The first Shaji bombshell came as I was exclaiming over the view. We’d just met. A tiger had killed a deer right in front of the lodge two days before and dragged its kill downstream. “We’ll take a walk that way tomorrow,” he said, “and see if we can find it.” And with that, he sauntered off to see about chai, leaving me standing there aghast, wondering if I’d heard him right. When he came back, I checked, and he confirmed with a casual shrug and a ‘Yes, why not? You’re okay walking, right?” My face broke into the widest smile it’s seen in years, bubbles of excitement coursed through me, and I nodded frantically, like something deranged, ‘Yes, yes, absolutely!’
His second came as I was walking barefoot around the garden, sipping chai. He was holding two khaki items in his hand, looked my outfit up and down, cream striped trousers, and a white T-shirt, and asked if I’d got darker coloured clothes with me. I affirmed, he nodded and handed me the items, which turned out to be a pair of khaki over socks. “You’ll need these.” “For leeches?” I asked….
“Not so many leeches now, it’s the dry season, but there are poisonous plants and ticks and other insects and snakes, these will help protect you.” Before I could begin to take that in, he pointed to the sky, “Look, a Black Eagle.” Not only was there a black Eagle, it was chasing two Racket-Tailed Drongos, one of which flipped around and rode the eagle’s back for a short while before making its escape. If it hadn’t sunk in before, it did at that moment, I knew this was a special place, and I was like a child whose Christmases had all come at once.
This is Fringe Ford, a 520-acre former cardamom plantation that has been left to re wild for around 40 years. Nature has taken over, and wildlife has moved in. It is now home to 3 tigers, leopards, bears, and elephants, amongst many other small species.
A short while later, dressed in my khakis, camera in hand, you know the sort, all the gear, no idea, I got the nod of approval from Shaji who appeared in similar attire but also sporting a large knife. He caught me staring, “It’s for clearing a path, in case elephants have knocked trees down.” Of course, what else?
With that, we set off on a 7km hike, through the thick of the forest, to a waterfall. I’m used to safaris and being in the jungle but let me tell you, being on foot turns it into a whole new ball game. One quickly becomes adept at reading hand signals; wait there, tread softly, come quickly….. It was exhilarating and more than a little bit scary. I put on a brave face. Shaji has been walking this forest for the last 18 years and, as he told me “Can smell a tiger from 10 metres.” So that’s reassuring…..
In whispers, he told me about plants such as citronella, and wild cinnamon, which plants are poisonous and which animals like what. We stopped to watch mud bees and dancing dragon flies and listened to an elephant moving around quite close by, whilst Malabar Squirrels had a chat across the tree tops. He showed me Sloth Bear scratch marks on a tree trunk, elephant poop, though it is big enough to trip over, and more tiger scat than you can shake a stick at, that’s poo, to you and me. Did I mention exhilarating? That doesn’t quite cover it.
It was getting dark by the time we headed back. At first I was a little concerned that we’d left it a bit late but then eventually figured that they also do night walks, so we’d be okay. Shaji told me to focus on looking ahead, not at where I was placing my feet, easy enough if not for rocks and roots, and then asked me to grab the torch from his backpack. My assumption that this was to light the way was incorrect. It was for spotting eyes in the jungle, so we knew what was coming for us, I suppose.
We made it back, without being bitten, eaten, or even scratched, to a sight that I can only imagine is akin to how it must have been in the forest rest houses100 years ago. A low stone bungalow, candles lit, fire crackling away, and a large dining table soon to be laden with delicious food. The chef Muthu, one of just 5 staff is absolutely brilliant! His dosa and chappatis the lightest I’ve ever tasted and his egg curry, to die for and I don’t do egg curry! My zero dairy payasam was also a delight.
Fully replete we retired to the camp fire. With zero light pollution, the stars were incredible, and the whole scenario was only made better by the flashes of glo worms as they darted around. There’s nothing quite like fireside chats in the jungle. I asked Shaji if he’d been to any of the national parks. “Why would I?” Was his response, “They are busy like cities with many jeeps, here I am one man with my tigers.” There’s no answer to that.
He hadn’t been kidding when he said we’d go in search of the tiger kill. The following morning, having been woken up by birds, closely followed with a cup of Fringe Ford coffee, that’s still allowed to grow, we set off once more, but not before spotting the elephant tracks which showed just how close they’d been to camp the night before. Shaji showed me where the kill had taken place and then we followed the evidence downstream, Shaji pointing out pug marks, fresh scat, the place where the tiger mud bathes (he picked out hairs) and then he found the remains of the kill. Legs and ribs were all that were left of this once proud Sambar Deer.
It was then he dropped another Shaji classic, “He’s probably somewhere watching us,” And with that he sniffed the air, shrugged and walked off. I scuttled on, very close behind, by this time realising that if we did see a tiger this close, on foot, it wouldn’t be just tiger scat we’d be stepping over! We circled around, walking on animal paths, spotted elephants grazing in the distance, quite calming after the tiger and watched them grazing, through binoculars.
Heart rate having returned to normal, Shaji took me back to a machan (forest hide) we’d walked past the night before which I mentioned I’d like to climb up to see the view. Well I would, being all mouth before brain. It was too late to bottle out by the time we got there and so up we went. Shaji settled down to check whatsapp, its the only place to get any sort of reception and I clambered inelegantly into the hammock, another surprise! We settled in to wait to see what we might see for a good hour or so, or so I thought. The sway of the hammock in the treetop, the gentle breeze, the chatter of the insects and the ratatat of a rufous woodpecker, meant that I was soon lulled to sleep. I woke an hour or so later with a flustered, “Did I miss anything?” To which Shaji, as is his wont, as he made his way towards the ladder, replied, “No, nothing, they were probably put off by the sound as loud as a lorry thundering through the forest.
Ahh, oh well, “Best hours’ sleep I’ve had all year!
And that, ladies and gentlemen, was my 24 hours at Fringe Ford. If you don’t hear from me again, you know where I’ll be.
Fringe Ford is in Wayanad and the nearest airport is Kannur.
For more information:firstname.lastname@example.org
Or whatsapp +447966025330
My book, Escape to India, a novel based on a true story of my six months spent in Kanha National Park can be found here.