Year 2015 was special for Shashank Dalvi. It was his ‘Big Year’. He decided to wrap the year with Nicobar Megapod and was travelling to Andaman and Nicobars. He managed to obtain permission with several Govenrment departments to travel to Central and Great Nicobars as well for 8 of us before closing the year in Gujarat.
We were to leave for Port Blair on 15th December.
Chennai and the east coast was drowned in rains. Ominous clouds moved in fast-forward mode.
It was like watching a horror movie.
Nature’s fury rendered people and their deities helpless. Bridges and dams tumbled down. People were stranded in higher floors. More than 15 feet of water in the low lying residential areas. The expedition was 5 days away.
I must have rattled Shashank Dalvi with my frivolous worries. I googled the weather pattern over Andamans and Nicobars. I could not see a bit of land. Just purple swirls. I spoke to Gaurav and expressed my fear for the safety of the ladies team.
He confirmed the purple swirls on his monitor. He began to twiddle his thumbs as well. The first ever trip with legal documents to travel to any of the islands of Central and Great Nicobar might get washed out due to rains.
I behaved like a weatherman from reuters… Unbiased and stream of unending reports.
I added to Gaurav's worry by feeding him scholarly gyan on universal weather patterns. ‘Gaurav, you know how this works? There are strong warm winds from Australia traveling at great speeds, rushing towards the subcontinent. And, cold winds traveling from Bhutan heading towards south will cause an endless storm for quite a while’.
This information rattled the cool-as-ice Shashank once Gaurav conveyed the gyans.
Shashank.. being Shashank, regained his calm in no time. He remained silent in his own thoughts. After what seemed like an endless silence he signed off with a brusque ‘Let’s wait and watch. Whatever trick the nature has up it’s sleeve, the expedition on.. over and out’. It was not easy to roger that..
The rains abated two days before the trip. Chennai….. Coast clear.
But the purple swirls on the monitor had not. The animation was down to a loop.
The team arrived in Port Blair by batches under perfect weather. Actually, through out the expedition, the rains never bothered us except for one downpour while we slept outdoor in Galathea Bay.
Shashank had already flown down south along with Sharmaji, towards Great Nicobars. A two and half hours of helicopter ride. Clear weather with regular bursts of rain during the morning hours.
His sightings and reports were encouraging. We flew out in batches of two people each day.
Shashank Dalvi… Scientist in the true spirit. A fine naturalist and a gentleman. He wears several other hats. And under each hat the rabbits breed by the dozens per minute. By now, you may all be aware his talents and wisdom. A mouth watering 1128 species covered during his Big Year of 2015.
I was keen to meet him since 2012. We were to travel to Namdhapha National Park on a 7 day trek during early 2015.
I had heard about his exploits in the North East. Drooled over Ramki’s images and Shashanks exploits. I was unsure if he would even speak to me. It was during March 2015, when I first saw him arrive across Maguri Bheel riding pillion, all muddied, looking like the kid from the ‘surf’ advertisement, I felt waves of underachievement surge through me. Feeling good at the same time. He came across as down to earth and absolutely level headed. I was going to bird alongside this man. Beginning of good times.
He answered trivial question with enthusiasm. I had the opportunity to learn about bird behaviours and soak in from this humble man. He is truly devoted to nature and fills up your brain with tonnes of useful and jaw-dropping information on all creatures in the wild. The mutual co-existence among species, behavioural aspect, the interpretation of their calls etc.. etc.
One always wants more of him. Namdhapha trek was gruelling for me and equally an interesting one.
The time in Port Blair was usefully spent in grand sightings of owls and the expected species.
As we were gathering stuff in ultra light back pack, Gaurav was struck with the thought of moving the double ,tents out. They were heavy. Since we were allowed 5 kgs per person, I suggested that we wear the tents as lungis. Body weight along with the hanging binocs and double clothing was no issue. Baggage was. Big lenses were.
My idea didn’t go well with him. He quickly made some calls. The moment a combination of a smirk and a wide smile hit his face I knew the issue was resolved. We were given the permission to use the tents issued during tsunami to the islanders by Government of India. The reason why we could not use them is another matter to cause those permanent crease on his forehead.
Sharmaji, Gaurav’s colleague, Robinson Crusoe, The Man-Friday and the permanently hissing-grinning actor from ‘Man vs Wild’, all rolled into one being was asked to check on the tents.
Sharmaji checked. He was awarded with some creases on his forehead as well. He had some good news and loads of bad news.
The tents were still in their original packings. Excellent quality. Each tent could house two bus loads of people. But each tent weighed close to a ton. A bit exaggerated, but in any case he could not muster 20 people to carry a single tent for 4 miles ploughing through unending ditches and followed by further couple miles of goat paths till the site. Goat paths….. To move ahead you have to place the right foot in the narrow ditched path and to get the left foot ahead, you have to raise it to the sky and place it in position with the dexterity of a Himalayan Tahr.
On such paths, Sharmaji usually uses his light weight frame and fly across. Whoever said smoking is injurious. Maybe a couple a day might. But at three packs, bordering on fourth, it allows you to reach the dexterity and speed of a mountain goat. This man was a scooting chimney.
Tsunami had swallowed the road at the 35th mile. We sailed on a narrow fishing boat which was most of the time, lost on the swelling ocean. Since there was no opportunity to take the boat safely close to the rocky shoreline, we anchored the boat at chest deep water and walked across, holding the camera gear raised above our head.
At the final cross over was a huge rock and we had to run across it as huge waves thrashed on the rock. We had to make a dash across the rock while timing the waves. Two birders were not that lucky with the waves and were completely drenched along with their cameras.
The next obstacle was to cross a 20 feet river which was over crowded with fresh water crocodiles. Few of us found long sticks which we beat the water surface and would charge across the river.
A few researchers who were working on Nicobar Megapods, had left bamboo platforms to live on. Sharmaji, who had reached the spot a day earlier had built a slightly raised bamboo platform to rest our backpack and gear upon.
Fate was left to play the protagonist. We slid back from centre stage.
Assured that the dark rum can contribute to divine intervention once it is freed from the bottle.
The tales of the stay at the camping site and Sharmaji’s avatar of ten handed calendar picture of an obscure diety is for another day. Those stories can change gloomy days, assured that challenges were behind our backs.