Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Western Ghats

Sara and I had our first rainforest experience as a married couple in India’s Western Ghats.  We spent a couple days exploring Baghwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Goa.

Goa’s mountains are a far cry from the crowded and denuded landscapes we passed through in India’s northwest.  There are large areas of natural vegetation, the rainforests are dripping with moisture, and life is everywhere.

We made our first forays into the sanctuary during the day.  Among the towering trees, tangled lianas, and flooded creeks, we encountered plenty of charismatic wildlife—Hanuman langurs, Indian giant squirrels, Malabar pied hornbills, and greater racket-tailed drongos.

 Indian giant squirrels (Ratufa indica) leaped among branches over the trail

Malabar pied hornbills (Anthracoceros coronatus)…

…and greater racket-tailed drongos (Dicrurus paradiseus) watched me from perches at the forest edge

Far more ubiquitous, however, were the forest’s arthropods.  Massive termite mounds dotted the forest floor.  And larger arthropods came out at night.

Termites were never far away in the forest

Tailless whipscorpions came out at night

Large scorpions ambushed prey from burrows in clay banks along the road

Giant crickets rested on bushes and trees

But during monsoon season amphibians are the real specialty.  Dozens of frog species, many found nowhere else on earth, take advantage of the heavy rains to breed.  Many of them are easily spotted at night with a headlamp.

Sara and I found this rufescent burrowing frog (Sphaerotheca rufescens) on a rainforest trail…

…and this ornate narrow-mouthed frog (Microhyla ornata) on the edge of a pond

Endemic Malabar gliding frogs (Rhacophorus malabaricus) use the webbing between their fingers as wings to glide from tree to tree

 During monsoon season they lay foamy clusters of eggs on twigs hanging over ponds.  When the developing tadpoles are ready, they wriggle out of their eggs and drop into the water below.

Indian common tree frogs (Polypedates maculatus) called from low vegetation near the forest floor

Bush frogs (Pseudophilautus sp.) are a diverse genus of tree frogs endemic to the Western Ghats

After a couple days Sara and I left the mountains and headed to the beaches of Palolem in far south Goa.

We were ready for a new set of adventures.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Monsoon honeymoon

We have arrived in the state of Goa, on India’s western coast, and things are bit different than they were in the north.  Names of streets, people and places are often in Portuguese.  People are more laid back, the food is spicier and sweeter, and there are plenty of beaches.  The most noticeable difference, however, is the rain.

We left the deserts and dry forests of Rajasthan just as the rains were arriving.  But here in Goa monsoon season started weeks ago and we are in the thick of it.  It rains every day, gusting winds fly in from the west around the clock, and the surf is high and unswimmable.  We get food and run errands during the brief dry spells, and carry rain jackets everywhere we go.

On the other hand, since this is the off season, things are quiet and we have the place largely to ourselves.  That more than makes up for the weather.

We left India’s dry interior for the coasts of Goa…

…but monsoon season was in full swing and the beaches were closed for swimming

We spent a few days in the beach town of Candolim, recovering from our long train rides and enjoying the cool temperatures and humidity.  Then we headed inland, leaving behind the coastal plan with its coconut groves, rice paddies, and water buffalo pastures, and climbing into the mountains.

Large areas of the foothills are covered in tropical spice plantations.  Goa and the surrounding coasts have a long history as a hub of India’s spice trade.  Spices are what attracted the Portuguese here, and they still leave their imprint on the landscape.

Beyond the plantations, however, there are large tracts of rainforest.  This mountain range—the Western Ghats—is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.  The mountains have lost over 70% of their original vegetation, but still harbor a large number of species found nowhere else on earth.  They also contain the largest protected area in Goa, Baghwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary.

We headed up into the Western Ghats, a belt of rainforest-clad mountains paralleling the coast

Sara and I rented a cabin just outside the border of the reserve.  From the moment we arrived, the wildlife started finding us.

A large dung beetle joined us for dinner

Our cabin was open to the outside air, with no mesh or netting to keep out the local residents.  When we entered we discovered a gecko on the wall above our bed.  Startled by our sudden intrusion, the gecko panicked and ran, lost its footing and tumbled onto the bed.

House geckos are common in warm areas around the world, and one species even lived on our campus in Oklahoma.  In all my years, however, I’d never seen a gecko fall.  The timing for this unusually clumsy lizard was unfortunate—from that moment Sara couldn’t help but imagine a gecko falling on her during the night.  Sara was never quite able to relax in that cabin, and spent many sleepless hours in fear of encroaching crawling things.

House geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus) shared our cabin with us, much to Sara’s chagrin

The first time we ventured into the forest, Sara made sure to dress as bug- and rainproof as possible.  Despite her efforts, on our second hike she was bitten and sprayed with citric acid by a weaver ant.

Sara may have been overenthusiastic with her anti-bug gear

 For my part, I fed this leech a wholesome blood meal from my ankle

We finally had an accessible natural area to explore.  If this much wildlife came to us, imagine what we would find when we went out searching.

I couldn’t wait to see what the forest held.

Monday, July 4, 2016

India by rail

Sara and I left India’s dry northwest just as the first hints of the monsoon rains were arriving.  In doing so we also left the comfort of our private car.

In Rajasthan we were driven from city to city in a hired car by our (mostly) trusty driver, Tawhid.  Indian roads can be terrifying to a clueless outsider.  Traffic lanes are interpreted loosely, there’s a complex and subtle language to car horns, and vehicles occasionally swim upstream and drive in the wrong direction.  Nevertheless, having our own car with a local driver was a comfortable way to travel.  Tawhid tended toward the want-to-live end of the suicide spectrum, only rarely pulling out in front of oncoming trucks.

But eventually our life of luxury had to end.  For long distance interstate travel in India, trains are the way to go.  Our introduction to the Indian rail system was an 18-hour trip from Udaipur to the sprawling megacity of Mumbai.  This first train was a sleeper car, with seats that folded down into cots, and privacy curtains to shield you from other passengers.

Sara and I have been traveling across India by rail

From Mumbai we took another train inland, east over the wet coastal hills and onto the dry Deccan Plateau of India’s interior.  This area is covered by one of the world’s largest lava flows, the Deccan Traps, and the farms which we passed lay above a dark bed of volcanic rock.

Natural areas of the Deccan Plateau are covered in seasonal dry forest, growing over black basalt bedrock

In the central part of what is now the state of Maharashtra, ancient Buddhists took advantage of the region’s volcanic cliffs to carve an awe-inspiring series of monasteries and monuments.

Volcanic cliffs overlooking the Waghora River inspired early Buddhists to carve a series of religious sites

 Known today as the Ajanta Caves, the monuments were constructed between 1,400 and 2,200 years ago

Stupas, sculptures, and entire monasteries were hewn out of the living rock

A couple more train trips, including another overnight journey by sleeper car, delivered us at last to the state of Goa on India’s west coast.  Monsoon season is in full swing, tourism is at a low ebb, and we have the place mostly to ourselves.

It is a bit wet, but we like it here.