My intended post on Indian beer will have to wait. There’s also one concerned with odd Indian trees. That one must wait too. You see, yesterday I was almost trampled to death by a wild bull elephant. As I sprinted in the opposite direction down a muddy forest path, screaming “RUN!” to the students in my care, I thought to myself, “gee, this will make excellent material for a blog, if I survive….”
Vilpatti at 6:30 am
It all began with volunteering to lead the hike from Vilpatti to Palani. This is the school’s official description:
“Initially road and farm trail past terraced fields, small farms and coffee plantations to Palar Waterfall, the route then moves into jungle and wilderness with steep cliff views, glimpses of the spectacular 2nd Palar Waterfall and possibility of wild elephant sign, though the thick forest makes sightings rare. A detour upstream to a weir provides a swim option, then the trail out walks on an irrigation ditch wall through a stately teak plantation, emerging at the bas of the Palani Ghat (2 hr. drive back)”
When our hiking coordinator writes “wild elephant sign” she means “old poo.” Hiking for a whole day down to the plains to see old poo didn’t appeal much. But there were other attractions. The Palar Falls are truly spectacular. And some forest swimming would be good fun. And I hadn’t been on this hike. Who knew what else there was to see?
From Vilpatti into the dawn hills
The hike from Vilpatti to Palar Falls was just as the description predicted. We found an Indian gooseberry tree and sampled (horribly sour as they were no where near ripe). We jumped over small streams and admired the surrounding hills. We stopped for breakfast on an old bridge and soaked in the gentle morning light. We met local farmers and said “vannakam.”
Upper Palar Falls
At the upper Palar Falls, we stopped for a second breakfast. The Palar Falls are spectacular, a huge drop down into a cleft of black rock. We sat on the rocks above the falls and looked around. The sky was bright, the weather warm. Everyone was happy. Roomba sandosum, in Tamil.
“Look, elephants.” Said Suaresh, our guide. He pointed across the valley. Students gathered next to him to follow his pointing arm and try to spy them out.
“You means those little dots?”
“I can’t see them.”
“Yes, I saw one move, I think.”
I peered at the glade Suaresh indicated and couldn’t see a darn thing. The glade was a long way off, over a mile away, perhaps two, and I didn’t have my glasses on.
Play 'find the elephants' if you will. Center frame bright green glade. Look for black dots. Zoom in.
So I took photos with my inferior digital camera. If you want to play “find the wild elephants,” explore the thin strip of bright green glade just left of center frame. The black blobs that move in each subsequent shot are elephants.
The experience was more frustrating that a first stab at “Where’s Waldo?”
I had heard there was only one herd of elephants in elephant valley. We had seen them and they were on the other side of the valley in the opposite direction of our trail. No chance of seeing any more. Bummer.
We hiked off along the trail down the valley and began to notice many “wild elephant signs” on our trail. In fact, the stuff was everywhere and hard not to step in. It was all at least several days old. Nothing to write home about (though I guess that’s what I’m doing).
It was hard to imagine elephants using the same trails as we did. Elephants are somewhat larger than human beings. Yet we even had trouble on the paths. They were single-file for us, with many obstacles, sharp rocky inclines and bushes on every side. They certainly pushed vegetation out of their way, but what did they stand on? Perhaps these wild elephants were smaller than the temple elephants I had met. If they weren’t, it really seemed impossible for them to move across this angular landscape.
Lovely lower Elephant Valley
And lower Palar Falls
The view of the surrounding peaks and lower Palar falls distracted from the contemplation of elephants. We moved laterally along a slope that alternated from mild to severe. We moved across hot grasslands and through cool forests down the valley. These were the Palni Hills at their most beautiful.
King Kong's Island?
Hiking in an angular world
Then we found a relatively fresh footprint. Suaresh pointed it out. It didn’t look like much: as if a flat dinner plate had been pressed on the ground. He hushed the group. We got very excited.
Down the trail a little farther we found brand new “wild elephant signs.” They couldn’t have been more than ten minutes old, these signs. Suaresh hushed us again and started walking more slowly down the path. We all got very, very excited. Perhaps we really would get to see wild elephants.
I know, but I had to include it. OK, you're right. I didn't.
“If you come across wild elephants,” our hike director had told me a year ago, “move slowly and quietly and make a small noise so they become aware of your presence.” This seemed to make good sense. “Surprising them is dangerous. So just let them know you’re there and all should be fine.”
We crept along the trail, peeking around corners before proceeding, keeping quiet. With luck get a quiet peek.
But no luck.
Not too much farther down the trail, we came to a rocky stream. Muddy dinner-plate footprints were everywhere. Water had been splashed all over the rocks. Elephants had bathed and drank here, not long before. So we stopped and took our lunch, bathing in the same pools (but not drinking).
Elephant's Garden Under the the Mountain (not by the Beatles)
An hour of relaxation was enough for all. We gathered up and got back on the trail. Within minutes, storm clouds gathered. We stopped to get our gear on.
The first big drops pelted down as I realized Suaresh and I were together and most of the kids had continued along the trail. Feeling responsible, I headed up to see how they were doing. I found the largest group huddled under a overhanging rock pulling out their jackets and panchos.
William ran up looking really excited.
“Mr Purdy! Elephants ahead! I saw them!”
I continued up to the front of the group and found Bala and another kid.
“They’re right around the corner!”
Wow, what a chance—to see elephants. The rain started to come down in torrents. And my camera isn’t waterproof. I muttered something unprintable.
Stepping around Bala and the kid to get ahead was difficult. We had to grab tree branches and sort of shimmy around one another. How on earth did elephants walk on this? They must be miniature.
I pulled the camera out and started walking very slowly ahead on the trail, pausing before corners and trying to look around them.
There they were! I saw the rear end of an elephant move out of sight just up ahead maybe 50 feet. Only Bala and William were following. The rest of the group was way back on the trail still fitting their gear, though the news of “elephants ahead” had reached them.
I walked up a little farther and came around another corner. I saw what looked like two elephants, one in profile, about 50 ft. up the trail. A big one was in profile. He was even bigger than the temple elephants. He was huge. How on earth could he even stand on the trail? I raised my camera very slowly…..
“FROOOOOOOOOMMMP!” The bull had trumpeted.
Then I saw something that I have yet to digest. The bull was facing me, his head bobbing up and down, and he was getting closer and closer. He was charging.
“OH SHIT. RUN! RUN!”
I spun around on the muddy trail and ran back as fast as I could, shouting back down the trail. William and Bala had disappeared. Perhaps they hadn’t followed me? A thousand half-formed thoughts run through your head at this point. Do I jump off the trail? Will the elephant pursue me down the slope? Do I climb a tree? Do I just keep running?
Then I saw Elinor down the slope off the trail. She was frantically trying to climb back up the slope. I stopped and reached down to her, but not before looking back to see where Mr. Elephant was. He wasn’t.
I helped Elinor up and calmed her down. She had fallen off the trail when the elephant began his charge. She however, had seen him stop, turn around and go back. I hadn’t seen that.
We moved back down the trail to find the rest of the group and found they had climbed to higher ground. We joined them and waited. It seemed a sensible thing to do, wild elephants up the trail a way. Give them some time to make tracks.
Was this a teachable moment? What could I glean from the encounter? On the path of life, it’s a good idea to hesitate when wild bull elephants are up ahead. Was this an analogy for picking your fights in life?
I looked at the students’ faces. They were wet. Elinor was still shaking. Most looked excited. Not the time for a teachable lesson. It really wasn’t one.
How lucky we were. In the garden of forking paths, which other paths led to a trampling death? Which to no encounter at all? Had I waited to gather the full group of hikers to proceed down the path, the bull might have charged us as a group. We’d all have turned and bumped into one another. If William had kept going and not come back to tell me of the elephants, might the bull have charged him? How lucky we were.
The rain pelted down heavily as we waited. Then I moved up to the front to join Suaresh. He had gone ahead parallel and above the path to see what he could see. We approached the trail cautiously and found the elephant tracks took a downward course along another path. They had chosen another route. We might proceed carefully on our way.
When the rain stopped, I took out my camera and looked to see what images I got. There was only one shot and a very blurry one. I think it shows the rear of an elephant on the trail, about the middle of the frame, but it’s hard to say. I think I took this photo when I first saw the elephants. National Geographic will never hire me.
Yeah sure that's an elephant.....