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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Western Ghats trek: Pushpagiri and Kumaraparvata

December 14, 2006

I prepared this write up 2 years back when we trekked to Pushpagiri and Kumaraparvata, but didn’t get around to publish this. Doing this now as I look back at this trek after 2 years.

The moment we had been waiting for had finally arrived. It was company’s year-end shutdown time and our plan for a long trek was ready. Ashok and I had a full week of adventure ahead of us. Initial plan was to trek for around 60km from Madikeri to Kukke Subramanya through the pristine forests of Western Ghats. We reached Madikeri on a Friday morning only to find out that our local guide was missing in action. And the advice we got was not to attempt the forest trek all by ourselves. For once we heeded to the advice and quickly formulated an alternative plan. We were to attempt a trek from Somavarpet to Subramanya covering Pushpagiri (altitude 1712m), Sheshaparvata (1538m) and Kumaraparvata (KP) (1399m). The advantage of trekking in a short group of 2 was already evident; within no time, the decision was taken. We were all set with our standard backpack; a change over set of clothes, sleeping bags, chapattis to last for 3 days and some fruits.

After a filling breakfast at a family friend’s place in Madikeri, we boarded a bus to Somavarpet at 9AM. It took almost 2.5 hours to reach Somavarpet. The otherwise uninteresting bus travel was made a bit eventful by a foreign-traveled, village-settled estate owner. While he wanted to show off his English familiarity, I was in no mood to use English in this Kannada land.

View of Pushpagiri from Bidalli
Pushpagiri from bidalli

The actual trek to Pushpagiri starts from a village called Bidalli at 20km from Somavarpet. Buses go towards Bidalli only 3 times a day(7.30AM, 2.30PM, 5.30PM – this might have changed now). Since it was already past midday, we spent Rs 175/- on auto rickshaw to traverse this distance. The money paid was worth as we got some interesting facts and stories about the place from the driver. Most interesting of them was a caution about not to attempt a peak called Chikkabetta in the Pushpagiri range as this peak is cursed and villagers don’t go there. We weren’t worried as it was unlikely that we would end up on this peak given that there is not trial to this peak.

Near Heggademane
Near heggademane

The route from Bidalli to Pushpagiri takes us through these well known landmarks: Heggademane (Heggade’s house), Shanta Mallikarjuna temple of Kumarahalli and a forest check post. A signboard at Bidalli mentions the distance to Pushpagiri peak as 8km. On the way to Heggademane, we had to cross a river on a narrow bridge (a bigger motorable bridge is being build beside this – this might have completed now). On the other side of this bridge, there is a jeep track up to Kumarahalli temple. Heggademane is a small cluster of houses, where one can break for lunch. Food is served on request here. Temple is situated in a scenic place, with a huge Banyan tree on its side and a big shed in front, which can be a convenient place for night stay. Water is available here.

We spent a few minutes in the temple before proceeding further. Already delayed by half a day, we were apprehensive about starting the trek in the afternoon. The locals and pilgrims with all their good intentions, warn and caution people about the animals, mostly elephants in these forest ranges. With every word of caution, our enthusiasm was turning into a bit of fear. We have found this attitude almost everywhere; locals normally try to dissuade trekkers from taking on the trail. But the final words of encouragement from temple priest led us forward with full vigor and enthusiasm.

We finished lunch alongside a small stream near the temple. Chapattis were consumed with jam and chatnipudi. Another 20min of walk took us to a forest check post, where we paid a nominal entrance fee and camera fee. On chatting with the forest guard, we got to know that trail is in good condition and there are no chances of getting lost. And another group of 6 people had started just 15min before us. Regarding spotting any elephants or other animals, it is unlikely, we were told. Regarding spotting naxalites or rather being spotted by them, forest guards categorically declared that this part of Western Ghats is free from naxal activities. We were relieved.

We left behind the other team of 6 after brief introduction. They had stopped for lunch. From here the real forest of Pushpagiri range begins. The forest is pretty dense and with our limited exposure to forests, we concluded that this is next only to forests of Agumbe – Narasimhaparvata trail with regards to density of trees. The trees were huge and canopy was thick, there was a good under growth also, owing to good seasonal monsoon this time. Surprisingly forest guards had cleared the trail recently. At about 3/4th of distance, we were to encounter a rocky terrain and we were instructed by guards to take left deviation. The right deviation would lead to Kumaraparvata bypassing the Pushpagiri peak.

It was already 3.30PM and we were still in the beginning phase. To avoid getting caught in darkness, we increased our pace and reduced the stops. Nothing was visible all round except for trees. Chirping birds were every now and then disturbing the silence of the forest. According to the forest guards, the peak is a 2 hours walk, but after walking for 2 hours, there was no sign of any peak nearby.

We arrived at the steep rocky path mentioned by guards where we had to take left deviation. Until here the path is fully through forests and relatively easy. From here the steep rocky terrain starts. During this season, the last water hole is before this deviation. We would later find out that next availability of water was only at Kumaraparvata. Some clear proof of elephant activity was found from here onwards with small bushes being trampled, huge bamboo shoots being broken, stump remains of smaller trees and lumps of elephant excreta. It is hard to imagine that elephants with their huge bodies are able to maneuver this steep rocky terrain. Elephant traces could even be found in some of the viewpoints overlooking deep valleys.

A valley view
Valley view

The other group also had caught up with us by now. So together we moved up and up, seemingly from one peak to another. There was no time for disappointment as reaching Pushpagiri peak before sunset was foremost on our minds. The final part of the climb consists mainly of rocks interspersed with patches of loose forests. At 5.45PM we were on Pushpagiri peak. At the peak there is a cluster of stone-built small temples within a compound wall.

As expected the view all round the peak was spectacular, there were green mountain ranges as far as the eyes could see. We didn’t have much time to enjoy the view as we had to find a suitable place for the night and collect some firewood. Fortunately we found enough wood nearby. There was a flat rock surface just beside the temple where we could spend the night. The camping activity was evident in this place and it looked like the obvious place to spend the night. We watched the sunset in the backdrop of the huge rock face of Sheshaparvata.

Early morning view
Early morning view

With the sunset came the chill winds forcing us to light campfire and start preparing for dinner. The other group invited us to be their guests for dinner. They seemed to be carrying the entire kitchen with every conceivable kitchen item with them. Their group even had a designated chef, who guided the whole process of cooking. Rice was cooked within no time. It didn’t matter that it was half-cooked for want of enough water. Rasam was also prepared. We had soup for the starters. This was definitely an unexpected grand dinner for us. It was a great dinner in the moonlight on a full moon day.

We quickly settled around the campfire. I was forced to start the Kannada antakshari, after which Byatraj from the other group took over. This group was different from what we find usually on treks. It consisted of a radar engineer, a scientist and couple of boys from a village nearby Bangalore. Wide range of topics were discussed from radar technology to the extinction of dogs in villages because of wolves.

We settled down to sleep at around 9PM. Ashok and myself had sleeping bags while others had plastic cover underneath and shared bed sheets over them. The night was bright with moonlight but chillingly cold. Nothing mattered to our tired bodies as we got a decent sleep. We were woken up a couple of times by angry burst of expletives by the members of the other group trying to hold on to their precious resource, the bed sheet.

We got out of our wet sleeping bags by 5.45AM. Thermometer was measuring 9C. All of us rushed towards the eastern edge of the peak. lest we should miss the sunrise. Camera was set on tripod and we eagerly waited for the sun to appear. The lower mountain ranges in front of us were completely covered by thick clouds giving an appearance of an ocean.

Clouds

It was getting brighter and sun was still covered by clouds. When we were about to return disappointed, sun finally came above the clouds. The sunrise changed the color of clouds from brick red to golden yellow.

Sun rise
sunrise

Now we rushed to the opposite side of Pushpagiri to check how Sheshaparvata looks. And it did look spectacular like a mountain on fire.

Sheshaparvata
Sheshaparvata

It was time to pack up and leave. Breakfast was not on the agenda as we had no water left from our previous night’s grand dinner. Next destination is Sheshaparvata. The route involves a steep descent on rocks and an ascent through a dense valley.

We spent almost an hour on Sheshaparvata peak basking in early morning sunlight. Both Pushpagiri and Kumaraparvata are visible from here. The view of clouds flowing out of Pushpagiri peak gave us an out of the world feeling; there certainly cannot be a more enjoyable and peaceful heaven than this. It was a bit of nostalgia for me and Ashok since Kumaraparvata was our first trek almost 5 years back (now 7 years). While the other group was involved in taking photographs, Ashok and I spent some silent memorable minutes on the rocks. Everything comes to standstill in this place. You can spend hours here listening to the music of winds.

Clouds flowing past Pushpagiri
Clouds covering pushpagiri

Kukke town is also visible from Sheshaparvata. From here it is an hour’s walk to Kumaraparvata. After a small descent from Kumaraparvata, we reach the famous ‘stone mantapa’. It is a small stone platform just enough to accommodate 4 people to sleep. This place has been serving as camping ground for trekkers visiting Kumaraparvata for years now.

Kumaraparvata peak
Kumaraparvata

Kumaraparvata forest range is known as Bisle forest range. This forest is King cobra’s habitat. A couple of meters down is the first available water hole. Here water flows as a tiny stream. We spent almost and hour and a half here and completed our breakfast. Everybody reduced their backpack loads by consuming as many MTR ready-to-eat packets as possible. Breakfast was accompanied by a tasty tea prepared with all the leisure in the world. It then took some effort to get started again after such a heavy breakfast.

From here the trail goes towards the Bhattaramane amidst a place called Girigadde. The route is mainly in the grasslands spread over the hills. Negotiating this part of the trail can be pretty tough when the sun is directly beating down on us and with no water source till Bhattaramane. This entire stretch seemed to come under the rain shadow region and nothing seems to grow here except grass. By this time we were meeting many groups who had come from Kukke and trying to reach Kumaraparvata. After a quick stop at Bhattaramane, we started our descent again. The forest check post near Bhattaramane has been renovated and now they collect entry fees from the trekkers. The route from Kukke to Kumaraparvata has become very popular and it was surprising to see hundreds of people of all ages groups attempting Kumaraparvata from this route. Needless to say that most of them halt and return from Bhattaramane. Rest of the trail till Kukke is through forests, and is a welcome respite from the beating sun. But after so much of trekking, it can be quite an effort on the tired knees. We were dead tired when we reached the end of the trail at 12.15PM. It is about half an hour’s walk from here to the Kukke town, where the famous Subramanya temple is situated.

view
We had reached Subramanya on a special day. That was the last day the temple would be open before it gets closed for renovation. There were some grand celebrations arranged for this occasion. We booked a lodge and straight away headed to Kumaradhara river for a bath. After a leisurely darshan in the temple, we finished the day with a sumptuous temple differ. At the end of two days, Ashok and I were in no mood to return home just yet. Another trek plan was taking shape in our minds. We were to attempt a railway track trek from Subramanya to Siribagilu. This involves walking on the abandoned (was abandoned 2 years back, now is close to being operational after gauge conversion) Mangalore – Bangalore railway track, which runs through dense forests in this region.

Next day started early for us at 5AM. We bid goodbye to our friends, who were mostly asleep. After a nice breakfast in Subramanya we boarded a jeep towards Gundya at 6.30AM. Gundya is a village on Bangalore – Mangalore national highway and is about 20km from Subramanya. At 13th km on Subramanya – Gundya road, the Mangalore – Hassan – Bangalore railway line crosses over the road. This is where our railway trek starts.

It is more common to do this trek from the other side: Hassan – Sakaleshpur – Yedakumeri – Siribagilu – Subramanya as that side has more tunnels (longest one of around half a km) and long bridges. From Subramanya till Siribagilu, there are 11 tunnels (longest is around 200m) and a few bridges. Walking on these tracks is a nice way of experiencing forest trek, but on a relatively easier trail. Tunnels will be pitch dark and bridges can be scary for acrophobic people.

Especially during rains, tunnels are likely to be waterlogged and bat droppings could make matters worse. And bridges can be very slippery and in fact dangerous also. We took 3 hours to cover this distance. Though villagers warned us that elephants have been spotted in the area that day, we were not lucky enough to meet them.

The railway track
Railway track

From Siribagilu, there is a jeep track through forests connecting the Subramanya – Gundya road, this time at 5km short of Gundya. This was the best part of our trek for the past 3 days. The forests were absolutely silent except for the noise generated by our walking on dry leaves. Elephant activity was evident through out the track. Elephant dung was still very fresh, not beyond a day’s old. Now we suddenly became conscious of animals around us. We envisioned meeting an elephant herd and thought what just two of us could do in such a situation. We just started moving ahead now being more sensitive to the surroundings. Now we were even noticing how a single dry leaf negotiating its way down through the thick growth could make a considerable amount of noise. No amount of words can substitute the actual experience here. There was no evidence of this jeep track being used by humans or vehicles lately. The track cuts right across a stream.

Insidea tunnel
Inside the tunnel

Crossing the stream wasn’t difficult as the water level was very low. It took us an hour and a half to reach the Subramanya – Gundya road. From here it was a hard walk of 5km on road to Gundya from where we caught a bus to Hassan and from there to Bangalore.

– With inputs from Ashok S.