some numbers are punched authoritatively and presumably at random into a calculator. “This much, sir.” The display reads 2,660.
“Okay, thanks. Couldn’t we take a bus to Kothamangalam and take a taxi from there?”
“Muuuuuch nicer to take a taxi, sir.”
“Great, thanks. Goodbye.”
We take the ferry from Kochin to Ernakulam – a quick, inexpensive and wonderfully scenic alternative to the buses between the two – and on the other side find a genuine tourist information centre staffed by a kindly gentleman who helpfully picks out the relevant bus stations for us on a map of the town. By now Rebecca has suffered a heat-induced meltdown apparently only curable by impulse-buying leopard-print shawls and a fake Armani cap, so we decide to stop for some lunch.
During the course of the meal we get chatting to a young Indian couple who we’re sharing a table with. They take a keen interest in our travel plans, and our thoughts on the mediocre Western food we’re tucking into. They recommend a travel company for us to get in touch with in Wayanad, and when we ask them how they know them they exchange conspiratorial glances. “We’re travel bloggers”, says the girl.
“Here”, says the guy as they’re leaving, “take this, in case you use those guys in Wayanad”. He passes me a napkin on which he’s written the message “Tell them I recommended you” and his instagram handle.
On our way home we stop at Kashi for lime juice and a slice of chocolate cake that would put the yips up Bruce Bogtrotter, and I look up our new friend. He and the girl are both influencers, he has over 180,000 followers and both wear black motorcycle helmets in all their photos, giving them an achingly hip anonymous persona.
I eat cake til I burst, looking forward to the next few weeks.
The Twitcher holds a camera with a lens as long as my arm. He’s bagged himself a terrific shot of the Malabar Grey Hornbill swaggering about in the treetop, although seems genuinely impressed with the snap Rebecca has taken with our Panasonic point-and-shoot.
The Twitcher is a recently-retired brand manager from Bangalore in blue trackies and white trainers. He can identify, in a wingbeat, each of the birds we come across: the Rufous Treepie, the Lesser Flame-Backed Woodpecker, the Racket-Tailed Drongo all flutter within his taxonomic grasp. He navigates the forest in near-silence save whispers of the names of these creatures and the occasional ker-chick of his mighty Canon’s shutter.
Even the Twitcher’s knowledge is second to that of the Bird Whisperer. Deftly she leads our party of five through the jungle, stopping abruptly to point out different birds high in the canopy and to summon them closer with pre-recorded snippets of birdsong on her phone. The mother-in-law of Sandhya, who greeted us to and cooks at the Jungle Bird Homestay, she is one of those awe-inspiring old ladies whose knowledge of and closeness to nature keeps her in condition to trek through the forest, leaving the twenty-somethings trailing in her wake.
The Bird Whisperer gives me up as a lost cause early on when I fail to spot a pigeon barely 20 yards away. Clumsy enough to commit what I like to call “unforced errors” (falling or overbalancing without any provocation) at the best of times, the constant upward-peering of birdwatching has me tripping over constantly and snapping every twig and dry leaf Thattekad has to offer.
Still, I’m not as loud as the Plant Guy. A jocular garden designer from Twickenham, the Plant Guy likes plants but doesn’t know much about Indian ones, and before the walk had a captivating stand-off with a macaque outside the homestay. This culminated in the monkey nicking his banana, diving inside the open kitchen window for more before crapping nonchalantly on the stairs. I like the Plant Guy.
Knackered after our walk, we’re joined for dinner by three ladies from Delhi. They, like the Twitcher, are well-read on all manner of topics including William Dalrymple and international politics, and remind me pleasantly of the group of intellectual ex-pats my mum hangs out with in Majorca.
We get an early night, for tomorrow morning’s walk begins at 6.30.
Gireesh is an exuberant bundle of energy decked out in olive and navy hiking gear and a wide-brimmed hat. There’s a hint of Carlton Banks about him, both in appearance and in his boyish enthusiasm. His fulsome moustache quivers with excitement as we set out into a misty jungle dawn.
The son of the Bird Whisperer and manager of the homestay, he is a hot-shot defence lawyer who claims he hasn’t lost a case in ten years. He also claims to be able to recognise over nine hundred different bird calls, and while I can’t attest to it being that many he certainly picks up on the faintest cry from the furthest treetop, mimicking them through moustachioed lips in addition to phone recordings to open dialogue with the forest’s rarest birds, triangulate their whereabouts and lead his creeping followers to within photographing distance.
His enthusiasm is infectious. He thumbs his moustache in frustration as we miss a photo opp of a buzzard, and trembles with joy at the sight of a Malabar Drogan – “South India’s most beautiful bird”, he assures me earnestly between bouts of his catchphrase “Take it, take the shot – whaaat a beauuty!”
Gireesh has been bird-watching in these forests, in which he grew up, for over twenty years. Much of his skill was acquired from knowledgeable visitors, and it was he who taught his mother the craft – though he concedes that she is now the master. He also tells us that four months ago she was treated, at great cost, for cervical cancer.
“This is why she is now so unhealthy”.
We stare at him blankly. “What do you mean? She’s so fit, she’s still doing three-hour walks through the forest at her age!?”
“Ah yes, but now she only does two walks per day. Before the cancer she is doing four”.
She is all clear and I’m mightily glad, as I’m utterly in awe of this woman.
The Twitcher – whose name is Ajit – departs after lunch, over which we discuss writing and exchange details. He and his wife are soon to move into an Ashram, which doesn’t surprise me as much as it otherwise might; there is an understated reflectiveness about him that comes across as wisdom and which I am very much going to miss.
For the afternoon walk we’re joined by a family of four from Chennai. Both accountants, the wife works for Deloitte and the husband for Shell who, he tells us, have started moving not just low-level but also “decision-making” jobs away from the UK and US to India, Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Asia in an effort to cut costs since the slump in oil prices.
The whole family are keen birders, wielding enormous cameras and decked out head to toe in camo for the afternoon walk, in which we stake out a watering hole for two hours in near silence save the eldest son’s under-breath muttering about how much he wants a shot of the Paradise Fly-Catcher. After a time I tire of snapping the array of thrushes and warblers that flutter down for a dip and take to photographing, in pristine close-up, an ant that has found its way onto Rebecca’s Armani cap.
In our short stay at Thattekad I’ve learned many things. I have learned the pleasure that can be found in bird-watching, a pastime that besides a couple of excursions with my father and grandfather as a kid has never grabbed me, and can now identify a handful of exotic birds.
I’ve also learned that birdwatchers can overdo it. On our final morning walk we visit a new section of forest. I take a picture of an enormous green spider, legspan as wide as my face, suspended in a pristine web at least a meter across. No-one seems interested. I discover a trail of red ants that, while the others pine after some sort of dull brown barbet, I follow halfway up a hillside and estimate to be at least 20m long. Besides telling their children not to step in it nobody bats an eyelid. There is evidence galore (trampled bushes and steaming piles of dung) that an elephant is on the loose nearby, but to the birdwatchers this magnificent beast is an annoyance that can only scare away the reclusive frog-mouths.
In fairness, the elephant is also dangerous. The previous evening the Bird Whisperer told us the story of a time she found herself face-to-face with one in the forest, alerted to its presence only by the alarm calls of the forest’s avian life when she was within a few feet. The phrase “like a herd of elephants” is misleading, at least as regards the Indian variety. They are incredibly elusive; despite their bulk they traverse the forest in near-silence. They are known to charge, however, especially if they have young, so the Bird Whisperer ran for her life while the tourists she’d been guiding stopped to take pictures.
I’m thrilled, if a little nervous, knowing that at least one of these animals is in the same patch of forest as us – perhaps only meters away, moving in shady silence. Gireesh periodically scuttles off to listen out for it, and I secretly hope that he’ll return at a sprint followed at a safe distance by a set of tusks, but there is no more sign of the elephant than the buzzards the birders want to photograph. In an effort to raise spirits, Gireesh takes us to an occasional nesting-spot of the Ceylon Bay Owl and, against all the odds, there it is: a placid, golden fluffy-looking thing sleeping contentedly on a branch. Gireesh assures us that this is the rarest nocturnal bird in the world – “in the world, I tell you” – and that having nested here today it won’t sleep within a 20km radius again for two weeks.
I later Google the owl and according to Wikipedia its conservation status is “of least concern”. I had suspected all along that there is something of the showman about Gireesh, but somehow that doesn’t spoil the effect one bit. Throughout our stay his relentless energy and sense of theatre have illuminated a world I knew very little about, and for the sake of the fun of it I can tolerate a bit of hammed-up trim around the edges.
When check-out time comes, he announces that each of the walks we’d been on cost (unbeknownst to us) 500 rupees. After a brief session of open-wallet surgery, we set off for Munnar.