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Bonacaud - Athirumala - Agastya Mala Trek in February 2015

Agastya Mala (referred as Agasthyakoodam in Kerala, also spelt as Agasthyamalai / Agasthyarkoodam / Agathiyar Malai) is considered as the abode of sage Agastya. With an elevation of about 1868m, it is one of the tallest peak in western ghats. It is also one of the toughest treks in the region, as the trail starts from a relative low altitude. The peak and its nearby areas are famous for the abundance and variety of medicinal plants. Due to the presence of many rare medicinal herbs, the area around the peak is declared as a biological park. The peak is off-limit for most part of the year, unless special permission is taken from the forest department. It opens up to limited number of pilgrims and trekkers for a month starting mid january. The visitors should buy passes or book packages in advance from the Kerala forest department as they are limited in numbers.

Trek from Podiyam to Agastya Mala, with Vishwanath [1] in March 2012, was a beautiful experience. But, a slight disappointment in the end was the thick mist-cover at the peak, which denied us any view of the surroundings. I really wished if we could go back there when the weather is clearer. Thus, when Vishwa planned yet another trek to Agastya Mala, I had to go along.

This time, Vishwa had taken a package from the forest department and the trek was to start from Bonacaud. He planned for an extra day stay at Athirumala as well to have more time at the base camp to see if we can spot some of the rare orchid species found only in Agastya Mala area. We had tickets booked in a Kallada transport volvo bus for a friday noon departure, so that we can arrive at Trivandrum / Thiruvananthapuram early in the morning. The return tickets were also booked for monday late evening in a Kallada transport sleeper bus, which was expected to reach Bangalore tuesday morning.

We all met at the Kallada transports office on the scheduled day. Apart from Vishwa, I also knew Ananth, whom I had met a few times before, latest on a Mullodi - Hiremalguppi - Navuru trek. The rest of the people - Anand sir, Ravindranath sir and Ramaswamy sir - were a couple of decades elder to us. The bus started by 2 and crawled its way through towards Coimbatore, where we had a dinner stop. Ramaswamy sir - who is a yoga guru - had only a juice, but the rest of us had a light vegetarian dinner. Ravidranath sir and Anand sir, who knew Ramaswamy sir from some earlier treks - including one to Kailash - was talking about his amazing stamina even though he hardly eats anything. I was already getting scared of being the weak link as the whole group sounded like hardened trekkers!

Next day morning, we were at Thampanoor in Thiruvananthapuram city and took a lodge to freshen up. Vishwa had arranged for a vehicle to pick us up and take us to Bonacaud where the trek starts. Our driver - Sudhir - reached the lodge with his Qualis by the time we were ready and got out. After a sumptuous Kerala style breakfast - appam and puttu - in a nearby hotel, we were soon off to Bonacaud via Vithura and Nedumangad.

Ramaswamy during meditation
Deep in meditation

It took us an hour to reach the forest section office at Kanithadam, within Peppara wildlife sanctuary. The forest office was located right next to a checkpost where the road forks off. The road to the left leads towards Bonacaud, while the one to the right is headed towards Vazhvanthol waterfalls. Vishwa had a plan to go to the falls on our way back, if time permitted.

We were told that the forest officer had just gone out for some work and will return shortly. While, we were waiting for him, I managed to get my spare camera battery charged. Ramaswamy sir started off with his daily yoga and puja, while the rest of us looked around. It took more than an hour before the officer returned and we managed to finish the formalities, paid the fees and were on our way towards Bonacaud.

Peppara dam reservoir
Blue lagoon amongst the greenery

Rest of the way was amongst good forest cover, with the floor on either side of the road covered with dried up leaves. The road itself looked in good condition making it a comfortable ride. As the Qualis negotiated the blind curves, we had a beautiful view of the Peppara reservoir - shining blue amidst thick green forest cover. I had to jump out of the Qualis to take pictures, resulting in a short break.

Soon after we resumed, we were out of the forest area and reached Bonacaud - a settlement dotted with Mexico Lilacs (Seema Konna in Malayalam) in full bloom all around. The village hosts a few families, most of whom used to work in the tea estate and factory before it closed down. Our guides Ranjith and Vishnu joined us from here, before we headed towards the trek starting point. The roads were more of a jeep track from then on and we had to cross a few stretches of slush before reaching an arch marked with "Kerala Forest & Wildlife Department, Bonacaud" and a forest rest house.

It was 11 already and we soon said goodbye to Sudhir, who agreed to come back to the same place to pick us up, two days later. A few minutes later, we packed our bags and headed to the trail starting from the backside of the rest house. The guides told that they will gather the supplies and come along. I was the last one to start and had to hurry up to catch up with Vishwa and Ananth. The initial part of the trail was mostly flat, with a few tall hills to our left. In a few minutes, we crossed a tiny stream where I had a few sips of cool mountain water. In a few minutes, we were crossing yet another tiny stream. Vishwa told that we will have enough streams for the next couple of hours, so I just half-filled the water bottle. It was quite hot by then and important to take a few sips in between to keep the body hydrated.

Ganesh idol
Remains of a pilgrimage

We saw a few Ganesha idols on the way, with remains of puja items - like lamps, agarbathis, cloths, garlands and turmeric, apart from a lot of empty agarbathi packs and some plastic. Our guides had caught up with us by now and Ranjith assured us that once the pilgrimage season is over, the puja items will be cleaned up by the forest department. But, it still sounded awakward that people had no qualms throwing all these items inside a biological reserve. It looked like enforcing new rules on pilgrims is difficult for the forest department, since the pilgrimage had been going on for decades.

After a thick section of the forest, we took a shorter foot trail cutting through the original winding trail. We passed through another shola forest before joining back the wider track. It was almost 12 by then and I was already thinking about lunch. We had planned to stop at the last stream for lunch and that looked a little far as of now.

Agastya Mala and neighboring peaks
First glimpse through the tree and clouds

As we walked around a hill, it was time for the first glimpse of Agastyamala and neighbors, seen through a fair forest cover. There was a good share of cotton clouds hovering around the peak, but the neighbors looked clearer. I could only hope that, unlike last time, the peak would have clear views, when we end up there the next day.

I was soon walking along with Ananth and Ramaswamy sir and noted that Ramaswamy sir was carrying two bags with him. It looked very incovenient as they both were normal shoulder bags and not the usual backpaks. He told that one of them has his yoga mat and the other one has the rest of the luggage and he could not arrange them properly in a single bag as he was coming from another trip. Yet, he still managed to walk effortlessly carrying both of them!

Ananth and Ramaswamy sir
Happy among the trees

A little later, we saw a tree fallen in to the valley to our right and Ananth wanted to take a picture with him on the tree. I gladly obliged, by which time, Ramaswamy sir also joined him at the top of the tree. It resulted in a few more pictures and a short break before we got back to the trail.

We passed by one more fallen tree and another puja site under the shade of a huge tree before hitting our first large stream. The stream was filled with boulders and had just enough water making it easy to cross without having to remove the shoes. Across the stream, a sign-board of forest department read "Karamanayar camp 3, Agastyarkoodam 14.5km". Karamanayar is the name of the river across which the Peppara dam is built. It looked like we were crossing the origins of the river.

Agastya Mala and neighboring peaks
Getting closer!

Soon, we went around the hill hosting Karamanayar to see better views of Agastya Mala opening up. We could also see a very long fort-like hill towards our left, which looked familiar, thanks to our trek from Podiyam. A slight descend took us towards another large stream, making crystal clear pools on the rocky bed. I could see water frothing down the rocky slopes to our left before taking a short tumble to reach a pool just below us. We could cross along the rock bed where the flow of the stream stretches really thin. Across the stream was another sign-board of the forest department, which read "Vazapaithiyar camp 4, Agastyarkoodam 12.5km". This stream looked like a tributary to Karamanayar, which eventually takes the water in to Peppara reservoir.

The stretch of forest after Vazapaithiyar looked dense, especially with a few very tall trees. I particularly noted a tree with red sprouts all around its trunk - similar to what we had seen near Podiyam, during the March 2012 Podiyam - Agastya Mala trek. At that time, I was told by the guide that the tree is called 'pongu' by locals. Another interesting sight was a giant creeper running all around a tall tree and I remembered seeing similar creepers - known as 'Parandha Valli' locally - near Podiyam as well.

Lunch point towards Agastya Mala
Stream at the lunch point

We reached yet another stream by 1.15 and I started wondering if this is the "last" stream, where we had planned to do lunch. The stream was smaller compared to Karamanayar and Vazapaithiyar, but had its own small pool and a short water fall tumbling down a rocky face. Ramaswamy sir took a quick dip in the pool before we opened up the lunch pack - chappathi and pudina chutney - that Vishwa got.

Last stream before grasslands towards Agastya Mala
Last stream before the grass lands

About half an hour later, we were back in the trail and reached the "last" stream in just a few minutes. This was yet another rocky stretch, with the water tumbling down in to the valley. It was a good picnic spot and may have been the ideal place for lunch, but we had already taken lunch and a reasonably long break just a few minutes back.

Soon after the "last" stream, the trail seemed to take a few hairpin bends, but not without short-cuts which were steeper steps cut through the trail. The trail from Podiyam joined us from the right as we entered a been-there-before stretch of open valley, covered in grass, with a few small trees and boulders thrown in and views of hills all around. We had the tip of Agastya Mala jutting out of a hill right in front us, towards which the trail was headed to. To our left was the fort-like hill that we had been seeing for a while now.

Grasslands of Bonacaud - Agastya Mala trail
Taking a look back at the greenery ...

We also started gaining altitude here, as we headed towards the hill right in front of us. For the first half an hour or so, the slope was gradual, with a few occassional climbs. A very interesting sight here is a grass land amidst the slope of the hill, with the trail clearly visible in it. I felt that there were a few people standing near the trail, but it was tough to make out from this distance. We did not have to wait too long to confirm this - we went around a small hill slope, passed by a water-point and another puja point, before reaching a few hair pin bends and the usual cut-through trails, which lead us towards the same grass lands. Sure enough, there were a few workers there, clearing the dried grass from near the trail to prevent forest fire.

By 3, I entered in to the final stretch of shola forest with Ramaswamy sir a little behind me and the rest of the gang further behind. The trail was really steep at this point - I remembered being told during our last trek that this stretch is called 'Muttidiyan Theri' (meaning the-path-where-knees-will-hit the rocks, apparently because of the steepness). Almost half an hour of this steep climb through the forest, I reached a point where a fallen-for-a-while tree was blocking the trail. Since, the rest of the gang was far behind, I decided to take a break and wait for the rest.

The GPS showed that we were just short of 1000m altitude, which is almost the altitude of Athirumala camp. Ramaswamy sir came up a little later, carrying both his bags and looking a wee bit tired. He sat down for a few minutes, got bored and started to walk a few minutes later. I sat for some more time until Vishnu turned up and joined him as we headed towards Athirumala. Right after this point was a junction, where a trail towards Kottur (also an alternate route to Podiyam) went towards right.

We headed towards left, with the trail going relatively flat after this. By 4, I could see the trail to Agastya Mala going further towards our left, with another puja point next to the junction. Soon after this, we saw a demarcated area for puja, the forest cover cleared and we could catch a glimpse of Agastya Mala to our left, as we entered Athirumala base camp.

Athirumala camp has a dilapidated building and tents all around it, used by people visiting Agastya Mala. The best part of the camp, though, is a majestic view of Agastya Mala - the full might of the peak is visible from here, directly under the vertical rock face of the peak facing west. I was looking for a good view point for the peak as soon as I reached Athirumala camp. After trying the view right at the entrance to the camp - fair amount of vegetation between us and Agasthya Mala here, I headed to the other side of the camp to get a better view. Even here, there were a few trees coming between us and the peak.

Sandeep and Agastyamala from Athirumala
Had to get a pic here!

Vishwa, Ananth and the rest of the gang had reached by then. There were a few group of people already settled at the base camp, mostly pilgrims from surrounding areas. One of the groups had people from outside - including a civil servant already known to Anand sir. We also met up with Mathan sir - the forest watcher whom we knew from the last trek. One of the tents were assigned to us and the bags were kept there. I wanted to try the view from the terrace and Mathan sir opened the door leading to the terrace upon my request.

Agastyamala from Athirumala terrace
View worth climbing up the terrace

The problem at the terrace was a small chimney like structure which blocked the view. Ananth came up with a good solution to the problem as he hauled himself up the chimney! Ramaswamy sir followed effortlessly, in a way that only he can. I had some trouble pulling myself up, but managed in the end with Ananth's help. Finally, it was time for some un-obstructed view of the Agastya Mala peak.

Agastyamala from Athirumala camp
Red tinge on the hills

Later in the evening, we went for a walk towards an open ground outside the Athirumala camp, only to realize that this is where we had to be for the best views of the peak! The sun was just about turning golden and there were a few white clouds around the horizon. We strolled around the ground till about 6.30 and took a few shots as the sun came down casting its golden rays on the peak.

We chatted up with Mathan sir, who offered to take us for a walk next day to spot some rare species of orchids after we were back from Agastya Mala. Hence, we planned to start for Agastya Mala early next day as soon as the sun is out, so that we can come back early and go in search of orchids after lunch. Dinner was ready soon - 'kanji-payaru', i.e., porridge of rice, green gram, onion and red chillies. Vishwa mentioned that the dinner was much better during all the earlier treks, but that is a glitch which happens sometimes during treks. We talked to Vishnu and Ranjith about the early start and agreed to start by 7 after having breakfast.

Next day, we were up before 6 and saw a few clouds hovering around the peak. By the time we finished our morning chores and got ready, the sunlight had started spreading and the clouds were clearing. We were ready by 7 and had a good breakfast - upma - before heading out of Athirumala camp.

During the initial part of the trek, we retraced the trail from Bonacaud, before taking the Agastya Mala trail going towards right. There were a couple of streams to cross and the trail passed by Shola forests for a while. By 7.30, we came out of the Shola forest in to a valley connecting Agastya Mala peak to another hill towards its north. Ranjith showed us the Athirumala camp, which looked quite far already.

We passed through the Shola forest for some more time before taking a steep climb towards Pongalappara. A little later, the small trees gave way to shrubs with small flowers and the trail became progressively rocky. We met a few locals here who looked like they had camped here overnight. It was quite breezy and they mentioned that the whole night was pretty much the same and the wind is even more stronger at the peak. Camping is not allowed outside Athirumala camp, but the guys mentioned that they had been coming to Agastya Mala for years now and the rules practically does not apply to locals!

Agastya Mala from Pongalappara
View from the North-East

By now, we had almost gone half-way around the peak - starting from Athirumala towards west of the peak and now standing by the rock bed which is the north-western slopes of the peak. This whole slope looked quite wet and there were a few puddles of water around us. Clouds hovered around the hill towards our left and seemed to be rising up, raising doubts about the visibility at the peak. For now though, the peak looked clear and the sun was shining brightly, right next to it. We walked along this rocky trail crossing a few puddles of water before reaching Pongalappara, were people do 'pongala' before going to the peak. A group of people were already present there preparing for 'pongala'.

By 8.30, we crossed Pongalappara and entered another Shola forest, with which the climb became steep once more. This stretch felt more like a garden with numerous varieties of flowering shrubs all around us. We came out of the Shola forest in about 20 minutes or so to see that the mist is climbing up towards the peak. I could not help remembering that the last time I was here, the peak was fully covered in the mist - even though, it was all clear when we started from Athirumala as well as the time we got back!

cloud cover on top of Pandipathu
Are the clouds climbing up?

We caught up with the group of trekkers, whom we had met up at Athirumala camp - including Anand sir's acquaintance. A short break followed at the edge of the Shola forest adjoining a rock face, giving us a good view of the valley towards Bonacaud at north and east side of the peak. White misty clouds had engulfed the whole valley, making it tough to identify any peaks and we were at a slightly higher altitude than the clouds.

Anjila Pothi
The group of five jutting out

One more short stretch of Shola forest followed, before we came out to face another rock face. A rope was installed here and steps carved in to the rock face to make the climb safe. The high point here, though, was the first view of the valley towards south-east, which hosts the Anjila Pothi(gai) hills. It was a breath taking view, with the clouds hovering around the Pothigai and the five dark-green cone-shaped (among a few other) hills jutting out of the cloud cover. Fortunately for us, it looked like the mist was slowly disappearing and the visibility was good!

Anjila Pothi
Closer look at the five

Yet another stretch of Shola forest followed, taking us right below the peak and very close to the Anjila Pothigai valley. The final climb was yet another rock face - the east face of the peak, installed with rope and steps carved in. By 9.30, we found ourselves at the top of the peak, amidst bright sunshine and clear skies, dispelling all the fears of a mist-covered peak! There is a reasonably flat area at the top, with an Agastya idol and puja area at the center and some forest cover towards south. It was very windy at the top and it felt as if we will fall off, if not careful.

Chemmanju Motta, Pandipathu and Peppara from Agastya Mala
Chemmanju Motta, Pandipathu, Peppara

Even the valley towards north and east was clear now and we could clearly see the trail we took through the grass lands, the previous day. The Peppara reservoir added a bit of blue to the otherwise green valley. The fort-like hill formation near Bonacaud was also visible and the guide told us that the hill range is called 'Pandipathu', with the tallest one in the range being called 'Chemmanju Motta'.

We sat at a view point facing west - which was surprisingly hidden from the wind, trying to identify points in the valley beneath us. Apart from Bonacaud, Peppara and Pandipathu, we could also see the Neyyar reservoir towards south. Back at the peak, we could spot a few more reservoirs towards east, including Pechippara and Karayar (near Papanasam and Panatheertha falls).

Ramaswamy sir and Agastya idol
Tat Tvam Asi!

By the time I came back to the puja area, a few more groups had reached the peak and the puja had started. Ramaswamy sir sat in deep meditation near the idol - almost looking like an idol himself. In a while, he was actively participating in the puja proceedings and serving 'prasadam'. Everybody came forward - including yours truly who is usually a reluctant devotee - paying respect to the Agastya idol and taking blessings from Ramaswamy sir. It was an honour to have this amazing person as part of the group!

Anjila Pothi
A jet flying by the five

Group at Agastya Mala
Posing with the Pandipathu

In between the puja, I also managed to sneak out for a while to explore the southern side of the peak. This side was partly covered in forest before descending in to a valley that seperates the Anjila Pothigai from Agastya Mala. Once the puja was done, we were back on our feet and took a few group pictures. While, we were taking pics, I was lucky to spot a jet flying by the Anjila Pothigai hills as well.

Vishwanath descending from peak
Can this rope hold the weight?

By 11, we started our descend towards Athirumala. We quickly found our way back along the two rock faces and said good bye to the Anjila Pothigai hills before entering the Shola forest above Pongalappara. In less than an hour, we crossed Pongalappara and took a break at the grasslands adjascent to it. Another group of pilgrims were present at Pongalappara and they offered a bowl of 'prasadam' (made of rice and jaggery) to Ramaswamy sir as he made his way down. The short break at the grasslands turned in to a longer break during which we finished the 'prasadam' as well!

We sat there for almost half an hour before continuing our descend. In another 20 minutes or so, we crossed the rocky stretch and entered back the Shola forest stretch below Pongalappara. I was with Vishwa and Ananth, talking about trek trails and the distances were covered in a good pace. In less than an hour, we reached near the last stream before Athirumala and waited there a while for the rest of the group.

Eventually, by 1.30, we were back at Athirumala camp and having lunch - rice and sambar. The original plan was to catch up with Mathan sir and head out looking for orchid flowers, but Mathan sir was nowhere to be seen. We waited a while in the tent, eventually slipping in to a nap. Apparently, Mathan sir had gone out for some work and was not back till evening.

Agastyamala from Athirumala camp
The mighty Agastya!

In the evening, we went for a stroll in to the open area next to Athirumala. Vishwa had plans to get a few videos done for his website, which included a little introduction from Ananth and myself. There was a small halo of clouds around the peak this time and I also took a few more pictures. Finally, we were back at the tent before dark and finished dinner - 'kanji-payaru' again - early and slipped in to a peaceful night of sleep.

Next day, we finished breakfast and was ready to go out by 8. By 8.20, we started descending the 'Muttidiyan Theri' to enter the grassland in another 15 mins. By 9.15, we crossed the grassland and reached near the "last" stream - a lot earlier than we had expected. In a few minutes more, we were at the lunch point, were I took a longish break in the shade waiting for the group, while Ananth left ahead of us all.

Vishwa had plans to visit the Vazhvanthol water falls and it looked like we would make it to Kanithadam forest office before its too late. By 10, we were at Vazapaithiyar and soon went behind the hill which covered Agastya Mala for most of the time. I had to turn back and admire the peak and its neighbors before that happened. At Karamanayar, a group of people from Kerala forest department - including the forest officer at Kanithadam - were going up towards Agastya Mala. Vishwa managed to talk to him regarding Vazhvanthol falls and was told that we can go there after taking permit from the Kanithadam forest office. Ranjith was also instructed to help us with the Vazhvanthol visit.

It was getting hot by now as sun was reaching the zenith. I took a head-dip at the cool water of Karamanayar which felt quite good. Vishwa asked me to see if we can make a call to our driver (Sudhir, who was supposed to pick us up by around 1'O clock) and tell him to come earlier if he can. Ranjith told me that BSNL range is available a little ahead and alerted me when we reached there. I managed to call Sudhir, who was already on his way after buying lunch for us. He promised to be at Bonacaud forest rest house latest by 12.30.

Soon, we were at the foot-trails cutting through the normal trail. Following that we could see more signs of civilization, including some cattle and some workers at one of the camps en route. Like most other treks, the last few kms felt a little longer than usual. Eventually, by 12.00 I could spot the rest rooms near the forest rest house and a few minutes later, I was there. Ananth and Ramaswamy sir had already reached and finished a bath as well.

Even Sudhir reached at the same time, carrying lunch packets for each of us. I ran in to the bath room for a quick shower before opening up the lunch packet for a sumptuous Kerala style meal wrapped in Banana leaves. The rest of the group also reached by then and freshened up one after the other. Before 2, we were heading back to Kanithadam - Ranjith and Vishnu took a stop at Bonacaud to pick up some of their stuff before joining us back. We passed by the Peppara reservoir view point before reaching Kanithadam.

At Kanithadam, we enquired about the Vazhvanthol falls visit, but was discouraged by the forest guards as it takes atleast a couple of hours to go and come back. Besides, most of the group wanted to pay a visit to Padmanabha Swamy temple, which may get difficult if we went for the water-fall. So, Vishwa agreed with the majority and the Qualis was soon headed towards Thiruvananthapuram. We reached the temple right before the opening time and had a good 'darshan' before heading back towards Thampanoor for dinner and boarding our return bus to Bangalore.

After the first Agastya Mala trek, when we hardly saw anything at the peak, this trek has to be counted as a highly succesful one. We had a very relaxed schedule as this was planned to be a 3 day trek, unlike the first one which felt a bit hectic. Most importantly, we had awesome all around views when it mattered and the view of Anjila Pothigai hills jutting out of the hovering clouds alone was worth all the trouble. Thanks to Vishwanath [1] for organizing yet another memorable trek and the rest of the group for the stimulating company. Will remember this for a while to come!

References:
  1. Vishwanath runs an adventure organization called Summiters.



© 2015 Sandeep Unnimadhavan