“Oh, come on! Let’s get going now.” I could hear SM’s voice (calling out to me) above the patter of raindrops still falling on the thatched roof and the buzz of insects fluttering near my ear. I finished securing my leech socks below my knees and tying my shoe laces tight. Gripping my flashlight, I ran out to where three impatient men waited for me. Together, we stared at the black of the forest that stood like a wall in front of us, sighed, and walked into it. 

We were on our way to explore the rainforests of Agumbe (in the Western Ghats of India) and its infinite creatures at night. 

I tentatively walked between the men, one in front of and two behind me. “It’s not like we are in the Amazon rainforests,” joked AK. I could have joined in their laughter, but instead chose to pay close heed to the creatures rolling on the floor of the rainforest. One wrong step, and I would risk hurting a frog, toad, spider, scorpion, or even a snake. 

A rainforest is like a magician’s well-kept secret. By day, it’s an enchanting space with colourful creatures scattered all about, from the top of thick canopies to bushes and murky pools underneath. 

At night, its black garb gives nothing away. There’s merely an amalgam of noises—of frogs croaking and cicadas and other insects chirping. Most others stay silent. Only when I, a defiant nature enthusiast, flashed my light as I walked by did I see spiders weaving frantically, toads snoozing in the middle of jungle paths, frogs inflating their vocal sacs in attempts to woo plausible mates, moths taking off leaves, and tiny fishes, crabs and eels scampering about.

By June each year, the rains descend heavily on the rainforests of Western Ghats. Water begins to collect in every hollow on the ground, leaves turn a luxuriant green, and tiny shoots sprout everywhere. It’s like the beginning of a festive transformation. 

But, most of all, the rains initiate a frenzy of activities that continue till the last few showers sweep the forest at the end of monsoons. Native rainforest creatures can be seen gliding, hunting, frolicking, flying and initiating the cycle of life. I was in the rainforest in the middle of showers to partake in this merry making. And after spending two days in the forest, the men decided to get adventurous and scout it by night. 

It had rained heavily that evening. Huge drops of water still bounced off my head. The forest was awake with all creatures in perfect harmony, except for our shoes on mushy, wet forest floor. SM walked in front confidently. I followed his steps closely. We passed by a pond and navigated our way in darkness through thick undergrowth and fallen branches till we reached a cleft. A wobbly, makeshift crossing of a log was our only way forward. 

“If I lose my balance and fall, that would be the worst thing to happen,” I murmured to myself. While SM didn’t turn and look, AK and PA egged me from behind. My heart chattered against my chest as I took tiny, frightful steps. At last, I was on the other side. 

“I can do the same on my way back.”  Even a small victory over our fears does great things to motivate us. 

I hopped and jogged to catch up with SM. I was paying closer attention to the creatures on my path now. I turned to my left to illuminate the shrub next to me. I thought I had seen a bush frog, when a massive body shrieked out and hit me so hard that I almost fell. 

Without a clue and forgetting where I was, I just ran (perhaps the fastest ever in my life). When I stopped, I was on the other side of the log bridge, holding onto AK for support. SM was pale and was asking me why I ran. 

“You cried out and bumped against me! You were running and so I had to too.” I whispered clasping my pounding chest. 

But what did happen? We still knew not. By this time SM had also managed to recover from his nervous, blind run in the forest.

“That Malabar Pit Viper almost stung me!”, he exclaimed. 

Truth was, we were all lighting up only the ground with our torches, and none of us happened to care about the branches that hung quite low and brushed against our heads as we passed. 

SM had come across a very low hanging branch.  As he was about to duck and pass, he pointed his torch up, and that’s when he caught a three-feet long green Malabar Pit Viper coiled up on the branch. It swung its head violently, aimed at SM. It seems he froze, and then screamed and ran like a madman, coming straight at me. 

Fifteen minutes of contemplation, and we headed back to find our Viper, being more watchful than ever. The men said they had to be sure the snake was safe. And it was. It had climbed down from the branch on the other side and was now resting on a shrub, perhaps waiting for a real prey this time. 

Lying in my tent that night, I understood the gravity of words that often nature lovers and wildlife photographers utter. I was aware of what could have happened. We had trodden jungle paths at night. And yes, we had been careless. 

I realised that being in a forest is like driving on a highway (in India, at least). We have to be extremely cautious. We may anticipate what might happen, but most often, how we react in a scenario determines the outcome. We had failed to be careful. The Viper could have stung SM or any one of us. That would have been disastrous. We had also panicked and had run blindly. We could have stamped on and harmed a creature. We could have twisted an ankle. We could have tumbled off the log and fallen into the crevice in the middle of the night. 

I couldn’t control the situation, and that night, I couldn’t control my thoughts either. As dawn descended on the rainforest, I was sure I would come back to Agumbe and that the incident from previous night wouldn’t keep me away from nature and its beings. But I had learnt a lesson, a very important one, and I would carry it and narrate it for as long as my rendezvous with the forests continue. 

An edited version of this story is published in the book ‘The Wildlife Blog Collection’. You can take a look at the book here and order your copy of this amazing book comprising wildlife stories from across the world.

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