Our bags were hauled over bridges across fern-rimmed brooks, as we huffed up a ridge to a secluded cottage, named after an indigo-black Racket-tailed Drongo painted on the wall. On the façade, a yin-yang assured us of calm and balance. This was to be no hit-and-run holiday; for once, we had all the time in the world. December 2020 – the pandemic was strong, the vaccine a mere rumour. Irony aside, lockdowns were a time for healing. For the first time in decades, I was afforded the luxury of experiencing the change of seasons on my skin. Having savoured the infinite canvas of sky, and the gift of sit-down family meals on weekdays, we plotted a getaway when travel curbs were relaxed between waves. Fleeing the city, we reached Kodagu (Coorg) after six hours of driving. Our goal was to isolate, peel off our masks, and breathe in the foliage-scented air. And yield to the comforting embrace of verdure, removed from the interminable rinse-and-repeat drudgery of housework and work-from-home.
Fifteen minutes past Madikeri, we found our Eden. Many moons ago, my wife and I had spent an anniversary at Rainforest Retreat, in Mojo Plantation, near Galibeedu, where coffee and spices are grown in the shade of wizened forest trees with as little disturbance as possible to the land. That was in September – the monsoon had not eased its grip, and I remember the leeches between my toes and the drumming of rain on the cottage roof. The air then was heavy with mustiness, frogs singing along to the chuckle of the stream, and my first heart-stopping tryst with an Asian Fairy-Bluebird. We were now here to introduce our daughter, nearly a teenager, to the magical realm where we had first discovered her heart beating in time with ours. The winter light, when rain and forest parted ways briefly, set the mood.
Unlike its neighbours, Mojo is more than a plantation; it is a veritable laboratory for biodiversity. The scientist couple that made their home here about three decades ago, left the rainforest unmolested along with its denizens, and allowed it to envelop and embrace their farm and plantation. Our cottage usually hosted researchers who studied the frogs, insects and birds of this curious biome, made habitable for humans and wildlife alike.
I began birding even before we unpacked, heeding the joyous welcome squeals of Hill Mynas. An Ashy Drongo cat-called from the canopy. Little Spiderhunters and Crimson-backed Sunbirds converged on the Mandarin’s Cap blossoms in the yard. A Crested Serpent-Eagle whistled overhead. Large-billed Leaf-warblers called plaintively. Orange Minivets, flashes of fire amongst the shiny evergreen leaves, foraged alongside Vernal Hanging-Parrots, Velvet-fronted Nuthatches and Indian Yellow Tits. Flocks of Malabar Parakeets swept through the dense tree cover like showers of arrows.
As the light faded, an Indian Muntjac barked, living up to its moniker of Barking Deer. Malabar Giant Squirrels ceased their scolding. Nightjars and geckos chucked in the gloaming. The dusk-choir of tree-frogs and crickets tuned up. A night walk yielded whip-scorpions, centipedes and bush-frogs scurrying away from my headlamp’s probing beam. We relished the serene dark. A heady aroma of blooming Ceylon Boxwood filled the night. Known locally as Amme pannu, it bursts into clusters of fragrant white flowers set against waxy leaves. Behind our cottage, where the evergreen forest parted ways with the dry-deciduous jungle up on the ridge, these shrubs flowered profusely.
We rose to a foggy morning. Dew trickled off the boughs so profusely that it gave the impression of rain. We worried at the prospect of having to spend the day indoors, but the caretaker who delivered our breakfast assured us that the fog would clear by 9 am. Stirring my morning cuppa, I peeked out of the kitchen window to meet the eye of an Indian Blue Robin, primping and pouring out his song. When he shot off after a female, his place was taken by Indian Scimitar Babblers, a skulking Indian Pitta, and an Orange-headed Thrush.
Sunshine roused the sluggish insects and sparked an avian feeding frenzy, led chiefly by Malabar Wood-shrikes and Racket-tailed Drongos. The drumming of a White-bellied Woodpecker reverberated in the forest. Malabar Grey Hornbills plundered fruit from the rainforest trees. That evening, I counted 32 hornbills congregating on a bare tree. eBird had trust issues!
Next morning, I rose before daybreak and parked myself in an easy-chair for a clandestine rendezvous with a female Indian Blue Robin. Her shadowy form materialised on the path at precisely five minutes to six. She was followed by an Orange-headed Thrush, a Blackbird, and a Malabar Whistling-thrush. This vaudeville line-up performed in the same order each morning. After the last actor had exited stage, dawn enveloped the waking forest in a cyan haze.
A path ran behind our cottage into the wilderness, weaving past flowering coffee bushes to a worn, wooden bridge over a gurgling stream. This sun-kissed dell was the kingdom of fairies. Perched on stalks, jade bodies shimmering, they observed us with benign, wide-eyed curiosity. Odonate enthusiasts know these damselflies as Clear-winged Forest Glories. On the woodwork of the bridge, frescoed with fungi, Stream Rubies and spreadwings basked. Beyond, the fragment of dense rainforest was inviting. A White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, endemic to the Western Ghats, investigated my intrusion. Past this shaded copse, an abrupt fence demarcated forest from plantation. On the sunlit boughs of Silver Oak trees, Common Rosefinches chittered. Jungle Striped Squirrels kept up a birdlike din.
During our week here, we hiked many trails. Along a rutted back-road that snaked beside the Harangi rivulet, we trudged past paddy fields ripe for harvest. On the dusty highway towards Madikeri, a check-dam at Kootu Holey created a marshy wetland that hosted flocks of Black-headed Ibis and Lesser Whistling-duck. Time slowed to a delicious crawl. The balmy days were long and lazy, yet packed with discoveries — dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, day-flying moths, lacewings, millipedes, spiders, sleepy crickets, katydids, skinks, frogs, ferns, and fungi. Crouched on all fours under a flowering tree, listening to punch-drunk birds indulging in a good, old-fashioned bar brawl, absorbed in watching a Long-horned Spiny Orb-weaver lay its elaborate breakfast table, I felt my inner child stir. Like a young Gerald Durrell mesmerised by magical Corfu, I rediscovered my long-relinquished boyhood.
In the dry season that follows the monsoon, orchids bloom and trees flower. A glut awaits migratory birds. Temperature and humidity remain constant in the evergreen tracts, even as dry easterly winds desiccate the land in a cycle that builds up to the spring rains — the ‘blossom showers’ that Kodagu’s planters await in anticipation of a good coffee crop. Climate change has upset this delicate balance of late. Encircling our island of serenity, the chokehold of human actions had tightened since our last visit. Ominous landslip scars told a sordid story. Monocultures interrupted the continuity of old-growth forest swathes. Ancient springs had withered. Trash littered the countryside. Weeds usurped overgrazed clearings. Poison from pesticides and chemical fertilisers had leached into rivers.
Yet, sheltered in our idyll, nourished and healed in its embrace, our hearts were full with gratitude, and our lungs with oxygen. On our last morning, I glanced at the yin-yang on the cottage wall, reassured that nature’s forces would restore equilibrium.