Kodagu (also called Coorg) had been on my wish-list for a long time and it certainly lived up to my dreams. About 1,220m above sea level, this is mist-covered hill country that extends along the summits and slopes of the Western Ghats and is criss-crossed by a network of rivers. Most of this is virgin land and nearly 60 per cent of the district is still covered with rain forests. The district leaves a melange of impressions with its never-ending plantations, the sounds and scents of the forest and the enchanting streams that you stumble upon ever so often. We spent one memorable afternoon in the waters of Kotte Abbi. After we had washed off the grime from the morning’s hike, someone had a brilliant idea, which was unanimously agreed upon: lunch would be eaten in the water.
We each found ourselves a shallow rock and, sitting waist deep in water, unpacked the lunches. The scrumptious puliogare (tamarind rice) made for a perfect meal. Another source of delight were the campsites. Chosen for proximity to streams that abound in the district, each was verdant and thoroughly charming. One particular creek was reportedly a favourite with a herd of elephants and we were warned not to come out of our tents if we heard them at night. But nature intervened and we were caught in a raging, spectacular storm that threatened to blow our tents away. Needless to say, the elephants did not oblige us with an appearance.
On the other hand, there were plenty of leeches. These damp-loving creatures were numerous, quick and persistent; they also appear to have astounding powers of penetration, wriggling through shoes and fabric with slimy ease. Snuff or common salt repels the creatures, but we were unprepared. Before each bloodsuckerridden stretch, the bellow would go up from the frontrunners and we would start to move rapidly, keeping a sharp lookout. Once in the sunlight, we’d haul off shoes and socks to check between our toes for the ones that were still undetected.
The Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI), in association with local operators V-TRAK, organises this trek once every year. It is a rather convenient one: they supply guides, the tents, organise the campsites and the food. All you need to do is get your backpacks and trudge. If you choose to do this on your own, it is still advisable to coordinate with local operators to chalk out your exact route and organise permissions with plantation owners for the use of campsites. Contact VTRAK Friends Tours and Travels, College Road, Madikeri, Tel: +91-8272- 229102 / 229974
DISTANCE 15 KM TIME 7-8 HOURS
The V-Trak base camp at Talathmane is 500m from the Bhagamandala junction. The day starts early and there’s a buzz in the air. The huts we spent the night in are charming. Everyone bustles about, packing lunch and filling bottles. Yashwant, a man with a ready grin, is our guide for the first three days. He knows the land like the proverbial back of his hand. Our group comprises a motley crowd of nearly 15 people: a few experienced trekkers and quite a few firsttimers. We start a little after 8.30 am, walking the first stretch through plantations.
Coorg is ideal spice country and you’ll pass through a lot of pepper and cardamom plantations and its world famous coffee plantations as well. Hit state highway SH88 and follow it for about half a kilometre before veering off onto a foot trail. We wind our way north-ish to Abbi Falls today. The falls are situated about 4-5 km from Talathmane right in the middle of a privately owned coffee estate. It takes us 3 hrs and quite a bit of energy to reach the falls by lunchtime. But I am disappointed, as the spot, with a steady stream of tourists, turns out not the most restful of places.
This is where the Madikeri or Muttaramutta stream falls naturally from a 21m high precipice. The water cascades from between huge boulders to a rocky, lush valley. The spot is a favourite with locals, tourists and film crews. The waters here are deep and dangerous, however, and sitting below the waterfall for a spontaneous dunking is dangerous and not recommended. The cataract is deafening and there is an abundance of natural flora. The British named the spot Jessie Falls in memory of the daughter of Madikeri’s first chaplain, but the name ‘Abbi’ (Kodava for waterfall) has prevailed.
The next leg, however, is simply glorious. Now we move north-east, and cross a narrow wooden log thrown across a stream and enter the forests. Tall stately trees flank our trail. I hear bird calls, but the foliage is too thick to see any. We have not yet stepped into rain forests, but the woods are thick, nonetheless. Every half an hour or so, we are delighted to encounter another stream. The trail goes along one and it thins into a narrow brook, gurgling softly as it keeps us company for a bit. The path then widens into a mud track, which marks the beginning of a plantation.
It’s nearly five in the evening before we troop into the campsite in Devastur. It is located next to a stream, which everyone jumps into. The flowing water does much to soothe protesting muscles. After dinner, which includes jackfruit curry — a speciality in these parts — Yashwant gets a roaring campfire going and treats us to warm badam milk. The flames are hypnotic, but much to his disappointment, we slouch off in twos and threes to our tents for an early night.
DISTANCE 14 KM TIME 6 HOURS
Sleep has done its magic: I am raring to go. The first challenge of the day is to cross the stream we bathed in. I ford it barefoot, trousers rolled upto midthigh. Once booted, I set off and come to a fascinating log bridge high across a turbulent stream. It’s so Indiana Jonesish that it takes a while to cross: everyone wants a thrill of the view from up there, and to get photographed. The trail then dips south and turns east along a well-marked footpath. The forests are hushed and lovely. The Devastur stream sloshes on and we climb uphill.
The trails, on occasion, are so narrow that you have to cling to the mossy walls as you traverse them. I am told that wild elephants frequent this area, which makes me eager for an encounter with them. That is not to be, though, for we hit a tar road after 2 hrs. This road connects Makkandur to Mukkodlu and we walk along it for about 4 km. The heat rising from the tar is uncomfortable and one has to stop at the many hospitable hamlets for water. After 11/2 hrs, we leave the road and turn right onto a trail. Moving eastwards for an hour, the trail leads one to a most delightful watering hole called Kotte Abbi. The waters of the Hattihole stream are clear and deep enough to allow raucous and splashy dives. The next part through the forests goes quickly. Then the trail into the campsite at Mukkodlu. This is a truly beautiful place. A stream is in full torrent and the rice fields are pockmarked with elephant footprints. Dusk falls beautifully and the rising forests all around us are lit with dancing fireflies.
MUKKODLU-KALOOR VIA MANDALPATTI
DISTANCE 13 KM TIME 61/2 HOURS
Today the walk is due west and I get my first taste of the genuine shola forests. They are truly beautiful: thick canopies let in only thin strands of sunlight. The cicadas sing with gathering force as we step across a thick carpet of broad leaves. However, we are also introduced to the dreaded leeches. The path through the forests isn’t a permanent track and although we’re not hacking through bush, we’re progressing mainly because of Yashwant’s uncanny sense of direction. The stint through the forests should take you about 11/2 hrs, less if you try to outspeed the leeches, more if you stop to address the issue.
The next leg is leech-free but steep. I climb to overlook Mandalpatti Road and a lovely view of the hills. Among them is Pushpagiri, the second highest peak in Kodagu (1,725m) and Kottebetta, the third highest (1,650m). As we change direction to turn south, there’s a sharp difference in landscape — forests give way to rolling hills, dry scrub and rocks. We cross a few hillocks as dark clouds gather. The hills look breathtaking in the purple light. We stop for a quick lunch under the trees and trudge on under a light drizzle.
The 2-hr descent to Kallur is precarious. Rubble and mud loosen under my feet and I grasp desperately at anything in sight. Once in the coffee and cardamom plantations, the campsite is still nearly an hour’s walk away. We then come across a smallish patch of vanilla just before we arrive at Mr Prasanna’s Farmhouse (Mob: +91-98450-04668; Tariff: Rs 3,000, with breakfast). It has 5 rooms and a hall and can accommodate upto 15 people. Bigger groups can pitch tents near the river.
DISTANCE 14 KM TIME 7 HOURS
Our new guide Vijay Kumar will lead us to Ajjimotte today. I slap on insect repellent and sprinkle salt generously over my shoes. An hour north-northwest, we gather at the mouth of dense shola forests, take a deep breath and enter leech territory. We cover what would have normally taken us 45 mins in about 20, and rush out gasping into the sunlight. Next goal: Ajjimotte (1,048m). The incline is steep and it takes about 1 hr 20 mins to reach the top, but the views are worth it. The peak overlooks several smaller mist-kissed peaks and the lush green plantation covered valleys.
The descent, of course, is tricky and slow, and it takes us almost 45 mins to get to the foot of the hill and head south. Lunch stop is brief and, in fact, it is not far from the Madikeri- Subramanya Road. We go onwards to the south for about one hour, past dry hills which are interspersed with dank forests. After that we turn north-north-west again to reach the beautiful tea and cardamom Vanachalu Plantations. The campsite is delightful, complete with its own waterfall made wonderfully private by a screen of foliage. Alternatively, you can stay at Ramesh’s on the other side of the tea plantation, near the school.
VANACHALU-TALATHMANE VIA NISHANEMOTTE
DISTANCE 15 KM TIME 7 HOURS
The trail out of Vanachalu goes south-east and is both muddy and steep. The rain has left heat and humidity in its wake. We leave the trail after about 15 mins and turn right to start climbing the hills. Nearly half an hour later, we’re walking south along the ridges of the Western Ghats. For nearly 1 hr and 20 mins, the track is mostly level and very pleasant. The steep climb to Nishanemotte (1,337m), however, compensates for any earlier lack of exercise, not that we were complaining. The views of the valleys and the plantations are gorgeous but the descent towards the eastern side, which though takes only 15 mins, is truly treacherous as Vijay Kumar sets a punishing pace.
Next, still moving due south, is a 3-hr stretch through a veritable valley of spices that is truly remarkable. The mud road passes through almost every kind of spice and fruit plantation that is found in the district — we find cardamom, pepper, coffee plants of both arabica and robusta varieties, orange gardens, cashew plants, ginger fields and vegetable gardens; a Kodagu microcosm, if you will. Our route rejoins SH88 at Katakeri and we retrace our way to the base camp at Talathmane. Camp for the night and head home the next morning after breakfast.
By Sheetal Vyas
About the author: Sheetal is a freelance journalist/ writer/ editor in Hyderabad.her earlier work included television, documentaries, publishing and journalism. A keen traveller, birder and adventure sports enthusiast, she has big plans for a novel or a script, whichever comes first.