Though I had been told it was a ‘herping’ expedition, I had not the foggiest idea what that entailed. The word apparently came from ‘herpetology’, which didn’t help, because this word in turn comes from the Greek ‘herpeton’, and Greek is Greek to me. Anyway, I made a brief enquiry with omniscient Google and was told that ‘herpeto’ means ‘reptile’ or ‘creeping animal’ and herpetology is the branch of zoology concerned with the study of such creatures. In short, we would be traipsing around the wilderness looking for amphibians and reptiles (and creepy-crawlies).
This may not seem like a normal choice of activity for the average person, but the group that flew into Dibrugarh airport in Assam that afternoon from Bengaluru, Pune, and Goa seemed normal enough at first glance. There were seven of us including expedition leader Nirmal Kulkarni, a professional herpetologist. The rest included a pharmaceutical scientist, a software engineer, an architect, a doctor, a businessman, and me, a journalist. All except me were united by their love for herping. We set off in two SUVs towards Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh.
More than five hours of steady driving got us only as far as North Lakhimpur in Assam, still short of the Arunachal border. Night had fallen. We decided to halt, because night-driving in these hills is a risky and unpredictable venture especially after rains. The decision was fortuitous; next morning we were off around 4 a.m., but our early start came to nought. At the Arunachal border, where we stopped to show our Inner Line Permits, we were told there had been a landslide ahead. The road, a broad single lane cut into the side of the hill, was blocked. We would have to circle around by another road.
It was finally almost eight hours later that we got to Ziro. By then it had been almost 24 hours since we landed in Dibrugarh. Immediately upon reaching Ziro, everyone began to pull on their leech socks, which are basically narrow bags covering the foot and lower leg, and tied at the knee to keep out leeches. They readied their cameras and set off on foot towards base camp at Pange in the Talle Valley Wildlife Sanctuary more than nine kilometres away.
Heading into the dense green gave me an exhilarating feeling. The path was a dirt track, wide enough for a single vehicle, made muddy by recent rains. We had already gone out of mobile network coverage area, and were free from its incessant updates. I asked our local guide, a small Assamese man named Jayanto, what species were found in these forests. He paused for a while. “Frogs”, he said. He paused again. “Butterflies”. We marched in silence for some time. Amit, the software engineer from Pune, mentioned snakes, pit vipers to be precise. “Apatani glory”, Jayanto said. I knew that Apatani was the name of the local tribe, but was lost about the glory bit. “Moth” he said, and this time he pointed somewhere into the trees lining the track. I looked, and saw leaves.
The first creatures we spotted without a shade of doubt were large flightless birds. There was an emu farm on the way. After this sighting, next up were the creatures we would see most of: leeches. They saw a lot of us too. Then Amit spotted a bird. He said “bird”. Nirmal said “wagtail”. Jayanto said “yellow wagtail”. I scanned the trees, bushes and skies desperately, hoping to see what they had seen, but saw absolutely nothing.
It takes the untrained eye a bit of time to start seeing creatures in the wild. It also takes a certain kind of walking. A slow, deliberate, halting walk, with lots of stopping and staring into trees and shrubs. It is very different from a hike where the aim is to march on. Here, spotting whatever might be out there takes precedence, and that needs keen eyes and careful looking.
Nirmal spotted a tiny white tree frog, of a species that neither he nor Jayanto could name. It was barely an inch long and hidden amid the leaves of a tree by the track. Nonetheless it had somehow been seen, and soon found itself the centre of attraction of an excited bunch of herping enthusiasts who between them took at least a hundred photos of it. It slumbered on right through its sudden and probably unwelcome brush with fame.
I saw nothing more except a few mithuns, huge semi-domestic bovines descended from an intermixing of wild gaur and domestic cattle, that silently stared at us as we walked past. It was dark by the time we finally made our way into base camp at Pange. Our lodgings were very basic concrete rooms. Here, we washed up, did the very important job of getting rid of leeches, and had tea and dinner. Then, after 30 hours of almost constant travelling including the hike of nine-plus kilometres, mostly uphill through muddy forest tracks, the expedition members, to my astonishment, decided to walk out into the forest at night to look for snakes. They found none.
The following day, we were on our way into the jungle from Pange towards Talle Valley when we encountered three young men, forest-cutters employed to keep the narrow, muddy track open against the ever-encroaching jungle. They were hurrying back after having spotted a large snake. On hearing this, Nirmal and Sagar, both of whom are expert snake-catchers, immediately set off at great pace in the direction of the reported snake sighting. I huffed and puffed after them, trying to keep my footing on the slippery, muddy jungle track. Tamal, the scientist, who is an avid photographer, followed lugging his camera with massive telephoto lens.
A good 15 or 20 minutes of racing through the forest had still not brought us to the location of the snake sighting. I was certain that the snake would have slithered off into the endless forest long ago, or even worse, that it would pop up under my feet while everyone else raced on ahead. Then I turned a corner and saw Nirmal. He was holding up his snake hook, a metal rod with a hook at one end. From it dangled a large mottled brown snake. “What is it?” I asked from a safe distance. “Mountain pit viper” he replied. I am no herpetologist but I know the viper is a venomous snake.
Nirmal carefully placed it on a fallen log. There, it lay quietly for a bit before trying to slither off. It was temporarily returned to the log, while the group studied it. At this, it stuck out its forked tongue, to the admiration of its small audience. For the next hour or so, with a break during which it was placed inside a snake bag, it was a star surrounded by paparazzi. After that, Nirmal released it back into the wild.
We continued our march in the quest for more creatures. Many fallen logs were turned over, many holes, cracks, and crevices peeked at and poked into. Apart from a couple of small shiny snake-like lizards called skinks, we found only one poisonous duo sharing the underside of a fallen log. One end of the log had a large tarantula with its horrible fangs pointed at us. The other end had a little black scorpion. Naturally, everyone was absolutely thrilled to see these two, and they were closely photographed. The scorpion, fast asleep, did not budge through the whole drama. The tarantula tried, unsuccessfully, to run away. We returned to camp after this satisfyingly successful walk.
At night, in the deep darkness lit only by our torches, we were back again, looking for snakes, tarantulas, and whatever else might be out there. This time we saw nothing except a sleeping bird we could not identify and a couple of strange nests in the bamboo groves adjacent to a stream whose inhabitants did not show themselves to us. Nothing, that is, except countless leeches — and countless stars. The sky is a different place in the clear-aired darkness of the forest.
Our herping expedition continued in a similar vein through a whole week, in Talle Valley and later around Siiro, on the outskirts of Ziro. We tramped through farms and forests, day and night, in search of ‘herps’. Every sighting, especially of frogs, toads, lizards and snakes, was the cause of great joy and excitement. I missed, from exhaustion, the night walk from which Nirmal returned with a green rat snake in his snake bag, but saw it the following morning. It was about a metre long and green as its name says. Out of curiosity I did pat the snake. It felt soft and silky and quite pleasant. It was also a very gentle creature. After posing for photos, it was set free, and happily went back into the wild.
I logged more than 67 kilometres of traipsing through jungles in my one week of herping. The snakes, even poisonous ones, turned out to be peaceful animals. I didn’t take much to the tarantula, but even that was, all said, relatively harmless. The only creatures that were nasty were the leeches that painlessly sucked our blood, and the jungle flies that stung with very itchy stings. All the other creatures were busy minding their own business. Yet, I realise that the involuntary blood donation and the itches were less annoying, in sum, than the daily aggravations of city living. I returned from my trip refreshed physically and mentally.
Snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions are less poisonous than Delhi air, endless traffic, politics, office politics, and the unavoidable bile on media and social media, because they will not harm you if they can help it.
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