Ombattu Gudda Trek

February 23, 2010

Any trekker worth his salt would like to have Ombattu Gudda in his resume! Ombattu Gudda trek has become so mysterious over last couple of years that it is very hard to ignore it if you are a serious trekker. The interest in Ombattu Gudda stems mainly from the numerous stories of people getting lost and getting rescued. I myself am aware about 2 groups that got lost and later rescued/found their way back this season. Everybody seems to have a story to tell after their tryst with Ombattu Gudda. So here goes our story…

There is a category of adventurous trekkers who go by map and GPS and attempt Ombattu Gudda by themselves. Then there is another category who play it safe by employing a local guide. We belong to the latter category, since we don’t think highly of our abilities to navigate and maintain direction sense in thick forests. Our last trek in the Shiradi range of Karnataka Western Ghats was to Venkatagiri and Arebetta in November 2009. Our guide was categorical in saying that it is not safe to attempt Ombattu Gudda until late January or February. Thus we had to wait till 2nd weekend of February to attempt the Ombattu Gudda trek.

Day 1

This time we were a team of 5: Austin, who was doing his 2nd trek with us after Aramane Gudde trek,  Sai Prakash with whom I had done Auden’s Col Himalayan expedition, Naren who was rejoining us after a long break and Sreekanth who has  been a regular in all my Shiradi treks. As usual we boarded KSRTC Rajahamsa bus and reached Gundya IB early Saturday morning on time. The inmate of the IB knows our preferences by now and served us tasty Neer dose. The trail starts in the Kabbinale reserved forest at a distance of 2.5km from Gundya towards Mangalore on NH48. We crossed the bridge over Adda hole river on NH48 and enter the forests towards right at 9AM. The base altitude was 255m.

Mugilagiri as seen from trail

ombattu-mugilagiri

As we hit the trail, our new guide, an old man, who claimed to have seen 70 springs surprised us by asking if we had collected permission letters from the Forest department. In all our previous treks, our usual guide used to “inform” Gundya Range Forest Office about our planned treks and never carried permission letters. But he had sent this old man with us after convincing him that we are in possession of all the required permits. The old man had a valid reason to ask about permits – he was detained for a night at Sakaleshpur Police station when he had accompanied another group of trekkers a few weeks back. Apparently a few members of the group got separated from the rest and were picked up by the Police on suspicion of being naxalites! During this episode, our old man was taken to task for having “guided” this mis-guided group of trekkers! Though we got seriously worried for a while, we decided to proceed with the plan and the old man was more than willing to take us on the trail. The previous experience with the Police had hardly affected him or may be earning some money was more important to this old and poor daily wage laborer.

The trail is through a dense but young forest (old trees with huge trunks were hardly to be seen). The trail was fairly wide and looked like a well trodden path. Since it was early summer, the ground was almost completely covered by dried fallen leaves. Thankfully there were no leeches. In our last trek, Sreekanth and I had suffered a lot due to chigger bites. Sreekanth did a study about chiggers and we were ready to try a few things this time to avoid chigger bites. We had started out in the morning by taking bath using a medicated soap that would repel chiggers, but I was taking no chances; I was wearing my snow gaiters! Any thing and everything to keep chiggers away!

Mushroom growth in the forest

ombattu-mushroom

We picked up a route map to Ombattu Gudda in the trial (possibly dropped by previous trekkers) and the map brought some relief to our guide. Not that he would use to map to locate the path, but he strangely believed that he wouldn’t have to spend a night again in Police station if we show the map because the presence of map with us will prove that we are trekkers and not naxals!

At 10.15AM, we crossed the 1st stream and at 10.30AM crossed another stream. We had now left Dakshina Kannada district and entered Hassan district.

The trail continued without any break in the forest for another hour and we reached a fairly big stream at 11.30AM. As per our guide this stream was called Devaragundi since there was a Chowdeshwari Devi Temple a few yards downstream to which villagers visit annually. The stream provided us the 1st major break in the forest canopy and we could see Mugilagiri peak at a distance. We spent close to half an hour on the banks of this river, crossed it and continued further into the forests. The trek inside the forests was monotonous as the scenery hardly changed. Though we had walked close to 3 hours now inside the forest, we hadn’t gained any significant altitude! This was a bit unusual for a Shiradi Ghats trek, where it was common to gain altitude and hit grasslands after a short trek in the forests.

At 1PM we reached another stream named by our guide as Kanyegaya stream at 322m. This is where we had lunch. The rocks on the river bank were so hot  that they were enough to warm up our MTR ready to eat packets!  We crossed the stream at 1.45PM and continued on the other side of the river. At 2.15PM we left the river side and entered forests again.

Next it was a continuous walk inside the forest for close to 2 hours and we reached the the campsite (434m) beside Kabbinale river at 4PM. This was one of the very unique treks where we had spent full day inside a forest and hardly gaining any altitude!  Now I could clearly appreciate why our guide insisted on attempting this trek in early summer. During monsoon this forest would simply be impenetrable as crossing  so many streams would be very dangerous and post monsoon the forest floor would be one hell with blood sucking leeches. We must have done something like 15-18km trek through the forests.

Campsite (Photo Courtesy: Sreekanth)

ombattu-campsite

The campsite had very attractive settings. We were camping on the sand bed under a huge rock overlooking the wildly flowing Kabbinale river. The locals refer to this rock as Ole Kallu (Ole in Kannada means Stove and Kallu means Stone) as it is an excellent place for kitchen and camping. We were carrying 3 tents, but none of them were put to use. The rock itself provided natural roofing. We had all the leisure in the world to go through the motions of tea, soup and dinner.

And we did have a dip in the river and didn’t forget to wash ourselves with Sreekanth’s medicated soap!

Day 2

We had planned to start very early but by the time we finished breakfast and got ready it was 7.45AM. From the campsite, through some clearing in the forest canopy, parts of an adjacent hill was visible. We needed to climb that peak next. First we crossed the Kabbinale river and followed a path into the forests. After a few minutes into the forest, our guide suddenly realized that we are about to take a very circuitous route to the peak and turned back. We followed him and crossed a stream which we all assumed was the Kabbinale river where we had camped. But this was a different stream according to our guide and in the next 15 min we crossed two more streams which looked all very similar. By now I had completely lost the direction sense and it was evident why so many people get lost in these forests. All the 3 streams we crossed looked so similar and if left to us, its very hard to say where we are in this wilderness. Even during 1st day’s trek through the forest, it we wander off the trails and get lost, the forest range is so massive that we could spend days doing circles in the forests and not reaching any civilization.

Leaving the 3rd stream behind and walking for a few meters in the forest, our guide stopped at what seemed like a random spot and started a straight ascent! This was the first ascent of the trek and we having it easy until this time. The ascent through the slippery forest floor was tough. There were thorns all around which also troubled us. We did almost an hour’s climb and finally emerged out of the forest for the 1st time in the trek at 9.30AM! Now we were at the top of a hill (620m), overlooking a valley and massive range beyond that. We couldn’t but appreciate the direction sense our old guide. He had chosen such a perfect (which had looked like a random spot to us earlier) path to get to the top of the hill without any clear visibility of the top from where we started.

Deepadakallu and Jenukallu peaks

ombattu-deepada-jenu-kallu

From this hill we could see Kumbarahalli range towards  North-East, Ombattu Gudda range towards North, Deepada Kallu and Jenukallu peaks to the right of Ombattu Gudda range and mountain ranges near Shishila village (Charmadi range) towards West. Now we could clearly see our destination and the potential path we could take. Being at an elevation is such an advantage in the mountain ranges as it gives you a direction perspective which can hardly be had when you are deep down in the forests.

Next part of the trek was a slight descent through a grassland. We reached another peak (736m) at 10.45AM. At 11.30 AM we reached the end of the grassland and re-entered the Shola forest patch at 820m. At around 12PM, we were nearing a stream in the valley when we heard some man-made noises down in the valley. There are two dangers in these forests. First is the elephant whose movement was very evident throughout the trail. Next is the illegal Ganja growers deep inside the forests, who are known not to take chances and let their guns talk first. The man-made noises down in the valley alerted us and we walked silently forward to a point (840m) where we crossed the last stream in our path towards Ombattu Gudda.  We never had to face any water shortage throughout the route, thanks to the streams. If this route has so many streams in Feb, one could imagine the abundance of streams and difficulties it brings in the post monsoon season.

Deepadakallu peak (Photo courtesy: Sreekanth)

ombattu-depadakallu-bps

After crossing the last stream, we walked in the forests for about half an hour before emerging out into the grasslands (980m) at 12.30AM. For one and a half days, forest canopy had protected us from Sun, but now we were out in the open at the mercy of midday Sun. The Sun was so harsh that we had to take constant breaks. Each of us were carrying sufficient amounts of Oranges and they are life-savers in this hot and humid conditions. Now we had one big hill to climb and this was Ombattu Gudda, we were told. It took us close to 2 hours to climb the next couple of hundred meters. We reached the peak (1150 ) of Ombattu Gudda at 2PM.

Any shade is welcome

ombattu-shade

We were thrilled to have made it to the peak without getting lost! The views all round were spectacular. The peaks of Deepadakallu and Jenukallu (which are both 1000m+ peaks) were close by. Ettina Bhuja peak was also visible from the far ranges of Charmadi. But spending time on the peak was not a viable option due to the harsh Sun. We continued ahead with the descent on the other side.

The forest ends abruptly at the other end and we encounter wide open spaces. An hour’s walk led us to a stream where we finished the 2nd day’s lunch. On the other side of the stream there was a wide jeep track which we started following with the hope that it would lead us to civilization. But there was some nasty surprise when the jeep track ended in a forest! Our guide was so good at directions all this while inside the forests, but once out of it, he looked lost. We back tracked, came near the stream and took another jeep track. Now none of were sure where we were going, whether we would reach any civilization, but we had no option other than to try out all the available routes. After a couple of kilometers walk, distant fields and a village were visible and that came as a great relief to our tired bodies.

Continuing along the jeep track, we came across the Bettada Bhairaveshwara Temple. We walked past a few estates and reached Maragunda village at 5PM.

Bettada Bhairaveshwara temple

ombattu-bhairaweshwara

Villagers of Maragunda were happy to see us come this past without getting lost. They shared a few stories of their participation in the previous rescue attempts of Ombattu Gudda trekkers. One villager gave us a big surprise by concluding that we hadn’t reached Ombattu Gudda at all!  Looked like we had missed Ombattu Gudda by a whisker. Instead of Ombattu Gudda, we had climbed an adjacent mountain and reached Maragunda village. But there was no disappointment, since this was one of the difficult and unique treks we had done in the Western Ghats region. One complete day’s trek inside forest was really special.

From Maragunda, we reached Hanbal and from there to Sakaleshpur and back to Bangalore.

So this is our story of our Ombattu Gudda trek. We were so near, but not there yet! But there is always next time and the next time we will approach the Ombattu Gudda not from the Gundya side but from Maragunda which is a base to two other peaks: Deepadakallu and Jenukallu.

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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!