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Muthappanpuzha - Thenpara - Vellarimala - Vavul Mala trek in February 2009

Its been two long years since my first trek to Vellarimala and I was waiting for another go @ these hill ranges to climb Vavul Mala / Vavulmala. At about 2339m, it is the tallest peak in North Kerala and arguably the toughest climb in South India. While actively planning for this, my spirit took a beating when I heard that Josettan along with Arun [1] and co could not make it to the peak even by 6'O clock on the second day. The time frame and planning required for conquering Vavul Mala went up in my mind - atleast 3 days became 4.

I just could not manage this for almost two years. None of the original team to Vellarimala (other than Josettan, ofcourse) seemed interested in an en core. Even though, I went to Muthappanpuzha two more times, including a small trek to Swargakunnu, I kept postponing the big day for later. The plans were revived when Chennai Trekkers / CTC [2] planned to do it and I decided to go along with them.

Vinod was organizing it and knowing Peter, this was my best chance to conquer the peak. But, it was never going to be easy. Some personal reasons came up and I could not join CTC on the planned date. Left to wonder how and when, I got the required push from another source. A week before CTC, Benny and his friends conquered Vavul Mala along with Josettan!

Benny came back and told that, once they found a trail, it was just a matter of a few hours trek from 'RECpara', one of the hills in the Vellarimala range (named after a few guys from REC who camped there, para = rock). The amazing fact was that Josettan, Benny and his team managed to go up and came back to Muthappanpuzha in two days. After camping @ 'RECpara' on the 1st night, they went up to Vavul Mala and returned to Muthappanpuzha on the 2nd day. Suddenly, it all looked very possible and I was raring to go, in spite of all the odds.

I didnt want to let it go and knew that if I postpone it indefinitely, the trek may never happen. So, I planned to be @ Vavul Mala just a week after CTC and took two days off from office to make sure that I have four days to do what I wanted to do. All fell in place quickly and in spite of a busy schedule at work, I was granted 2 days leave. Though reluctantly, Preethu also agreed to let me go for this. CTC did the trek as planned, putting more than 60 people @ the top of Vavul Mala. An amazing feet, though not surprising considering CTC's & Peter's track record.

I booked tickets to Kozhikode on a wednesday evening and return tickets on saturday night. Sunday was just a backup and three days should be enough if things go as planned! Two days later, I somehow managed to close all the last minute rush @ office and hurried towards the satellite bus stand. I was about 15 mins late to reach and was thinking about getting another bus, but was pleasantly surprised to see the bus still waiting for me! I guess, there were only a couple of bookings and the bus was almost empty for the entire journey.

Food @ Josettan's House
Yummy ... tapioca and chicken!

I reached Thamarassery by about 4.30 and waited at the KSRTC bus station till 6.10 for the first bus to Muthappanpuzha. The bus started right on time and I was the only passenger to start with! The bus reached Muthappanpuzha in an hour and Josna, Josettan's kid-daughter was waiting to pick me up :) Little later, I was enjoying a nice bath at Iruvanjippuzha river, followed by a gr8 breakfast of Tapioca and Chicken @ Josettan's house.

Josettan had told that he will arrange for the food and I didnt even carry my usual pack of milk or chocolates in an effort to reduce the weight. I didnt take any of the additional lenses, either. All I had was the backpack, a light weight / low altitude sleeping bag, some cloths, the camera with just the kit lens, a pen torch and a spare battery pack. Ofcourse, my priority was to carry as little weight as I can.

On the contrary, Josettan's idea of food for a trek was lot of chicken, tapioca, rice, fish, loads of bananas, some vegetables and what not :) This time he also had a pack of maggi noodles - a new item he discovered, thanks to CTC! Ofcourse, I was expected to carry a share of this weight and why not. To cut the story short, I ended with a heavy backpack!

It was about 10, by the time we started the trek. We passed through some of the plantations and crossed over to the Thenpara village, where we joined the jeep track to Vellarimala. The heat and a heavy backpack took its toll and I was sweating and panting heavily. We stopped at the last house in this stretch, left some of my cloths there and got some hot ginger water to drink. Its quite counter-intuitive when I say that its great to have hot water in this sweltering climate. One should try it out to believe it :)

By the time we moved past the inhabited areas and got into the fenced area, it was about 11.30. I knew that we were really late. As a comparison, during the last trek to Vellarimala, we were @ 'Olichuchattam' by about 10.30. It was time to speed up and I started pushing myself. In spite of the huffing and puffing, I pushed as much as I can and took lesser breaks. It was a relief when we started hearing the sound of the Thenpara stream. A little later, we passed the first water access point and soon, by about 12.30, we were at 'Olichuchattam'. After a brief stop for photos and water, we were back to the trail on our way up.

Right above Olichuchattam
Lets head to Olichuchattam

The trail after 'Olichuchattam', first goes to the right side of the stream and then comes back after a short climb. By 1'O clock we were back at the stream. I was hungry by then and we opened our lunch packs. Josettan chose to eat later and I took only a little tapioca (and chicken, ofcourse) to mitigate the hunger. We quickly wrapped up and continued the trek by about 1.30.

This time the trail goes towards the left and after a climb, crosses over the stream. Once more, we walked away from the stream and came back to it from the right side. The trail goes next to the stream for a while after that and we took a break near the stream. There, we got into a chat about the wildlife, watching birds and butterflies and the break became a touch longer than ideal.

Just above this point, we crossed over the stream for a last time, went ahead of a few boulders and entered the base of Vellarimala. We filled one of our 2L water bottles. Josettan knew that there was water @ 'Damodaran Kolli', where we planned to fill the other bottle. It was almost 3'O clock by then and we had to cover quite a distance to make it to the peak before its dark. To add to our trouble, this part of the trail is almost the steepest.

I was climbing as fast as I could, when I heard rustling of tree branches. My heart paused for a second, thinking its an elephant. But, we soon realized it was only monkeys and they were escaping the scene after seeing us. We could not spot them, though. Moving forward, the climb was quite exhaustive for almost half an hour and I opted for another 'i-cant-walk-without-stopping' break. At this point, we even discussed camping at 'Damodaran Kolli'.

Luckily, the climb was less steep after this and our speeds improved. I took breaks only when it was absolutely difficult to continue and reduced the duration whenever I did. I started looking for 'Damodaran Kolli', which is a must-break location. At one point, where there were a few boulders, I thought it was 'Damodaran Kolli' and wondered if there was no water. But, Josettan told that we have more to go. Finally, we reached 'Damodaran Kolli' by about 4.40, filled the water bottles and took the much needed break.

Clearly, with almost 2hrs for the lights to go off, we didnt have to camp here. But, there was confusion as to where we would camp. I felt too tired to go beyond the first grass land in the hill ranges, where CTC guys camped last time. But, Josettan wasnt too convinced about the safety of this location and insisted that we continue till 'Kethanpara'. Anyways, the trek continued.

In the next half an hour, we walked around the hill and away from the 'Masthakappara' rock face. With the evening sun shining from our left side, we caught a glimpse of the huge mountain face to our right side. Josettan identified this as Vavul Mala and I was left wondering how I didnt see it during our last trek. Guess, it was the fog.

First view of Vavul Mala
First encounter with Vavul Mala

As we moved up, the forest cover thinned down around us and big trees gave way to colorful shrubs. With numerous colored leaves, variety of flowers, the vegetation grew more and more interesting. This is undoubtedly one of the most virgin and colorful forest in the western ghats. The trail was a little tricky though, going zig-zag on a near vertical mountain face, with a few 'hairpin-bends' thrown in to reduce the steepness.

By about 6, we were almost there and the imposing structure of Vavul Mala looked more and more formidable. It was exciting to even think of conquering this sheer mountain face illuminated in the golden evening sunlight. While, I was standing there admiring the mountain, Josettan woke me up to the ground realities and pulled me up. In the next few minutes we were at level ground and arguing whether to camp there or continue towards 'Kethanpara'.

On entering this level ground, there are a few trails to the right leading towards a few view points. To our immediate left is the trail to 'Kethanpara', 'RECpara' and Vavul Mala, while the next left leads towards 'Kanjippara' and 'Masthakappara'. Thnx to CTC camping there, we had enough firewood and nice cozy tree cover to avoid the cold. But, Josettan insisted on moving towards 'Kethanpara' and I finally obliged. He assured me that it was only '10 minutes' to 'Kethanpara' and bought me with that.

The trail initially goes through a small level forest area and took us to the south-eastern side of the hill range. Once on the other side of the hill, there was a little climb up till we reached 'Kethanpara', which is a rock face overlooking the deep gorge at the eastern side of the hill range. It took us a little more than 10mins and I was entitled to be angry at Josettan :) But, the views of the hills in Wayanad and Nilgiris was breathtaking and I quickly forgot all the anger & exhaustion!

While, I was standing there open-jawed and gazing at the hills trying to identify them, Josettan quickly gathered some firewood and started off a campfire. He also revealed that the main reason why he wanted to come there was to enjoy the views! Soon, we both were trying to identify what is what. Josettan identified Swargakunnu and something he calls 'Wayanadan Mala'[3].

One particular peak towards our north-east looked higher and was mostly Chembra. But, I was still left wondering, if I really saw Vavul Mala from the top of Chembra. 'Masthakappara' may be the closest to Chembra in the Vellarimala ranges and is almost the same height, but was too far to be the mountain I've seen from Chembra. It looked like a puzzle as of now and I may need some more map / google earth gazing and mountain hopping to identify what is what[4]!

Sunrise from Kethanpara
Way to start the day ...

The night went well sleeping on the rocks gazing at the stars and silhouettes of the mountains. It was a relatively dark night and moon was nowhere to be seen. I got up as early as 4.30 and could not sleep afterwards. So, I chose to keep my eyes open and dream about mountain hopping from Vavul Mala to the other biggies around us :) Towards our right side, the sky developed a reddish tinge and it became more and more prominent with time. It was a beautiful sight watching the sun come out from behind a distant hill.

Josettan, Masthakappara and Chembra
Can u see Chembra at the far right?

After exploring other corners, view points and clicking a few pictures with imposing mountains as backgrounds, we packed up and got ready for Vavul Mala by about 8. It took us some 10-20 mins to reach 'RECpara', at the foothills of Vavul Mala. Just before 'RECpara', we passed along an open area where the hills at the south eastern side looked closer. Couple of them may be taller than Vavul Mala itself. Soon, we were @ 'RECpara', an open area with hills / forest all around it. The best part of 'RECpara' is the water source, which looked rather full even now. There were elephant dung all around and it was obvious that the big mammal camps here on a regular basis.

Josettan, Chicken & Tapioca
Chicken & Tapioca!

There, to our front was Vavul Mala, covered with thick forest all around it. 'RECpara' is a small ridge connecting Vavul Mala with the rest of the hills towards its east. It seems, that two of the major rivers @ Muthapanpuzha, the Thenpara river and Iruvanjippuzha river originate from either side of this ridge. Benny and co had camped @ 'RECpara' on the first day and there was firewood and a fireplace. We collected some more firewood from the surroundings and started cooking. Josettan had chicken mixed with masala in one cover and tapioca in another. Tapioca was cleaned quickly and in no time, both were in separate pots and in the fire.

Josettan suggested that while the food was getting ready I could explore the view points. I happily picked up the camera and ventured inside the forest. Two spider webs, one view point and some beautiful flowers and shrubs later I lost track of where I came from :) I could still see the Vavul Mala standing tall through the forest cover and tried to retrace my path looking at it as reference. But, everytime I found a trail, it hit a dead end in thick forest. To avoid it, I kept going to my left, then climbed up and after a while I realized I was going up towards Vavul Mala :)

I got some sense of where to go, once Josettan started howling and I whistled back. I came out to a clearing following his voice and realized that I was standing atleast 100 meters above our campsite :) Never mind, I now knew where to go and on Josettan's suggestion, took a trail to my left which goes down subsequently. In no time, I was back at the camp and both of us were cursing the decision to venture out!

To avoid further delay, we quickly had some food. Contrary to what I usually do before treks, I hogged a lot of food. It was OK to walk slow and more important to stay strong till we are back. We planned to carry just some water, bananas and snacks, to reduce the luggage and have lunch only after reaching back. So, by about 10.30, we left the remaining food, cloths, cooking utensils, sleeping bag ... etc @ the camp and headed into the forest.

I was prepared for what was ahead. We were supposed to find our way through the forest and not expect any trail. Because of the low expectation, I found it easier! There was some trail indeed and we followed it till a dried up stream. We took a few steps along the stream and then moved to the right, towards the peak. The trail was not so clear from then onwards. But, still there was some way up, though partially covered by bushes and thorns. Josettan went ahead with his sickle and cleared the way whenever needed. I did get some bruises and scratches but it was all fine ... just the usual stuff :)

The spirits where high and I was feeling very excited about finally getting closer and closer to Vavul Mala. I guess, I was repeatedly asking Josettan how far it is ... every now and then ... and he kept saying 'just 10 mins away'! We did take a few short breaks whenever the climb became too steep, but continued walking without wasting much time. Whenever we could see the other side through the forest cover, I was checking the hills @ the south east side. They grew more and more imposing as we went up and always looked taller than where we are. I was by now sure that we were looking at some tall peaks @ Nilgiris[5] and didnt know which one.

Hills of Nilgiris
Nilgiris[5] is not too far!

One of the clearings had a huge boulder and we climbed on top of it to get a clearer view of the surroundings and ascertain that we were on the right direction. Vavul Mala looked further away from that point, but Josettan again said its 'just 10 mins away' :) The trail after this boulder lead us to an open area from where we could see the southern and eastern sides. We climbed up along this open area and got back into the jungle. After some more time finding our way through the jungle, we got to the other side of the hill and got a view of the south-western side as well. It looked like Vavul Mala was connected to the Nilgiri hills[5] as well, via some hills @ the south-western side, ofcourse with mid sized valleys in between. I wondered where the borders are!

From this point, there were footprints and Josettan instantly recognized it as the CTC teams'. We decided to follow their footprints to lead us safely to the peak. Josettan also realized that we may have lost the correct trail somewhere near the dried up stream. Anyways, now that we were here, it was possible to follow the trail without any trouble. It was commendable that, in spite of 60+ people having taken that trail, just a week ago, there was hardly any litter / plastic along this trail. A trekker is supposed to 'take away only memories and leave only footprints' ... and thats exactly what the CTC team has done. Kudos to them for maintaining the decorum. Also, thanks to them, we were able to identify the trail.

Another 20 mins from here, the height of the jungle cover came down. Tall trees gave way to colorful shrubs and we knew it was close. A little later, Josettan found his way out of the jungle and exclaimed 'this is it'! I looked up and saw that there is some more tree cover there, possibly at a higher altitude. I told him that I want to find out if there is any higher altitude opening on the other side and he agreed. For now, we proceeded to the view point, which offered a majestic view of the hills in Wayanad, Nilgiris and the Vellarimala range itself! The hills towards Nilgiris[5] looked slightly taller, but that was known anyways :)

Masthakappara from Vavul Mala
Fog, Masthakappara and the trail

It was about 12.15 by then and we had taken about 1.45hrs from 'RECpara'. Not so fast by any standard, but it was a good feeling just to be there. We sat there munching on to the bananas we carried, tracing the path we came and cursing the fog blocking our view of the valley to the west side of Vellarimala range. Josettan had carried some white paint and a small brush and proceeded to write our names in the rock face. It was not really my idea of celebrating the conquest and told him to go ahead writing only his name. He insisted, but finally, painted just his name in Malayalam.

Soon, we moved to the other areas and Josettan showed me a deep crevice on one side of the peak. He tried dropping a small rock inside and the sounds stayed for a while. Really deep indeed! Later, we walked around the hill and tried every trail to see if there is any clearings on the other side. We found some open areas in between but the view was not good to the western side. Finally, at about 1'O clock we started our descent. Vavul Mala is now conquered!

The decent was a breeze, except for one small break. We followed the trail used by CTC and confirmed that we lost it near the dried stream only. At the stream, we had moved up and taken a trail to the right, while the correct trail was a few steps down and then to the left. Ultimately, both trails had same amount of bushes and thorns and may not have made much of a difference.

We were back at 'RECpara' in an hour, by about 2. I suggested that we move to 'Masthakappara' and camp there. Josettan agreed but added that we will need to move quickly. We decided to carry water and prepare noodles at 'Masthakappara'. For now, Josettan used the curd and prepared butter milk, which had a rejuvenating effect. We had almost 2L of buter milk, filled up the water bottles, took a break, packed up the things and headed back by about 3. In about 10mins we were back at 'Kethanpara' and found that valley and views were covered with fog. So, we continued towards the grass land and reached there in another 10mins.

The buttermilk was having its effect on my stomach and I badly needed a 'nature-room' break. While Josettan moved around looking for a shorter route towards 'Masthakappara', I took the 'nature-room' break, followed by a 'call-family' break. After all, this is the only reliable area in the whole of this hill range where there is decent cell-phone coverage and I didnt want to get beaten up once I was back ;-)

By abt 4, we started towards 'Masthakappara' and soon reached an open rocky patch, which is called 'Mannennaappara' ('Mannenna' = Kerosene Oil in Malayalam, dont ask me why the hill is called so)! This is the place where I had got my first glimpse of Vavul Mala during our last trek to Vellarimala. Past 'Mannennaappara', we got into the forest, crossed a few almost-dry streams, passed through a marshy area (where Elephants are regularly seen, according to Josettan) and again got into the forest. By about 5, we were at the foothills of 'Masthakappara', taking our last break.

What we saw there was heartbreaking. The place was badly littered with plastic covers, liquor bottles and paper thrown all around. Josettan told that this is the handy work of another gang who visited the hills the same day CTC team went back. I could not help comparing the CTC team and this 3-4 member team who got drunk here and left so much of trash. If a 60+ team can carry back whatever they brought in, is it so difficult for a 3-4 member team to carry back some of the litter??? The gang was supposedly from a nearby place and should have been more concerned about the litter than the CTC team ... but they didnt seem to care!

In general, I had found that the litter found this time was lesser compared to last time, but this one spot spoiled it all. While Josettan went down to a water source further down from where we are, I decided to do something about it. I collected the plastic in a cover and tied it to my bag. The remaining paper was collected in a heap, which was set to fire once Josettan came back with the lighter. It was the least we could do.

Greenery @ Masthakappara
Take this for green ...

Little later, we were @ 'Masthakappara', once again marveling at the exotic vegetation here. The place had wild flowers and thick green forests on one side, which was slightly higher than our campsite. We picked a spot among the trees for the campfire and left our luggages there. There were more things to do at other side of 'Masthakappara' - like gazing at the hills and trying to identify them.

Vavul Mala & hills of Nilgiri
Vavul Mala & the hills @ Nilgiris

Josettan & Sunset @ Masthakappara
Setting sun posing with Josettan

Chembra was visible from here too, this time towards due north. Vavul Mala again looked majestic towards east. To the left of Vavul Mala, we could also see the hills at Nilgiris, though it looked a lot smaller now. Initially, fog had covered the sun and the valley to our west, which has Swargakunnu, Kuppippara, Muthappanpuzha town and the trail we came in. But, a little later, the fog settled further down resembling a beautiful white bundle of cotton, with rocks jutting out of it! Now, the sun dived into this cotton bundle to give us a beautiful sunset.

Josettan painting his own name
Josettan, the painter

Clouds & Valley after Sunset
Cotton bundles after Sunset

In between, Josettan proceeded to paint his name here too. Soon, it was dark and the hills turned into silhouettes. We set up the fireplace and started cooking the noodles. Once the noodles were out of the pot, it took hardly any time to finish it :) At about 8.30, we bolstered the fire with some more firewood and settled down.

Campfire & Josettan
Fire & the Fire man

Guess, I fell asleep almost immediately, only to wake up around 1'O clock. Campfire was dying and Josettan diligently woke up to keep it alive. While, he spend time staring at the fire and giving it more wood to swallow, I watched him with gratitude. It was nice to be his guest and he was a wonderful host, taking care of everything - from food to fire to safety. Infact, all I needed to do this time was to enjoy the sceneries and the food!

Me @ Masthakappara
Morning with the clouds!

I hardly slept after that and spend the night thinking about various things and checking the time every ten minutes. As soon as it was 6, I got up and finished my morning ablutions and headed back to the view point. The fog was still there, but the view was better this time. We could see the smaller hills along which we came and some of mud-roads @ Muthappanpuzha. It looked so far down and we were about a 1500m above the plains!

We started back by around 8, stopped at one of the tiny rivulets which had water and filled up the bottles. Ahead of this point, Josettan found a shorter route that he was looking for, which lead us to the marshland in no time. A little later we were climbing up the 'Mannennaappara' and enjoying a complete view of the surrounding hills for a last time. We stopped once more at the grass land for a phone/water break. There was some litter at this point too, including plastic spoons, toffee wrappers and plastic covers. Since I was not feeling much tired, I decided to pick up all the plastic we could see and burn the paper waste. After all, the litter would weigh very little and action should always speak louder than words!

By about 9, we started descending through the initial zig-zag. In just abt half an hour we reached 'Damodaran Kolli' and stopped there briefly. We picked up more plastic from there and continued doing it all along. We kept a good pace till we reached the boulders above the first/last stream. There we heard the rustling of the trees once again and Josettan spotted a monkey this time. Just past 10, we reached the first stream crossing and took a good break. I washed my face and took a few sips of this pristine, ice cold, tasty water. It had such a rejuvenating effect!

Crossing Thenpara river
Can u see the faint silhouettes?

Along the origin of the river, we could see the hills we had climbed as a faint silhouette. We had already come so far down and there was more to go. The descend continued after 10.30 and we passed the next two water points pretty soon. At about 11, we were at the 2nd stream crossing. Though, Josettan was in a mood to continue walking and reach the village by 1, I didnt want to get famished in the heat, which awaited us beyond this point. So, I insisted on preparing our last meal - some rice porridge.

The only problem was that rice took a little too long to get cooked. Meanwhile, it gave me ample time to walk around the stream and collect all the litter I could. People had thrown everything from bottles, plastic bags and even a pile of plastic plates. My litter cover was already full by now and I stuffed them all into another plastic cover and tied it to my bag.

Litter picked up from Vellarimala
They thought the hills were dumping yards!!!

Finally, the food was ready by about 12 and we gobbled it up along with some dry fish that Josettan was carrying. Once the stomachs were full, we packed up and started our descend by 12.30. Josettan was telling that we could have reached earlier, had we avoided this long break. But, I felt that the break only helped, since the energy levels were right up there. We picked up good pace and went past 'Olichuchattam' in no time and reached the fenced area in some more time. By 1.30, we were back to the civilization, collecting back my cloths and sipping hot ginger water! We also dumped the litter at the first garbage yard we found.

Thenpara river near Muthappanpuzha town
Time to take a bath!

A little later, we stopped at Josettan's friend's house who serves homefood. We took a long break there, but my stomach was already full and chose not to eat anything. Instead, I had some more hot water! Then, we went further down and I took a dip at the Thenpara river, dressed up and was ready to head back. There was a bus @ 3.15 and it was almost time. So, I thanked Josettan for all his help, bid him goodbye and headed towards the bus stand. Though, I was there by 3.15, it seems the bus had gone by 3 itself. So, I had to wait till 3.50 for the next bus.

This bus was headed towards Thiruvambady, from where I got another bus to Kozhikode. After roaming around the city and feasting on some of its famous dishes - milk surbath, sugar cane juice, sharjah shake, banana chips, malabar halva and chicken biriyani - I reached the KSRTC stand on time for my return bus @ 9.

I do not know if I can head to Vellarimala once again. But, its sure that everytime you visit the place, it offers new challenges and surprises. This is one trek I badly wanted to do and I would rate this as one of my best treks and something to cherish for a very long time.
References:
  1. Arunz one of the coolest dudes around who chases clouds and writes abt it @ chasing-the-clouds.blogspot.com.
  2. Chennai Trekkers / CTC website is @ chennaitrekkers.org.
  3. It was actually Neelimala, clearly visible during Muthappanpuzha - Kalladi trek.
  4. Confusion was cleared after a 2nd trek to Chembra and a trek to Wayanadan Mala, the actual 2100m tallest peak in Wayanad. What we saw from here, as well as from the top of Chembra was Wayanadan Mala. Chembra is only 1850m tall and is hidden behind Wayanadan Mala, when seen from Vellarimala ranges.
  5. This was a mistake - this peak is part of Vellarimala ranges and is called Vattapara by people at Muthappanpuzha. Though it looked quite tall, it is not as tall as Vavul Mala.



© 2017 Sandeep Unnimadhavan