“Thud!” That was the sound of my stubborn head making contact with a more stubborn branch hanging over the trail. I was still counting the stars that were swimming in front of my eyes when a laughing Thankayya said, “This is what happens when you keep your eyes on the ground only.” Easy for him to say so, but when the trail is strewn with rocks & boulders and you are jumping from one rock to another, it is kind of difficult not to keep your eyes on the ground. Ignore the fact that he was carrying all the provisions and still managed to walk without even working up a sweat. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
My friend Biju had called me from Kuwait in March and said that he would be coming home for vacation in April. The real reason he called me was that he wanted me to arrange some tours & treks while he was here. We used to be a good team, trekking to Agastyarkoodam and other places together. Many locations were discussed and among them came the names of Chinnapullu & Vattapara. He had some contacts in Vithura and said that he will see whether he can arrange the trek from there itself. A few days later he called me again and said that he has talked to the concerned persons and they will get the necessary permits and accompany us on the trek.
Fast forward to April and here we were, ready to start the trek on a Sunday morning from Vithura. Our guides for the trek were Justin, who was a watcher in the forest department and Karuppayya & Thankayya, who were the locals and members of the Vana Samrakshana Samithi. Around 7.30 AM Justin came to Biju’s house in Vithura, where we were camping for the night. Introductions duly made, provisions for the trek loaded into the jeep, and it was time to move to Ponmudi from where the trek started.
Vattapara is situated in Tamil Nadu just after the Kerala border and the trek would carry us through deep forest, which was what me & Biju really wanted. Animal sightings were said to be common in this route, with bisons (Indian Gaur) and elephants being the most frequently sighted. We were hoping for some good sightings. Biju had his video cam along with him and I had my Sony A290 camera with me. Soon we reached Ponmudi estate from where the trek started. There we were joined by Karuppayya & Thankayya. After burning of the customary incense sticks before the local deities, we started our trek.
Soon we crossed the estate limits into the forest.
It had been raining during the afternoon for some days in these areas and so we knew that leeches could be a problem. We had taken some precautions against them but as always, these tenacious buggers find a way to suck their quota of blood out of you.
Resting & checking time for leeches
The weather was sunny and with the heavy canopy over head, was perfect for trekking. Our aim was to reach Vattapara before evening. There was a small shed erected by the forest department where we could put our things and explore the place for the rest of the day. With this itinerary in mind, we paced our trek accordingly. The trek carried us through areas were the whole ground was covered with fallen leaves from trees and also rocky terrain.
By this time it was close to 1'o clock in the afternoon and we reached a clearing in the trail from where we had some amazing views.
After capturing the beautiful vistas in our cameras, we started moving again. By this time it was past 1’o clock. Justin said that the shed is nearby and we hurried to the shed.
One of the thorny branches jutting out onto the path
Half an hour later, we reached the small shed. The shed was constructed quite solidly using iron rafters & tin sheets but lack of maintenance had started to take its toll on the structure. The iron rafters were rusty and the tin sheets had been displaced in some places leaving the space open to the elements in some places inside. The shed also had a trench on all four sides to prevent wild animals from getting close. The shed was constructed here as there was water present in the form of a stream nearby.
We decided to pitch camp near the stream as the chances of sighting wild life is more near the water bodies. The weather was also good with no sign of rain. We collected our things and started looking for an apt place to camp for the night.
From the plain ground, it was time to move into the woods once again.
We could see some rain clouds and mist starting to form some distance away.
At last we reached our camping site (so we thought) for the night near the stream.
The water level in the stream was low due to absence of rains.
We pitched camp by the side of the stream and started collecting firewood for the night. While looking for firewood, my friend Biju got some thing interesting.
A bison's jaw!
Next in the agenda was fishing which was done by the age old method of scaring & herding the fishes into a cloth held by two persons.
Mean while back at the camp site, Karuppaya had begun cooking our food for the night.
Mean while Biju had managed to donate some "bad blood" to the leeches.
By this time it was close to 5 PM and light was starting to fade in the forest. So we left Thankayya & Justin there for preparing the food and started exploring the place, with Karuppayya as our guide. We also had a hope of some animal sightings, as it was evening time.
By now we could see that mist was starting to fall in some places. We followed Karuppayya through clearings and thickets in the hope of sighting some wild life.
The views were amazing, to say the least.
We had a blast capturing the splendid vistas. Me, in my still camera and Biju in his video cam.
Our aim was to get some animal sightings if possible so that we can take some photos. But though we trekked for some time with Karuppayya leading us, we were unlucky not to have any sightings. Finally we decided to return to camp as it was getting dark and to help the others in collecting firewood and in preparing food. Justin and Thankayya were cleaning & preparing the fish we had caught from the stream.
Justin grinding the spices in his makeshift grindstone.
Thankayya cleaning the fish. The fish caught from the stream were small & it requires great patience & skill to clean each of them individually.
Just as we were getting comfy in our new camp, it started raining. We had no other option but to collect all our things including the half cooked food and started running to the shed. By the time we reached the shed, all of us were drenched to the skin. We changed into dry clothes & Justin soon had a fire going.
It was time to finish cooking the half boiled rice and the fish.
After a hearty meal, we all lay down for some well deserved sleep. But as the night progressed, the temperature kept plummeting and it was an uneasy sleep for both Biju & me. The others didn't have much of a problem as they had taken the necessary "medicine" for the cold. ;)
I got up pretty early because of the cold. But because of that I was able to witness this.
A beautiful view from our shed
Moon giving way, albeit reluctantly
We had planned to trek the place in the morning as we still had hopes of some animal sightings. So as soon as the light was sufficient enough, we started. This time Thankayya came with us. We could see mist covering the plains and the forest beyond.
Thankayya led us through the forest one way first and then another way but we had no luck for some time. Then we had our first sighting for the day, an eagle.
Can you sight the eagle in the picture? I hadn't taken my zoom lens along as it was heavy and also because of the rains. This was the first instance when I would regret my decision, there were more to come. :(
We continued walking. Thankayyan led us to a spot where there was possibilty of sighting Gaurs and elephants. It was a valley sloping towards the plains. Thankayyan told us not to make any sound and we all moved very cautiously forward. Suddenly he stopped and whispered to us "Pothu" (Gaurs). We looked to the direction where he pointed but didn't see anything. Biju zoomed his movie cam and said "Oh yes, I can see them". I strained my eyes towards the slope and then I could see the first of them. We were on another slope at a safe distance from them.
I can't describe the excitement I felt in my body when these magnificent creatures came into our view. You want to shout out with glee on seeing them, but you whisper a prayer to God thanking Him for the beautiful sighting. We didn't make any sound, but our movement must have attracted the attention of the leader of the pack, for he looked in our direction straight at us for a heartbeat's moment and then he started moving down the slope. The whole herd started running after him.
Even from the distance at which we were standing, we could feel the whole ground shaking beneath us. I have seen Gaurs in the zoo before numerous times, but witnessing them in action in their natural habitat was an entirely different experience - an experience I will always remember during my life. Once again I rued the fact that I didn't bring the zoom lens along. It is very difficult to differentiate between a Gaur and a rock from a distance in the forest. Earlier Thankayyan had told us to look for white spot on the lower portion of their legs. Even from the distance we could see the white spot on their legs.