Friday, May 8, 2009

Kotebetta - twists and turns ...

Click on the image to view picasa web album ...

End of any long drought comes with rain, notwithstanding everything indicating the possibility of none.

Its been six long months since I went somewhere, and its the peak of a burning summer. Possibility of travel presented itself in the form of Shanti pinging me and asking if I would like to join them on a trip to Bandavgharh National Park and I said yes without thinking twice. As I was looking forward to the trip, in the same vein of unexpectedness with which it came, the possibility destructed itself in the form of Shanti explaining to me that we can't go to Bandavgarh for various reasons. In an attempt to resurrect it, I tried proposing some alternate plan. The alternate plan took off and kept swinging wildly like the glittery ball in a pinball console, first it gently caressed Vagamon, seemed to be getting stuck there almost reaching the stage of booking tickets when natural forces popped it out and send it bouncing to Kodachadri, a brief interlude before tumbling to somewhere in Coorg, well, only after taking a detour to Thadiyandamol on its way. So somewhere in Coorg it was, and somewhere was a peak named Kotebetta, the third highest peak in the Coorg region after Thadiyandamol and Brahmagiri.

Some 20 kilometers from Madikeri, Kotebetta means the fort mountain, seemingly since the rock formation looks like a fort. The trek starts from a village named Hattihole en-route to Somvarpet from Madikeri. Hattihole is a river - 'Cotton River' -though I couldn't figure out why its called so. A big bridge across the river and a few shops mark the Hattihole village.

Six of us - Abhijeet, Girish, Jomy, Shanti, me and Roop - started in a Sumo from Bangalore on the night of Thursday, 30th April 2009. Aim was to reach Madikeri by morning. The trek is supposed to take about 3 hours from the point till a jeep can reach from Hattihole on the trail to the peak. We intended to pitch tents on top the mountain for the night and trek back next day morning. Availability of water on top was critical to this, but we could not conclude whether water would be there at this time of the year going by various opinions in blogosphere. We reached Madikeri by 6 O' clock in the morning. The place was filled with tourists on a long weekend and we had to scout a bit for rooms before stealing a deal on a dormitory for 100 Rs/- per head with hot water, clean baths, a color television and a flower pot! I should mention that we asked for only 4 hours :-D

After lesuirely compensating for sleep deprivation from the night trip we packed our gear - tents, sleeping bags etc. We had breakfast at Madikeri - rather disappointing one after roaming the place thirty minutes looking for Masala Dosa and Vada and finally reaching a joint which has those, but the last ones of which were being ordered as we were entering! The rice bath, the thing left, was ok, and we packed some chapathis for lunch on the way.

We reached Hattihole at around 1 O' clock, bought some diesel for camp fire which happens to be something that you can buy in the small shops at the junction. I checked with the shop owner about water at the top and he assured me that there's water and stated in his next sentence that he has actually never gone to the top! Leaving finding water to providence, we drove inside along the banks of the river which looked cool and green. After a few kilometers we have to turn right into a coffee estate. The peak is some 7 kilometers from here. Our driver took the Sumo a bit more further inside and decided to stop as the road degraded gradually to a point, one among a few which started looking like points of no return for a Sumo. We all got down, and with all the gear propped up on our shoulders started walking along the jeep track. We had about 12 liters of water and felt comfortably placed in that respect at the moment.

Looking for blue toothed hornbill (a.k.a common myna)
Looking for blue toothed hornbil (a.k.a common myna) :D

The path winds through a sprawling coffee estate with easy to slightly moderate climbs at places. Lot of jack fruit trees lined the fenced trail through the estate. Smell of ripe jack fruit in the hot air is vulgar, said the fox about the ripe dark grapes that hung out of its reach. We thought of trying, but couldn't hatch any workable plan and had to let it remain the sour grape. It was really really hot and we were finishing our precious water at a high rate. After the coffee estates the trail enters a kind of foresty area infested with lot of crickets. The piercing crescendo of the noise they make is compellingly psychedelic if you let your ears and mind succumb to it, which I did wholeheartedly. We even spotted a young chap with glazing wings and dabs of vermilion smeared on his behinds - perching on the bark of a tree and flapping those tiny wings to create a chirp that was traveling far and wide to the ears of any female within the vicinity of a few kilometers? One thing that beats me, how does this ear shattering clamor attract the gal as opposed to driving her mad?

The foresty patch over, we emerged in the smoldering sun and on to a rather steep climb straight up which exhausted us thoroughly. We took some rest in the shade off the road. Water was down to six liters. After ten twenty minutes we started climbing again and as we made the turn at the top, we could see the tall peak ahead of us with a precipitous and imposing vertical rise. It looked far far away. It was about 3 O' clock now and the dry land and air weakened our hope of finding any water. We walked further, climbing down the hill that we were presently on and entered another foresty patch. We passed some streams on the way, all dried up. The green shade of the forest was a relief, and a cool breeze was blowing. The sky was blue, with lots of white clouds here and there, but I could see some dark patch of clouds forming at the top of the peak and just had a hunch that it might rain.

By 4 O' clock we reached the point at which the rather wide trail that we were walking on came to an end with no clear trail in sight to go further up. From here two small hills were visible that we should negotiate before taking on the final climb to the top of the peak. With only close to 5 liters of water remaining, the prospect of pitching the tent on the top looked very bleak if we could not find any water. We hadn't had our lunch yet. Even deciding to go till the peak and trek back today itself seemed risky. We all threw down our backpacks and sat down, Jomy went on a reconnaissance mission to see whats the state at the top of the immediate hill that we were standing.

We're going there ...
We're going there ...

The tip of the peak seemed to be being caressed by some thin clouds, and suddenly Abhi pointed to the peak and said something moved there. We all looked but couldn't see anything. He said it was a dog. But none transpired even as we strained our eyes through the zoom lenses. If it was indeed a dog, could it indicate water? most probably it was just a bush swaying in wind and moreover Abhi was short sighted :-D We made a decision to hide our bags at this point and walk up without luggage till the end of the current hill. We took the lunch packs with us. General consensus was to have lunch at that point, come back here, get the bags and trek back.

I felt bad that we could not go to the peak, but this seemed to be the wisest decision at the moment. Maybe it was really a dog and there is water? the shop keeper was so sure, hm. Meanwhile Jomy came back and said nowhere could he see any indication of water. We decided we'll walk till 5 O' clock, have err, lunch; and trek back.

But providence in its infinite wisdom had set up a surprise for us around the corner. As we ascended the hill, Abhi pointed to the peak again and said he saw a white cow! in fact it was a cow, and now two three more of them, cows, and a human shape alongside, and yes, a dog also indeed! We could see their miniature shapes distinctly against the steep slope of the peak. They seemed to be descending. This lit up some new hopes. He would surely be able to tell us if there is water at the top? We had left our bags some 20 minutes behind. We kept on walking and reached the top of the current hill. Meanwhile the cow-uncle , he was definitely not a boy :-D and his herd had disappeared in the gorge beyond. We waited. Eagerly. Till after some minutes the first cow appeared at the edge of a ridge ahead of us, and more cows, and the cow-uncle behind. Me and Abhi started to walk toward them. Stirred by our colorful attire or for just plain fun, the cows decided to charge at us. We ran back, the cows stopped, and staring haughtily at us, slowly receded. We then gently walked around in a big circle to the cow-uncle.

Good news! He confirmed that there is water at the top. But its not running water, instead two small ponds behind the temple. He said one pond has potable water and other one doesn't. This was great. It was about 4.40 or so now. We decided we'll go back down, have lunch, get the bags and move to the peak. We walked down, and in the process found a semi-clear trail from the point where we dropped our bags. The chapathis tasted yummy. Our water level dropped to 2 liters. But there is water at the top! and we have a gas stove to boil the water and get really drinkable water, all is fine. Seemed so at least.

Good shepherd ...
Good shepherd ...

It was 5 O' clock by now and we thought we could reach the peak by 6.30 latest. I could see real dark clouds forming and swirling at the peak. There was a very good chance of rain. The wind was driving the clouds away above us to the mountain ranges that lay behind. We covered the first hill and rested on a plane before the next climb which seemed all rocky. We could see the clouds gather above the valley below. It was raining there! We could see the faint curtain of falling rain against the dimly lit sky and the white spray fanned by the strong winds. The wind was still downhill. The dark clouds above us seemed to be rushing down to join the party. We sat down there and watched this splendid display.

And suddenly, very suddenly, the cloud that was rushing downhill above us seemed to stop. Its forward tip started to dissolve. It seemed to be wanting to come back. The wind had turned! It was driving the rain now up the hill! The dark clouds pushed and shoved each other and swirled around. The rain was coming at us, its majestic roar ringing in our ears and the lightning bolts spreading out like hydra heads from its dark bulging girth. We ran, but it beat us in seconds. We tried to take cover behind bushes, but all in vain, we were getting drenched. Ha! :-)

We gave up hiding and started walking up in the rain. The rain was adamant. It kept on striking us with its pebble sized pearl ball drops. I had to remove my glasses to be able to see anything! But then, in ten minutes, as sudden as it came, the rain subsided. But it had totally transformed the world by then. We were almost shivering in the gale winds that blew on our face, which even started to dry our wet clothes. The world was now a cool green place. The rocks shined as if they were polished by the rain. We negotiated the slippery slopes of rock carefully and emerged in front of the precipitous rock face that marked the peak. It was an awesome sight. Rain drops were still falling from the sky now and then. The rock face was sheer black and towering above us in its wet coat. The sky had turned very blue. And behind white puffy clouds, a jovial sun gleamed at us. I was almost smiling involuntarily. The last time I felt such pristine joy was quite some time back.

And now the wind started driving truck loads of mist up the hill. We had to pass through one more foresty patch before reaching the peak. The dark path under the trees looked eerie with all the mist descending on it. Me, Shanti and Jomy were behind. Roop, Girish and Abhi were ahead of us and we heard their shouts indicating that they reached the top. Soon we ascended into a plateau which was covered with thick mist. We could see the silhouette of the small shiva temple through the haze and that was our destination.

Mist at the top ...
Mist at the top ...

We dropped our backpacks near the temple and went in search of the ponds. The water we collected didn't look very good. We sure will have to boil it. Next up was to pitch the tents. We had noodles packets to be cooked for dinner and some heat and eat stuff for breakfast tomorrow. We split into two groups, one assigned with getting the camp fire going and one to make dinner. To our great dismay, the gas stove refused to work! We first thought it was the wind, but it wasn't - that thing really had developed some issue. That meant no dinner? and moreover no boiled water?? Its beginning to look as if we did not find any water at all and are now at the peak camping!! And then suddenly to greatly disrupt everything that we had imagined, it started raining heavily again!

We scrambled into the pitched tents, thank God we made them first, with whatever we could carry, backpacks, sleeping bags, everything. It was a really heavy downpour. The tent roofs were just barely holding against the torrential rain. We could hear thunder and lightning rocking the sky every minute. This went on and on and on, and we were stuck in the tents with no dinner and practically no water except almost half of a bottle left. Thankfully we had some bread and jam and chocolates and had to make a meager dinner out of those and a mouthful of water each.

It was about 9.30 or so when the rain finally stopped. We crawled out into a cold and shivering night. A moon the color of fresh milk was up in the sky and it had painted the sleepy valley below a very ghostly white. Spongy clouds swept out the whole world below and hung there like a motionless seascape. The cold wind tried to pierce our bodies with its frozen fingers; and we could not linger on for long before crawling back in to the tents and calling it a night.

Motionless seascape ...
Motionless seascape ...

Everybody slept soundly. And seemingly some had more sound :-D I was woken up at 6.30 in the morning by Girish shouting 'Sunrise!', it was indeed. And it looked reasonably good. During the morning routines I found out that there was some stone stove and fire wood which was sort of dry near the ponds. We decided to try and get a fire going with the diesel that we still had intact. Surprisingly it worked out great. We were able to boil about five liters of water, cook the heat and eat stuff and have breakfast; we even made tea!

All's well that end's well, though with no well and only a pond :-D

Trekking back was easy. We met the Sumo on the road. The driver had boldly drove further up along the trail in consderation for the tired gang of us. Discounting small mishaps on the way, like the Sumo getting stuck in a rock and we having push it out, and me forgetting my camera at that spot and remebering it after a few kilomteres and having to run back and get it because the Sumo could not turn around, we reached safely at the Hattihole bridge around 1 O' Clock. And in the Hotel Hattihole at the junction had the best food in the trek. Raw fish curry, omelet, fish fry and lots of rice :-)

By the stream ...
By the stream ...

After lunch we went back and pitched the tent along the river bank and lazed in the river for hours on end. Cool and flowing; peaceful, green and sunny.

We started back to Madikeri around six, and reached Bangalore by two in the night.

And thus ended a long drought with rain, notwithstanding everything indicating the possibility of none.

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