Mountain gorillas of Virunga

It was on a lazy afternoon that I first came across an old issue of the National geographic, a 2008 publication while trying to grab some shut eye at The Mud-house at Marayoor, near Munnar. What got me hooked to the magazine was the terrible state of the Virunga National Park and it’s most famous inhabitants, the mountain gorillas. The slopes of the extinct volcanoes in Virunga, where the borders of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda meet, are protected by UNESCO and are home to more than half of the 700 mountain gorillas not in captivity. The beautiful forests have been mercilessly cut down for charcoal trade and the poor tribal inhabitants are employed to transport wood to charcoal kilns by armed troops of Laurent Nkunda, who calls himself the “Chairman” and rules the militia with an iron fist. Charcoal trade is a 30 million dollar industry and is a survival and bonus package for corrupt park rangers and the militia who fight each other for control of areas in the Virunga National park to further the charcoal trade. The biggest losers in this game of greed are the mountain gorillas. That issue of national geographic mentions about eight gorillas being mowed down in the park one evening at the orders of the Chief park warden, Honore Mashagiro, who wanted to fabricate a false charge on his deputy, Paulin Ngobobo, who was on a mission to save the park. Charcoal is widely used for providing heat inside homes, in and around the park and the dense forests of Virunga have been mercilessly axed to sustain the trade. To make matters worse, the strife torn country has illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries and the relief camps that have been set up along the borders of the park have been breached and the ever growing number of migrants have made there way into the forests, contesting for space with the benign gorillas who look on curiously as they watch there tribe being encroached upon by human population. The saddest fact is that a habituated gorilla will allow a human to enter very very close to its habitat making the killing all too easy. The image that shook the world in 2008 was that of Senkekwe, a huge mountain gorilla, who was shot at from point blank range by the miscreants. The image was that of crying tribals carrying the big ape on a makeshift wooden stretcher to its burial ground.

Fast forward to 2018, I wanted to follow up on what I had read in that old issue of national geographic and I see that things have gone from bad to worse now. The park is closed for one year as strife and corruption have hit the roof and can no longer be managed. The gorilla numbers have further dwindled and are on the verge of extinction. Such is the state of affairs at the park that one stands the risk of being mowed down for mere suspicion. Tourists who came visiting for the gorillas brought in some revenue to the park but have started giving the place a wide berth now on account of safety and the last line of support for the giant apes have all but vanished.

Honore Mashagiro, director of the park at the time of atrocities, was arrested at his home in the eastern town of Goma on suspicion of arranging the killing of the endangered gorillas. Mashagiro was in a position of great responsibility, and allegedly used his authority to promote the destruction of forest for charcoal to make money. This threatened the gorilla habitat, so that when the rangers tried to protect the forest, he allegedly orchestrated the gorilla massacres to discourage them. Mashagiro, a senior official in the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute, was removed as director of Virunga not long after the killings and put in charge of the gorilla population at Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Paulin Ngobobo wages a losing battle against the Rwandan militia and corrupt Congolese army to save the big hearted apes from extinction.

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Around Eravikulam

An impromptu plan to visit the Eravikulam National park and spend time in a quiet retreat at Marayoor resulted in some really nice weekend fun. The Neelakurinji bloom and the Nilgiri Tahr together made the Eravikulam trip a memorable one. I was really impressed by how well they had done the fencing in the park to keep guests from trampling on the plants. It was tastefully done with wood, a far cry from the hastily done ones I had seen in other parks. The drive itself to ENP was a challenge with Munnar bearing the brunt of the recent rains and the road in shambles. We got a fair share of rain ourselves during the journey but thankfully got quite good weather at the park. It was just astounding to see the Tahr standing on unimaginably steep precipices and moving about without a care. I had never seen the Nilgiri Tahr up close and the tough terrain certainly showcased its phenomenal ability to reach places one could only dream of.

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Kurinji bloom

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Perched on slippery turf

The park rangers were very well behaved and knew how to control the crowd without being intrusive. The visitors also were quite knowledgeable and took care not to disturb the flowers and the animals. The Tahr was quite comfortable amidst people and lots of cameras went berserk as it got close to the pathway.

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mountain goats

We got to see the camera men of some production house clamber onto a dangerous rock face high up on the mountain side in search of the perfect Tahr shot. Two Tahr’s nearby were stunned and kept staring back in surprise at the duo who had gone up the hill to get them on camera.

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camera guys and Tahr…

After the ENP stint, we headed to Marayoor for our stay at the Mud house, a cosy place bordering the forests. The homes were built with clay and looked beautiful. We met another guest while at the barbecue that evening and it turned out to be the young Telugu actress Punarnavi Bhupalam. She was on a solo trip and we had a long chat with her about movies, travel, safety and what not. I especially got her to recommend me for a villain role in Telugu movies which she hesitatingly agreed to.

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The Mudhouse

Marayoor is known for beautiful sandalwood forests and their jaggery. We got to see a jaggery mill and got to meet the mill owner who mentioned that about 1200 kg of sugar cane results in about 180 kg of jaggery after it is extracted, heated and dried. Marayoor Jaggery is extremely famous and we bought a few kilos from the mill and I gulped down some fresh sugarcane juice as well while the owner was explaining the jaggery making process.

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Sugarcane juice

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Jaggery making

I really liked Marayoor and the drive was enchanting with the beautiful Kannan Devan estate unfolding in all its glory for miles and miles. There were numerous waterfalls along the way but one could always spot the damage of the recent rains that wrecked havoc around here. We paid a visit to Thoppan’s farm as well that had black berry, apple, pear, guava, avocado and myriad other fruits that one thought would never grow in that climate.

A must visit place close to Marayoor is Anaparakotta. The megalithic Dolmens are a sight to behold. Also called Muniyaras, these dolmens belong to the Iron Age. These dolmenoids were burial chambers made of four stones placed on edge and covered by a fifth stone called the cap stone. Some of these Dolmenoids contain several burial chambers.

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Megalithic Dolmens

We also had a lovely meal at Roy chettan’s small thattu-kada. The beef fry, fish and Kappa were delightful. The only downside was when we heard that a guy had just been washed away in strong currents in the nearby river just as we were finishing up with our meal. He was a fire force personnel and had come to see the bloom at ENP.

We had been to Palani hills, Nilgiris and Munnar chasing the kurinji bloom this year and must say that Munnar had the largest bloom of the lot. Apparently, there are forty six Kurinji varieties with neelakurinji being just one type with time periods of bloom ranging up to seventeen years for some of the others.

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Kurinji flowers

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Neelakurinji again!

A day in the woods

It was a beautiful morning with light rain pattering on the roof and a whistling thrush singing merrily in the tea gardens beyond. I got myself out of the sleeping bag with an effort. It was quite cold with the temperature reading twelve degrees. Put the kettle and made a hot cup of coffee and got to work on the bicycle. Half an hour later, was on the cycle in light rain making my way through the woods to a clearing about a kilometre away. The views were fantastic and the weather frightfully cold. It was a steep incline and I huffed and puffed my way up to the clearing. There were lot of birds early in the morning and the cacophony even drowned out the howling wind. A little while later decided to get back down another trail and go back home. It was around eight in the morning but with no sign of the sun. Clouds drifted in and out and light rain changed to a heavy downpour. The wind would suddenly pick up and make a racket but would subside as abruptly. Another hour later, got the gypsy out and made for a trail nearby. The cold morning and the fresh air made for a great time as the gypsy cut through shrubs, slush, woods, steep inclines and made for an estate deep in the forest.

Hey, wait a minute. What was that I saw move  on the rock?
Something did move for sure but not anymore. I stopped the jeep and waited staring at the rock intently. After what seemed like an eternity, a piece of rock moved and stood up. It was a sloth bear high up on the mountain side on a precipitous rock face. Another shape moved close to it. A small baby bear was there too. All of a sudden, three other forms took shape a little above the rock. Five bears in all with two adults and three small ones. A sight indeed! I had seen bear poop on the trail many times but never encountered one so far. Sat and watched them frolic around on that rock face for sometime and then it happened! The small one slipped and fell down the rock face and I could hear a sickening thud as it landed on the boulders hard. None of the other bears apparently saw it fall as they were all looking in different directions. The big bear started looking for the small one frantically after a short while and climbed further up and around the side of the rock face but never went below it for some reason. The search continued for about forty minutes but the bears never searched the bottom of the rock face for some inexplicable reason. I decided to move on slowly and drove on the trail cautiously as a bigger danger in the form of elephants lurked there. One didn’t want to get caught up around a bend with a herd in front with no chance of going anywhere. The rest of the journey was uneventful except for a few peacocks playing in the light drizzle. That night as I made my way back home, I witnessed yet another elusive animal of the jungle, a leopard that dashed into the tea bushes as the headlights fell on its lithe figure. It had jumped down a fifteen feet high mud wall and dashed across the road into the tea bushes. Got home without further incident and called it a day.

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The land of quaint temples and beaches

An eight-hour drive from Bangalore brings one to the South Kanara town of Karkala renowned for old temples. It is a pleasant drive all the way with a mix of long straights and hilly roads thrown in good measure. The scenery also gets beautiful as one ascends the western ghats via Charmadi. Karkala has the western ghats on the east and the Arabian sea on the west and is seeped in history.

We drove into “cottage amidst the woods”, located at a nondescript place near a stream with areca nut and banana plantation and a quaint looking homestay welcoming us.

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The caretaker Shekhar was a very endearing man and made our stay very comfortable. The food was simple tasty home cooked fare. After few hours of rest we got out to see the Gomteshwara statue that was built-in 1432 that was 42 ft high.

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What caught my fancy was the lazy village evening unfolding there. People came to the temple and sat on the jutting rocks, had conversations for hours together while young men played volley ball nearby with a beautiful sunset unfolding.

DSC02901These things happen only in remote villages nowadays. We even saw a lady photographer trying to take some portraits of her friends who were dressed in lovely saris at the temple. The colourful saris and the old stone temple were a brilliant combination.

Early morning next day was spent at the stream adjacent to the homestay with some birds for company and a frightened cow in the areca nut plantation. After lazing around much of the morning, we got out to see the St Lawrence Basilica, an imposing structure nearby.

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We walked around the church for the better part of an hour and then drove to Varanga to see an old Jain temple in the middle of a pond called “Kere Basadi”.

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Here we ran into an exuberant group of tourists from Haryana who had a hard time getting into the boat that takes one to the temple. There were many screams when the boat precariously tilted to one side when someone moved recklessly to the side. It was a delight to hear the pujari sing inside the temple and his voice reverberated off the stone walls of the old temple with the serene pond around it. One of the most beautiful temple locations I have seen in our land.

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Another lovely place we ended up was the Kaup beach with its grand lighthouse.  Clean beach, white sand and a beautiful sunset greeted us. The view from the lighthouse was majestic and offered a panoramic view of the beach and the surroundings.

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Gorged on various kinds of fish at the beach before going back to the homestay. Next morning was also spent relaxing at the homestay as we had nothing much to do and wanted to get adequate rest before the long haul back to Bangalore. The cacophony of birds and sunlight filtering through the areca nut trees made for a wonderful morning. We walked around the plantation avoiding the sprinklers that were used to water the plantation. The homestay was in a secluded place and all we got to hear as sound were the birds and the water sprinkler. It was fun to sit next to the stream in filtering sunlight. The breakfast was very welcome after the morning exertions and we had our fill of thatte idlis and kesri baat with piping hot coffee.

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We also visited the thousand pillar temple at Moodbidri and signed off with a traditional lunch before proceeding to Bangalore.

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Tando re Tando…

The flight landed at Dehradun and here I sat staring at the distant mountains. It was in these mountains that  I would be spending the  next two weeks traversing some of the most beautiful places that one could hope to see. The cabbie at Dehradun had lots of tales to tell as we fought our way through the madness of Rishikesh and climbed towards Devaprayag.  Rishikesh is a temple town also famous for rafting and every second building on the road side advertised adventure activities. The place was teeming with people and we decided to not make it any worse by adding to the chaos. The weather was hot and we could see mountains all around us. Roads were good and the going was smooth. One thing I noticed was the incessant honking by drivers around these parts.  Blind turns, empty roads, overtaking…. honking was done everywhere. The cacophony was immense and all kinds of vehicles were jostling for space on the winding road. The  cabbie then enlightened me that this was the Badrinath yatra crowd and would be there all the way till Joshimath, which happened to be my halt.  The shrine had just opened after the snow melt and the devotees were thronging for the first darshan after the opening.

We crossed Srinagar, a busy town and were making good progress, when the heavens opened up. By now we were amidst high mountains and the temperature had taken a dip. It was dusty as road work was going on in many places and the slush and muck made progress slow. We managed to crawl into Joshimath late in the evening. It was cold and one needed light woollens to remain comfortable. After finding a place to stay for the night, I prowled around the market area and got to savour some exceptional dal-roti-sabji from one of the many bhojanalay’s that flanked the streets. I would develop a good friendship with our bhojanalay friend as I ended up eating most of my meals here during the stay at Joshimath.

The next day began early as we had to get to Auli to start the trek to kuari pass. Met Sanjay Sati, my guide and over the course of the next few days, we would develop a great bond. He was of medium height, fleet-footed, sinewy and very athletic and I realised that I would have to be on my toes to keep up with this man over the undulating terrain. The start itself was a steep climb of over 800m that got me panting like an Alsatian in a steam bath. I looked for some consolation at Sanjay and realized with considerable dismay that he was not even breathing heavily. Well, I had my task cut out.

Thereafter, we proceeded to the Gorson meadow, which was mind numbing beautiful. We set up camp at Gorson and went about making hot soup as the weather was getting colder.  I crawled around over the meadow and went berserk clicking as I never had such an open expanse all to myself. Not a soul was around and we made ourselves comfortable. I met a shepherd while walking around the meadow and he reeled of  a bunch of peaks that one could see from the meadow that included Nanda devi, Dronagiri, Hathi, Gori, Neelkant and few others. It was a stunning sight to see the peaks tower above the meadow and the deodar trees.

As it turned dark, the temperatures dipped drastically and we were freezing. Out came the sleeping bags and I got myself tucked in very comfortably. Suddenly it began to rain. Light rain pattered on the tent and drowned all other sounds and made for a good nights rest. I kept wondering what I was doing in this place so far away from home.

Daylight comes early in these parts and by 4.30am, I was up and around. We had an early morning start to our next camp which was at  Taali. Some splendid views awaited us with the Nanda devi in full glory in the beautiful sunlight during this hike. The weather would play hide and seek all the time and it would turn windy and cold in an instant from bright sunlight. The trail was very narrow and the mule man told me instances where the luggage loaded on the mule would brush the mountain side and upset the balance of the animal resulting in a fall into the deep valley. At one point quite high up on the trail, we saw the magnificent Pangarchula peak. It was covered in snow and looked deadly  on the windswept morning.

I knew what fitness was when I observed Sanjay walk the trail. He had a certain grace in his movements that I sorely lacked. I was huffing and puffing my way up  while he happened to be  enjoying the trail with great reserves of energy.  We crossed the Taali lake where the mules took  a break and then got into a forest section full of himalayan deoadar and oak trees interspersed with boulders of immense size. This was when the heavens opened up and we had to take cover in a cave. We got our ponchos out  and waited in the cave  for the rains to subside. Mini sized hail stones kept falling and it was  fun to sit in a cave and  watch these fall all around you.

The rains had made the path quite treacherous with the rocks becoming very slippery and the slush making the shoes struggle for grip. We continued on the trial till we got to the top of a hill  and  I was blown away by the scene that unfolded. The views were spellbinding. Sheep were grazing, the snow-capped peaks looked really close and the weather was bitterly cold. We pitched our tents and Sanjay quickly got some hot tea going. It was raining  intermittently and made walking around slippery and difficult.

The next morning was extremely cold and we were to hike toward kuari pass. The trail was mesmerizing with rhododendrons,  oak and deodar. The peaks were towering right in front and the air was getting thinner. We passed a campsite and ran into lot of people aiming for kuari pass. Our camp was further away in a secluded spot overlooking a valley.  Sanjay was making mincemeat of the terrain while I followed doing not too badly. By now the body had got used to the conditions and walking was getting easier even though the steep sections were  quite agonizing.

Rains continued to hound us at the kuari pass camp and  here it was unbearably   cold because of the altitude. The plan was to acclimatize here  as this would be an advanced base camp for the Pangarchula climb. Sanjay made some fabulous dinner and we retired early that night. We had a 6am start the next morning to scale Pangarchula. Had porridge, took woolens, packed lunch, rain gear and  off we started. The climb was hair-raising steep and the going was tough for me. I was making very slow progress and running out of breath everywhere. The initial climb though steep was on a grassy hill which later on became a rocky section covered with ice and snow. This was particularly slippery and a fall here would have been very dangerous. Somehow clambered over this section gasping and fighting for breath. The terrain flattened out after this and I was beginning to feel confident that we would make it to the top. Sanjay led me to a very tricky section which  I had considerable difficulty negotiating. It was soft ice and rocks everywhere. After an eternity of slow and painful progress, I got past this hurdle. While I was wondering if the trauma would ever end, we came to the incredibly technical boulder section. Large boulders were strewn all over the mountain side and one had to clamber over these to get to the base of the peak. The boulders were covered in thin sheet of ice and soft snow. It was beginning to get really tough getting grip and hauling oneself over the boulders. I was stunned seeing Sanjay haul himself over boulders and jump from boulder to boulder. I was doing OK but the lack of oxygen was taking the strength away and I had to stop every two steps to take rest. Sanjay, meanwhile was  boulder hopping like  he was born there which added to the misery. The weather was also getting worse by now. The wind had picked up and drops of rain  started falling. It was frightfully cold and all  the falling and sliding in the snow earlier had made my gloves  very wet. With numb hands and gasping for breath, I was trying to evaluate the possibilities. Sanjay was about 20 yards away and I somehow managed to crawl next to him. The next few minutes were spent debating if it was wise to do the summit with me in  this condition. That is when I decided to not go further with the climb. We instead chose the baby Pangarchula standing right beside its big brother at a height of 4100m as our target. A quick-lunch on top of a large boulder in freezing cold and off we started to summit the baby Pangarchula. It was a steep incline and Sanjay made me wear crampons to get better grip in the snow. He clambered up the trail as if it was a piece of  cake while I struggled for breath and somehow grappled with snow, rocks, boulders and ice to finally make the summit almost in slow motion. The feeling was out of the world even though visibility had deteriorated considerably. We sat there saying nothing giving a breather to our battered bodies. Meanwhile, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was  very windy and cold. Visibility was very poor and we could not remain at the top any longer. Then started the descent and this was going to be another titanic struggle with no grip from the snow. We  groped our way through the snow and made our way downhill towards the camp. After sliding and falling numerous times with aching muscles we reached our base camp  after a few hours. Govind,  our mule man was ready with a hot cup of tea when we scrambled in. After some hot food, I walked towards kuari pass and spent some time thinking about the climb that day and finally got back to camp as darkness fell. Slept soundly that night and woke up feeling fresh and ready to do the downhill walk of about 10km to Dhak. It was hard on the knees but I was more sure-footed here than the inclines the previous day especially as there was no snow. Tugasi village greeted us after a downhill walk of  around three hours where we got some hot tea from Govind’s home. It was a roller coaster walk from here on till Dhak to close the loop. The experience of walking the mighty hills and meeting extremely friendly locals makes one feel completely at home at such far-flung places. This was an experience I would cherish and I made a quiet promise to myself to come back to attend to the unfinished business with Pangarchula very soon.

Musings on a musical evening

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Sitting next to a very energetic and enlightened couple at a local auditorium, I could not but feel completely out of depth with the intricacies of Hindustani classical music. As Ustad Rashid Khan started of with a ‘Khayal’, I could hear the murmur of appreciation from the audience and this made me feel clueless. I could make out no difference between this and the previous rendition. Yes, both were complex and hard to reproduce, but was there so much of difference in them that the audience sat up and took note and admiringly nodded their appreciation?

Well, it only got worse when Ustad transcended another level and sang some seriously complicated notes that my untrained ears could not grasp. I discreetly watched a couple appreciate the rendition in hushed tones and heard them mention a Raag or two and its nuances. I pondered over the possibility of go-ogling right there for some material but the sight of the expressionless volunteers recruited to throw out anyone using a cellphone made short work of that plan. I had pretty much the same expression when the union budget related discussions took place on the TV channels. Well, this got me thinking if I should have come here in the first place. Heck, I was enjoying it. So what if I knew nothing of the Raag, but was I not enjoying listening to the Ustad in full battle cry? It also made me look around at the audience and wondered how all of these gentlemen of various age groups were so knowledgeable. I thought about my growing up years and why I had not picked up anything in music. A while later, the great Hariharan arrived and sang few ghazals that made a bit of sense to me and I nodded my head vigorously more for feeling wanted than out of understanding. Later, when both the greats got together, the crowd went into a tizzy and they dished out some spectacular stuff. The tabla from Ustad Shahdab Bhartiya was unbelievable. The sarangi maestro, a young talent from Delhi got people to stand up and clap. Sujoy Ghosh on the guitar gave an electric performance accompanied by the tabla. I enjoyed the evening but I think I really missed out the finer aspects of music and came out of the auditorium a wee bit sad knowing that I couldn’t fully fathom the greatness of the music I got to hear.

Meeshapulimala

The flight from Mumbai surprisingly took off on time and I was on my way to Cochin to hike up the elusive Meeshapulimala peak. We were looking forward to this one for a long time. Met Bonnie in Cochin and headed for the night to Thodupuzha. We were greeted by a hyper excited Pluto, Bonnie’s one year old lab who jumped with joy seeing the many faces that he got to play with. Crashed late that night dreaming about the upcoming trip to kolukamalai.

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Pluto

We had a lazy start  and took a less frequented road to Kolukamalai bypassing Munnar. It being holiday season, one got to see the bad side of tourism rather frequently. The beautiful meandering roads were great to drive on and we made it to Suryaneli town without incident. This was were the comfort ended and a tough trail started for Kolukamalai.

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The meandering trail

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scintillating scenery

This was considered a Jeep only trail and one had to park ones vehicle and board a Jeep to make it to the top. We obviously had other plans and got the Duster inside and embarked on a fabulous trail that had such amazing views that we let out gasps of joy every few minutes.

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sunrise

We had the Jeep guys give us admiring looks and many a guy was curious to know how this contraption was making its way up the difficult trail. Finally, after an eternity of slow and careful driving, we got to the mountain hut cottage. The view was astounding, the wind was vociferously loud and the cold was biting. We got to meet two fantastic travellers at the cottage, Claudia, who was from Columbia and Anton, from the UK. They knew a lot about India and were on their Kerala leg of sight seeing.

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Puli eating the mountain

The next day was special as we would be doing the difficult hike to Meeshapulimala, that was 8600 feet high and had scintillating views of the plains and the adjoining mountain ranges of Kerala and Tamilnadu. The hike was not an easy one and the climb was steep at places with the wind making it difficult to even stand upright. We managed to climb to the very top and simply soaked in what nature threw at us.

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mist clad hill

 

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another view

 

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Meeshapulimala trek

It was a very special place and I just could not get enough of it. After spending considerable time at the top soaking in the views and fighting the bitter cold, we headed back to base camp. The descent was a difficult one too and the chances of slipping were real and scary. A good couple of hours later we reached our cottage and post a quick shower, had a hearty laugh reminiscing the trek.

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rolling hils

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the group

Our friendly caretaker Sanu, arranged a sumptuous lunch for us and we dug in till we could take no more. The conversations did not end with lunch and we jumped topics from Columbian coffee, to Pablo Escobar and the recipe for an English Sunday Roast that had Anton salivating. Adventure movies and solo travel in India were also hot topics. Sanu got a camp-fire going and we huddled around trying to beat the cold. It was unbearably cold and there was no letup in the violent wind. The dried tea branches used for the camp-fire burnt instantly and the fire was hard to control as the violent wind changed direction very often making us run around in circles to escape the flames that came dangerously close. After a heavy dinner, we retired early for the night exchanging email id’s as both Anton and Claudia were leaving Kolukamalai for the next leg of there journey.

Woke up to  a lovely cold morning and went on a hike to Kolukamalai peak. The climb was a steep one towards the end but the sights were heavenly. One could see the far of Meeshapulimala and the towns of Bodinayakanur and Theni in the far distance.

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trees…

 

 

As I sit penning this travelogue from the veranda of the cottage, the cold is just getting unbearable and making it difficult for me to sit outside any longer. All I can hear is my own breathing and the lovely Malabar whistling thrush that is singing merrily from the clump of trees nearby. I just hope and pray that we are able reign in our greed to proliferate everywhere and to keep these lovely forests and hills untouched.