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Shoeless in Kudremukh

Kudremukh range [photo courtesy Nithin PM]

Kudremukh range [photo courtesy Nithin PM]

We had been walking through the slush for over five hours now. Wading would have been the ideal word. A sudden spell of bizarre weather had turned the undulating verdant green hills into a booby trap. Bizarre weather!!! So what else would you expect in a place which has an annual rainfall of around 7000 mm in the monsoon season? Incessant rain, incessant rain and incessant rain. It was impossible to stand at one place for more than one second without your shoes sinking into the mud; if you stood for two seconds, a couple of leeches would sink their fangs into your skin.  Our trail looked no more like a trail. The chunks of mud on the trail had caved in and were flowing over my right shoe. And my left shoe? I had lost my left shoe, a couple of hours back, when I fell into a stream while crossing it. My backpack was wet and it seemed to be getting heavier every minute. But I was more worried about our phones which had taken the brunt when I fell into the stream.

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We, a group of seven, had decided to undertake the 18 km up and down Kudremukh monsoon trek to get ourselves inspired for a longer trek – the 53 km long Roopkund trek in the Himalayas.

The Kudremukh Trek is an epic journey of wonders. It offers 18 km (two way) and 7-9 hours of exploring psychedelic landscapes – rolling hills with unending landscapes of green carpeted grass, lush valleys lined with gurgling streams, and shola forests against the backdrop of the third highest peak in Karnataka, Kudremukh Peak that stands tall @ 1892 m. Sounds wonderful….doesn’t it not!!

The Kudremukh sanctuary stretches into the districts of Udupi, Uttara Kannada and Chikmagalur and gets its name from its one peak that resembles the face of a horse. Did we did start off on the wrong foot? I guess so, because we ended with a lost shoe, a few dead phones, a dozen of leech punctures and seven worn out trekkers.
The previous day we had caught a Horanadu bound KSRTC bus from Bangalore. We were to get down at Kalasa from where we were to be picked up by a jeep till Mullodi village. The jeep was arranged by our guide and host, Raje Gowda (Rajappa) who runs a guest house – the Mullodi House. He was to also arrange for our forest permits, breakfast, packed lunch for the trek, and our stay for the night at the Mullodi House. The Kudremukh trek starts from the village of Mullodi.
The monsoon season was well underway by the time our bus reached Belur. Kalasa was a good 80 km away. By 6.00 am we were climbing the winding roads through a coffee estate when suddenly the bus swerved to the right, jerked and gave up a cloud of smoke and came to a rolling stop. The right wheels were stuck in the mud. The more the driver tried to come out of it, the wheels got cemented further. We were at least 10 km away from Kalasa.
We climbed out of the bus and paced around the forest road. The driver, after a few futile tries, killed the engine and got down. There was a light drizzle. This was not a good sign. To reach the far-flung village of Mullodi, we had to be at the mercy of the public transport system, which was totally non-existent. We made a phone call and arranged for Rajappa’s jeep to pick us up for an extra charge. After waiting for another hour, our salvation came rolling up. We drove to Kalasa, from there Mullodi is 6 km away. It took another 45 minutes to cover the 6 km long drive on the mud track. We finally reached Mullodi by about 8 am.We freshened up, had breakfast and geared ourselves for our monsoon trek. Now gearing up for a monsoon trek would mean that we were wearing our raincoats, our leech guards, and sturdy shoes with a hard grip to tackle the muck and slippery surfaces on the trail.
All geared up?

All geared up?

By 10.00 am we were on our way. We were accompanied by a guide. The initial exercise was to climb a heavily stony muddy trail. The rain had made the path slippery.

 

Photo courtesy Nithin PM

On the muddy trail (Photo courtesy Nithin PM)

In another 15 minutes we had come face to face with our first glimpse of the Kudremukh range.

We passed a meadow where we saw a huge single tree – which we later came to know was called the Ottimara (the lone tree). Deep down in the valley we could see a fast moving stream.

In about 10 minutes we reached our first stream crossing. It was not deep and we could cross it with a little help from our guide. We kept flicking off leeches from each other’s clothes. We passed through Shola forests, jumped over dead tree logs, continued disengaging leeches and kept crossing streams.

One stream was particularly wide and it looked like a confluence of two streams. The flow was very strong and it was as if I was losing strength from my legs. I had only reached the middle of the stream, when calamity strikes. The flow overpowered me and I fell into the water. Our guide caught hold of me and pulled me up, it was then I realised that I had lost my right shoe.

Our guide did his own investigation and went to see whether my shoe had miraculously lodged against a stone or a hanging tree branch or root. It was nowhere to be found.

No one would entertain the thought of walking around with just one shoe on. Not only would it be really funny, it would also be really bad for my feet. And I would have slowed down my fellow trekkers as well. So how was I supposed to continue with my trek on this muddy path. Should I turn back and walk the 3 odd kilometres we had just walked from the base camp or should I just sit it out in the jungle and wait for the other trekkers to get back.

I have often come across abandoned footwear – a lone boot, a slipper or a shoe – in the most out-of-the-way places like historical monuments, ponds, or by the side of roads. I have often wondered about these ‘Cinderellas’ who kept tossing their shoes. But now we were all frantically looking for a ‘lost sole’. How I wished I could find one abandoned shoe. If anyone had abandoned their footwear – in any shape, condition or colour – I would jump for it and wear it. And voila, there lay the answer to my prayers. An abandoned sole! I had my leech socks on, under which I was wearing thick woollen socks. I removed them both, placed the sole under my feet, wore the socks over it and finally slipped on the leech socks. Something was definitely better than nothing.

We now came to a small hill.  The steep zig zag climb up the hill took us to some height and provided a panoramic view of the surroundings. I felt really bad as we had all stopped admiring the views by now. On one side was a cascade of hills covered with lush green grass, interspersed with shola forests. The Kudremukh peak was high up there with its sharp drop on one side and the other side resembling a horse’s face.

There were a few more streams to cross and I was now finding it a bit difficult to balance myself with that slippery sole. Exposure to the cold water was giving me cramps as well. We must have been a kilometre and a half away from the summit when it started to rain heavily. Water came pouring down the mud trail and it was difficult to walk on the mud. Peering out of the modest shelter of my raincoat, I asked the green hills, “Is this how you welcome enthusiastic trekkers?” The retort comes in the form of another spell of cold showers. Exhausted, I soldiered on.

Our guide mentioned that if it continued to rain like this the streams would rise with the increased flow of rain from the mountains. We finally decided to turn back.

Photo courtsey Nithin PM

Photo courtesy Nithin PM

The climb down was faster, but the streams had swollen. And I had become a bit paranoid. I only remember being pulled across the streams.

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Photo courtesy Nithin PM

We reached back at 5 pm. I removed my left leech socks – pretty much shredded by then – from my shoeless foot and found three leeches hanging on. I sprinkled salt and watched the leeches fall off lamely, but the blood kept flowing on for the next couple of hours.

It did not take a huddle for us to decide to check out from Mullodi village and go in search of another hotel closer to civilization. We spend the next day tending to our leech punctures, our wet phones and our exhaustion.

 

Kudremukh receives an average annual rainfall of 7,000 mm. The wet climate and the tremendous water retentive capacity of the grasslands and forests has led to the formation of thousands of perennial streams in the region converging to form three major rivers of the region – Tunga, Bhadra and Nethravathi – that form an important lifeline for the people of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, providing sustenance and livelihood to the millions of people living downstream.

 

For trekking enthusiasts, if the idea of a monsoon trek appeals to you, you won’t mind the odds – the incessant rains, paths paved with slush, umpteen stream crossings, leeches unlimited and some seriously wet gear. Then head out to Kudremukh in the rains, between June and August.

 

For those not too keen on a monsoon trek to Kudremukh, October to February promises cooler weather, less leeches, clear views of the rolling hills, verdant valleys ….. and intact shoes and dry phones, of course!

Photo courtesy Nithin PM

Photo courtesy Nithin PM

None of us dared to carry our DSLR cameras. We had a few mobile phones which were all soaked by day end. We did manage a few shots, but could not manage to take as many pictures as we would have loved to. The few we managed are posted here.

C'mon we had fun too....

C’mon we had fun too….

Now the million dollar question…. Did this trek inspire us to answer the call of the mightier Himalayan mountains and the Roopkund trek et al? It did….atleast, I did buy a brand new pair of shoes – ankle high ones. For more on the Roopkund travails, stay tuned…

 


Walk in the woods: Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve

Periyar Tiger Reserve

There was something unrealistic about standing within 10 ft of a pack of Indian wild dogs. Popularly known as Dholes and classified as an endangered species, this elusive pack of wild canines was busy gnawing at what appeared to be the skeletal remains of a deer. It was 7.00 on a crisp Thekkady morning and we had just embarked on our three-hour nature trek from the Periyar Tiger Reserve nature interpretation center.

Earlier, we had crossed a small creek that was part of the Periyar reservoir, standing precariously on a bamboo plank. We had just commenced our walk along the fringes of the forest when we came upon an open meadow. The Dholes were stationed here. I did the only thing I could possibly do in those circumstances – pull out my camera.

Nature at its best

Nature at its best

We were on the last leg of our five-day drive from Bangalore to Munnar and Thekkady. Having already covered Munnar in the last three days, we had reached Kumily the previous day and had put ourselves up at a home stay, Pepper County, owned by the lovely and enterprising couple, Mr. and Mrs. Cyriac.

Periyar Tiger Reserve is situated in the southern part of the Western Ghats spread across the Idukki, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala. The reserve is also the catchment area of the river Periyar.  Periyar National Park is one of the few national parks in India to remain open even during the monsoon.

Enchanting jungle path

Enchanting jungle path

We had earlier decided against the mandatory boat ride, the most common activity that tourists prefer to do when visiting the Periyar Tiger Reserve.  We didn’t want to look touristy in our own home state by going on an hour and a half long boat ride with a load of other tourists ‘just to spot some wildlife’. There is no advance booking for the boat trip and there is a mad rush in the mornings to reach the booking counter and we did not want to be a part of that.

Traffic jam at the Periyar Tiger Reserve entrance gate

Traffic jam at the Periyar Tiger Reserve entrance gate

At 6 am we were standing behind a file of about 20 vehicles, autos, buses, taxis, and cars, before the closed gates of the Periyar Tiger Reserve – all of us patiently waiting for the gates to open. It was astonishing to realise that, at that early hour, there were so many people lined up for entry tickets. We were almost sure that most of them were here for the boat ride. From the entry gate, one is only issued the entry ticket and a parking ticket. To get a ticket for the boat ride, you have to drive another 2 km from the entry gate, park your car and then run to the ticket counter, another 500 m from the parking lot, and join the jostling queue. It was a wet and cold morning, but tempers were definitely hot and short. Once the gate was open, there was a small rush as every car was aiming for that first spot in the queue.

On the way to the parking lot

On the way to the parking lot

Nobody was overtaking but positively speed driving, way above the 20 km/h speed limit.  We joined the mad rush till the parking lot. From the parking lot, the others continued, most of them probably boosted by the idea of having an upper deck ticket so that their chances of ‘spotting wildlife’ improved.

Boat ride

Boat ride

We had already booked a slot for the nature trek, the previous day, which was supposed to start at 7 am. As we were at least an hour early, we thought we would do a recce of the place. We first watched the excited tourists get packed onto the boat. After the boat tragedy of 2009, the authorities have limited the number of boats at Thekkady.  Later, we remained on the porch of the ticket counter from where one could get the best views of the reservoir. Early mornings are the best time for animal sightings as most of the wild animals come to the water. We watched a herd of Sambhar deer coming to the water and prancing around.

Sambhar deer

Sambhar deer

By 6.45, we had assembled at the Nature Interpretation Center and were busy struggling with the khaki leech socks that were being provided to us by the forest department. These long leg covers, to be tied over your legwear, are supposed to protect you from poisonous insects, reptiles and the scariest ones, leeches. We were also asked to fill in forms with our contact details and the next of kin’s contact numbers and address.

Struggling to keep the leech guards on. The leeches didn't have to !!!

Struggling to keep the leech guards on. The leeches didn’t have to !!!

The nature walk is a light trek where every group is led by an experienced forest guide and can have up to a maximum of six individuals. The prescribed fee is Rs. 200/- per person but as the minimum fee for the trek was Rs. 800/- and as there were no other members in our group we had to dole out Rs. 800. It was also surprising to note that there were no other Indians in any of the other trekking groups. So much for the love of the forest!

The Kerala Forest Department has employed local tribesmen from the Mannan community, who have a good knowledge of the local flora and fauna, as guides for the treks. The Mannan community, the oldest tribal community in the Periyar Tiger Reserve area, was primarily into fishing and cultivation.  With the spread of tourism, many have now become guides. Under a program in association with the German government, they are trained to speak English, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, and even foreign languages like French, German and Spanish.

Brahminy Kite in action

Brahminy Kite in action

Our guide, Mr. S, who had 10 years of experience, seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the jungle. After gearing ourselves with the leech socks, we started our trek. We had to cross a small creek first. It took a huge amount of practice and balance to stand still on the bamboo plank. There was the uneasiness of one’s footwear getting wet or, even worse, the dismay of plunging into the reservoir in its full glory.

The bamboo raft

The bamboo raft

Neither of it happened and we started walking along a forest path. Before reaching a clearing, S gestured with his hand and told us not to move. He cupped his ears and told us to listen carefully. We could hear a high-pitched whistle. We slowly walked towards the clearing and hid behind a few brittle bushes. It was then that we spotted the Dholes. There were around 7 or 8 of them, some of them busy gnawing, some of them cautiously looking around and a few of them just moving around. The Dholes must have sensed human presence as they suddenly got up and moved a bit further even as we silently pursued the pack.

Dholes on the prowl

Dholes on the prowl

Dholes are supposed to be shy and cautious animals and are found to tolerate a minimum amount of human disturbance. Dholes are probably the only carnivores found in India which has never been accused of attacking humans. On the other hand, it is a common practice of the tribals to often steal Dhole kills, many a time right from underneath their noses!!!!

Dholes live in packs and almost look like larger dogs but with a more reddish coat and a black bushy tail. Dholes, like dogs, are very social and communicate with each other by whistling.  Dholes hunt together, teaming up to take down smaller animals like hares, rodents, pigs, and even larger preys like Sambhar deer, wild boars, and Chital. They are also quite ferocious and always end up tearing rapidly into their prey, sometimes feasting while the prey is still alive.

Sadly, the Dhole is an endangered species.

As we walked further, the Dholes kept moving away from us, crossing over a patch of marshy land, half-swimming, and half-trudging and finally disappearing into the cover of the forest. Right on the side of the marshy patch was the skull of an Indian Gaur supposedly killed and eaten by a tiger about a year ago. The forest department had not removed the skull so that visitors could get to touch and feel it.

Gaur skull

Gaur skull

Suddenly the forest was reverberating with the unmistakably large whirring sound of the Great Malabar Hornbill. We had already seen some of its cousins in Arunachal and were quite familiar with the sounds and sights of the bird.  S pointed to us where a hornbill nest existed and told us to wait. In less than a minute, we saw a hornbill swoop down from the skies and hop onto the tree.

Great Malabar Hornbill in flight

Great Malabar Hornbill in flight

We were now walking towards the forest. Throughout the three hours trek, we learned about several different types of trees, birds, and animals.  Though we were not expecting a few tigers or leopards to pose in front of us, we were quite satisfied by spotting a great variety of birds and also listening to the beautiful songs of Malabar whistling thrushes, the hoots of the coucals and the calls of the hornbills.

Indian Gaurs grazing on a nearby hill

Indian Gaurs grazing on a nearby hill

We also came across Nilgiri langurs and a couple of Gaurs which were grazing up on a nearby hill. The most beautiful find was the Giant Malabar Squirrel.

But what took our breath and a lot of blood away was the leeches. It is really amazing to see how these tiny creatures can jump onto one’s body like an acrobat. Also, stuck to our shoes were plenty of leeches that we constantly flicked away with twigs. At one point, S sprayed some tobacco powder on our shoes which he said would keep the leeches away – not that it did. Guess our leech socks were not thick enough!

The jungle is alive. You just have to look.

The jungle is alive. You just have to look around.

We realized that, apart from providing an opportunity to experience forest life, this trek also creates awareness in the prevention of poaching and other illegal activities like sandalwood smuggling. A lot of the night patrollers were once poachers and had been given an opportunity by the forest department to be a part of their special protection team. The plus point, of course, is that they know the forest inside out.

The most dangerous and unpredictable animals are sloth bears and elephants. S’s brother, a night patroller, was once attacked by a sloth bear and fractured his arm and had a rod inserted. Sloth bears are at their highest alert during breeding time and when they have cubs.

Elephant tooth

Elephant tooth

We also came across a huge elephant tooth, belonging to an elephant which was killed by another two years ago. In that same year, around seven other pachyderms were killed by this very elephant. We had read in the previous day’s papers that a wild elephant had run amok in the jungle and a lady got injured. We asked S about it and were surprised to hear that he was witness to the whole incident. He had been leading a group of 6 people when the elephant came running through the jungle, catching a group of tourists unaware. In the melee that ensued, a lady fell down and fractured her leg. S said that he did not even have the time to warn the tourists.

Great Malabar Squirell

Giant Malabar Squirrel

My hiker’s eyes did travel longingly to the summit of a small hill across the river. Seeing our enthusiasm, S mentioned that the forest department also conducts a day and night trekking/camping program. Another interesting program is the Jungle Patrol where tourists are given an opportunity of taking part in the regular night patrolling inside the reserve. It is interesting to note that this is the only tiger reserve in the country where night patrol is allowed.

Innovative signboards within the park

Innovative signboards within the park

The objective of this activity is to not only explore the jungle at night but to also understand how tough the work of the forest department is. As all the forests of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala are contiguous, sandalwood smugglers travel all the way from the other states, bare feet and barely clothed with oil applied all over, making it difficult for the patrolmen to catch them.

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Another recent addition to the activities is bamboo rafting, a full day activity which includes both hiking and rafting. Tourism is highly regulated as only 30 sq km of the park is open to tourists and trekking is only done around the buffer area.

Do Indians hate a walk in the jungle?

Do Indians hate a walk in the jungle? Go figure!!!

In spite of the fact that this reserve being home to a vast assortment of wildlife species, wherein a number of birds and animals are unique here, we found that most of the times these activities are only booked by foreigners. This reserve is visited by wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers in crazy numbers, all round the year, but most of them only make it till the boat ticket counter.

Move away from the crowds. Explore the nature. It is bound to leave you gasping in wonder. Step away from the usual path. It can be a rewarding experience. In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. Peace, clarity, happiness……?

Happy feet

Endless trails and happy feet

Our feet were definitely happy.


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