My Interstellar Moment

There is a scene in the movie Interstellar – Planet Earth is on the brink of total collapse. Cooper, the protagonist, decides to take up a critical mission of going on a long-haul space exploration to find an alternate planet that can harbor life. Just when he is about to leave, his daughter, Murph, holds him tight and asks him to stay. She is afraid he may never return. Cooper feels helpless.

I got the same feeling when my daughter held me tight and asked me to stay, and not go….well, not on space exploration or anything remotely adventurous like that, but she didn’t want me to go to Agumbe forest, which is 300 km from Bengaluru πŸ˜…. And not that she was afraid I wouldn’t return from the forest, but she feared I might act stupid and do something embarrassingly silly when I stumble upon a tiny snake in the forest. 🀭

My fear of snakes, snake-like reptiles, and the associated stories is a topic of discussion when family and friends meet. I have a proper snake phobia.

I still remember, on a holiday in Coorg, a tiny snake, probably the size of a Japanese udon noodle, crawled up under my feet. In a state of utter confusion and borderline blackout, I took a leap from my chair and landed on the dining table. That leap would have won India a gold in long jump at the Olympics. While I panicked, screamed, and poured liters of sweat, my wife casually shooed it away, like as if it was a common house fly.πŸ€·β€β™‚οΈ.

There are at least a dozen stories like this.

But weirdly, something triggered. I recently decided to get over my fear of snakes. Or at least give it a try.

The thought of getting over my fear of snakes came to my mind when I met my photographer friends Manish and Shreeram for a cup of coffee in South Bangalore.

Shreeram is a wildlife and conservation enthusiast. He is a regular visitor to the Western Ghats and the rainforest of Agumbe. Over the years, he has become very familiar with the forest, and the endemic species of Agumbe, including their habitats.

During our coffee conversation, Shreeram casually let me know that he would be returning to Agumbe soon. He mentioned that I could join him if I wanted to. However, I quickly dismissed the idea. Exploring the rain forest, dealing with numerous leech bites, and searching for snakes (a hobby known as herping) was just not my thing.

But I did sleep on the idea. The thought of observing frogs, lizards, birds, insects, and bugs in their natural habitat sounded very appealing to me, but that also meant I had to be okay with snakes and leeches.

Why aren’t there rainforests with just pretty frogs and bugs, minus the leeches and the snakes? Sigh.πŸ₯²

I had about 15 days to make up my mind, and in those 15 days, I must have flip-flopped on my decision 150 times. At one point, I decided not to go, but that decision somehow didn’t feel right.

I knew that I wanted to go. And I did.

Shreeram and I drove down. We stayed at a basic ‘campsite’, ish kind of place which is primarily a King Cobra rescue center and also a research center for Malabar Pit Vipers. As I approached the place, I could feel the steering wheel slip through my sweaty palms, and my heart was pounding like a Ferrari’s piston. The place was away from civilization, in the middle of nowhere, and on the edge of the Western Ghats forest.

We were greeted by a bunch of Shreeram’s friends. The first conversation they had while guiding us to the dining section – ‘A vine snake has just gulped down a frog and is resting on the tree by the dining.’ Things like this were a non-event for the folks there.

At this point, I remembered my Interstellar moment and I cursed myself for having ventured into the forest. After that uneasy lunch, I slowly walked into my cottage, dumped all the luggage, and triple-checked all the corners to ensure no snake had curled up inside. As I sat down with a sigh of relief, I noticed a portrait of a king cobra by the bedside.πŸ₯Ά

I held that photo frame by the tip of my hand and hid it under the table, completely out of my sight. I called my family and confessed that this was a mistake.

It was 7 PM, and it had just stopped raining. The high decibel sound of cicadas and crickets was almost deafening. We had a light snack, and Shreeram asked if I was set for a walk in the forest. I now had no option but to go.

I took my camera out, covered myself as much as I could – hoodie, leech socks, two layers of a t-shirt, and whatnot and started my ‘herping’ walk, hoping we’d never encounter a snake.

As we were about to step out of the property, we spot this beautiful plant hopper species called ‘Kalidasa Lanata’, sitting on a barbed wire.

Kalidasa Lanata

Why is it referred to as ‘Kalidasa‘, a 5th century Indian poet, I don’t know. If you know, then please do drop a link in the comments below or let me know why πŸ™‚

A few steps into the jungle, we saw this gorgeous dragonfly clutching onto a hanging root. A water droplet had formed at the tip of the root, giving it the perfect balance and making my frame pretty.

Dragon fly

And right below the dragonfly was a golden frog, sitting on green moss, in its beautiful habitat.

Golden Frog

Suddenly, the jungle felt like it was brimming with life. At every corner, there was something happening.

Tree, fungi, and worms

For instance, this tree provided space for the fungi to grow, and the fungi then provided life to other organisms. There were hundreds of worms feeding and resting on the fungi. For a mere urban dweller like me, this little example of a symbiotic ecosystem was way too fascinating.

By now, I was slowly easing in and getting comfortable. The fact that I was getting an opportunity to witness so much life and along with that the realization that this planet belongs to these creatures as much as it does to us humans felt very humbling. But at the same time, Shreeram mentioned that we humans are destroying, on average, 80K acres of rainforest on a daily basis. That is a depressing and disturbing fact to learn.😒

Perhaps Cooper’s space exploration mission may one day be a necessity.

As we chugged along, we stumbled upon this beautiful Indian toad. The colors and the texture on its body were spectacular, and this guy was in a good mood to pose for me as well πŸ˜€

Indian Toad

Shreeram then mentioned about this patch in the forest where the Malabar gliding frogs usually hang out. Talk about territories! We went around looking for the gliding frogs. It took a while to spot them, especially since the gliding frog blends so easily into the overall greenery of the forest.

Malabar gliding frogs are endemic to the Western Ghats.

Gliding Frog

The granulated body, vivid green, and the pale yellow colors on its body were mind-blowing. As I was admiring the beauty of the Malabar gliding frog, Shreeram asked me if I was ready for a showdown.

From his tone, I knew it was a snake. I stood behind Shreeram, clutching my hands, shrinking my eyes, trying hard not to look. 😨.

Slowly, I mustered courage and tried to relax. A couple of deep breaths, and I could then see this guy eye to eye.

A Malabar pit viper with a green morph, curled up on the tree.

Malabar Pit Viper

‘Beautiful’, was the word that came out of my mouth, and I could not believe I just said that. I didn’t push myself, clicked a few pictures and stepped aside.

As we headed back to the camp, I got a sense of accomplishment. It was a big deal for me. I was waiting to call my family and tell them that 😌.

The next day morning, we ventured into the forest again. It had rained all night. The forest was wet and damp. I soon realized that plucking leeches from my body was a waste. There were several of them, and it was impossible to keep track. I could either enjoy the beauty of the forest or spend time fighting a battle I knew I’d lose. I let them suck my blood, and I made peace with that.

The first thing we stumbled upon was this beautiful bi-colored frog, again endemic to the Western Ghats. The velvety jet black body with red blood eyes looked badass –

Bicolored Frog

We then ventured by the stream to look for the ‘Tree Toads’. The tree toads are extremely hard to spot as they are canopy dwellers. They come down only when they want to mate, and they are quite discreet at that. We spent an hour by the stream looking at every corner and finally spotted this guy –

Tree toad

He was probably the size of my thumb. For an inexperienced person like me, this looked like any of the other frogs and toads that I had seen, but I could see Shreeram going gaga over the tree toad. Perhaps I need to spend more time in the forest πŸ™‚

By now, I was secretly hoping to spot another snake. I wanted to test myself to see how I’d react, and to my luck, there was one right next to me – a vine snake. There was also an Atlas moth caterpillar hanging on one of the branches of the same tree.

The caterpillar looked like an alien creature but behaved like a common cow, eating all the leaves that it came across.

The vine snake meant serious business. Observing the vine snake’s sharp arrow-like head, its calm composure, and its smooth movement felt truly majestic.

Walking down a few more steps, we found a Roux’s Forest lizard, I guess this was a male.

Roux’s forest lizzard

To my eyes, Rouxie’s color contrast and body texture looked super sexy 😍. The forest is literally like walking into a natural history encyclopedia. So much to learn and so much to appreciate.

There were a lot more things that we saw in the forest, but I’ll probably leave you with a few more pictures.

Waynad Keelback with Orange coloration

Notice the large eyes of the Keelback, and how well the snake’s body blends into the forest colors.

We did venture into the forest a few more times and eventually my perception of ‘Wildlife’ changed. Up until this point, wildlife meant going on an open jeep safari. But this trip changed that point of view.

Walking in the forest, breathing the fresh air, feeling the forest floor, getting drenched in the rainforest, getting bitten by leeches, observing these beautiful jewels of the forest up close in their natural habitat is my new definition of wildlife. This wildlife experience was truly inclusive.

While I was there at the camp, a good friend messaged me to ask if I was Karthik Rangappa 2.0 (hinting at me overcoming my fear of snakes), well no, I told her I’m Karthik Rangappa 1.25. πŸ˜ƒ

I still have a long way to go, and I still need to see a king cobra eye to eye. So a long way to go for 2.0.

But yes, I did pick up the portrait of the king cobra and kept it back by the bedside before I left the place.

Thank you Shreeram for this incredible experience. πŸ™πŸ½


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6 responses to “My Interstellar Moment”

  1. Super πŸ‘Œ Hats off

    1. Glad you liked it, Gunjan!

  2. Well written Karthik sir. Processing the pics and finding the right name was an excellent job . Excellent write up

    1. Thanks Shuba, this was a great learning experience πŸ˜ƒ

  3. Swarnava ADDYA Avatar

    You have narrated a Stellar story and the photos that you took are clear , sharp and realistic . I also have a snake phobia my heart pumps to 150-160 BP when I see a snake all of a sudden. πŸ™‚ 🐍

  4. […] smashed a fish’s eye, made an interesting statement. She compared the adjoining rainforest in Agumbe (not too far from coastal Karnataka) with the sea and said how similar they […]

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