Pandiar - Devarbetta - Mukurthi - Western Cachement - Avalanche trek in March 2013
In January 2007, I went for a trek to Mukurthi
and came back mesmerized by the beauty of the national park. During the trek, our guide talked about the many tall peaks in this area - but I did not catch all the details as the geography was very new to me. On return, I read in detail about this area and was dying to go back and explore more, ever since.
Mukurthi national park and the Kundah hill ranges host some of the loftiest peaks in southern India. These grasslands are also ecologically sensistive areas, making the access restricted and trek permissions difficult to get. Anil had managed all the permissions for us and I soon realized that I was extremely lucky to be invited by him!
I also rued not having done a Silent valley trek, when I could - way back in 2004. The trek is possibly the most romantic treks in southern India, starting from Mukkali in Palakkad, Kerala, passing through the core area of Silent valley to reach Bangitappal via Sispara pass. All my attempts to get permissions later was unsuccesful. I also recieved enquiries by many other people regarding trek permissions in Mukurthi or Silent Valley - but most efforts eventually hit a dead end!
Years later, I had an opportunity to visit the Kundah hill ranges, when Sriram planned a comprehensive trekking expedition in Nilgiri region. I could not join for the Mukurthi trek, but managed to visit Bangitappal and Kolaribetta (the highest peak in this region @ 2629m) on wheels, as some of these locations are motorable. Sriram planned two more treks later to Anginda and Nilgiri peaks, that had me all charged up. Anginda is a peak near Sispara and the tallest in Silent Valley @ 2383m, while Nilgiri is a difficult-to-reach peak @ 2474m, adjascent to Mukurthi. Unfortunately though, I could not join due to some domestic reasons - which till date remains at the top of my 'golden-opportunities-missed' list :(
Some consolation came when I met Ramkumar Gopalan [1
], who had good knowledge about reserved forest areas in Tamilnadu. We were planning some treks in the Teni area first, which did not work out. Ram was in touch with Srinivas Reddy IFS, project director, Hill Area Development Program at Tamilnadu Forest Department. When I heard that Srini sir was organizing a Mukurthi trek, there was no way I would let go of this 'opportunity
', after having missed a few earlier.
Thanks to many of the earlier plans that did not work out in the end, I was still very pessimistic about the trek actually happening! But, to my utter disbelief, everything worked out as planned :) There was some confusion in the bus booking, as very few overnight buses are allowed via Bandipur. But, Ram (with Srini sir's help) managed to book tickets in a Rajahamsa bus which had overnight permits via Bandipur. On a friday evening, Ram, myself and five of his friends boarded the bus to Ooty. After meeting up with everybody and settling down in the bus, I could not help pinching myself to see if I am actually going :)
In the wee hours of the day, we were at Gudalur town, checking out the coffee there. This is where I met the rest of the guys in the gang - Aravind, Karthikeyan, Madhav, Shankar and Sudheer. Most of them were seasoned trekkers and carried SLR cameras. Sudheer was active with Bangalore Ascenders [2
] and had extensive trekking experience in western ghats. Madhav is a wild life expert and a brilliant photographer, with a very active flickr page [3
]. One more person - Ramesh, joining from Chennai - would come directly to Ooty.
The original plan was to get down at T R Bazaar - about 30 mins / 18kms from Gudalur - where we would be picked up. Ram called up Srini sir to confirm and was told to stay back in Gudalur - so that the pick up vehicle can find us without any trouble. In a while, the forest department's jeeps arrived and we got in. The jeep followed the Ooty road for a while, before turning in to a jeep track before T R Bazaar. In a while, the sun came out and we were in a curvy / dusty road open only to forest department. We stopped once to check on Ramesh - who was now past Coonoor en route Ooty - as mobile coverage would be intermittant (at best) moving forward. The break gave us some time to get out and feel the cold misty morning!
Soon, we were in Pandiar rest house, located right in the middle of a pine forest. As per a board outside the building, it is built in 1966 and located at an altitude of 2253m. Recently renovated, the rest house looked more like a good home stay in the middle of the forest. It had a few rooms inside, with attached bath rooms, apart from a shed outside for cooking and cleaning.
Inside, we met Sadique and his friend Shahabas who were also scheduled to join for the trek as per Srini sir's invitation. Sadique is a young, budding photographer from Kerala, who wanted to build his career around wild life photography [4
]. With the advantage of a common mother tongue, we quickly became friends.
Srini sir arrived soon and infected us all with his energy and enthusiasm. He explained about the plan and showed us the trek route in a map he carried. We would head towards Devarbetta now, which is at an elevation of 2553m as per the map. From there, we would head towards Mukurthi peak, at an elevation of 2554m and then camp near the Mukurthi lake. It was good to see that somebody at his position really enjoyed the forests and wild life, with a willingness to do anything for its conservation. Also, his down-to-earth nature was evident from the way he interacted with everybody - including the forest watchers who worked under him.
The jeep picking up Ramesh also arrived by this time. The forest guards had the breakfast prepared and served as a buffet outside, which we all grabbed in no time. Even the lunch was ready - individual packets of lemon rice, ready to be picked up by each member of the group. By about 9.15, we were all ready and raring to go. It was time for a few group photographs and then we were off to a trail leading up, accompanied by a handful of forest guards.
We started off climbing towards east, to reach a ridge within 15 minutes. Once at the ridge, we could see the Devarbetta peak as well as the tip of Mukurthi peak. We turned towards south now, walking through the forest cover, mostly comprising of wattle. As we moved through the tree cover, Srini sir identified the various kind of flora - he even picked up a few edible berries.
I was trying to stay as close as possible to Srini sir to follow the bits of information he shared. Madhav was also there along with us and both of them were soon discussing about wild life. It was great to note that Madhav was an avid wild life enthusiast and watches a lot of NGC and Animal Planet! His database was so huge that it was safe to say he could identify anything that moves!
The Mukurthi lake
Soon, we were out of the tree cover and started getting magnificient views of the Mukurthi lake towards our east. We took ample amount of breaks, trying to capture the landscapes, with the Pichalbetta range of hills forming a beautiful background for the Mukurthi lake. Towards south-east, I could see the cliffs, which formed the edge of Nilgiri plateau. One of these cliffs had a needle shaped rock which immediately reminded me of Devil's gap.
Is that the Devil's gap?
I had seen a similar rock structure from a location close to Bangitappal during an earlier visit and was then told that it is Devil's gap. WiKi [5
] describes Devil's gap as 'an extraordinary chasm situated at the top of the escarpment, four miles (6 km) north of the steepest part of Sispara pass
', which pretty much fits the location I had spotted this peculiar shaped rock. A forest watcher confirmed that my suspicion was correct, but I could not find any pictures of Devil's gap from a distance, to convince myself.
By 11.15, we were at the tallest point in this area - the Devarbetta peak. Most of the information online (including WiKi [5
]) has no information regarding this peak, but Derbetta (or Bear hill) finds a mention everywhere. Derbetta is usually described to be 'at an altitude of 2531m, south of the Ouchterlony valley, a continuation of Kundah valley
'. I was unable to find the exact co-ordinates of Derbetta anywhere (online or offline). But, I did find some material (a manual on Nilgiri, composed during British Raj [6
]), mentioning Derbetta as about 2 miles south of Kolaribetta - which puts it around 15kms south of our current location. The same manual, in a seperate passage, describes Ouchterlony valley as 'the portion lying between the foot of the Segur Pass and the Moyar
', which is actually just north of Devarbetta. This is confirmed in one of the topology maps (available in WiKi [5
]), which has the Ouchterlony valley marked near our current location.
To cause further confusion, one of the maps painted in the forest office (also in WiKi [5
]), has marked both Devabetta (notice the 'r' missing) watch tower and Derbetta in this region. Finally, the map that Srini sir carried, marked this peak as Devabetta ('r' missing again) at an altitude of 2553m, while Devarbetta is marked near Kundah, south of Kolaribetta, at an altitude of 2530m.
Going by the Nilgiri manual, I feel Derbetta (at 2531m) is indeed located south of Avalanche, while Devarbetta (at 2553m) is just south of Ouchterlony valley - where we were standing now. One thing that looked certain was that the peak that we were standing on looked to be the tallest in the region, may be barring Mukurthi peak.
As a sorry side note, the veracity of online material is significantly affected by the proclivity of some website owners to copy paste text (and pictures) without verifying (and / or taking permission). One of the sites (ranking high in Google search results) says 'Kudikkadu peak along with other two Kolaribetta or Bear Hill and Kolibetta are continue range in the Ouchterlony valley' - whatever that means! As far as I could figure out, Kudikkadu peak is indeed close to Kolaribetta, in the Kundah range, so is Kolibetta. But, I have never seen references of Kolaribetta as Bear Hill, where as Derbetta is repeatedly referred by this name. Now, we do have a risk of this material passing as reference and another un-suspecting sole copying this in to his / her website / blog - even worse to WiKi!
I also noticed an image right below this text looking eerily similar to an image in my 1st Mukurthi trek page
. Now, as far as I could recall, nobody has approached me asking for permission to use this picture. How is this possible then?
Coming back to the trek, we soon started our descend towards the western slopes of Devarbetta (or Devabetta). The trail was steep and filled with small slippery stones, making it a little tricky. This is when mist started filling up the surroundings and we lost the clear views that we were enjoying so far. We descended for a while, till we reached a small junction of hills by 12.
Further west from here would take us towards Nilgiri peak, while the trail towards south would lead to Mukurthi. I had noted the Nilgiri peak (at an altitude of 2476m) during my first trek to Mukurthi
in January 2007, especially due to the legends which were floating around this peak. I was a little disappointed that I could not get a clear view of the peak, due to the mist.
Apparently, this peak has a full rocky top with no foot trail and is ascended by only a few - the most adventurous in the forest department. Infact, in the Nilgiri manual [6
], the peak is described by the following: 'owing to its precipitous character, has any traveller as yet reached the summit of the former, though the ascent has been attempted
'. He later added 'This ascent, I have learnt since writing the above, has been accomplished by Mr. Frasor, Sub-Assistant, Revenue Survey
'. Is this the 1st ever recorded ascend of Nilgiri peak?
Mukurthi and Nilgiri peak is located at the edge of the Nilgiri plateau and the area bears the brunt of monsoon clouds coming from Kerala. I almost had a mental picture of these peaks stopping the monsoon clouds causing heavy rainfall in Kerala, while keeping the regions east of it in a rain shadow! Anyways, the mist was at its best (or worst) and we could hardly see anything beyond 10m - so I had to hold on to this mental picture for now.
We gradually climbed on to the northern slopes of Mukurthi peak and reached the foothills by about 1, from where the peak was clearly visible in spite of the mist. Mukurthi has a conical shaped top and cannot be ascended from the northern side or western side. So, we had to go around the peak and climb it from the south eastern slopes. For another 20 minutes, we continued on a trail towards south, before reaching a junction with one trail going down. I could identify this as the one towards Mukurthi lake and fishing hut - having taken this trail during my earlier visit.
After a short break, we continued on the other trail, which was now turning towards the peak. We stopped again after 10 minutes - now right below the peak. The mist was still very strong, making it impossible to get any views from the top. To make the matters worse, there was even a small drizzle. We decided to wait for a while and open our lunch boxes, to see if the mist gets cleared.
Lunch was quickly finished, but the mist and drizzle only got stronger. It was already 2 and we decided to go ahead towards the peak. Sudheer said that he was not feeling well and decided to stay back and wait for the rest. One good thing was that, we could leave the bags here and carry only essentials as we would come back to the same point. But, given the drizzle, it was not a good idea to carry the camera, especially since I was not even wearing a jacket. Still, against all logic, I decided to take the camera along.
Now, there were two trails leading to the top - the normal one is slightly curvy, heading towards north before turning to the peak, while the other one was a more direct trail. I could not help remembering that I had faced the same choice during my first visit and picked the direct trail. This time, I iniially chose to be more conservative and take the normal trail. But, Ram was very interested in taking the direct trail and asked if anybody wants to give him company. With the rest of the gang preferring to take the normal trail, I eventually obliged!
Drizzle became stronger as we climbed up and to protect the camera, I hid it inside my t-shirt. But soon, we were all very wet, exposing the camera to the wet conditions. It took us only about 10 mins to reach the peak, but in the midst of strong rains. To my horror, I discovered that the camera was totally water logged and promptly kept it back inside the t-shirt for whatever little protection it could offer. About 15 mins later, the rest of the gang gradually arrived - and we had our share of time at the top, but it did not matter much as we could hardly see beyond 10m!
At 3, we headed back - this time, all of us taking the normal trail. In about 20 mins, we were back at the lunch point, picking up our bags. Sudheer was nowhere to be seen, but we were convinced that he would have started walking down. Soon, we reached the trail coming from Devarbetta / Pandiar and continued down towards Mukurthi lake. The descend was pretty steep here and a little slippery due to the rain. A little later, we spotted and caught up with Sudheer, who was on his way down as expected.
The rain stopped soon, but, we could still see the mist at the peak. By 4, we could spot our camp site near the river (which joins the Mukurthi lake) and soon crossed one of the streams to reach level ground adjascent to the river. A little later, we were at the camp site - all set with tent and supplies. I had a horror on taking the camera out - only to see that its buttons were now non-responsive and the display was water logged. The only option for me now was to keep it dry and pray that it will start working after a while.
The night turned out to be quite cold - coupled with the breeze, it felt colder than it actually was. I was not in good spirits after getting wet without a jacket and wearing wet cloths for a long time. Even my change of cloths was a little wet and I ended up spending most of the time inside the tent. The rest of the gang sounded in good spirits though - as I could hear the conversations outside, mostly centered around photography and wild life conservation. Madhav was giving a few photography tips which was happily accepted by the rest of the gang. There were talks about attempting star trails, if the mist cleared and so on.
I happily listened to these, eventually, ending up happier hearing about the dinner :) - it turned out to be quite sumptuous with rice, dal, chappathis and potato curry, way better than one could expect at this remote location. All of us were repeatedly thanking the forest department staff for providing us an awesome stay! There was music too (on radio), which eventually triggered discussions about movies and music. I was in better spirits now and ended up hitting the bed in a very positive note.
I got up comparitively late and was soon walking around, enjoying the riverside. It was a beautiful, misty morning and the peaks were still not visible. Camera was still water logged, with display and auto-focus not working. I tried a few shots with manual focus, but I had no clue, if the pics came out right. the rest of the gang was also walking around with their cameras and somebody spotted a spider web laced with water droplets. Next one hour, we all took turns around the spider web, trying to get the perfect shot.
As it became warmer, the water inside the camera cleared and it soon came to life. Display started working first (though not very clear initially) and then the focusing also started working. In a while, it was fully functional, except for some dust and spots in the frame - just in time for the mist clearing from the top of Mukurthi and nearby hills. Soon, the sun came out of the mist - from the opposite side of Mukurthi peak and we could see the beautiful hills all around us. It was magic, watching the mist clearing away, revealing the shape of the Mukurthi hill ranges - resembling a human face, with the peak forming its nose.
Initially, I was thinking that one of the hills adjascent to Mukurthi was Pichalbetta / Pichulbetta. But, as per the map that Srini sir carried, it is an unnamed peak 2446m in altitude. Also, the hill towards east of our campsite (which was also visible from Devarbetta on the previous day), is called Pichakalbetta (or Pechakalbetta). Elevation of Pichakalbetta is not mentioned in the map, but it was comparable to Mukurthi peak. Pichalbetta, mentioned in many sites (without actual co-ordinates), is to the south-east of Mukurthi peak and closer to the edge of Nilgiri plateau. Our trail for the day would go close to Pichalbetta.
Thanks for an awesome time!
Taking a last look
Meanwhile, we finished our breakfast, picked up the curd-rice packs for lunch and the tents were getting dismantled. We started by about 9.45 and took a trail going in to the valley just north of Pichakalbetta. For a brief period, we had a bird's eye view of the Mukurthi lake. But, as we moved in to the valley, Pichakalbetta blocked the lake. All this while - the Mukurthi hill ranges, resembling a human face, dominated our views in the north-west direction, along with the other 2446m hill.
Amidst green and blue!
The trail went through good forest cover, with occassional clear views towards north-west, which became more and more panoramic as we gained altitude. The forest cover mainly meant small bushes and berries - with Srini sir more than willing to show us which one was edible and which was not, it was all the more fun.
What a view! - Ram, Madhav and Karthikeyan
By 11, we left the Pichakalbetta behind and started climbing up towards the edge of Nilgiri plateau, which also hosts Pichalbetta. Soon, we could see sections of Porthimund reservoir to our north-east, with the dam visible towards the left side. What was striking here was the patches of natural shola forest, mixed with grass lands, making it many shades of beautiful green.
Dam, water and the forest!
Srini sir explained to us why these grass lands are more than a feast to the eye. The spongy effect of the grass lands absorbs water during monsoon and releases the water gradually back to the streams as they begin to dry up. If not for the water storage capacity of these grass lands, most of the rivers would be dry once the monsoon is over. The message was loud and clear - if we are serious about survival, whatever remaining grasslands and forest cover should be fiercly protected.
He also quizzed us about the role of Lichens in soil formation, eventually explaining the lengthy process of soil formation. I could not help wonder how much we take things for granted, without realizing the tedious natural process which shaped the earth, the way it is now. A few years of human dominance is already reversing some of these processes - there was no way this destruction can go on like this.
We took many breaks during this stretch breathing in the beauty of the landscapes. It was wonderful to see how a whiff of color - sometimes provided by a tiny lone yellow flower - in a carpet of green could look so beautiful. We were now at the foothills of Pichalbetta and had a sharp climb ahead of us. Half way up the climb, I realized that I have dropped my CP (Circular Polarizer) filter! Luckily, I recalled using it about 10 mins back and eventually managed to retrieve it through a search-and-rescue-operation!
Before 12, I headed back and finished the climb to reach a flatter area. As per the map, Pichalbetta should be further west from here, but our trail was towards south. I was also trailing behind the rest of the gang as a result of the search-and-rescue-operation and had to catch up. So, the camera went inside the bag and I walked as fast as I could.
Right and further right - Pichalbetta and Devarbetta
The trail was now mostly flat with moderate ascend occassionaly - taking us to a relatively flat area where I caught up with the rest. Due to the higher altitude of our current location, we could see many peaks around us - the one closest in the direction that we came from had to be Pichalbetta. Just behind its right shoulder, I could also spot Devarbetta peak. Even Pichakalbetta was clearly visible at a distance.
In the map that Srini sir was carrying there was a marking of 2577m near our current location, with no particular name given. A few more minutes ascend towards the south took us to a relatively high point compared to our surroundings, which matched the 2577m peak's location. If the map is right, we could be standing taller than even Mukurthi peak - making this the highest point for the entire trek plan. I could not help wondering, how a significant point like this did not have any name?
Crumbled meadows and the shadow of two giants
The view towards south was also clear now, showing a collection of numerous hills and valleys. The landscape was covered by green carpet made of grass, with occassional patches of darker green shades, created by shola forests. Mist was coming in from the valley towards our west (the Silent Valley), only to spice up the landscape, without affecting the visibility! Furthest away in this sea of green was the darker silhouette of a hill, unmistakeable due to a mast at the top - Kolaribetta with it's radio station, which is the tallest in the Kundah range with an altitude of 2629m. Towards its east was another silhouette, which had to be its twin - the Kudikkadu peak, with an elevation of 2590m.
Bye bye Porthimund
Once at the topmost point, the only way was down. So did we - descending down further south, when we got a final bird's eye view of the Porthimund reservoir. The trail eventually joined a tarmac road, where we had a can of lime juice awaiting us. With the sun getting warmer and about 9kms trek behind us, a glass of lime juice, tasted like ambrosia. I did not hesitate to ask for a 2nd glass and this one also tasted as good :)
After a short break, we continued the trek at about 1.15 and headed further south on this winding tarmac road. It was not as interesting as walking in the grass lands and my feet soon started aching. About half a km and 10 mins later, we spotted a small waterfall and Madhav went down to capture a picture, giving me a welcome break. I was too happy to oblige, removed the shoes and cooled my heels for a while.
It was already quite late for lunch and a few uncomfortable questions popped up soon. The decision was to go ahead till we find water and then have lunch. We walked along with that objective in mind and reached a fork by around 2. We ended up taking the road towards right, but later realized that the road to left was actually a short cut. Soon, there were buildings and constructions related to the dam. The Kundah river was coming along from our left side and the road had a few hairpin bends and meandered down like a ghat road.
Few minutes later, we reached a bridge and crossed the river. Less than 400m from the bridge, was the edge of Nilgiri plateau - even though, the presence of a dam ensures that there was hardly any water going down from here. The location of Devil's gap is supposedly just south of this point and the road that we are on is referred to as the Devil's gap road in Google maps. But, we were already behind schedule and there was no way I could recommend making a visit.
Post the bridge, we started gaining altitude. By 2.20, we were at a 2nd bridge and decided to stop for lunch here. The lunch boxes were opened and promptly emptied, with most of us licking our fingers in the end. With not much time to lose, we continued the ascend by 2.40. I could not help thinking that the trek became a little tiring as soon as we hit the tarmac road. There was not much to see around as well, except for the bridges and huge pen-stock pipes.
Shooting in progress
We covered a good distance by 3.00, when Srini sir spotted a herd of Nilgiri Tahrs coming down a not-so-far-away cliff. I was not carrying any tele photo lenses and had no option, but to watch the action. Madhav and Sadique pulled out their telephoto lenses, while Ram had a 55-250mm, which did not look long enough for this distance. The herd ran down a vertical cliff effortlessly giving a few photo opportunities before disappearing in the grass land.
Lake and the mist
The lone shooter - Aravind
A little later, we could spot the Kundah reservoir / lake and the people in the front spotted Sambar deers near the lake. The road was too winding at this point and we took a few shortcuts on the grass land to get to the dam. On crossing over to the other side of the dam, we spent a few minutes near the lake, before taking a foot trail back in to the grass lands.
Are you clicking me? - Srini sir
Half an hour later, we were at the edge of a plateau, enjoying a spectacular view of the Avalanche valley and reservoir, covered with lush green vegetation. Initially, we had a good view of the Kudikkadu peak, while Kolaribetta was partly covered by another hill. As we moved forward, Kolaribetta came out of the cover and Kudikkadu went behind.
So close to the giant now!
It was getting dark by now and the gang was getting tired as well. Questions like 'how much more?' started popping out now. By 5.30, we started descending down the plateau, in to a lower altitude valley. As we got down to this valley, we crossed a stream and then the trail continued along with the stream. Eventually, we had to cross the stream once again, before climbing up one last time to reach a jeep track. We had to continue walking for some time before getting to the pick-up point and almost everybody seemed very tired.
Specifically, Sudheer was pretty much unable to walk and wanted a short break to catch his breath. The watchers told us that the road is circuitous and we agreed to take a short-cut through the grass land to save time.
With the sunlight totally gone, the torch lights were out and we did not have enough of them. So, people grouped together around each torchlight. Srini sir also asked one of the watchers to go in the front and ask the jeeps to come further in to the jeep track. He, practically sprinted down as I watched the light he was carrying disappearing in the darkness.
Our final destination for the trek was an earthern dam, but it was already too dark. The dam was hardly visible when we reached near it - by about 7.40. Soon the lights appeared from a distance, followed by the sound of jeeps. We had walked about 34 kms by now, with about 23 kms on day 2. It was now the end of the trek and time to say good bye to these amazing grass lands.
Journey to Ooty was atleast a couple of hours and our return bus to Bangalore was at 10.30 from Ooty bus stand. Since, we did not have much time, the jeep took us directly towards Ooty. We went directly to the bus stand, while Srini sir went to pick up some stuff we had given him for safe keeping. At the bus stand, we managed to find some food stalls and settled down in the bus well before the departure time. Srini sir came in soon and we all said good bye to him and thanked him profusely for the wonderful experience.
Mukurthi trek was one of the most cherished trekking experiences for me - the kick was too high at those high altitudes covered with lush greenery. No amount of thanking will be enough for Srini sir - in providing such a wonderful experience with the nature - and to Ram - for inviting me to this trek. The memories of these beautiful hills are going to stay in mind for years to come.
- Ramkumar maintains a blog called Say2Daffodils and a facebook page.
- Bangalore Ascender's is a group of trekking enthusiasts and nature lover's forming a non-profit group. Find their website here.
- Find Madhav's flickr page here.
- Find Sadique's facebook page here.
- See the WiKi articles on Nilgiri, Mukurthi National Park and Sispara.
- Full text of "A manual of the Nilagiri district in the Madras Presidency", as reported by Henry Bidewell Gribb in 1880 in archive.org.
© 2015 Sandeep Unnimadhavan