Thursday, October 2, 2008

Thadiyandamol - of the mist, and sun ...

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August gone, September ticking away and October tapping at the doors, monsoon's grip over southern India progressively loosens and the western ghats become far less a place that'll force you for involuntary blood donation. The leaches mostly retreated to deeper and damper parts of the forest, its the time to go trekking!

When registering for the trek to Thadiyandamol by Bangalore Mountaineering Club, I was expecting a small group like the ones I've been on with BMC. But the number of email ids in the To: list of the participants confirmation mail ran to 30-35 and I thought, mm .. lots of people, and then comes the final mail listing 47, wow! this by far is the largest group that I have trekked with!

Thadiyandamol is the highest peak in Coorg or the Madikeri district standing at 1750 Mts(5729 ft). But compared to many other peaks in the ghats its not that tall and the trek is more or less easy to only slightly moderate . No beginner should have much difficulty in summiting this one. Its about 250 Km from Bangalore, the nearest town being Virajpet on the way to Madikeri. On the base of the mountain lies the Kakkabe village which is connected to Virajpet and Madikeri.

Our group left the sleepy roads of Bangalore at about 11.30 in the night on 26th September. I was a bit tired and wanted to catch some sleep to recharge myself for the trek next day. The bus kept on tossing me at will in my seat, but owing to the great gifts of evolution through countless night-bus trips, I think I rather slept well.

Our bus pulled up at Virajpet at about 5.45 in the morning. After some futile attempts by the BMC reps Sathish, Apun and Janak to find some accommodation for the big gang, by 6.30 or so we got in to one small lodge. I think we must have taken up probably all the rooms in there! .. :-)

After freshening up a bunch of us got out and found this 'Sabarigiri' tea shop outside. Boy! do I love the taste of a 'Kerala' chaya after a long time! I might be biased, but the malayali 'adicha' chaya is the best milked tea on the planet :-) and then well, brewing tea is one of the complex processes that can send even the most modern supercomputers of 'Heart of Gold - the ship with the incredible improbability drive' to go into loops .. :-D

Breakfast of idlis done, we again boarded the bus. Sathish announced the plan - we were going to a waterfall close by first - Chelavara falls - and trek the peak in the afternoon. This is a small waterfall amidst coffee plantations some 17km from Virajpet. The weather was very bright and sunny with a cool breeze blowing. The bus wound through the laid back roads of the country side. Coorg is a nice region with lots of greenery and large coffee plantations lined with green bush hedges. After about an hour or so, our bus stopped on a village road. We were to walk some 3kms from there to reach the falls. You could also hire local jeeps from here that would take you to the falls. These areas are sparsely populated and on either side of this road you mostly find plantations.

All the coffee, cardamom and other spices and herbs growing in here give a heady scent to the cool air. You have to give it a moment or two, stop, and let the air fill you, breeze past you, and as it swirls around you slowly you can sense the exotic tingling of the aroma in the air. On the same lines, a point to ponder; You watch the scenery, listen to the voices, and ... err .. listen to the smell?? or smell the smell? na, that doesn't sound very good, take in the smell maybe .. :-) Why doesn't smell have that many words for experiencing the sensation? As it is not such a vital skill or a much developed one with human beings? :-/

Though it was said to be 3 km, the walk seemed quite a long one. We met very few people on the road and maybe a couple of jeeps coming back from the falls with tourists. The road sides were lined with loads of small flowers, wild and colorful ones; cheerful and fresh from the showers not so long ago. We passed a small school were children were singing some morning anthem and soon could glimpse the waterfall at some distance. Seems this waterfall is known as Emepaare locally, meaning something like 'the tortoise rock' in the kodava dialect. The water gushes down a large rock supposedly shaped like a tortoise. It is a small climb from the normal road, both the bottom and the tops of the waterfall are accessible by small trails.

Get down in the trail that goes to the bottom, scramble a bit at one or two narrow stretches, and as you emerge on to a rock ledge, you're suddenly treated to the sight of this delightful, miniature yet majestic looking waterfall. The rock ledge extends almost till the bottom of the falls. Though a bit slippery you can stand there and look up and see the water cascading down. For the size of her, she was generating a lot of spray, constantly clouding my specs with the mist. The water was very cool, I could extend my tongue and taste the spray, a lil salty and green. You could sit there any length of time, listening to the roar of the water around you and basking in the cool spray, till the group leader Apun announces we have a peak to scale and have to start back.

Now the sun was straight up and shining brightly and it was hot. While walking back, we began collecting plastic waste littered on the road. Even from this not so largely popular spot, we collected something like 5-6 bags of plastic waste. As 'Calvin' says, sadly our descendants have no way of refusing to inherit the earth after we make it a mess. :-(

It was about 1 O'clock in the afternoon when we reached the junction where our bus was parked and from there we proceeded to Kakkabe village at the base of Thadiyandamol. Theres an old palace here called Nalaknad palace. 'Nalku Naadu Aramane' in the local language meaning palace of four villages. This was built by the Kodagu kings as a hunting lodge which they later used as a shelter when the British army invaded Kodagu. It is now looked after by department of Archeology and is maintained quite well. We had lunch here, of heat and eat MTR curries, bread, jam, pickles and chapathis. The peak is about 8 kms of walk from here, and there is one place at about 3-3.5 kms up with a building and surroundings that you can use as a base camp. You can do a one day trek to this peak, climbing in the morning and coming back in the evening, but it also means you'll miss the two best times of the day to be at the peak, i.e when the sun sets and when it rises. Its much better to plan for an overnight stay. We were carrying tents and food for the big gang of us for the overnight camping plan. Initially the plan was to distribute the load and carry it all the way up ourselves, but luckily we could arrange a jeep to take the heavy stuff to as far as the jeep could go, which is about 4-4.5 kms up. About 5km up, at the bottom of the actual peak, there's a patch of flat land and a stream flowing. Our plan was to camp up there. So it meant we have to carry the load ourselves only for about a kilometer. We started the hike at around 3.00 O'clock in the afternoon.

The initial part is a rather steep incline through a narrow but tarred road that goes up through a plantation. This road is actually motorable. Hitting a steep incline at the very start itself works great to take your breath out! :-) The tar road ends after about 2kms and we started walking up a mud road. After some more distance one reaches a fork on the road, with a small board there indicating that we have to go left and the peak is about 4.8 kilometers from here. This point offers a good view of the sprawling valley and Coorg below. Soon we came across the base camp building, anyway we were not planning to camp there. We kept on walking an suddenly emerged on to the side of the hill. Till now we were winding up a hill which was actually hiding the real peak from our sight. I think it is not possible to see the real peak from the bottom, i.e the Nalaknad palace place. It was actually a large range of mountains that lay in front of us. There was an isolated steep peak to the right, but the highest point was further to the left on a slightly less steeper and broader peak.

We met the parked jeep and divided up the tents, sleeping bags and food stuff among us and moved forward. At around 5 in the evening we reached the camping site. The stream could be heard towards the left of the camping site and there is a big rock here from the top of which you can get a good view of the surroundings. The topmost peak is about 1-1/2 hours from here and the trail gets steeper and more difficult to maneuver. We unpacked the tents and set them up. About 20 of us set out to climb the peak before sunset, the rest stayed back at the campsite.

Initially we thought we will go to the steep single peak to the right, but soon we realized that the trail doesn't go to that one actually. In fact there's no trail to this peak, which also means not many people go here. Continuing on the trail we could see another high point to the left but that was a decoy. The trail disappeared behind that rock, emerged out and started rising again. The mountainside was laden with green, covered with lots of grass, and sprinkled with bright colored small flowers. Indeed this is a good time to trek here. After sometime the trail entered into a thick forest. The large trees and the overhanging vegetation completely cut the sun out and it was like moving through a dark cave of foliage. Emerging out of the forest after some time we could see a protruding edge up above and were happy to find the peak so within reach. But it turned out that this also was a deception when we reached there. The trail went around this edge and was rising sharply. From there it looked like it will take much more time to reach the peak. It was around 5.45 pm now and I surely wanted to reach the peak before sunset, probably to take place at 6.15 or so. But alas, my legs were not concurring! The going got very slow, and each couple of steps warranted a break. I could see our tents from here, looking like a bunch of large bright colored flowers amidst the greenery below. I could see the real peak now, up and above, and couple of us were already there. It's 10 more minutes to six now. On the principle of tangible targets I decided that I will reach the peak before six!

So I took a short breathing break, gathered all the energy and started, stopping no sooner than about fifteen steps! Four minutes were over now! and maybe about 200 meters more, did it get more steeper just now?! Strange that human emotions have no bearing on physical laws; the seconds hand of my watch adamantly kept on walking past the marks around the dial in a monotonic ritual! Step by step I covered the incline and was on a rather plane streak now till the top, 4 minutes remaining. I ran, or tottered .. :-) and reached there with about two minutes to spare, Hoorah!!

I gulped some water and stood there for couple of minutes. The sun was to the right in a big cloud of mist. I could see the valley to my left and at a great distance below the small colored dots which were our tents. Five to six of us were here at the peak and the rest of the gang were seemingly much behind. It was getting cold and the wind constantly howled in my ears. I walked down the other side of the peak a bit and sat on a rock almost on the edge of a ridge overlooking the great valley below. Chances of catching the setting sun looked less as it was already behind thick white clouds. The valley below lay calm and serene, but it was also a battleground where an intense combat was going on. The armies of white mist wanted to conquer the valley and settle there for the night, but the soldiers of the green canopy were resisting the bid with all their might. From the vast fleet of white clouds behind the mountain, many a platoon of mist dived in to the valley, fought valiantly over the green canopy before disintegrating and dissolving into thin air. And this went on, again and again, the mist could not get its hold on the valley, it seemed they were fighting a loosing battle. But soon things changed with the arrival of stronger winds to the aid of the armies of the mist. The wind lifted up mammoth arms of mist from behind the mountain and threw it in to the valley, and not just from one side, but from three sides. And slowly, very slowly the green valley disappeared and great white sheets of mist settled in the valley to spend the night.

It was getting dark now and cold, and we had to reach back to the tents. Armed with torches we started back at around 6.30. Trekking down was made slow by the lack of light and loose rocks here and there. We reached the camping site by 7.30 or so, and thanks to Apun and others who stayed back, there was already a bonfire and hot soup brewing in a cauldron.

It was clear night, not even a single cloud in the sky and it was moonless, which was almost at the end of its waning phase at this time. And when you lay on top of the huge rock the sky hung above you like a giant dark bowl. And stars, thousands and thousands and thousands of them. You could make anything you wanted from these stars, like John Nash in 'A Beautiful Mind'; An umbrella, ice-cream cone, a dolphin, crocodile, steam engine, rocket ship, and more and more. And there was the 'Akasha ganga', very clearly visible, which is the huge dense clouds of stars in the spiral arms of our very own galaxy, the milky way. It appears as a soft white milky stretch across a clear night sky like this, which I have never seen so clearly before in my life.

On the whole the gang received very few leach bites, thanks to the hot weather. But the temperature had dropped quite a bit now in the night and I was shivering. We soon had dinner and retired to our tents. Our tent was not resting on completely flat land and that made sleeping a bit difficult. Also in the sleeping bag it takes quite an effort to shift your position while sleeping! And on top of it, in the middle of the dark and cold and windy night something happened. I wanted to move my stiffened left leg a bit and while I was working it up, I heard a distinct snap. I held myself for a while and moved the leg again, and another snap; and the front side of the tent started swooping to the ground!! Me and Tarun crawled out of the tent, and to our dismay found that two of the poles in the links that ran diagonally through the tent roof were broken in the middle! There was nothing much we could do in that shivering darkness and we quietly went back inside the tent and just hoped that it doesn't collapse completely. By morning the tent was almost like a blanket on top of us, but we did weather the night!

Bunch of people who didn't come for sunset yesterday got up early and ventured to the peak to see sunrise. I decided to watch sunrise from the big rock rather than straining myself again up the peak. But from here the sunrise was hidden by the very hill that hid the peak from us when we were at the bottom, but nevertheless the crimson skies of the morning was a feast for the eyes. After the sun came up, few of us dared the elements and took bath in the stream nearby. If you withstand the stunning sting of the cold water the first time it hits you, the bath recharges you like anything. Its amazing how as the sun comes up the cold of the night gives way to searing heat.

After breakfast we began our descent, which proved to be rather easy. We hit the base in about 1-1/2 hours. We left Nalaknad by around 11 in the morning, bidding good bye to the cool coffee plantations and silver oaks. We had lunch at Madikeri and visited the Namdroling monastery, The golden temple at Kushalnagar, which is the on the way to Bangalore from Madikeri.

It was my third or fourth visit to the temple. But this time around, prayers were going on in the temple hall. The prayers of Tibetan budhist monks is a very enchanting experience, with lots of exotic musical instruments, drums and trumpets and mystic chants. Its bad that people only want to take snaps on their mobile phones posing in front of the Buddha when the prayer is going on than listening to it and maybe trying to feel the presence of 'Buddha'. And maybe for this, I felt less moved here than my experiences in some of the monasteries in the Himalayas.

We left there at about 5.00 in the evening. The bus headed to Bangalore and I tried to catch up on some badly needed sleep. After dark, the bus soon turned into a throbbing 'mehfil' with quite a gang forming in the rear contributing to the cacophonix, which included me and which drained half of my voice by the time we reached back in Bangalore close to 10 O'clock in the night.

And thanks to Prakruthi, for the delightful surprise of a home cooked dinner at the end of a tiring day.

The woods were lovely, dark and deep; I went miles through them and now should sleep.