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Mukurthi peak Trek in January 2007

After the hyperactive traveller bug which bit me post Meesapulimala Trek, the next in line was Kudremukh. The place had been marred by naxals recently and it was always risky to go there. Besides, there was a question of feasibility. So, the gang was downsized to just a few. Rajeev and Jamshy were ready to come and Pappan gave a 'conditional yes'. Just a couple of days before the actual date, I could get hold of the Kudremukh range officer's phone number and the trek plan bombed. Permissions to trek till Kudremukh peak was not being given and I was in no mood to go to the nearby waterfalls :( At this juncture Anil came to our rescue. He had already talked to the wild life warden @ Nilgiris, taken permissions for a trek to Mukurthi peak and looking for company, as his partner ditched him for work!

Mukurthi peak is @ the south west of Nilgiris overlooking the Nilambur forest, @ an altitude abt 2500m. It is among the loftiest in Nilgiris, a touch shorter than Doddabetta (2637m), Kollaribetta (abt 2600m) and Devabetta (2553m). Pappan's 'conditional yes' had already turned into a 'yes' due to the unavailability of a 'special friend' :) Anil was @ my place on a friday eve and Rajeev by next day early morning and we started off in my Versa by a li'l before 6. Bengaluru (Bangalore) - Mysuru (Mysore) road was a breeze as it is nowadays, breakfast @ a restaurant there, we headed towards Ooty via Masinagudi. This is the same route that we used for a previous trip to Ooty and a quite interesting one. The ghat road from Masinagudi is very steep and has 36 hairpin bends. We had ample time and stopped every now and then, took a lot of snaps and climbed up the ghats slowly. This was just after the blossoming of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes Kunthiana) and some flowers, though faded, were still there in the valley, along with a bazillion other varieties of flowers. The only major let down was the Kalhatty waterfalls (about 12 kms before Ooty), which was completly dry by now.

Neelakurinji Flowers
Neelakurinji Flowers ... Not again in another 12 years!

At abt 12.30 we were @ Ooty, near the Wild life warden's office. He lead us to the Nilgiri Wildlife Association for booking accomodation. The procedure took a lot of time, more so coz of some auditing going on there. Meanwhile, we had a very tasty buffet lunch @ Quality hotel and killed time looking at every possible maps / wild life photos we could spot in and around the office. Finally, by abt 3, our guide, Kishore, arrived, and all the formalities completed. Next we headed to Shivani's @ Charring's cross nearby for provisions. Warden also accompanied us, as he had to go to some place near Mukurthi. This turned out to be a blessing later. We picked up the usual suspects from the provision store. Skimmed milk, Bread, Butter, Jam, Cup noodles, Chocolates ... etc ... enuf to survive for a week. Versa was packed, with all the provisions, luggage, 5 of us, the guide and the warden.

The drive was already warned to be a bad one. We headed towards the Ooty lake, passed next to the hotel we stayed during the previous Ooty Trip, and entered the road to Parson's Valley / Porthimund. There are regular buses plying to Parson's Valley and twice a day all the way to Porthimund. The road passed thro' a waste dumping area, with tons of garbage piled up. Past the dumping yard, we were soon into reserve forest area. Minutes later, the warden pointed us to the right. There lied the beautiful Kamaraj Sagar Dam valley. It pretty much gave us an idea of the hills and valleys to follow :)

Kamaraj Sagar dam
Kamaraj Sagar Dam

Animal sighting was supposedly a regular affair here and it started off well with a Nilgiri Langur. We stoped the car and soon the animal jumped to another tree a little away. We got down without making much noice, but this triggered a lot of commotion. There were a lot of Langur in other branches and jumping to the next branches away from us. On closer inspection, we realized that there was an injured Baby Langur and all these adults were gathered around to protect it. The baby was crying loudly and we decided to move away, so that the adults can nurture it. Next to be spotted was a wild fowl, with very brightly coloured plum. It ran away as soon as we stopped. Warden had already shared stories of tiger spotting (just a week before @ 7.30 in the evening) and a panther (a month before) adding to the excitement. Surely, he added the disclaimer that "animal sighing is a sheer matter of luck!"

Abt 5'O clock we reached Parson's valley, 14 kms off Ooty. It had a small town and a tea shop. There, our guide located the gate keeper, who is supposed to open the check post and had the keys to the fishing hut, where we were supposed to stay. At the tea shop, Jamshy had the chance of photographing Mr. Krishnan, one of the most photogenic faces, I've ever seen. After a tea break, we continued the journey towards Porthimund and the gate keeper accompanied us. Versa was already packed and it became worse!

Soon ater Parson's valley we spotted a huge Sambar Deer, probably bigger than any I've seen before. Unfortunately, it was a shy animal too and ran away before we even stopped. We had been seeing view points and valleys on both sides, but the best part was yet to come. Warden was headed towards the Western Cachement area and he took us through some really restricted areas, finally culminating in the Western Cachement II, where there is a small house and a few workers. Daylight had been fading by then and a golden tinge was illuminating the whole place by then. White thick clouds were floating all around the place and now threatening to swallow the red hot sun. A few minutes, spent turning around the vehicle and telling sayanora to the Warden, cost us dear. There, through a gap in between the hills, almost at a level beneath us, the sun was sinking down in an ocean of clouds! Before, we could open up our cameras ... it was gone, arguably one of my best sunsets.

Western Cachement
Valley Of Gold ... @ Western Cachement

Light dropped soon after the sunset and we had to hurry back to the main road and from there to Porthimund. First Rajeev and later Jamshy brought my attention to the fuel gauge. Moving @ 2nd @ 3rd gears, thro' the narrow, hilly and winding roads, petrol was disappearing @ an astronomical rate. I realized that the last time we filled the tank was @ Bangalore and the road was only getting worse. At the Western Cachement II checkpost, the gatekeeper there, hopped inside, till the Porthimund checkpost, were the two gatekeepers opened up the checkpost, promised to be there @ 1.30 next day and let us in.

Soon after the check post, the semi tarred road turned into a non-existent one. It was already dark and the headlights were on. To start with, the road descended down, continued thro' a pile of stones across a stream and then upwards in a quick succession of hairpin bends. Well ... it was fun driving through this road, but our major worry was the fuel gauge. We had only abt a few litres of petrol left and had to go back all the way back to Ooty! Pappan already had ideas of dumping the vehicle right there and walking, another 45mins / 7kms off reserved forest, in the dark amongst 6 tigers as per the latest census. It may have been a lot of fun trekking this distance in day light, but for now, I vehemently opposed. Even if, we run out of gas next day, its fine, but, it was not an option to start walking rite away. I was in no mood to be a tiger dropping! Driving wasnt easy either, there were tree branches and granite stones all over the place, but surprisingly (atleast for others), Versa managed to climb up, stopping only once, after getting stuck in a gutter of stones. I had a little scare seeing water in a few places, which may result in slushes, which could turn out to be dangerous. There were deep tyre marks made by trucks and if we get stuck in slush, it cud be tricky. Anyways, we did reach the Fishing hut, next to Mukurthi lake, by abt 8 in the nite.

The fishing hut is a great place in the middle of the jungle, were according to our guide Kishore, temperature drops below zero most of the time. He was quick to setup the fireplace, bring up the cooking stove and getting the beds ready. We clicked snaps in front of the fireplace, boiled some water and prepared the Cup Noodles, there was one each for all of us. Kishore shared some interesting stories with us, of spotting tigers, about the caretaker called Kasi, who is from Portugal, about Radcliffe, after whom the hut is named. Night was ... and a lot more. We had to start as early as we can on the next day. He said that we could do it as early as 5.30, so that we can hit the peak, before it gets hot. He warned us that temperatures could get to abt 2-3 degress indoor and below zero outside, especially near the lake. Night. We were provided with two thick blankets and also were asked to wear the socks. We were all doubtful in the beginning, but as the night progressed and hands, legs and nose started freezing, we had no options but to believe.

When the alarm set off @ 5, I was curling inside the blanket and trying to warm myself ... and I hated the alarm. Water was freezing cold and taking bath was out of question. Infact, even a visit to the toilet, washing the face and brushing the teeth was extremely challenging. Pappan and Jamshy were laughing at our plan to camp here for the night, with just one bedsheet :) After putting on my sweater, shoes and jumping around for a few minutes I felt better and we were all set to go a few minutes past 6. Almost pitch dark it was, except for the moon and a pen torch that Kishore carried.

Trek started with a jeep track and we soon took a deviation to the grassland. All of us had our hands inside the jacket, to protect from freezing and my nose was already frozen, blocking it completely. In about half an hour, little bit of light started to appear and we were better off after realizing where we are. On our right side was the Mukuthi lake covered with mist/clouds and on the other side was a hill range. With the sunlight illuminating the top of the hill with a golden brown tint, the peak was soon visible.

We had to go around the lake and get down to the level of the lake through a shola forest. By abt 6.30, the visibility was good and we had a view of the peak reflecting in the lake water. Half an hour we were crossing a few streams and the light was enuf to take photographs. The grass had a shiny white cover on top of it, which we realized was frost. By now, the peak was clearly visible and the hill range resembled an old man's face looking upwards, Mukurthi peak being its pointed nose. Kishore stopped few times in between to check out the pug marks and droppings, recognized some as tiger's. Now, that the light had come out we had a chance of even spotting one ... but it stayed just as a chance.

After crossing the streams, we started climbing up the hill, first through a shola and then in open. Sun was out by then and we could freely keep our arms out. I still had my nose blocked and it stayed like that for a long time. The climb up was a steep one and I soon started gasping for breath. Especially with the nose blocked, breathing became extremely difficult but we trudged along. There were couple of nice spectacles in the offering, like the moon still shining up the hill, just next to the peak against a clear blue sky. We climbed up one of the hills en route and entered a shola.

At abt half past 8, it was time for breakfast and Kishore had mentioned about a stream some time back, which we hit soon after the shola. Just next to the shola wsa a grassland, ideal for having breakfast. We stopped there, opened up the bread packet, butter, jam, chocolates and milk, for a sumptuous and tasty breakfast. By this time, the sun was beating down and it was getting really hot. It was indeed a dramatic weather change! We decided to dump our jackets and luggages there, except for cameras and a bag Pappan was carrying, which had water and a few snacks.

Frozen Grasslands
Frozen Grasslands

Ice covered plant
Survival Of The Fittest

Mukurthi hill ranges
Whoz This Old Man?

During the climb
How Much More To Go?

Mukurthi peak
Can We Reach The Moon Too?

Kishore had told us that the next hour is our best chance to spot Nilgiri Tahr and we were all asked to walk silently, which we did. Even tigers come to the foothills, early morning. But, this morning we remained unlucky. Among all the treks I've done, this was probably the best chance to spot exotic wild life ... but may not be this time :( Another half an hour through the sholas, we were @ the foothills, out in the open and the peak looked tantalizingly close. Majestc hills were visible from all sides, the hills of western cachement, Avalanche, Kollaribetta, Niligiri peak and the Mukurthi lake shining right behind us. Kishore, enquired if we are interested in climbing the peak straight, instead of taking the usual zigzag path. We hesitated, the straight path wud obviously be a lot more difficult and may even take more time, but wudnt it be more fun? We thought yes ... and decided for it!

Avalanche hills
Phenomenon Called Avalanche

The final climb was expectedly steep, and a tough one. Kishore ran up the hill and waited for us on the top. But, not so easy for any of us! As we gained height, the views became more and more majestic. Avalanche mountains and Kollaribetta tower towards south looked beautiful and so did the lake. On top of the peak, there was a flag flying high and that was the target. In between, I also spotted a small green snake, which quickly crawled into a hole, before I could take out my camera. Finally, by abt 9.30 we were on top and howling :)

View from the peak
Kerala Is Just A Jump Away!

It felt amazing to be on top of Mukurthi. First of all ... it looked taller than most of the hills around us. On the other side of Mukurthi, was a deep gorge, thick with vegetation (ideal conditions for a shola forest, between two huge mountains), seperating it from the Niligiri peak - slightly shorter than Mukurthi and visibly rocky. Just behind it was another hill range behind, may be the Vavul Mala or Vellarimala and further from that was the tip of another peak popping out of the clouds - had to be Chembra. On another face of the hill adjoining the Avalanche hills was the Nilambur forests, but not very visible in the clouds. Evergreen forests of Silent Valley is also in the same direction, beind the Avalanche hills. Kishore also pointed towards Ooty town, beyond Mukurthi lake and said that the tallest peak in the horizon there is Doddabetta, the 2nd tallest point in south india!

Me @ the top
On Top Of Mukurthi

Almost an hour on top of Mukurthi, taking snaps and enjoying the panorama, reality hit us. We couldnt have stayed on top of the hill forever, though we wanted to. There were mundane things to worry about, like getting back to fishing hut, later to Ooty and driving all the way to Bangalore :( Few more minutes of looking around and clicking some more snaps, we were ready to say goodbye to Mukurthi peak ... nevertheless with a sense of achievement. While climbing down to the foothills Kishore spotted fresh droppings of Nilgiri Tahr, we may have missed one by a whisker!

The return trek consisted of 3 parts - a brisk descend down the hill, a moderately paced walk through the grasslands and tired dragging of feets past the lake, all seperated by breaks in between. The descend from the hill till the breakfast point was especially express, taking only abt 15mins. 5 mins there packing bags ... etc we started off again and almost maintained our speed till the lake. Byt abt 11, we were in the grasslands, crossing the streams. Kishore told us how high the water can become there during monsoons, making it even difficult to cross. Climbing up the valley back to the shola forest, he also showed a cave on the other side of the lake, where he had spotted a tiger earlier.

Past the lake, it was an ascend and I started feeling the tiredness. Coupled with the fact that we were right on time, frequent breaks were taken. Listening to only the gurgling sound of the lake was a soothing experience. Kishore was mentioning about a visitor who spend the whole day sitting just next to the lake. It may have been an interesting thing to do :) Another break @ 11.30 near a smaller stream of water, we were already close to the hut. Dragging my feet for some more time through the forest, we were soon in the jeep path, albeit blocked all over by fallen trees and branches and later in the hut. We had finished the decend in less than 2 hrs and almost made up for the half an hour extra we took for climbing up.

@ Fishing hut
Back @ The Fishing Hut

Back in the hut we had one more eating session ... once again, bread, butter, jam, biscuits and milk and quickly packed. Past 1 we were out of the place, worrying once again abt Versa's fuel gauge. It started OK and made most of the climbs pretty easily. Only @ one point, Kishore suggested that the passengers get out of the car, so that the climb is easy. Past the forest road and descending down the ghats, we reached near the checkpost by abt 1.40, 10 mins later than our promised time. And sure enuf, the gatekeeper was waiting there for us near the stream.

Road to Mukurthi
Crossing The Bridge From Paradise!

Once past the checkpost and back to black top roads, the fear of running out of gas faded away. It almost evaporated once we started seeing other vehicles - couple of jeeps and a bus headed towards Parson's valley. But, we didnt take any risks and resisted the temptation to stop anywhere - heading straight to Ooty. At abt 2.45 we were whistling and shouting 'Jai Versa' slogans, inside an HP petrol bunk. Versa had proved its loyalty once again and I had another narrow escape :) 'Jai jai Versa'! Kishore got down @ Charring's cross and we exchanged contact information for planning more trips. I was quite hungry and wanted a gud lunch and hence headed to the same Quality restaurant, for another tasty buffet - rotis, veg kadai, rice, dhal, curd rice. Needless to say I hogged. Others werent that hungry and setlled down for soups, coffee and sandwitches.

Aint I Handsome?

Trip back also had a few interesting experiences. The ghat roads via Masinagudi is a 'no entry' from Ooty and we had to plead with the police guy standing there to let us in. Near the Kalhatty checkpost, we got a lesson from one of the guys standing there on driving down these ghats. He insisted that we stop for a while, wait for the break drums to cool down and proceed only in low gears, 1st or 2nd. We followed most of the instructions, excpet for the waiting part. The drum was kinda still hot when we started again, but soon I realized how much brakes I am using, which had to change. Rest of the drive till crossing the 36th hairpin bend was relatively slow and mostly in 2nd gear. At Masinagudi, Rajeev took over the wheels and drove all the way till #272, ST Bed before 11 in the nite. At Bandipur, We went through herds of deers and peacocks and a wild boar, making some interesting photographs. Thus, even though we coudnt spot tigers, tahrs or elephants, we had our share of animal sightings!

Stag deer
The Stag Entry!!!

The first trek 2007 was a very interesting one and proved to be a gr8 start. This trek, though a short one, went on as one of my best experiences on foot as well as on wheels. More importantly, there are a lot more interesting trek trails in the Nilgiris leading to various peaks and to places in Kerala. It wud be worth exploring atleast some of these routes. Watch this space for more in days to come!!!

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