Agumbe had been on my mind for months. I nearly signed up for one of Darter‘s Agumbe tours last year but regular life intervened and, as it does, made a mess of things. So, when the tour was announced in April this year, me and K decided to go. After a pleasant overnight bus ride and a short car trip, we walked down the short distance to the lovely camp site–a clearing of Arecanut trees, edged by a beautiful, pristine forest. It’s managed by Gowri Shankar of the Kalinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology. Gowri Shankar and Ashwini were our guides, while Shreeram MV of Darter was our photography teacher and expert.
The rest of the two full days we had in Agumbe were spent walking and photographing, but the time was barely enough to appreciate how special the place was. We saw amazing things: wonders of nature both big and small, plain and colourful, ordinary and astounding, benign and positively dangerous. There were butterflies, damselflies and dragonflies flitting about everywhere, making every walk seem ethereal.
Looking back, I would describe the trip as being full of dilemmas–in a good way.
Dilemma #1: Kadubu or lizards?
The food of the Malenadu region is justifiably famous, and we had just settled down to a breakfast of hot kadubus and sambaar, when flying lizards were spotted. I peered from the dining hall and couldn’t see it for exactly 10.5 minutes and then I realised, it was that thing that looked like a little strip of bark. It did some amazing things. For one thing, it pooped. I don’t know about you, but I’d never been this intimate with lizards. Then, from underneath it’s chin, it quickly untucked what looked like a bright yellow petal and waved it like a flag.
At this point, I realised I had to make do with three kadubus, so I quickly washed my plate and ran off to take pictures.
The lizard, I learn was the Southern Flying Lizard (Draco dussumieri), and its appendage-waving behaviour was used both to signal mating intentions and to mark its territory.
Dilemma #2: Macro shot or snake sighting?
What do you do when you’ve finally got the composition focus right on a beautiful green katydid, and you hear someone call “Guys, snake! SNAKE!” Do you abandon your very first successful macro photo and run, or do you stay and finish it first?
I don’t know about you, but I ran with the rest of the group. It was a good thing I did because the sight I saw was astounding. A person from our group was standing to one side of the path and there was a snake, a tall, muscular snake, standing up (standing up!) a few feet behind her, flared hood and all, on the other side of the path.
It was a King Cobra, and it looked much more deadly and huge than it did in all the documentaries and er, Nagin movies that I’d seen. Three things strike you when you see a King Cobra in its warning pose:
- It’s huge!
- How the hell does it stand up? (King Cobras can stand up to a height about one-thirds of their length)
- It’s huge!
It’s also hard to remember, in that moment, that King Cobras, and, indeed most snakes do their best to avoid confrontation. Although they can strike at a considerable distance from the standing position, they do so very rarely and only when provoked. In our case, once the King Cobra realised that an excitable group of photographers (with Facebook accounts) were approaching it, it slunk away back to the valley it had come from. It eyed us a bit suspiciously from there for a few minutes, and then went on to other business.
Dilemma #2.5: Gawk or change lenses?
When the King Cobra incident happened, I had been busy shooting macros. Now, I know that a real photographer is supposed to change lenses in a flash, and be ready for the moment. But my natural instincts are to just aimlessly gaze at things and daydream. Especially when I’m in the presence of such a spectacular creature as the King Cobra. I didn’t know for example, how muscular it was in real life. Or how quickly it could move.
So, even when it went back to the valley, I was still staring at it rather than thinking of changing my lenses. But K woke me out of my reverie, helped me change lenses, and I managed to get a few shots.
Dilemma #3: Take sunset photos or listen to snake stories?
In the evening, we drove up to the Kundadri peak for sunset photos. There was a little Jain temple there, with some beautiful idols in a rather non-descript building. I found a piece of broken glass and entertained myself with taking pictures of reflections.
While we waited for the sunset, Gowri Shankar started to regale us with his snake stories. He would save the most spectacular one for later, but we heard others. For example, he got bitten by a King Cobra in his initial years in Agumbe because he was trying to catch it in a bag evidently too small for it. I’m probably showing my ignorance here, but I didn’t realise nearly all King Cobra bites are fatal. There’s simply too much venom released into your bloodstream from a single bite. Luckily, in Gowri Shankar’s case, the bite was relatively superficial, and the quantity of venom was relatively less. (Again, it is worth remembering that King Cobras will try to avoid any sort of confrontation, unless they are provoked.)
For more stories from Gowri Shankar, head on over to his blog, which also has some amazing pictures.
Dilemma #4: Take a night shot of a snake or worry about the snakes underfoot?
Taking a walk through the jungle at night is what photographers and nature-lovers do for fun! We needed strong torches to walk in the pitch darkness, but we had three guides with us: Gowri Shankar, Ashwini and Shreeram.
They kept finding beautiful little things in the forest for us to look at. Tiny frogs with beautifully-coloured eyes. Strange insects.
And, of course, Gowri Shankar found us a cat snake entwined around a bush. We all took our turns photographing.
Gowri urged us to maintain a respectful distance, and, to make his point, reminded us that the well-being of the snake was as important to him as our well-being. He also remarked casually that the cat snake wasn’t really dangerous–its bite would just cause an allergy that would have you knocked out for, say, a few days. To add to this compendium of dark humour, we were also told not to step too close to the bush, as there might be more snakes underfoot. I blame this last fun fact for my not being able to take a good photo of the cat snake.
Dilemma #5: Laze around in the tent and listen to the Malabar Whistling Thrush or go for a walk?
We spent the night in comfortable little tents, pitched kindly for us by the staff at the campsite. Here’s an atmospheric night shot that I made with Shreeram’s help. There was a light placed inside the tent, and, while the camera shutter was open, Shreeram light-painted the trees with his torch.
The night started off a bit warm, then became nice and cool. In the morning, we were awoken at the crack of dawn by the call of the Malabar Whistling Thrush. It was very tempting to just sleep in and be serenaded by bird song. But duty called, so we woke up and went for a lovely walk. Along the way, I was entranced by the way the light played through the foliage.
We stopped by a stream to gaze at the damsel flies sunning themselves. There would be three or four on a branch. Once they got to know you, (that strange creature with the camera) they’d become comfortable and let you get close enough for a shot.
Dilemma #6: Should we return in monsoon or winter? Or earlier?
On the last evening, we went on another walk with Gowri Shankar. He saw a rat snake and took it in his hands for us to touch. We also saw a brilliant blue scorpion, and peeped into tarantula nests.
That kind of sealed it for us–we were going to return to Agumbe this year. We could return in monsoon and see the delights of the rainforest as they are meant to be seen, leeches and all. Or we could visit after the monsoons, in October or November.
We still haven’t made up our minds, but, as dilemmas go, I think this is a nice one to have. Here’s looking at you, Agumbe.