Mystery trails trek: M M hills – Naagamale – Palar

September 16, 2006

After a month of planning the day had finally arrived. We boarded a Tempo Traveler(TT) to Male Mahadeshwara Betta (MM hills) on a friday afternoon. The forests around the Kaveri river have been relatively unknown to me until my last trek to Soligeri. Now we were all set to explore another region of the Kaveri valley during this trek from MM hills to Palar via Naagamale village.

This trek is part of the mystery trails trek, a forest department initiative. After the end of sandalwood smuggler Veerappan a couple of years a ago, the forest department has opened a few trails in Chamarajanagar, Kollegal and Kanakapura wildlife divisions. Though we have been trying to come here since last year, we could get booking for the route of our choice only this time. Naturally we were excited and many people showed interest in joining the trek. Till very recently I was finding it difficult to find an other person willing to join my treks. But these days it is becoming hard to say no to people. After much deliberations, we finally limited the count to 10. Our group consisted of Naren, Seema, Chinmay, Ananth, Gautham, Ashwath, Keerthi, Nalini and Balaji.

There are two routes from Bangalore to MM hills. One is through Kanakapura and other is through Maddur. We took the Maddur route since the new 4 lane way from Bangalore to Mysore is in excellent condition. From Maddur, we have to deviate to Malavalli, cross Kollegal before reaching MM hills. The road from Malavalli to MM hills is generally bad and at parts there is simply no road. We managed to reach MM hills at 9.30PM. We had reserved the rooms in Shivadarshini, an accommodation facility run by the temple administration. MM hills, situated at an altitude of 900m is a very famous Shaiva pilgrim centre. There is an ancient Shiva temple here to which thousands of pilgrims visit. After a simple but tasty dinner in the Nanjundeshwara hotel, we ended the day.

The entry
The entry
Saturday started early for us. We paid a visit to the temple early in the morning, but weren’t allowed to go in as the temple opens only at 8.30AM. By the time we assembled at the forest office after finishing breakfast and packing lunch for the afternoon, it was 8.30AM. After paying the fees for the trek and signing on the risk form, we got going at 9AM. A guide (Iranna) from the forest office and a couple of other villagers were to accompany us for the trek. The route from MM hills to Naagamale is less of a trail and more of a village road. This is in fact a pilgrimage trail taken by people to reach Naagamale. Though the trail distance is 14km, the terrain is mostly easy since there is no great altitude variation. It takes almost an hour’s walk before we get past all the villages and start walking in the forests. It rained a bit as we left MM hills, temperature was in 30s and humidity was high. This made all of us sweat a lot.

Quenching the thirst
Quenching the thirst
At around 11AM, we reached a place which had a small water body, called Gaudsi lake. A group of villagers proceeding towards MM hills informed us about the presence of elephants in the area. They had spotted a few a couple of minutes back. We could sense some movement on the other side of the lake and we expected to get at least a glance of the elephant. Since the area is very bushy, even if an animal is present, spotting it wouldn’t be easy. Our guide Iranna sent one of the villagers to the other side of the lake to look out for the elephants. We could see Iranna loading his 303 rifle even as the villager rushed back after spotting an elephant in the bush. The anticipation was growing and we decided to wait for the elephant to make an appearance. The stage was all set for the show. The lake itself was the stage, the elephant was the performer and we were the spectators at the other end of the lake.

The bath
The bath

While some of us argued about the futility of the whole wait, Iranna was keen on waiting. After a difficult 15mins of silent waiting (some of uswere too excited to remain silent), the drama unfolded. The area hadn’t received much rains this season and this lake was one of the few remaining waterholes for elephants. Probably unable to bear the thirst and heat, the elephant, which was all this while waiting for us to move on, decided to come out of the bushes. As it made a majestic entry, we were absolutely thrilled. It was an almost fully built adult male elephant with tusks of half a meter length. First the tusker performed the ritual of mud bathing. In the next act, it entered the lake and quenched its thirst. Then it was full 15mins of bathing which invovled sprinkling of water all over its body. The continuous clicking of 10 cameras from the other side made little difference to the tusker. Finally satisfied with its act, the elephant performed its last act, which was mud bathing and disappeared into the bushes.

returning
(All elephant photos are courtesy of Naren)

It took some time for us to realize what we had witnessed. We had seen an a lone tusker in its territory. And that too not from a far off distance sitting in a protected vehicle. But we were as close to elephant as 50m, without any protection and at the complete mercy of the elephant. And it was the most thrilling moment of my 6 years of trek life. It took another 20min for us to reach the next village called Indignata(874m). On the way we saw a dried dung of a carnivore which had lots of deer hair. Iranna informed us that it was leopard’s dung. After a tea break at Indignata, we trekked for another 90min to reach our destination, the Naagamale(853m) village at 1.30PM.

An early morning view from Naagamale
Early morning view from nagamale
Naagamale is a small village surrounded by forests from all sides. Forest department had arranged our stay in a big room adjacent to a school. We finished our packed lunch comprising of Idly and Chapatti. Thanks to Ashwath (who was responsible for the kitchen department), we had generous amounts of curds which helped us gulp down the cold and dry Idlies. We had lots of time at our disposal and spent 90min of it in the afternoon siesta. At around 3.45PM, we started towards the Shiva temple in Naagamale. It is about half an hour’s climb from the village to the temple which is situated approximately at 1000m. During this walk, Iranna explained about the development activities taken by the forest department which is otherwise known for corruption and lethargy. I was really impressed to know that all the money generated by such treks are really being spent for the development of the villages. In fact the government doesn’t take any money from this trek and the entire money goes to the local area development fund. Many young villagers have come forward and registered as guides for these treks with the forest department. So these treks are kind of providing part time employment for these village youths.

The sanke and Shiva linga at Naagamale temple
Naagamale temple

The temple at Naagamale has got an amazing setting. It has a huge rock in the form of a Linga and an other naturally formed rock behind which resembles a Naga (snake). So effectively it looks like a snake protecting a Shiva Linga. Since this place is at an elevation, it offers panoramic views of the Kaveri valley. The Hogenakal falls and the backwaters from Mettur dam are visible from here. We spent close to an hour in this place. It has been a practice to cover the distance from the village to this temple with bare feet. In fact I saw a notice board which cautions the devotees against drinking, smoking, spitting and even speaking bad things!

A view from the trail
A view from the trail
We reached back Naagamale village before sunset. While we were idling out time, sumptuous dinner was getting ready for us in a house adjacent to our room. We had carried all the ration from Bangalore itself. In addition to that, the villagers were kind enough to prepare Ragi balls, the local delight. I was eating the Ragi balls for the first time. Though it is extremely good for health, it is not really tasty since it has to be swallowed and not chewed. The room we were staying was so big that it could accommodate at least 100 people.

Another view
Another view

Asalways, the next day started early for me and Naren. It was just 2 days past the full moon and the surroundings were looking pretty nice in the moonlight. We spent some quiet few minutes doing Pranayama before even others were up. After sunrise Gautham and Ananth joined me in Pranayama while Naren played soothing tunes with his flute. Upma and Gajar Halwa were served for the breakfast. We started on the 2nd days trek at around 8AM.

Morning Pranayama(L2R: Gautham, Bharata, Ananth)
Morning

The initial trail from Naagamale till Parasalnatham(654m) is very scenic. The remaining distance is mostly through the plain forests with not much altitude variations. The 2nd day’s trek also turned out to be interesting. We saw several pug marks, remains of a deer and a chameleon..

Chameleon
Chameleon

Iranna showed us a rock where Veerappan and his gang were once hiding. This is the place from where a village boy doing sentry duties was captured by Police. After a tiring final few kilometers of walk, we finally emerged out of forests and entered the Palar-Gopinatham road at around 12.30PM. Our guide Iranna was carrying a wireless equipment which helped us to get our TT to this point. Since we had completed the trek well ahead of schedule, we had enough time to visit the Hogenakal falls. The lunch was taken in the Gopinatham village to which Veerappan belonged. It is around 30km from here to Hogenakal falls. To reach the waterfalls from the Karnataka side, we had to take a coracle ride upstream the Kaveri river for almost a kilometer. Kaveri was flowing full adding the beauty of the Hogenakal falls.

Hogenakal falls
Hogenakal falls

We came back to MM hills where we said goodbye to Iranna and the villagers. These people had been extremely helpful to us for the past two days. In fact, this whole program was arranged and conducted very well by the forest department. After negotiating the bad roads of Kollegal and Malavalli, it was midnight by the time we reached Bangalore.


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
deer

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.