Sakleshpur railway trek, Oct 04

“When the going gets tough, the tough wear backpacks”

“You will be eaten by leopards… will fall from those heights and your remains will never be found…..leeeeeeeeeches leeeeeeeeeches and more leeeeeeeeeches…..can’t you just stay at home and watch MTV instead??!”

These were some of the comments passing to and fro in the air-conditioned ambience of the SA Chennai facility on Thursday, 21st Oct 2004. Notwithstanding these voices [spelt NOISES], the 9-member team made last minute checks of the equipment they were carrying, checking and re-checking tickets and timings and testing out the weight of their backpacks. Any small detail missed could later hit back hard since their destination was the middle of nowhere [well almost ].

Having heard a lot about the scenic now-abandoned railway line between Bangalore and Mangalore encompassing some of Indias most scenic regions – The Western Ghats, some of the itchy-feeted [if I could use such a term] folk in our office planned to go out there themselves and check it out..What started off as a wild idea was now getting dates, plans, and people added to it.

An itinerary was finally in place and our group [Peter, Murali Rajagopal, Raja Manohar, Rajeev, Anand Subramanian, Kevin, Balachandran, Goutham and Sandeep] met at the MRTS station in front of Tidel and a 20 minute train ride later were in Chennai Central station to catch the train to Bangalore. Here we replenished our packs with water, chocolates and other high-calorie snacks. The train ride from Chennai to Bangalore can best be described as helluva-lot-of-fun for us and violent, noisy, torturous for the other passengers. In fact so noisy that Goutham had to be tied up and his mouth taped to bring down the decibel level in the compartment.

The train reached Bangalore at 9:30 and a short walk thorugh a subway took us to the KSRTC stand where we would continue our onward journey to Sakleshpur. Now what we hadn’t catered for was the unimaginable Dussehra holiday crowd and the utter mayhem at the bus stand. This was Indian population at it’s splitting best. It goeswithout saying that the buses were late and after spending nearly 3 hours at the bus station we boarded the Bus to Sakleshpur.

An uneventful journey brought us to Sakleshpur and then after Sandeep greased the palms of the conductor, we got a further hop to a place called Donigal where our trek was supposed to commence. The bus dropped us a few kilometers short of the Donigal railway station. The remainder of the distance was then covered in a truck carrying railway sleepers being used for the track conversion of the very line we planned to follow.

When we arrived at the Donigal railway station, another group was preparing to start the trek. They got a headstart of about 5 minutes but the Chennai-ites in us surfaced and the very fact that we were breathing unadulterated air made our legs move fast. In a matter of minutes we were on our way. We stopped for a quick breakfast of Bread/Boiled eggs/butter/jam and then carried on in a hurry to see the bridges.

Around a bend came bridge number one, and the other group was looking kinda white in color at the sight of it. One of them was making an attempt to cross it. His walk though suggested that he had seen braver days in life. “Heh heh…KIDS!!” was the thought that probably passed all our minds when we saw the difficulty the other group was facing but this feeling did not last very long…I think it evaporated somewhere between the 6th and 7th sleeper…..

Our so far loud group had suddenly turned silent…I think all were praying at this stage…..all except Goutham who was having a helluva time pulling poor Rajeev’s leg. Rajeev…..well…let’s put it this way…I don’t think he’ll go towards Bangalore in the next few years. The first half was kinda monotonous…bridges..tunnels..prayers….!! Somewhere on the way we found a poor-excuse-for-a-waterfall but being from a place where taps are part of the house décor, we happily used the opportunity…Anand, Goutham and Rajeev happily stripped of their clothes which were getting kinda hot and jumped under the cold water…Peter too jumped in along with them while the rest of us were content lying back on our backpacks and enjoying the contrasts in skin color 

We carried on and saw work on the railway line being carried out in a few areas. There were some heavy vehicles/cranes/bulldozers…L&T was brightly painted on these vehicles. Thankfully a little girl in the group of labourers was attracted to the devilish whistle Goutham was carrying and that was the last we heard of that…..saved many of us from a migraine..or so we thought..with the whistle gone..he got the chance to talk and laugh louder…..from the frying pan into the fire.

Around 1:30 our tired feet begged us to stop and stop we did for lunch…..believe it or not..a huge pile of granite stones was comfortable after a walk like that..and after a quick lunch of Jeera rice and paneer makhani we shut out eyes for a while..we slept for nearly two hours under the shade of a little tree. Full stomach, rested feet…we were full of enthusiasm to start off again and having neatly disposed off the garbage we stepped into a tunnel..a rather short one..a song in our heart…a smile on our lips… one had even the slightest clue what was waiting for us just around the corner.

Yours truly was the first to spot it and the record playing the song in my heart got stuck. The smile on my lips turned to an expression generally seen in exam halls conducting a maths paper. In front of me lay the biggest [you see my fear made it look bigger] bridges I have seen. Rajeev looked liked he would pass out. The others put up brave expressions but their blank eyes suggested otherwise. Nevertheless, we weren’t gonna back out at this stage more so since going back meant crossing the other 19 bridges.

Peter took up the mantle and romped across as if he’d done this every other day of his life. Mebbe crossing Madras roads helped him..but it sure didn’t help me..I gingerly stepped on each sleeper with a little prayer in my heart…..Somewhere after 50 metres..I cursed myself for having come on this trek when I saw 3 sleepers missing..Peter side-stepped this gap and walked on the beam the sleepers lay on. I was next and didn’t feel one bit confident. My backpack suddenly felt heavy and my legs felt wobbly. I somehow made it across and in the process discovered what it meant to ‘walk on all fours’..Rajeev discovered a new use for his stomach..he could use it to crawl across gaps in bridges. We somehow made it across and I heard a couple of laughs from the group..somehow they sounded of relief…..

They say bad things come together..and it did. Right after the ‘Killer bridge’ [Write-ups by other groups who did the trek will vouch for the name] came Gotham city itself [For the un-initiated, this is the abode of BATMAN], a long tunnel [592 m] and full…I mean FULL of bats…..the sound..the smell..the experience…has to be seen to be believed..they flew right at us and were all around us…..reminding us that Mr Dracula too might just be around somewhere. The uncanny part is that except for a single wing brush on my cheek..not a single bat hit us. They came close and just zipped by. I would not be exaggerating when I say they were not less than a lakh of these winged mammals in there. We breathed a lot easier when we came out…..Alive and uneaten !

We then stopped in between to take a bath in a rather furiously flowing waterfall…it was very nice to feel the cold water hit our tired bodies. It woke up Goutham again and he was all smiles and laughter..something he lost somewhere between the killer bridge and the Bat cave.

We continued on through thick grass and what we finally decided [having read other write-ups prior to this] was the last bridge..we counted heads across and the bridge..lo and behold 3 were missing..We backtracked a little and shouted out. After a while we saw Anand, Goutham and a very disturbed Raja tromping across the last bridge. Seemingly a dangerous jungle predator had pounced on and bitten his leg leaving it a bloody mess. We prompted him for words….leopard…wildcat…Tigerrrrrrrr??!! In reply a sheepish voice said “Leech”  Letting angry stares do the job of words..we continued on from there..

5:30 PM………around a bend………we saw a fading yellow board proclaim – Yedakumeri. We had arrived at our destination for the day…!! Rajeev did a fair imitation of a red-indian dance to celebrate the end of the bridges. We marched onto the railway platform [In fairly good condition for an abandoned one I must say] and dumped our backpacks falling flat on our backs like soldiers on a sojourn after a stint at the border. We had made it in good time..any later and we might have had to cross the last bridge in darkness..definitely NOT a good idea!

Having reached there we pitched up our tents and began preparing dinner while some of us enjoyed being in high ‘spirits’ . Annapurna pre cooked chapathis and MTR chana masala never tasted so good before..we wolfed them down and three of us Anand, Rajeev and myself hit the sack early..we were just too tired to join the others…who seemed to have an adventure of their own..courtesy good old Raja. I have only a third party narration of this incident but will try and do justice to the truth factor in it. Apparently they all settled down to sleep by midnight and Raja, Murali and Bala shared a tent.

Sometime around 2:00 AM, Raja woke up to see something in the moonlight and he screamed out in fright that something had entered the tent. I guess the jungle does this to people and Murali and Bala jumped up and joined in the mayhem..was it a snake..was it a leopard..was it a thief??! Torches were switched on and Peter and Co. sleeping in the adjoining tent joined in the search. Nothing was found..after a little investigation the truth dawned..what happened was that Murali and Bala had opened the tent flaps at night since it was getting hot and Raja wasn’t aware of this. The mountain breeze made these flap at night and the sleep, the long walk and the bridges, all put together made Raja hallucinate about some fearful creature in the tent. Sheepish Grin No.2 on Raja’s face. [Ok Ok I did add a little masala to that!]

Early next morning we cooked up some upma and MTR rajma masala served in big leaves procured by Sandeep, Anand and Peter from the forest. We then folded up the tents. Mother nature was answered 😉 and we were all set to go. Sandeep convinced the station watchman to lead us out of the forest and to the elderly man..he agreed for a fee. He then rubbed kerosene on his feet..he claimed these were for the leeches. Except for Raja, none of us had seen one so far and we did not pay too much heed to him…overconfident on our Nike and Reebok trainers. We were wrong again…

After about ½ hour on a sheer slope through dense [ I mean DENSE] forest, everyone of us had had an encounter with these bloodsuckers..YUCK..they stuck to our feet and legs and in the case of Sandeep and Anand..even in other places..and they were difficult to remove. We had heard of salt and matchsticks but we all hated them so much that we removed them with whatever we had..sticks, fingers. To cut a long story short..they were absolutely disgusting. We made it across a flowing river and to the highway [after another bath]. Here we waved down a KSRTC tin-can bus, which took us all the way to Bangalore. We stopped at around 4:00 PM for Tea and despite objections from other passengers the conductor let us finish our lunch of Dosas before carrying on..The magic of extra cash and the fact that we were looked upon as adventurers 

We washed down our weariness with pitchers of chilled beer in a swanky pub on Brigade’s Road in Bangalore – Downtown. Here we celebrated a great trip and the camaraderie displayed while on it. Some of us had a train to catch back to Chennai while some preferred to live it up in Bangalore. That my friends is the end of the story. It is truly a great experience to get together and do something on an urge like this. You learn new things about people, situations and the sheer power of nature humbles you making you see yourself in the right perspective! Someday if you have the time, my personal suggestion to you all would be..try and make it to this place someday in the near future..It will not be in it’s present form for too long..but be prepared and be equipped.

Three cheers to the SciAtl spirit!!

Peter [The Only True Indian], Sandeep[The Negotiator], Rajeev [Brrrrridgeman], Anand [Bathing beauty], Murali[Cop 1], Goutham [Entertainer] , Bala [Cop 2], Raja [Snakeboy] & Kevin[Chef].

(Story written by kevin)

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