Jungle Railway

As an avid lover of the forests and its inhabitants, my idea of a relaxing weekend is to head off into a forest! Most of these retreats are of necessity to one of the more popular Tiger Sanctuaries like Ranthambore or Bandhavgarh where the experience is more “Touristy”. But there is a world beyond Ranthambhore and Kabini! There are small forests around us that hold plenty of surprises and thrills. Wolves roam a stones throw away from that Gurgaon mall, and a “secret valley” a mere 50 kms from Bangalore holds some amazing Jungle secrets! If only we kept our eyes and ears (and minds) open! Through this blog, I will attempt to share some of these moments where my jungle friends have sprung pleasant surprises. Search the hashtag #jungletales for more from this series.

Just a few hours away from Bangalore is a large Railway junction located on the Mumbai-Chennai railway route. Some years back, I landed up here on a Saturday morning along with a Friend on a quest to retrace the steps of a popular author of jungle stories I had grown up on! I was to take a slow passenger train from here to my destination, returning by the evening Slow Passenger train connecting to the Express train back to Bangalore.

There was some time for the Slow Passenger train to arrive so I took my reluctant friend and walked down to the Loco Shed located close by for some rail-photography! Our presence caused a slight stir and soon the Station Incharge wanted to have a word with us. The Station Manager was a rather jolly (and high) Malayalee guy and we soon became friendly. Once he found out the actual purpose of our visit, he suggested that we make time to visit a small forest “full of leopards” just a short distance away from where we were. The same passenger train we were to go on would take us there. Infact an employee of this station “R” lived there and could take us there and even get us a place to stay if we wished! We could make a weekend out of it. On a whim we decided to go along with it. So at 0830 am, we boarded the Slow Passenger train and with a helpful word from our new friend, even got onboard the WDM2 loco doing duty that day! The Slow Passenger train chugged along stopping at a dozen moffussil stations on the way. The terrain quickly changed and soon we saw dense forests on both sides coming almost right upto the tracks and my hopes soared!

We got off at a small wayside station – the kind where the platform is at ground level. “R” was a man of few words, and he started ambling off along the Railway track without a word and we followed him. We walked along the Railway track for around a kilometer till where the jungle started closing in on the track bed. From there we took a trail towards the left that went into the jungle before coming onto a small deserted country road. We were going somewhere, we just didn’t know where! 🙂 Another 500m or so down this road and we came upon a small cottage of the kind used by Forest Guards when on patrol. It was padlocked, but “R” told us we could stay in the veranda of this cottage without any problem!

Is that safe?” I asked looking nervously at the thick jungle around.

Of Course! There are no wild animals around this area any more!” he answered.

But that Station Master said this place was teeming with leopards!” I countered!

Nothing saar! There is nothing here!” “R” said curtly before heading off someplace!

My companion thought “R” must be right. He is a local and knows the place! He wouldn’t have left us here if it was unsafe! I was not so sure! Another problem remained – we had no food except for some biscuits we had bought with us and just one bottle of water between us! What were we to do? We then decided we would hang around Birding at the spot till 4pm and then head back for the Railway Station where we would find food and water and then return before it turned dark! That settled it!

Around 5pm, we headed back down the trail leading to the tracks. The last 500 odd feet through jungle till we reached the Railway Tracks was scary! We still had a kilometer to go, before reaching the Station which was not visible from where we were. But we certainly felt more secure walking along the tracks.

A little ahead of us was a small culvert over a ditch designed to kept rain water overflow off the tracks. We looked down as we walked along the tracks, and in the semi-wet mud below us were the very, very fresh pugmarks of a large Tiger! It had clearly crossed the tracks at the culvert a few minutes ago and made its way into the jungle on the other side! My friend knelt down to study the pugmark while I looked nervously around. As we raised our head in the direction in which the pugmarks led into the forest, we saw a leopard sitting up a tree looking nonchalantly back at us, as if to say “Aaargh! What else is new machaa?“

It was past 6 now and rapidly becoming dark so we virtually ran to the station which was just a few 100 meters away! So our Station Master friend was right and “R” was wrong! Not only did this place have Leopards, but there was atleast one Tiger in the vicinity! 🙂 My friend was keen to quickly grab food and return back to our cottage. But there was no way I was going to trek back in the dark down that trail! The last Passenger train for the day had already left, so a small argument later, we settled down in the security of the Railway Station for the night sleeping in the Signal Room cum Office of the lone Railway employee there. Over stiff shots of rum later that night, this Railway clerk regaled us with stories on his own encounters with wild animals at that small Railway Station. The soughing calls of the leopard we heard later in the night, proved he wasn’t fibbing!

On returning to the main junction the next day, we met an old coolie who now scraped a living begging at the station. He told us of a time in the 70s when Steam Engines were still around and Tigers would visit the very station we were standing at! Back then the Railway Track we had taken used to be a Meter Gauge line which met the Broad Gauge line at this junction. There was a spot around 100 m east near the “signal outer” where there were pipes to water the steam engines in use back then and Tigers used to visit that spot often, typically just at Dusk.

We went to the spot the coolie had spoken about and were left wondering how it was possible! But considering what we had seen the previous day, perhaps not so implausible after all! 🙂

I found this small anecdote in the memoirs of a British Forest Official posted in India where he refers to a strange Telegram received at the HQ of the British-Indian GIPR in 1892. The Telegram was sent by a Railway Station Master at a mofussil Railway Station “in the Deccan”. The Telegram read “Tiger on Platform. Men dont work. Please arrange”. That amusing telegram was later turned into a pencil sketch and published in a British newspaper that year.

I am pretty sure the small Railway Station in the Nallamala Forest that we spent the night at was the same one mentioned in that Telegram.

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