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Night trek to Skandagiri in January 2009

Skandagiri aka Kalavaarahalli Betta became extremely popular in Bangalore / Bengaluru only recently, thanks to a forward with the pictures of a beautiful sunrise at this hill. Suddenly, everybody wanted to go to Skandagiri and was looking for directions. Even, I had got mails from people asking 'have u gone to Skandagiri?', 'how do I get to Skandagiri?' or 'is it always possible to see sunrise like this?'. I had no clue ... since I didnt even know if the place existed. For a while, I thought the forward was a hoax! Then, more blogs started appearing. Slowly, more pictures of beautiful sunrises were circulated ... and I had to believe them. Still, I maintained that witnessing a sunrise like this is a matter of luck and / or depends on what time of the year it is!

Last year, Chennai Trekkers[1] planned to head to Skandagiri and I could not join them. They came back, not so impressed with the trek, with some of the members calling it just a small rock :) But, John[2] was already mesmerized after seeing pictures from different blogs and badly wanted to go. I suggested that the best chance to see such a sunrise is to be there in Jan / Feb and he agreed. So, we had a pact to make it to Skandagiri in January! End of December, we even decided the actual dates and John booked train tickets from Chennai to Bengaluru and back. He was scheduled to reach here on a friday night and we planned to hit Skandagiri on the saturday night!

I sent a mail to other friends of mine, discussing the plan and inviting them to join us. But, the obstacles showed up as the weekend approached. Preethu would be unable to join and I almost decided to tell John to postpone the plan. But, the fact that I was unsure if we will ever do it later and John's immense enthusiasm and excitement to visit the place stopped me from cancelling the plan. Finally, a day before his arrival, me and Preethu agreed that I'll go with John and she'll stay back with her parents. Not an option that we liked - but that was the only practical option.

Skandagiri is situated adjacent to the Nandi Hills, about 70kms from Bengaluru, near the Chikkabalapur town. There are two approaches to the foothills: one a detour from the road to Nandi Hills and the other one from Chikkabalapur town. The peak is said to be at an altitude of about 1350m, slightly smaller than Nandi Hills (which is @ about 1470m). The trek is considered easy and said to be about 2hrs of moderate climb. Infact, moon light trekking and an early morning decent from here are more popular than normal day time treks due to obvious reasons:
  1. The trek itself is quite easy.
  2. It might be very hot to do this in day time.
  3. Night trek is convenient to be there for the sunrise.

John landed @ the Cantonment Railway station, Bengaluru, as promised on the friday evening and we picked him up. Seeing him after a long time and with so much to share, about treks, personal life and most importantly photography, the time just flew by. Next day, by about 4, we were done with our lunch, finished packing, baught some buns and bread for dinner / breakfast and were on my Versa, heading towards Skandagiri. We took the road to the new international airport, via Hebbal, Yelahanka and reached the airport flyover by about 5. From here, the hills were visible and we kind of knew that the hill next to Nandi Hills should be Skandagiri. We need not go to Devanahalli town and continued on the Bengaluru - Hyderabad Highway (NH7) towards Chikkabalapur. I felt more comfortable taking the route via Nandi Hills road and took the right turn towards Nandi Hills a few kms after the airport junction.

About 10kms into the Nandi Hills road, we hit the T-junction and seeing a lot of eagles, John wanted to stop there. The place looked like a dumb-yard for chicken waste and hence, so many eagles. While John was shooting eagles with my 400mm lens, I fitted my camera with the 180mm and gave him company :) This continued for some time, until a local person started to 'assist' us and followed us around in an annoying manner. He seemed sloshed and was unable to even speak properly, but kept pestering us with his 'instructions'. Finally, we fled the place and took the right turn towards Skandagiri.

A few kms on this road, took us to Nandi village, with a pretty looking old temple. We asked for directions to a few people and finally took the road to Chikkabalapur. A couple of kms on this road, there is a left turn, with sign boards indicating Muddenahalli, the birth place of Sir. M. Visweswaraih. We took that turn, passed through fields, saw a herd of sheep and had a photo session. Then, we hit a lake side with a variety of birds. John was delighted seeing all the birds and almost jumped out of the car :)

Sign board
Sign boards or Rock boards?

After all these photo sessions, we finally reached the Kalavaarahalli / Kalavarahalli village and took the road to the foothills of Skandagiri. Contrary to our initial plans of reaching the peak before sunset, it was already 6 and we would have to do a night trek. Thankfully, we both had torches and the moon was also rising. The foothills had a temple and we parked the Versa in the temple complex. There were kids offering to guide us to the peak and carry the bags. We said no to them and headed to the trail leading to the Skandagiri peak. We had some company in the form of a dog, following us. Initial part of the trek was through a jeep track, until we started ascending a little bit and spotted a huge boulder with warnings written on it, supposedly from the Forest Department. It said that taking plastics or drinks to the top is punishable and may attract fines of Rs. 500.

Moonrise in the valley
Full moon ... rising over the valley ...

The trail leaves the jeep track here and forks towards the left. The ascend is moderate from here, passing via huge boulders and bushes. Daylight was still on and we didnt have to use the torches yet. As we gained height, we could see the valley behind us. The moon was rising above the valley and thats when we noticed that it was almost full size. We didnt plan it this way, but it turned out almost like the way most other people do. There we were, climbing up the famed Skandagiri on a weekend night, with full moon showing us light!

Sunset @ the valley
Remains of the sunset we missed ...

The dog gave us company all this while and kept walking along with us. About half an hour on this trail took us to the merging point of another hill with Skandagiri hills, with a view of the other side of the valley. It was all red-tinged on the other side, with the sun just set. We went towards the valley for a better view, setup the tripod and camera for a good shot, but it was a little too late. We could not really capture the beauty of the valley painted in red. Nevertheless, we took a few shots.

While, we were packing the tripod to return to the trail, the dog started barking. There were three more people approaching us. Though, the faces were not clearly visible in the dark, I heard them talking in Malayalam. They seemed to be worried about the dog and I told them not to worry. Thats when they realized that we were not shepherds, but city-bred-software-engineers-disguised-as-trekkers! After the initial 'Hi' and 'Where do you work?' queries, we realized that we have a common friend. A moment later, one of the guys asked me if I am 'Sandeep Unnimadhavan'? They were my college juniors!

They were on their way back from Lepakshi and was only planning to climb up until its dark and then return back to the foothills. Soon, we said good bye, they went back and we followed the trail ahead. It was already dark and we continued on a trail which seemed to go around the hill. We thought that we might have to go around a little before climbing up again. Since, we hardly had to climb down, there was not much doubt. It was already dark and we took out the torches and wriggled through thorny bushes, expecting the ascend to start soon.

As the time went, the thorns and bushes increased in wilderness and so did our suspicion, if we are on the right track. I had memories of Savandurga Trek, where I managed to get lost on a rather simple trail. Even the doggie, which kept accompanying us, looked unsure of tha trail. We did not lose any altitude in this trail, but we did not gain any either. I already had a few cuts and bruises, thanks to the thorny bushes. Soon, the trail started looking really wild and I started wondering if this is the same trail that a lot of people take on a regular basis ... and that too in the night?

Soon, we were almost certain that we were on a bluff trail. Infact, we reached a dead end and there was no trail to be seen. Meanwhile, John called up Sheethal to verify that the trail to Skandagiri does not have too many thorns and bushes in its way. So, we turned back, with our canine friend leading the way. In about 20 minutes, we retraced back to the sunset view point. A little more ahead, we spotted a trail going right and then straight up ... both of us left a sigh of relief.

We were back in the trail and kept wondering how we could miss something that looked quite straight forward. Thanks to our excitement on seeing the red-tinged valley, we had missed the ascend to our left and went straight ahead. The transition from daylight to darkness, while we were there, did not help either. Anyways ... it was about 8, but, the moon provided us enough light and the torches were not required for most of the stretch. Infact, the moonlight looked stronger than torch light :), except when we passed through some bushy patches.

Every time we passed through the bushes, we would get dazzled by the strong moonlight as soon as we get out. It lit the entire valley and we could see hills all around us. Besides, there were lights strewn all around the valley behind us, where we had seen the sunset. This was to our North-eastern side and looked like the Chikkabalapur town. To the south-eastern side was Devanahalli, with its share of dazzling lights. As we climbed up along the eastern ridge of Skandagiri, moving to the south, Devanahalli town looked nearer and the lights looked brighter.

We took ample breaks in between, discussing about various things. At one point, we stopped at a flat rocky patch for more than half an hour. Even the doggie got bored here and started sniffing around the garbage for something to eat. The temperature had dropped considerably by then and John, being from Chennai, was finding it a little too low. Adding to the cold was the strong breeze, dropping the effective temperature even further.

When we started again, it was about 8.30 and we thought it should be half an hour more to the peak. About 10 mins later, while enjoying views and lights around us, I started thinking of taking a snap. Thats when I realized that I forgot the tripod at our last pit stop. I left the bag with John and went back to collect the tripod.

By about 9, we were almost next to the peak, with the Devanahalli valley almost directly below us. John felt that this is the sun rise view point, but looked like the peak is some more distance ahead of us. After a little more climbing, the trail again went around the eastern ridge of the hill. It was time to call up family and by the time I am done, we were at the top. To our east, was the Devanahalli valley and further south was a hill range that looked like Nandi Hills.

Huts @ the top
Restaurants @ the top ...

The top of the valley had a flat area with a small temple towards the western side. There were two huts in the centre, which we thought was arranged for another gang, who might be hitting the peak later in the night. But, to our surprise, we saw people inside the hut - they didnt look like the city-bred-software-engineers-disguised-as-trekkers, but the home grown variety! They had a stove, eggs and bread and offered us omelette, which we gladly accepted. Rs 15 per plate was a small price to pay for hot omelette and bread in this cold weather and we had two plates each.

Nightview of the Valley
Nandi hills and the Valley

The guys running the shop did tell us that the huts were indeed meant for a gang which is yet to come. They also suggested us to head inside the temple to spend the night and even offered to make the camp fire for us. They had collected firewood for the occassion. But, we declined the campfire offer and proceeded to take some long exposure shots, including the Devanahalli valley view, the Nandi hills view and the temple. It was here that I realized that one of the clips in the tripod was broken and I could not open it to full size. Anyways, thanks to the heavy breeze, it was better to keep it as low as possible.

Temple @ the top
Moonlight view of the temple

After the photo session, we opened our dinner packet, munched on the buns we carried and left some for breakfast. People had started to come in by then and we quickly went to claim our spot inside the temple. The temple had a Ganesh idol and we were asked to keep our shoes outside. We had a little chat with the new gang before spreading out our sleeping bags. They had come with a guide and was now trying to get the campfire on. With more people coming in, the place suddenly became crowded. One guy took the newspaper and petrol I was carrying and never returned the bottle, in spite of me asking for it. The other gang also asked for something to spread on the ground and I gave them my lungi, since the ground was too cold to sleep on.

The whole night was chaotic at the top of the hill. As time went by, so many more people came in and we could hear people howling and whistling outside, throughout the night. Some were carrying drinks and some didnt need drinks to get a high. The sign boards along the trail speaking about plastic and drinks did not seem enough. I painfully realized that Skandagiri is less of a trekking destination and has already become a venue for revelry - drunken or not! Atleast, the place is not meant for any serious trekkers or photographers anymore, especially on a weekend.

At about 5.30 my alarm sounded, but, we had all been up for long. John even ventured out for a while and came back finding the cold unbearable. The temple had dozens of people inside it and I cringed thinking how many will be outside. Easily about 200 was John's estimate. He was not so keen on coming out in this cold and said he'll join later. Anyways, I took all the valuables, including the camera and lenses, and left a few things there itself - some food, cloths, a sleeping mat and sleeping bag. It took me about 10mins to search for my shoes, under the pile of shoes and the pile of half asleep people sitting on top of the shoes. But, I ultimately found them, put them on and headed to the sunrise point on that brutally cold morning!

Waiting for the sunrise
Waiting for the 'sunrise among the clouds'

John with the Canon 400mm L
John with the big white Canon

But, there was no sign of clouds or the sun. All we could see was the mist. I walked along the southern ridge of the hills, got down the rocks and booked the place for myself and the tripod. There were fleeting glances of the vast valley beneath us and Nandi hills to the right. But, the mist came back stronger in a matter of few seconds. All of us waited there patiently, but the clouds and the rising sun never came. John joined me at the view point soon and both of us started clicking people. I also learned a few good photography tricks from John, which should come handy in many situations :)

View of the valley
Not quite what we wanted ... but ... still OK!

Me with the 50mm
Me chasing the dew drops

Dew drops @ the peak
... and the dew drops!

By about 7.30, the sun did come out, but it was already too bright. But, the view of the valley was still not very clear. We were soon bored and got down to the rocks further below. I did not want to carry the tripod, since it was already very bright and left it at the main view point. There were rock pillars at the new place which could have been a good subject with a sunrise in the back ground. The mist cleared finally and we could get some glimpse of the valley as well as Nandi hills. We clicked at the hills, pillars, people and finally moved our attention to the dew drops in the grass blades. John picked up my 180mm macro and clicked some awesome shots, while I tried a few frames with the 50mm. This went on till about 9 and most of the people had left by then. Finally, we also headed back and stopped at the main view point looking for the tripod. To my utter dismay, it was not there!

On reaching back at the temple complex, we had another surprise awaiting us. My bag was almost empty, except for the sleeping bag. The food (some dates, biscuits and bread), the sleeping mat and the cloths were gone! This completed my disappointments during this trek. Apart from revellers, the place also had thieves. I just hope that this culture doesnt spread to other places.

Boulders and the hill
Boulders on our way back

We had no food and just a bottle of water. But, there was no options left but to start getting down. The descend started by about 8.30 and was rather quick in the beginning, except for some photo breaks. There were so many people all along the trail and more people climbing up. We reached the sunset view point in a little more than half an hour. Beyond this point, the heat started rising and our descend became slower. En route, there were a few locals selling butter milk, but John was not interested. In another half an hour we were on the jeep track. Little ahead on the jeep track was a tender coconut vendor and this time John was interested. What a relief in this heat!

Skandagiri from the foothills
Look what we climbed!

It was very obvious that the trek will not be enjoyable at all in day light, thanks to the heat. No wonder, the moon light trek is more famous and surely a saner choice. Finally, by about 10, we were @ the parking lot and inside the car. To explore the other route, we went straight ahead towards Chikkabalapur from Kalavaarahalli. It should have been about 6-7kms from Kalavaarahalli to Chikkabalapur, where we entered NH7 towards Bengaluru. Just out of the Chikkabalapur town, we could see Nandi hills and Skandagiri to our right. Time for a last snap of the hills.

Skandagiri and Nandi hills
Nandi Hills and to the right ... Skandagiri

Past Devanahalli, Yelahanka and Hebbal we were back at home and sharing the pictures with family. John was not too disappointed at not having got the 'sunrise among the clouds' pic that he was craving for. But, I was a little disappointed with the chaos and anarchy at the peak. Later, during a conversation with a friend, I came to know that the 'sunrise among the clouds' pics are mostly taken in late winters, once the foggy mornings are over. If I try my luck again for one of those 'sunrise among the clouds' pics, it should only be on a weekday morning. Never ever I will hit the peak on a mad weekend night!
References:
  1. Chennai Trekkers website is @ chennaitrekkers.org.
  2. Check out John's solitude @ johnimmanual.blogspot.com.



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