Just a few minutes’ walk into the forest, we spot something worth thousands: it’s poo and embedded in it are coffee beans. This is “kopi luwak” or civet coffee, the most expensive coffee bean there is in the market. Here, at Fringe Ford, 500-odd acres of privately-owned wilderness in Kerala’s Wayanad region, it is allowed to just be an ordinary turd, to mingle with and enrich the earth.
A few metres further, naturalist Shaji and I chance upon something priceless: poo again, this time of the tiger (respectfully called scat as befits an animal of such royal stature). It seems to be a frequent traveller on this path if the other clues we decipher — scratch marks on trees and scraping of mud — are anything to go by.
The poo trail gets more interesting. There are copious amounts dropped by elephants, from which green shoots and fungi sprout. Frogs hop about, spiders crawl through, and beetles industriously fashion dung into balls for their lunch! Butterflies — tiny yellow ones and ashy brown ones with an eye-shaped design on a corner of their wings — flutter over, landing to suck the poo’s salty juices. This is serious shit, a micro ecosystem supporting many forms of life. Elephants are hearty eaters, poor digesters, and great wanderers. As they travel, they disperse seeds far and wide in smartly packaged fodder — dung — from which springs an assortment of plants. Elephants are gardeners of Edens like this, a patch in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, the Western Ghats.
Further down the trail, more jungle tales unfold. Deep holes in the mud show where the sloth bear has been laboriously digging for treasure, in this case termites. Scratch marks along the trunk of a wild jamun testify to the bear’s honey hunt. Spongy white webs of the funnel spider line the path, and mounds — almost like tiny castles — of pebbles and flowers indicate a flying ants’ nest. Leopard pugmarks dot our path.
Golden orioles croon, a tiny crimson sunbird flashes its brilliant hues, a Malabar trogon flies from tree to tree, blue tiger butterflies shimmer in the dappled sunlight. A stripe-necked mongoose, a streak of bristling, burnished rust, rushes past, halting briefly for a nervous look at us trespassers.
Shaji is the resident naturalist for Fringe Ford, born just a few miles downhill from where we are walking. He was a young Gerald Durrell in the making, turning up home with snakes and scorpions in his pockets. He was denied food as punishment, but that “was never a deterrent”. Thank god, as one couldn’t have asked for a more knowledgeable guide through this wilderness.
Shaji points out the spiky fruit of the Cullenia exarillata tree, which is favoured by myriad animals from macaques to giant squirrels. He warns me to steer clear of the leaves of the annamaiki tree (likely Holigarna sp.) which cause an itch so terrible it even “drives the elephants mad”. He slices open a liana (a woody water vine) locally known as mannibelli, and from its belly pours liquid gold. Water: drinkable, pungent, medicinal.
At the end of this intense forest trek is a waterfall. Water thunders down from the mossy rocks, shards of crystal flying as the stream hurtles into a pool. It’s irresistible. I plunge into the biting-cold water that stings and pounds as it cascades over me. My body, limp and weary with the tepid, murky water typical of cities, convulses with shock; each muscle and sinew springs to life.
And, you will not believe this, but a rainbow encircles me, dancing at my feet. Golden frogs mate in the pool, dragonflies hover, and it is the same water a tiger had cooled in during the dry months of the summer.
Words fail to express my emotions. All I know is, I am blessed.
The sheer beauty of nature, its soothing, healing power overwhelms me. What utter madness it is to destroy forests. Forests heal, rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. To say nothing about their myriad ecosystem services as watersheds and carbon sinks. Yet, forests about the size of 63 football fields are diverted for industry, mining and other such activities in India every single day.
The interconnectedness in nature never ceases to amaze me. For instance, how the dung of one animal gives life to so many others. I am not obsessing over poo, but there is a deeper philosophy behind not harvesting civet turd and leaving it to play its role in nature. It’s a philosophy that values nature for itself, not for the money that can be squeezed out of its exploitation. It’s symbolic of the way things are at Fringe Ford, which was a cardamom and coffee estate until a conscious decision was taken around the year 2000 to stop farming and let the land return to the wild. For conservation, this was a godsend, as the Fringe Ford wilderness merges seamlessly — as nature is wont to — with the forests of Tholpetty in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. This is part of a large contiguous and important wildlife landscape with protected areas and reserve forests (Nagarahole-Bandipur-Mudumalai-Brahmgiri-Wayanad-BRT-Satyamangalam) that transcends three states and holds the highest global tiger population (about 585) and one of the densest Asian elephant populations in the world.
I am a fussy travel writer, picky about places I take to, especially in the context of their “nature-friendliness/environment footprint”. As for gems such like Fringe Ford, I find that my generous sharing gene goes missing, subdued by an overpowering impulse to selfishly keep these special places nestled in my heart. But share I must. Hopefully only those, who truly love nature, those who can survive-if not thrive–without mobile network, and don’t mind sharing their room with the occasional spider, will make their way to such a haven.
Kozhikode/Calicut (135 km/3 hours away) is the closest airport to Fringe Ford. The road traverses Kalpetta and Mananthavady to reach Talapoya. At Talapoya, leave your vehicle at the designated pick-up point and travel the short distance to Fringe Ford in their pick-up van.
Tips for visiting a forest:
• You are a guest in the forest. The welfare of its inhabitants comes first
• Don’t be noisy
• Adhere to rules; listen to your guide
• Don’t litter
• Never smoke in the forest. A lit cigarette can be fatal to the forest and its denizens
• Carry binoculars, a bird book, and other field guides. I would highly recommend Pillars of Life – Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats by Divya Mudappa & T.R. Shankar Raman, with botanical Illustrations by Nirupa Rao