About a fortnight ago, a friend suggested me that I join him for a day's excursion to see the wildflowers of “Kaas.” To be frank, I was quite apprehensive at first, perhaps because of my ignorance. I had imagined the place to be just acres of cultivated farm flowers like say tulips or roses, stretching before my eyes. I had felt that such farm acres, though no doubt looking stunningly beautiful, they were not worth a day's excursion. I however, did some browsing and research on the net. What I read and saw on net, was difficult to grasp fully, but nevertheless I realised that it was a different kind of a dish altogether and I booked my ticket for a bus for a round trip excursion along with a couple of friends.
“Kaas” is a plateau on mountain tops, located deep in the ranges of Western Ghat mountains that are spread north-south, along India's western seaboard. It is at a distance of roughly 115 Km from home town Pune and can easily be approached, since there is an excellent road leading right up to the plateau. After having taken the plunge, I am now off to see this plateau, popularly known as “ Plateau of flowers.” The bus has left my home town around 6.45 AM and we are cruising at about 80-100 Km/Hour on the busy Pune- Bengaluru Highway. “Kaas plateau” (17 d 43' N, 73 d 49' E) is situated about 25 KM west of the historic city of Satara and we need to pass through the town.
Meanwhile, everyone in the bus appears hungry, having started rather early from home. We stop at a highway food joint for our breakfast with a typical Maharashtra style fare; “Kandapoha” ( Flattened rice flakes, moistened and cooked after lightly frying with mustard seeds, turmeric, chili powder and finely chopped onions ) and “VadaPau,” (round cakes of hash brown mixed with spices; dipped in gram flour paste; deep fried and inserted like a patty in two halves of a fluffy bread piece) and finally, sugary, milky tea- the way it is prepared all over India. While others are ravishing on the spicy grub, I have a look at our motley group- travelling together. There are four of us middle aged( with my exception being a senior citizen) and who have come to see the wildflowers. There is group of three families with full complement of kids of various ages, who probably have come for a picnic or an excursion. Then there is a group of IT guys wearing black rimmed frames, Bermudas, printed Tee shirts and above all, expensive DSLR cameras hanging from their necks and telling the world that they are on a serious photographic expedition. Then there is a group of young student type group of boys and girls, fun loving type. Finally there are couple of ladies travelling single, one of them very talkative.
I find out that I am the only senior citizen in the group, a black sheep or an odd man out. I feel slightly dejected, but I finish my Tea, buy some “Chikki,” ( A sugary sweet bar made from peanuts and sugar), share it with my friends and then slowly walk back to the bus. Soon, the bus leaves for Satara. Relaxed, I put on my iPod earphones and doze off listening to the music. I wake up to the hourly-burly noises of a city, which means that we have reached the Satara city. Soon the bus takes a diversion and we are on the “Kaas” road. The bus soon starts climbing uphill, which means that we are now climbing the ridge that connects the “Kaas” plateau with Satara city. This ridge consisting of several hills in tandem is fairly a long one; about 20 Km.
As the bus climbs up, I can see the landscape changing slowly to beautiful lush green meadows, interspersed with shallow valleys and small ponds, full of muddy water. This is natural because the south-west monsoon rains are just withdrawing. Within next two or three weeks all this will change, with lush green meadows changing over first to yellow brown and then disappearing altogether, exposing the reddish Lateritic soil underneath and patches of blackish basalt rocks. I, however leave the future scenario at bay and concentrate on the things around me as on the moment.
I also notice the change in weather, which is turning surprisingly pleasant with a cool refreshing breeze. The altitude of “Kaas” plateau is above 1200 meters (4000 ft). This is the reason for this sudden change in the weather, which ensures that our trip is likely to be a pleasant experience. We cross some wooded groves, perhaps with trees planted by forest department, but they make the environment soothing to the nerves and rather charming for the first time visitor like me. I see more green meadows ahead but now stretched longer and flatter.
The total area of “Kaas” plateau is huge, about 1800 hectares (4500 acres) and as we enter this pristine land , what could be a better welcome for us than the sudden appearance on both sides of the road of stunning beautiful clusters of golden yellow flowers, swaying with the breeze and dazzling on the widespread background of lush green grass. The yellow wildflowers are known as Sonki (Senecio bombyensis.) These are members of the large Asteraceae family to which many commonly known flowering plants like the aster or daisy belong.
The bus moves among the flower meadows of yellow wild flowers. Soon I see a barbed wire fence stretching on both sides of the road. I try to look beyond the fence, I can clearly see small dots of pink, white and purple in the greens. I know, we have arrived at “Kaas.”
“Kaas” plateau has a kind of soothing, mesmerizing effect on the eyes, before any other thoughts can even enter our minds. The long flat tableland, stretching on top of hills at a height of 1200 meters (4000 ft), lovely lush green meadows with few short trees and a curving road, bisecting the vast flatland in two halves, forms a strikingly lovely picture frame in the mind. The authorities have erected barbed chain link fences on both sides of the road to ban entry of trespassers on the flat lands. This has resulted in strips of reddish looking curbs on both sides of the road stretching to the limits of vision along with the road itself. The road with terracotta coloured side curbs, looks a perfect part of the landscape.
The bus drops us near one of the entry gates. As happens in most of the places related with tourism, I have to pay entry fees separately for myself and for my camera. Latter charged as much as five times compared to the former. There is a regular crowd here. I am surprised at the number of visitors who have come to visit the place. Yet, considering the fact that the flowering season of wildflowers lasts just about 8 weeks and today being holiday, this crowd may not be called as extraordinary. I enter through the gate. I see ahead a vast table land covered not only with lush green turf but island patches of pink and purple.
I notice something strange. There are no tall grasses here at all. Almost all the grasses and other flowering plants are of miniature size, the tallest perhaps just a few inches tall. Apparently this is so because the top soil layer, in which the plants grow, is wafer thin with solid basalt rock below, which in some places is as deep as even 3 Km. This wafer thin top soil does not allow the plant roots to go any deeper and effectively plants just stay dwarfs.
But what is so special about “Kaas” plateau? India's western ghat mountains are spread over 1600 Km length in north-south direction. There must be hundreds of plateaus on this mountain range. However no single reason for this special favour shown by nature to “Kaas,” can be given. It is more like a combination of factors such as rainfall, temperature, humidity, type of soil, topography and micro climate, that have created special conditions here for the bio-diversity of plants to grow. Western ghat mountains get huge amount of rain fall (3000-4000 mm) particularly on the western side, where there are straight broken cliffs. The alternate spells of dry and wet seasons over millions of years has developed cracks in the sedimentary rocks like sandstones, limestones, granites and all pervading basalt and has helped formation of laterites, which are soils, rich in iron and aluminium. Nearly all laterites are rusty-red because of iron oxides. Heavy monsoon rainfall leaches the laterites formed in the rock cracks and brings it to the surface by capillary action. This simple natural process has given the “Kaas” plateau its fertile but wafer thin layer of the laterite soil.
That is why the”Kaas” plateau with its specific environment, has been found endemic by a vast number of plant species (103 numbers), which can not be found anywhere else. The plateau has therefore become one of the most important habitats for hundreds of plant species as as well as a natural hotspot for conservation of biological diversity that is difficult to find anywhere else. Recognising this fact, UNESCO has included “Kaas” plateau in the list of places that are natural heritages of the world. Besides normal flowering plants like Impetiens (Terada), botanists have discovered here many exclusive species of epiphytic orchids and most interestingly insectivorous plants that survive on tiny insects abundantly found here.
The foremost difficulty for anyone trying to learn about the flora of “Kaas” is that almost all the plant that flourish here are so tiny that unless you are an experienced botanist, it is almost impossible to find the rare plants. Another difficulty is the timing. There are more than 170 individual species and 103 endemic species of plants that bloom here within the entire period of 8 to 10 weeks, with each species in full bloom for 4 to 5 days. This means that during a visit one can see only a few plant species in full bloom. The situation at “Kaas” is therefore always in a flux. A visitor might find the ground turned blue in one week, whereas in the next week the same ground would look yellow. Since I am not a botanist and have come here just to enjoy this fantastic laboratory set up by nature to develop new species of endemic plants, I would be happy to see whatever is in bloom and be satisfied with it. The wildflowers, keeping with the size of their parent plants are also usually very tiny, which means that a casual visitor, who has come here to see some kind of tulip or rose farm is bound to get disappointed. The key to “Kass” is to have patience and expert guidance.
Just near the entry gate, in a small cluster of plants, I find my first 'A” class exhibit, obviously with the help of a guide. It is a tiny plant almost of the size of a large spider. To me it appears more like a small octopus with several limbs projecting out. On each limb there are hundreds of hairy tentacles. The tiny plant is known as “ Indian Sundew, Davbindu” or Drosera ( Drosera Indica) and is an insectivorous plant. The hairy tentacles are fringed with gland tips that produce dots of sticky liquid. The sticky liquid helps trap insects, which are later absorbed. I can see few flower buds but no flowers as it would take few more days to full bloom.
A little further and to the left I can see some lovely purple flowers and I start walking towards them.
I have in front of me, a fairly large sized field, full of small herbs with most of them having a purple pink flower at the top. On careful observation, they turn out to be Impatiens or “Terda” flowers ( Impatiens laweii) with leaves directly growing from the herb stalk itself.
In the middle of this sea of purple pink flowers, an island cluster of erect shrubs catches my attention. This bunch is slightly taller than the Impatiens and also has a flower of dark blue colour. These are probably “Karvi” ( Strobilanthes callosus) flowers. I look around; I can only see Impatiens flowers around. Surprisingly, this perhaps is the only small cluster of these blue flowers that has bloomed.
I walk further ahead. In the sea of Impatiens around me, I can see two, similar looking erect plants; both very similar to “Nishigandha” or Tuberose with their white flowers. Yet, closer examination reveals that they are quite different. The first one has all the flowers grown out only in one direction at right angles to the stalk, like bristles on a tooth brush. This one is actually an orchid or a plant that survives on air and is called as “Toothbrush Orchid” (Habenaria heyneana). The other one is known locally as “Suichi Bhaji” or Dipcadi (Dipcadi montanum) and is actually from “Lily” family. Toothbrush Orchid flowers are plain white whereas Dipcadi flowers are greenish white.
On my left, I can see two more erect herbs that very much look like buds with a multipetal structure. Actually, these are supposed to be Rhizome ( plants with subterranean stem that is usually found underground; like ginger for example) herbs and called as “Chavar” (Hitchenia caulina). Ahead of them, I can see some blue flowers, with a single bluish purple petal. This lovely little herb is actually an insectivorous and survives on tiny insects. The blue petal has a white spot in the middle, which in reality is a trap door. Whenever any insect sits on this, the trap door folds inwards with the insect falling inside the stem, where it is consumed. The plant is known as “Sitechi Asave” or Utricularia (Utricularia purpurascens).
On my right the flatland is now giving way to a slope leading to valley, where I can see a huge reservoir of water. This one has been formed by a dam built on “Kanher” river. On the sloping ground, I can see a strange looking shrub. It has a perfect dome like shape and looks alike a round wicker basket kept upside down. This is supposed to bloom only once in seven years and the blue flowers produce a type of honey considered medicinally important. It is called as “Topali Karvi” or “Kharwar” or “Bukra ( Strobilanthes sessilis),
The sea of purple pink Impatiens has now given way to white globules. These balls of white flowers look like dots on green background. The balls are actually clusters of small white flowers, bundled together like a ball. Known as Eriocaulon or “Genthe” ( Eriocaulon stellulatum).
Ahead of me is a rocky patch. We decide to pause here and get our scattered group together. The kids are running around, being very curious and their parents rushing around trying to keep a tab on them. The single ladies are engrossed in some serious talk. I hear a few words, while passing by them. The talkative one is telling them about her experiences in Atlanta. The IT guys are taking snaps with their expensive cameras with giant sized zoom and close up lenses/ Their poses bring smile on my face. I can see a guy with his head almost dipped in a shrub, another one is lying down on ground, next to a flower.
After an interval, the group reassembles and we continue to walk ahead. I can see another shrub with hairy leaves and blue cup flowers jutting out of the cream coloured buds. These are “Karvi” ( Strobilanthes callosus) flowers all right. I am very much near the border fence now, which would mean that my stroll in nature's genetic laboratory is almost coming to an end. Then suddenly, my attention is drawn to a small cluster of shrubs with turmeric yellow flowers. The flower has three petals with two of them having large bright red spots that very much look like eyes. The flower sometimes is jokingly called as Donald Duck flowers. These funny looking flowers are known as “Berki” or Smithia (Smithia bigemina). I find a particular flower that looks like a Chihuahua.
I look at the watch, it's already 1.30 PM, which means that we have spent almost 3 hours in this place without knowing how the time was spent. Even when I have no knowledge of botany, I have found, with an occasional help from an expert, this nature's laboratory to be one of the most intriguing experience, wondering how and why nature creates so many species and keeps them modifying.
Our group waits for the bus, which has been parked at quite a distance. By the time we reach Satara city it's already half past two. We march to a decent place for lunch, where a vegetarian meal awaits us. After the meal, we shall again drive up the western ghat hills, to visit another majestic site before we start our journey towards home.
After lunch, we are on our way to hills of Western Ghat mountains once again. This time we take a new route, which is still westwards but slightly to the south. This road actually leads to one of the famous forts from Maratha history “SajjanGadh,” called great not because of any epic battles fought here, but because it was the place of residence of one of the most revered saints of the seventeen century Maharashtra, “ Swami Ramdas.” This fort still is an important religious place and on two particular days of the Hindu calender, devotees throng here even today, to worship Lord Rama.
However, we have no plans to visit the fort. A after travelling a distance of about 10 or 12 Km, we leave the winding road, that would climb up to the “Sajjan Gadh” and push forward on a narrow mountain road, along the hills.
Geologists say that western ghat mountains are not mountains in their true sense. They are actually the faulted edge of the Deccan plateau formed during the break up of super continent of “Gondawana,” some hundred and fifty million years ago. After this break up, as Indian mainland kept drifting towards Asia, a huge volcanic explosion took place around 65 million years ago depositing huge amounts of lava that resulted into formation of the basalt rock here. All this upheaval, created vertical cliffs and deep valleys along the western edge of the mountains, creating a scary landscape of valleys as deep as 3000 feet and mountain tops carved out of black basalt rocks.
During the monsoon months (June to September), south-west monsoon winds bring moisture laden heavy clouds to India's west coast. They meet their first barrier, when mountain cliffs of western ghats present a formidable obstacle to them. This makes the clouds rise higher and while doing so, they let huge amount of moisture go off on the eastern edge of the mountains. At these places, the rain fall is extremely heavy, touching figures of 3000 to 4000 mm annually. Most of the rain water just flows away, forming hundreds of rivers and rivulets of various sizes. Because of the huge water flows in this terrain, consisting of deep valleys, it is possible to see many spectacular water falls along the entire ridge of Western Ghat mountains. The list of waterfalls here is very long, however some of the more famous falls can be listed as Palaruvi, Kedumari, Koosali, Jog, Magod, etc. One of these big waterfalls is nearby and we are on our way to visit it.
One of the largest reservoir of water in the western ghat mountains, has been formed at Koyananagar by damming the river Koyana. On the eastern side of the reservoir, rises another mountain ridge of about 3000 feet height. Because of the extremely heavy monsoon rainfall, hundreds or rivers and rivulets originate on this ridge and flow either westwards into Koyananagar reservoir or eastwards. “Tarlee” river is one such eastwards flowing river that originates on this ridge. This river has been dammed on the ridge itself and forms a small reservoir known as “Thoseghar Lake.” The river, further flowing east-southeast, encounters a deep gorge at a place that is roughly midway between two villages of “Chalkewadi” and “Thoseghar.” The river jumps down in this gorge of at least 500 meter depth in a spectacular fall, breaking down in several streams; out of these the two most prominent once have been named after “ Rama” and his brother “Laxmana.” The waterfalls are known by a general name as “Thoseghar Waterfalls.”
The bus stops and we all get down. There is a makeshift ticket booth, where visitors need to pay a nominal entry fee. As usual, few shops can be seen around selling cool drinks, tea and snacks. The tourism department has built us a nice paved path for the visitors to go deeper in the gorge so that they can view the falls in real glory. To start with the steps are small and distanced apart. Soon the path becomes narrow and steps become taller. The whole area is deeply wooded and is a regular forest. After climbing down around 100 to 150 feet, I can see a crowded platform full of visitors, with everyone making full use of the photo op. I reach the specially built observation platformr. Ahead of me is a deep gorge around 500 meter deep and the water oozing out from several streams on ridge top appears to be jumping down with a careless kind of attitude. Some of the falls are quite small; around 15 to 20 meters. The two big once however, appear to be jumping straight down.
The whole setting here is quite spectacular. The weather beaten, vertically cut, cliff faces in basalt, look super imposing and the deep gorge has some kind of eerie feel about it. The water releasing itself into the gorge has a non benevolent, “I don't care” attitude as it carelessly jumps down with a roar. After watching the falls for few minutes, it is time to return. On way back we visit another vista point, from where a better view of water just about to jump down can be had. I take photographs and relax a bit before the final climb up begins.
Soon I am back to the spot, where our bus has been parked and after a refreshing cup of tea, we start on our return journey. In just one day, I have managed to see two of nature's great wonders. My mind is filled with amazement and as I keep thinking about these two places, I doze off.