Remarkable Bison Herds of Manjampatti
When I was a lad in
, the month that we most enjoyed was May. The school would close the first
Saturday in May with the school play. For three weeks we had vacation. Our
parents would always come up for the month of May and part of June to
enjoy their vacation with their children. The cool weather in the
high Palni Hills was a delightful climate for hiking, camping, tennis,
golfing or boating on
My first experience going to Kukkal was in my junior
year of high school. We had big, terrifying pictures in our minds of the
leech shola (forest). Hiking from the
two and a half miles uphill with the fear of leeches in our hearts made us
strain our lungs and legs to get out of there as soon as possible. After
arriving at the top of the ridge, we came to a beautiful grassland area
where the only trees were Rhododendron. These are fire-resistant and have
survived scores of grass fires.
From there our party had a gorgeous view of
, one and a half miles away and the distant Manjampatti valley with two
prominent, sheer rock domes on the other side of the valley in the state
of Kerala. This region was and is really wild. We had been warned to be
most careful when hiking in this grassland. As we looked down on the whole
area, we could see rainforests in every one of the gullies where there was
a stream with enough moisture to nourish the trees through the droughts
from December to May.
Suddenly one of my friends spotted a herd of bison
coming up out of one of these rainforests, quite close to
. There were about
the herd, including three calves.
The Indian Bison is really a wild cow. It looks
exactly like an ordinary cow, but bigger and black with white stockings up
to the knees. It is the wild ox referred to in the Bible. A male wild ox
stands seven feet high at the shoulder. They are not shaggy, but have skin
like an ordinary ox, and they are very athletic. We saw them running up a
steep hillside effortlessly. After having our lunch, we discussed whether
or not to go down to the cave. Though we wanted to go, we realized we did
not have time to make it back before dark to the spot six miles from
Kukhal village where we had left our car and faithful driver.
I would not see bison again for eight years.
Immediately after graduation in May of 1944 I set forth on my wartime
. There I studied for seven years at
and Lutheran Theological Seminary, got married in 1950 and graduated in
1951. We were called to be missionaries, and in 1952 I was able to
vacation in my beloved Kodai Hills again.
My wife and I went to Kodaikanal in April 1952 with
our son Bill, who was one year old. By this time Ruth was carrying another
child, who would be called Hans. She wanted to hike with us but could not
go on a hike as long as Kukkal. So we hiked together to Pillar Rocks Cave,
Ten Mile Round, Green Hut, and Berrijam Lake (one way uses seven
miles—we got a ride back).
Later on in the year we stayed on in Kodai for two
more months with our Telugu teacher, who had come with us from Andhra.
During that time one of the staff members, Steve Root, asked if I would
like to go with him to Manjampatti on a hunting trip. Two of the
schoolboys would go with us—one was Chuck Gosselink, Ruth’s brother,
and his friend John DeVries. Steve was the only one with a hunting license
We took the school car to Manavanur and left it there
in care of the driver who had relatives in the village. Then we hiked five
miles to a small village, Killanavai. There we picked up our guide Perumal,
who had gone ahead of us to recruit three of the hill tribe men to help
carry our supplies down the very steep trail to Manjampatti, which was
about eight more miles of hiking.
At that time there were no roads through Manjampathi
valley. From the
in the Palni hills, not far from Manavanour, a large stream flows down
through terraces of irrigated fields and a series of waterfalls into
. Other streams join it to form the
We found a good camping spot near to the river where
we could put up our tents and build our fireplaces. By the time we made
camp, gathered firewood and filled our water containers it was too late to
go out hunting.
The next morning Steve woke us all up when it was
still dark and offered us coffee, dates and bread. “This is to sustain
us for the morning hunt. It’s not breakfast; that comes later.”
We went out slowly, quietly and carefully, going
upstream against the wind. Within a quarter of a mile we heard the noise
of splashing animals just as it was becoming light. There were six adult
elephants and two elephant calves having a wonderful time bathing in the
river. We carefully approached them, being as quiet as we could, and just
watched for about 20 minutes. Then we went west of the river and found
ourselves climbing up old rice terraces. These had been laboriously carved
out of the hillside, but were now overgrown with trees and bushes.
“Steve, what happened here?” I asked.
“Perfecting these terraces must have taken years of work by a large
number of people.”
“Malaria,” Steve replied. Then, lowering his
voice, he said, “Let’s be real quiet. I hope we will soon meet some
bison. They have very keen hearing and smell, but not good sight. We are
walking against the wind, so they will not smell us.” We went slowly,
carefully and silently.
We heard a slight noise off to the right, and Steve
motioned us to be quiet. The mist was shifting, and gradually a herd of
about 20 spotted deer (axis deer) came into sight. Steve slowly lifted up
his rifle and shot the biggest buck I had ever seen.
Perumal and one of the porters came to join us when
they heard the shot. They were ecstatic. They quickly chopped down a small
tree, made a pole out of it, and tied the deer to it. We took turns
carrying it back to the camp. “No bison for this morning,” said Steve,
“but I did have to get that deer; it was so beautiful.” Perumal cooked
breakfast while Steve and the other men skinned and butchered the deer.
After breakfast Steve salted down the deer hide. Then, while the porters
and Perumal had their breakfast, we discussed our tactics and schedule. We
decided to send two of the men with as much venison as they could carry to
meet the driver and have him take it to Kodaikanal so it would not spoil.
We would eat the rest. The men said, “First of all, we will eat a meal
of rice and venison before we go up that hill.” By eleven o’clock we
had a wonderful meal of rice and venison curry with enough leftovers to
last us for another day. The two men took off, and we noticed that each of
them had several extra packs of meat that they would give to their
families and the village elders of Kalanavai.
During the afternoon we rested up, swam in the river
and loafed until about four o’clock. Then we started off to find the
bison. Steve said, “It’s too wasteful to shoot a bison down here. You
can’t carry even ten percent of the meat up to where it can be used, and
the thick skin is remarkably heavy. So we’ll try to avoid shooting
one.” We went slowly, against the wind, mounting some more terraces.
Then we saw a herd peacefully grazing. We knew Steve was being very
careful because he was the only one who had a gun, and there were five of
us including Perumal.
There were 16 bison in this herd, with several huge
bulls seven feet high at the shoulder and weighing much more than half a
ton. There were also several calves grazing at the edge of the herd. Steve
whispered to us to get behind a tree or a rock and just stay put. One of
the calves was very curious and came quite close to us. Then we heard a
funny sound. What was that? We realized it was a big bull urinating with
quite a splash. Shortly thereafter that curious calf came close enough to
touch us, and it suddenly smelled us. With a startled cry it ran back to
its mother, and the whole herd stampeded the other way.
“Whew, that was a close one,” said Steve. Steve
had already been in Manjampatti a number of times, as he had been teaching
at Kodai for many years. He told us that these herds of Manjampatti belong
to two states, Tamilnad and Kerela. Their boundaries joined in this
beautiful forest. The
was the border. During the monsoon season the bison would range in the
higher hills of the Palni range. Sometimes herds would come together, and
he had seen herds of over 70 bison. There was a rumor that there were some
albino bison somewhere in the valley. Albino calves had been seen but no
one had seen any adults. This special herd of 70 or more would sometimes
go as high as
We then examined the area where the herd had been
grazing. There was a lot of buffalo dung and some pools of urine. It was
astonishing how big an impression that stream can leave in the ground.
The next day we saw a lot more game—more elephants,
more deer and several more bison herds. We did not hear or see any
predators. We asked Steve, “Do tigers ever kill bison?”
“Very rarely,” he answered. “The herd has a way
of protecting itself. The large bulls stand on the outside with the cows
and calves on the inside whenever danger threatens, except of course when
We certainly enjoyed that first hunt with Steve. That
was one of the experiences that led me to buy a rifle and start hunting in
the Kodai hills. Normally we could go on only one hunting trip a year
there, considering it took five days out of our vacation of five weeks.
I did have the joy of taking each of our children
down into Manjampatti for a hunting trip. We would exercise a lot to get
in shape for this special hunt, which included the twelve mile descent of
and the much harder task of climbing out of the valley with full packs,
sometimes laden with meat. When camping with the children, we never saw
the albino bison.
Twenty years later after my children had all
graduated from Kodai, I took one more hike down into Manjampatti after
overnight. Early in the morning, we saw a herd of bison, and there on the
edge of the herd were two albino calves. Earlier that month I had read an
article in Hornbill, a
conservation magazine, about the albino bison of Manjamphatti.
Just this year I received the wonderful news that a
national park, including the Manjamphatti and Kukkal areas, is being
planned by the government of
. This will be one of the few places in southern
where bison, elephants, deer and other interesting animals will be safe. I
hope many people will enjoy their adventures in these parks and that they
might occasionally see albino bison, too. I pray that this new national
park will be a great blessing to the people of southern
and to all who go there.