Trekking in Shiradi Ghats: Venkatagiri and Arebetta

December 6, 2009

My third trek to Shiradi Ghats was supposed to be an easy trek. But at the end, we had hiked and trekked for around 25km in 2 days, which included thick forests, grasslands and railway track! But it was all worth, since from the vantage point of Arebetta peak, we got a top view of Shiradi range in its entirety – peaks all around, Kempu Hole river in the valley, Mangalore-Hassan railway line and the NH48 highway!

We had planned the trek in 2nd weekend of November, but rain played spoilsport again and forced us to postpone our plans by a week. On the eve of November’s 3rd weekend, we were all set to board the night bus to Kukke Subramanya, when I received a call from Sreekanth, who had reached Kukke a day earlier to do a solo trek to Kumara Parvata. Naren and I were supposed to join him in Gundya on Saturday night. Sreekanth informed us that he had just witnessed one of the harshest of rains while getting down from Kumara Parvata and he was bone-wet when he reached Gundya IB. Understandably he didn’t sound very encouraging and asked us to rethink on our plans of leaving Bangalore. Weather report said that there would be thunderstorms starting from 5PM on Saturday and I decided to try our luck. Naren was more than willing to proceed with the plan as he was trek-starved since his last trek to Ettina Bhuja an year back.

At 5AM we reached Gundya and stopped directly in front of IB. It was pitch dark all around and I realized that after having lived in well-lit city like Bangalore for long time,  my sensory organs have lost some shine and we were forced to use torch to walk a few yards into the IB. Sreekanth was woken up from his sleep and we just casually retired into the beds and next thing I know is Sreekanth waking me up at 7AM. After a nice hot water bath and a good Neerdose breakfast, we were ready to start by 8.30AM. This time I had insisted that we just need one guide, since the guides of Gundya were pretty expensive and they normally charged more than twice compared to their Charmadi counterparts.

We had done Mugilagiri during our 1st visit and Aramane Gudde in the 2nd visit to Shiradi. This time we had planned to cover Venkatagiri on Day 1 and Arebetta on Day 2.

Day 1

This time, the trail started pretty close to Gundya IB. Infact from the bridge (over Vidya river) near IB, we can see Venkatagiri peak very clearly.

Venkatagiri peak as seen from IB, Gundya

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After a few meters of walk we took the left deviation into a village road that leads to Venkataramana temple. Venkatagiri probably gets its name from this temple. After walking for around 500m, when the guide led us into the forest, our base altitude was 250m. We walked beside the Matsyadhara stream for a brief while before crossing it.  The forest floor was wet due to overnight rain and as expected there were leeches. We used pain-relief spray to counter them and sprayed it on our shoes and pants in liberal quantities. Similar to our Mugilagiri trek, this trail also had tons of leeches and we would have been in trouble but for the pain-relief spray, which turned to be a very effective way to counter leeches.

By 9.30AM we felt relieved to come out of forest and touch the Hassan-Mangalore railway line (440m) near tunnel 34.

Goods train near tunnel 34

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We took a 30min break here and got rid of leeches from our clothes.  From here we had to climb over the tunnel towards Venkatagiri peak. We entered the forests again and after a 30min climb touched grasslands at 600m. From this point, towards East, we could clearly see the bridge near IB from where we had started the trek. Towards Northwest, we could see Amedikal and Ettina Bhuja peaks of the Charmadi range. Venkatagiri peak was visible at a height in the Southeast direction.

Venkatagiri peak as seen from the trail

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Looking back …

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We continued our trek towards the peak and reached the base (665m) of Venkatagiri peak at 11AM.  This area had elephant dung all round the place and looked like a camping place for elephants.

Mushroom growing on elephant dung

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Towards north, Mugilagiri range was visible. It was almost midday, but being true to its name, the Mugilagiri peak was covered by clouds.

We started on the final ascent to Venkatagiri which involved a continuous uphill climb through grasslands. At 11.45AM we reached Venkatagiri peak (830m).  From Venkatagiri, Metikal gudda and Arebetta peaks were visible. It was so sunny and hot at the top and there was hardly any shade around. The place wasn’t suitable to have lunch and hence we settled just for a round of soup. We started the descent at 12.30PM. On our way back we met a team of 3 led by a guide on their ascent path in the midday sun and evidently they were struggling. They were carrying just a bottle of water and it was just crazy of them to attempt a peak with such meager resources. Their guide borrowed some water from us and he shared his concern with our guide. Apparently his group had taken a lot of beer before starting and he was worried about getting them back safely.

Train seen from Venkatagiri

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We reached back the base at 1.15PM and finished  lunch.  At 2.30PM we were back at tunnel 34 from where we had started.  Our plan was to spend the night in Arebetta railway station which was 5km from here and 8 tunnels away. Thus we embarked on the next leg of our trek which was on the railway track. This brought back memories of my railway track trek that I had done on this very same route years back when trains weren’t running on this route when it was still a meter gauge line. Now this route has been converted to broad guage and passenger trains and a lot of goods train run on this line.

Arebetta as seen from Venkatagiri

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Walking on the railway line is very uncomfortable, especially when you are in the last leg of your trek. We crossed many bridges and dark tunnels on the way. Just before reaching Arebetta station, we even took time and had evening coffee on the railway track. Mugilagiri range remained visible towards left throughout our walk. On the rocks beside the track, we could see a lot of wild banana pants (a variety of banana which grows on rocks called Kallu baLe in Kannada)

Wild banana seen adjacent to railway track

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We finally reached the Arebetta station at 5PM. Arebetta station isn’t operational yet, but it has a few houses built for railway officials where we had planned to stay. There was a big group of Bihari migrant workers staying at the station after their day’s work. But fortunately we got a room to stay in a house occupied by the contractor who was overseeing the repair work being performed by this Bihari labourers.  Thus the night was spent at a comfortable location. It rained slightly in the night.

Day 2

The day’s plan was to reach the peak of Arebetta. We woke up in the morning to the sweet music of flutes being played by Bihari workers who were staying next door. It was pleasing to see that despite their hard life, they still managed to play music. In fact they were skilled enough to prepare their own flutes from the bamboo shoots they picked from the forests. We had to do a bit of convincing to get them out and play to the camera, as they were too shy to perform in front of the camera.

Here is a short video (courtesy Sreekanth) of them playing flute.

Naren plays flute and was specially interested in them and tried his hands (well… mouth as well) on their flutes. He even managed to get a flute gifted to him!

Arebetta as seen from railway line

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We started to trek at 8AM. The initial part of the trek is on the railway track. We entered into forest after tunnel 27 and started climbing over it. There is a trail from here till the top of Arebetta. Part of this trail was built during a survey for a power project by KPCL. It looked like nobody had used these trail recently after rains and it was getting consumed by forest growth at many places. The steepness also added to the difficulty as it involved a continuous ascent.  To make it more difficult our guide lost his way more than once and deviated from man made trail into elephant tracks. The trail was full of elephant dungs and some of them looked quite fresh. We were doing the scariest part of our ascent through these trails and encountering a herd of elephants here would be least surprising! Our hearts pumped up for a second when Naren and I observed a disturbance in the forest canopy a few meters down the valley and assumed that it must be because of elephants. But our guide concluded that it is more likely be a herd of monkeys.

Mugilagiri as seen from Arebetta

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After wandering around in elephant trails for some time, we rejoined the actual trail after which the ascent became a bit easier. However at 780m the forest ended and grassland started. We were now walking through the head-high elephant grass. Last two hundred meters  ascent through this grass was a bit challenging as it was steep and also the grass was so sharp that it could easily cause cuts in the skin. We were at Arebetta peak (940m) at 10AM.

The contrast between Arebetta and Methikallu

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Arebetta in Kannada can be loosely translated as a ‘lessor hill’, but when it comes to the views from the peak, Arebetta is second to none. In fact, this was the peak where we had the best view of the Shiradi Ghats. One can have a panoramic view of mountain ranges all around from Arebetta. Arebetta creates two valleys, one towards North where Mugilagiri and Aramane Gudde range is present on the other side of the Valley. Towards South after the valley, Metikallu range which distinguishes itself with complete forest cover and no grasslands even at its peak.  Roughly towards East, the ranges near Sakaleshpura, Edakumeri and Devarabetta are visible.

Here is a short video of the peaks seen from Arebetta (courtesy Sreekanth)

Venkatagiri as seen from Arebetta

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Down in the valley towards North, both NH48 and the railway line are visible.

Methikallu gudda as seen from Arebetta

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We spent close to an hour at the peak. It was very windy at the top. We left the peak at 11AM and were back at Arebetta station at 12.30PM. We had to come back to this station since we had left our backpacks here. Next it was a difficult 5km walk back on the railway line. During this walk, we met a few teams who were doing the railway track trek from Subramanya to Arebetta. I was surprised to see that railway track trek still fascinates people given that there are trains running on the track and one has to constantly be on watch out for human excreta on railway track.  At 2PM we reached tunnel 34 and took a right deviation down into a forest trail which would lead us to Gundya. This route had a lot of leeches and we had emptied close to two bottles of pain-relief spray.  At 2.30PM we touched the jeep track, went past the Venkataramana temple at 2.45PM and reached IB by 3PM.

View from Arebetta

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After a grand lunch at IB, we proceeded to Subramanya, which was overflowing since we had come here on the eve of Rathotsava. Some experiences in Subramanya can be found here (in Kannada). In the evening it poured at Subramanya and as last time, we didn’t feel like having dinner, thanks to the cook at Gundya IB.

Kempu Hole as seen from Arebetta

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Back in Bangalore on Monday morning, I didn’t have to count the leech bites, I just had one from the entire trek! But by evening all of us started counting harvest mite bites which are more serious and long lasting than leech bites 😦

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Trekking in Shiradi Ghats: Aramane Gadde

October 23, 2009

Story of my 2nd trek to Shiradi range of Karnataka Western Ghats.

Shiradi Ghats is the part of the Karnataka Western Ghats that one has to cross when traveling from Bangalore to Mangalore. This stretch of the Western Ghats is home to some of the dense forests present in Ghats and has many peaks providing a lot of opportunities for trekking. My first trek in this region was to Mugilagiri in August which turned to be a difficult trek due to rains and we mostly missed the views of the peaks and valleys. This time we had to postpone our plans twice at the last moment due to rains and finally we were ready to leave Bangalore on Friday night of the Deepavali weekend. Though there was a forecast of a few spells of rain and thunderstorms, I was very keen on not staying in Bangalore during the festival of sound and pollution (read as Deepavali!). This time, in addtion to Sreekanth, Austin with whom I had done some treks in the Korean mountains also joined me.

View from ascent path

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Day 0

We had a worst possible start when our KSRTC bus met with an accident in the Bangalore city itself. Our chances of leaving Bangalore looked dim when rowdy elements from Bangalore Auto drivers fraternity assembled within no time and started harassing our driver. Our bus was taken to Malleshwaram Police station and thankfully KSRTC arranged an alternate bus. We were back on road at 11.30PM, late by 2.30hours. The next obstacle was waiting for us in Tumkur road. When we crossed Nelamangala junction, it was 2AM, thanks to the heavy festival traffic.

Day 1

We were at Gundya junction at 8.15AM. This being our 2nd visit to Gundya, we had worked out our staying arrangements beforehand. We had booked a room at Forest department IB. The tiredness of traveling on the bad roads of Shiradi Ghats were all gone after a hot water bath and a fulfilling breakfast of Neerdose. We must have consumed at least 10 of them each! The guide joined us at IB and had an assistant with him, much against our wishes. So here we were 3 trekkers with 2 guides ready to conquer the Aramane Gadde (aka Aramane Gudde) peak in the Shiradi range. As per our guide, this is the highest peak in the region. The trail starts from NH48 at a distance of around 8km from Gundya towards Hassan. The Auto-rickshaw was stopped at Dakshina Kannada – Hassan district border where there is a Choudeshwari Devi temple to get the blessings of the deity at the border. We entered the forest trail at 10.15AM and our base altitude was 350m.

Ascent to Himagiri

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A few yards into the forest, we hit a stream where we filled our water bottles. After walking through the initial forest (which had some leeches, not as much as last time), we approached a first tiny grassland clearing (500m) at  10.45AM. From here,  towards south, Are Gudde (through which the Mangalore – Hassan railway line passes) and Venkatagiri peaks are visible and we can also see the Kempu Hole river flowing through the valley. Towards North, we could get a glimpse of Himagiri peak which was our first destination. Next part of the trail is though a small patch of forest before it opens up into the grasslands. In this trail, we hit the grasslands pretty early and it was evident that rest of the trek will be through the grasslands. Thus we started our ascent in the grasslands and proceeded towards Himagiri. The ascent becomes steep as we approach Himagiri and can be challenging since there are hardly any trees to provide any shade. The sky was fully clear and the midday Sun was beating down on us. The temperature touched 37C and we were struggling on our way up and felt like collapsing due to the heat.  Taking breaks was of no use as breaks in the open Sun was adding to our woes than helping us. We needed to find a shade and we finally managed to reach a tip of a Shola forest stretch (900m) at 12.30PM. It was a great respite from the hot Sun and we spent full 45min under the forest shade to get back to trek-ready state once again.  As we were approaching the Himagiri peak, we were on trails which were in use by elephants also which was evident from the elephant dung along the trails. Also, we could see used cartridges beside the trail suggesting that this trail was popular amongst poachers also!

Camp Site
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Our campsite was inside this forest patch

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We started the ascent again at 1.15PM and were at Himagiri peak (1000m) at 1.30PM. From here we gained another 100m and did a 50m descent to reach our campsite (1050m) for the day at 2PM. This campsite was a bit different from the usual campsites we have stayed recently. It was right inside the Shola forest stretch and next to a flowing stream. A small area (~ 6m diameter) beside the stream had been cleared off the trees to serve as a campsite. The site even had makeshift stone stove and firewood ready! Even though it was so sunny outside, the campsite was considerably cooler and the water of the stream was pleasantly cold.

A lone tree in the grassland

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Not many treks of ours have been as perfect as this wrt the finishing time for the day. It was still 2PM and we had plenty of time to enjoy the natural surroundings. We had soup for the starters followed by a leisurely lunch. There was a beautiful stretch of grassland overlooking a valley right in front of our campsite and rest of the evening was spent there. It became a bit cloudy towards the evening and the sunset was not clearly visible. After dinner, we went out again and did star gazing for some time. All of a sudden, clouds came in and reduced the night’s visibility to less than a meter (with torches), which forced us back into our campsite. The night was comfortable except that it became slightly cooler after midnight. A sleeping bag could have helped, but I wasn’t carrying any.

View during Sunset

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Day 2

We woke up at 5.30AM and by the time we finished the breakfast and got ready for the day’s climb it was 7.45AM. The plan for the day was to climb Aramane Gadde and descend back to Gundya by afternoon. Aramane Gadde was visible from the campsite towards NE direction. Initially it is a gradual ascent through the grasslands and becomes steeper as we approach the peak. We were at Aramane Gadde peak (1270m) by 8.45AM. The location of Aramane Gadde is very interesting: it is present right at the junction where 3 districts meet. At Aramane Gadde peak, Hassan district is present towards east, Chickmagalur towards north and Dakshina Kannada towards south. We could see the border demarcations on the hills (formed by pile of stones) and proceeded towards the adjacent hill which was the exact location where the 3 districts met!

A bug on flower!

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The views from the top were pretty impressive. There were green mountains all around.  Ettina Bhuja peak of the Charmadi range is also visible from this peak. We hadn’t met any animal during this trek but finally saw a snake when Sreekanth stepped past one at the peak. We spent close to an hour at the peak and started back to the campsite.  At 10.15AM we were back at the campsite. At 11AM we started the descent and at 2PM we were back at NH48. The descent through the grasslands were tough on knees and there were a few leech bites in the forest as usual. We didn’t feel the heat as much as we felt during the ascent. The same Auto-rickshaw which had dropped us yesterday had come to pick us up to Gundya.

Enroute Aramane Gadde

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We had a painful start to the trek on Friday night when we were witness to a minor accident, but at the end of the trek we witnessed an even more horrible scene: a man hanging off a tree beside the NH48! This time the difference was there were no curious onlookers at the accident site even though it was visible from NH and quite close to Gundya village. It looked like business as usual for people of Gundya!

Aramane Gadde peak

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We were back at IB at 2.30 and the kind inmate of the IB prepared hot rice and rasam for us which was so heavy that we could skip dinner. From Gundya, we proceeded to Kukke Subramanya (22km), visited the temple and boarded the night bus back to Bangalore. Thus I escaped a major part of festival of sound and pollution away in hills!

Are Gudda and Venkatagiri range as seen from Aramane Gadde

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Charmadi range as seen from Aramane Gadde

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Trekking in Shiradi Ghats: Mugilagiri

August 19, 2009

A straight 1km descent can be challenging in most terrains. If the descent involves negotiating knee-deep wet grasslands and trail-less forests with forest floor heavily infested with leeches, then the challenge becomes even greater. This is the story of my first trek in the Shiradi range of Karnataka Western Ghats.

In the past two years, most of my Western Ghats trek have been in the Charmadi Ghats. Now since I have completed many significant peaks in Charmadi, I decided to shift my base to the adjacent Shiradi Ghats. It was only August and the rains hadn’t completely ceased. But being starved of any adventure for past so many months, I convinced Sreekanth to join me. We consciously decided not to grow the team beyond two of us given that it was our first trek to the region and we were not sure about the logistic support available in the area. Also, since we were warned by our guide to expect a few spells of rain, we wanted only hard core trekkers with us.

Gundya, a village on the Bangalore – Mangalore highway near Kukke Subramanya is the base for many treks in the Shiradi range. Since no direct booking is available to Gundya from Bangalore, we booked KSRTC tickets till Kukke which is 22km off the highway from Gundya. The 11PM bus reached Gundya check post at 5.45AM on Saturday morning. Our guide advised us to finish our morning ablutions by the river side and breakfast at Hotel Santosh. The river Netravati was overflowing and reaching the river side didn’t look all that comfortable. Since Hotel Santosh was still closed we finished breakfast in another hotel. I can’t remember when was the the last time I had such awful idlies!

We met another group of around 20 members who were also using our guide’s services to trek to Aramane gudde. We had also planned for the same peak, but unwilling to be with 20 others, we decided to try Mugilagiri peak. Our guide planned to send his relative to accompany us. Our new guide arrived at Gundya cross at 7.30AM. We proceeded in an Auto Rickshaw on the highway towards Bangalore for a few hundred meters to reach the starting part of the trail to Mugilagiri. We hit the trial at 7.45AM and the base altitude was 300m.

Ascent
Ascent

The initial part of the trial was through forest. The ground was wet due to overnight rains. Both of us were prepared for a night stay at the top and hence were carrying our complete luggage of around 10kg each. Long break from treks and lack of recent physical activity had rendered me a bit unfit and I was finding it difficult to negotiate the ascent through the forest. As usual, we were the first ones to take this route post monsoon and we had to make our way through the forest growth. At around 9.15AM, we finally came out of humid forest and touched grasslands at 650m. But there was little respite from the humidity as the surroundings were very cloudy, with no winds. The peaks all round were mostly invisible, thanks to the clouds.

Next we had to negotiate a peak covered with grass. We reached its top (735m) at around 9.45AM. Here  a few adjacent peaks were visible for a brief while, since clouds showed some mercy. Venkatagiri and Arebetta could be seen prominently. Down in the valley, Kempu Hole river flowing like a serpent was visible. It was an amazing sight to see a river taking at least 3 zig zag turns in a single valley.

Kempu Hole river flowing in the valley
Kempu Hole

As per our guide, Mugilagiri is not a single peak but is range of peaks. Thanks to the clouds and also to the route we took, at any point in the trail only one peak was visible. Each peak is higher than the previous one and becomes visible only on reaching the previous peak. So the next part of our trek involved climbing from one peak to another and I can remember that we covered at least 7 peaks our way. At 10.45AM, we reached a peak at 845m, at 11AM a peak at 910m, at 11.50AM a peak at 1075m. At this peak we had our lunch. We had plans to camp in the night and hence were carrying tent and food for 2 days. But our guide suggested that he will take us downhill in just 2 hours and we could stay at Gundya and then could cover more peaks on Sunday. It was a tempting offer and we gladly accepted.

Cloud covered Venkatagiri range
Venkatagiri range

The plan was to cover rest of the peaks and reach the highest peak in the Mugilagiri range and then descend. We left our backpacks en route at a point from where we were supposed to start the descent and did the rest of climb without out any luggage. That was some relief and we could do some very steep ascent fairly comfortably. At 1PM we reached the highest peak in the range at 1250m. So we had approximately done a climb of 1000m. Views from this point should have been spectacular in other seasons, but clouds were playing spoilsport.

Mugilagiri’s highest peak
Mugilagiri's highest peak

At 1.30PM, when it started raining, we started descending. We reached the point where we had left our backpacks and from here guide started taking us straight down the valley. There was no trail anywhere but only fresh green grass which was thigh-deep at places. Fresh rains made the descent difficult for us. The terrain had become extremely slippery. The stones beneath the grass were loose and slippery and the backpack weight was pushing us down. Since we were on a straight descent path, the steepness also added to our woes. On the whole it was a very tough descent. I can’t remember how many times both of us lost our grip and fell.

Clouds over the valley
Clouds over the valley

At 3PM we were very relieved to see the end of grassland and beginning of forests. But we were still at 850m and needed to loose another 550m of altitude. As we followed the guide into the forests, it quickly became evident that we are not on any trial. The guide had an excellent sense of direction thanks to his 25years of experience wandering in the forests of Shiradi. His plan was to touch a stream from where there is a trail which would lead us out of the forests into the highway. Here again the descent was straight and this was no less difficult than the descent through the grasslands. There were plenty of leeches on the floor because of which we had to keep a fast pace. Our bodies were so warmed up that it looked like we had become immune to pains due minor falls we were having throughout the descent. At one point, I twisted my ankle, felt the pain and couldn’t keep pace with the guide. The guide offered to carry my backpack to which I had to agree if we wanted to make any decent progress. At 4PM, we finally reached the Birchina Halla stream (at 450m) dead tired. All of us had our share for leech bites and we took time on the river bed to get rid of them. The stream was flowing ferociously and without our guide’s help, it would have taken considerable effort to cross it with our tired bodies.

Another cloud masked peak
cloud masked range

On the other side of the stream, there was a trail, which was very welcome after such a tough descent. But there was one problem, the trail was heavily leech infested. I have been on trails which had leeches earlier, but this was different. Here I could see tens and hundreds of them all over the trail ever ready to get on to our bodies. We were running now and couldn’t afford to remove the leeches from our legs because any time spent idle on this trail would attract more leeches. The trail was interrupted by fallen trees at many places. But our guide’s good direction sense allowed us to go off the trail and later join it. As we came close to the highway, it started raining. At 5PM we were relieved to come out of the forests and join the highway.

Ridge we used on ascent
Ridge

After removing all the leeches, we started walking on the highway towards Gundya. We must have walked around 2km before reaching Gundya. In Gundya, we stayed at Forest Department Inspection Bungalow which was a very comfortable place after such a hard trek.  The trek had taken toll on our bodies and pains started to appear as the night fell. I could barely walk due to my ankle pain and Sreekanth had a rough knee. We were uncertain about continuing the trek the next day. Night was very peaceful though.

The guide visited us in the morning and advised us not to trek again today since he was also not 100% fit due to yesterday’s trek. Our pains had reduced, but it wasn’t worth to risk further injuries and hence decided to return to Bangalore. Mugilagiri should be a moderate trek in other seasons, but during rains or immediately after rains, other factors make the trek difficult in addition to just the altitude and the terrain. We wanted a Western Ghats trekking experience in the mild rains and we got more than we asked for! We returned from Shiradi on Sunday itself with the promise to come back again to explore the other peaks of the region. Back in Bangalore, I counted the leech bites and there were 25 in total!