I had forgotten what monsoon in the Western Ghats was like. Until one Friday morning in August when we set off across the Tamil Nadu border and into Kerala’s Vazhachal forest. As we crossed the Sholayar dam, it began to rain. Mist rose from forest floors to spiral up and mix with clouds until we couldn’t tell them apart. Rain-drenched leaves shone verdure and dripped everywhere. Frogs and tiny toads jumped out of our way and eager leeches sensed us and stood on tip-toe, looking to latch on.
The Vazhachal Reserve Forest unfurled in front of us—wet, evergreen, wonderful and, as beautiful things are, fragile. The windshield wipers were ineffective at times and the going was slow. Which was as it should be, for the forest is breathtaking.
It is where the ferns still live.
Banks rose up from the sides of the road, covered in roots and ferns, fungi and moss. Rock faces seemed to melt into rivulets as water seeped through and over them. Boughs and lianas were smothered in moss, and orchids were everywhere. Creepers hung from branches like curtains, and every bend in the road had a frothy, white, gushing waterfall. The bigger characters in this drama—the Nilgiri langurs, the Malabar giant squirrels, and the birds seemed to respectfully give way to the small, the immobile, and the green. The setting breathed and pulsed with life—from the smallest snails chomping on leaves to the fairy lantern fungi that defied my camera to catch their colour. And then there were the impatiens—those little pink and white flowers that grow on wet rock. They came in large beds, small clumps, and lone sentinels bending and twisting, but holding their own under waterfalls.
The sun had pushed its way through the thick blanket of grey and briefly spotlighted a moss here, a fern there.
Fern feather: Dendrobium orchids growing on trees
It was the paradise I’d imagined and longed to walk through. Vazhachal is a primary forest, albeit logged, and the trees are old growth. Electric transmission lines scar the landscape at regular intervals, but foliage determinedly continues on around them. The understorey of the rainforest—the area below the treetops—was full of ferns—and many different species of fern at that. The fern is a milestone in the evolution of plants—it puts out leaves, making it more complex than the primitive mosses—but it reproduces the original way, with spores, not seeds. The profusion of ferns showed us how undisturbed—and also how vulnerable—Vazhachal is.
Fabulous as the scene was, there was a sinister undertone. A four-lane highway was to replace this 20ft road. That meant the ferns and the first few rows of trees would be cleared.
It rankled, for with increased traffic and without the cover of treetops, the ferns would die out, to be replaced by the scourge of the invasive species—Lantana, Parthenium and Eupatorium. These invaders are hardy, aggressively pervasive, and resilient. Without natural controls in the new land, they would take over the ecosystem and compete with native species for nutrition, pollination and survival. In the bargain, the native species could eventually be replaced by the non-natives, which could take the entire ecosystem down.
A cascade formed by the Medinella plant in the Vazhachal forest. Photographs by Arati Rao
The light was low, and in the rain, taking photographs needed a prayer, not just a camera. But the quest for tack-sharp images respectfully retreated behind the grand drama of green that surrounded me. The dark of the rainforest in monsoon is what it is. So if blurry and grainy images were all I would take home from this trip, so be it.
I remember one moment clearly. I stood on the road, looking up an embankment. The roots of a ficus spread like talons on the mudrock. Layers of fern and moss dressed it up as fungi sprouted all over. These plants were not immobile or static. They were making things. Bugs, leeches, and microbes were stopping by these dining rooms and feasting—like travellers at inns.
I was soaking wet by now, and had run out of dry patches of T-shirt with which to wipe my lens clean. My knees were muddy from kneeling to take eye-level shots. I’d found a couple of leeches on my neck, one on my face and one on my lip.
Wetness and leeches can make one miserable. But I had only one day in such a forest, and only a few hours to soak it all up. Negative emotions dismissed, I chased snails and sloshed across a stream to see insanely huge fungi. Clambering up mud walls, I was careful. This was a forest, after all. There was no way I would want to disturb it in any way beyond my presence there—whether moving creatures like snails away, or catching butterflies, or collecting plants.
By now, the sun had given up the fight with the clouds and called it a day. I looked at my camera, fearing that the lens would be kaput the next day, fogged up at a minimum. We’d probably see the highly endangered lion-tailed macaques up close, and I’d have nothing to photograph them with.
As it turned out, we did see the highly endangered lion-tailed macaques the next day—big adults, juveniles and even babies a few days old. As expected, my camera was fogged up. Well, I thought to myself, there is a way out. I just have to soak up this experience deep and paint the scene with words alone. For there could be no regret when the experience was so special.
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