Silent Valley – India’s Jurassic Park (2024)

Silent Valley – India’s Jurassic Park (2024)

1000 km return, 7 days

When was the last time you drove off Google Maps into uncharted territory? After all, google maps have a million tentacles which reach out everywhere and strangles almost the entire planet in its vice-like embrace. Yet, there are hidden corners here and there that have dodged this embrace. Try Silent Valley on google maps and you will come up with embarrassed silence. May it remain that way forever.

Silent Valley is India’s own Jurassic Park, tucked away in a remote corner of the Western Ghats, inaccessible except to the determined and hardy adventure freaks and well worth the effort. Truly a rainforest, it teems with creepycrawlies, the most ubiquitous being leeches that do somersault to lodge themselves in your clothes, lingerie and crevices. And there are lustrous millipedes, six-inches long, snails and other critters that carry their homes on their backs including a range of tortoises. Incidentally, Silent Valley hides numerous King Cobras that lurk just on the fringes of the dirt track and if you are lucky, you could catch a glimpse of them gliding gracefully into a shrub.

We drove from Bangalore to Ooty through the usual scenic route via Bandipur and Mudumalai. As we entered the forest, the downpour began and we drove steadily through sheets of rain. I have driven many times through this road, but this time, the joy was unparalleled, not even when we didn’t sight any wildlife unlike the earlier drives. One is not allowed to stop anywhere on this forest road, but this time we did, if only to enjoy the downpour in a jungle setting. We opened our packed tiffin and savoured our home-cooked meal to the roar of the rain. After an hour of waiting, the rain showed no sign of relenting, so we resumed our journey, passed Masinagudi through misty winding roads and climbed 36 hairpin bends before reaching Ooty’s chaotic traffic jams.

After a few days in Coonoor we descended towards Mettupalayam through 16 hairpin bends and drove through charming country roads to reach Anakatti on Kerala border. I felt as though these roads had been built only for my benefit, so devoid of traffic they were. From Anakatti, the potholes begin, as does the dense and dark jungle through winding roads. It is one of the most beautiful stretches on the Western Ghats. We stay at Mannarkad on the edge of the forest. Next morning, we drive ten kilometers to Silent Valley National Park, silent because cicadas, ubiquitous in all forests seem to have forgotten this stretch. But it wasn’t silent actually. Myriad birds, many species I didn’t even recognise, exercised their vocal cords, much to our delight.

You cannot drive your own vehicle into Silent Valley, but can hire forest department jeep to drive 22 kms deep into the valley where there is a watch tower. A few decades ago, some genius had conjured up a dam and a hydroelectric project on the Kuntipuzha river which would have decimated the rainforest, and it had even been inaugurated by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. But thanks to the activism of environmentalists and the intervention of the Supreme Court, the project stalled and the primordial forests survive.

Silent Valley is like Jurassic Park – ancient, primordial, unruly and perpetually wet and dripping. It is a haven for creepy-crawlies of the fearsome variety – it is home to the magnificent King Cobra, many other species of serpents, venomous as well as harmless. But the really scary pest are leeches that somersault and attach themselves to your anatomy unseen and unfelt. You always carry some salt or a matchbox to dislodge them, but if only you spot them before they have had their fill. You never feel their bite until after they have dropped off. Six-inch long red and shiny millipedes cross your path and disappear into the margins under colourful toadstools.

At the edge of the forest, local Irula tribes have been allowed to grow wild coffee all of which is exported. Near the watch tower, the forest guard informs me that there are tigers and leopards around and it is not unusual for humans to disappear without a trace. It is a steep climb to the tower from where there is a stunning view of emerald green as far as eyes can see. Kuntipuzha, the perennial stream is meandering yonder, emaciated by climate change.

Silent Valley is home to the precious lion-tailed macaque, but we spotted just two of them up on the trees. In Valparai on the other side of the mountain, huge groups of them have been reduced to foraging in garbage heaps. We also spotted the large Malabar squirrel.We drive back to our resort in our car and stay the night.

The next morning we drive to Mettupalayam. Instead of going to Coimbatore and the expressway to Bangalore through Salem and Krishnagiri we decide to go through Dhimbam, the high point of the Satyamangalam forests where sandalwood smuggler Veerappan used to conduct his heinous reign of terror. From Dhimbam we descend to Chamrajnagar and drive back home without paying a penny in road tolls. The roads throughout were world class and sparsely trafficked.

(published in The Sunday Tribune dated 9th June 2024)