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.
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.
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