Kudremukh National Park was declared a Tiger Reserve by the Union Government in 2011, but the State Government is still reluctant to acknowledge this since Tiger Reserve status could mean the mandatory evacuation of local people from key areas which could be problematic. Nevertheless, in the mining area vacated by KIOCL, the grass is back (the mountain is green again), so are the tigers. Camera traps have captured tigers and reports suggest that there are at least 7 or more tigers.
It is in this forest, we walk now. Since Kurinjal peak is also a part of Kudremukh National Park, we are technically treading the same forest as the tigers. The fact that no trekker has reportedly sighted a tiger ever is another story, but, hey, let me not dampen the effect.
So, we walk this ‘tiger-infested’ forest sharing stories of our past arduous treks like retired army men who cannot stop reminiscing about their glory days in the line of duty. Mr. A.P, Mr. N and I once trekked to the Annapurna basecamp in Nepal. We take turns to tell Miss S tales that invariably start with, “In 2017 when we were in Nepal…” Instead of wincing in painful boredom, Miss S regrets not joining us for the trek. We console her by telling that we will plan again soon. I just hope it is a lie for I cannot afford to buy flight tickets to Nepal – I will have to walk all the way from Bangalore.
The initial stretch of the forest is of scattered trees and after crossing a bridge over a river, the forest gradually becomes thick.
A group of men shows up a little way behind us. They appear to be in a real hurry. It’s like a high-end car approaching you at break-neck speed. You first notice them as a speck in your rear-view mirror. The speck quickly grows into the shape of a car and before you could blink, the car races past you and disappears from sight. The group is led by a lungie-wearing, short, old man in his sixties. The man as he walks past us introduces himself as a guide – without breaking his stride – and asks us to follow the group, and then they are gone.
For a long period, we walk without encountering another human, just the four of us through the dense jungle along rain-soaked jeep trail. The trees on either side are tall and arch over the path allowing only scant light through its thick foliage. It is as eerie as it is serene.
Rain shows no sign of abating and we are soon picking leeches from our legs and shoes. Before leaving for the trek, my immediate neighbor in office Miss A, and one certain Mr. P and I had exchanged ideas at length about avoiding leech bites. Mr. P, full of resources, advised me to smear grease all over my body so that leeches would struggle to get a grip on my body. He also suggested that I could use tobacco leaves. Tobacco leaf to a leech is like the holy cross to an evil spirit – they are strangely effective. I wondered if I should wear a leafy skirt of tobacco leaves or just smoke cigarettes as I walk. I had finally taken Miss A’s advice of sporting a new version of Superman look with socks over my pants only for me to abandon her earnest advice before I even started my trek.
At the end of the trek, the total leech bite count will stand like this: As luck will have it, I will get just three bites – one on my neck and two on my legs. Miss S will suffer only two bites, on her neck and on her wrist – in this case, the leech finding a perfect hideout under her wristwatch. Mr. N will get away with a couple of minor bites, and one big one between the toes. The worst deal will be reserved for Mr. A.P. Mr. A.P dressed like an underground tunnel digger – totally covered – will find leeches on his neck and a couple of them on his stomach. One, in particular, will seem to have dossed off after drinking enough blood, but upon waking and finding itself latched on to the same spot, will drink even more blood and will start to wriggle to get the hell out of there after it has got its fill. A.P will eventually notice and uncover a small tomato-sized leech. Leeches even take six months to digest a blood meal. This one will be set for a year. A.P will let the leech live instead of trampling it to death. The leech will hopefully live long enough to tell the story of its exploits to its grandchildren.
Anyway, at this point we are still good, most of the leech bites will happen in the return walk.
Through the rain that’s now coming down in sheets, things vying for our blood all around us, the army marches on in squeaky shoes – our waterlogged shoes squeak like toddlers’ rabbit ears squeaky shoes – and we have a long way to march yet in this tiger-infested forest.