Sunday, August 05, 2007

2007-06-30: Wandering around Chikmangalur, the 'Malnad'

It started with an email conversation at 8:00PM

"Aaj raat thora midnight drive karne ka man kar raha hai..."
(I wish I could go on a midnight drive tonight...)

It was Azmi. This was followed by a call around 10PM.

"I was thinking if we can visit Nandi Hills tomorrow early morning, its been a while now..."
"Don't talk to me about midnight drive and Nandi Hills together. With due respect to Nandi Hills, being only 70 odd kilometers from Bangalore, its hardly a drive..."
"Then what about Yercaud, the poor man's Ooty?"
"Ok, can go there, but then again, it will hardly be a drive, though its about 240kms away, the road's probably too good and it will hardly take 5hrs. Also, in this rain, what about Chikmangalur, it will be ideal time to check out the definition Malnad?"
After a bit of persuasion, Azmi agreed, "Umm... Ok!"

The Start

I got another call from him around 11PM, "There's a twist in tale, one of my friends is also interested in joining us. He has sold his bike away, and now only has a car. Catch - the car does not have a jack (tool to replace any tyre). If we get it from anyone, we'll go by car, else on two of our bikes. What say?"
This time, it was I who had to be convinced to opt for car instead of car. Assuming it was nearly impossible to get hold of a jack at midnight I agreed; I didn't know that I was in for a surprise.

12:15AM, I got a call from a happy sounding Azmi, "Well, get ready for a car trip, we've managed a jack!" Around 12:40AM, I heard a car pulling up below my house, it was Azmi. "Where's the owner of the car?", I asked. I was kind of circumspect about the new person joining the trip, how would he be, high headed or a goof or uninteresting? "Hi, this is Vivek Jha.", he was a colleague of Azmi, working with Azul Systems. As time went by, I was happy to realize that I was in good company, with people having, what we call, matching frequency [:)]

We filled up the tank to the brim and were away by 1AM, minus, well, enough cash in pocket - an outcome of a collection of lazy bones, lazy enough not to go on the other side of road for an ATM until there were no more ATMs in sight!

The Night Drive

As Vivek drove us out of Bangalore, he looked kind of happy. When asked, he gave me a small information - he was driving a car for the first time on a highway! Well, let me tell you, though I sincerely felt that he was a bit crude, he was very safe and did not take any chances while on the wheel. Came Nelamangala and I took over. This was the first time that I was driving a Ford Ikon (though I had driven a Ford before - my Mustang while I was in Roseville [:)]). His Flair had pretty good pickup, but lacked in headlight beam alignment. The following rain didn't help the cause either; thankfully, there was not much until we crossed Hassan. Looking at the road map, we were supposed to take a right for Mudegiri, about 4kms after Sakleshpur. But the pelting rain saw to it that we didn't get much help from any of the parked trucks in Sakleshpur. We had to depend upon the Kannada knowledge that we had; I could somehow read few of the characters put on one of the sign boards on road side and decided to take a deviation.
"If you think thats the right way to go, go ahead. Worst case it'll not be the shortest way; we have anyway come out to roam the country.", and we all laughed out aloud. That's called company! Going ahead, however, we could make out that it was indeed the way to go. Though single lane, the road quality was way better than what we had got between Hassan and Sakleshpur. After confirming that it was OK for the driver, the two passengers went snoozing for the next hour or so.

Good Morning

The rain gods had not left us since little beyond Hassan, and the blessings continued. It was around 6AM and we had already crossed Mudigere that the passengers came back to activity. A little rain break gave us enough time to get freshed up. Broad day light meant that it was time for a switch on wheels. And so was the time to get hold of Azmi's camera. The scene outside was was just... true Malnad, meaning 'Region of Heavy Rainfall'. The greenery and rain all around was just majestic, we could see step farming, small cascades and what not. Opps, one thing was missing - a place for having tindi (Kannada word for breakfast).

Idli for Tindi with Hot Tea, and some shopping

Finally, we found a small hotel at a junction (can't remember the name). In fact, there were quite a few hotels to choose from. We finally chose the one that looked cleanest of all. Warm Idli with Chutni and Sambhar was the need of hour and thats what we precisely got. Though not the best I've ever had, the platter came as a true blessing. Once done with breakfast, the next thing in mind was to get some protective gear against rain. We had already taken notes by observing the locals there and we wasted no time to adapt ourselves to the culture. We needed to take a right at this place; going straight would have led us to Dharmasthala through Charmadi Ghats.

The Overflowing River

Revitalized, we headed towards the first of our listed 'nice to see' places - Hornadu. As we crossed Kalasa, we stopped to ask for direction, and were informed that the road ahead was blcoked; the Tunga river was overflowing, engulfing the bridge 4kms before Hornadu. Not exactly the most encouraging news, never the less, none of us had seen actual flooding in South India. We continued ahead to get a glimpse of the 'invisible' bridge. We were indeed greeted with one, with Kudremukh range in the background. We went out in the rain like kinder garden kids, enthused to empty the camera's memory card with our snaps. "Look where I went, that's a bridge behind me, you know, it got submerged in the river..!" Our next destination was Kudremukh, and possibly the Hanumana Gundi Waterfalls.

Towards Kudremukh

We came back to Kalasa, and took a right turn on the road leading to Kudremukh. As we negotiated few corners, there was some pleasant surprise waiting for us. Amidst the coffee country, we were suddenly meandering through tea estates. We couldn't help but stopped there and just dashed into the plantation. It was not easy to drag ourselves out but then somehow we did it!

There was more rain to follow us, more in terms of its fury than beauty. As we approached the Kudremukh National Park check-post, we could see it closed. Upon inquiry, we found out that there was a landslide a couple of kilometers further and the road was non-motorable. Kudremukh was as far as 14kms! After coming back to Kalasa, we spent some time on deciding upon the next destination. We found out that the alternate route to Kudremukh was also blocked. It was going to be Kemmangundi, coming back to Mudigere and going beyond Chikmangalur town towards Baba Budhan Range.

Coming Back to Mudigere for Some Oota

There was another factor that we needed to take into consideration, we were short on fuel and we were short of cash. Not making it to Kudremukh meant that ATMs were still out of range. We decided to get fuel for the car and postpone our own refill till we reached Chikmangalur. There were few water pools that we had negotiated while going towards Kalasa. Now was the time to encash. The car went forward, dropped me and then backed off. It was time for a splash!
Once back inside car, it was time that I finally took the back seat, for some well deserved rest. It was however Azmi who had been driving for most of the time since morning. Once we reached Mudigere, we were in for some more pleasantries. This place was big enough to have ATMs and doable hotels for oota (luncheon) . In morning, we had actually bypassed the town while heading towards Kalasa from Sakleshpur; the way to Chikmangalur was through Mudigere town.

On the Way to Kemmangundi

The journey from Mudigere to Chikmangalur town was rather uneventful. We stopped over in the district HQ to get some chips and all essential potable water bottles. From this place, there were a couple of ways that we could have gone to Kemmangundi - via Baba Budhan Range (which passes in proximity to Mullayangiri (Karnataka's tallest peak) and Bababudhangiri), and the other being the highway to Tarikere (on Tumkur-Honnavar NH). The scenery was captive enough to make us miss the former route, something that we didn't bother about. This was the first time in the day that rain had stopped and we had some fairly clear sky. It was time to get out of the confines of car and wander around, sit on the road and get into the woods. We spent some time there before the rain gods caught up with us.

Kalahasti Falls

Kalahasti Falls is about 10kms before Kemmangundi, and offers some very safe bathing zone if one's interested in having some fun. It also hosts around five century old temple at the base of the falls. As we reached it, we could have got all wet without going into the falls, and no, it wasn't that spray typical to water falls. If you still can't get it, it was well, our good old companion, the rain [:D]. Time was again to take out protective gear that we bought in the morning. All the 10 bucks spent on that was put to proper use. It was nothing but a big sheet made out of recycled green colored plastic. Well, mine was blue in color, to be precise. This was one souvenir that we got back from this trip! We felt like those firangs; being given wierd looks by the passers by and the tourists alike. It was a different story that we were not complaining; we were rather enjoying that!

Enter Kemmangundi

It was past 6PM that we entered Kemmangundi. This scenic hill-station, 55 km north of Chikmangalur, is situated on the Baba Budhan range at a height of 1,434 m. Not the best of the times to be there if you are looking forward to some breath taking views, coz everything was painted white and grey - the color of clouds. Positioned 8 km from Kemmangundi are the Hebbe Falls, where we could not go as it was getting a bit too dark. The original plan was to try finding an overnight shelter at the Horticulture Department's Inspection Bungalow. This plan was however disturbed by the presence of leeches, and too many of them. They were just everywhere, from steering wheel of car to our jeans, trying to get in through the tough fabric and guess what, succeeding in the feat! Azmi had to literally tear off one of them as it had taken position to make him weigh less by few grams of blood.
"Lets get out of here!"
"We have another situation, one of the back tyres seem to be flat!"

Way Back - the Jack comes to rescue

I checked out the spare one lying in the boot space and i could feel my palm sinking a long way in.
"It doesn't seem to hold enough air."
"Then lets get to the nearest puncture repair shop as quickly as possible."
I took over the wheels. Driving fast was out of question, with not so good roads and considerable mist. A couple of kilometers down and I realized that continuing any further on the flat tyre could have spelt doom on its life. We pulled over and then followed a perfect example of team work - Azmi got busy with the jack while I took care of taking out bolts off. Vivek was mercurial at showing us the 'mobile torch' and keeping the spare tyre out ready for
replacement. We were off within 15minutes amidst total darkness and light drizzle! Once we reached plain lands, we luckily found a very good puncture repair shop. Irony remains that the spare tyre actually had just the right air pressure; it would make me think twice when I check for it the next time for any tyre by merely pressing it! Another irony, adjusting the headlight focus took more time and money though it was not done to 100% satisfaction. A Dosa dinner at Kaddur (again on Tumkur-Honnavar NH) and someone asked me, "What time are we expecting to get back?" "Around 3AM." "Ok, don't think you are going to mind if we sleep, will you?" "Feel Free!"
With a break in between, we reached the toll-gate for the completed sector of NH-4, in between Tumkur and Nelamangala. I offered the wheel to Vivek, and he was more than happy to take over! By the time Vivek dropped Azmi and then me at my doorsteps, it was around 2:30AM, still about 30 minutes ahead of expected schedule, thanks to no rain after Kaddur.

A little less than 800kms were done in a little over 25 hours.
Selected moments of the trip can be found here. This was kind of a second such trip for me; had been to Coorg for the third time, this time with Arnab, a round trip of around 680kms in less than 23 hours of biking. I was not aware that the next trip following this one to Chikmangalur would again fall in same category - ~650kms done for a glimpse of Iruppu Falls in 16 hours with Abdulla.

Monday, February 05, 2007

2007-01-25: Trek to Mullayangiri and Baba Budangiri

"Hey, what are you doing over the weekend?", asked Naveen.
"Umm... Got few plans but not sure, why what are you up to?"
"Well, we are going for a trek, starting tonight from Bangalore and coming back only by Sunday evening..., you interested?"

"Let me see, I need to confirm few things before I can say anything..."
"Ok, let me know by lunch time if you are joining us or not."

"Where to, and how many?"
"Up Mullayangiri and then continuing to Baba Budangiri, seven of us, plus two of the organizers."

It all started off with this conversation to Naveen, my colleague at EMC and my batchmate in engg days. And as this topic headline would suggest, I was very much in. I gave my confirmation at about 2pm. Amit, our key initiator for the trip, was kind of suspicious at first, "Are you sure that you'll not drop out at the last moment?" Well, all I could do was to empathize with him, I had been a sufferer in quite a few similar situations. "You can count on me" was all I said.
"Ok, then catch you at 9:30pm at office premises tonight. Just make sure you follow the basics mentioned in the mail I'm going to send you now."
"Done, catch ya at night then!"

The Start

Reaching office itself was not easy - a jam packed 200 meters on Hosur Road to start with, and a cranky auto rickshaw to further thicken the plot. There was a bit of surprise waiting for me when I reached office. I met Deepak there, my engineering classmate. Time to introduce the rest of the gang now - Ashraf, Shubash, Vamsi and Vijay, apart from the four of us - Amit, Deepak Naveen and myself. As our bus came in, it was time to get familiarized with our trek organizers - Nagendra (aka Nagi) and Santosh, two outdoor experts from Adventure Works!

As we glided out of the city limits, the next best thing to do was to find a dhaba to eat. Naveen was cozying out on his latest innovation, while the others frantically looked out. One after the other, the dhabas had closed down for the day. I knew of one place, little beyond Neelamangala, that would be open beyond 12 midnight. As it turned out, this was the place that gave us relief in the end. As we came out, the driver took us by complete surprise; we were heading back towards Neelamangala. He persisted to his plan of taking the Tumkur -> Kadur route. "This route will be at least 2 hours shorter compared to Hassan route". Little did we agree to him but then let his decision rule - he was the one who was going to drive us through the night. It wasn't a glide though, with the roads absent after Kadur and the self-opening window that saw to it that very few of us actually slept. So much so that even the likes of Naveen gave up and got back to the seat in a more orthodox posture.

Instruction Time

As we got down in Chickmangalur and feasted on some delicious breakfast, it was time to size up the entire day's event. As we reached this small temple about half way up the Mullayangiri route, it was time to bid adieu to the bus, till Sunday morning. It was time to appreciate the experience of Nagi and Santosh w.r.t. the trek preparation. Back-packs, petrol stoves, tents, sleeping bags, chocolates, spices and what not. The list was short and precise. We left our personal bags in the bus and started packing our back-packs. A brief instruction followed. Finally, it was time to move on. Carrying near about 15 kilos on back (apart from my own ponch) was not going to be easy for a first timer like me.

The Up-Hill Task

As we started the ascent, the 60 degree slope started taking its toll almost immediately. The January sun never shown as brilliantly. "Drink as much possible and as many times as possible", Nagi's words echoed within my ears as the team continued. As we proceeded, steam started running out. The initial booster rocket had been disposed. Now it all depended upon how much fire was left in the belly to propel us forward; I wondered if the last sentence had some literal meaning, after all, I had the largest belly of them all ;)

Conquering the Top

As we turned the last corner, we saw something peculiar - Mullayangiri was standing tall in front of us, half pale green and half black!

There were still a good number of stone steps to be negotiated before we reached the top. Grass had got burnt on one side of the steps leaving the other side intact, well guarded by the stone steps themselves. Another grueling 20 minutes and there we were, on top of Mullayangiri, inside a small and rustic temple. Just as we cooled our heels off, a pleasant surprise was in waiting... a delicious lunch, courtesy the temple care taker!

Some Explorations

Just before we went in for lunch, a group of trekkers passed by, giving us an interesting bit of information - there were couple of caves little way down the other side of hill. Once full, we knew where to head next. We were inside the caves after 20 minutes of our lunch. "Ant lining" ourselves in the caves, we moved on.

The way became thinner and meaner.
We were entering a bat kingdom. They were hanging inches from our heads. On our knees, we kept on going till we could continue no further. A depleted air supply and a steep slope down prevented us from going further. To add to it, there seemed to be few hurt bats, and we didn't want to disturb them any more. We finally came out to patiently waiting ears. Amit had reopened his palm wound and therefore had to back out from the cave explorations. We were not complaining either; he looked after our belongings while we were away. As we came back to the summit, a small navigation tuition was up for grabs. We got hold of few magnetic compasses, and listening keenly to Santosh. Half an hour later, we were heading down towards an arbitrary target to reach, tracing our way using the compass. Amit and I preferred stopping half the way down the slope, taking snaps of the rest of the group.

It looked pretty difficult for us to make it back to the summit in time for the sunset had we proceeded to the target. It was not long before the others also had the same thought. They came back just in time for a spectacular sunset.

Dinner Time

As darkness set in, it was time to put the tents up and prepare for dinner. While we took some quick lessons from Santosh and put that to practice , chief chef Amit took charge of the kitchen. Vegitables were cut and petrol stoves lit up, while a special 'dynamo torch' flood lit the entire show. Finally, when the Sambhar-Rice combination got ready, an age-old group of hunger-struck people saw to it that it didn't last more than few minutes! As we finally settled in our respective tents, gossip continued till it died a natural death.

It was about 3 am when I woke up. As I opened my eyes, I saw the wonderful sky above me. It was never better than this. With no pollution at this altitude, it was simply heaven. I could see the temple silhouette against a moon lit sky. But then, there was still something strange about all this. Finally, the chill gave it away...

'Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.''
Watson replies, ''I see millions of stars.''
''What does that tell you?''
Watson ponders for a minute. ''Astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Time wise, it appears to be approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, it's evident the Lord is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, it seems we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?''
Holmes is silent for a moment, then speaks. ''Watson, you idiot, someone has stolen our tent.''

Except for the last statement, where our tent's outer layer got blown away, the rest of the story coincided exactly with the famous Holmes camping joke!

Morning Raga

As it turned out, my tent was not the only one affected. As the day broke out, we realized that all our tents had the outer lying next to them (thanks to the embedded rods, the outers didn't fly out of reach). As the sun rose behind us, it was Upma time! Never had I liked Upma so much before and feasted on it (and, never going to enjoy it later, hopefully!). It was about 10 am that we had a group photo (yes, the only shot where all of us were together in one frame), and started towards Baba Budangiri. It was going to be a long walk, crossing five hills and a ridge on the way... no one was complaining!

Baba Budangiri Beakoning

As we moved forward, we could notice a clear demarcation between two worlds, man's and nature's, on either side of hill tops. While the former was manipulated to suit the man, the later was telling its own story. In his last expedition here, Nagi's team had noticed a tiger, in pursuit of a deer. We were not lucky enough though; we had to get contended by the stupendous view and, well, some cat shit. We could see see leopard's droppings on the trail. As confirmed by Nagi, the bigger cats generally take this way to mark their territory.

Over the Ridge

1:15 pm. As we negotiated three hills one after the other, we had decision time. We could see more than one possible route to reach Baba Budangiri. After some debate and checking out various options, we took on the ridge, dumping the green patch of woods beckoning at 345 degrees... In this process however, missed out on an important issue; more on this later...

We met a few groups coming from the other side, on their way to Mullayangiri. Apparently, we had started at the same time, which meant, we would take close to 3 hrs to climb the last two hills, (excluding the ridge) in our way.

There were few breath taking moments to begin with. Then these moments started coming more frequently. And then, they were in plenty, so much so, that we were not getting that breathless at the end of the ridge. That didn't mean that we were not running out of water. Though the temperature was kept down, courtesy the continuous cool breeze. This, however, kept taking our body fluid away. By the time we negotiated the penultimate hill, the situation got worsened. This was the thing we forgot during our debate earlier. We didn't fill our water bottles then, with what was available there. Now, we were running really short. What ever water that was available held extreme importance. Glucose and Electrol became the sankat mochan. I was also feeling the heat. Nagi came to rescue again.
"Walk at your own pace, slow and steady. Just keep walking, don't stop until really necessary."
Thats it, I was on my way.

Reaching Baba Budangiri

As the group had got split and moving at its own pace, I found an alley in Vamsi. With the others had moved ahead and Subash, Vijay, Santosh and Nagi following us, the two of us carried on. It was little more than 4 pm, as we reached the BSNL tower. The others had already reached the top, and were waiting at the other smaller tower. As it turned out, they were out of luck; there was no water at there place. The situation was not much better at our end, though, we had a very cooperating tower in-charge. As the others joined the two of us, I suddenly felt something on my face; it was a rain. We needed to act fast.

Relief at
Manikya Dhara

We needed to cover another kilometer or so to reach the only potable water resource in the vicinity.
The walk was less demanding than our actual ascent, but the threshold had already being reached. One of us had a sudden black out, but no damage was done. As we reached Manikya Dhara, we took shelter in one of the two bus stops. Rain was out for the moment. We could roam around and get hold the last few cups of tea and coffee. Santosh had gone out in search of water source. After a brief wait, the good news came. Santosh had found the Manikya Dhara before it went down forming a small water fall. After filling up all our water bottles, it was time to refresh ourselves. Washing the face with cold and clear water was the best thing in life.

As the Night falls

It was dinner time again. The menu, puliyogre - a rice preparation having spices and tamarind. More important was the fact that it remains one of my favorite South Indian delicacies. As we finished the last grains of puliyogre, it was time to wash all the utensils and getting ready to settle down. The half moon night was a treat for the camera. Vijay's Nikon 50D came handy with its ISO1600 digital sensor. A cliff side view point had already been identified as our camping site, with a unanimous decision of not putting up the tent outers; finding them, once blown away to the plains below, they would be impossible to recover. As we put up the two of three tents (Santosh and Nagi had put up in the Bus Stop upstairs). As on the previous night, the gossip had begun. But it was not long that something else joined us, rain. We had to act fast. First of them, was to put the outers on the tents. As the rain got stronger, we rushed into our tents. The next thing was to make sure that the outers didn't get blown away as earlier. We finally got things fixed. The outers were safely secured to the tent base. It was not long before we could hear people sleeping!

Good Morning

6 am. The wind had blown for the entire night. The tent outers were still in place. It was Amit's voice that broke the now familiar wind whistle, "Hey, come out now, just check this out! The cloud cover is so dense that I can even see beyond few feet!" "If visibility is that bad, what would be there to see", a reply came from one of the tents. A roar of laughter followed. After all, not as many were asleep as I initially thought. As we finally came out, the cloud had temporarily settled down a bit and we could see the sun for few minutes. As this was a public place, we hurried up putting our tents back in their bags and gathered our belongings; after all, we didn't want the tourists to have any problems due to our presence. As I consumed some much needed coffee and a freshening, but tongue burning veg soup, I heard Amit's announcement, "Looks like our bus is on time." As I strolled out of the Bus Shelter, I could testify his findings. It took us another half an hour before we were ready for departure. As the sky cleared for a wonderful day, it was time to hop back into the bus to get back to Bangalore. But before we could think of Bangalore, we had something else in our minds, visiting the shrine of Baba Budan, the saint after whom the hills identity was derived.

At Baba's Mazaar

Baba Budan's mazaar (or shrine), inside a laterite cave, is considered holy by both Hindus and Muslims. After a lot of masti, it was time to get calmed down. And what better place than this!

After a brief stay at the holy place, we ventured out. Except a few, most of of feasted out on the oemlet that was on offering from one of the nearby shops. That kept our bellies silent till we reached back Chickmangalur.

Heading back Home

It was going to be the same restaurant, and nearly the same menu. Thankfully, once out and back on bus, it was not going to be the same route back to Bangalore. We took the Hassan road instead of the one via Kadur. Against all delays, and an understandable silent journey, we were back home. But not before having a perfect beginning to what can become a truly trekking year for me. Thanks Amit, and the rest of the gang! Special thanks to Nagi and Santosh, for their excellent support, maturity and guidance, hope we get together sometime again in near future!

Few of the 1200+ snaps taken during the trek
(courtesy Deepak, Subhash, Vijay and yours truly), can be found here.