Monday, December 20, 2010

Vellarimala – The Reigning Queen* of Mountains Indomitable


* The king would be Vavulmala for sure. 


Date of Journey - November 27 - 28th 2010.

The view from Muthappanpuzha is daunting in every direction to say the least. That is if you plan on climbing one of those high misty forest covered peaks all around you. Else it is the stuff dreams are made of. Imagine a last village at the fringes of a 12000 acre forestland that extends after it. Well the view from the top was quite mesmerizing indeed. Miles and miles of undulating forest covered peaks, far reaching higher peaks, clouds sweeping over the peaks, clouds rising above from the valleys and in the far distance below in the valley lay a small speck which was the nearest village from this entire wilderness. 

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Misty View of Olichuchattam Falls

Deep in the interiors of Kerala, we learnt that the mountains here are higher than most of Western ghats, that the forests here grow till great heights of 2000 meters and above, that the shola grasslands so typical of western ghats do not grow in this part of the state, that deep inside the jungle plummets one of the most beautiful cascades, that climbing this mountains wouldn’t make sense most of the time but in the end it all can seem worthwhile, that following animal trails is the only way out here, that the guide was so well versed with this jungle that he found the lost trail in the darkness of night, that it was a fun two days we spent in one of the most challenging terrain yet. 

Having trekked for close to two years now in all sorts of terrain like Himalayas, Eastern Ghats and Western Ghats, I found the forests and mountains of Vellarimala to be most challenging yet. I’ll tell you why. Every time I trekked, there was high motivation to reach the destination – be it clear views of snow capped peaks, green grasslands spread all over, clouds kissing the sky, clouds below our feet, thundering waterfalls or crystal clear pools. They did not talk about the mind over body theory just like that. That theory is actually true. Mind has great power to take you through the toughest of times with much ease as long as it is motivated and determined to so. 

So how does it matter here at Vellarimala? See, the thing is, you’ll be made no promise of a dazzling sunset, no promise of a grand view, no promise of never ending grasslands. Plain relentless climbing through the thickest of forest in a trail that has been previously used only by animals is the promise instead. The only motivation if any would be to challenge yourself and then certify yourself as a hardcore trekker by the end of it if you survive. I do not mean this in a sense that it is very difficult. Just that the inspiration that comes from an ulterior motive to see something grand is missing here. There are good views agreed but as easy to find as a needle in a haystack. :)

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Misty Forests we were going through

I am not saying I did not enjoy the trek. I enjoyed the trek for the challenge it presented, for the persistence we showed, for the diversity it showed, for the waterfall we relished, for the trail lost, for the campsite found.  But it was a bittersweet journey all along I guess. Now that it is done and I am sitting home remembering the two days I think it was all well worth the effort and the hype. 

Let’s get to the details now.

What? – Vellarimala is one of the peaks in the hills of Meppady Forest Range of South Wayanad Division with some parts falling Thamarassery Range of Kozhikode Division. Vellarimala peak is at an altitude of 2050 meters while the highest peak of this range would be Vavulmala standing tall at 2330 meters.

Where? – Falling on the Tamilnadu Kerala Border, Wayanad to its north and Nilgiris on the south and Kozhikode to its west, this part of Kerala is unique in terms of flora. Even though it is classified as Western Ghats, the flora and biodiversity is completely different and very interesting. There are no grasslands and what it seemed to me was like thick rainforests all over the mountains. How this translates to a trekker is that he would have to spend days under thick canopy of high rising trees and dense undergrowth.

How to reach? – Muthappanpuzha is the last village before the 12000 Acres of Forest start. Anakkampoyil, 50 kms from Kozhikode is the last stop till where the state transport buses go. 2 kms from Anakkampoyil is the village of Muthappanpuzha. The hike starts from here.

What kind of terrain should I expect? – Thick forest with thick undergrowth. Expect rocky terrain with steep ascents. No pre existing trail, the trail that we will follow is an animal trail. Machete will be necessary in most cases. Needless to say lots of leeches in monsoon and possible wildlife encounter. Signs of wildlife existence are almost ubiquitous. 

What is the difficulty level? – Like I said, if you are one of those who love to take on challenges and conquer them, this is *the*  trek for you. The gradient is steep and the terrain is challenging. I’d rate it as a tough trek. But for me, the rating had to do more with lack of good views to keep me motivated all along. There were good views alright, but the time spent watching them was like peanuts compared to the amount of time we spent in the jungle. 

Would a guide be necessary? – As far as I know, there is only one guide to this place, Josettan and it is imperative that you take the guide. There is no trail and this person knows this forest well. The forest can be really overwhelming here with a clear view being a luxury you’d rarely get. 
There is a minor problem though. Josettan can speak only Malayalam. So it is necessary that you have a mallu in your group if you wish to hire his services. He can speak Tamil to some extent I guess. 

What is a good time to visit? – Post monsoon I’d say. 

What happened with us?

Well now we come to the interesting part of the story. 
Just like that it so happened that I joined this group of friends of going to Vellarimala Trek. I always knew Vellarimala – Vavulmala trek is one of the tough ones around Western Ghats. Since Vinod was one of the team, I was little bothered about doing my research before going on the trek. He had been here before. 

The bus from Bangalore had taken the route through Bandipur to Kozhikode which meant we had to wait till 6 AM next day at Bandipur gate to go through the forest, a major setback as we’d come to know later. We got down at Thamarassery to take a bus to Omaserry, then to Thiruvambady and then hired a jeep to Anakkampoyil and then took an auto to reach Muthappanpuzha. This entire ordeal got us to Muthappanpuzha at 12 PM. I never started a trek so late yet. 

We met up with the rest of the team who had come from Chennai and after quite many talks with Josettan and the DFO, we started our trek around 12.30 PM. While the talks were going on I was noticing the high hill ranges surrounding all over. It did not seem plausible that we would climb such heights in a day. The trek starts from a diversion on the road where a small shed can be seen and the road goes up from here through the village and few houses. 

2 kms from the village you’d cross a cement bridge over a stream and the rock before it is called Thenpara for some reason, your first landmark. Later the trail is a stony jeep track and in my experience steady gradients are much tougher to endure than steep uneven ascents. The climb along the jeep track was already killing and I started having my doubts if I did the right thing in deciding to trek third time that month consecutively. The jeep track ended soon, but not before leaving us worn out. Josettan turns out to be a animated fellow with many stories to tell and a matching enthusiasm. 

He took us through the plantations and soon we were following rocks along what looked like a water path. The jungle looked creepy enough with little light penetrating the thick canopy and the cloudy weather only added to the oddness. Then, there was a loud explosion which caught us off guard completely and also deafened us temporarily. Thing is, Josettan was trying to scare away any possible wildlife around now that we were in the jungle. Well the echo pervaded all through the ranges and you could hear it come back to you seconds later. 

The gradient varied but not the terrain, we were a compact group which ensured the team was moving fast which was also necessary as we started so late. It was close to 3 PM, I had forgotten what the skies looked like and then I see something white in a distance and a familiar sound of thundering cascade is getting louder. We arrived at Olichuchattam waterfall and that is one sight to behold!

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The Grand Olichuchattam Falls

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Misty Peaks as seen from Olichuchattam Falls

The only open spaces in the whole of the range are when there is a huge rock else it will be all covered by forest leaving no room for clear view. Same is the case with this clearing, water was tumbling down a huge rock which created some opening in the canopy and for the first time in 3 hours we saw something like a peak in the distance, some mist and a phenomenal waterfall sliding across a gargantuan rock.  Spent good time here, possibly the only time we sat and relaxed enjoying the view. 

We did not have the luxury of whiling around given our late start. Soon we had to pack bags and leave to reach the elusive campsite. The terrain was no different but we ran into a different kind of problem. The trail till the waterfall was well laid out owing to the fact that it is frequented by locals. But the real deal started from here. The trail disappeared into thin air and what remained was a semblance of an animal trail that went here, there and everywhere. I was seriously wondering how this guy was able to make out the path and follow it in the right direction. I wouldn’t have recognized the trail even if it hit me in the face. Leeches pestered, the bushes obstructed, the footing on rocks slipped, the thorns pierced and we marched. 

Same story went on for long as Josettan was making way using his machete for a long time now.  We reached the top the Olichuchattam falls, crossed it, climbed higher, kept climbing even higher, sometime mist engulfed everything and sometimes we could feel a wisp of cool breeze from some corner. The humidity was kept low due to the mist making the trek pleasant at least on one count. All the while Josettan’s crackers were keeping us on our toes. 

Soon the light was fading and we reached nowhere. The forest is such that there is not a decent place to sit, let alone camp wherever you want to. Add leeches and wildlife to the scene and you have a recipe for the inhospitable. Josettan was apprehensive already and was insisting on camping at a place called Damodaran Kolli, a small clearing in the middle of the thicket. It does not look like a place you’d want to spend a night at. All surrounded by thick forest with absolutely no opening whatsoever, with probable wildlife around and leeches everywhere, not the kind of campsite that can lull you to sleep, instead it looked like a place that can easily make you paranoid. 

We persisted on our decision to continue in the dark to reach the campsite which was somewhere close by or so we thought. The darkness had fallen and it was a perfect setting for a scary scene, but since we were 11 in all, my apprehensions were a little under control. I wouldn’t say I was comfortable but I managed just fine. With not a speck of light or a tiny opening in the canopy, it can get really freaky and all this adds to the misery if you see the guide trying to find a non-existential way using machete, his sense of direction and intuition. We diligently followed him though. Josettan tried to persuade us many a time to stop the pursuit of the obscure but we persisted. 

If I haven't mentioned it already let me tell you now, this is not a place where you’d want to be lost and yet here we were, lost in the quest at 8.30 PM. It was pitch dark and all we could see was thick forest all around us and on a steep incline. If I haven’t mentioned anything about the terrain yet, that is because there is not point mentioning it every now and then since it was uniform all along – steep and confined. Now it is dark as well. Oh and also I hope you remember these ranges are teeming with wildlife – elephants and bison who make their presence felt and god knows what other elusive kinds. 

I still have no idea how Josettan realized we were lost and how he came to find the trail again but somehow he did. He was good. I mean what are the odds of finding a trail when none exists in pitch dark! At 8.30PM, we saw a small opening in the canopy that revealed a small patch of sky. The cool air was hitting our faces and it felt like we were somewhere close to the peak. But we were not, 30 more minutes of clambering finally got us to a small patch of open area and that apparently is the Vellarimala peak and the elusive campsite we were so frantically looking for. Well how I came to know that this is the peak is a different story altogether.

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Vellarimala Top, our campsite

The whole place had fresh footprints of a bison herd and now that we were in the open, the winds were just too cold! We had a quick dinner and called it a night for we had a rough day. The whole concept of keeping a watch for wildlife or keeping the fire alive to avoid wildlife was out of our mind just as the fatigue crept in. The night was still cold but we were all too tired to bother about anything else. 

I felt lazy the next morning and hungry too. Didn't have much to eat and we were already running short of food which made us take the decision to head down instead of pursuing Vavulmala, it’d take three days to do Vellarimala and Vavulmala comfortably. 

Josettan seemed to be in high spirits today. He insisted we hike to nearby view points leaving our luggage at the campsite. We obliged and that was one good decision for the viewpoints were very worthy of the trouble. The first one was Masthakapara and the second was Kethanpara, para means rock. Like I said, since it is a rock no chance of a tree growing on it and hence the view point. The view points provided excellent vistas of far reaching mountains. From Masthakapara we could spot the village of Muthappanpuzha far far down below in the valley. It would seem impossible that we trekked so much in a day but we did. We were in complete wilderness all around. There were high mountain ranges on all sides and clouds were playing with the peaks. 

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View from Masthakapara, somewhere down below is Muthanppanpuzha

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View from Kethanpara

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Kethanpara

From Kethanpara we could see the other side of the mountain range, majestic it was. We spent very less time here owing to the fact that we needed to get down in time for the Chennai guys to catch their train. So in a hurry we start getting down when I ask where the hell the bloody peak is?!

Josettan was in a fit of laughter soon to be joined by Hari and the rest. Apparently this is the peak. Well yeah, so much for climbing Vellarimala. The descent would’ve gotten boring after sometime if not for the slight drizzle that evolved into a pleasant downpour while we got down. Green looks so much better drenched in the raindrops. It was a nice descent, tricky for sure but we were a group of good trekkers so we were finding it quite enjoyable. It was a long long walk back to the village of Muthappanpuzha where a sweet lady allowed me to use their house for freshening up. A quick bath with the ice cold water did a whole world of wonders to me. Had a hearty meal at Anakkampoyil’s Hotel Brother.

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Rain in the Rainforest

Yet another long bus journey ensued for us to reach Kozhikode. The journey was filled with stories, many conversations and beautiful views till the light lasted. We reached Kozhikode just in time so Chennai guys could board their train. We, Bangaloreans had two more hours to kill before we started our journey. The two hours were spent wisely and the journey back to Bangalore started later on. 
All the trouble, all the turmoil, and everything else definitely felt worthwhile - one of those weekends with a difference. I mean most of my weekends are worthwhile but this weekend will stand out for reasons many. 


12 comments:

  1. What an adventure and what a wonderful place!! really enjoy reading your hiking accounts!

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  2. And i really like reading your comments.. as always! Thanks Anu. :)

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  3. Lovely photos and an inspiring write up. Got to head there soon. Keep trekking.

    Nomad
    www.rajniranjandas.blogspot.com

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  4. I found this one through Vinod, and I must say, I loved it!
    Great write up, just the way i'd like. :D
    - Shiva

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  5. Noted the destination... not sure when I'll be able to visit it...

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  6. Nice narration!!
    Had been to Vellarimala. But had taken a different route then.

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  7. Hi Neelima! Fabulous shots!!

    Have a Happy and Successful New Year!! Wish you all the best!!
    Horus and Sobek wait for you at Kom Ombo… ;)
    Enjoy!

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  8. What an adventure. And what vistas! Wow.

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  9. Goodness gracious!!! This looks like such an amazing trek...this is certainly on my plan now, you have inspired me so much :)

    Great!

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  10. are you a member of any trekking club in Bangalore, or you just go with your friends? If you are a part of any club, would you let me know the name and the contact details, I want to join the trekking expeditions.

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  11. Hi,
    can I have josettan's contact info pls??? please email it to bhargavshandilya@gmail.com

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  12. I read about this place from this blog sometime back and got a chance to visit this place through Bangalore Ascenders. Been to many trekking places but havent done a tough terrain like this. The hard access to the peak keeps it pristine with good views. Thanks

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