Congratulations to our first place this month – Bryan Thomas!
Nature Trail By Bryan Thomas
‘I particularly want you to note the changes in the vegetation as we descend the slope,’ Mr Loukes, the Headmaster, said. ‘Although we shall be dropping only five thousand feet, you will see everything from conifers up here to bamboos and fully tropical forests at the foot. Think about what you see and feel, so that you can write about it later.’
The pathways were steep and stony underfoot, especially going downhill. True enough, the vegetation changed from conifers and Nepalese alders to deciduous trees; leaves of every possible green to almost black. The rhododendron flowers, every colour from white to deep purple, some of them heavily scented. Finally, the bamboos were there– sticks as thick as a wrist growing tightly together like monstrous sheaves of corn thirty feet high and quite impenetrable.
Between the clumps were lush green grassy clearings and a sparkling, fast running stream of freezing water, bubbling and tumbling over the rocks. A mouthful was nectar in the steamy heat.
And the butterflies were everywhere. Blue-black swallowtails, each wing as large as a hand, effervescent and shimmering below smaller yellow and white phantoms flitting from flower to flower in the high tree tops – a magical fairyland.
I was brought to earth by the sight of an old man squatting at the entrance to a small shrine carved into a rocky outcrop. None of my chums were in sight.
‘Krishna welcomes you,’ the old man intoned. His saffron robes hung loosely on his emaciated body. My Hindi was very basic but I understood him to say, ‘Illusion is reality – reality is illusion. The only truth is Krishna.’ I gave him thanks and I placed my last specially saved sweetmeat in his bowl.
The day had darkened. A sulphurous flash of lightning and the rumble of thunder announced the sudden deluge of a monsoon rain storm, which crashed and echoed through the trees. I was soaked in seconds and when the rain eased and the sun struggled to break through again, twenty minutes later, every surface glistened. The shrine and its guardian had vanished.
As we walked on down the pathways the trees thinned, and across the valley we saw the serried ranks of tea plantations, and lower still, the beginnings of the true evergreen rain forest. It was getting dark as we reached a small village and our beds for the night, beds under tented mosquito nets.
Next morning, we had a guide who led us into the forest. It was steamy hot, and the humid air glistened in the shafted sunlight, filtered through the Indian Rosewoods and Laurels. The path wound through the thick glossy green leaves of dwarf bamboos. Our guide stopped and pointed up.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘a flying squirrel.’ And there, a small brown body with a furry web between his chest and his forelegs, flew from branch to branch.
Ahead of us three tawny deer crossed the path and disappeared into the undergrowth.
‘If we see deer,’ said our guide with a chuckle, ‘we will not see the Bengal Tiger today.’
Our path sloped downwards and beside us a stream of sparkling water splashed over the rocks to finish up in a large pool.
There was the crackle of breaking branches and two black elephants, their white tusks gleaming walked into the water, followed by a grey calf. Dipping their trunks into the water they sprayed the liquid gold over themselves in gay abandon before crashing off into the undergrowth.
Jahar, our guide, heaved a sigh. ‘The ivory hunters are the elephants’ biggest danger.’
He told us of the abundant wild life in the forest, the cheaters and the black bison. He pointed upwards at a monkey – ‘Macayne, lion tailed,’ he said, as three butterflies, black with vivid yellow markings, fluttered from flower to flower in the creepers high above.
A magical wonderland indeed, but returning fifty years later with a new guide, son of Jahar, I tried to retrace those steps of old. There was not a tree left standing.
‘Logging,’ said Jahar junior, ‘for mahogany, laurel and rosewood, in addition to the forest fires last year, which we suspect were started deliberately to make space for agriculture – mostly avocados and soya. See the fields over yonder.’
‘Aren’t your government doing something about it,’ I asked, ‘after all, this area is listed as being a Wild Life Park and Animal Sanctuary.’
‘Don’t make me laugh,’ said the sophisticated young man. ‘Politicians are only interested in power and in getting re-elected. Luckily there are folk out there in the world who care.
And nature is strong, I thought. Our only hope is that having survived natural catastrophes, adapted to natural climate changes over eons of time, nature will adapt and survive again, even if humans do not.
Reality or Illusion?