Trek to Chembra in January 2005 was one of the most memorable - it was here that I first trekked in Kerala, it was here that I first attempted a drive-to-trek in Western ghats and it was here that I first saw Vavul Mala, the quest to scale which lead me to Anakkampoyil 3 years later. So, when Sunil suggested doing a trek, Chembra was the easiest choice for a repeat.
Chembra is the tallest peak in Wayanad district of Kerala at 2100m as per the records of forest department. The peak is near the Meppadi (Meppady) town and in close proximity to the Vellarimala hill ranges partially in Kozhikode district. The peak offers a good view of the entire Wayanad district as well as some of the hill ranges outside Wayanad. Some of the taller peaks in Vellarimala ranges (notably Vavul Mala and Masthakappara, both in Kozhikode district) is taller than Chembra.
I have seen many Internet articles about the 'Real Chembra' being further away in the jungle and a conspiracy by forest dept to cover this up. I had also felt a tinge of disappointment after scaling Chembra, at noticing taller hills on the other side of a valley. I also asked the same 'which is that peak, if Chembra is the tallest in Wayanad?' question and later believed that they are part of the Velalrimala hills. The trek to Chembra peak is very straight forward and is always upwards in a grass land. So, I did have a hard time believing the conspiracy theory. But, this time I wanted to check it out and make sure!
The other two options in Wayanad was the trek to Vellarimala via Chooralmala and the one to Banasura peak. I was denied permissions to Banasura peak last year by the RFO, expected the status to stay same and did not try again. Instead, I tried to get permissions to trek to Vellarimala hills via Chooralmala, but was not allowed. So, I finally settled down for Chembra. Sunil had gone to Chembra only a couple of months before, but he also agreed that it is a good place to go again.
The plan was to travel on a friday evening and stay over-night at some lodge near Gundlupet / Nanjangud. The trek to Chembra was scheduled for early morning on sunday. On saturday we could visit Soochipara and Meenmutty falls. Also, I wanted to see if we can get to the top of Neelimala and get a view of Meenmutty from the top.
Though, many people signed up to come in the beginning, it came down to just Sunil and Amit on the day that mattered. We reached Nanjangud by midnight and stopped at a lodge next to the railway crossing - where a 3-bedroom was quoted at Rs. 600! I was sure that the rates are high only because the stretch of NH212 and NH67 going via Bandipur sanctuary was closed in the night and people who travel in the night will have to stop at Nanjangud or Gundlupet. But, there was no guarantee that things could be better at Gundlupet. Infact, it could be worse there and we decided to call it a day here.
Next day started quite early and we reached the Bandipur checkpost by 6.30. We spotted a few peacocks on our way and stopped for some shots to finally make it to Sulthan Bathery by 8. After breakfast at 'Jubilee hotel' we reached Kalpetta - Meppadi road before 9.30 and Meppadi in another 10 minutes. The Chembra peak is visible all through this area and has a majestic presence with its high altitude, lush green grass top and clouds hovering around!
At Meppadi we took the road to Soochipara which is also the way towards Kalladi and Chooralmala villages. I could spot a hill range southwards of Chembra, which appeared more prominent as we moved away from Meppadi. I could not be sure, if it is the Vellarimala - Vavul Mala hills but the shape looked quite familiar. We quickly reached Kalladi and passed a bridge flowing across a stream. Immediately after the bridge, I noticed a jeep track going to the right side with a milestone marked with distances to Anakkampoyil - this was the road which will lead us to Anakkampoyil via Swargakunnu. I chatted with a villager to check this out while Amit picked up his photography gear and started chasing a group of butterflies.
|Can u see the hills at the horizon?
We spent a while there as I joined Amit with my gear :) and time went by. I was woken up when I saw a line of 4 tourist buses, apparently carrying school children to Soochipara falls. It would be a disastor to be there along with such a huge crowd and I lamented spending too much time here.
We started quickly and caught up with the buses, but was still behind them when they took a left turn from the main road in to a small road leading to the falls. The road was just wide enough for a bus and we had no option but to follow the cavalcade. When I got a chance in a corner, I managed to overtake two of the buses, but we spend quite a long time waiting for the buses in front to finish taking their turns!
After a frustrating drive sandwitched between four huge tourist buses we reached the parking lot for Soochipara falls. Without wasting further time, we got ready, picked up the entry tickets (total Rs. 130 - Rs. 20 / head for entry, Rs. 25 / camera and Rs. 20 for parking) and headed towards the falls beating the long line of school children who were already moving in a cue!
Soochipara is one of the most popular picnic spots in Wayanad and in spite of having visited Wayanad many times, it was my first time here. Soochipara translates to ('Soochi means needle and 'Para' means rock in Malayalam) Needle Rock, which is also a name used to refer to these falls. The place was well organized and looks like huge crowd is expected here during weekends. The place was managed by the local 'Vana Samrakshana Samithi' / VSS (meaning 'organization for protection of forests' in Malayalam) and they strictly enforced a ban on plastic, smoking and alcohol within the waterfall premises - a welcome enforcement and a need in many more places.
The initial portion of the (about 1km) trail to the water falls was beautiful with well laid out steps and seats for people to take a break. Surroundings were beautiful with the early morning mist. At one point, we could catch a glimpse of the pointed rock next to the water falls - the Needle Rock - from which the falls derived its name. From this point onwards, the descend starts - first gradually on steps. Later the steps disappeared and the trail became steeper and narrower.
Water at the Needle Rock
Soon, we reached the waterfalls - not a big one by any means, but the power of the water thundering down was tremendous. I was told that it is a 3-tiered falls and the visitors get to see only one of the tiers. In spite of that, just standing next to the falls with tiny water drops getting sprayed on the face, listening to the thunderous sound of the falls was amazing. There was already a small gang of people taking bath in the pool near the falls and after taking some shots, I wanted to be there too. In no time, all three of us were in the falls. The water was very cold and I was glad I postponed my bath for this moment!
Amit, the shooter!
At about 11.30, after having a good time at the pool, we started back and had a slow leisurely walk, with Amit taking time to shoot all the small flowers and water droplets and me giving him company :) I stopped when I discovered that my battery was going down. I had a backup battery for the trek, but wanted to preserve it for the next day. It started drizzling soon and we ran back to the parking lot, changed our cloths and headed back towards Meppadi.
After lunch at the 'New Paris' hotel at Meppadi, we also booked a room there to avoid any last minute hazzles. The next stop was the Meppadi Range Forest Office, where I wanted to enquire about a few things. I could not meet the RFO, but figured out that permission to trek from Chooral Mala to Vellarimala may be difficult atleast for now. But, the good news was that the Banasura peak and Kurichyar Mala is now open for trekkers! Also, camping is allowed near the Chembra peak. But, we decided to stick to our current plan of doing the trek on sunday and coming back the same day. Camping could always be done on some other day!
All this took a lot of time and by the time we headed towards Vaduvanchal, it was almost 2.30. I called up Thomas Chettan (who was the guide during my first visit to Meenmutty falls and also for the Vaduvanchal - Nilambur trek via Meenmutty) and he reminded me that we should be there before 4PM to be allowed entry at the ticket counter. He suggested that we could visit the falls first and then go up Neelimala as that would not require any permissions. So, we hit the Meppadi - Vaduvanchal - Pandalur - Gudalur road and reached Vaduvanchal in about half an hour.
To reach Meenmutty, we had to go further from Vaduvanchal towards Pandalur and take a jeep track going to the right side. Thomas Chettan's house was also on this route and we stopped at his place only to be told by his wife that he is at the ticket counter. In any case, we parked the car there, got ready and headed towards the ticket counter, where Thomas Chettan was waiting for us.
The entry fees at this counter was Rs. 300 (for a group of size less than 10), which also covers guide fees. Once again, the place was managed by the local VSS and they ensured that plastic, smoking and drinks was not allowed. We went in with Thomas Chettan and passed through some coffee estates before the descend became steeper. Apparently, the trail was made a one-way to manage the huge weekend crowd. People could go first to the lower tier of the water falls, then climb up to get to the upper tier and then come back to the entrance via another trail.
During the descend, I also noticed that the trail is enforced with ropes and bamboo poles for support so that people find it easier to descend. Even though, this amounted to commercializaton, it was heartening to see that all the right measures were taken to control the rogue crowd. The poles and ropes would surely help the not-so-adventurous visitors as the trail is indeed very steep.
Upper tier is prettier!
By this time, the mist was getting thicker and Neelimala was almost fully covered in mist, making it futile to go up Neelimala. It was also getting late, in case we wanted to go. So, I almost made up my mind to spend some good time at the falls instead of worrying about Neelimala. The water fall was almost full in the middle of monsoon and we had to stay within the barricades. But, at the upper tier we were able to get closer to the falls and get some good shots.
Sunil, the model!
Meenmutty is far more voluminous than Soochipara, but the negative was that, especially during monsoon, getting close to the water falls was not possible. During my first visit to Meenmutty, Thomas Chettan had taken us to two more tiers - one above and one below these two tiers. Also, since that visit was in March, we could get close to the water falls. In spite of these limitations, Meenmutty falls is indeed a pretty sight!
The return from the water falls is a tough ascend and most of us were taking heavy breaths by the time we reached back. So, we stopped at a shop (run by Thomas Chettan) which sells butter milk and a had a few gulps. The mist had covered the Neelimala by now and so we cancelled the plan to visit Neelimala and walked back to Thomas Chettan's house. On the way, Amit spotted a few spiders and headed to take some shots. This time, I could not join him as my camera battery was now fully out of charge!
Soon, we bid adieu to Thomas Chettan and headed back to Meppadi. We had dinner at the same 'New Paris' hotel and hit the bed before 10, so that we can have an early start next day for our trek to Chembra. The hotel guys told that they will be open as early as 6.30 and we can have breakfast as well as lunch parcels for the trek. I had checked at the Meppadi Range Forest Office, who told that the VSS office at Chembra estate opens by 7.30 and we can start the trek quickly. So, we planned to get up by 5 and reach the foot hills as early as we can.
In the morning, there was the usual delay, both from our end as well as at the restaurant, making it about 7.30 by the time we left Meppadi. The breakfast was a bit too oily for Amit - who could not handle coconut oil - and he opted to buy a pack of bread and jam for his lunch. We took the road to Chembra estates, which meanders through endless stretches of tea estates. The sky was clean and blue with a few white clouds adding to its charm. On one side, the Chembra peak stood tall rising above everything else.
|Chembra tea estates
Soon we spotted the VSS office and went in to take permissions. Here, the entry fee for the day trek (up to the peak and back on the same day) was Rs. 500 for group sizes up to 10. There were no guides at the office, but the person there told us that we can find one at the entry point. So, we continued towards the foothills, parked the car near the checkpost and walked up to the watch tower about 10 minutes from the check post.
During my last trek to Chembra, I had started the ascend near the checkpost only and skipped the watch tower. But, this time, we headed towards the watch tower. I also wanted to use the toilet and clear some doubts before starting the trek :) The toilet was clean and well maintained and all doubts were cleared quickly ;-) When I came back, there was a guide waiting for us with two foreign nationals and we were asked to go with them.
Sunil wondered if we can keep up with the speed of these foreigners and the guide told that we can come slow, if they are going too fast. Ofcourse, we were in no hurry and agreed. Besides, the trail was very straight forward and there was no fear of getting lost. Finally, the trek started exactly at 9 and as expected the foreigners pulled away from us in no time.
The initial portion of the trek was the most testing. In the first 10 minutes we climbed up a good distance and started breathing heavily. The ascend to Chembra starts very quickly, without offering any time to warm up. I just told myself that I would be alright as soon as I warm up and continued to push myself for some distance. Soon, we saw the trail from the check post joining ours, watch tower looked far and small now, then there was some level ground and finally we were in the grass land.
Trail along the grass land here had many water sources and most of them offered crystal clear and cool water. I sipped some and it tasted heavenly, better than any mineral water in the market and drove away all exhaustion. Water should not be a problem for a Chembra trek as it was available in good quality and quantity, atleast till summer. Infact, some portion of the trail here was also water logged as it was seeping down from the nearby shola forests.
Lake trapped in the hills
The settings were so beautiful - lush green grass covering every piece of land, bright blue sky, hills on the horizon and spotless white cloud hovering all around. The trek up to Chembra now had seven stages / hills. In about half an hour, we climbed the first hill to reach the first lake. The place was now breathtaking and both Amit and myself got lost trying to capture the beauty of the place.
I could spot Pookode Lake, Karapuzha Dam cachement and the Banasura Dam cachement, apart from many hills around us, including the Ambukuthi Mala (where Edakkal caves is located). One of the hills in a group along the direction of Mananthavady stood out and I felt it could be the Banasura peak. There was another nearer peak to its south (towards Vythiri) which stood among the clouds, which I could not identify. Sunil, was getting bored waiting for us and started moving ahead of us. We followed, wondering what is in store for us in this beautiful place!
By about 10, we reached the 2nd hill, which hosted the famous heart shaped lake (called 'Hridaya Saras' in Malayalam, 'Saras' being lake and 'Hridayam' meaning heart). 'Hridaya Saras' is one of its kind and finds mention in many legends. It is also believed to have not dried ever - not even at peak summer season. As we were walking towards the lake, our foreign buddies and the guide was heading towards the peak. We wished them an enjoyable trek and promised to meet them on their way back!
The trail ahead
We did spend a while near the lake trying to capture it and the surroundings in our cameras. The Chembra peak stood tall on the other side, partially covered in mist and we could see it getting reflected in the lake. From here, the climb looked very straight forward, always in the grass land, tricking anyone to believing that it could be completed in less than hour, but the truth was far from it!
The awesome Lake
Sunil was already bored with the two us, as we spent too much time with camera. He also used to do aerobics everyday and was very fit. So, he started moving ahead, while Amit and I proceeded very slowly. We were shooting at almost every scenery, flowers and insects, while I was also wondering about the identity of the hills around us. Finally, at some point, we realized that the peak is still too far away and we are only at the third hill or so. We tried to speed up from here and targeted to reach the peak by atleast 12.
Lost in the cloud!
We counted the number of hills we were passing and spotted the foreigners at the peak soon. At about 11.30, Sunil also was at the top and I was getting worried as the mist started surrounding us. It would be heartbreaking to be covered in the mist, when we are up there!
Between the fifth and sixth hill, we met the foreigners and the guide on their way back. The guide mentioned that he did not have any food as they were not carrying any food. I offered him food as we were carrying food for four people and Amit had taken bread and jam for himself. But, he preferred to reach back quickly and take off for the rest of the day as he had spent the night at the forest office.
We also had a chat with the foreigners who introduced themselves as James and Tom. They were students from England and one of them had trekked Kilimanjaro. They both looked happy with the place and the trek.
I scaled Chembra!
The model strikes again!
At the top of Chembra
A little later, we reached the peak and it was exactly 12. So, we concluded that even a leisurely trek to Chembra would take only 3 hours. There was still some mist around us, but I could clearly see the peaks on the other side as and when the mist got cleared. These peaks were not visible while we climbed as it was blocked by the one we climbed.
Vellarimala hill ranges?
The direction and shape of these hills looked very similar to that of the Vellarimala hill ranges, but to make sure that this is the case, I picked up a few shots, which could be compared with my earlier shots as well as the pictures from Google Earth.
We also met two guys who were doing their PhD in Calicut University. Their subject was Botany and their search for a specific medicinal plant species had taken them here. Both were 'Prasad' and one of the Prasad's is from Wayand itself and very knowledgable about the places. He showed us where most of the towns are and identified the peak near Vythiri with clouds hovering around it as Kurichyar Mala.
After spending almost an hour at the peak, we decided to head back. The descend was quicker as always. By 1.40 we were at the lake and decided to have lunch. Since, the Prasads were not carrying any lunch we offered to share the food and they accepted. Their professor was waiting at the lake for them to come down and he also joined us. While we emptied 'Appam' and 'Puttu' with 'Kadala' curry discussion was on about various peaks, out of which Agastyakoodam stood out. The professor suggested that if the permissions are difficult to obtain from the Kerala side, there is always an option to climb this peak from the Tamil Nadu side.
As I got up after lunch, I felt my thigh muscles getting pulled badly. But, the pain went away as I took a few minutes rest. We continued the descend after 2 and quickly reached the water sources. I was feeling thirsty by then and took a few gulps. Soon, we spotted the trail splitting in to two, one leading towards the checkpost and the other one leading to the watch tower and opted to go towards the watch tower.
At about 2.45 we reached the watch tower, said good bye to the forest guards and headed towards the checkpost. As, the Prasads and their Professor did not have any vehicle, we offered to drop them back at Meppadi and they accepted. It was already very hot by then and I jumped in to the car to escape from the hot sun.
Soon, we bid adieu to our friends, took a bath at the hotel, checked out and headed back to the highway. It was a nice drive back home, with only a few short breaks, the last one near Gundlupet for an early dinner. We were in Mysore before 9 and reached Bangalore city limits before 11. After dropping Sunil and Amit, I was home by midnight.
The next few days were spent comparing the various photographs - old and new - with the images from Google Earth and I was in for a shock. It is very obvious from the Google Earth images that the peak we climbed was about 1800m and there was another peak further away which was about 2100m. I matched the pictures I took with images from Google Earth and it became quite obvious that the Chembra we climbed was not 2100m. May be the Chembra as known to the local forest department official and others from Wayanad is what we have climbed - but that is surely not a 2100m peak!
What Google Earth says!
In the image taken from Google Earth, I have marked the peak we climbed and the trail, as it comes from the heart shaped lake. The 2100m in the picture (which I marked as Chembra Peak) is further away and the trail goes through thick forest region. But, our trek to Chembra was straight forward and always through open grass lands. Also, the hills visible from the peak we climbed looked connected, while there is a deep valley between the 2100m peak and the Vellarimala hills.
Vavul Mala and real Chembra?
Most probably the 2100m peak is the one marked on the right side in the above picture as the side by side comparison of Google Earth images with my picture shows. The silhouette of the hills behind this main peak (not so clearly visible in this picture), marked on the left side is Vellarimala. The portion of Vellarimala we can see from the 1800 peak is towards Wayanad and must be the one accessible via Chooralmala. During the Vavul Mala trek, I had mistakenly thought that this hill is part of Niligiris! Vavul Mala and Masthakappara is hidden behind the left flank of the 2100m peak. After checking my old pics from Mukurthi, I also felt that the hills visible from the top of Mukurthi may indeed have been Chembra (the 2100m peak) and Vellarimala.
Now the plot got thicker - it may be next to impossible to convince the forest department that the peak where people are taken is not the 2100m, touted as the tallest peak in Wayanad. It may also be possible that the officials already know about this. In any of the above circumstances, it will be impossible to get permissions to scale the tallest peak in Wayanad!
Instead, I should go back to Vavul Mala once more to spot the 2100m and Mukurthi peak. And maybe climb Mukurthi again to spot the 2100m peak and Vellarimala! Also, it is important to climb Vellarimala from the Chooralmala village. God ... I have so many excuses to do many more treks and I should now start working on getting the required permissions!