Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bird Watching

It starts with the initial human enthrallment for the winged creature. The winged creature’s ability to soar up in the sky on it’s own seems magical to the child who is unable to achieve it even after reaching adult age. While advancement in science and mechanics has allowed homo sapiens to overcome the impossibility of flying, this is also thanks to the availability of material resource from Mother Nature. Thus the small innocent child looks in wonder as the winged creature flutters around him escaping his vain and puny attempts to grasp it.

The budding relation of humans and their fascination for birds, when nurtured; slowly grows into a passion for all natural resource and reverence the rich abundance that mother nature lavishes on it’s dependents. For the slow learner like me, whose curiosity and fascination for birds was ignored till adulthood, it is sudden dawning to be inducted into a magical realm that was lost in the rat race.

The simple hobby of bird watching is not simple, as it seems. While binoculars are a handy tool, it takes internal resource like patience, perseverance, stillness, stealth-ness, keen eyesight and focus to be able to follow the movement of a bird and be able to identify it correctly. Again, bird-watching can involve staying away for days from civilization & modern luxuries sometimes in open plains, sometimes in tents and caves. One has to trek and discard all amenities for a keener outlook into the world of birds. With doggedness of pursuit, the budding ornithologist is incited to the vast arena that surrounds the habitat and movement of birds.

To his satisfaction, the Indian enthusiast can take pride in the statistics that determine 13% of world’s birds to be present in Indian subcontinent. Owing to it’s wide altitudinal range extending from sea level up to summit of Himalayas, as well as the region’s highly varied climate and diversity of vegetation, the Indian subcontinent is very rich in bird species.

Delving deeper into this riveting study, the hobbyist soon confronts the threat that affects his hobby. He comprehends that habitat loss and deterioration are detrimental to the threat and even extinction of birds. Contributing factors to exploitation of habitat and natural resource include poverty, over-population, government, national debts, international policies and a high demand from first world countries for forest resource of third world. The increasing hydroelectric development alters dynamics of the entire river eco-system of the region while drainage, siltation of wetland, sewage and industrial effluent add to the misery. Use of pesticide in agriculture has proved to be particularly poisonous to the birds. Pesticide getting trickled from land to the river soon contaminates the river thereby affecting fish and fish eating birds. While hunting of birds for food is not a major threat everywhere, illegal bird trading within the continent and for exports can traumatize the avid ornithologist.

For the passive onlooker who is not inducted into the fascinating world of bird watching and who is trapped in the rat race the entire threat is dismissed as hogwash. Indeed, I have myself dismissed stories of environmental threats on the assumption that it does not concern me now as an individual. Yet, as my relations with birds improve, looking at each bird, I’m subtly reminded of the role that I play in denying myself of paradise. After all the paradise notion that was cultivated in every mortal brain was always depicted as a land of abundant trees and birds!!

Innocent as it may seem, there is certainly more to the seemingly insignificant act of bird-watching than the eye can behold (literally also).

You would like a holiday,
You do not have to go far away.
Watch the birds chirp and fly;
Watch your spirits soar high.

You would like to be in paradise
“Preserve Forest”, heed the bird’s cries.
Let the forest grow and expand
Behold paradise in this land.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Caving In North East India

I can still remember the most exciting, the most awkward and the most unforgettable moment of my life when Gregory a experienced cave explorer looked at a river vanishing into the mountain and said to me this is the entrance to Krem Chympe!
It was my holiday time which is usually between christmas and new year, typically spent shopping during the day and partying or working at nightclubs filled with smoke, wild drunk girls and wanna-be-gangsta boys kicking off with someone. But not this year, this year I knew I would be spending my holiday ‘differently’. I wanted to explore a new world, experience a new adventure, be lost in the wilderness and do all that stuff that a lonely planet guide book would ‘recommend’.
I did not go too far looking for options as alI I had to do was call Jayesh from Odati Adventures and surrender myself to his expert advice and recommendation, believe me thats all it takes to get a great holiday… and of course some cash to cover your food and accommodation which is basic… well I assume if you wanted plush accommodation you would probably stay at Hyatt wont you?
Would you like to go Speilunking asked Jayesh and to that question I had another question… WHAT IS THAT? He said its caving, we can go explore some large cave network in hills of north east India and not many people have done that yet. I knew nothing about caves (Not that i know a lot about them now, except that they can be intimidating and beautiful at the same time). The only vision of caves I had was from a hollywood movie The Cave and the trailer flashed in front of my eyes. I immediately logged on to my bank account, transferred the money and got myself a place on this not so common holiday trip. Soon I was on that flight to North East of India (Note- for people not familiar with India, I must tell you India is a big country almost size of entire Europe… hence the flight!).
I reached Guwhati airport from where I was supposed to meet the rest of the troop and head to Shillong the capital of Meghalaya. I must mention Piran Elavia a co-organiser of this trip who is a specialist of North East region, another vagabond who loves nature and knows a lot about butterflies. I am sure I must have impressed him with my knowledge on butterflies, its just that I cannot remember the correct names in correct sequence for the correct species but I do share the same enthusiasm.
This is where I start my story – Caving the good, the bad and the ugly.
Caving story – The Good:
let me start from the last day of my caving trip because that was the most overwhelming and unforgettable experience for me, we set out early morning to kreme chympe kreme meaning cave in khasi and chympe is the local name to this magnificent natural cave. We were guided by Greggory a experienced caver who told us we have to hike over hills and forest for atleast 3hours to reach the cave entrance but the excitement of getting there got us to the entrance in some 1hr 15mins but that doesnt even catch my notice because what I was looking at in front of me made me question or reconfirm my capabilities to even be here.
Gregory pointed at a large depression on a hill covered with thick forest and a river disappearing into it and said this is the entrance to kreme chimpe. And we have to swim for about 15 meters from the entrance to get into the cave. I had wet suit, cave suit and a life jackets on for safety but Iam not sure if it was safety concern or anxiety to swim across to enter a different world that got my heart beating louder than a bloody harley davidson engine.

Piran took the lead and swam across followed by Jayesh and then it was me. It must have been only fifteen meter of water filled entrance but it was almost like a doorway to world of Narnia. I love swimming but this was something else, so surreal and out of the world experience which unfortunately cannot be worded.
We reached a dry platform where we could have a good look at where we were or atleast attempt to look at, as our lights could not reach either the ceiling or the next passage the sheer size of this cave cavity brought back images of all the sci-fi stories and games I had played. So in less than 5 minutes I was Agent 47 of Hitman then Master Chief of Halo3 and Kratos from God of War.
I was about to get my camera out when Gregory told me we have to continue swimming for another 150 meters in patches… It couldn’t get better than this…I said to myself and took to the water immediately. As we moved along the waterway our cave guide was describing features of the caves which was very interesting then he said there are a lot of cave fish here so keep looking you may see some. Since I was swimming in the middle of the waterway which was supposed to be deep, I cast my light below to see If I could see any cave fish but there was nothing visible except deep dark gorge. Suddenly I imagined a creature from the underworld coming out of the gorge at a lightning speed and taking us all down under! Silly me I told myself and started noticing the beautiful formation around me instead, It must have millions of years for these caves to form and the glittering mineral deposits that make the cave look like a treasure chest have taken their time to form. Its all work of patience.

After reaching a solid platform we started to hike up to see more of stalactites and stalagmites. Yes it is a bit funny when you say you have to hike up inside a cave but that is exactly what we did, we hiked and climbed across many boulders and sharp rocks making sure we don’t destroy any of the cave corals, cave curtains, stalactites or stalagmites. It was almost like climbing a small hill so that should give you an idea of how big that cave is. I took my camera out and started to click some pictures but it proved to be difficult task as the high levels of moisture fogged up my lens every two minutes and the vast vacuum of the cave made it impossible to focus on anything. Soon I realised something was not right… I looked around  Jayesh, Piran and Gregory were not insight they vanished into the darkness, I quickly packed my camera back in the waterproof container and followed faint sound coming from a steep ventilation shaft. I bet the guys found something very interesting there so I speedily follow what looked like a trail and enter the shaft that led to another big chamber which was filled with countless limestone candles – formation of Stalagmite Column which looks like a melting candle and not to mention certain patches of cave floor were filled with whats called cave pearls shining bright like stars on our milky way. It was impossible to believe that this was a natural creation in fact it looked like a movie set of some mythical story. I wanted to be there a bit longer to get some decent pictures of this chamber but Gregory had to usher us out as we were racing against time, it would get dark soon and we had a long walk to transport and a short drive to came after.

A day before krem chympe. We were exploring a beautiful but not as massive cave as chympe but The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus comes alive in here. I can only make a attempt to describe the beauty of this cave, It was like being in chamber filled with gold dust with tall stalactites and stalagmites standing there as silent guardians of this treasure. Hours passed by as minutes and were told to head back as we had to reach the camp before night fall… This is where I begin my Caving story – The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Check out My Caving photos on FB 

Caving story – The Bad.
As I say goodbye to the silent guardians of the cave and head out from the narrow passage leading out in the open, I saw some people with power drills and some heavy machine tools out side the cave. Everyone’s heart sank as this needed no explanation, the men with the machines were out here to begin mining for coal and the power drills were to set dynamites so they could blast this site to bits. I never had such a high and a low feeling in one day and knowing we couldn’t do anything to stop those men made us feel more helpless and frustrated.
We spent the rest of the evening and following morning talkng about the mining and deforestation problem but could not figure out anyway around it, this region was blessed with natural beauty and then cursed by human greed and now its all about waiting till the time human greed consumes it all.
But who do we blame? The miners? The miners say we are only supplying to the demand. And the demand is from you, me and our lifestyle. Our lifestyle is mainly dictated by our needs and convenience and we can go to any extent to make ourselves believe that without these conveniences we wont be able to survive.
Talk about plastic bags for example, most city dwellers act as if its impossible to have a life without plastic bag whereas plastic bags have been invented only 50 years back and have been in wide use since only 30 years but we act as if we it is impossible to have a normal life without them and not using them is compromising on comfort. What about electricity? It is the main cause why mining is carried out. Can we not save electricity or use it sensibly? I have known many friends who do not turn off their TV or PC ever because it is a “bit of a pain” to switch it on every time you want to use it. Many of us keep our mobile phones on charge the whole night when actually you only need couple of hours of charging.

Caving story – The Ugly

Mining is a big problem around the world and for a place like Meghalaya its highly uncontrolled and growing at a very fast pace. The only thing that this region has is its natural resource and beauty which once finished plundering will be nothing less than a barren land. The mining lobby treats the land like a prostitute and exploits all that it has and would leave when there is nothing more to exploit and locals who call this land home will be left like the orphans of the prostitute nowhere to go. Without a doubt the government will be blamed for not taking care of them and there will be more political unrest and more funds will be sanctioned to ‘help’ the region not to mention the money leaking out into pockets of corrupt officials.
Gregory told me that they had filed petition to high court to curb mining in the region but the court dismissed the petition saying its for local people’s development. But I didnot see any locals working at the mines, there were workers from Nepal and Bangladesh who work there. I am going to stop writing about this here because I dont even want to think of the ‘The Ugly’ side of this story, hopefully some of us can do something about it or at least support someone who is doing something about it.
Tourism can change things around in this region, when the locals benefit more from planting trees than cutting them down and miners earn more money working as a cave guide rather than in mines. One person worth a mention here is the owner of Cherrapunji Resorts… Cherrapunji  was our next destination after caving in Jaintia hills, I would recommend this place to anyone who fancies visiting Cherrapunji, a word of caution! Its not a very fancy resort nor is it very exotic and traditional in fact when you walk in, the place looks like any other functional guest house sort. The reason I give it a special mention is because the man who runs this place. He has put several years to make local community realise that their land is beautiful and if they keep it beautiful, people form around the world will come and visit them. He has been laughed at and ridiculed but now he is probably the most respected man in whole of Cherrapunji. The resort has a large dinning area which looks like a very basic lodge diner but when you start paying attention on the information bits thats put up on the wall you may loose track of time. From folklore to facts, from flora fauna to local traditions, the wall has everything to catch your fancy.
You can also request for books on birds and insect If you fancy looking up something that you came across on one of your treks around the resort. You will find some scribbled notes in his diary that mentions names of species with the year and time when it was spotted around by him or his visitors. Clouded leopard one of the rarest creatures to be found made it to his diary, unfortunately he did not see it himself but some locals reported having seen one in the vicinity. Pope’s Pit Viper a very uncommon snake was mentioned too. If animals and birds dont interest you then there are a lot of day activities that you can challenge yourself to depending on your interest and fitness level but I would definitely  recommend a trek to see Double Deccker Root bridge. The one of a kind clever example of Bio-engineering, technique used for many years by locals to cross rivers in monsoon that become very dangerous because of fast moving turbulent water.


 After we trekked to our heart’s content we all head back to Guwahati airport to get on the flight back to Mumbai and as we reached Guwahati, I had a different plan … TBC :)

Kirti Chavan