Travelogues, Wildlife Photographs
Climbing down Nilgiris, & trouble - 1, 2 Nov 2003
Though I've been to the popular hill station - Ooty, and its northern foothills of Mudumalai several times, I had never trekked and explored the Nilgiris on foot. I had read much about the Nilgiris and the surrounding areas, and had a book that detailed trek routes in the region. One of the routes was a trek originating at a place called Kodanad - a 1 1/2 hr bus ride from Ooty - and culminating at Masinagudi, a village on the northern foothills, adjoining the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. The route plan was to climb down ~6500ft to a village called Thengumarada -which is visible from Kodanad view point - and halting either there or at Mangalapatti, proceed along the Moyar river towards Masinagudi. Going by the proper route, it is possible to cover this distance in two days' time, but requires some level of endurance. The trail falls in the direct line of migrating asian elephants from Kerala, and owing to its proximity to Mudumalai WLS and being a core part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, houses a great variety of animal and birdlife.
I was of the opinion that no permission is required to use this trail. But was aware that without a guide I will not be able to take the proper route down to Thengumarada from Kodanad. However, I decided to do it my own way, and rough it out. I was lucky to get a bus ticket to Ooty on Friday evening. After a sleepy ride,I found myself at Ooty at 7AM. The cold was bearable enough. Another bus ride to Kotagiri(1 hr), and after breakfast there, another 1/2 hr bus ride to Kodanad view point. The bus ride to Kotagiri, and then to Kodanad, was through very scenic hills with coffee/tea plantations on both sides of the road. At Kodanad view point, there were no tourists, except for a band of army personnel with families, picnicking.
The scene from this view point, facing north, is breathtaking. The altitude is roughly 6500feet. On a clear day, one can see a wide span of mountain ranges, stretching one after another into the horizon. Immediately in front of the us, the hill falls steeply 6500feet to the plains below. In the plains, a village - Thengumarada - can be seen. The village is surrounded on three sides by hills. The Moyar river forms a L shaped figure as it skirts around the village and its cultivated land, and proceeds further west towards Masinagudi and Muduamalai. On the far side of the village there is a continuous range of hills, stretching into Karnataka. After savouring this scene for sometime, I started climbing down the hill in the direction of the village, at around 12 noon.
Initially, the trek was easy. I just had to walk over the ridge line for some distance before starting to climb down on the left side towards the village. After I started climbing down, the Kodanad view point above me was covered by mist, and I guess no one noticed me as I went down. When the ridge ended and I had to start climbing down, the difficulties began. Clearly I wasn't in any sort of trekking trail, and I was just following animal tracks, and wherever foot hold was possible. Elephant dung could be seen all around, but they were all old and caused me no concern. However I had to keep an eye out as I walked on the ridge.
When the climb down started, I found that it is not possible to walkon two legs in such a steep hill. The soil surface also loose due to recent rains, and hence it became a dangerous affair. Mostly I sat down, caught hold of the grass and roots, and skidded slowly, keeping one leg at a time forward firmly into the loose soil. There were many rock faces where it is not possible to stand, or skid since there are no foot holds. However I used the grass and undergrowth at the sides of the rock for hand holds, and managed to negotiate the many rock faces. Progress was tremendously slow, and at some rock faces, I spent around 15 to 30 minutes before covering them safely. By around 5pm, I found that I had not lost much altitude, and still was high up from the plains. It was evident that I will not be able to reach Thengumarada before day light disappears and night sets in. Looking down, I saw a rock cliff that protruded from the hill I was on, and had some trees on it. I decided to climb down to that cliff and spend the night on one of those trees, and climb down to Thengumarada next day.
At around 6pm, I was on the cliff. Away from the cliff, the hill fell steeply below over a rockface for thousands of feet. I guess it was still some 4000ft above the plains. I spent some time resting on the rocks at the edge of the cliff, and finished off the water I had. I had a pack of biscuits and some chapatis, but I was not hungry, but only thirsty. The biscuits didn't appeal to me much, so I enjoyed the water. I had not come across any watersource upto this point, so was wondering if I will have to spend the whole of next day without water before reaching the village. However, those worries are for tomorrow. Present worries were to find a safe place to see the night through.
I first tried some of the bigger trees, but couldn't climb them since the first branches were above 10 feet. I tried many trees frantically, as darkness fell, but without being able to climb any. I piled up stones on the foot of one tree, climbed a little, but slipped, fell and rolled down a little through the thick grass. After that I decided to give up trying the bigger ones, and found a smaller one, but it was somewhat thorny. But there was no other choice, so I climbed it and breaking some dry branches, made myself as comfortable as possible. My seat was only some 10 feet above ground, so I was uneasy, since it offered little protection against a bear or elephants.
Night fell. Fortunately the moon was bright and the skies clear, hence I was able to see all around for movements. The jungle was alive; the insects were having their rounds; owls hooted; I could hear jungle fowl cackling at a distance. Otherwise, there were no other animal sounds that I had to be afraid of. My only concern was bears, that could smell me from a distance, and bears hate human beings, and even at the best of their moods, cannot be considered safe.
I stood the discomfort of my seat on the tree for a couple of hours. After that I climbed down, and lay down under the tree amidst some bushes with my bag as a pillow. I had brought along a bedsheet, with which I covered myself fully. I was tired, and fell asleep soon. Occasionally I woke up, to look around anxiously with the torch, coughed and sneezed to make known my presence to any animals in the vicinity. After midnight, the moon went over the hill above me, and darkness fell. At times the jungle was silent, then frequently a strong and very cold wind blew; the trees and grass swayed wildly all around, making a very awful sound that frightened me no end. Then the wind will stop all of a sudden and everything will be silent, only to repeat all over again a few minutes later.
At around 5AM, I heard a very sharp barking sound that echoed over the hill, a little distance from me. At first I ignored it, for I thought it must be a harmless barking deer(Muntjac). But the barking continued at regular intervals of a couple of minutes, and the sound drew near. I stood up, peering into the darkness, but couldn't see anything. Now the barking was repeated at very close quarters just behind the high bushes in front of me and I could also hear some movements in the bush. Still I was convinced it was a barking deer - though I have never seen one barking, I've only read about it - but every bark made my heart jump since the sound tore the silence. Frightened, I frantically climbed up the tree again, and shone the torch beyond the bush and saw two eyes shining in the light, but nothing else. The eyes moved, and after a couple of more barks, vanished. I remained in the tree till light from the east filled the world around me. Apart from the barking, I received no other fright that night. I still am convinced that it was a barking deer that mistook me for a predator. But not completely sure. If anyone reading this knows what it is for sure, please let me know. [Alright, I later found out that it is a sambar belling.]
As the sun rose, I sat on the edge of the cliff again, and watched as the snow white clouds lifted over the hills and passed the village. After that at around 8AM I started the climb down, refreshed and high in spirits and energy. There was a fold of two hills on the right side of the cliff, which I started negotiating. I had to use sambar and elephant tracks amidst the grass on the hillside which was again very steep. I was beginning to feel thirsty now, and to my great relief, saw water glinting over some rocks far down below. Luckily I was able to locate the water stream at the height where I stood. But reaching it proved to be very difficult, and I crawled and skidded through bushes and fallen trees to reach it. For 30 minutes I relaxed at the waters. There wasn't much, just some water trickling down, but was enough for me. I had water to my heart's content, and filling up the bottle, proceeded further down.
En route down, a sambar stag overtook a little distance from me. It froze, as I froze, but then recovered from its shock of seeing a human here, and continued on its way down. It was amazing to see how it negotiated the steep hills and rock faces, and it covered in 5 minutes what I would take 30 minutes to cover. I also left the approach I was taking to go down, and following the sambhar's tracks, found it more easier to get down. At around 2pm, there was only some 1000feet to go down, when I had to enter some very rough bushes to reach a boulder strewn wide watercourse. It was not very steep here and the boulders were dry. Mostly it was easy, I just had to jump rock after rock and was able to cover the distance faster. But the water course was amidst very dense forest on both sides and there were numerous caves. I had to check all caves before crossing them, and care had to be taken where ther was a slight curve. Every few steps, I stopped, listened, scrutinised the jungle ahead, and then only after making sure there wasn't any animal around did I move ahead.
At once place the jungle was very dense adjoining the boulder strewn water course, and I found the remains of a sambhar - only the skull and the antlers. Could've been a leopard's handiwork, but couldn't find any tracks. The place seemed a very perfect place for leopards and bears to live, and gave me some anxious moments as I negotiated them. At one point I froze as some branches were shaken a little in front of me. Suspecting elephants, I froze, and crawled ahead slowly to see what it was, only to find a malabar giant squirrel in the trees. Some distance further on, and again I froze as there was some heavy animal movement behind some thickets. I felt it was some big animal, but couldn't see anything. I waited for a long time there, but nothing happened, and so very cautiously went past that point without any incident. I doubt it could've been a gaur(Indian bison) or elephant.
At around 5pm, I reached the road in front of Thengumarada village, much tired and worn out to a great extent. There was another ordeal to face now. The forester was mad on me for having done this without permission. I was told the route I had taken was not the proper one, and entailed very steep climbing down, and full of danger from animals. Moreover, due to the Veerappan menace, STF were inside the jungles, and I ran the grave risk of being shot under suspicion by either STF or forest personnel. To top it all, the danger from wild animals like bears, elephants, leopards and gaurs. Several incidents were highlighted to me, like the death of two persons while trekking on the proper route, for want of water. And a recent incident when a gaur attacked a party of forest staff and injured them. And such other incidents. The value to which I held my life was questioned. And that I was fortunate to have come down alive. My offence in trespassing into protected area was pointed out, and that I could be remanded to custody. After that the atmosphere eased a bit. I was told there was no bus from the village at night. That the nearest town - Bhavani Sagar - was 30km away, and the next bus was on the morrow at 7AM, and that I will have to spend the night at the village school.
I thanked them, and started walking down the road to the school. It was dark by now, and the curious villagers watched as I went past them. I was dejected, at having to spend the night here, and not being ableto travel to Bangalore and attend office on the morrow. However, the Angels interfered at the right moment, and I found a tempo coming from the opposite direction. I stopped it, and when told they were going to Bhavani Sagar, I hoppedin. It was a party of villagers going to town. It was a very rough ride for an hour; tired as I was, I had to hold on tightly to the tempo's roof girders as it went very roughly through non existent roads towards Bhavanisagar. At the town, I had a light supper. From Bhavanisagar, a 30 minute bus ride to Sathiyamangalam. At Sathiyamangalam, luckily a Bangalore bound bus was about to leave. But there were no seats, but I was assured a seat enroute when someone got down. Passing Dimbam, Gajanur, Chamarajnagar, I got a seat at Nanjangud. Thereafter I went into deep sleep and found myself in Bangalore bus station at 5AM. I reached my house at 5.30AM safely.
Looking back: I embarked on this outing as a birding trip, but it turned out to be different. This is the second time I'm running into the forest department. Earlier, it was at Bandipur. After this, I've decided to stay clear of trouble with the forest department, and make sure of permissions. Jungle survival requires somelevel of endurance and courage, without which I am sure it will not be possible to come out of such situations unscathed. In this case, I do not regret having done it now. Instead I'm only glad that I did it and came out of it with ony scratchesall over my arms. And I firmly believe that to a great extent, surviving such an ordeal is dependent on the supernaturalpowers. Call it God, or Guardian Angels, or Luck, Fate, Destiny, or the writing on my forehead, or the spirits that guard one, according to your creed.
From Jungle Lore by Jim Corbett: "... you have learnt that your field of vision is 180 degrees; that you can detect any movement in this field even if at the extremes; you can pinpoint jungle sounds; you have learnt to be always aware of wind direction; you can move through the jungle as silently as a shadow; if required, you can live on the jungles; you have learnt to sleep where ever you are, without any uneasiness; so, when you face the jungles, you don't go through it with a feeling of inferiority or with a fear of the unknown; but with a confidence that you have nothing to fear from the jungle and that you are as well trained and superior to whichever enemy you face."