When someone mentions “virgin rainforests”, most of us immediately think of the Amazon basin or some other exotic place in a far-flung corner of the world. We don’t usually associate the term with any region in India. Yet, here in the subcontinent, deep in the Western Ghats lies a tract of land that is a pristine rainforest. Agumbe in Karnataka receives the second highest rainfall in India and during the monsoon it turns into a lush, veritable paradise. And in the midst of this rainforest lies India’s only rainforest research station. The Agumbe Rainforest Research Station (ARRS) is not for the fainthearted – there are snakes! – but if you sign up to visit, it will be an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Did we mention that there are snakes out there? And not just any snake. This is the natural habitat of the King Cobra and the Agumbe Research Station was primarily set up to research this venomous species. The famous Indian herpetologist, Romulus Whitaker, set up the station in 2005, and since then it has conducted research on the King Cobra and other species endemic to the rainforest here. The ecology of the rainforest is the primary concern of the ARRS and they have done their best to disturb as little of it as possible while trying to find out as much about it as they can.
The King Cobra is one of the most fascinating species of snakes in the world. It is not only highly venomous but it is also the only species that will eat other snakes. So much so that when a mother cobra gives birth, she will quietly slither away from the nest lest she be tempted to eat her babies. The researchers swear that it’s a terrifying yet awe-inspiring sight to see two male cobras battle it out over a female cobra they want to mate with. The ARRS has successfully conducted the world’s first radio-telemetry research project on the King Cobra and their observations have helped herpetologists to understand the enigmatic species better.
The locals at Agumbe revere the King Cobra. They would rather abandon their house than kill a snake that’s crept up to it. There are temples and shrines built all over the villages for these snakes and this is primarily what prompted Whitaker to set up the station at this spot, a mere 1.5 kilometers away from Agumbe village.
The station is just a handful of sparse cottages set in the middle of dense forest. At any time, there are a mere 10 employees here – 4 researchers and 6 locals who help out. Volunteers from all over the country visit the station to help with the research. Botany students, wildlife enthusiasts, even IT professionals all find something compelling here, spending weeks braving the incessant rain, poor connectivity, little contact with the outside world, sparse accommodation and simple food. The beauty of the untouched forest and the thrill of spotting wildlife in its natural habitat are what bring them here – and keep them coming back.
If you imagine waking up in the middle of a forest with only the sounds of the rain and birds to greet you, then a visit to the ARRS is for you. But if you think that it is a resort where you’ll have a comfortable holiday, you need a reality check before you go. The ARRS is a research center – they fund their research from visitors who want to experience the rainforest, amongst other sources. There are no signboards that will show you the way here – only a few villagers pointing to a dirt track disappearing into the forest. There are no well-appointed rooms – only spartan cottages that will cater to your basic requirements. There are no well laid-out tables laden with food. Food is simple and in short supply and you’ll be rationed along with the people who live here. Tea and water will be plenty though. There are no sightseeing tours – only field trips where, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot rare species of birds and reptiles. The ARRS is virtually cut off from the rest of the world. Only BSNL network works here and that too sporadically.
The station is also off the grid. They run on solar energy and have a limited supply of it. There will be rain – sheets of it. Incessant rain that will seep under your clothes and your nerves – especially if you’re here during the monsoon. And yes, there will be leeches. You will have to tuck your pants into your boots each time you step out. You’ll have to tread carefully everywhere and you won’t be able to go exploring on your own. Remember the snakes?
But what you will get is an experience that can happen only once in a lifetime. You’ll be able to observe the rainforest from the inside and see nature in its most raw and primitive form. You’ll see birds and animals that you’ve never heard of. You’ll turn a corner and see a stream where the birds hop from one rock to another. You’ll see flying lizards trapeze over your head. You’ll probably spot a King Cobra too. You’ll put your phone aside and immerse yourself in an experience that cannot be replicated in your other life, your city life.
Things to do in Agumbe:
- Go for field trips.
- Visit the Onakke Abbe waterfall.
- Volunteer to help in the research going on at the station. This will mean getting down and dirty.
- Visit Dodda Maney in the village of Agumbe – a 150-year old house where Malgudi Days was shot.
- Visit Jain temples and snake shrines.
- Go for a guided night walk to observe the forest in its element.
If you’re planning to drive up the station, be warned that a car will not be able to manage to maneuver the dirt road leading up to it. You might have to leave it at the village and walk the rest of the way.
Where: Agumbe Rainforest Research Station
Suralihalla, Agumbe, Thirthahalli Taluk
Shimoga District, Karnataka -577411
If you want to visit or volunteer, we suggest that you call them and book your dates well in advance. They welcome visitors, provided they’re not unexpected ones!
Saw or experienced anything unusual and uncommon that you’d like to see covered here? Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org with a line or two, and we will publish with credit to you. Best suggestions win shopping vouchers!