Sunday, March 7, 2010

Colors of Venkateswara - A Trek in the Eastern Ghats!



Before I jump in to show you my world (I like the sound of it – My world!), let’s do a quick Q&A round. 
  1. Do you think Eastern Ghats are a good place to trek with worthy enough sights to keep one mesmerized or let’s go basic and do you know Eastern Ghats even exist at all? Okay now I am undermining you too much I guess, moving on!
  2. Do you think the Eastern Ghats have crystal clear pools and deadly gorges/valleys and do you think it is fun to jump into them?
  3. Do you think it’s possible to have a full course dinner starting from Soup and only ending at a Dessert in the middle of the jungle? 
  4. Do you think non-swimmers can cross deep pools and you think people can dive into waters of unknown depth and have amazing fun?
  5. Do you think people can be crazy enough to take a leave on Monday to spend two nights and three days hiking 50kms in the jungles and have the best of times away from civilization? 
  6. Do you think “Colors of Venkateswara” come in all shades ranging from amazing to super fun? 
  7. Do you think losing track and getting down to the valley in the craziest possible way is counted as fun by any standards? 
Well, if you have answered “No” to most/all of the questions, you, my friend are in for a surprise and if you have said “Yes” to most/all, you, my friend, are in for a complete reaffirmation of faith!  

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Venkateswara National Park falls in the Eastern Ghats and to be precise forms the forests in and around Tirumala in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh. This was my latest exploration and the weekend of Feb 20-22nd added yet another unknown facet to the list of ever-growing wonders of India. It’s was an epic journey of 3 days with lots that happened. I will try to keep it short and simple and if I don’t succeed, please bear with me!  
 
It started with a sleepless night. We, 7 of us from Bangalore, reached Tirupati very early in the morn and the folks from Chennai reached an hour later than we did and soon we were on our way up the winding to reach Tirumala. Treading on those familiar roads where I had spent the better days of my life for 8 years brought back many memories – both pleasant and unpleasant. Lost in a world of my own while the rest tried to get the last of a peaceful nap for the day, we reached the Temple base which surprisingly had not changed much since I last saw it. The air felt familiar and the night felt cozy. It was 5 AM and none of the taxi drivers were game for a bumpy ride through the forest to drop us at our starting point. Where you ask? It is Kumaradhara Dam check post which lies above the temple. We thought we struck a good deal with the taxi drivers only to find ourselves stranded in between with a good 10kms to our starting point. But the Lord was still merciful and we found a willing truck driver who took us to our destination. Peacock, dust, clouds, more dust, sunrise and much more dust and the bumpy ride on top of the truck was a good start now! But we had more human inflicted insanity to deal with before we were good to go. 

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You see our man Ravi – the Organizer had gotten permission for us to enter through Papavinasanam Forest Area in the Venkateswara National Park and we were standing in front of Kumaradhara Forest area.  Now I tried telling him that Venkateswara National Park is the superset of all these subsets (Kumaradhara, Papavinasanam etc) and since we had permission to enter Venkateswara, we were good to go but the guile guard (or so he thought) answered in a very matter-of-factly tone that the “Park” is not here and it is like 10 kms from here near the temple! That was one FML moment and I was laughing in my head for my wise choice of words. More insanity later, we decided to go find our own way and after some climbing, we reached our trail and that was our ticket to a wild getaway! Last we saw or heard of civilization for 3 days. 

We were 16 in altogether and I thought that was good number for good team-bonding and I am sure Mr. Statistics will agree! We entered the forest in search of our lost trail. Soon we hit our original trail and the walk/climb without much tree cover on our heads was bearable thanks to the morning sun. By the time sun was shining high above, we were under forest cover and following a dried up stream bed. There was not much water and I was trying to remind myself why I signed up for this. And then we kept walking for the next couple of hours on the rocks occasionally passing by small stagnated pools until we reached the first big pool of the trek. The parched minds yes, not parched throats of the CTCians made sure they jumped into the pool without an iota of delay while three of us were waiting on the ledge observing the curious cases of pool predilection. What comes as a not so surprise is that the water in these caverns is very cold even though the general temperature was soaring high. All the more reason to jump in I guess. 

From what they had seen, this was the pool from which water plunges from a cliff edge many feet down to form Angel Falls and why it is called so? You will find out in a moment. So essentially we were on top of a waterfall and we had to get down to the stream again. You’d think there might be a trail somewhere to lead us down. But no, the path to go down is simple.. just go down. We walked along a cliff edge where one slip could spell doom for you, took a group snap there and then headed down to reach Angel Falls. And I have to tell you now, it was heavenly and so justified it’s name. Also now I remembered why I signed up for this trek!

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These falls, being in a valley with sunlight filtering through the canopy and falling through the air was a lovely sight. 

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And then lunch by the pool side –
Nap by the pool side –  

The sleeplessness of the previous night was exhausting. Yet we walked scared by the prediction of Ravi saying at this rate we’d be doing some night walk. Trust me it’s not a place where you’d like to wander out in the dark. Few more hours of walking led us through few small pools and finally we reached our campsite by evening. Now once again I was reminded why I signed up for this trek. See for yourself and tell me if it’s worth the hype or not. 

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Do you remember the movie The Beach starring a very young and striking Leonardo Dicaprio back in 2000? Do you also remember the scene where he takes a few steps back and then plunges from the top of a waterfall into the gorgeous pool hundreds of feet below set in the amazing surroundings of Thailand?  Or the more recent scene where Mila Kunis jumps into the Lapis Lazuli Waters of Hawaii in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall? And where am I getting with all this? It’s just that since 2000 and till date, that has been my dream. To just jump! Jump with no strings attached. Surrender to the force of gravity with no fear whatsoever. And you’d think I finally got to live my dream. No, I didn’t jump. Instead I sat on the ledge watching these guys jump and wondering when I will live my dream. Today I made a promise to myself – next time I come here, either I would have learnt how to swim/dive or come with a death wish! 

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It was a cold evening and the sleeping bag was beckoning me. What with the previous sleepless night, it was not a hard decision to take a nap and I have to tell you now that our campsite was not a huge flat ground. It was a dried up stream bed tucked between rising rock faces on two sides and the fall to the pool on the other side. So I crashed close to the rising hill to the left and there were lot of bushes here unlike the opposite side where a huge rock was rising straight above. But the tired mind did not think much before slipping into a slumber. An hour or two must’ve passed and I woke up to the sounds of banter around the campfire but I was too lazy to get out sleeping bag yet and was just thinking that it is dark and with the bushes right next to me, chances are a snake might easily creep in if it wants and no one would notice. Just then, to my horror, Ananth, Ajay and a few more started hovering around me shouting snake! Snake! Don’t move! Stay still inside the sleeping bag! Can you imagine the horror?! I had my heart in my mouth unable to comprehend the credibility of the shouting voices. Turns out it was a prank after all and I am very thankful that it was just a prank and equally thankful to Srini for letting me know. :)

Feeling fresh and the last of the drowsiness shaken out of me with all the snake drama, I sat next to the campfire while Lakshmi, Ramjan and I took to the culinary activities along with our Head Chef Anala and Sous-Chef Ravi. Soup was served, then hot and delicious Khichdi for main course and then Kesar for dessert was our menu for the night. Sumptuous, you can call it. It was a beautiful night with lots of stars for company and oh yea, I shifted base from the corner to smack right at the center next to the campfire. Now I was at peace finally, catching up on all the missed sleep. Come tomorrow I shall be feeling better than ever. 

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Needless to say, the next day morning was just as beautiful as the night before. Waking up in the forest next to the most gorgeous pool was a delight. Morning tea, breakfast and some diving and some group snaps was the agenda before leaving for the day. All done, we cleared up after us and went ahead to get down to follow the stream. We had to cross few pools and then came a pool where people had to cross with backpacks on their heads as water was neck deep. So you can imagine my plight, being only 5 ft and walking with a backpack on my head is a sure shot recipe for a disaster. But thanks to Guna, Lakshmi and I crossed it and there came one more such pool and again thanks to Guna we managed fine. But we were lagging behind from the rest of the team. And I did not like it much. We caught up with the rest who were waiting near a dried up Leaf Falls. To my relief I came to know that there were no more neck deep water crossings for the day. 

Later that day, we followed the stream for a while, hiked along a jeep track for a while which was now actively used by elephants for the trail was full of elephant dung and then took a 2 km diversion to reach yet another big pool right at the bottom of a huge rock face. More water fun ensued. The highlights of this detour if I had to pick would be us, the girls floating on the Sleeping Mats in the pool and Sandy meditating inside the pool! Sandy was convinced by the rest to dive into the pool and he was assured that he will be brought to safety. So he jumped, only he did not come up after jumping. Ananth went to look inside to find him standstill with raised hands at the bottom of the pool. Somehow it paints a very funny picture in my head. 

I haven’t told you yet but by now one word was ringing constantly in the heads of everyone. That would be “Goyala”. I still don’t know what that means but I know it can be used anywhere and everywhere in a sentence. If I had to take back one thing and only one thing from this trek, it will have to be “Goyala”. This one word made for many hilarious conversations all through the three days. Meanwhile we realized that our lunch for today and next day was spoilt. We tried to salvage what we can and filled our stomachs for the day. 

More walking took us to another nice deep pool and from now on I am not going to say explicitly that we got into water for more diving/splashing coz it’s the inevitable. They see water.. they jump into water. A quick trip to the watch tower and we were back on trail to our Day 2 Campsite. Running along the stream we hiked until evening and we reached a 4 meter high rock face. Guna was standing on top of it signaling us to come up. “You’ve gotta be kidding me” is what I thought. It was a near vertical rock with not many protrusions to hold on to and climb. Lakshmi and I were looking at him with absolutely incredulous expressions when he said this is the campsite. We were mentally prepared for a long walk through the night with the hype that Ravi and Guna created. But Guna assured us we’ve reached and now with renewed enthusiasm and with his help of course, we climbed up to see the prettiest campsite. 

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The best thing about Day 2 Campsite was that it was huge with a stream running through the center. Vast flat stone surface and gently rising hills on either sides of the stream. It was so exuding the sense of freedom. While the rest took off for yet another rendezvous with the pools, the remaining few were treated to Nathan’s amazing acrobatic massage. It’s the first we had heard of or seen one but people said it felt amazing. 

Soon we set up a ground breaking campfire and one small cooking fire next to the stream. Why ground-breaking you ask? Because the fire actually broke the slates of stone beneath it and it was not gentle I tell you. It felt like earth beneath was breaking into pieces and any moment the whole of the camp fire might just sink in. Meanwhile Lakshmi, Karthik and I were trying to salvage the smelly rotten chapattis for our lunch tomorrow by removing the spoilt edges and reheating them and I think we pretty much succeeded coz we ate the chapattis the next day and I survived to write this post. ;)  Anala, Ravi and the rest were preparing the dinner while we were preparing the soup. Papads, Soup and chapattis and aval (flattened rice) later one would think we were done with dinner. But no, there was also boiled rice with chicken pickle and deliciously hot and sweet semya Payasam (porridge) on the menu to be devoured. After that delicious dinner, we set off to spend a beautiful night under the starry skies. This second night in the wild was a welcome change from the usual hurry to finish off a trek in 2 days. It felt more relaxed and it definitely was a nice way to unwind after the boring city life. 


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Day 3 comes and we start on a relaxed note. After several rounds of morning tea and multiple helpings of the delicious unknown breakfast and salad, we set out reluctantly to reach back to the realms of civilization. But today was not going to be just another day in the wild. As always, Ravi and Guna were busy scaring us saying we were already late but the moment they see a pool jump in, constantly baffling me. Are we getting late or not and you’d think by now we would’ve known better than to trust their fake warnings but unfortunately no! Soon we reached an amazing gorge lined with light colored rocks and gorgeous pools putting up their best show of colors. It was crystal clear reflecting all of the good above and below the waters. We spent a good amount of time photographing and jumping around. And then we reached a nice little dead end which turned out to be a huge waterfall into the deep valley. We had to get down to the valley and this was our first roadblock. 


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While Ajay, Guna and few others tried to find a way as in which mountain to climb down, the rest of us pranced around the dangerously perched rocks next to the waterfall plunging into the really deep valley.  Sometime later we decided to climb the hill to our right and get down further ahead. This being the last day, we were all already chilled out with no agenda other than an easy trek on mind but this descent turned out to be one hell of an ordeal. Let me tell you that pants tore and thorns struck and rocks fell and yet we made it in one piece to the stream in the valley. Nathan gave us a scare right about now. All of us were here but for him. We knew he went ahead of us while trying to get down but just didn’t know where he got down. Luckily he got down along another slope just some hundred meters away from where we were and we knew when he answered to one of the many synchronized calls from us. 

So what do you think would be the immediate plan of action in the face of a race with time and a dirty tough descent? That’s right – go jump into a pool! And that’s precisely what we did. Few of us chose to take rest under the shades of the cool rocks and water while the rest were busy jumping around. They said “Step Falls Pool” was one of the best they had seen on the trek but I am not too sure I regret staying back. A few of us had quite an interesting chat on that relaxed afternoon. Soon it was time to rush again and we heard from Nathan that we would have to cross one big pool where walking through it is simply not possible. 


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That translates to crossing the pool using our professional ferry services. You see the sleeping mats are not brought to just sleep on them. The main reason they are so dear to us is that they float – they float big time! So what we do is to make a raft out of the sleeping mats and ferry the backpacks across deep pools without the gear getting wet. Also the same sleeping mats come to the rescue of non-swimmers as well to wade across the pool. While the bags were being ferried, Lakshmi and I decide to cross the pool together with two sleeping mats. On hindsight, that was one crazy decision. I asked Ramjan to get into the water to save us in case we drown. I thrust myself from the rocks and the initial force propelled me to a certain distance and then it all went standstill. I was beating my legs hard but I wasn’t moving anywhere and I was floating in the deeper area of the pool with nothing but water below my feet. Scared to the core, I insisted that Ramjan comes to aid. Nice guy that he was he obliged and ended up losing his spectacles in all the drama that ensued. Both Lakshmi and I were struggling to move even an inch and Ramjan had to push us both towards the other end. Karthik, on the other hand, being the only one, was comfortably brought to shore by Muthu. 

Only once I reached here, I could see the absolutely stunning beauty of the valley in front of me. Emerald green glistening stream and the multiple slopes that ran into the valley illuminated on the edges by the sunlight was looking like a spectacular work of art on a painted canvas. After the moment passed, we headed across another small pool to reach the place Nathan had got down. Why is that important? - Because he had the food. We had to make do with whatever remained of the three day rations. 

And then we walked and walked and walked. We walked through streams, walked through rocks, walked past villages, and then finally walked on Tar Roads to reach Kothaplly highway at 7 PM. We hitched a truck ride to Renigunta and there we had pretty good after trek party if you know what I mean! ;) A hurried ride back to Tirupati to catch our bus to Bangalore is how it all ended. 


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50 kms of hike, three days of endless fun, shared camaraderie, some of the best and outrageous philosophy you’d ever hear, culinary treats ranging from soups to desserts and not to forget the gorgeous forests, pools, gorges and streams was what Venkateswara was all about. Who would’ve thought the hills of Tirumala had so much more to offer.  All in all, this trek would also the join the league of Epic Journeys along with my previous Kumara Parvatha and Ombattu Gudda experiences. 

Fact file:

Trek Organized by : Chennai Trekking Club aka CTC 
Trek Start point – Kumaradhara Dam Area, Just above the temple at Tirumala, Tirupati.
Trek End Point – National Highway near Kothapally village
Distance covered – 48kms
Time Taken – 3 days
Difficulty – Moderate to Difficult
Strategy – Keep following the stream. Entered from Kumaradhara Dam Area to reach one stream and exited through a small village following the stream. But we also had GPS with us to guide us.
Permissions – DFO permissions required for Kumaradhara Dam Area or Papavinasanam Forest Area of Venkateswara National Park depending on where you want to start the trek from.

16 comments:

  1. this is just awesome!!! i just couldnt imagine the areas near tirupati being anything like this!! thanks for the visual tour.... i dont think i shall ever be able to trek like this, so am happy seeing it through your eyes.... or rather, your camera lens :)

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  2. Hi Neelima! I answered yes to all, which doesn't mean I would do any of that... Had my time already... ;))
    Wonderful shots, excellent reportage, amazing place!!
    Blogtrotter 2 has moved in a much quiter pace to the Reggae Land. Enjoy and have a great week ahead!!

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  3. as usual, ur blogs are reliving, keep trekking

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  4. Beautiful pics.. very impressive :-)

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  5. Damn neat. Opening the eyes of the world to this chain of hills! :)

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  6. You should also visit Nagala once...

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  7. @ Anu - Thank you so much!
    Having lived in Tirupati for 8 years, i myself never went beyond the realms of the temple until now. It was really amazing. And am glad to know that you liked what i had to show. :)

    @ GMG - Ha ha.. i'm sure you had amazing time in your time.. ;) Thanks!

    @ Guna - Thank you.. :)

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  8. @ Pavan & Gopal - - Thank you! :)

    @ Adi - Soon.. soon.. This monsoon i hope.. :D

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  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  10. Hey very well written. you made the wait worthy :). You have almost recollected everything. I will be surprised if someone can write it much shorter mentioning everything you mentioned. I am sure it will definitely be used for official CTC blog for the trip.

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  11. this place gives a totally different feel and beauty :D just brilliant!

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  12. i realy so glad to be in such nice, wonderful and informative blog..
    somehow looks like mine..
    have a nice time..

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  13. luved the trekkalog neelima :) i actually had this page open in my browser for a few days and finally found some time to sit and read it :) i am glad i did! and gr8 to know that u r having some fun time joining CTC for treks

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  14. @ Srinivasan - Ha ha.. thanks! I wanted to write so much more which i even forgot now! :D
    But yea, i hope i have included everything to make it an interesting read after 10 years.. ;)

    @ Joshi - Thank you..Thank you.. :)

    @ gmr14 - I am very much glad that you enjoyed my posts. Thanks and do visit again!

    @ Abhijit - Welcome to my blog and Thanks! Hope to see you here again.

    @ Sandeep - i thought i should do a public apology for churning out such a long post! :D
    But putting three days of events in a shorter post would have meant cutting down a lot of interesting things that happened. I am really glad you survived the whole post! Thank you for reading! :)

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  15. Neelima..superb narrative and I would do anything to experience what you did.
    I have added this to my to-do list, i love jumping into natural ponds, crossing across lakes. Oh my god, i can't believe i get to experience all these in my home state. I'm scared of jumping into water, not because of fear of water but fear of heights, but I have done canyoning (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7jDxUk1g7k). So, I'm confident, I'll be able to jump and i just can't wait to make this trip. Next time I'm in India, my husband and i have decided to this. I can't thank you enough for exploring this beauty and adventure in my very home state.

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