Kodachadri Trek
A good travelogue should necessarily be accompanied by all the major and minuscule details of the journey like dates, locations, distances and time. This inevitably entails rigorous note-making during the journey itself. Since, I, being the lazy bum that I am, have done nothing remotely of that sort, what I am jotting down here is just a casual and almost certainly, an incomplete recollection of BMC's Kodachadri trek on 1 st and 2nd December, which I was fortunate enough to be part of.
Au Revoir Bengalooru
So, there we were, the 20 of us, 15 guys and 5 ladies on a slightly nippy November night standing outside Symphony Theatre on M. G. Road, which seems to be under renovation almost perpetually. I was with my 2 buddies Rahul and Shshank Garg, both Marwaris from Kolkata which meant that the 3 of us were never going to be short on food. A traveling Marwari usually carries enough food on himself to feed an Army regiment. And sure enough, we were well-stocked with rations of biscuits, munchies, chocolates, chana-zor-garam and of course, tissue paper because eating food like that on a trek definitely has its consequences. There were quite a few BMC trek veterans among the motley crew assembled, some of whom like Arun George, Kiran, Rajashekar and Manikantan, I knew previously from Brahmagiri and Mullyangiri treks.
BMC surprised us with their impeccable punctuality when the 20-seater bus showed up a few minutes before 11 o clock. Out popped the trek lead, Jagadish Kumar (JD from here on) and with a short and crisp command, he ordered us inside. A few last minute calls were made to absentees and no-shows and a quick roll-call later, we were on our way. A few minutes later, Vodafone's network disappeared as it is wont to, and I quietly switched off my phone. No contact with civilization and its attendant encumbrances like office-work, bill payments, household errands and irritating tele-marketers trying to sell me insurance, credit-cards and loans for my honeymoon. I thanked God, for these small luxuries.
Rahul and Shshank were absolutely petrified of leeches, having never been bitten by one before. Not only had they come armed with Iodex spray, they had googled for methods to avoid leeches and somebody (probably a prankster) had suggested a magic elixir of Eucalyptus oil, baking soda and lime juice. Shshank was carrying a bottle of the mixture whose application was supposed to ward off the dreaded blood sucking annelids. I sympathized with them. Faith is a powerful thing and I guess the placebo effect of having that liquid helped them get some sleep at night. I envied them, although I was sure they were haunted by dreams of leeches crawling up their feet.  I for one could not get any sleep and spent the night twisting and turning uncomfortably in my seat and listening to the soundtrack of Mungaru Malhe, which the driver seemed to be awfully fond of. So much so, that he played the same CD four times in a row without a break. I have always loved the sound of MM, but thanks to my limited knowledge of Kannada, I have never been able to understand the songs.
We stopped at Arsikere for a much needed bathroom break, where I and Shshank smoked a Bristol and realized why it is cheaper than most brands. We could actually feel as if it destroyed a part of our lungs and decided, very prudently, that we needed to stay away from Bristols to conserve our lung-power. When you are going to climb a mountain, you need all the lung you can get.
A lovely December Dawn
Sometime during morning, the group was rudely jolted awake by the frantic braking and the topsy-turvy ride of the bus. The road leading towards Shimoga is an absolute nightmare. It is in such an advanced state of dilapidation that it seems to have been destroyed deliberately. For almost a good hour or two, the misery continued without a moment's resite; we were either jolted or pushed up into the air because of the potholes. Suffice it to say that the effect on our delicate behinds was not pretty. To compound our woes, our driver seemed to have been brought-up on a heavy dose of machismo. He belonged to the school of thought which says that driving slowly is not a manly thing to do, with the effect that he mostly applied the brakes only once the bus had gone into a ditch or when we had come within inches of a head on collision. We felt close to God several times during this bus-ride, and I don't mean it in a good way.
After enduring the hardship of NH 206 (a national highway, no less), we reached Shimoga at around 6 AM, which for us city-slickers is very early morning. Some of us helped ourselves to Idli-wadas and coffee in a restaurant. Formalities like brushing our teeth were cast aside after cracking a few clichéd jokes about how lions never really wash their mouths. We set out again from Shimoga towards Nittur. The road was as bad as before in some places but the pain was partially offset by the picturesque country-side in its full early morning glory. A better writer could probably have described it better, but you get the idea: lush green farms, hundreds of trees lining the roads, glistening ponds, children going to school on foot and cycles and the tantalizing sight of the majestic western ghats at the far horizon. Rahul, quite typically, slept through all of it and woke up occasionally only when I and Shshank opened up a packet of food.
The journey took more time than had been anticipated. There were a few anxious moments when we had to take a diversion because a bridge has collapsed on the main road. Where there were a few intermittent patches of road on NH 206, even they disappeared on this diversion. It's just a bumpy dust-track for a few kilometers with hardly enough width for a bus to pass. To make matters worse, we took a wrong turn on the dust track and carried on for quite a distance before a passer-by guided us correctly. It was only thanks to the skills of our driver that we managed to take a U-turn and return to the main road after having lost quite a bit of time. We reached Nittur at around 11 AM. JD cheerfully informed us that there was not going to be any lunch since we were running late, so we better stuff ourselves up. The solitary restaurant open in Nittur boasted of a menu of Vada, puri and Masala Dosa but faced with the prospect of missing our lunch, we cleaned up Sridevi Hotel's entire inventory in a matter of half an hour.
The Virgin Beauty
It was not long after that the sleeping bags were distributed and we finally started our trek from a place near Nittur. Our guide Vijay leading the way for us, we reached a small house about 2 kms later. We left our bags there and took a small diversion to see a waterfall. To reach this waterfall, we first had to pass through a wheat field, which looked absolutely resplendent with a shade of green, for which I can't find a name. After walking for about half a kilometer, we reached a small spring falling throught he rocks. Shshank, the excitable creature that he is, thought that that was the waterfall and immediately proceeded to have a shower in it. Vijay, the guide, however, was disappointed in us for taking the little brook to be the waterfall, he had promised; and said that we had to climb further up to find the real deal. And so, further we marched, doing something that I like to call waterfall trekking. It's basically finding a way up the rocks, where a spring is flowing. It is a bit tricky because one has to find the dry parts of the rock and then climb up carefully avoiding the parts where the water is flowing. After every 100 feet or so, we came across another waterfall and assumed that we had finally reached. Vijay, however, only scoffed at our urban ignorance and coaxed us on till it happened a few times. People were just beginning to mutter some profanities under their breath, when lo and behold; we reached what I can only term as the most beautiful waterfall I have ever set my eyes on.
The kinds of waterfalls I most despise are the ones commercialized beyond recognition. There is absolutely nothing wrong with people thronging a popular place of scenic beauty but what is really off-putting is the sheer callousness with which people rape and ravage these places. So, what you have is not the pristine sanctity of Mother Nature in all her sublime glory, but plastic bags, wafer packets, soft drink pouches, religious offerings thrown into the water and all kinds of litter thrown around with impunity. It's after seeing a place like the afore-mentioned waterfall that one realizes how shabbily we treat popular destinations like Nandi Hills or Ooty. I guess, it is a blessing then, that waterfalls like these are so hard to reach and indeed, one wouldn't be able to find them without a guide. Otherwise, they would meet the same sad fate as their more popular cousins whose only fault is that they are more accessible by road.
It was not the highest waterfall I have seen, nor was it the one most copious with water. What made it so attractive to me; however, was definitely its virgin beauty. One of the true joys of trekking with BMC is the fact that one gets to see places where very few people mange to reach. This particular one more than lived up to Vijay's promise. It seems to be tucked away deep inside a jungle although the water from it irrigates the wheat fields that we passed through. There are huge aerial roots and thick vegetation on the rocks along with the falling water. It creates a lovely little shallow pond at its foot, so the falling water can be easily reached. Most of the male members had a good bath before climbing down again. Waterfall trekking becomes a bit tricky on the way down, mind you.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep….
After this splendid diversion, we reached the house where we had abandoned our main path and forward we marched towards the PWD guest house, which was our destination. The climb is steep in some places, the trail passes through thick jungle and one has to climb and descend quite a few peaks. The trails criss-cross and meander with a will of their own through the jungle. This is definitely one trek which you don't want to do without a guide. Some over-zealous trekkers make the wrong choice at a fork and in some places you have to leave the main trail and push through thick foliage for the correct way. Consequently, Vijay had a lot of running to do as he tried to co-ordinate the vanguard of the group with the laggards. The stamina of mountain guides never ceases to amaze me. Kiran, who has become a regular on BMC's treks, has developed a new style of trekking which is a cause for much amusement. He walks very fast and overtakes everyone else. Then he lies down on the bare ground and grabs a shut-eye while the rest of the group catches up. He follows this routine without exception even when passing through jungles, elephant grass or even where the path is stony. With his emaciated frame, geeky spectacles, slightly balding head and his walking staff, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi. Soon enough, he was being revered as Gandhiji by the entire group.
Vijay promised us that the steep inclines would last only for 4 kms after which the trail would become relatively flat for the last 3 kms. He is a man of his word, as was evident at the waterfall. After a couple of hours of groaning, grunting and sighing, we reached a dusty jeep track which would take us to the PWD guest house.
…..But I have miles to go, before I sleep
I, Mokshi, Rajashekhar, Rahul (who has been quite impressive for a first timer) and Manikantan were the first to reach the track at approx 6 PM. It was almost certain that we did not have enough time to make it to the sunset spot, which was a good 5 kms away. Mokshi's camera had malfunctioned and she was ruing the fact that she would not be able to capture the sun-set or any of the sceneries. Her camera batteries were cannibalized and handed over to Manikantan whose own batteries had drained out. He startsed to click furiously, trying to capture the setting sun. The trail was wide and frequented by jeeps since Kodachadri is a somewhat popular pilgrimage spot. At this hour, most devotees and pandits were returning home. The tough part of the climb was definitely over and the 5 of us were quite relaxed and enjoyed the changing landscapes. The conversation veered towards photography and its nuances and the wonders of an SLR. After a while, the PWD guest house became visible. It seemed to be jutting out of a sheer mountain face. It looked beautiful from below, with its cream and red façade.  
The last kilometer of the jeep trail seemed like an endurance test with its steepness. We had now walked for almost 11 kms, 6 of it uphill. All we wanted to do right now, is to lie down and grab some food. Ironically, from a motorist's point of view, the track leading up to the Public Works Department guest house is in a bad shape. Since it is PWD's job to maintain roads, the bad state of the road provided ample testimony to the department's efficiency. Eventually, however, the 5 of us make it to the guest house along with Hemanth who caught up with us. Mokshi mentioned that she wanted to be one of the first to reach the top. I and Rahul were pleased with ourselves too. We plopped down near the guest house with our feet hanging over the edge of a precipice and enjoyed the beautiful evening. Biscuits and chocolates were passed around freely. Before long, Shshank and Kiran "Gandhi" join us. Shshank is glowing with an inner satisfaction after having completed the trek. They seemed to have enjoyed each other's company a lot. Boys being boys, I, Rahul and Mani could not keep ourselves from cracking some off-color jokes about their sexual orientation. I and Shshank lit up our victory cigarettes and enjoyed the last drags in the fading sunlight.
It was here that we caught sight of something which I have not been able to figure out. At a distance of around 100 mts from where we were sitting, was a man carrying an AK-47 rifle on his back. Even, with my limited knowledge of guns, there was no mistaking the instantly recognizable shape of the Kalashnikov. Who was that guy? Poacher, Naxallite or a forest guard? It is highly unlikely that he was the latter, since most Government guards are invariably armed with the out-dated double barreled 303s. Under normal circumstances, I would have proceeded immediately to solve the mystery but so tired was I, that I let it go for the time being. I decided to track him down later and hopefully, ask him to let me pose with it. Unfortunately, however, that was the last I saw of him and I never quite figured out why someone would need an AK in Kodachadri.
After a while, the entire group made it to the top. The PWD guest house was pitch dark and there were no electricity lines around, which filled us with an immense sense of foreboding. At around 8 o clock however, the guest house suddenly lighted up as if a haunted mansion had suddenly come alive. The BMC gang was given 2 rooms. The guest house was woefully short on bathrooms but they are cleaner than one would expect to find. The gentlemen graciously offer the 4 beds to the ladies and opt for the sleeping bags. Off the record, however, it was JD's crisp commands that did the trick. A little while later, dinner was served. It consists of sambhar, rasam, rice and papad. It is heart-warmingly hot and with hunger gnawing at our bellies, we wolf down the simple meal with the eagerness of young kids. Some of us wanted to have a bonfire but when JD announces with his usual cheerfulness that we had to be up by 5 o clock in the morning to catch the sun-rise, all the bravado died down and most of us prudently snuggled into our beds and sleeping bags.
Imported Yogis and Indigenous Photographers
I slept soundly after being awake for the last 36 hours. At 5 o clock in the morning, there was frantic activity in the 2 rooms as people scrambled to get ready for the sun-rise. A few minutes later, we were on the path which led us higher up the mountains. It had always been my wish to do some night-trekking and this was not much different. We were walking in pitch darkness with some help from torches but mostly guided by Vijay. The sky looked beautiful and I could see more stars and constellations than I had seen in a long while. After about an hour of negotiating some narrow paths and ridges, we reached the sun-rise point which doubles up as a sunset point. There is a small temple at the top, where a foreigner with a shawl wrapped around him was meditating peacefully. He made an imposing figure with his well-built physique and his padmasana posture. His quest for a spiritually uplifting experience was rudely hampered when a few of us started photographing him.
Eventually, he had had enough of it and he curtly told us that the flashes were disturbing him. He asked us to enjoy the special place in solitude. I guess it is a typically Asian habit to capture everything we see on our travels in our cameras. We become so pre-occupied with posing and photographing with sunsets, sunrises, waterfalls, lakes and mountains that enjoying the humongous sweep of nature's beauty almost becomes secondary for us. If we think about it, we could probably get more beautiful photos of sunrises through google than we could ever capture on our own and yet, we think that capturing the photo on our camera will make it special. What makes the sunrise special for us is our presence there and that can never be enjoyed later by looking at a 4 by 6 image. I for one prefer to sit there peacefully and enjoy the scene than spending precious time in futile attempts of trying to capture its fleeting beauty on a camera.
This was perhaps the third or fourth time in my lifetime that I got to see a sun-rise, thanks to the zeal of our trekking group. There have been countless times, where I have made plans with my gang to get up early to catch the sunrise at Nandi Hills or in some such place. But with our slothful ways and an almost congenital aversion to getting our behinds out of bed early in the morning, it inevitably so happens that we reach the sun-rise point only around noon and that is on our lucky days.
I, Rahul, Shshank and Kiran left the peak earlier than everyone else. It was part of our cunning strategy to reach the guest house first and use the bathroom before anyone else could do so. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of letting Rahul in first, who relieved himself for almost half an hour. By the time, he came out, everybody had reached the guest house and there was an inevitable clamour to get inside. Needless to say, I and Shshank were not pleased and Rahul was subjected to a lot of chaste Sanskrit early in the morning.
The Descent and the Inept Leeches
Breakfast consisted of lemon rice, upma, tea and coffee which we again devoured as if we had just arrived from Sub-Saharan Africa. A trekker's eating habits resemble more a camel's than a human's. Whenever, he/she sees food or clean water, it is consumed in copious amounts because he/she does not know where the next meal will come from. It is stored up as reserve for later when energy levels run low during a grueling climb. The climb down started soon after. After around 4 kms of precipitous descent, we reached the foot of the mountain, where we found a small dhaba which served some refreshing buttermilk and lime-water. It also served a Kerala dish called puttu. Some of us stocked ourselves up with water, bananas and toffees. JD, true to form, informed us that we should stock ourselves up since we were going to miss lunch yet again. That man has such a brilliant knack of delivering bad news with a cheerful face that I think he should be employed in a hospital. He could easily inform a patient that a sex-change had been performed on him instead of the appendicitis and actually make the patient feel happy about it.
Kodachadri is one of the most infamous trekking trails as far as leeches are concerned. People have returned with horror stories of trekking in monsoons where 30-40 leeches make it their business to feast on a single human foot. We, however, were fortunate to have been there in December, by which time the leech population had dwindled to meager numbers. Even the ones that remained seemed to be incompetent and were easily dissuaded from their blood sucking enterprise with a simple flick. It was ironical since this time, we had come armed with an arsenal of Iodex Sprays, salt and of course Shshank's Eucalyptus Oil. It was almost as if we came prepared for a match with Australia and ended up playing under-arm cricket with nursery kids. I was so moved by their plight that I let a couple of leeches suck my blood out of pity.
Anyway, we continued on the trail that leads to Kollur. After about 3 kms of moderately difficult trekking, we left the main path and took a diversion for Arshinagundi falls. This meant that we had to pass through some very difficult terrain where the slope is very steep and one has to be extremely careful of their step. After almost an hour, we reached the waterfall, where we had to climb up some tricky rocks to reach the pool of the waterfall. Most people had to contend with taking a dip at the edge of the pool since this one is pretty deep and one needs to know swimming properly to reach the foot of the waterfall. This scribe is happy to report that only two people, Shaam and yours truly managed to swim to the falling water. It was a difficult swim since the chilly water numbs the muscles and it takes quite an effort to keep the limbs moving. Arun and Anoop did a dexterous trek on a sheer wall of rock to get to the waterfall.
After the refreshing dip, the crew helped themselves to all the food that was being carried. It was sort of a community lunch where everything was shared with everybody. Drinking water was running low and most of us filled up our bottles at the waterfall. Thanks to some conscientious effort on the part of the group, we finished our food without creating even a little bit of litter. All the wrappers and plastics were collected in one single bag, so that we could live up to the BMC promise of leaving the sanctuary cleaner than how we found it.
By now, exhaustion was getting the better of most of us. Vijay was subjected to an intense interrogation as to how many more kilometers remained before we reached civilization, how steep would the climb be, what was the precise angle, how many hills would have to be crossed and so on and so forth. Perhaps a bit ruffled by our questioning, he poured cold water on our feelings by declaring that 5 more kms remained, 1 of which was a very steep climb and the other 4 were up and down. 6 more hills would have to be crossed before we reached Kollur. We resigned ourselves to our fate and started off with a heavy heart.
A Delightful anti-climax
He was not too far off the mark. The climb back to the main Kollur trail was arduous and back-breaking. After one and a half days of intense trekking, our bodies were creaking under the strain to which they were definitely not accustomed in the city. Rahul was limping by now. I could see he was in pain but he did not slow down even once. He seemed to be moving on pure will-power.
Once we reached the main trail, however, the rest of the trek proved to be a pleasant surprise. It was neither too steep, nor too long. And when we least expected it, we had reached the main gate of the Sanctuary and across the road, stood our city bus. The last time someone was so happy to see a vehicle must have been in Paris when American tanks rolled in to liberate the city in 1944. I guess Vijay deliberately over-stated the difficulty of the last leg of the trek. It made the unexpected victory so much sweeter. So, that was that, 2 days and 27 kilometers later, we were back to our bad old ways of depending on automotive transport for all our needs.
Spartans turn Gluttons
A few minutes after everyone piled into the bus, we set off for Kollur, where the bus dropped us next to the famous Mookambika Temple. This temple is a major pilgrimage centre of the south and receives a lot of devotees, particularly from Kerala. Since no one among I, Rahul and Shshank is overtly religious, we hurriedly finished our darshan and proceeded to quell our ravenous hunger. Generous helpings of vada and masala dosa soon made their way into our growling bellies and some cheer and colour returned to our harried faces. In Kollur, thanks to Narsimha, I discovered a wonderful Kerala beverage called "kashaya". It is made of milk, pepper, cardamom and other spices and served piping hot just like coffee. A google search reveals that kashaya is used as an Ayurvedic medicine in Kerala. I can vouch for its healing properties since it helped mitigate the cold that I had contacted.
The refreshments and the pilgrimage restored the spirits of the group to a large extent. The limbs, however, were beginning to pain once we had had some rest. The pain was a harbinger of what we could expect in office the next day. Rahul and Shshank had already made up their minds to call in sick tomorrow. The bus set off once again but any hope for rest that we had harbored, soon evaporated as the roller-coaster ride on the bombed out roads of Shimoga district started. It almost made me nostalgic about the pot-holed roads of Bangalore. Even Church Street feels like an autobahn compared to NH 206. The diversion mentioned before was traversed again, this time in pitch darkness. More than a few prayers went up as we pleaded to the Almighty above that the bus does not break down in that desolate part of the world. Once we re-joined the main road, a loud cheer went up.
No trip is ever complete without a customary game of Antakshari and ours was no exception. We in the back rows challenged the front rows to the singing duel. Most of the girls were sitting in the front row and all our bravado soon turned out to be hollow. It became pretty apparent to us back-benchers that we were never going to win this contest by fair means. Every dirty trick in the book was dutifully applied. Songs were sung from the second para, poetic license was abused to change the lyrics to suit our needs and the protests of the opposite team were drowned in a bedlam of hooting and bad singing. Eventually, what saved us from a humiliating defeat was the arrival of Ripponpet, where we stopped for dinner. Some of us, including myself, had been dreaming of a hearty repast where chicken and mutton would have starring roles. Ripponpet, however, had a solitary vegetarian restaurant where the entire menu consisted of meals, puri and dosa which was served with Bhajans playing in the background. A dejected Gunasekaran summed it up beautifully for us: "Even the music is vegetarian over here!"
I managed to fall asleep after Ripponpet even as the bus continued on its joy-ride. The bus driver, the incorrigible speed maniac that he was, refused to slow down for such inconsequential things like ditches, pedestrians and other vehicles. I woke up only after Tumkur. NH 4 is part of the golden quadrilateral and driving on it is an absolute pleasure. Within no time, we had reached M. G. Road, where a few sleepy good-byes were made with promises of meeting again and sharing photos and so we parted, until we meet again. The world being so small and of course thanks to BMC's treks, this is one promise which will not be too difficult to keep.
                                                                                                            -Arpan Srivastava
Disclaimer: This memoir is just a personal recollection of the Kodachadri Trek on 1st and 2nd December, 2007. I am sure the others have much more interesting and important personal anecdotes to narrate than the ones that managed to register on my feeble memory. Likewise, please do not depend on this write-up for facts like distances and times since they are all approximate measures that I have tried to recall almost 72 hours after the trek ended.