The greatest experience I've ever had on field was the expedition into the Western Ghats of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu with Deepak, a Ph.D student from Wildlife Institute of India in search of the Endemic turtles of India. It all started from Top-Slip in Annamallai Tiger reserve, Pollachi. It was Deepak and I in a Maruthi Gypsy, travelling to different sampling spots in the Western Ghats.

Rajapalayam Hound
November 2010 – We had finished off all our sampling spots in Karnataka and had decided to start off the ones in Tamil Nadu. We sorted out the coordinates and found that Rajpalyam (Rajapalayam) near Srivilliputhur was our next destination.

Rajapalayam is a god blessed town situated in the foothills of the Western Ghats, around 30Km away from Srivilliputhur. The place is known for its endemic, and supposedly India's only Hound (Dog), the Rajapalayam hound. We were happy to see a few of them while we went shopping (some vegetables and other stationaries) for our 3-4 days on the field. We packed our bags and started our journey to the sampling spot, the next day. We had to drive a few kilometers, to meet the Ranger and a few assistants who was supposed to help us on field.
Scenery from 650-700m above sealevel
The weather was dry and the marsh terrain was surprisingly even with a few Fan throated lizards (Sitana ponticeriana) running around. We had nearly 10-12 Kg on our back (each) and our sampling spot seemed to be nearly 15Km uphill at around 850m ASL. The environment started to cool down as we gained altitude, and the even marsh terrain was replaced by the uneven evergreen rainforest. It took us around 4 hours to reach our destination.

The place was beautiful with a farm house in the middle of an estate which is surrounded by thick evergreen rainforest. The farm house was small and furnished. They had a wooden bench outside on the veranda and a pole to which a cow was tied, a radio that operates 24*7 and no electricity. The only thing that produced electricity was the generator that ran on kerosene, but worked only for an hour, a day.
The Farmhouse with the cow tied on the Veranda
We started our field work the next day and we began by exploring the estate and its adjoining forest areas. The estate manager had warned us about a plant called 'Aanai viratti' (which means “That scares the crap out of elephants”) and asked us to avoid them completely. Deepak showed me what it was and why it should be avoided.

Aanai Viratti or Devil's Nettle is a variety of nettle plant, but doesn't have any specific attributes like their other relatives. They look like any other normal plant. The minute hairs (which when brushed, irritates) appear only when you are really close to it. These plants grow to the size of a small tree and are found in plenty on forest openings where they get plenty of sunlight.We started our walk through the estate and we avoided almost all the visible DNs* (*Devil's Nettle) until we reached this specific area. The forest floor was covered with vegetation and the estate plants were as tall as me. We made our route through them and started walking towards the sampling spot, shown in our GPS.
Inside the estate - Devil's Nettle site
After a while, I started to feel a bit irritated by a burning sensation on my left leg (around the shin area). I stopped for a while to check what it was. Scratching the part, I continued walking trying to catch-up with Deepak who was already way ahead of me. The burning sensation started to increase as I walked forward and so did my tendency to scratch. I began to stop frequently to scratch, which made me feel so uncomfortable.

The night was horrendous. The burning sensation was at its peak and I was trying my level best not to scratch the itch. Fever caught hold of me above everything and my appetite to eat gradually came down. Just to satisfy my hunger, I had a few Chapaties and went to sleep. Sleep evaded me and nightmares started to invade, every time I closed my eyes. All of a sudden, I felt nauseous. It was cold outside and I ran outside to nauseate. Feeling better, I returned back to the bed.

The day seemed much promising as my fever subsided. I felt so weak, as I nauseated a few times the previous night. Deepak asked me to take rest as he got ready for the field work. I shifted myself from the room to the veranda and found myself comfortable basking in the sunlight on the bench outside. Making my sweatshirt as my pillow, I decided to take a nap. The Ranger was at home and he took the radio outside so that I don't feel bored. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I say that the radio actually saved my life.
The radio that saved my life
A.R. Rahman (2 time Academy award winner) is one of those few whom I admire, and listening to his song gives me that blast of energy from the inside. Lucky me, it was the time when the film ‘Enthiran/Robo’ was released and all that was aired on the FM was about Enthiran. I love Rajnikanth and that too might have added to, how good I was feeling listening to the radio. The day was awesome as the radio repeatedly played all the songs from the movie Enthiran, plus certain old songs of A.R. Rahman.

I regained my appetite to eat and did have a good lunch that day. By evening, I was feeling so recovered until I felt this tremor inside my tummy. God damn, above all the high fever and the nausea, I'm having diarrhea and that too in type 7* (*According to the Bristol Stool Scale). It is complete exhaustion by the end of the day.

We packed our bags and got ready to reach back to civilization the next morning. Deepak did give me a few pills that would control the state of my stool, so that I can easily trek back down with the rest of the guys. 15Km seemed too far and it took us around 5 hours to get back down. All the weight on our back, plus my bad health condition just made it worse and by the time we reached the foothills (Where we had kept our vehicle) I was completely exhausted. My whole body was numb and I asked Deepak to take me to a hospital ASAP. 45 mins ride to the nearest hospital, 4 bottles of Intravenous drips and a few days of rest was the result.

It has been nearly 7 months now and I still get Goosebumps thinking of the situation I had been into. Reading the recent article by Janaki Lenin is the inspiration to write this entry. And to conclude, this is my message to the people who do regular treks - "Devil's Nettle is one of those plants you don't want to mess with.

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