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Muthappanpuzha - Swargakunnu - Thollayiram - Kalladi trek in October 2010

Its been a while since I visited Muthappanpuzha and the mesmerizing hills around this rustic village. Muthappanpuzha is where the trek to Vellarimla / Vavul Mala starts. The place also has a trail through the forest leading to Kalladi in Meppadi. I had done part of this trek, uptil Swargakannu, in April 2008. On our visit to Soochipara, a day before the Chembra Trek, I had seen the road from Kalladi towards Anakkampoyil and that triggered the interest to complete this stretch.

My plan was to take a bus to Kozhikode, get down at Thamarassery and take a local bus to Muthappanpuzha via Anakkampoyil. We could complete the trek next day afternoon and then head back to Kalpetta via Meppadi and take a bus to Bangalore from there. Srini could not join us, due to a red eye infection, and that left myself, Thejas and Kaverappa (same gang as the 1st Banasura Trek) for the trek. There was a warning about heavy rains in Kozhikode, but Josettan, my regular guide at Muthappanpuzha, told that Muthappanpuzha is not seeing too much of rains. In any case, we were prepared with our best rain coats :)

Since, self drive was the preferred mode of transport for the rest, we decided to go in Kaverappa's Swift. We should take a lodge in Kalpetta, park the car there and take a bus to Thamarassery. On our return, we could reach Kalpetta by bus and start back to Bangalore. To avoid getting stuck at Bandipur checkpost, we planned to start early after noon. But, as usual, I was the culprit in getting as late as 5. We got out of the city only by 6.30 and it was evident that we would not be able to cross the check post on time.

I was not very keen on waiting at Gundulpet till day break. It would also have delayed the start of our trek. So, I suggested going via Kutta / Mananthavady and the rest agreed. This is the (only) road available to people travelling between North Kerala and Bangalore. I had gone through this road two years back, when it was in a pathetic condition and we were warned that the road is still in a very bad condition. But, we decided to take it as our next best alternative was to spend the night in the car!

From Mysore, we headed towards Hunsur and then took the Virajpet road till Gonikoppal. Hunsur - Virajpet road itself was in a very bad condition with plenty of potholes - actually water pools! We dreaded thinking about the Gonikoppal - Kutta stretch and expected the worst! At Gonikoppal, we turned towards Ponnampet and the quality of the road beat our expectations, primarily because our expectations where kept very low :)

At Ponnampet, we headed towards Kanoor and the road was newly laid here. After sometime, I started doubting if we were on the right road as the sign boards were only showing the distance to Kanoor, about 11kms from Ponnampet. We even drove back at some point and confirmed with a car guy before continuing on this stretch. I was expecting to see some sign boards talking about Kutta after we reach Kanoor, but to our horror, they started showing the distance to Nittur! We kept our faith and continued for some more time till we reached a tri-junction, about 10kms from Kanoor.

There was a signboard here, saying Balale, Ponnampet, Gonikoppal and Hunsur (all the places we came from) to the left and Nagarhole to the right! On examining the board from the other side, it also said that we should go back to reach Kutta! Distance to Ponnampet as per the board was exactly 22kms, which is the distance we travelled from Ponnampet. Obviously, we declared the sign board as wrong or disoriented and took right only to hit a checkpost to Nagarhole which is closed from 6PM to 6AM!

We turned back and tried the other road and passed Nittur. I was wondering how to orient the board so that it shows the directions correctly, when we reached Balale, exactly about 3kms as mentioned by the board! Since, we hit Nagarhole in one direction and Balale in the other, exactly at the same distances shown in the sign board, everything else in the board should also be right :( There is indeed two roads from Ponnampet to this tri-junction, one via Nittur / Balale and the other one via Kanoor - with the distance to the tri-junction from Ponnampet being same via both these roads!!!

This is when Thejas mentioned that he had noted a road going straight at Kannor (from where we took left), which could be the road that we need to take. I thought for a while and felt that the direction of that road sounds alright! We had to go back for almost 15kms to reach Kanoor. Just after Kanoor, sure enough, there was a road towards our left (straight, if coming from Ponnampet). The road was wide enough to be called single lane, but had enough potholes to fit the description of bad road :) May be the first time I felt happy travelling through a bad road.

About 15 - 20 kms on this road took us to Kutta town, from where we took a sharp left turn (almost like a u-turn) towards Wayanad / Kozhikode. When I was here last time, the road from Kutta till the border was in a very bad condition and I was bracing myself for a bumpy ride. But, to my surprise, the road was newly laid and we covered the 2kms to the border in a breeze! And ... hold your breath now ... the roads in Kerala, though narrow, was smooth and rubberized with clear lane marking in the middle!

In case the time of the day is forgotten, it was past 1AM when we reached Kutta. After crossing the border, we entered the Tholpetty wildlife sanctuary and spotted many deer herds on the way. I could not help wondering why the National Highway going through a wild life sanctuary is closed, while people use a district road passing through another wild life sanctuary! It did not make any sense.

Soon, we were at the Kattikulam - Tirunelli - Kutta tri-junction, turning left towards Kattikulam. At Kattikulam, we turned right towards Mananthavady and soon spotted a shop selling snacks. I was feeling very thirsty and stopped to buy water - it was so nice to have finally crossed all the check posts!

We reached Mananthavady in another 10 minutes and took the road towards Kalpetta. This road goes through Panamaram and is about 30kms. Just after 2, we were at Prince Inn, Kalpetta asking for a room and explaining to the guy at the reception that we will be gone next day leaving the car at the lodge premises. Soon, we were at the room calling it a day - a very eventful day for that matter!

Next day started early and we were ready just past 7 and managed to board a Kerala SRTC bus heading towards Kozhikode by 7.30. After passing via the ghats, we were at Thamarassery by 8.40 and then the wait started for a bus towards Anakkamppoyil or Thiruvambady. Apparently, Panchayath elections were being held on the same day, because of which some buses were cancelled. We waited for almost an hour before hopping on to a bus towards Omassery, the next town en route Anakkampoyil.

Even after waiting for yet another hour in Omassery there were no buses towards Anakkampoyil. I was feeling quite hungry by now and picked up some bananas from the nearby shops. After some more time, I gave up on the buses and was checking with the auto guys, when a bus arrived finally - and it was jam packed. The auto guy quoted Rs. 65 for Thiruvambady, the next town towards Anakkampoyil and we took it. It was almost 10'O clock by the time we reached Thiruvambady and we straight away headed to a restaurant for breakfast. The place had nice rice rotis (called 'Pathiri' in Malayalam), which is available only in some restaurants, and I could have a filling breakfast.

After breakfast, we did not bother to check for buses and directly enquired an auto guy - who asked for Rs. 220 for Muthappanpuzha - and settled for Rs. 200. Finally, by 11.30 or so, we were in Muthappanpuzha town, where Josettan was waiting for us. I could see that the town has changed a lot after my last visit. The jeep track from Muthappanpuzha which passes next to Josettan's house was now laid with tarmac. So, we got on to another auto to reach his house, while he promised to come after buying the supplies.

We took a quick dip at the stream running behind Josettan's house and then hogged on to some Tapioca for lunch. By then, Josettan and Ramettan (who will accompany us since he was more familiar with this trail) arrived with the supplies. This is when Thejas and Kaverappa prepared their leech defense - snuff powder mixed with detol on the feet. According to Ramettan, there are leech colonies out there and I also followed whatever they did as it looked like a potent combination :)

Thejas, Ramettan on Hanging bridge
Can this take our weight?

It was 1'O clock by the time we were all set to go. The trail to Swargakunnu - Kalladi starts from a track going to left side of the newly laid road. There was no signs of rain when we started off, but the peaks around us, including the Vellarimala ranges, Kuppippara and the Chenappara, were covered in mist. A few minutes in the track, we reached the Iruvanjippuzha river and the hanging iron bridge across it. The iron bridge is delicate and narrow, with bamboo planks to help the people cross it. It also offered a good view of the river making its way through the rocky terrain.

Iruvanjippuzha from Hanging bridge
Making its way through the rocks!

Ramettan effortlessly walked ahead, carrying a huge jute bag full of things and Thejas kept up with him. Kaverappa followed both of them, while myself stayed back with Josettan for some pics of the river. Soon, Josettan asked me to make it quick as we may get late to reach Swargakunnu. We crossed the bridge and started walking along the jeep track leading towards Swargakunnu. There were many houses along this trail and we met many - buffalos, goats, chicken ... etc :)

The sky soon took a darker shade and it started to drizzle, which we expected to stop anytime. But, the strength of the drizzle only increased with time. We took a few breaks, first on a large rock, where Josettan demonstrated the making of his indigenous back-pack. He tied a long cloth (a thin towel to be precise) from the top of the jute back to its two bottom corners to make it like a back-pack. To make sure that the knot is not un-done, he placed a small stone inside the lower corners of the bag! Now ... he could use it very much like a back-pack!

Our second break was at a farm-house, which was apparently the last electrified house in this stretch. The rain was pretty strong now and I pulled out my rain coat. Thejas was ahead of us and looked determined to finish the trek in good time. It was almost 2 by then and the trail became smaller from here onwards. I spotted interesting fauna as well - like big snails ... etc. But, the more common creature was even more small and creepy - the leeches!

Abandoned house @ Swargakunnu
After a frantic search for leeches!

By the time we reached the grass lands of Swargakunnu, it was about 2.45 and the leeches were in abundance here. We took refuge at an abandoned house and took out the detol bottle to cull the leeches! But, there were too many of them ... probably the most I have seen in any treks. The inhabitants of Swargakunnu had abandoned the place because of two reasons. Firstly, the threat of elephants and secondly because somebody offered to buy their land for a good price - I dont know who and for what ... may be a resort?

The sky was covered with mist by then and the far away hills were hardly visible. But, we could still get a glance of Vellarimala ranges peeping out of its misty cover. It looked beautiful and the contrast the hill ranges made with its mist cover was striking. The trail from Swargakunnu was through a reserved forest and straight away we found holes dug by wild bores. There were huge foot prints made by elephants and bushes thrashed around it. The trail itself was pretty narrow and covered with bushes.

Walking along this trail with heavy rains was the most interesting part of the trek. I pretty much hid the camera inside and did not even dare to take it out in this heavy rains. Ramettan kept ahead and cleared the way for us, with Thejas following him closely. Soon, we could hear the gurgle of a stream flowing in the valley to our left. This stream is apparently a main tributary of Iruvanjippuzha and Josettan told that we will keep to the right side of this stream for a while.

The vegetation was quite thick in this stretch and at one place we even saw a bird's nest with two infants in it. It was quite scary to see them all alone in this cold rainy day. They had no signs of life except for the breathing and I could only hope that they would survive the rains!

First Stream after Swargakunnu
One of the many streams

Rain had subsided into a steady drizzle by now and in another twenty minutes we reached a stream, lush and lovely with water gushing through the slippery rocks. It was about 4 by then and our shelter for the day - a rock cave inside the forest - was about an hour away. We took a break there, had some bread and clicked a few photographs. The leeches were all over us by now and I found one on my neck and another on the shoulder! But, I was not much bothered and too busy inhaling the wild beauty all around us.

Kaverappa and Josettan in the forest
Trail through the bushes

Second Stream after Swargakunnu
Yet another stream

From here on, we saw many interesting creatures and plants - from millipedes and mushrooms to ferns, crabs and spiders. Even though it was quite dark to take good quality photographs and the incessant drizzle prevented me from taking out the camera, I still could not help trying it out once in a while :) By 4.30, we were near another stream. Just after this stream, we climbed up a little, moved around a boulder and there it was - our accomodation for the day!

At the cave entrance
Accomodation for the day!

There was a water source - with a mini waterfall - just next to the cave, which faced a huge valley. The cave was about a meter high and had space for five people to sleep without much trouble. Water seemed to seep in from the other side, but the inside was dry and guaranteed us a safe shelter for the night.

It was time to remove the shoes and inspect the feets for leeches. I found one in my feet, but the damage was minimal, considering the huge amount of rain and the population of leeches. We only had the cocktail concocted by Thejas - detol and snuff powder - to thank for. After cleaning our feet, myself and Thejas changed to some dry clothing, while Kaverappa preferred to stay on with his wet cloth.

By this time, Josettan and Ramettan started preparing the camp fire. There was some firewood lying there - from the last visit of Ramettan, which made the campfire quite easy to make. In no time, tea was prepared and we realized that there were no glasses! But, I had small juice packets of tropicana which was opened up and used as a glass! Necessity is indeed the mother of all inventions :)

It was time to sit down and chat now and Thejas and Kaverappa started their conversation revolving around atheism, evolution and philosophy. I picked up a conversation with Ramettan and quickly realized his passion for adventure. In his own words, he feels an attraction from unconquered hills and could not help trying to scale them! I knew exactly what he meant and a connection was formed instantly!

I quizzed him on trails leading to the mystical peak of Wayanad - the tallest in the district at 2100m (which is not the Chembra peak visible from Meppadi, as the public is made to believe) and he promised to help me scale it[1]. There was another peak - the Vattapara, according to him - which lies opposite the Vavul Mala and accessible via the Chooralmala. In Wayanad side, this peak is referred to as Vellarimala and I had mistaken this as hills of Nilgiris during my trek to Vavul Mala. He said that there is a trail leading to Vattapara starting from the south eastern slopes of Vavul Mala. It was quite exciting even to think about doing these treks!

Night in the cave
Food for the night!

The drizzle was still on and soon it became dark. Josettan prepared a very spicy version of sambar to go with boiled tapioca. I was spectic about the combination, but it tasted good as the sambar was spicy and we all were hungry! More conversations about Ramettan's adventures followed and he turned out to be a very cool, happy go lucky fellow with a simple philosophy towards life and no fear whatsoever!

Soon, the sheets were spread and the sleeping bags opened. We all drifted towards sleep listening to the gurgle of the stream. For a long time, I confused the sound of the streams with a drizzle and realized it only after a long time. My sleep was intermittent and I was totally awake by (what I thought was) 6'O clock. I kept wondering why it is so dark outside even after 6 and even woke up Josettan half an hour later. Soon, it became brighter and I realized that it was only going to be 6! I had confused 5'O clock with 6.

Spider @ the mini waterfall
Along came a spider!

Josettan soon started the day, by setting up the fire and preparing the vegetables. This time, he made some rice and a (yet again) spicy onion curry to go with it. I headed to the stream for a brush and ended up spending a lot of time with the camera. There were spider webs all around the stream forming beautiful frames, had I carried a macro lens! I tried to get some shots with the lens I had but did not have much success. Finally, by 7.30 I gave up and headed back to the cave to claim my share of the breakfast!

Thejas was by now looking at a crab being fried by our guides. He is a pure vegetarian and did not want to eat crab, but hey ... we were in a jungle with scarce food supplies and this could always be considered as 'for survival'. But, he gave up as he did not get any takers in myself and Kaverappa, eve though Josettan taunted him with ... 'what kind of guys are you?'.

Camp inside the cave
Pack Up!

By 8.30, we said good bye to our shelter and headed back to the trail. Ramettan showed me a hill - called Neelimala - behind us and a small valley. This hill was apparently next to the Thusharagiri falls. There was one more hill ridge to our left side, which was beautifully lit by the rising sun. The ridge was falling off as we moved forward and it looked like we would finally cross it. Our trail was hardly visible due to the forest cover and fallen trees, but Ramettan managed to find the way through the forest.

We were ascending slowly and crossed a few more small streams, before finally reaching the ridge. For a brief time, we were able to see the Chenappara hill as well as the Vellarimala ranges. But, they soon got lost in the thick vegetation around us. The trail continued along the forest for a long time, evoking questions like 'How much more to go?'

The ascend ended by around 10, when we reached a junction of five trails. A trail joined us from our left side and more trails were there to our right. Josettan told me that the trail from the left is coming from the Thusharagiri falls. The junction is also the border of Wayanad and Kozhikode district and we were entering Wayanad district now.

I tried taking one of trails to the right side hoping to get a better view of the hills around us, but everything was burried deep in thick vegetation. So, we gave up and continued on our trail - the one slightly towards left. With the thick vegetation and elephants roaming around, Ramettan had some trouble finding the way down. We ascended for some more time, went around a hill and then started coming down on a steep trail.

One thing that did not change much between Kozhikode and Wayanad was the amount of leeches. They were in abundance and clung on to our shoes any time we slowed down. We took frequent breaks to cull them out, but the breaks may have done more harm than benefit. I was warned by Josettan not to keep my bag down. If I did, leeches will cling on to the bag and then find their way inside my shirt - making it very difficult to see them. He was quite right, as I spotted one clinging on to my lower back!!! and then a few more on the belly! The positive was that, all of them were well fed and ready to drop off, so I did not have any trouble pulling them out!

Josettan, Thejas and Kaverappa
Descending to 'Thollayiram'

We also passed through a marsh land with a slushy stream. Even though we took good care and tried crossing through the areas covered in grass, I still managed to get one of my feets dipped in mud. Never mind, there was a stream right ahead were I could wash my feet! By 11, we reached yet another stream where we took a longer break and finished off the juice packets. I found a few more leeches inside my shirt and could only hope that there were no more!

Jeep track to Kalladi
The Jeep track

The area around us used to be an estate, which was now abandoned. In another 15 minutes, we reached a jeep track, paved with granite rocks, connecting the Kalladi village to an estate. This place was called 'Thollayiram' and was home to a few families, couple of estates and a resort. The word 'Thollayiram' means 900 in Malayalam and I have no clue how that became a place name :) Kalladi village on Meppadi - Soochippara road is about 8 kms from here.

Green Hills and the Gang!
Green hills of Kalladi

The jeep track had good vegetation on both sides, some part of the estate. In this stretch, we were able to see a colorful snail and get a closer view of the 2100m peak in Wayanad. I had seen the same peak as a silhouette when we visited Kalladi a day before our Chembra Trek. On the other side of the trail, we could see yet another tall hill, possibly a tail of Vattapara in Vellarimala ranges.

Stream at Thollayiram
The brook near Brookside

In the initial stretches of the jeep track, there was hardly any inhabitants. We did see a board showing 'Nirupama Plantation' and 'Brookside Estates', other than which there were no sign of people. But, as we moved forward, there were more people and houses. As we neared Kalladi, there were houses on either side of the road. By then, the jeep track became a full blown turmac road and we crossed many more streams.

At about 1.30PM we were at Kalladi village, waiting for some transport to Meppadi / Kalpetta. No buses turned up for a while, but a service jeep heading to Meppadi picked us up for Rs 5 / head. The jeep was already crowded, but we managed to squeeze in. At 2'O clock we were having our lunch at Pravasi restaurant in Meppadi.

After lunch, we had to wait a while for a bus to Kalpetta. Finally, by about 3.30 we were at Prince Inn, Kalpetta and relaxing. Josettan and Ramettan came with us to Kalpetta and left after freshening up. We checked out by 5.30 and after a tea / coffee break at the hotel started our drive back to Bangalore. This time, we took the tried and tested Kalpetta - Sulthan Bathery - Gundlupet - Nanjangud road and reached Mysore by 8'O clock, in spite of some heavy traffic.

After a good dinnner, I shifted to the rear seat and dozed off comfortably, only to be woken up as we reached Bangalore city. Usually being the last person to reach home, it felt nice to be dropped at my doorsteps this time - Thanks to Kaverappa and Thejas :)

References:
  1. We did scale Wayanadan Mala, about four months later.



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