16 incredible pictures that will make you want to travel during monsoon season

A new BBC2 show documents the stunning occurrences thanks to the greatest weather system on Earth...

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In new five-part documentary, Wonders of the Monsoon (8pm October 5 on BBC2), the BBC’s Natural History Unit captures the wonderful occurrences that take place as a result of the rainy season. Travelling throughout Asia and Australasia to the mountains of the Himalayas, jungles of Borneo, and deserts of Northern Australia, filmmakers Paul Williams (Secrets of our Living Planet) and Kathryn Jeffs (Frozen Planet) reveal the remarkable stories about humans and animals, from insects to tigers, orang-utans, herdsmen and stock brokers, who live in the shadow of the monsoon…

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“King Parakrama, who reigned in the 1400s, built these temples,” says Williams. “This Buddhist nation believes in the power and the value of nature. That is why Sri Lanka is one of the most wildlife-rich nations on earth, people believe it’s important to protect and conserve their wildlife. This image reflects the essence of the series in many ways; it’s a mixture of spectacular landscapes, people stories and the natural world as well as the monsoon weather system.” 


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Double rainbow, Australia

“We filmed the arrival of the monsoons in Australia, and after the storms you would get these dramatic rainbows,” says Jeffs. “These aren’t exclusive to Australia, but the intensity of the light, these immense storms and the moisture in the air gives you the perfect conditions for these rainbow displays.”


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Proboscis monkey, Borneo

“The males have these large noses in order to resonate their honks around the forest, and impress the females. What’s peculiar about proboscis monkeys is that they also have these extremely rotund bellies,” says Williams. “They are known as the cows of the canopy, because like a cow they have a complex digestive stomach, with four compartments. So they can digest slowly and extract the nutrients. It takes them about 50 hours to digest a meal.” 

“Borneo is on the equator, and it experiences two monsoons,” says Jeffs. “There are these incredible downpours, and input of water. What you have are rain forests, and vast quantities of rain that has been pouring down in this area for millions of years. What you don’t have is volcanos, which offer an incredible input of nutrients. The soil is nutrient deficient, because it’s been washed by the rains. Because of that, all the plants have to protect their nutrients as much as possible, so they have massive amounts of tannins in the leaves, which are very hard to digest. This keeps mammal numbers low, it’s only animals like the proboscis monkeys, with their complex stomachs and extended intestines, that are able to extract any goodness out of the leaves.”

Holi festival, India

“The festival of colour, Holi, is celebrated across the world by Hindus and across India,” says Jeffs. “We went to the epicentre of the celebration of Holi, which is Mathura. It’s a town where there are several villages that all have their individual takes on the Holi ceremony, over a period of about 10 days. All normal life just stops and everyone goes completely nuts. There are endless water colour fights for the whole week. It’s centred around the temples, it is believed that Mathura is the birthplace of Krishna. But when you look at the deep-routed origins of Holi, it was always celebrated at the turning of winter to spring. It’s essentially a New Year celebration and is about looking forward to the future. It would be celebrated in rural areas, by farmers and growers by splashing coloured water. It was a way of making a prayer and hoping for good monsoon rains to come.”


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Tiger, forest of Kanha,  Madhya Pradesh, India

“This picture was taken when it was getting dryer in the forest of Kanha. This is good news for the tigers, because the watering holes that the animals rely on have been massively reduced. The chital deer are all condensed around these smaller watering holes, or muddy puddles,” explains Jeffs. “The chital deer have a really good relationship with the langur monkeys, who are their eyes. They hang around in the trees and watch out for the group below, and the chital deer have a better sense of smell, so both species protects each other by combining senses. In the dry season, the grass is yellow and dry, so the tiger’s camouflage is much better and they are able to hunt successfully without being spotted by the langurs.”


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Frill-necked lizard, Australia

“What’s spectacular about these guys is that during the hot and dry season they tuck themselves away in trees and shut themselves down for most of it, so they don’t use so much energy,” explains Williams. “But the first rains come and the frill-necked lizards come out of their trees and have to display themselves to protect their territory and attract a mate. When alarmed, the lizard opens up its mouth with a hiss and flashes out its frill. If this startling display doesn’t work it’s not uncommon for them to also rear up on their hind legs, and run towards the foe in a threatening way, as if to say ‘come on then, if you think you’re hard enough!’ It’s very intimidating to have one of these lizards running at you mouth agape!”


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Varuna japam ceremony, Mumbai, India

“This is an amazing ceremony,” says Jeffs, “it takes place when the monsoon has been delayed. Just a week’s delay can have an amazing impact on the communities in India, especially the rural communities. People become quite desperate to bring the rains. Across India they have these really intriguing ceremonies that take place. This is one of the most ancient, and what happens here is that these guys are actually sitting in vast brass buckets, and they’re chanting ancient vedic texts, and they’re chanting to Varuna – the god of water. They learn these texts off by heart and they immerse themselves into the water, in decorated urns and chant for hours at a time in the hope that it will appease Varuna.”


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Volcano in Java

“Many of these islands have highly active volcanoes which often spew ash” explains Jeffs. “The Equatorial Islands that we feature on the show sit on what is known as the Ring of Fire. It’s an incredibly active, volcanic location. When the volcanos erupt, they emit massive clouds of ash that, while they might be an immediate danger, they add fertility to the soil. That’s why you get an incredible wealth of food and animals in these forests.”


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Mount Bromo, Java

“This is one of the most fertile islands on the planet,” explains film maker Williams, “one of the reasons it is so incredibly fertile is because of the nutrients that the volcanoes fire up into the air and deposit over the island. This is one of the reasons people here grow lush crops and there is an incredibly large population. At this particular volcano, there is a festival that has been going on for 800 years. The local people who live in the small villages around the volcano get together once a year and gather together some of their crops, prize goats or chicken together and they cross this vast caldera (call the sea of sand), which surrounds this volcano and is made of black volcanic ash and in the middle of the caldera is Mount Bromo. When they get to Mount Bromo, they climb up its steep slopes and at the top they prey to the god of the volcano and they thanks the volcano for the fertility it has given them and for safety and prosperity in the future. After they’ve prayed, they throw in their chickens, their goats and their vegetables. The remarkable thing is – none of the chickens and goats make it into the volcano, because some people risk their lives climbing down on to the steep slopes inside the volcano, and as the goods are being thrown in, they try and catch them in nets.” 

“The belief is that if these people are able to catch some of the offerings, it’s a personal blessing from the god himself,” says Williams. “Originally, the festival dates back to a king who made a deal with the god of the volcano, and there was a human sacrifice involved.”

Near Alice Springs, Northern Australia 

“Every year, as the dry season approaches, it gets hotter, dryer, and water gets scarce, and these budgies need water so they start to gather near these watering holes,” says Williams. “Eventually there’s so little water around that all the budgies gather in one place. That’s what’s happening here – there are 80,000 budgies all gathered around a ting watering hole. This is in the middle of Australia, it’s incredibly hot and these budgies emerge in the morning. I would go before dawn, it would be silent, and as the sun slowly rose, I’d start to see small gatherings of birds on the horizon. Those gatherings would get bigger and bigger and get closer and closer. There, all of a sudden, they would be swirling around like a giant vortex of budgies. En mass, they all dive into the water and take a drink and all lift up again. Meanwhile, raptors, like hobbys, kites and falcons gather and fire through these giant flocks in order to make a kill,” says Williams, “It’s an incredibly rare seasonal event.”


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Sea of Parakrama, Sri Lanka

“This is a giant man-made lake on the island of Sri Lanka,” explains Williams. “It’s called the Sea of Parakrama, because King Parakrama the Great decided that in order for the nation to prosper, he would need to build lots of reservoirs. There are thousands of reservoirs across Sri Lanka. The King proclaimed ‘let not one drop of rain flow to the sea, without first benefiting man’. It is incredibly significant to the people of Sri Lanka, who rely on these great reservoirs, it’s also incredibly important for wildlife, you get herds of elephants gathering at them to drink.” 


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Bat hunter, Philippines

“This bat hunter is holding a bat trapping device,” explains Jeffs, “this is something that’s been used for hundreds of years, by these people who are living in the forest. First, they make prayers to the forest, and to the cave, to give thanks ahead of the hunt. They promise that they will only take a certain amount of bats, they then go into the caves with these special devices they have made (a spear with sharp thorns coming off it), and as the bats fly out, due to the people going into the cave, they’re able to sweep these gigantic thorny brooms backwards and forwards in the air and a number of bats are caught on the thorns and the people then eat the bats. This can be really essential food, especially in monsoon times, because they have to retreat to the shelter of these cliff and cave systems.”


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Angkor, Cambodia

“We wanted to go film around Angkor Wat as its the huge remnants of what was once Angkor, this huge metropolis, which collapsed,” explains producer Jeffs. “It had a huge population which relied on the monsoon to produce incredible harvests. They were fantastic engineers and built these reservoirs to capture the monsoon rain and then utilise it throughout the year. It was a major engineering feat to produce multiple crops, which resulted in a population boom. They were very reliant on the monsoon season arriving when it should and filling their reservoirs, but there was a weakening in the monsoons strengths, on and off, for almost a century. Their crops failed repeatedly, their reservoirs emptied and their civilisation collapsed.”


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“What we have left are these wonderful monuments and references to a really complex culture and civilisation of the past,” says Jeffs. “When you visit, you see carvings in the rocks of amazing head dresses and costumes they must have had, which showed a real middle class population and wealthy lifestyles, which all collapsed in on them.”

“This is such a diverse and rich part of the world, with so much culture and extraordinary wildlife, all packed into this corner of the planet that actually very few people know about,” says Williams. “There are so many mysteries and hidden gems to uncover and in this series we’ve managed to do just that. Even people who feel they know this area will hopefully get lots of surprises.”

Watch Wonders of the Monsoon from 8pm October 5 on BBC2

Photos courtesy of Kathryn Jeffs, Paul Williams,Alison Taylor and Jon Clay


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