Podiyam - Athirumala - Agastya Mala trek in March 2012

It is in the middle of January that Agastya Mala / Agasthyakoodam / Agasthyamalai / Agathiyar Malai / Agastyarkoodam is open to visitors and this time I did not want to miss the window. So, as soon as the forest department started giving away passes, I called them up. I was told that I have to be there at the spot with an ID proof to get the passes. Now, is it possible to go all the way to Thiruvananthapuram / Trivandrum, just to get the passes? I was not sure ... but this is exactly why I was not able to do the trek to Agastya Mala all these years!

This time, I put a little more effort - I asked Darshan, if he can ask any of his relatives (who is in Thiruvananthapuram) to get the passes. He agreed, but the result was not so favourable - apparently, the forest office was so crowded with the pass aspirants that he could not get it even after standing in the queue for a couple of hours! Now, it looked like I had to spend a weekend and travel to Thiruvananthapuram just to get the passes. About 700kms from Bangalore, the capital of Kerala would take around 15hrs by train and may be slightly less in a Volvo bus (which goes via Tirunelveli).
I had done a Kumarakom - Thiruvananthapuram - Thekkady trip in January 2006 and driven to Thiruvananthapuram in a few more occassions. So, the place was not new to me ... and I was seriously thinking about it ... before Priyanka mentioned that Vishwanath [1] is planning a trek to Agastya Mala. With Priyanka giving a good recommendation for the organization skills of Vishwa, I called him up right away and confirmed availablity. She herself could not go as Agastya Mala has a traditional entry restriction for woman.
A few other friends also showed interest to join the trek, but at the end only Pravin made it. Two other people - Sundar and Souvik - had registered with Vishwa, making it a group of five. We were scheduled to depart in a 5PM train from Majestic on a friday evening. As always, I had a hectic friday, reached Majestic just in time and somehow made it to platform #5 where the train was waiting. The rest of the group - along with Thomas, Vishwa's associate from Live 360° [2] - was already on board.
Agastya Mala (mostly referred as Agastyakoodam in Kerala, with the hill ranges also known as Ashambu Hills) is considered as the abode of sage Agastya. With an elevation of about 1868m, it is one of the tallest peak in western ghats. It is also considered as one of the toughest treks in the region, as the trail starts from a relative low altitude. The peak and its nearby areas are famous for the abundance and variety of medicinal plants. Due to the presence of many rare medicinal herbs, the area around the peak is declared as a biological park. The peak is off-limit for most part of the year, unless special permission is taken from the forest department. It opens up to limited number of pilgrims and trekkers for a month starting mid january. The visitors should buy passes in advance from the forest department to book their appointment with sage Agastya.
The normal trek trail is from Bonacaud / Bonakkad, about 50kms from Thiruvananthapuram, via Nedumangad and Vithura. But, Vishwa's plan was to start the trek from Podiyam, instead. Podiyam is a tribal village about 40kms from Thiruvananthapuram, inside the Agastyavanam ('<i'vanam< i="">' = forest in Malayalam) Biological reserve, adjoining the Peppara Dam reservoir. It is accessible by road via Kattakkada, Kuttichal and Kottoor. There are bus services till Kottoor, but the rest of the distance has to be covered by foot or on an off-road vehicle.
Our train reached Thiruvananthapuram by about 9.30. Pravin wanted to make a quick visit to his grandma's place and invited me to accompany him. We joined the rest of the gang again at Pettah junction, where we also had a sumptuous breakfast of appam, egg curry and kerala porotta. By about 11.30, we took the Kattakkada, Kuttichal, Kottoor route. Our driver Priyan - in a tempo trax - first gave an impression of being a rash driver, as he kept driving on the right side of the road and was about to hit some other vehicles. But, when we requested to go a little slower he complied.
By 12, we reached Kottoor and our host Surendran - a youngster with physical disablities who had to be carried around - joined us with all the rations. Kottoor has a thriving tribal market - on saturdays and wednesdays - which is used by tribals to sell their produce. The money is then used to buy other essentials - some though, spend it on liquor, as it was evident by some youths who were roaming around at Kottoor in an inebriated state. Soon after Kottoor, we passed a forest check post and entered the Agastyavanam Biological Reserve. Once, we entered the jeep track, Priyan and his vehicle showed their true color. In a road, which might be difficult for even 4-wheel-drive vehicles, Priyan showed admirable control of his vehicle in navigating the tough terrain. He took us through a road filled with boulders and loose soil - we even crossed a couple of streams - to take us to Surendran's house at Podiyam, where we would camp for today.
At Podiyam, we were welcomed by a Kerala forest department sign board, which says the Podiyam settlement was created in 1999. As we settled down, Thomas mentioned that Agastyamala is visible towards east side (right behind Surendran's house) on clearer days. According to him, the peak is unmistakeable whenever it is visible, rising above the rest of the hills. But, for now, some other hills - closer to Podiyam and shorter in altitude - were visible. Even these hills looked quite far - leaving us wondering how much further away the Agastya Mala actually is.
Lunch at Surendran's house was extremely sumptuous - well prepared, tasty and elaborate. We all struggled to finish the loads of rice, chicken, mashed tapioca, mashed jack fruit and a variety of vegetables, all prepared for us! After lunch, I found it hard to get up and walk around, but the plan was to hit the water - the Peppara dam reservoir - for a bath! I would have refused to get up for anything else, but a swim in the reservoir was too tempting to miss, especially with the sweaty state we were in.
   

quitemoments

Quite moments after the frolic
 

A half an hour walk to the reservoir was a beautiful experience. The trail we took was not a very thick forest, as it passed through the heart of the settlement, but still had an abundance of birds. With the constant chirrup of birds around us, I was soon engaged in trying to identify some of them. The reservoir was also picturesque - to say the least. It was deep, just a few meters beyond the shore, and ideal for a few rounds of swimming. We had good fun frolicing around in the waters and before I even realized, it was getting dark - as early as 4.30.
The rest of the day was spent on discussions - I got to know our hosts during this time. Surendran, is well educated and was working at Techno Park for a while, but his physical disability made it difficult for him to continue. He had a laptop at home and the place was powered using solar panels. During summer, they would have enough power, but monsoon time, they would had to conserve. Even though disabled, he has visited every nook and corner of Agastya Mala - carried around by his relatives - and had a good understanding of the topology.
An interesting moment was when Surendran's father came in with a bow in his hand. Well ... not bows and arrows, but a bow-like device which is used to fire stones at a target - mainly meant to scare wild animals or to paralyze a prey. Surendran demonstrated by firing a stone at the top of a tall coconut tree. The stone flew out at good speed and would be a painful blow for anybody on its way. When I tried the same, the stone almost hit my other hand, which was holding the bow. In spite of a lot of practice I could not manage to fire the stones succesfully - even once :( Others faired better, with Thomas being the best, succesfully hurling stones at a good speed, without any misfires.
Vishwa and Sundar shared some of their experiences from the Himalayas - they had done a mountaneering course together. Vishwa had extensive experience trekking all over India and it was an experience even to listen to his anecdotes. He leads most of his organized treks himself and prefers smaller groups for trekking. This makes sure that the impact on the forests is less - a simple rule usually ignored by many larger organizations in favour of money / publicity.
I had a long chat with Thomas as well - which revealed that he had left an IT job for a career in adventure sports. He was a specialist for aero sports at Live 360° [2] and held a flying license. But, he had huge interest in trekking as well. His passion was evident when he talked about his mission - to make adventure sports safe in India. In this regard, he also told me that giving out information about trekking spots, without any proper warnings to go with it, is recipe for disaster. People with no idea of do's and dont's in a forest is invading these places and littering them badly.
Some of them being careless, results in accidents and causes so much negative press, which ends up shutting the doors for even serious and passionate trekkers! It was kind of like banning private vehicles in a highway because of a few careless drivers. His main concern was that the mental preparations that is required for a good trek - including a good understanding of the trail / geography and identifying escape routes - which was critical for any explorative trek is not given enouggh prominence in the trek log. This leads to an impression - atleast to the inexperienced - that some of the very difficult treks are walks in the park.
His points were very valid and I had to sit down and take notice - but the problem was that its not pracically easy to convey these in words. Ideally, people who need the warnings will not pay heed - instead, those who are unnecessarily careful will only get further scared! I also felt that trekking organizers taking in large groups in to reserved forests is also taking a heavy toll on nature. One person in such a large group - who does not bother about trekking etiquettes - can cause indelible damage. Its possible to give personal attention and mentoring for small group sizes, but 50+ is a crime, however experienced the organizer is!
We also discussed about various trekking destinations in Kerala and identified a few targets for exploration - I had a feeling that this is only the beginning of a long association with Thomas and Vishwa. The wavelegths seemed to match and so did the passion. Thomas mentioned about a group of hills, known as Ainthuthalai Pothigai, adjoining Agastya Mala - a place where he himself wanted to explore. This prompted us in to looking up some of the older pictures stored in Surendran's laptop. A forest watcher, Mathan - a relative of Surendran - had taken this pic and the set included some rare orchid species in the region. All this piqued a lot of interest and we were all eager for next day and praying for clear skies.
I was wondering that we had so much of fun already that the next two days is only a bonus. The day started well and the sky looked clearer. As the sunlight came out, we got that view of Agastyamala to our east, which was missing on the previous day. The peak looked stunning rising above the rest of the hills and the view pepped me so much that I was ready in no time. By 7.30, we were all packed up and ready - so was the breakfast, puttu (steamed rice cake - a kerala speciality, green gram curry and pappad) :) It took us some more time, before we actually finished the breakfast and started for the trek. Thomas was not coming for the trek as he had been there a few times and also had some other personal work. Satish (aka Kannan) and Rajesh - both neighbours / relatives of Surendran - joined us as guides.


firstlookagastyamala
 A first look at Agastya Mala and neighbours

 Finally, by 8.45 we started for the trek. The initial part of the trek was through settlements and mosly on level ground. But, here also, the amount and variety of bird life was amazing. We walked among constant chirrups of birds and reached a valley in about half an hours time. We got a clear view of the far away hills here - including Agastya Mala and the group of hills to its south, the Ainthuthalai Pothigai and Sangu Muthirai. We got down this valley and continued walking through settlements for some more time, before the forest started getting thicker. Soon, we were at a stream and took a short break there. After the stream, we entered in to a shola forest and started going around a hill called 'Pattanpara'. The valley to our left side was not very visible in this stretch due to the thick tree cover.

Vishwa, soon spotted an exotic looking tree with red sprouts all over its trunk. Kannan told us that it is a tree called 'Pongu' and the sprouts will grow in to a tasty fruit, which they call 'Moottilpazham' (meaning, fruits at the bottom of the tree). By now, the forest was thick and had a deep layer of dry leaves covering the ground. We crossed over in to another hill and soon reached another stream called 'Nachiyar'. The hill - on the slopes of which we were walking - was called 'Nachiyar Motta' ('motta' is a dialect for 'top'). Here, we spotted a gigantic creeper - we initially thought it were the roots of a huge tree, but the creeper was running up to almost all the large trees in that area. Again, Kannan mentioned that this fella is called 'Parandha Valli' ('valli' is creeper in malayalam). It had many medicinal values - its fruits float in water and is edible, while its stem has a high water content and is used to bath infants.
slopesofnachyer
 

From the slopes of Nachiyar Motta ...    
 

towardsbonacaud

... towards Bonacaud
 

It was about 11 by now and soon we came out of the forest and reached an open grass land. From here, we could get a bird's eye view of the two reservoirs - Neyyar and Peppara - to our left and the hills towards Bonacaud. Even the Neyyar dam - though a little too far - was visible on a second look. A hill ridge, which was visible from Podiyam, now looked very close and menacing - resembling an impenetrable fort. We walked on the slopes of Nachiyar Motta - enjoying the views around us - for some more time, before getting in to another shola forest.
The tree cover was not so thick in this stretch of shola forest - and soon the heat started getting to us. Each stream appearing on our way looked more and more magical - as they gave us the opportunity to wash away the sweat from the face and also take a few sips of water. Due to the abundance of streams all along the trail - surprisingly so, even at the peak summer - I had not even bothered to take out the bottle of water I was carrying. Instead, I would take a few sips of water as and when we reached a stream. I was sweating profusely by now and the streams we encountered was critical in dealing with the heat.

thegang

The gang ...

 

takingabreak

... taking a break
 

We encountered a few boulders on our way through the forest. One of them formed a good background for a group pic, while the other - called 'Pandimuthiyar Aappu' - was a cave formation. 'Aappu' is a dialect for a cave, while 'Pandimuthiyar' is the name of a stream. Soon, the forest was behind us and we entered an open land with small shrubs. We joined a wider trail - coming from Bonacaud - and the mountain ridges to our north-east looked even more closer. Later, we were walking on a trail with forest cover to our left and a grassland on the right side. By about 12.30, we passed yet another cave. With the turmeric powder and incense sticks cover sprinkled all around, It looked like a place where people performed puja on their way up to Agastya Mala - first signs of the fact that Agastya Mala is a pilgrimage spot for many.

 
thatswherewecome
 

Thats where we came from!


Forest was left behind when we took a turn towards right and the trail now passed through the grassland. Trail was clearly visible along this stretch - even up to some distance - as a brown line on a green carpet. There were some trees on both sides of the trail - including many full-sized Amla trees. A stream flowing along this region provided the opportunity for much-needed hydration. Soon after the stream, there was some shade, where we took a short break. It was about 1 now and the sun was at its zenith. The ascend, also became a little steeper here. Pravin, checked his GPS and noted that we were at about 800m elevation - about 600m more than Podiyam, where we started the trek. More importantly, we had more than 1000m to go to reach the peak, which still looked like a distant silhouette! Walking along this grassland, with sun beating down on us at full strength, the peak looked a long way away.
At about 1.30, we got back inside forest cover and reached yet another stream. It was also time for lunch - Kannan and Rajesh opened up the lunch packet and we had Upma with bananas in plantain leafs. I was expecting the rest of the trek to be a steep ascend and Kannan confirmed by saying that the ascend just ahead of us is called 'Muttidiyan Theri' (meaning the-path-where-knees-will-hit the rocks, apparently because of the steepness). Fortunately, it was not as scary as the name sounded and we passed the 'Muttidiyan Theri' in about 15 minutes.
After 'Muttidiyan Theri', we reached a T-junction with another trail going towards the right. Apparently, this trail reaches some villages and is a shorter / steeper trail towards Podiyam. We turned to the left - towards Agastya Mala and Athirumala base camp. The remaining trail was a gradual ascend, but took us about an hour. I spotted many varieties of herbs with tiny flowers. Some of them looked like cousins of herbs found in our backyards, but more colorful versions of what I have seen. There were many color variations of 'Thumba' and 'Tulsi' and then the ones like Kunthirikkam - whose sap, when dried is used as an aromatic and mosquito repellent.
A good crowd was coming back after finishing their pilgrimage to Agastya Mala - most of them illegaly as the pilgrimage season was just over. One person who we specifically noticed was an old man with a long white beard, clad in saffron. It was amazing to see him trust his frail body and come up these hills. The high in-flow of pilgrims seem to be taking its toll on the hills as well, with trees in many nooks and corners used as the base of puja and sprinkled with turmeric. Especially at a specific area, there were numerous such puja points - the area is apparently a Ganesh temple!
By about 3, we saw a sign board showing Agastya Mala to our left and Athirumala base camp straight ahead. Our plan was to go to Athirumala now and camp there. We will visit Agastya Mala only on next day morning and then head back towards Podiyam on the same day. The base camp is an old building, with a few sheds around it, meant for cooking, toilet and bathroom facility. Apparently, a canteen is run here during the pilgrimage season. The whole camp had a trench around it - as protection from the big mammal. A forest watcher - Mathan, whose pictures we saw at Surendran's house - was in charge and welcomed us in. The camp also offered our first upclose view of the Agastya Mala and its neighbours. The peak still looked menacingly tall and far away. Souvik exclaimed that the peak should be atleast 3 hours away for us, while Vishwa assured us that we can go up in about 2 hours. But, most of us now had doubts about the practicality of going up and coming back in the morning and then making it all the way back to Podiyam - especially with a bus to catch from Thriuvananthapuram, late in the evening.
The side of Agastya Mala visible from here was a vertical rock face covered by thick forest in its base. A hill was visible to its left side - called Viluvarai according to Matahan - and the junction of these two hills is called Pongalappara. There were a few hills to the right of Agastya Mala as well - the immediate one apparently called Sanghu Muthirai. A small portion of the group of hills behind Agastya Mala - called Ainthuthalai Pothigai, the group of hills that Thomas was talking about - was also visible. There was a good amount of mist now and the top of the peak was covered. We could only hope that everything is clear next day, when we will be at the top.
</i'vanam<>


There were a few others who were camped at Athirumala, with some groups about to leave. Only one group was preparing their dinner and we (mainly, me and Pravin, who could speak Malayalam) had small conversations with them. They had come from Thiruvananthapuram only and had not taken any passes / permissions. A big board set up here - signed by Wild Life Warden, Peppara - was talking about refraining from alcohol, smoking, drugs and noise pollution. I could only hope that people take it seriously. Talking about sound pollution, the bird population here was amazing. I could see many birds, but the star spotting was the hill mynah, non-chalantly singing its song sitting at a tree-top.

Stilllongway

Still a long way to go ...
 

We kept our luggages in the kitchen shed and the plan was to sleep there only. Vishwa managed two extra sleeping bags for us, when he found out that only Sundar was carrying anything to sleep on. Apparently, the place is quite cold usually - but today was warm enough and I felt that we could manage without any sleeping bags. There was a small period in between when the clouds cleared and I scurried up to the terrace for pictures. It was getting dark by then, but I still managed to take a few snaps.
We spent a while at the terrace and had a chat with Mathan. He talked about the presence of many orchids in this area - some of which we had seen in his photographs - and it was obvious that we needed more time here. He also mentioned that entry is allowed inside the Biological park - even outside the season - on paying an entry / guide fee of Rs 4000 for upto 5 people. I felt that the high fee is more of a deterrent to ensure that only nature lovers are allowed inside. Also, the package will take care of food and accomodation for the visitors and is actually a fair deal.
Later, we found out that all the deterrents and restrictions are probably not working as the group outside started to have a booze party. We settled inside the kitchen shed and stuck to conversations - a particular favourite was Souvik's plan to attend the basic mountaneering course. He recieved many tips from Vishwa and Sundar, one of which was to carry all luggage for the rest of the trek so that he is prepared for the demands of the mountaneering course. We had dinner as early as 7 and the lights went off soon. While we were trying to sleep, the booze party outside was veering towards loud and abusive language!
The night turned a little cold later and I had to search the bag for my jacket. I was up very early - as soon as 4 - as I had developed a sleeping disorder lately. Especially, when in an excited state of mind, I wake up early in the morning and find it hard to sleep after that. I took my time to brush the teeth and visit the toilet - which was spacious and fully equipped with a tap. Infact, the whole base camp had good facilities - powered with solar panels and fitted with strong lights on all corners. The lights though, affected my view of the peak, but as I came out of its glare, I could see that the mist was all gone. Hopefully, we should get good views from the top too.
By about 6.10, we were all ready to go. During the initial part of the trek, we all walked pretty fast. The trail had a moderate ascend and passed through good forest cover. We also crossed a few streams and met the a group of people near one of the streams. It was heartbreaking to see that the whole area was littered badly - with plastic covers, toffee wrappers, pan covers, cigarette boxes, water bottles and even liquor bottles. Unfortunately, general public seems to have no clue about the ills of pollution and hardly cares about it. Sadly, some of them need only one way of entertainment - booze - and want to club it with every other form that they get into. Is it so difficult to carry some plastic covers on the way back - especially if it was possible to carry the content of the covers on the way up? Also, if drinking was the intention, why not stay at home and drink? Why pollute the sanctity of these hills?

valleyofgreen

Valley of green!
 

We reached a view point in about half an hours time and got a good view of the peak. Viluvarai - the hill to the left of Agastya Mala, now looked small in comparison as we were now almost at its height. Pongalappara was close, but Agastya Mala was still a vertical rock face as we were to its west. The trail would now have to go around the hill and the ascend would be from the northern slopes of the peak. The forest canopy looked beautiful with a few flowering trees. We could see the Athirumala base camp also from here.

waterfall

Waterfall - another day
 

I started picking up some of the litter from here on - as the sight was unbearable. I collected a few covers full of litter and left them at points - so that I can pick them on our way back. As we reached Pongalappara - a rocky valley with a few tiny pools, the litter was all over the place. By now, we had moved towards the north-west of the peak and the slope looked a little less vertical. I could see dried marks of flowing water on the rock face here - which looked almost like a waterfall. Later, Kannan confirmed that the area is a full blown waterfall during monsoon. Vishwa mentioned that the waterfall was there even when he came in December.
 

shouldreach

Thats where we should reach!
 

Pongalappara is usually extremely windy, but today was not so bad making things easier for us. We climbed up a rocky trail and could now see the valley to the north - behind Viluvarai. There were a few clouds making its way up from this valley. As we looked on, the valey was covered and the clouds were hovering around Viluvarai - threatening to head towards Agastya Mala.
 

tinythings

Tiny things of beauty
 

The trail now entered a shola forest - refferred to as A/C Vanam (literally meaning air conditioned forest, apparently due to the cool climate). The path was still rocky and looked like a dried stream in some places. But, the most interesting part was the vegetation around us - with numerous flowering trees and tiny herbs with colorful and exotic little flowers.
Climate changed drastically as we were inside a/c vanam. The clear views were soon gone and mist surrounded us. It took me almost an hour to pass through this forest area and come out back in to a rocky terrain. The climb that followed was very steep and could have been even more difficult in wet conditions. There was a rope hanging down for people who may find the climb too steep or slippery. Myself and Souvik were together at this stretch, while Vishwa and Kannan were ahead of us. Sundar and Pravin was behind, with Rajesh giving them company. It was already 8.30 and looked like the Athirumala - Agastya Mala would indeed take about 3 hours. Counting atleast 2 hrs for the return, we would only manage to start from Athirumala by noon. This would mean that we will have some time pressure to reach back Podiyam before its dark and then Thiruvananthapuram to catch the bus.
After this climb, we were back in to the forest for some more time. This last stretch of forest seemed to have a good bird population too and I spotted a few birds I never managed to shoot before - like a pair of Oriental White Eye who did not seem to bother even when I went very close. Unfortunately, I was carrying only a landscape lens and could not take any shots. Soon, we emerged out of the forest for the final climb - once again on rocks with ropes to help.
We met Kannan and Vishwa, who were now on their way back after visiting the peak. There was no visibility as the mist and clouds covered us and the valleys. Vishwa and Kannan had waited at the peak for a while, but they decided to get down as the mist didnt show any signs of clearing up. We told them that we will head to the peak and come back soon. On the way up, I was stopped briefly by loud calls of a bird and spotted a hill myna - sitting pretty on a nearby tree. Even though I was only a few meters away, it did not seem to care and kept the music on. It got bored and flew away after some time, while I continued on my way up to the peak.
 

sagecomvisage

The sage with a calm visage

 

waitingmisttoclear

Waiting for the mist to clear
 

At 9, Souvik and me was at the peak - which had its share of puja point and an idol of Agastya with a heavy dose of turmeric powder and incense sticks all around it. The idol is around 3ft tall, with a strikingly calm visage. We paid our respects to sage Agatya and waited for a few minutes hoping that the mist will clear. For a few minutes, the sky was clear and it even looked like the mist is going away. But, in another few minutes, it was back to square one. Finally, we gave up - as it did not look like, we would get any views - and started descending down, a touch disappointed. Pravin and Sundar, accompanied by Rajesh, was on their way up as we descended the first rock face. We thought of waiting for them and did so for a while. But then, it was about 10 and we were quite hungry - so we decided that Athirumala camp is a better place to wait, especially after breakfast / brunch :)
 

strongenough

Is this strong enough?
 

The descend was faster, atleast to begin with - we quickly covered a/c vanam and reached around Pongalappara within about 30 minutes. On the way, I picked up the litter covers I had collected and kept aside on our way up. There was a lot more litter than I could handle - I tried picking up atleast the plastic and filled up the covers I had till brim. Pongalappara was most littered and by the time we started descending down from there, I had two covers full - plastic, cigarette boxes, red bull bottles and what not! There were atleast a few liquor bottles as well, but I just did not have enough hands to pick them up too!
We were at the first view point by about 11, but slowed down considerably after that - thanks to the lack of breakfast and hunger taking its toll. As we came up till the view point at a good pace in the morning, the return seemed that much longer. The stretch we took only about half an hour to come up, looked a lot longer now! Souvik, who kept a little ahead of me would get delighted at each turn, only to get disappointed as he realizes that there is more to go. In between, he exclaimed that 'this road is never ending'. I was concentrating on the litter and managed to pick up two good plastic covers on the way, which was strong and spacious enough to take up more load. Also, there was enough plant life - this time I spotted some odd shaped fungi as well - to take some attention off the empty stomach.
Finally, by about 12, we were back at Athirumala. Souvik was delighted and almost ran ahead of me towards the kitchen :) Vishwa and Kannan, apparently had a super-fast descend, reached as early as 10, had their breakfast and Vishwa had even finished his nap. I also quickly headed to the kitchen and gobbled up the brunch - rice, rice water and sambhar. Now, we were worried about Pravin and Sundar, who did not reach until about 1. Also, Pravin raised concerns about his knee giving him trouble - we had a real danger of missing the bus and more importantly, not reaching Podiyam before its dark.
Kannan, Rajesh and Mathan suggested that we take an alternate / shorter trail - the one that forks off just before 'Muttidiyan Theri'. According to them, this trail had a steeper descend, but the distance to cover was much lesser. This sounded like a good plan to me and Pravin seemed to agree. But, the whole conversation went on in Malayalam and I kind of missed that Vishwa may not have followed the plan. Apparently, Pravin conveyed this to him, but, he confused this trail with another one he had used earlier. In short, the plan was not communicated properly and with Vishwa and Souvik starting ahead of the rest, we had to continue on the normal route.
 

abouttoleave

When we were about to leave ...
 

Just when we were about to leave, the sky cleared to give us the best view of the Agastya Mala peak - during our stay at Athirumala. I was busy taking a few final pictures, when everybody else left. By the time I packed the camera, said good bye to Mathan - with a promise to come back again - the rest were way ahead of me. I managed to catch up with Pravin and Sundar, who was also accompanied by the guides, Kannan and Rajesh. We moved together for a while and reached near 'Muttidiyan Theri' by about 2 - this is when I actually realized that Vishwa and Souvik did not know about the plan to take the alternate route and must have gone ahead.
To avoid any further confusion, we decided to continue on the normal trail. Pravin's knee was giving him trouble and I could see him literally dragging his feet. Rajesh took his bag and that should have been some help, but he still seemed to be moving with difficulty. To his credit, he did not take long breaks and kept on at the best pace he could manage. Rajesh went ahead in search of Vishwa and Souvik, while Kannan stayed back with us. We decided to move steadliy and continued without any long breaks. The initial signs were good - we were past 'Muttidiyan Theri' and in to the grasslands before 2.30.
With a long walk ahead of us, we turned in to conversations. One of the main topic was about the two bags of the litter that I was carrying back - obviously, I was not expecting the hills to stay clean just because I picked up two bags of litter! I am only hoping that this simple action will trigger some more to follow it and then that should help to spread the message. The mission can be accomplished only if people stop ridiculing basic etiquettes. But, the question was how can any of us help? Pravin suggested that I should add a few text boxes - with important content - to the trekkalogs and topics like litter should defenitely make it to the boxes. This was surely worth doing - if, atleast one person, who is reading this, pledges to not drop any litter - I would be happy. Even better, please see, if its possible to carry back some of the mess. We do not need any major organized programs and press coverage to cleanup the hills - all we need is some dedicated trekkers pledging to themselves that they will not litter the hills and forests and will carry back atleast some of the mess caused by others as well. If our hills should become cleaner, we should start with action - the results will follow!

tipsispeepingout

The tip is peeping out
 

Anyhow ... we watched the tip of Agastya Mala hiding behind the rest of the hills as we proceeded towards the shola forests. After a small break at the stream here, we managed to reach the junction point of Bonacuad and Podiyam trails by 3.30. Kannan was just ahead of us, to make sure that we did not head towards Bonacaud - as it was the more prominent trail. After taking the left to Podiyam, we were looking for other land marks - 'Pandimuthiyar Aappu' was first, then by 4, we were at the second grassland with a view of Neyyar and Peppara. Some of the hills in that direction looked particularly tall and we were wondering if that is the Ponmudi area.
We started slowing down a little from here onwards - as we headed in to the shola forest at the slopes of 'Nachiyar Motta. Twenty minutes later, we were at 'Nachiyar', near the 'Parandha Valli', and in another 10 minutes we were near the 'Pongu' tree. The trouble now was that the light was fading already and Podiyam should be about two hours away - at the pace which we were going. We requested Kannan to stay with us as the presence of wild animals was anticipated here and Kannan was best trained to avert any danger.

cloudsandtrees


Clouds and the trees ... the light is still on
 

Fortunately, we were able to cover the shola forests of 'Nachiyar Motta and 'Pattanpara' without any trouble. As we came out of the thick shola - by about 5 - sun also came out of the cloud cover and the golden rays gave a beautiful aura to the tall trees! Kannan suggested that we take another shortcut to reach a jeep track and took a right turn. We crossed a few valleys and a couple of streams as the light stayed with us. This region was infested with rich avian life as I could spot a few interesting birds here, some of which I could not identify. A small break at one of the streams later, we were in to the last lap. After a small climb, we reached a trail with rubber plantations lining the left side. I was begining to wonder how far away is Podiyam, when I spotted a jeep track leading to a small hill just ahead of us. Even more amazing was the tempo trax that stood at the top of the hill - and I could spot our driver Priyan sitting next to it with Kannan and Satish!
Few minutes later, we bundled ourselves in to the tempo trax. The jeep track led us right in to Podiyam, where the rest of the people and a good lunch / dinner was waiting for us. We did not have much time to pack up and had to hurry so that we could make it to Thiruvananthapuram in time. The drive through the forest in the dark was interesting, especially with the sighting of an Indian Gaur en route. In the end, we reached Thiruvananthapuram comfortably and boarded the Kallada bus, starting 9.30 to Bangalore. The bus journey actually was more tiring than the trek - as it took us a long 13 hours to reach Bangalore and it was about 11.30 by the time I reached home.
End of another beautiful trek - this one would rank high in terms of toughness. It was nice to do a trek with Pravin after such a long time and thanks to him for taking down so many useful notes. It was also great to have made some new friends - I am looking forward to more treks with Vishwa and Thomas. The southern tip of western ghats seems to have so many areas waiting to be explored and Thomas / Vishwa looked like the right team to do that!

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