Short sojourns in paradise: Coorg Plantation Hikes

Coorg has been internationally recognised as one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world. But the fact that now there’s neither honey in Honey Valley, nor any orange in Orange County, speaks volumes about the fragile nature of Coorg’s ecosystem and hence the need to preserve it. Here, the stem-borer challenges the robustness of robusta and the berryborer wages a war against arabica. While this is no threat to democracy, Coorg’s flora is in peril. Most of the fauna too has long been consigned to the walls of Kodava living rooms but the best way to appreciate the surviving bird life and natural beauty is a leisurely trek through the region.

 

In Coorg, the Western Ghats’ main range extends from Subramanya in the north-west to the Brahmagiris in the south, the distance being a wide green swathe spanning over 100 km. The Brahmagiris or Marenad Hills form a natural barrier between Coorg and Wayanad, which is another trek by itself. The small treks outlined here take you to the main peaks of the area, well-preserved plantations and remote organic farms. These farm stays make excellent trekking bases to explore Coorg’s rich natural bounty and ensure that you also have an intellectually stimulating eco-holiday. But it is actually Coorg’s relatively untouched natural wilderness that makes it one of the best places in the world to get lost.

 

Kaveri Riverside in Coorg (Photo by Rameshng)

 

The catch is that to savour these well-preserved natural bastions of Coorg, you need to book with the people who safeguard it. It’s a small price to pay for creature comforts in the middle of nowhere. While it’s not possible to pitch tents and trek through someone’s property unless you book with them, there are neutral territories like Kottebetta Peak and the banks of the Cauvery where you can pitch tents. It might help to check with the Coorg Wildlife Society in Madikeri. Also, make sure you call up the respective home-stays and check for availability.

 

 

DAY ONE

 

MOJO RAINFOREST TREK

TIME 1-3 HOURS

LEVEL EASY

 

Perched at 1,100m on the top of the rain-slope in Coorg’s Western Ghats, Mojo, a 25-acre organic farm, lies tucked away in absolute isolation 12 km away from Madikeri. Here, you will find the habanero (the world’s second hottest chilli) and the southern birdwing (India’s largest butterfly), not to mention the Atlas moth (the moth with the world’s largest wingspan). Mojo also claims to have the best Blues collection in the country, hence its musical name.

 

Mojo Rainforest (Photo by benuski)

 

Many species of birds and several orchids are found in the farm too, making it a naturalist’s paradise. Mojo is spread across four valleys, has a mountain stream and is crisscrossed by several moderate walks. Take a guided tour of the estate to understand the nuances of organic farming. The plantation tours include insights on the cultivation of the many crops grown here, such as cardamom, pepper, vanilla, kokam and tree spices, and the medicinal properties of each plant. Check out the bright white blossoms and scarlet beans on the coffee plants. An early morning walk to Cardamom Valley is extremely rich in birding, whereas an evening trudge to Maya Hill reveals a panoramic sunset view of the Kotebetta Range. It’s also the only way you can get your mobile phone to catch a signal.

 

MOJO RAINFOREST RETREAT

 

To get to Mojo, ask for Galibeedu Village and following the signboard, take the right turn towards Kaloor. A pick-up is possible from Madikeri (Rs 200 for an auto, Rs 400/ 500 for an Indica/ Bolero) if prior intimation is given. Discover Mojo — a heady mixture of eco-tourism and adventure. Mostly organic produce is used for the farm-fresh cuisine and the cottages too are an experience. At Mojo, the Plantation Cottage comes at a cost of Rs 2,000 per person, the Deluxe Cottage rooms at Rs 2,500 per person and the tent for Rs 1,500 per person (all rates for double occupancy).

 

All the cottages, set amidst coffee, banana, bamboo and orange plantations and surrounded by a stream, are powered by eco-friendly solar lighting. There is no 220V current, TV or phones in the rooms. Each cottage has a comfy dining area. All prices include full board and a guided tour of the plantation. For bookings, contact Anurag (Doc) or Sujata on +91-8272-265638-39.

 

THE MAGIC OF WESTERN GHATS

 

The Western Ghats separate the western seaboard from the relatively dry, high tableland of the Deccan Plateau. It’s a long patch of dense rainforests and shola forests stretching in a wide swathe of undulating green from Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and western Tamil Nadu till Kerala. The biological diversity found in the Western Ghats is unparalleled in the world and gives the region a dazzling array of birds, orchids and butterflies of every hue. The southern part of the Western Ghats and its forests form the centre of distribution for 20 of India’s endemic bird species and another 15 regional endemics common to Sri Lanka. Small wonder then that Bird Life International has recognised the Western Ghats as one of the most important endemic bird areas in Asia.

 

unripe coffee beans in a plantation (Photo by Premnath Thirumalaisamy)

 

People of Kodagu have their own vocabulary to describe birds. While the racket-tailed drongo, with its majestic tail, is called bheemaraja-pakshi (big royal bird), the green barbet on account of its call is the guttar-pakshi, coucal for no apparent reason is chembuka and the black and orange scarlet minivet is called titte-kanda pakshi (glowing charcoal bird). Other species such as the Malabar parakeet, Malabar pied hornbill, Wayanad laughing thrush and Malabar trogon are endemic to the Western Ghats. The Malabar whistling thrush has a melodious but off-key whistle, which more than makes up for its dull blue appearance.

 

Apart from the Paris peacock, you can spot butterflies such as the bright yellow southern birdwing, the largest in India, which hovers around the canopy of trees. Kodagu also throws up its share of surprises — the furtive Malabar squirrel, beautiful orchids with unpronounceable names like Bulbophyllum fibriatum and swarms of fireflies that glow like decoration bulbs on trees in the warm nights of May and June.

 

 

DAY TWO

 

MOJO-GALIBEEDU RIDGE

DISTANCE 5 KM TIME 3-4 HOURS

LEVEL EASY

 

By road, Galibeedu is about 5 km from Mojo, but a better way to get there is the picturesque 3-km eastward walk, connecting the Mojo Rainforest Retreat to Golden Mist Plantation. The farm hands, Muthu Pandey or Suresh, can accompany you to Golden Mist. The trail leads north-west from Mojo, skirting past plantations of cardamom, coffee and patches of rainforest. The estate is a good stopover for your walk to Galibeedu Ridge. A further 1-hr westward hike through open forest on a well-defined trail takes you to Galibeedu. It’s only when you reach there that you realise why it’s called Galibeedu. It’s literally the ‘windswept place’, as the ridge area can get very breezy. Depending on your fatigue and comfort level, you can either return to Mojo to set out again for a more arduous climb the next morning or you can stop by at the Golden Mist for the night (see below).

 

Galibeedu (Photo by Mark Miller)

 

GOLDEN MIST PLANTATION

 

The 20-acre organic coffee and tea plantation with its large, spacious cottage in a little clearing is unofficially called Ludwig Mahal after its German owner Ludwig Cremer. The place has six beds including a semi-private loft, all in one open unit, making it ideal for a close-knit group of friends who don’t mind sharing the solitary but swanky bathroom. When Mr Cremer is in town, you have the honour of feasting on his lavish continental spreads. The tariff is Rs 4,000 per day per couple, including all meals and guide. There’s a group rate of Rs 1,500 per person for three to six persons. Contact Ludwig or Vasu on Tel: +91-8272-265629.

 

 

DAY THREE

 

GOLDEN MIST-KALOOR RIDGEKOTEBETTA

DISTANCE 15 KM TIME 5-6 HOURS

LEVEL MODERATE

 

From Golden Mist, take a guide and head south, crossing Mojo (11/2 km) on the Kaloor Ridge Road. The road goes up to Kaloor Ridge and then moves in a south to south-east direction to enter the Kotebetta forest (91/2 km), and then continues up to the Kotebetta Ridge, where you camp for the night. Depending on whether there are herds of elephants in the vicinity, you pitch camp either in the safety of one of the farms or in the forest.

 

 

DAY FOUR

 

KOTEBETTA-GOLDEN MIST

DISTANCE 15 KM TIME 5-6 HOURS

LEVEL MODERATE

 

Return to Golden Mist the following day, retracing your route. Golden Mist also arranges an easier trek up to the Nishani Hills. If you leave early you can be up there in 3 hrs, catch the spectacular views of the Sullia Valley and return in time for a sumptuous lunch.

 

 

DAY FIVE

 

TALACAUVERY-BRAHMAGIRI PEAKTALACAUVERY

TIME 2 HOURS

LEVEL EASY

 

A scenic spot in Madikery (Photo by Antony Pratap)

 

From Mojo, you first get back to Madikeri town. From Madekeri, you either take a bus from the bus stand or else simply drive down to the twin religious outposts of Talacauvery and Bhagamandala that lie in the lap of the Brahmagiri Mountain. There are, in fact, two Brahmagiri mountains: one is located at the southernmost point of Coorg on the border with Wayanad district of Kerala and the other one is near Bhagamandala (which is approximately 50 km/ 11/2 hrs from Mojo by taxi). This latter one is where the rivers Cauvery, Kannike and Sujyoti meet, thereby earning it the name, Triveni Sangam.

 

There are three temples above the confluence of the rivers. They are dedicated to Subramanya, Vishnu and Bhagamandaleswara, a Shaivite shrine named after Sage Bhagyananda, who installed a linga here. To the north of Bhagamandala, you can trek to Sampaje Valley, which has dense forests, bamboo clumps and steep gorges. Just 7 km away, situated at 1,276m on the slopes of Brahmagiri Hill, is Talacauvery (literally, the head of Cauvery), which is the birthplace of the sacred river. The place is marked by a kundike (pot) and from here the river emerges as a small perennial spring. Legend has it that the Goddess Cauvery makes her appearance in the form of a gushing spring once a year during Tulamasa, when thousands gather to take a sacred dip. On Tula Sankramana (usually falls on October 16 every year), as the sun enters Libra, water gushes out from the kundike at a moment predicted by the priests.

 

From Talacauvery, there are steps that lead up to the nearby Brahmagiri Peak (1 hr), where the seven great sages (sapta maharishi) had performed a special yagna. On a clear day, the peak offers excellent views of Kudremukh, Chamundi Hills,Brahmagiri, Wayanad and the misty blue Nilgiris. Since it’s a short climb, you can head down to your next base Kakkabe by late afternoon and check into Palace Estate (see below). Drive 2 km past Kakkabe to Palace Junction and look out for a black board saying ‘Nalknad Palace’. There’s a seemingly unending flight of steps that leads up to Palace Estate.

 

PALACE ESTATE

 

Situated on a flat patch just above the Nalknad Palace, the estate offers a spectacular view of undulating plains. The 35-acre farm is located on the edge of a forest and has a wild mountain stream with a 15m waterfall. Palace Estate is ideal for plantation treks and local tribal guides are available. There’s traditional Coorgi cuisine such as otti (roti-like bread made of rice flour), paputtu (a semolinacoconut sweet), curries and organically grown farm produce. Breakfast is served for Rs 150, lunch and dinner for Rs 200 each. Contact Apparanda Prakash Poovanna at Kakkabe on Tel: +91-8272-238446; Mob: +91-9880447702.

 

Nalkad Palace (photo by benjamin rualthanzauva)

 

 

DAY SIX

 

KAKKABE-MALMA

TIME 11/2 HRS

LEVEL EASY

 

Kakkabe was once the largest honey producer in South-East Asia. But a chance virus wiped out the resident bee population and, in a single stroke, it deflected the attention to something more than honey — the bountiful nature that produced it. As you admire the beauty from your perch at Palace Estate, you can look down at Nalknad Palace to the right. Built in 1792 by Doddaveeraraja, it served as the royal hunting lodge and summer home of the Kodava kings. As there were four villages in the vicinity, the place was called Nalaku-nadu (nalu stands for four), which over time got shortened to Nalaknad and finally Nalnad. Both these names are used today.

 

Call it what you may, but a palace it isn’t. It is a double-storey structure with a conical roof. The building is adorned with intricate wooden friezes and murals, and you would do well to keep some time for it. From Nalknad Palace, you head back towards Kakkabe (approximately 2 km away) and from the jeep stand go through the temple arch to the Igguthappa Temple. Iggu is grain, thappa means to give, hence Igguthappa is also worshipped as the Rain God. At the temple, not only are you handed prasad on a platter, you are given a three-course meal of payasam, rice and two types of sambhar with wild mango pickle (1pm to 2 pm). Igguthappa is supposed to have travelled with his four brothers and a sister to this area from Kerala until an archery contest decided the present seats of the different gods.

 

Igguthappa Temple (Photo by rjstyles)

 

A steep southwards climb from the temple is Malma (11/2 hrs), a sacred spot, which has two natural ponds and marks the place from where Igguthappa descended. During the Kaladcha Festival in March, his idol is taken on a procession to the top of Malma and reinstalled in the temple, followed by various ceremonial dances. Return to Palace Estate for the night.

 

 

DAY SEVEN

 

THADIYENDAMOL AND AROUND

TIME 31/2-4 HOURS

LEVEL EASY

 

At 1,747m, Thadiyendamol is the highest peak in Coorg and after Mullaiyanagiri in the Baba Budan Range, the second highest in Karnataka. Thadiyendamol lures trekkers with a glimpse of the coastline on a clear day. Depending on where you are climbing from, it takes about 2-3 hrs to get to the top and as long to come down. If you are short of time, the climb from Palace Estate is shorter but the longer route from Honey Valley passes through thick rainforest and more scenic terrain. It is highly recommended.

 

To get to Honey Valley (21/2 km from Kakkabe), drive from Palace Estate to Kabbinakad Junction (a tinshed bus stop that’s also referred to as Yavakapadi Post-Office). From here, turn right and then take the immediate steep mud road to your left. If you are not in an armoured car (or at least a jeep), do not even contemplate doing it in a humbler vehicle. If you want serious adventure, try the uphill trudge to Honey Valley in heavy rain with a 30-kg backpack pulling at your shoulders. It takes a good hour for the 2-km climb. Jeeps can be hired from Kakkabe for Rs 200 (but not later than 6 pm). You can also park your vehicle in a secure parking lot off the main road and have the owner, Suresh, pick you up in his jeep. If it’s not too late in the morning, you can easily do the Thadiyendamol trek in about 21/2 hrs, walking east along a ridge until you reach the summit, before getting back, which is faster.

 

HONEY VALLEY ESTATE

 

Accommodation comprises homestay rooms ranging from Rs 450-1,400 and plantation huts available for much less at Rs 450 per day. Breakfast comes at Rs 100 and lunch/ dinner at Rs 150. For non-veg food, Rs 120 is charged extra. Contact Suresh and Susheela Chengappa, Honey Valley Estate (Tel: +91-8272-238339, Mob: +91-8197444939).

 

Honey Valley (Photo by Suchana Seth)

 

 

DAY EIGHT

 

HONEY VALLEY AND BEYOND

TIME 2-3 HOURS

LEVEL EASY

 

At one time, Honey Valley was the only commercial apiary in Coorg, producing 6.5 tonnes annually. After honey crashed, Suresh and Susheela Chengappa turned their attention to coffee, cardamom, pepper, fruits and farm stays. The 56-acre farm, painstakingly built over two decades, is now a Mecca for mountain bikers, rock-climbers, trekkers and nature enthusiasts. For those interested in wildlife, the estate is specially recommended. Apart from barking deer, pangolin and flying squirrel (whose calls you hear on full-moon nights), the estate is a good place to spot the elusive South Indian marten.

 

If you are keen to learn more about the local culture, you could also interact with the Adiya and Kudiya tribes who will help you explore the area in much greater detail. A 1-hr walk to Nilakandi Waterfall, 3 km away, is one of the shorter treks. Suresh has marked out 18 other trekking routes that have varying levels of difficulty. Continuing on the line of the Western Ghats are the well-wooded Tumbemale forests of Marenad.

 

Nilakandi Falls (Photo by www.beontheroad.com)

 

Just 11/2 hrs away from Honey Valley Estate (5,262m) is Chomamale, the highest mountain in Kadiyatnad, in the Kabbe region. The ancient Kannada name is derived from Soma Male, named after its crescent-shaped appearance. It’s believed that when clouds dip over the mountain enveloping it in a white fleece quilt, it is a sure sign of rain. If you have the time you can always opt to extend your itinerary. It is advisable to check with the Coorg Wildlife Society about campsites before making your trip. The society is located near DFO Quarters in Madikeri and can be contacted on Tel: +91-8272-2235050, Mob: +91-9448588197.

 

 

 

By Anurag Mallick

 

About the author: From copywriting to Travel writingand a rock band to a radio station, Anurag Mallick is a nomad at heartand writer by choice. He has trekked in the Himalayas, taken a dip in the Maha Kumbh, meditated in a Buddhist monastery, documented the Ranthambore Tiger Census and several bird surveys.