My fascination with forests began with the adventures of man-cub Mowgli and Baloo, the bear from The Jungle book. I did not read the book till 3 years back, but the television show was my only incentive to wake up on Sunday mornings. Once upon a time.
Most of us, eighties-Indian-kids will still be able to sing along this intro song and will always remember Mowgli more fondly than any Tarzan boy.
Soon-after The secret forest, The enchanted wood, The magic faraway tree and all the escapades that brewed atop a treehouse followed. Enid Blyton fed my fascination and how! The Famous Five, helped me discover the joys of bicycle trips, picnics, lemonade, tiny cottages, camping in the countryside and many more adventures. The backdrop of their lives was so far away from my reality, but their enthusiasm and joys of outdoors is what I identified with.
It was only when I was 20 that I first visited a real forest, the Kanha National Park. I still remember, when our jeep crossed the gates at 6:15 am, the air smelt so green. At first, I was struck by the sky-scrapping trees form green castes and feisty squirrels searching for food under wispy moss. Eventually, after observing bird calls and paw marks, identifying the different deers and wild dogs and after listening to anecdotes from a forthcoming guide, I realised that it is indeed a jungle out there. A war scene, each day is a battle to hold territory, feed and protect families and everyday they combat to not become the feed.
But I did not have to imagine anymore, the next day a tenacious tigress successfully attacked a large bison. I was taken to witness the scene on an elephant back, as the spot was not accessible by a jeep. And there I saw a beautiful, ferocious mother panting under the shade of a tree while three young cubs enjoyed nibbling their meal.
Clichéd but true, I visited South Africa and instantly fell in love with wild animals. It was Madagascar come alive! Monochromatic zebras, graceful giraffes, lazy ostrich, adorable lemurs (King Julien), friendly penguins, stubborn rhinos, the majestic lions, swift deers, handsome leopards. I will run out of adjective before I run out of the number of the amazing wildlings I encountered.
But the one experience that will stay vividly in my memory forever was at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve near Durban. I was silently jumping on my seat when I saw a herd of elephants of various sizes crossing the road right behind us! We must have been there for a good 5 mins, when the head of the family, the largest elephant who was leading them began to feel uncomfortable with our proximity to her family.
She started walking towards us. More thrilled then scared, we moved a little and parked ahead. A minute later, she approached us again, we moved slightly and as she stopped, we stopped. She played this game with us a couple of more times, and ultimately she was like, okay you’ve had your share of fun. She approached us aggressively enough to scare us into speeding the car, she stopped only when her family was out of our slight and then stood authoritatively in the middle of the road.
After these memorable wild encounters that I am so very proud of, hiking in Malibu Creeek State Park in Los Angeles was a pleasant surprise. A bright sunny day was spent swimming in a pond and having homemade sandwiches sitting on tree. I had not known National Parks to be safe places to enjoy hiking, climbing, swimming, picnicking, barbecuing, camping in manicured wilderness. In all but one Indian National Parks, visitors are not allowed to set foot on ground.
By then, I had not discovered Borivali National Park (Sanjay Gandhi National Park) sitting within the city limits of Mumbai. Surprisingly in my first two years in Mumbai nobody ever brought it up. Why did it never come up in the weekend-getaway planning? Why when Mumbaikars are constantly looking at ways to escape the hustle-bustle? When an entire day here costs less money than a fancy cocktail. When every person in a relationship with another person or their work is always craving some me-time. When thousands of city-dwellers are so badly “looking for peace” that they pay institutes and gurus more fee than they can afford. When most of us are always complaining about lack of time and money to pursue travel and adventure.
Have we explored our backyard yet?
Coming up next, my chronicles at Borivali National Park.