It was hot, dark, suffocatingly humid with a putrid smell of rotting leaves and branches taking your breath and droplets of moisture pearling from the branches. This was one of the sholas we had to pass through on our way to Kukkal caves. Something slimy seemed to be within my socks and my feet seemed to be slipping somewhat in my shoes. I stopped to see what had happened when Rolf, my older brother, yelled at me to keep moving. Siem, a good comrade one class below us, had also stopped and was trying to remove something from the lower end of his trousers. Rolf and Frieder were accelerating the pace to get out of this damp, green jungle as fast as possible. Finally we came out into the glaring sunshine and the heat of the endless grassland - grass as far as one could see, covering the wide valleys and the gently sloped hills, with trees parsimoniously strewn out here and there.
Finding some rocks on which to sit down, we started examining our feet, our clothing. And there they were, the blood suckers, leeches - some still clinging to the jeans or shoes, others trying to get through the stockings. But some had achieved their goal and were stuck into the skin of our feet, especially mine. Others had already had enough and were lying in the shoes, thick and swollen up. Stains of blood had wettened our shoes. Rolf told us not to worry, since all we would need to do would be to cover these horrible, wormlike creatures with salt and they would immediately let loose. In fact, within 15 minutes we had gotten rid of all of them, had our shoes and socks dried, had disinfected the wounds with iodine. After eating bananas and taking some large gulps of water, we were prepared to continue our hike. "Why didn't you let us stop and get rid of these leeches immediately?" we asked Rolf. His calm response was, "Because they would have crept on you faster then you could ever have removed them."
We - Siem, Tyke, Frieder, Rolf and I* - were on our way again heading for the Kukkal caves after having left Kodai early this Friday morning. We were heavy laden with pots and pans, food, water and all the requirements of a camping long weekend. Arriving at a crossing of paths and no clear sign of which path to follow to Kukkal caves, we discussed the situation and fixed the path we would risk. The endless chirping of the seemingly thousands of cicadas, swelling and diminishing in loudness, the lonely and somehow melancholic call of apes and all kinds of strange noises were our company as we silently, one behind the other, made our way through the grassland.
But the path became narrower and narrower. We weren't convinced we were on the right path to Kukkal caves any more, but heat, thirst and fatigue smothered all discussion and turning back was out of question. After about three hours of tight walk, we discovered a small stream; it was about five yards broad with wonderful clear water gurgling down the hillside. There was no discussion now; here is where we were going to camp.
After quenching our thirst with this pure, cold water, we cleared a circle at the bank of the stream, placed rocks on which to put the pots and pans, collected grass and dried wood to do the cooking. Tyke and Siem took the responsibility for the cooking. I collected fern and grass and brought them a little higher uphill, where there was a large rock overhanging the slope. That wasn't a cave, but it offered shelter so beds were prepared. Rolf and Frieder investigated the area around our camping place to make sure we were sufficiently safe here. In the meantime the rice was cooked, and corned beef mixed with some vegetables and spiced with red chilies and curry spread its aroma all around. What a fantastic meal after such a day. We sat around the fire place, listening to all the exotic noises of birds, apes, hyenas or whatever, trying to guess what we were hearing, discussing if and how we should get to Kukkal caves. When the nearly full moon made its appearance over the ranges, we stumbled up to our "cave," hung up one kerosene lamp and placed another one at the entrance to prevent animals from disturbing our sleep.
We must have slept like dead, because the sun was already standing fairly high in a clear blue sky when we finally crawled out of our sleeping bags. Some prepared breakfast while the rest were taking their morning bath in the stream. After breakfast, things were cleared up; eatables were stored in pots and cans and refrigerated in the cool stream. There was no talk any more of breaking off our camp here and trying to reach Kukkal caves. We were here to discover this new area for ourselves. And so about eleven o'clock we were on our way again.
We were following an animal trail uphill and had barely made half a mile when we discovered the shedded skin of a python just a foot off the trail. Stretching it out, we found it to measure well above five yards long and with an estimated diameter of at least five inches. That wasn't something to leave us cool; we had become aware of a danger, not anticipated. So nobody had the idea of taking that skin with us as a souvenir. A cautious silence had replaced our initially excited and exuberant behavior.
Suddenly we heard a strange noise coming from somewhere downhill, getting louder fast, at first not identifiable, then sounding like a herd of deer running toward us, invisible in the grass and bush land. Four of us instinctively stepped aside of the trail; Rolf, being quite a way ahead of us, evidently hadn't taken note of that noise. In unison we yelled at Rolf to step aside, when already a huge Sambal stag, at least six feet high, stampeded past us, barely missing Rolf. It continued its stampede all the way uphill. Was that close! Why the heck was that Sambal stampeding up hill like that? Had it been frightened by us, or was some other animal chasing him, possibly a tiger? All sorts of explanations were proposed. But aside from the danger we had just encountered again, the joy of having taken a glimpse of such a wonderful animal so close prevailed and stimulated us to search for more.
We crossed several ranges and were on the point of returning to our camp when we discovered a herd of elephants grazing peacefully far down the slope. Carefully we approached the herd, looking for a good observation point. It was a herd of about 10 to 15 adults and two small ones. It was absolutely fascinating to observe these wild elephants in their natural environment. After about twenty minutes one of us whistled and immediately the herd became attentive and formed a circle around their young ones, heads turned outward. In trying to get a little bit closer, one of us stepped on a loose stone which began rolling down the steep slope. Stupid as we were, this led to letting other stones roll down the slope. With a loud trumpeting outburst the herd of elephants stampeded down hill out of our sight, leaving a cloud of dust and the sound of branches breaking behind.
What could one expect more? We climbed up the hill again and decided that we had seen and experienced enough and that it was time to return to our camp. And that is when torture began. There were so many animal trails and we had not marked ours. We really got lost, although it took us a long time to admit it. I had no idea where we were and in which direction we should go, but others were sure of the direction. The grass surrounding us was high - well, six feet high, if not more - so that you couldn't see far enough ahead. Thirst and fatigue came as we kept on walking and walking, seemingly without any sign of approaching our camp. Anxiety came up, since the daylight was rapidly diminishing, leading us to walk faster. We had to stay on animal trails. There was no alternative, since the grass was not only high, but its leaves were sharp and rough as blades. I guess some of us began praying as twilight set in.
The full moon began to make its appearance over the ranges of the surrounding hills, as we suddenly heard the gurgling sound of a stream. Yes, we had been wandering in a huge circle and had now finally, almost miraculously, found our way back to our camp. I don't remember much of anything else, whether or not we ate something. Probably I and all the others were so dead-tired that we didn't have any energy left to prepare anything.
Today I wonder what endlessly patient angel had watched over us careless youngsters.
*Hikers included Siem Speck, Traugott Jungjohann (Tyke), Frieder Jungjohann, Rolf Tauscher and Hermann Tauscher.