We are a group of old Air Force friends from Hyderabad and two of us are from Kerela. Apart from them, none of us had ever been to the Deep South, so a trip to God’s own Country was very much on the cards this year. Upon reaching Cochin, we saw the roaring Athirapally falls on the Chalakudy river and spent a quiet evening in the gloriously green Munnar. Later we drove into Thekkady, where the big attraction is the Periyar river and the famous Wildlife Park and Elephant Reserve. That we can actually see elephants from up close thrilled us with a lurking frisson of danger.
I have patted the trunk of a chained elephant in Bangkok, even petted a sedated tiger! But those were controlled conditions – this was different. We were going into the wild county, encroaching on the freedom of the wild beasts.
It took us nearly half an hour to get our tickets for the steamer because tickets are linked to seat numbers and positions on the sixty-seater boat. Lots of people were waiting but although it looks like that there are not enough boats, the government officials soon get everyone on board. One has to be wary of the monkeys while waiting. They look small and cute but one little fella did try and grab some foodstuff from a child
So we were on board for a two-hour ride along the Periyar lake. Our life jackets were strapped on and seats were occupied. It was 11:30 am and we started moving with the gentle chug-chug of the steamer and the buzz of people as a background sound. It is an artificial lake formed by the damming of the Periyar river in Idukki district. As we start moving, far away we can see herds of elephants grazing near the edges of the shoreline. There are small islands in the middle where the herds cross over from one to the other in search of fodder.
While I started clicking pictures, more herds of elephants came into view. There were three-four of them along the shore while some were in the water crossing over. This particular herd came closer and we spot a little calf gambolling by the side of his mother. The pilot of the steamer edges the boat closer to the little island that the herd is moving to. Everyone with a phone camera and otherwise rushed to the side to catch a better glimpse. One of the guards swiftly moved in to prevent people from crowding one end of the boat–there is the likelihood of keeling over.
With that primeval fear, people do moved back and try and stayed in on their seats. The baby elephant decided that he needs a little adventure of his own. He breaks away from the herd and moves closer to us and starts playing in the water, spraying himself with water filled in his trunk. The mother watches from a little distance; she is on the grassy knoll, while the calf is in the water and the steamer is coming closer, with the engine switched off.
I guess she spots this big ‘animal’, heading closer to her baby who seems to be unaware of any danger. For a few seconds, she watched with an unblinking stare from her beady little eyes.
The steamer was drifting gently on the waters so that the animals are not scared—I guess the pilots are highly experienced and know what to do. Yet like all mothers everywhere in the animal world, the mama elephant turned around and with a loud angry trumpet, she charged at the boat. The water swirls around her, like the flurries of rage that one can feel emanating from her. Her rapid movement was the trigger for the boat to pick up speed.
After a while, she runs out of steam and pauses, turns around and goes back to her baby who is now headed out of the water.
I clicked one last frame before going back to my seat. That image has stayed with me.
Text by Shyamola Khanna