No trek in the Nilgiris can kick off without experiencing the winding road journey up the ghat to Ooty. The three of us roused ourselves in the wee hours of the morning with some difficulty and got onto the Ooty bus at 5.45 a.m. The fact that we were seated directly over the back tyre did not help our cause of trying to catch up on lost sleep. Somehow defying its rundown appearance, our bus managed to reach Ooty by a quarter past nine.
We joined the rest of our group who were already there and downed a sizeable breakfast of pongal, vada and roast at Hotel Navrang (opposite the Railway station). The jeep manned by the experienced Jambu arrived soon after. All seven of us squeezed in after depositing our bags on the roof carrier. Fifteen minutes at the forest office to complete the documentation formalities followed by a quick Nilgiris chai at the canteen there and we were on our way.
The 30 km drive to Avalanchy is a pleasant meandering experience. Grassy hillocks give way to valleys dotted with hamlets and fields. A few tea estates also occupy some of the slopes. The occasional well fed black and white cow crosses our path. The road is narrow but traffic is restricted to the occasional bus or LCV carrying poultry or produce.
A sudden patch of water appears in the valley and Jambu informs us that this is a catchment area. There are several such catchment areas up in the Nilgiris. All of them are reservoirs that store the water that flows down from the surrounding hills during the rains. Closer to Avalanchy, we also catch a glimpse of the picturesque Avalanchy and Emerald catchments.
Avalanchy is famous for the valley of orchids, magnolias and other exotic flowers; also the accompanying insect and bird life. The hamlet houses only forest department officials and the only other place of interest is a 100-year-old trout farm taken care of by the forest department. We pick up our official guide Nandeesh from here.
We get off the jeep a couple of kilometers after Avalanchy. A single bag is prepared to hold the essentials like water bottles, cold lunch, towels and some knick-knacks. Jambu moves off towards Bangithapal rest house with the rest of our luggage and the provisions. It is a 35 km drive for him. We would be reaching the rest house through a cross-country trek of about 18 km. It is just past1 p.m and Nandeesh estimates that we will reach our destination by 5.30 p.m.
We start off on a fairly broad well defined path through a typical Nilgiri forest cover generally referred to as a shola. As we climb along the side of the hill, the path narrows sufficiently so that the thorny shrubs can prick our legs. The next half an hour is spent trying to avoid these as also ducking or crawling under numerous fallen trees strewn across the path at regular intervals. A profusion of tiny yellow flowers dot the shrubs along our path and light up the entire scene. The sun is playing hide and seek behind the afternoon cloud cover.
Nandeesh halts suddenly and gestures us to stop. He points to the ridge just across the narrow gorge to our left. A couple of full sized sambar deer turn their heads and stare inquiringly at us. We just have time to take in their grayish brown coat color, the V of the antlers and ears sticking up. As our cameras get into action, they turn around and within the blink of an eye or possibly the click of a shutter, they plunge into the shola just above. There is absolute silence and for a couple of moments, not even the smallest sound or movement disturbs this stillness.
It is these fleeting moments that capture the essence of the Indian forest and what make it such an exciting place to trek. The sudden discovery that there is someone else also sharing the vast expanse of greenery with us. The joy of watching one of God’s creations of beauty, grace and power all rolled into one. Wonder fills us when we think about how superbly these creatures adapt to their surroundings and lifestyle. By experience, we know that it is futile to try and pursue them in order to spot them again.
As the first drops of rain hit us, we struggle up the steep path that leads to the Kondatarai communication tower. This point is 2600 meters above MSL and is only 60 meters below Dodabetta which is the highest point in the Nilgiris. By the time we make it to the abandoned stone building next to the tower, we are soaked to our skins by the bitingly cold rain.
It is now 3.30 p.m. and we take this opportunity to consume our lunch. No knives or spoons have been packed. A couple of spoons improvised from the cardboard cover of Kodak film rolls help us spread butter and jam onto the bread slices. Some biscuits complete out working lunch and we wash this down with some “packaged drinking water” brought along from Ooty. This would be the last such water that we consume till our return to Ooty. There is no let up in the rain and Nandeesh lights a fire with some paper and twigs thoughtfully left behind in the room by some previous occupant. We warm ourselves by the crackling fire for sometime.
At 4.30 p.m. time constraints dictate that we step out once again into the cold rain and continue to our destination. With obvious reluctance we do so, brave the first onslaught of piercing raindrops on our bodies and move on. It is the ears and nose which are most affected in the cold rain up there. The track now leads us up and down several small peaks that make up the ridge. All along, the spectacular panoramic view to our left keeps us motivated to keep moving. The view has now changed to a different shade of green – darker, duller and subtler.
The sudden bark of sambar right next to us startles us but we are not able to spot the elusive animal. As the rain stops, a thin film of mist coats the entire atmosphere giving a translucent feel to the entire picture. We are indeed fortunate to see three different textures of the same picture; all within an hour. Just shows you how quickly the weather can change on top of the Nilgiris.
We finally begin our long descent from the ride. As it is already 5.30 p.m., Nandeesh decides to take us through a shorter and more direct route. This means shuffling our feet sideways down the grassy slope with the hope that we will not plunge straight down by placing our foot on the wrong spot. Descent completed without incident, we now move through the valley placing our feet carefully between thick tufts of wild grass.
A stream gurgles along to our left. The bottles are quickly filled up and we get our first taste of mountain water. Clear. Sweet. Cold. Perfect. As dusk approaches, a sudden movement in the rocks to our side alerts the front runner of our group. He catches a glimpse of a curved tail and the spotted cat glides across the path in front of him and disappears into the forest to our left. Panther!
After the initial excitement dies down we continue towards our destination. Bringing up the rear, I now start feeling a sudden unease and start looking behind me every couple of minutes or so. Dusk turns to darkness as we approach a large shola. Suddenly we spot a family of sambar, 3 adults and a little one, up ahead. Hearing our trampling approach, they scurry up the hillock and disappear behind it. The shola is thick and dark and we now move in single file within touching distance of each other. We are thrilled to get a feel of night trekking at long last though without torches to guide us. A single dim light guides us to our final destination as soon as we break out of the shola. The first hut is called a trekking shed and the one nest to it is the rest house. Jambu and jeep are already parked in front of the rest house. As we enter the hall, the smell of cooking and raw onion greets us. The cooks are at work preparing our hard earned dinner.
The Bangithapal rest house is a compact structure. The main hall houses a dining table, some plastic chairs and a fireplace. On both sides, doors open out into bedrooms, which have attached baths. Cots with mattresses, a couple of wooden chairs and a dressing table make up the bedroom. The bathroom is a basic Indian style toilet and has provision for bath water and a wash basin.. The kitchen and storeroom are in a separate hut behind the main hut and a simple fireplace is available for cooking.
After a quick wash, we settle down by the fire in the main hall. The soaking shoes and socks are placed strategically around the fireplace as none of us have a second pair to wear the next morning. My doubts about how pressure cooker is used over a fire are soon cleared. The cooker is balanced carefully over the sticks on the fire. Once the whistle sounds, it is allowed to continue unabated for 5 minutes and the cooker is then taken off. Our dinner consists of spicy sambar, curry and rice is done by 10 p.m. Anticipating (as always!) and early start to the morning trek, we retire to our beds soon after.
Here ends the day 1 account of the Bangithapal Trek. Check out the account of Day 2 here.