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Exploring the wet and wild Agumbe in Western Ghats

Braving torrential rain and venomous snakes on a monsoon walk in Agumbe, one of the wettest places in India

Agumbe is one of the wettest places in India. Photo: P Gowri Shankar
Agumbe is one of the wettest places in India. Photo: P Gowri Shankar

The rain has been unrelenting for two days. Its roar mingles with the loud, grating hum of the cicadas to form a deafening background score. We are in Guddekere, a little town 9km from Agumbe—one of the wettest places in India during the monsoon. Agumbe lies in the Western Ghats, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, and is also known for its snakes, the king cobra in particular.

My friend Gautham and I are visiting the Kālinga Centre for Rainforest Ecology, the field station of herpetologist Gowri Shankar, who is best known for his work with the king cobra. The field station is located inside Agumbe Reserve forest, and has patches of rainforest interspersed with areca plantations, and a small river running through.

A signboard at the Kalinga field research station. Photo: Nishanth

We had spent the morning watching embracing pit vipers, the diminutive male lost in the folds of the large female. Now, we are trying to figure out how to make our way back to Agumbe to catch an evening bus to Bengaluru, about 350km away. We have to yell over the roar of the rain to make ourselves audible.

The tall areca-nut trees before us look hazy through the rain falling in sheets. Suddenly, Gautham suggests we walk to the bus stop.

“In the rain?!" I sputter. “It’s 9km away! What if we get lost?"

On the bus from Bengaluru to Agumbe, I had looked out from the window at the quiet roads, the dense, wet green of the trees and the sloping roofs of the houses, and had wished I could walk around and soak in the atmosphere. Gautham’s suggestion reminds me of that desire and, almost unwillingly, an adventurous smile begins to tug at the corners of my mouth. I try to think rationally about his proposition. There would hardly be any people along the way whom we could ask for directions if our memory of the confusing route from Guddekere to Agumbe wavered. If we got lost, we might miss our bus. We decide to throw caution to the wind and rains, and chance it anyway.

Part of the bio-diverse Western Ghats, the forests around Agumbe host a wide variety of reptiles and frogs. Photographs by Anisha Jayadevan

Gautham has a mammoth umbrella and I have two raincoats. Thus armed, we begin to walk. Raindrops drum on my raincoat and instantly begin to stream down my face. Everything around us is wet and looks mildly subdued. Our sandals squelch noisily in the slush and my raincoat makes a “swish" sound every time my arm rubs against it.

Soon, we fall into a comfortable rhythm. The rain lets up for a few minutes every once in a while, as though pausing to take a deep breath before resuming just where it left off. We excitedly buy a packet each from a boy selling freshly cut jackfruit. The juice of the jackfruit combines with the rain and fills our mouths, dripping down our chins.

We stop to look at everything. The ornamental blooms of the rows of pagoda flowers growing by the road have small red and white flowers arranged in tiers. The blossoms seem to nod in agreement every time a raindrop falls on them. An old bus stop catches our fancy next: It is hunched by the side of the road under a tree, with the sloping tiled roof characteristic of old south Indian houses.

Part of the bio-diverse Western Ghats, the forests around Agumbe host a wide variety of reptiles and frogs. P Gowri Shankar

For some time, we walk alongside a forest and the loud “trr-tik-tik-tik!" of bush frogs the size of your thumbnail mixes with the sound of the rain. Gurgling rivulets of water rush beside the road. We spot a couple of local residents who peer at us curiously as they walk past. Many of the birds and animals here have the name Malabar affixed to their names, just as we sometimes carry the names of our native houses or towns with ours. As we walk, we spot a Malabar pit viper, a venomous snake endemic to the Western Ghats, coiled around a tree branch as though in deep contemplation.

Walking on a mud path in the rain.

After walking for what seems to be a couple of hours, our feet are cold, and our fingers pinched from being wet for so long. A gentle fog begins to envelop us and visibility soon drops to a few metres. An approaching car in the fog shows us as two floating haloes of light.

Disoriented by the fog, we are lost. We walk aimlessly for a while and notice that the fence separating the forest from the road we’re on has a huge hole in it. An elephant-shaped hole. Our imagination starts to play tricks on us, presenting eerie scenarios. Distant trees begin look like elephants. This time, it is Gautham’s turn to be cautious. He suggests, simply, that we retrace our steps.

Fungi on a tree.

We do that until we find the right turn and finally make it to the bus stop in Agumbe . Our adventure ends with dosa and Mangalore buns at a small, bustling restaurant. Outside, we hear the squelch of the golden frog that can be found by stagnant pools. The fog becomes dense and the raindrops drum on bus roofs, almost in time to my beating heart as it recovers slowly from our adventure.

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