Sunday, May 25, 2008

Shingani - A lil surprise, or two ...

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Shingani Gudda is one of the major peaks in Charmadi range in western Karnataka. Close by are other well known peaks like Amedikkalu and Sibile Gudda. At the base of the peak lies the small village of Arasinamakki. Arasinamakki is about 20 kms off from Shiradi on the National Highway 48 that goes through Hassan to Mangalore.

It was sometime since I felt the breeze at the top of a mountain! And Bangalore Mountaineering Club announced this weekend trek to Arasinamakki and Shingani Gudda. I did register for the trek early enough, though as the day neared there were quite a bunch of things cropping up tending to push me off the plan. But the pre-paid non-refundable fees for the trek was one strong point in the favor of the trek! So there I was starting on this trek from Bangalore on one of its traffic jammed Friday nights on 17th May 2008.

One has to go from Bangalore to Hassan, then to Sakhleshpur, and keep proceeding on NH48 to Mangalore and get off the highway somewhere near Shiradi to go to Arasinamakki. We were a gang of 15, bunch of them first time trekkers and some with quite a lot of trekking experience. I think this was a new trek for even the BMC organizers and they had categorized this as an easy to moderate trek ideal for beginners. We had a round of introductions and and as the bus plunged into the night trip I think everybody fell asleep. At least I did! I was very tired from a hard long week.

I slept pretty good, irrespective of some really bad roads after Hassan. As I opened my eyes, our bus has stopped at a small village road. All of us got down. We were at Arasinamakki, a rustic and laid back village. A small river named Kapila passes through the village. On the banks of Kapila there was this small home stay place which was going to be our base camp. The owner of the place was standing nearby and guiding us. (I forget his name, bad .. lets call him Athreya :-)

This place is basically a beetle nut plantation and quite a big one at that. Athreya has his ancestral house here, which is a two story building in traditional style. It has a big courtyard and a small dog 'Pinky' tied to one of its pillars on the veranda. This little dog got so excited seeing all these people, she was jumping around so much as if not knowing what to do next! She wants to lick you, swirl around your legs and climb on you and if you unlock her she drags you all around the courtyard round and round and round!

We left the house and went down to he beetle plantation where a bunch of huts and a small house was set up as the boarding place. Set amidst the tall beetle trees, it looked like an excellent place to relax and let go. There were couple of swings and hammocks here and there, very inviting! We put down our backpacks and started going through the morning routines. I ventured out to explore the surroundings. The river Kapila flows in front of the small house, a little below. There were a couple of bamboo rafts tied to the bank and a small tree bridge to cross the river. I crossed the river and got down into it on the other side.

In between glistening rocks and sand there were schools of tiny fish moving lazily in the slow moving stream.

Malayalam writer O.V. Vijayan in his novel 'Gurusagaram' talks about his village in the northern part of Kerala, and about the river 'Thootha' flowing through it. In the crystal clear waters of 'Thootha', above the white sands at the bottom, tiny fishes with long noses swim lazily basking in the mild sun shining above. They are our ancestors, reborn as tiny fish in 'Thootha' after they passed away from their human form. When they surface for a breath of air above the river waters they look for you, their grand children, in the light and shadows that play on the river banks.

I knelt down on the river and put my hand into it and held it still for a long time. Slowly the tiny fishes surrounded my palm and started biting me with their small teeth. Those tiny pin pricks were a queer and wonderful sensation. My hand was being caressed by the hundreds of ancestors of Arasinamakki who have died and reborn as tiny fish in Kapila. Could they know that I'm not one of their grandchildren? :-)

I went back to the hut and we had breakfast. Athreya had prepared a kind of sweet made out jack fruit. I was all the while under the impression that it was made only in Kerala. That was a nice surprise.

We started the 'easy to moderate trek, ideal for beginners' at around 9.30 a.m. A Bunch of guys arranged by Athreya were our guides. Athreya's son, a school going kid and couple of his friends also joined us in the trek. We were supposed to reach the peak and come back down at around 2.00 pm and then have lunch. we walked through the village roads of Arasinamakki - a temple, a school and a small playground, crossed the river Kapila through a rocky patch and got into the forest path. It was very humid and hence you felt really hot. I'm not sure how much the temperature was. We reached a clearing and could have a first glimpse of Shingani Gudda.

It was kind of a two step mountain. The first peak was totally covered with trees slowly rising to the second peak. The second peak had a three step culmination covered with green grasslands devoid of any trees and had a steep looking summit. Standing there and looking up at the magnificent mountain, I had the strange feeling that this was not going to be the 'easy to moderate trek, ideal for beginners' as promised. Steep peaks covered with grass and rock at the summit usually have a sting in their tail when you try to mount them. Up there, there won't be any shade and usually you will have very steep edges that need to be scrambled through.

Rising and standing tall above in front of you, the mountain is a seductress though. Most of them are. Basking in lush greens and tilting her face down to see you looking up at her, she teases you to come up to her face. Standing there, I always think how it would feel to be looking down from the top of that mountain, and always reflect upon this thought when I actually reach the top. :-)

But now we were under the shade of the forest and the terrain was not very steep. We were making good progress till the track started rising steeply. The humidity and the high temperature combined was making the climb very difficult. We had to conserve water also as the two liter bottles we were carrying looked like not quite enough for the complete trek. We often took short breaks allowing for people to catch up. One good thing was we were still climbing under shade. But that soon ended as we emerged into a clearing which was a rather steep rock face covered with grass. The grass was still lush green though it was mid summer, probably thanks to pre monsoon showers. But the sun above was boiling. The best thing to do was to scramble up this patch as fast as possible and crash in the shade at the other side and rest. But quite an effort was needed to cross that. I think beginners had a real tough time :-)

We rested for sometime after that and started climbing again. Now we were moving through dense forest and there was a
thick bed of dead leaves on the track. This probably is a haven for leeches, though at the peak of summer most of them would have died away. I soon spotted one standing up on a dead leaf on the path itching to jump on to any unsuspecting passer-by. Through leech territory, you should move as fast as possible while constantly checking your legs to spot any that has caught on to you. They can even crawl under your socks and shoes and it would be too late by the time you spot them. Once the leech has properly bitten you, the blood flow will take a long long time to stop. Couple of us had two three leeches catching onto their legs, but we quickly disposed them using Iodex sprays.

After some more time through the dense trees, we reached a rocky ledge. We were at the first peak of this two staged mountain. From here you can't see the larger peak and it almost feels like you have reached the very top! Bad thing was there was no trace of any wind! But the view from the ledge was really nice as we were above the many other small hills of this hillock range. All those energy foods people carried were out and we rested there munching on them. It was already 1.00 pm. As per schedule we should have reached the peak and started descend!

The guide said its about 30 minutes of walk from here. I thought of the view of the steep peak covered in grass from the bottom and in my mind quietly discarded what he said. We started walking again. In between, the guides took a detour down to a stream to collect water. There was no stream, it had died in the summer. But there were small pits of water from which they filled their bottles. The water looked stale but people said it indeed is flowing very slowly through rocks and craks. Though I was skeptic about drinking it, it felt really nice and cold to splash on your face and had a mineral taste. After 30 minutes we reached the beginning of the grassy patch that goes to the peak of the mountain. Two up and down steps of small hills and the final rising to the summit could be clearly seen from here. It was a wonderful sight. Generally once you can see your target, it infuses fresh energy into your legs. But while inside the forest you are blindly following the guide without really knowing where you are going and how long it will take.

I started walking right behind the guide in an attempt to be the first one to reach the summit. But beating the guide at his own turf is tough. Though the green grasslands look fabulous from the bottom, they are a burning oven. The tall grass increases humidity and temperature level, and without any shade to cover you, you are literally baking. Thankfully at this level, as it was very open, there were strong winds blowing that cooled your bodies down. It was surprising how the peak seemed so very near but so far away! I tried to cut a sideways track through the first two ups and downs to avoid climbing them fully. The guide was climbing up and down them. But I had to abort and trek back to the top of second hill as there was no clear sideways path to get to the summit hill. The last stretch to the summit was a killer again, with steep rocks and only grass blades to hold on to which were often sharp. You crawl on to a rock face thinking you have made it, and you see up there, there is one more big rock pile above you and on top of which there is this flag, a makeshift one with with a red cloth, installed by previous climbers. So you are not at the top! Regain your breath and inch forward again!!! Step by step by step we moved on. Me and the elder guide reached the top together though one of the kids actually beat us!! :-). It was 2 O'clock now.

I crashed there for a bit and then went and stood on a ledge from where I could see the clearing down below from which we watched the mountain. There was a nice and strong wind blowing across me. I stretched my hands out and let the wind push me. It's almost like I'm flying looking down in to the green valley below me. This is one thing I most like doing when I reach atop any mountain and a windy one especially .. :-)

There was no shade at the top and the sun was unforgiving. But there were huge clouds floating across the valley casting cool shades under them. The clouds move in the wind and you can see the fuzzy shaped shadow sweeping across the forest. I sat down on the ledge, egging the herd of clouds to pass over the peak and over me. It was like a game between the clouds and the wind. As soon as one huge cloud is about to caress the peak with its cool shade, the wind will break it up into small pieces and it will wither away. I'll have to scold off the wind and try to attract the next one in line and it goes on. Some of them did manage to defy the wind and bless me with their coolness, and wasn't I thankful!

From here you can see the 'Amedikkallu' peak which looks like is higher than Shingani. On top of that peak you see three huge rocks arranged in the shape of a stove and it seems there is a huge monolith that looks like a tortoise. 'Ame' is tortoise in Kannada and 'Dikkallu' is a cook stove. It is supposed to be a very tough trek apparently! Slowly people started arriving and by 2.30 or so most of us made it to the top. Some of them aborted the climb at the second up hill and were resting there. We had a round of snacks and we were all out of water. The guides said we will go down by a different path where there is a flowing stream to collect water.

We started the descent at around 3 O'clock. We trekked down the same path we came through some distance and then our guide took a detour to reach the promised stream. Four of us including me were ahead with one guide with us. The rest of the gang was a little behind. Our guide was in a hurry to reach the bottom as soon as possible and took a drastic short cut through the woods. There was almost no path at all and we were making our own road! The rest of the gang fell far behind. Somehow we reached the stream. Now this was a flowing one indeed and the water felt really cool and refreshing. We filled up and started to walk down again. We went down the stream for a short distance. It was slippery at places and couple of time I lost my footing but nothing bad happened. Our guide soon again took another detour away from the stream and into the forest which was supposed to lead us down quickly. This again was no track at all. Thing is the moment you get onto some route like that there is more than a pretty good chance that you would get lost. Though the guide may know the route, the growing vegetation will soon change the way it looks unless there is some kind of trail. And after some time we got lost as expected! I was thinking my treks were getting jinxed of getting lost of late!! But the guide did eventually find the way back and we emerged in to rocky slope which would have been a waterfall in rainy season. But now it was dry and we were supposed to get down through it and take a path that began and the bottom of the slope to go back to the village. It was about 4 O'clock now. We rested there waiting for the rest of the gang. It turned out that we were about 40 minutes ahead of them!!

At 4.30 pm we started from there through the path at the bottom of the falls. I was thinking we would reach back by 6 O'clock or so and was planning on taking a dip in the river. But the patch seemed never ending, winding on and on. I remember someone telling me that if towards the end of any trek you don't have the feeling of 'Oh my God, when is this gonna end!', then it was not really a trek! By that means, sure this was really one! And to our surprise Athreya met us on the way with chapathi's and 'sagu' which was our missed lunch! By 6.30 pm we reached the village junction and playground. Our bus came there and hauled all of us back to the home stay. It was 7 pm and any dreams of a dip in the river was completely out!

Pinky was very delighted to see us back and jumped all around. Athreya treated us with Kokkam water, it is a sweet syrup made out a spice, and potato and onion bajjis. All were heavenly to our dried tongues and stomachs! As per schedule we had plans of a night walk after the trek, which was generally abandoned now. We had trekked for about nine hours which by no means is moderate! We all got fresh and rested. For dinner Athreya had some fabulous vegetable pulav and rice and rasam. The food on all occasions was indeed very tasty and had the traditional local flavour.

By 10.30 pm we all had our sleeping bags and stuff. It was still very hot and humid and sleeping inside the hut or the house seemed to be a bad idea. Me and a few other guys decided to sleep in the open courtyard. We lay there on our sleeping bags looking up at the night sky. The moon was out and there were puffy white streaks of clouds all over the sky. It was really serene and peaceful, only marred by the constant howls and cries of Pinky who was shifted from her normal place to a corner pillar to let us sleep in the courtyard. She seemed to be very uncomfortable there and never let off the howls. So I finally got up and brought her back to her place. She was thankful and peacefully went to sleep. Slowly we were also lulled to sleep by the calm and moonlight all around.

Come morning, I was determined to take a dip in the river. But as the river was very slow moving, the rocks were rather slimy and it didn't feel good. I went further down the stream and found that there is small check dam which was making the river very slow this side. I crossed the check dam and had a dip on the other side where the stream was in full flow. No one else ventured for a dip after my feedback! Once back, I tried to experiment my skills on one of the bamboo rafts. To my surprise I could steer that thing pretty well and could get it to go where I wanted it to! I went some distance through the river and saw a bunch of cormorant like birds engaged in morning fishing. We had a heavy breakfast of queer shaped idlis and some sweet made out of dried coconut. After that Athreya turned on something like an artificial waterfall! Water was being pumped up into a tree house built over the river and let down from there! All of us got down in the river on the bamboo rafts and had a real blast in the waterfall for a long time. It felt really nice to let the water belt your back after yesterdays long trek! Our feet and hands dangling into water from all sides of the raft made a feast to the schools of fish swimming around.

Our plan was to start back to Bangalore by 1.00 pm or so. Before that we decided to visit Shishila, which is a place nearby. There is an old temple of Shishileswara which is famous for sacred fishes who are treated as healers of skin diseases. Shishila was supposed to be our destination of a river walk that was scheduled for today which was also generally abandoned! Shishila temple is like Shringeri were you can see really large fish thriving in the small river close to the temple. Fishing is prohibited. There was a cable stayed bridge across the river and we created some kind of a relay of this large school of sacred fish by feeding them alternately from both ends of the bridge. You drop something on the other side, and all of them wallowing here now will swim there in a nice and beautiful pattern, something like what the metallic spores made when as a child you had collected them with a paper and a magnet on top, rubbing it through sand.

Some of us had lunch from the temple as part of the afternoon ceremonies, while others waited to eat on the way back. We got to Hassan by 5.30 pm or so and had a stop over at one of the road side Dhabas. Huge rain clouds could be seen on the horizon and it rained a bit. We had a nice round of hogging in the Dhaba and left around 6 O'clock. Our expedition reached back in Bangalore by midnight.

Back to regularly scheduled programming till the next urge to feel the winds ... :-)

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