Trekking in the land of elephants

August 21, 2006

The Independence day weekend was approaching and we had multiple plans for the long weekend. But none of them worked out since monsoon was active in most of the Western Ghats. While Naren, Ashwath and I were getting ready to drench in the rains of Kemmannugundi, we came across this announcement from the Youth Hostel Association of India(YHAI). They were organizing a 2 day trek to Soligeri, a small village amidst the Kaveri valley.Along with us, Seema and Chinmay also registered for the trek.

This part of the Kaveri valley had been sealed off for normal public since many years due to the activities of forest brigand Veerappan. It is only recently that a few routes here have been opened. But since this place falls in the prime forest lands of Cauvery Wildlife Division, Kanakapura, a trek to this place involves some logistics issues. It is not advisable to venture into these forests without getting prior permission from the forest office. This was one of the motivating factors for us to join this YHAI conducted trek.

Shashidhar from YHAI, Bangalore was leading the trek. After completing the formalities of filling up the application form for the trek, we got started in a tempo traveler(TT) by around 9AM. Our group had 15 participants. The first break was at Kanakapura where our breakfast was arranged by a few members of Youth Hostel and Rotary Club. After Kanakapura we continued on NH209, crossed Sathanur and reached a village called Honnaganahalli where we took a left turn. From here it was around 2-3km on the village road before we reached the Harihara village(720m). This is where we picked up two villagers as our guides. After a mini break for jaggery-sweetened tea at the village, we started again for the last leg of our journey. Most of us climbed on to the roof of the TT and had fun avoiding the tree branches, some of them being thorny. After 15min of this joyful ride we finally reached the starting point of the trek at around 12.30PM.

A view of distant hills
View of forests

After distributing the food stuff including the packed lunch equally among everybody, we spent around 15min in the introduction session. Shashidhar concluded the session by spelling out the rules of the trek. The trek started with crossing a tank bund. The condition was overcast and it started to drizzle just as we started. Fortunately it rained only for a few minutes and this pattern continued almost till evening. The initial trail is through the Basavana Betta State Forest. This is more of a village road than a forest trail. For the first time I saw the ‘bElada haNNu’ tree (Elephant Apple or Wood Apple) here. We could get many fruits but none of them were fully ripe.

A view of surrounding forests
A vew of surrounding forests
We stopped for lunch at 2.45PM on a rocky hill. The packed lunch consisted of 2 varieties of colored rice and it was very filling. This hill was right in middle of a dense forest and it offered good views of the surrounding mountains. From here we enter a village and walk through the fields which were ready for sowing in this rainy season. At around 4PM we reached the Soligeri village (1100m).

Soligeri is an extremely backward village consisting of around 40 families. This village became infamous during Veerappan times for supporting him and hence facing the wrath of police. This village is right in the middle of a forest where wildlife is still active. The humans here are in constant friction with the wild elephants. The fact that there were 200 families here once shows that elephants have had the upper hand till now. The main occupation of the villagers seems to be basket weaving and silkworm culture. Probably they use the naturally available bamboo for basket weaving. The houses in Soligeri are arranged on the caste lines, with people from same caste grouped together.

Fields near Soligeri village
Fields near soligeri

Our destination for the day was the forest inspection bungalow(IB) located at 1150m above Soligeri village. We were told that we couldn’t proceed further until the forest officials who had gone to IB returned to Soligeri. It was not until 30min the forest officers returned. While Shashidhar was busy with the main police officer, we got our bit of information from the lower officers. A week before, a forest department driver was shot down by poachers in this area and after that incident officials had strengthened the routine inspections. We were told that YHAI had come here without taking prior permission, which in fact was very surprising news for us. We didn’t know that such things happen with YHAI. But Shashidhar had good local contacts which probably saved the day for us. Shashidhar managed to secure the required permission and the keys for the IB where we were supposed to stay for the night. One good thing was that the main officer (who belonged to the Sathanur range) was very enthusiastic about allowing city-bred young trekkers like us to this forest area.

River Kaveri
Kaveri valley

There is a water scarcity throughout this path. Hence we filled our stomachs to the brim with the water available in Soligeri village. Since potable water wasn’t available in IB, we needed to carry our supplies from this village itself. Finally we got going at 5PM and reached the IB at 5.30PM. This is the highest point in the surrounding range and offered breathtaking views of the Kaveri river right from Shivanasamudra till Muthathi. Even one of the waterfalls at Shimsha (Gaganachukki) is visible from here. On our way to IB, we had to cross a water hole, which is frequented by elephants. This water hole is visible from IB. [Un]fortunately we couldn’t sight any elephants, though we could see fresh elephant dung all along the path from Soligeri village to IB. The place had two buildings, one the main IB and the other was a room, which is now being used as kitchen. The place had no water or electricity. We collected firewood from the forest and tried to get the fire going. Since it had rained here, the wood was damp and we spent more than an hour just the get the fire going. Once the fire was firmly there, it stayed well into the night.

Kaveri valley
Kaveri valley

The Youth Hostel members and the Rotary Club members and their friends whom we had met in Kanakapura now joined us. They had used bikes to come to IB. While the dinner was getting ready Shashidhar got us together in IB and asked everyone to speak on our pet topics. Thus we spent an hour where people mostly discussed about the problems plaguing our country. The dinner served was excellent; it had rice sambhar and even curds ! After dinner all of us gathered around the fire and played Anthakshari well into midnight. While we were at it, the other group from Kanakapura (YHAI and Rotary members) enjoyed themselves with alcohol. There is a strict no-to-alcohol and smoking in YHAI treks, but this trek was an exception. Even our village guides consumed alcohol and created noisy scenes in the midnight. One of them sported blood stains on this shirt in the morning. Apparently he was beaten up in the night for some reason.

A view from Inspection Bungalow
View from ib

It was 5.45AM when Naren and I got up. We paid a quick visit to kitchen to check how our Kanakapura group was doing. All of them were still lying down not yet out of their alcohol effect. The group had littered the place all around and the kitchen premises looked like a dust bin. Convinced that it would be a while before we get going from this place, Naren and I occupied a vantage point on the rocks and performed our routine Pranayama. The valley was covered completely with clouds and nothing was visible. It remained like this almost till 8AM. While breakfast was getting ready, Shashidhar divided us into groups and sent us on a nature walk with two guides. While one guide took a group deep inside with a promise to find peacocks, we made our guide (who was still in the hangover mode) to return to IB. When everyone was back, Shashidhar made us go through the routine of giving presentation about our nature walk and he gave a lecture on elephants and their habitat.

Lost in the view
lost in the view

The drunken Kanakapura group finally returned leaving behind the garbage. It would have been a perfect night in the beautiful surroundings except for the alcoholic mess created by this group. By the time we finished our breakfast and hit the trail, it was 11AM. Not an ideal time to start the trek in these hot and humid conditions. For most of the time it was downhill walk through the shrubby forests. The trial distance from IB to Bheemeshwari(which is our destination) is 14km. The trail is mostly easy and probably elephants also take the same path here. Though it shouldn’t take more than 90min to cover this distance we took close to 3 hours since there were a few first timers in the group. There were in fact too many breaks and it was getting difficult for us to get warmed up every time after a break. The lack of water in the entire trail made the trek a bit more difficult. Though we couldn’t sight any elephants, we did see what we thought was a monitor lizard and a herd of deer as we approached Bheemeshwari.

The deer we saw near Bheemeshwari

At around 3PM we reached Bheemeshwari which has now become well known due to the Jungle Lodges and Resorts. Bheemeshwari gets its name from a small temple of the same name situated here. We finished our lunch on the banks of Kaveri. Our idea of taking a dip in Kaveri was quickly dropped since Kaveri was in full flow almost breaching its banks. The excess water from KRS and Kabini dams was the reason for this. As we rode along the banks near Muthathi, we could see hundreds of tourists probably many disappointed as there was too much of water for a comfortable dip.

A few words of caution for those who want to do this trek:

The area is rich in wildlife (especially elephants) and poachers. So never venture in to these forests alone without informing the authorities. Take prior permission from either Kanakapura or Sathanur wildlife division. They will send an armed guide equipped with crackers( to drive away the elephants). My gut feeling is that this entire route might not be safe for women in smaller groups.