Dodamarg. Maharashtra. India.
Alone. Free. Alive.
You are deep in the jungle in South India, wading gently downstream, on the very edge of a river: fast-flowing, powerful, and swollen with fresh monsoon waters. You are in the safest, shallowest waters, under the thick canopy of tropical trees. You are alone, and you have never felt more alive. Creation is caressing your every sense; your heart beats fast in rhythm with the pulse of the wilderness around; you are connected, a part of something so grand, so fierce, so buzzing with life, how can you possibly be at odds with this marvel, this grand scheme of work, this overwhelming evidence of one great and loving Creator?
You pull to the side, sit yourself on the roots of an old tree, lost partly to the floods, just in time for the rains to start falling from above, casting neat little holes into the surface of the pools swirling around you. Your God is speaking to you again, that distant and yet deeply-penetrating presence you have felt your whole life. How could anybody doubt your existence now? How could anyone possible doubt your faith?
Welcome to India. Welcome to the Jungle…
I was very lucky to spend some time in the jungle at Dodamarg, Maharashtra, during last monsoon season on the subcontinent – taking only my little old rucksack, my camera, and Sumanth, a herpetologist and guide from the wonderful Gerry Martin Project.
The GM Project has its own field station in the forest there. I was with no group, took no tour buses, had no strict agendas to follow. Just the peace of the jungle and my open soul. Time to see, breathe and be…
It was an utter privilege.
The mountains of the Western Ghats shelter no less than four rainforest systems, and make up one of the world’s hotspots for biodiversity.
I just couldn’t believe my eyes; such wonders of the natural world all mine to behold. Deep greens brought fully to life by the power of the rains. An incredible landscape. Another place I have gotten totally and blissfully lost… in the little details of life on Earth.
Everywhere water, the great life-giving element; ripples in pools, great thunderous falls, reflecting silver streaks of light off leaves, dew drops trickling down the trees. Even the sky shrouded in heavy mists, a great blanket moving slowly across the jungle plateau; delicate, enormous, abounding; cloaking the might of the deep green mountains.
Our only access to the station was via a steep, rocky road, and then this little wooden bridge. The water was too high to wade through during monsoon. But the bridge was a danger all of its own – so slimy and wet from the rains. Watch your step!
The more you stopped, the more you stared, and the more you started to no longer just look, but see. Every possible space was teaming with life… A life that passes through all living things in creation; even me, even you. We are a part of something very magical in this cosmos, something far greater than you and I could ever fully understand… but we can feel it, some of us, those alive to the deeper reality beneath and between all things, those fully seeing with all the colours of the Spirit.
Do you see what I see…?
“We are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” – Joni Mitchell
The staff who manned the field station lived usually in the tiny village down at the bottom of the mountain. They came up with food and supplies, cooked and took care of my every need, even boiling water for my morning showers. They came up from the village just for me during my time in the jungle. Another privilege.
Sumanth took me into the jungle for a few treks, where we search the undergrowth for wildlife, always on the lookout for snakes, and especially the king cobras which had recently been spotted fighting in the area. Occasionally a monkey would swing passed, or an Indian Giant Squirrel (stunning creatures, although too quick for my lens). I loved watching the black eagles circling over the jungle mountains in the morning.
I will never forget the moment two wild peacocks suddenly shot across our paths, in a little clearing among the trees. Such majestic creatures! Truly princes of the wild! Beauty and grace and power. One of my favourite creatures on earth. A gift from the jungle.
One day, as the rain filled the warm air with a damp haze, we treked up the mountain to see the waterfall that fed into the stream running past our camp. The trek was slippery. Every step taken with caution. As we eventually reached the top, the sound of the heavy falls reaching their zenith, we began to descend into the trees. I had to take my boots off – the rocks were very slippery, wet, covered in mosses – and crawl on all fours at various points. The air all around the fall was filled with droplets of water. Luckily my camera is water resistant as we were soaked through in minutes. The power of the falls was amazing! We sat very close, only a few metres away, in the shelter of some overhanging rocks… but I wanted to get closer… of course. I always want to get closer…
My guide said it was too dangerous to get down into the fast flowing water, as I could get swept away. I wasn’t taking no for an answer however. I was in the jungle! This was it. My moment. My one chance. I promised him I’d be extra careful, as I began stripping my clothes off anyway. He eventually agreed, as long as I stayed close to the edge, warning me it would be very cold as the water was coming down straight from the mountains. Cold water wasn’t going to stop me either. I crawled down on all fours over the slippery rocks and lowered myself into the water. Okay, it was pretty cold! But blissful. There was no doubting I was alive as that cold water lapped up over my warm body, sending a shiver right through my spine. And I love it! As I sat down in the water, carefully wedging myself between rocks, little fish, hundreds of them, came around and began eating all the dead skin off my feet! Now that was a pedicure I shan’t be forgetting for a while – and all for free! No dodgy fish bowl for me… but a good hair wash!
Once again swept away by God’s almighty power in nature!
One night we went out trekking through the thickets in search of the ever elusive Slender Loris. But to no avail. The rains kept the little beauties hidden away from sight. I did however make some friends in the night. I woke up the following morning with a few incredible leech bites. Leeches are actually quite vile, I found out, and I had quite some fun pulling them off my body after our adventures… Obviously I was too impatient to just let my wounds heal over naturally, so kept picking them… I then discovered that because leeches tap straight into a vein the wounds bleed quite profusely if reopened. Marvellous. All in a night’s work.
My favourite moments in the jungle were spent alone. There’s nothing quite like taking yourself off for a stroll through the jungle, your camera strapped to your back, pushing your way carefully through the thickets of trees and vines, stopping only to capture some little detail of this wild wild landscape you so respect and adore.
I find such delight in the little things…
There is nothing more special than seeing a streak of holy light momentarily bursting through a grey sky… Your breath taken away. You find yourself fixed as the sky ‘yin-yangs’ a spectacular display for your eyes only, a reminder of the beauty and diversity created by light, and absence of light.
My last day I took myself down alone to the stream. And so, yes, I swam alone in the middle of the jungle. Totally alone. Nature and freedom my keeper. I cared not for fear of snakes or tigers, hunting leopards or leeches. This was bliss. This was mine. A moment to forever cherish. A secret only seen with my eyes, felt with my heart.
I climbed down across the rocks, through little waterfalls and shallow pools, avoiding the giant crabs who waited for me in the shadows…
…You are deep in the jungle in South India, wading gently downstream, on the very edge of a river: fast-flowing, powerful, and swollen with fresh monsoon waters. You are in the safest, shallowest waters, under the thick canopy of tropical trees. You are alone, and you have never felt more alive. Creation is caressing your every sense; your heart beats fast in rhythm with the pulse of the wilderness around; you are connected, a part of something so grand, so fierce, so buzzing with life, how can you possibly be at odds with this marvel, this grand scheme of work, this overwhelming evidence of a great and loving Creator?
You pull to the side, sit yourself on the roots of an old tree, lost partly to the floods, just in time for the rains to start falling from above, casting neat little holes into the surface of the pools swirling around you. Your God is speaking to you again, that distant and yet deeply-penetrating presence you have felt your whole life. How could anybody doubt your existence now? How could anyone possibly doubt your faith?
You set up your camera on a near-by rock to take a self-portrait, to help you remember this moment in years to come when perhaps your memory is fading with age, and so you can share your story with the world. Nobody else was there – what if nobody believes you? Just as you get into position the rain begins to fall, thick and fast. Your hands raised in the air you begin to laugh. What else could express this feeling? This heightened sense of living? You feel so alive now nobody could deny it, not even you. This is a thing far greater than your mind.
I dedicate this post to all those people in the world who, like me, were Born Free. I dedicate this post to all those who, like me, haven’t always been understood for the way we express ourselves, for the art we create in our lives, in every little thing, in every place we go. I dedicate this post to all those people, like me, who have been laughed at, judged or criticised for your beliefs, ideas, or vision of the world. I dedicate this post to all those people, like me, who don’t need to fit in with society, expectation or ideals, to know where we belong in life, where we truly fit in. I dedicate this post to all those people, like me, who have had a dream, because I have already achieved so many of my dreams so early on in life, and now I will dedicate the rest of my life to helping others achieve their dreams. This is just the beginning for us all.
We were ALL Born Free, and those who have already tasted freedom will know that we will all have to fight to Die Free.
And Die Free we shall.
I promise you.
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