572 Steps Above Hampi with the Monkey God

I hear the chanting from miles away, but it takes a ferry ride across the river, an hour on my bike, and a 30-minute climb to get to the source.

I bike along the Tongahadra River valley, a palm-lined oasis in the veritable desert. It’s so incredibly hot that my body refuses to remain dry. With clammy hands and growing pools of sweat under my eyes, I pedal on toward the Monkey Temple – birthplace of the monkey-shaped god Hanuman, who’s considered a devoted disciple and very strong warrior of Lord Rama.

Leaving my bike with a seemingly trustworthy banana seller at the foot of the hill, I start the long hike up the 572 steps to the top.

The town of Hampi — a trash heap built on the promise of tourism — sits on the edge of a beautiful rock cemetery in the distance. The landscape itself is one of the most jarring in all of India.

Like gaping at clouds as they morph into barely familiar shapes, the Hampi region is a mesmerizing, constantly surprising jumble of utter unpredictability. Formed by millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion, the result is truly awing. It’s at once both desert and oasis.

Amidst the rubble of the precariously perched boulders and jumbled rock clusters sit ancient ruins to rival those of Angkor. The pleasant symmetry of the majestic kingdom sits in stark contrast to the rutted rock cemetery surrounding.

In 1336, Telugu prince Harihara chose Hampi as the site for his new capital Vijayanager, which in the ensuing centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. At its peak, the empire covered the vast majority of Southern India.

Just before it was raised to the ground by the Decca sultanates in 1565, Vijayanager boasted over 500,000 residents living in unparalleled grandeur.

It’s amazing what man can do under the auspices of religion. The massive columns of Hampi’s grand structures are like ancient storybooks, full of wild tales of gods and warriors. In addition to the heroic plotlines, the walls of the ancient city provide vivid displays of Hinduisms casual mix of the erotic and the everyday.

The historic site of an epic battle, the 21st century city faces an altogether different type of conflict – that of conservation. Local residents moved in amongst the ruins, building guesthouses and restaurants on top of priceless constructions as tourism began its gradual rise several decades ago.

Some locals even spend their entire lives monitoring minor monuments, claiming ownership and demanding fees from onlookers.

Though the town relies on tourism, Hampi remains one of India’s remarkably well-kept secrets. It’s a wonder the place isn’t bustling with intrepid jetsetters. A trip from the nearest train station at Hospet belies none of the glory of Hampi – but a few high-end resorts could certainly alter the trajectory of this architectural and natural wonder.

Turning away from the dramatic vista, I venture to the far end of the hilltop temple toward the source of the noisy clamor. Entering the lavishly decorated temple, I find a two-man band in a side room, blasting their music into mountaintop speakers.

Around another end of the temple, a fat-bellied man lies on the tile terrace with two young attendants.

The young boys massage his limbs as he offers orders between bouts of lethargy. Others stand by, waiting to serve. A larger-than-life mural of the Monkey King, Hanuman, looms above the entranced man and it strikes me that the two are not so dissimilar in appearance.

Hampi is a holy site mentioned in the Ramayana as Kishkindha, the realm of the monkey gods.

It’s a place where anthropomorphism is not fiction but fact and men can get away with pretending to be descendants of animal gods.

Each morning and evening, crowds gather to clean their bodies and souls in the river below the monkey god’s towering home.

As I make my descent back toward the river, the sun plots its course through the valley walls. Crossing back across the rambling water, an Elephant plays in the stream, dressed in ceremonial gear for a parade in a neighboring village.

As the orange sunset gives way to the violet hour it begins to rain. It’s the first rain of the season – the first rain this area has seen in months. The chanting from the monkey temple grows as the rain intensifies and the people of Hampi praise the monkey god while the sky turns tar black.

Eat Deer, Save Birds: a conservation tale

I sent off a postcard the other day.  The picture, I felt, was the quintessential image of the New Zealand countryside.  The glossy photo showed rolling green fields bordered in flax and populated by hundreds of puffy white sheep. I couldn’t find the postcard I wanted to send, the one that would have been just as fitting but heaps more comical.  The postcard I wanted would have looked much the same, but instead of the cute sheep it would have shown hundreds of thorny red deer.  It would have shown a never-ending field of fenced in deer because this too is the face of much of the southern planes.

Now, where I come from you don’t find deer on the farm with the sheep and the cows so I got to wondering.  How did these foreign animals arrived on this remote island and who decided to fence them in on a pasture? As it turned out, the story behind these wild animals’ home on the range was a true kiwi tale that marked the beginning of a rigorous conservation effort in the nation’s largest reserve, Fiordland National Park.

The red deer arrived with the early-European settlers who sought to fill the forests of their new homeland with a huntable population of easily adaptable mammals.  In came the deer, instantly taking to their lush new surroundings along the waters of Lake Mapourika and flourishing at outstanding rates, severely disrupting the local ecosystem.   In response, the government (in the early days of conservation) sent in a squad of hunters to lower the ever-expanding population.  When the hunters were ill equipped to do the trick, they called in the helicopters and declared an all out war with aerial weaponry.

Meanwhile, the local Southland population developed a liking for the taste of their enemy and got an idea.  Instead of killing the deer, they would capture them to raise on their farms.  Thus, the hunter became the captor, diving into the bush with hands outstretched and hopes of wrestling down a doe for a handsome sum.  It was a dangerous albeit lucrative change of occupation.

Henceforth, the farm-raised venison industry grew steadily and once the deer problem was tackled (pun intended), Kiwi environmentalists swooped in and set out to rid Fiordland National Park of its other invasive mammals.  Unfortunately, the stoats, rats, and possums were less delicious.  Traps were set in strategic inlaying islands with the goal of creating predator free havens for a handful of New Zealand’s quirky, defenseless, native birds.

New Zealand was a country void of mammals (bats excluded) before human intervention.  Once a kingdom governed by large flightless birds, early hunters and European introduced foreign mammals have decimated some of the world’s strangest creatures.  Fortunately, the tides have changed and there is a strong effort under foot to remove all invasive species from the land.  Conservationists hope to bring back the populations of the hapless indigenous birds who stand no chance in a land populated by mammals.  The vast majority of these endangered birds can only be found in Fiordland National Park in the remote southwest corner of this remote country.

I went to the Wildlife Center in Te Anau to catch a glimpse of one of only two Takahe kept in captivity.  Presumed to have flown over from Australia, several generations in enemy-free New Zealand left these birds with wings that grew smaller and smaller and bodies growing larger and larger until they became the fat, flightless Takahe we see today.  However, their homeland is no longer predator-free.  With an estimated population of around 200, the Takahe hovers on the brink of extinction.

The fact that there are 200 of these birds at all is a tribute to their conservation.  In the 19th century only four were seen alive and by 1930, the species was presumed extinct.  The Takahe was “rediscovered” in the Murchison Mountains of Fiordland in 1948 by Dr Geoffrey Orbell who became mesmerized by the bird’s pelt at the Otago Museum and spent much of his life in Takahe’s pursuit.

Fiordland National Park is also home to the approximately 60 remaining Kakapo, all of which live on predator-free islands in the park.  The pea-green Kakapo holds many distinctive titles.  He is the world’s rarest parrot, the only flightless parrot, the only nocturnal parrot, and at around 3.5kg (8 lbs) he’s also the fattest.

At the fringe of the park and throughout the North and South islands lives the common Pukeko. Takahe’s sleeker cousin, the Pukeko is a national treasure.  A more recent arrival in New Zealand than it’s flightless cousin, the royal blue Pukeko can fly if he must, though his flight is a touch dowdy.  If the Kiwi is the country’s beloved king of birds, then the Pukeko is surely the queen – and if their court had a jester, the cheeky alpine Kea parrot (SEE ICE ICE BABY) could certainly entertain for hours.  These three birds can be found in plush toys, on key chains, on your shirt, on a mug, as a lawn ornament and starring in kids films and books.  They are the awkward rock stars of New Zealand wildlife.  Yet, at the end of the day, it’s the Kiwi that is the endearing symbol of not only the conservation movement, but the country as a whole.

There are five species of Kiwi throughout New Zealand, all of which are endangered, and one of the largest concentrations (Southern Tokoeka) live in the Fiordlands.  I’ve often wondered why the Kiwi was put on its pedestal.  Who put the plight of this bird above all the rest?  Surely it can’t be for its looks.  There are plenty of brighter, flashier birds with equal credentials to fill the Kiwi’s role.  How did Kiwis come to represent a nation – to name its people and market their favorite fruit?

The Kiwi as an emblem first appears in the late 1800’s on regimental badges and gained international recognition in the early 1900’s with Kiwi Shoe Polish, a popular item with Yanks and Brits during WWI.  The more I researched, the more I began to understand why the Kiwi is so treasured.  Having roamed these islands for the past 60 million years, they are the ancient New Zealanders.   Although partially blind and slightly clumsy, they are sharp, alert birds that can outrun the cleverest humans.  Furthermore, they are virtuous and, once bonded, live their entire lives as monogamous couples.

Kiwis (the people) are noted for their quite individualism, ingenuity, resourcefulness and quirky manner.  Lacking the nationalistic symbols of more established countries, New Zealanders are nevertheless extremely patriotic.   They draw their pride from the unique beauty of their country and it’s creatures.  Therefore, it is only logical that these smart, quirky, resourceful birds whose 60 million years on this land nearly came to an end at the hands of Kiwis (the people), would represent the hopes and ideals of a relatively new nation searching for an identity.

With the deer on the farm, and the stoats, possums, and rats in their traps, the hope is that the critically endangered Kiwi, Takahe, and Kekapo will once again bumble through their peaceful home.  In a remarkably short period of time, they have gone from freebirds to jailbirds.  We can look back in shame at the naivety of this nations early settler, but that would get us nowhere.  Now, we have only to look forward and hope that these isolated, predator-free islands can maintain and foster New Zealand’s original inhabitants.