So where are you off to this winter? Is it going to be a sunny beach resort or a chalet on the lip of snow-white mountain? Or are you going to a national park to look up Mr. Stripes and check on his health? In case you’re still wondering, here, let me help…
Some Christmases ago, I was in Kumbhalgarh, a fortress town in Rajasthan. Not too many tourists, just a never ending fort wall that reminds one of pictures of the Great wall of China, and a wildlife sanctuary with wild wolf packs running through it. I was there, chasing the wolves for pictures and sightings but wasn’t having very good luck with it.
So there I stood leaning on the hood of the Mahindra 550DP GPV after a ride through the rugged bone jarring trails of the sanctuary, moping while sifting through the handful of pictures I had managed to take that morning, when another Mahindra 550 - the rover of choice on these car killer trails- drove out of the sanctuary and parked next to the tea stall where I had parked. A tallish white man, his copper blonde hair, receding ever so slightly at the temples and tied tight into a thinning ponytail hailed out to me and waved his massive Nikon… “got any good ones??”
I tried to shrug off my disappointment with a shake of the head and asked him if he had had any luck. The stranger took off his photographer’s jacket to reveal an ochre floral shirt straight out of a Goan flea market as he sat down next to me on a log bench. He asked for “ek garam chai” with a rather fluid accent and then started flipping through the pictures in his DSLR. He stopped at one, pondered for a while and said “yeah, this one…”. It was a lone wolf drinking from a waterhole in the soft warm light of dawn, it’s reflection rippling along the surface of the water. Not a masterpiece but not bad either if you ask me, especially considering all I had seen all morning was a hare frozen still by the vehicle’s headlamps.
“It’s tough to catch sight of much in some of these lesser known parks, you know..”, he said, as much to himself as he did to me. It’s not that the animals aren’t there… Just that the roads don’t go beyond the periphery of the forest and the animals are even more shy and wary because they don’t see as many tourists…” I nodded, and added… “yeah but all the big popular parks are packed to the gills with tourists. Collared tigers, gypsy jam in the middle of a forest and snack food packets blowing in the wind… nah, I’ll pass… I’d much rather wait out the holiday season in a park like this one, looking for sunrise and sunset pictures.. at least the wilderness is real”. Juha, for that was this Finnish-American’s name, smiled and said “….yeah you could take sunset pictures here or you could go to Point Calimere”. Point Calimere? No, the name didn’t quite ring a bell. Was it someplace around here? Could I drive there? As it turns out, I could drive down to Point Calimere but it would take me half a week to get there. Point Calimere is a little island, less than 50 kms away from the shores of Srilanka, cleaved from the Coromandel Coast by a swamp on two sides, and the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal on the other two.
And why is this island so special? With your permission, I will let Juha take over, and since you don’t have to deal with that unhappy marriage between his Finnish consonants and that shiny new American drawl, you shouldn’t be complaining…
“It is your country’s sweet little secret. I discovered it almost by accident. My friends and I rode out of Pondicherry on our Enfields, just chasing the coast and the salty sea winds. Without a plan or a map, we chanced upon the ancient port town of Tranquebar with its wild waves and a Danish fort and when we pressed on further, there it was, this little Eden on the very edge of India… Point Calimere.
There are a number of shrines and an aboriginal village on the island, but don’t let them distract you, for the real jewel in this crown is the Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary.
Rise with the sun and head off to the grasslands where roam the pampered princes of this park… the proud and graceful blackbucks. When startled, these beautiful animals run like the wind, their shapes a blur of black, white and gold, galloping through a tunnel of dust and grass kicked up by their scampering hooves.
And just when you thought you had lost them in the distance, suddenly you see a blackbuck leap above the dust cloud, and for a moment it hangs in mid-air, like a moment in time frozen against the sky, and then just as suddenly it gives in to gravity and falls back into that dust tunnel and disappears. But soon others appear, flying above the dust and the grass, hanging in midair and then diving back into the haze.. it is a spectacular sight and you are bound to get some great pictures. But don’t exhaust all your frames just yet, for in the marsh waits this great congregation of water birds. Pelicans, ibises, storks, darters and the comic stars of the wader’s world – flamingoes, they all patrol the waters looking for food and fun. Few places in this country will have the volume and variety of water birds, both migratory and resident, that Point Calimere enjoys…”
I was impressed. This place truly did sound like a veritable Eden and from what Juha told me, this didn’t look like a place that will have tourists tumbling out of its ears. I must have been nodding vigorously at the prospect of spending a few days in Point Calimere when Juha smiled and said “Don’t break your neck over it just yet…I haven’t told you about the best part…” No? Really? What else did they have? Tigers? Leopards? Elephants? Liontailed macaques?
“No… no… no…” Juha shook his head, and continued, “ …this animal’s a lot rarer. In fact there are very few places in the world where you will find this animal. Let me tell you how I chanced upon them… On our second evening on the island, I was waiting at the shore for, believe it or not, a sunset picture when I saw this shape emerge from the surf. For a moment I couldn’t gather what this rather large animal could be but then as the silhouette charged towards me and I felt the earth rumble under my feet, I saw more such shapes emerge out of the water run towards me. As I clicked away furiously with my camera, I realized that these were the famous wild horses of Point Calimere”.
(Well, technically speaking, there’s only one species of truly wild horse left in the world and that’s the Przewalski’s horse found in the Mongolian steppes. Th ose in Point Calimere, I later discovered, are feral horses. Just so you know, feral horses are now-wild, free ranging descendents of once domestic ancestors. There are similar herds of wild horses in Australia, Europe and the Americas)
I was sold. I did some follow up research and realized that Point Calimere, at least in my part of the world, remains an undiscovered treasure. The only decent place to stay anywhere within range of the sanctuary is the Forest Guest-house, which could be a bummer if you’re already done packing in your swimming trunks for Point Calimere and are used to five star comforts. But hey, you can always go to the beach and swim the old-fashioned way.
Fate prevented me from pointing my nose in the direction of Point Calimere and setting off in search of Juha’s promised adventure. But I hope to be there before I run out of a few more Christmases. And if you’ve changed your mind and are not so kicked about this island adventure, I’m not complaining, for some secrets are enjoyed best when they are not shared…