Islands in the Sky
National Geographic Traveller India|March - April 2021
A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHER AND A WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST EMBARK ON AN UNFORGETTABLE QUEST FOR THE REMOTE MOUNTAINTOPS OF THE WESTERN GHATS
Aathira Perinchery

It’s a busy road. Vehicles whizz past every few minutes. Not surprising, for we are just a kilometre out of the crowded hill town of Munnar in Kerala, where tourists throng to savour crisp mountain air, manicured tea gardens, and clear blue skies.

But it’s around 8 p.m. now, and the delicate sliver of the sickle moon pales against the magnificence of a diamond-studded night sky. The occasional aroma of tea from a factory nearby wafts in with the wind; loud music playing at one of the many resorts in the valley below carries across too. It’s around 8°C in mid-February: far too cold for someone like me who lives by the sea. I shudder in the chill as I stand on the road carved along the contours of the hill, a steep earth wall on one side and a deep gully that falls into a small river on the other.

This road has also been recently widened. A thick layer of smooth tarmac, and below it, a swanky new concrete culvert dug deep to channel the narrow stream that arises out of the slope. We’re on a quest to see the endemic wildlife that dwells in these high mountains. But both Prasenjeet Yadav, a National Geographic Photographer and Explorer, and I have our doubts: what wildlife could possibly persist in such a small strip of highly disturbed roadside vegetation?

“Look!” The eagle eyes of Hadlee Renjith, our tall lanky naturalist, don’t miss much.

At first glance, all you see is just another green leaf in the pale torchlight. A closer look reveals an almost undiscernible rhomboid outline on it. A frog! Around two centimetres long, the size of a ₹10 coin, he stays huddled. His bright, pear-green body has dark granular freckles, much like you’d see on the fruit.

“This green captivates me like no other,” says Prasen, as he flips out his smartphone to photograph the frog. “I’m from central India and the frogs we see there are not this colourful.”

What we are both unprepared for are the startling bright Persian red eyes that now glimmer out at us from the sea of green.

This red-eyed beauty is the Beddome’s bush frog. You’d have to travel all the way to the Western Ghats, an ancient mountain range that hugs the western coast of India, to see it. And you won’t find it everywhere across this range: to spot it you will have to visit very specific mountains, among the highest in the Ghats—like the one we now stand on.

SKY SCRAPERS

These ‘sky islands’—imposing mountains above 4,000 feet in elevation—are unique. True to their name, they are islands in the sky: deep valleys and gaps have secluded the mountains from each other, effectively marooning vegetation and wildlife on the mountaintops. Over millions of years of isolation, these life forms have adapted and evolved to be as exceptional as the landscape. Many species here are endemic, such as the Nilgiri tahr, a mountain goat that grazes on the high grasslands and nimbly scales steep rock faces with effortless ease. Then there’s the bold white-bellied sholakili, a robin like bird in navy blue and white that scampers in the undergrowth of the forests on these mountaintops. Or the Beddome’s bush frog we just saw. Not to forget the rhododendron, a gnarly-branched dwarf tree whose rough, textured bark would put even gargoyles to shame: its closest relatives live in the Himalayas, more than 2,000 kilometres away as the crow flies.

We spot a rhododendron the very next day, in all its glory as the sun’s first rays burnish its ruby-pink blooms. It’s a fair bit of effort: leaving Munnar (where travellers would have the best options for stay) at 4 a.m., and then a one-hour drive to Top Station by narrow, winding roads that greatly prolong the journey. While the Top Station of today is a tame ‘viewpoint’ now from where tourists hurl their voices to hear echoes, it had a rather illustrious history. It was the terminal station of both a rail line that linked to Munnar (about 40 kilometres away) over mountain ridges, and a ropeway that linked to Tamil Nadu: a story I heard often while growing up on the tea estate of Mattupetty, just 20-odd kilometres from here. But our focus this time is to scale a mountain to photograph the quintessential montane grassland, so we disembark just before Top Station and ascend nearly 800 feet in a one-hour steep climb that tests my weak knees (surprisingly, they hold).

The sight that unfolds at the summit is reward enough. We clamber onto a grassland, and the wind dries up my wet hair dripping with sweat. Prasen, for whom the trek is no big deal, gets busy capturing the magnificent sight. The grassland ends in a steep precipice: though tussocked with grass too, it’s an almost 650-foot drop below. At eye level are more mountaintops looming in a semicircle around us; a Tolkienesque landscape that a triumphant hobbit looks out on. The sun glitzes in from behind a peak, splitting into shafts of bright orange light.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELLER INDIAView All

OF MIST & MYTH

WARRIOR QUEENS, LOCH MONSTERS, FAIRIES AND FEUDING CLANS—LEGENDS ABOUND ON THE HEBRIDEAN ISLAND OF SKYE. FOR CENTURIES, COLOURFUL TALES HAVE SHAPED THE LIVES OF THOSE WHO CALL SCOTLAND’S ‘MISTY ISLE’ HOME, AND ARE STILL DEEPLY INTERTWINED WITH ITS SOUL-STIRRING LANDSCAPES

10+ mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

Under the Sicilian Sun

Roaming through street markets and country vineyards, a writer is smitten by the sweet, salty and greasy headiness of Sicily’s tastes

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

School of BENGALI ROCK

ONCE A FLAMING PHENOMENON, ROCK MUSIC WRITTEN AND SUNG IN THE LANGUAGE BURNS BRIGHT IN KOLKATA’S CREVICES

5 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

ON THE WATER FRONT

THE PALM-FRINGED WATERWAYS OF KERALA TEEM WITH BIRDLIFE AND THE RHYTHMS OF RICE FARMING. BUT BENEATH THE SURFACE, THE PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK AND THE TRANQUIL VEMBANAD LAKE ARE FINDING A BALANCE BETWEEN THE NEEDS OF AGRICULTURE AND NATURE

10 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

ONE EGG TO BIND THEM ALL

STRIKINGLY SIMILAR YET DELICIOUSLY DIFFERENT EGG DISHES ARE THE ARTFUL ADHESIVES THAT JOIN SO MUCH OF THE WORLD THROUGH SHARED TASTES AND TRAVELS

9 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

DUNEDIN DASH

ON THE EASTERN SHORES OF THE SOUTH ISLAND, THE NEW ZEALAND CITY MIXES CULTURE WITH OUTDOOR ADVENTURE—AND A PROUD LOCAL SPIRIT

4 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

BEHOLD, BEOWULF

A writer’s search for the epic poem’s hero ends at a hamlet in Denmark

9 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

Beyond the Grapevine

TUCKED UP AGAINST THE GERMAN BORDER IN FRANCE, ALSACE HAS BEEN SHAPED BY CENTURIES OF UPHEAVAL. TODAY, CHEFS AND WINEMAKERS ALIKE ARE CELEBRATING A LEGACY OF CULINARY DIVERSITY

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

Go Goa, Gobble

SPICY PORK CHILLY TO OMELETTE BATHED IN HOT GRAVY—TWO CARNIVORES CANTER AROUND GOA ON A NO-HOLDS-BARRED FOOD TRUCK TRAIL

8 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021

10 Chutneys With Chutzpah

The relishes and sauces served on the side aren’t mere accompaniments to dishes. Try these 10 indian chutneys to jazz up everyday meals with flavour and texture

6 mins read
National Geographic Traveller India
May - June 2021
RELATED STORIES

CHAKKARAVARATTY, FORNICATION AND OTHER SINS

The day was hot as a pot of curry steaming in the stow. Humidity threatened to sublimate Anu's body entirely. Sweat seeped out of her body and turned to glue that stick bodies on contact. The custom of walk home from the friend's home was becoming a tedious affair.

4 mins read
Storizen
April 2021

HUMANITY AT ITS BEST

It’s been 34 years since I started my company. I was born and brought up in Ernakulam but was never interested in settling down amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. Thus, I bought lands in several regions in Idukki and started my business here. This place and people taught me a lot.

8 mins read
UNIQUE TIMES
October - November 2020

केरल में भूस्खलन से 15 की मौत, 50 से अधिक लापता

केरल में ईडुकी जिले के पेटीमुडी में शुक्रवार को भारी बारिश के कारण हुए भूस्खलन से कम से कम 15 लोगों की मौत हो गयी और करीब 50 से अधिक अन्य लापता हो गये।

1 min read
Dakshin Bharat Rashtramat Chennai
August 08, 2020

10 Interesting Things to do in Kerala for an Exotic Holiday

Kerala is one of the great and most popular tourist destinations in our country. It is in a tropical state on India Malabar Coast. It is a destination which is gleaming with pride and beauty. The beauty of Kerala will certainly keep you in awe.Needless to say come down south in the land of Kerala and explore the places with amazing things that you can indulge in! And it is by far one of the best holiday places your compass can point towards in India.

4 mins read
Wishesh
May 2019