Write-up by Sampath Kumar:
Photo credits: Surya, R Chandrasekar, Naresh
Kodaikalathil kodai pidikarathai vittu kodaikanal pogalam endradum ennaku ore kudhukalam (sometimes in summertime, it smacks of sensibility to go someplace less akin to a smelting furnace!)
On that bombshell a.k.a marana mokkai, let me narrate to you about our trekking trip to the misty mountains of Kodaikanal.
ok! Let’s start again. Long before the actual trekking was underway, the motely group of participants were busy sending out emails to everyone about the food menu, shelter, transport arrangements, who all will eat one fellow’s potatoes (no pun intended!) etc. Eventually, it culminated in all of us boarding the bus on the appointed day, and the day after, reaching kodaikanal on a rather chilly morning.
Upon arrival, we sauntered off in search of A.R. Rahman hotel. Once we did reach the place, we found it to be still shuttered close. Notwithstanding, we looked around for worthy alternatives (read gangaiamaram hotel, ilayaraja hotel, harris jeyaraj hotel etc) and settled for a shack in the guise of a eaterie.
Our maître d’ announced that idly, dosa, poori and bread-omelet were their offerings. We placed our orders and waited for the food to arrive. But before anything arrived, a giant cloud of steam arrived as the chef generously spread/swiped water on the hot tawa with his broom! (they apparently have 3 bitchelin stars for their eaterie). Finally the food arrived, with accompaniments in bathroom buckets and mugs (only the sombu was missing!). The food and the accompaniments were absolutely worth bitching about (that explains the bitchelin stars). With our hunger satiated and taste buds sent to a coma, we boarded our ride to kukkal village, with our local guides in tow. Having secured our baggage on the roof rail, some 8 of us stuffed ourselves in one of the vehicles like canned sardines. Soon we were on the way along mountain roads, chugging along steadily in two SUVs. All along, we were bantering within ourselves about varied things. As the ride was a bit shaky, Yeshwant in the backseat proudly announced that he was feeling queasy and that he had the dubious combo of idly+poori for breakfast. Since I was directly in the firing line I began plotting my escape act – shoot out of the window like a ninja or burst through the roof like hulk. Safe in the knowledge that I am incapable of both, I did the only thing I could – pray that his guts make peace with themselves! Thankfully, they did and we were all saved from becoming a wreck before the trek.. Sigh..
Finally, we did arrive at the village, which was at an altitude of 1800 m. When there, we downed some hot chai before beginning our trek. Along with the local guide and a large cooking vessel, we began walking through a dried up lake bed. Pretty soon, we were snaking through lush forest path – not the kind of lush associated with paddy fields or parks or orchards, but rather one characterized by large trees with buttressed trunks covered in moss, whose canopy near completely shielded out sunlight from the damp forest floor, which in turn was suffused with myriad vines and shrubs. As a result, the whole frame consisted of dark hues of green, brown and black, with a few streaking rays of yellow. Gradually the incline became more noticeable and so were the denizens of the forest – Malabar giant squirrel, whistling thrushes, barbets and others constantly announced their presence overhead. However, one particularly slick representative got a wee bit intimate with many of us. Only, we weren’t too thrilled about the suckers sucking at us, as if we were moving Tropicana juice cartons – it was open season for the leeches!
All along, we kept picking off the tenacious leeches, until we finally arrived at an altitude where the windswept landscape was relatively sparse and free of leeches. It was an hour or two past midday and we settled down for lunch. The breads, spreads, baked beans and apples, rotis and chutneys did the rounds. The sky was shrouded in grey, a perceptibly cool draft of moist air enveloped us and the dark flickering clouds seemed to portend rain. Unfortunately, the elixir of life evaded us, only to cascade down in punctate sheets of water in a nearby valley. Atleast, we were fortunate enough to have witnessed the grandeur of it.
We climbed uphill briefly after wrapping up lunch, and reached the site of a local temple, situated on the very top, which was at an altitude of 2100 m.
Everyone took off their footwear, as was customary and climbed up the rocky process. Up there we took some time to soak in the resplendent scenery below and to take group photographs. Henceforth, we proceeded towards returning to kukkal village, by essentially retracing our path. The descent was much more rapid and hence without much trouble from the leeches. Upon reaching the outskirts of the village, we sat down for a while, unsure as to where we could camp. The flats adjoining the lake looked promising, but our guide remarked that one couldn’t camp there without procuring permission from the forest ranger. Hence, we waited nearby the locked forest department’s guest house/lodge for the officer to arrive. At that instance, I got the call from nature and hence picked up an empty bottle from near the guest house and headed towards the lake for water. As I walked towards the fringes of the lake adjoining the forest, which was covered in grass, my feet kept plunging into the deceptively wet mush beneath. Unfazed, I kept proceeding tentatively towards the water’s end, only to plunge thigh deep and getting stuck. Though I was fortunate to have been spotted by some of my fellow trekkers, I somehow wriggled out of it myself with a beargrillesque attempt – laid flat on my stomach and leveraged my leg off. Slathered in slush, I tiptoed my way to firmer ground, eventually collected water from a minute stream nearby and attended to my call. Then I slowly walked to the concrete embankment dividing the lake from the road, from where the lake’s water was easily accessible. There I washed my shoes, limbs and pants off the slush, much to the amusement of the villagers and my friends! With the forest officer yet to arrive, a bunch of us took off to the nearby village for some tea.
When we returned, we came to know that all would camp outside the lodge itself. Slowly we proceeded to spread a few tarps and get a fire going. As darkness descended, the preparations for dinner commenced. With kousalya and our le petit chef in command – Jotsna at the helm, others engaged in the prep – rinsing, cutting and dicing vegetables. Simultaneously, water was heated up in a vessel for boiling the macaroni. With a cold lunch and a terrible naasta, we couldn’t wait for the hot pasta! Unsurprisingly, we ganged up towards the still cooking pasta like ravenous vultures, pretending to be warming ourselves up. That combined with all our unsolicited suggestions, including from me, was unsettling our le petit chef. So much so that she was on the verge of tearing the vermicelli off her head! Somehow, she didn’t boil over and become al mental! (pardon the word play!). Soon, the pasta was al dente and needed to be drained of the liquid. For a moment we thought of yanking Yeshwant’s veeshti off his waist, to be used as a straining cloth. But then, none of us were politicians and hence lacked the necessary skill for it……
Atlast, we settled for a towel and strained the pasta of its liquids with it, succeeded by a cold water rinse. Since the sauce had to be made in the same vessel, the drained pasta couldn’t be returned to the vessel. As a result, three unfortunate chaps – Karthik, Chandraskekar and Sandeep took turns to hold it suspended, like a sleeping baby. The sauce was a curious mix of spinach, onions, tomatoes, chillies, cream, cheese, salt and pepper. Nevertheless, it tasted wonderful in the end. Bowls of hot macaroni in sauce were distributed and soon all were satiated. After the satisfying dinner, we had to figure out the sleeping arrangement. Since we had noisy neighbors in the guest house and some didn’t possess sleeping bags, some 8 of us decided to camp inside a partially built house/room nearby.
As we settled in, Yeshwant began singing hitherto non-existent ragas in the cold. As I couldn’t fathom the prospect of seeing my dear friend freezing into a bespectacled popsicle, I selflessly gave away my shirt (the spare one damn perverts!!), socks and my muffler. Indeed, such an act of kindness filled me with pride and an ethereal warmth, so much so that I almost heard the nesting swallows on the overhead ceiling say- “krantikari, bahut hi krantikari”!!
Just as I thought that I had saved the day (or night!) and decided to get back to Katrina kaif and help her in her (K)aamsutra quest (in my dreams that is.. damn you ranbir!), I had to kiss my impending dreams goodbye, as two other aam trekkers – Aravind a.k.a gollum and surya a.k.a the red mutant were smitten by her maleficence- Miss Cold!
Both of them, not unlike yeshwant himself, had not brought along any warm clothing (apparently, they thought it was unnecessary as they were already “hot”!. Disclaimer – I am not involved in the ratings!).
At least Aravind had brought along a towel to cover him! Only, it was of the size popularized by mumtaz in her item numbers!. The mutant’s case was altogether a different one – shaking, shivering and teeth clattering. So much so that I was convinced that the mutant was mutating again into an abominable snowman!
Only upon Ela’s insistence, the mutant wrapped himself with the ends of the tarp and proceeded to some calm. As the night was still young, hours of uneasy stillness tided over us, until yeshwant, prasanthi and aravind began belting out sonorous snores in their slumber! Several additional hours passed, until I somehow put myself to sleep.
The following morning was a cold one, with a gossamer like sheet of mist ever so tantalizingly kissing the placid waters of the lake. A fire was started again to boil water for tea. Meanwhile, ela and chandrashekar fired up their innovative stove made of a tin can with perforations on top and hand sanitizer. With that tiny stove, we made our own soup and tea. Soon the sun was shining brighter and everyone was busy tucking into their breakfast – bread, cornflakes with milk, rusk, biscuits, soup, muesli etc.. At around 9 am our guide came back. However, he demanded double the charge for our proposed trip to palani, much to the annoyance of Raj. After a few bouts of negotiation, raj gave us the thumbs up. All our gear and supplies were packed up and we were ready to move again. Just as we were moving, chandrashekar took pity on two mongrel pups tied nearby the lodge and fed them a few slices of bread. Ela, prasanthi and kousalya joined him and untied the poor creatures from the constricting leash around their necks. Finally, we got going and reached the village again. From there on we were descending steadily, with the magnificent sight of deep mist cloaked valleys below accompanying us. The stunning views continued for quite a while, until we reached the foothills. No wonder chandrashekar, naresh, ela and surya were happily snapping away all along. One of the mongrel pups too followed us all along!
There on, we were walking through a sprawling private estate replete with many rows of neatly arranged plantation trees – firs, silver oaks, red sanders and alike, a large hunting lodge and a handsome stead. At one point, we came across a beautifully serene stream dotted with flowering plants on it’s sides, eventually draining abruptly down a steep rock face. We were marching ahead through the estate, much of which was at the same level plane, till we reached a point from which the large stream down the hill was visible. By now the midday sun was beating upon us and we steadily climbed down towards the stream, through a narrow path populated by dry brambles and bushes to the either side. Some 20-30 minutes later we were greeted by a large flat rock bed with a shallow pool in the middle and a small jet of water gushing down through a rock crevice at one end.
Without any further invitation, we dropped our bags and shirts off and drenched ourselves in the refreshingly cool water cascading down the crevice. So much so that people started queuing up for it, often times returning for another turn! Unlike others though, surya the mutant was so enamored by harikumar’s long flowing locks that he was eagerly watching him bathing (Dostaana 2?!?), much to our amusement that is! As the pup was with us, Nachiketan helped it take a dip in the water like we did!
At around 1 pm we started having our lunch at a leisurely pace. Then, all took some time to relax – some were leaning against the rocks, others were lying on the cool flat rocks in the shade till around 2 pm. As the impending path was potential elephant corridor, we decided to start descending, so that we could possibly make it to the dam before dusk. The caravan was on the move again, through jungle paths briefly, until we saw a buffalo herder who directed us to walk along the dry stream ahead to reach the dam. The dry river stream was strewn with boulders and hemmed with tall majestic trees on either sides. As we kept hopping through boulders, our noses sensed decomposition. The source was a large bloated guar with bruises on its face, perhaps caused by smashing onto it from a slip. We kept moving along the dry stream purposefully, when at a point we came across a group of people from a nearby village having their own picnic there. Fortuitously, the pup which was following us found new caretakers in them! Also, one amongst them graciously accompanied us for a few kilometers until we sighted the dam below us at a distance. The heat had already fatigued us considerably and the last 4 kms or so seemed grueling. Yet, we trudged forward, knowing that with every step covered our destination was getting closer. The passing minutes and the meters covered seemed endless, the dusty dry path only adding to our woes. Few hours of this and we did eventually reach the dam which was at an altitude of mere 400 m. Damn! What a relief it was! We threw our bags down and doused our thirst with copious amount of water, kindly provided by another group of local picnickers. They also shared some of their cucumber fruit generously. From there we walked towards the top of the dam, took some group photos and then proceeded towards the nearest bus stand. After reaching one in about 5 mins we took siege of a local store, eating omlets, pakoras and swigging cold sodas after sodas! The bus to palani did arrive by 6.45 and we reached palani in an hour or so.
From there on, we branched off into different groups, each heading to a restaurant of their choice. After a hearty meal (yeshwant’s woes continued with his dinner too – whereas he was proudly declaring through much of day two that he would devour several species for dinner, he only managed to puke after having a few bites of food!), everyone congregated at a point where the bus to chennai would arrive. The bus did arrive eventually at around 11.30 p.m and everyone happily crashed into their recliner seats (However, aravind’s seat wouldn’t lock at the reclined position, which greatly amused pratima in the back seat! Only after several minutes of tinkering with it did the bus’s valet fix it). The next morning, upon reaching Chennai, we bade goodbyes to each other and left with a lingering sense of joy!