Sunday, February 27, 2011

Meenmutti - The Neyyar Descent

         Meenmutti is a common name, used in Kerala, for falls, in the sense that they render the movement of fish (Meen), along the up flow, impossible. The Meenmutti of Neyyar is close to its origin, in the valley of the Agastya Hills of Western Ghats. In our last visit to this place, while we explored Tholadi, our plan to Meenmutti was shattered by the rain. Even this time, we weren't sure at the start, whether we would make it to the destination.


             Thus two families, Sunil's and mine, took off by around nine, on 15th January 2011. Reached Kottoor, within an hour and rang up Dinesh, our facilitator, as always. On his directions proceeded to Kappukadu, Elephant Rehabilitation Centre, to meet the forester in charge. 


            Got him and revealed our plans to spent night at Meenmutti Forest Shed, near by the falls. This man, of course in good intentions, tried his level best, for our mind change. The arguments like the place is lonely and deep into the woods, no power supply, no toilet facility, no mobile coverage et al, fell on deaf ears.


          Rang up Dinesh again and affirmed that we were determined and on his directions the official conceded.Then came the next issue; 4WD Jeep, to take us to the place, will be ready only by 3PM. We decided to explore the rehabilitation center, until the Jeep arrived. The center is located at the north west end of Neyyar reservoir and is accessible by boat from the Neyyar Dam site, apart from the road through Kuttichal and Kottoor. 


           While we went for a walk through the reservoir side, the officer arranged a short elephant safari and it was a different experience. 



                  It was amazing that the kids were not all afraid of the huge animal and they competed to be atop.


    On information about two calves being maintained in the center, we straight away headed to their place.




          'People' of same age got acquainted soon and even the calves seemed to enjoy the light moments. 


                 By then we were assigned with Mr. Sukumaran, a watcher with the dept, to guide, assist and cook for us. Went back to Kotoor Junction, with him, to have lunch and to shop provisions, for us in the woods. Got back to Kaapukadu and our jeep was ready there. Boarded the vehicle and the bumpy ride commenced by around 4 PM.




              The shelter at Meenmutty is around 15 kms deep into the woods, from Kappukaadu. About half an hour later, as we had covered about 7 kms, we got hooked, as the vehicle developed a mechanical problem. 


                  It posed a threat, as we were good deep from the outer world, not covered by cellular network for an SOS. The driver and the owner of the vehicle, Kunhiraman, went ahead with efforts to put the thing right.


         In the mean while I was planning the next move. A return walk of about 6 km along the jungle, to the nearest inhabited place - Kappukadu - with ladies and kids, would take at least one and a half hour. It was 5 by then and as I was all set for the return walk, Kunjiraman brought the thing back to life. Still anxiety ruled over relief, as the trouble may again show up, further into the depth. Kunjiraman read it from my face, and informed to my relief that there are two Tribal settlements, further into the woods, and it would be our refuge, in the event of a mishap.



            On that assurance went on with the nasty drive. 


               Chat with Kunjiraman revealed that the settlements belonged to the Kani tribe and are named 'Aamala' and 'AayiramKal'. Another interesting fact was that Kunjiraman himself was a Kani, of 'Aamala' settlement. Negotiating dangerous curves and steep hikes, finally reached to the safety of the Shelter, by around 6 in the evening. Could hear the roar of the plunge clearly, but view was obstructed by the thick foliage. Mr. Sukumaran,by then transformed to our 'Annan' -Big Brother -, went out in search of fire would, in the falls direction, and we followed.


          Just two minutes walk and we were at its base. 


         It was a spread out descent, in steps, forming a pool at the base and wasn't a direct fall, as I thought. Annan put it that this is not the end and more plunges are there in the down flow, close by. It was falling dark by then and we decided to explore them, the next morning. Sat on rocks, watching the beauty of the milky flow and Annan returned with the logs, urging us to be back soon.


      The pool at the base was tempting and none could resist the call, despite the chill. The silence and loneliness added to the dark woods around, was a bit frightening and got back to the shelter soon, in the light of our torches, just before it started raining. Candles were lit and we sat around our camp fire. Raining woods competing with the roar of the falls and there we sat amidst, around a candle light - a frame delete protected.




            Steaming Rice - gram porridge mixed with grated coconut, spicy lime pickle and scrambled egg, hadn't ever felt that delicious a combination and Annan joined the chat as he was relieved of the cook's duty. Annan shared his experience diary, with the forest dept, and we turned listeners as usual. Later he turned our care taker, ensuring the doors are properly latched, and opting to sleep out.


     Woke up early and it was still drizzling. Strolled to the falls to see that it has attained might from the night shower. 




           Trekked along the banks, following the down flow, to explore the after falls. Though the trek wasn't smooth, views were rewarding. About 150 metres, down the base of Meenmuti, the flow slightly turned left and underwent a descent.


          Then it turned right, a steeper flow for just 50 metres, and another plunge through a comparatively narrow rocky passage. 


         Here the flow forced itself down and the turbulence calmed there after. 


          Climbed up a rocky cliff, ignoring the drizzle,  to have both descents in a single frame which went partially successful. 


              Now we were about quarter a kilometre down Meenmutti, and had to discover a new path to our shelter, across the woods.


     Annan was ready with black tea and we returned to the falls with ladies and kids, for the morning fresh up. Upma, sugar and plantains made our breakfast. Our itinerary included a visit to 'Ayiram Kal' tribal settlement, which is about 4 km from our shelter, and boarded the vehicle by around 9 in the morning. As the jeep went jerking and jumping, had a chat with Kunjiraman on the livelihood of the present day tribal. He aggrieved of increasing attacks from wild boar and porcupines, on their farms, apart from pachyderm disturbances. They had turned more aggressive as they know they are protected species.


With Annan at Aayiram Kal

            Got back to the track and reached Kaappukadu by 11.30 AM. Spent a while watching an elephant bath at Kapukadu.


           As we had enough time left, thought of exploring the forest track to Pepara reservoir, which connected the Neyyar Wild life sanctuary with the Pepaara Wild life sanctuary. Just at the start, a green whip snake across our track, stole some time.


             Drove through Valippara of Mankode settlement, crossed AnchuNazhika Thodu and reached Karalacode by around 2.30 PM. Stopped the vehicle and a small walk through the jungle took us to Peppara reservoir side. 


         Left over of the Upma and Lime pickle made another delicious lunch.


         Back into the vehicle and drove along the reservoir side aiming the Dam. Found two tribal people on our way and stopped the vehicle by their side. The elder of the two, Matheyan Kaani, had a bow on his shoulder, made of bamboo ply, and he went on with its demonstration, on my special request. Not an arrow but a stone was shot, using it, and the performance was amazing. Tried it myself and I was lucky that I spared my thumb.


          Met another dept. jeep which had come to collect fire wood and followed it to Peppaara dam.


          Just walked across the structure and started the return journey.

Peppara Reservoir - View from the dam structure

           Opted Pepara - Parandode- Aaryanadu- Kuttichal - Kotur route and were back at Kappukadu by around 4 in the evening.


                 Got back to our vehicle, thanked our own Annan, for all his help and drove back. Had Lunch cum Dinner at Kattakada and were back home by 6 in the evening.

          Just two days, but the memories and discussions would be alive until the next exploration and of course that won't be too long.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pandipath - The Horse Track Trail

             The Western Ghats that border my tiny state of  Kerala in the east, runs along its entire length, and most of my weekends end on some heights of this mountain stretch. It wasn't amazing, to learn that many of my foreign friends envy me on this treasure, near by. The treasure hidden under the foliage are vivid, be it the endemic flora and fauna or the remains of historic invasions. These wooded mounts have been home for mankind for long and mother nature had been kind enough, to preserve at least a part of what they left behind. These include the paintings of Ezhuthu guha in Marayoor, that dates back to 10000BC, to the comparatively recent Tramway of Parambikulam .

         The stretch, east to the city of Trivandrum, the erstwhile Travancore, were generally known as Ashambu hills, and the British who ruled India, had an eye on the revenue, that can be tapped from these hillocks. They established coffee plantations, clearing the woods by 1860. But that didn't flourish, due to unforeseen disease and it got transformed to Tea plantations by 1884. These adjacent estates where then named 'Braemore', 'Merchiston', 'Bon Accord', 'Athirumala' and so on. Among these the Athirumala venture was dropped soon, I think, and the other three were brought under a consortium by name 'The Ponmudi Tea and Rubber Company Ltd.', in the year 1900. The total planted area was 1710 acres. These estate premises are inhabited now and locally known as 'Brymoor', 'Ponmudi' and 'Bonakkadu'. The plantations faced lockout and are in ruins now.

      As you know, motor vehicles hadn't hit roads then and means of transport were either bullock carts or  horses. Thus a horse track is thought to have been cleared through the woods, for the plantation workers or even the owners, to travel between the estates. Eventually separate roads were built to these estates, motor trucks were introduced and the good old bridle path along the elevation, was deprived of gallops. The then State of  Travancore was shared between the newly formed states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, Forest Act came into force, those elevated sectors were declared reserves, and the bridle path left to the nature.

   One fine morning, about a century later, four of us, Pramod, Sujith, Nasar and the blogger, were driving towards Vithura, about 30 km from Trivandrum, destination decided as 'PandiPattu'. And this was how it took shape.

        Got into research, on the present stage of the gallop path, and our good friends in the Forest dept. were of real help. Came to know that part of the old track from Ponmudi to Athirumala, which shall also be traversed down to Kaarayar of Tamil Nadu, can still be identified in the woods. At higher elevation, this track runs through grass hills, and fire line is being cleared by the dept. along this old track. At about 10 miles, along the track from Ponmudi, there was a horse shelter, and the region was named 'PandiPathu', by the then riders. - (Tamil speaking region was earlier known as Pandi Nadu and 'Pathu' is the digit ten). Exciting part of the narration was that the old horse shelter had undergone slight betterment and that, a stay shall be arranged, at that historic place, if so wished. Wikimapia lovers may click here for the location.

                Stopped at Vithura and loaded the vehicle with provisions and had the luxury of broiler too. Took a right turn at Theviyode, just after Vithura, and headed along the road to Bonakkadu - of course the old 'Bon - Accord'. A 10 km drive took us to 'Kaanithadam' Forest Check post, where Mr. Varghese, a watcher with the forest dept, was all equipped to assist us, on directions from the officer in charge of the place, Mr. Sethu. Got him into our vehicle and continued further.

          Surroundings switched soon and we were driving along the jungles of Pepppara range. Road wasn't that bad and the drive was smooth. Within this short while, could strengthen the bond with our guide, and we turned listeners. We were surprised to hear that this man was of 76 years and has been serving the dept for the last 25 years. Bus service is there up to Bonacaud, thrice a day, for the estate staff of the locked out plantation, who still stick on, as they weren't paid compensation.

      Drove up to the end station of Bus service and took a left deviation. For the next 7 kms, the track condition was that bad, we crawled with our WagonR, to cover the stretch, in almost an hour. Finally parked the vehicle by the way side and got geared for the trek.


         Stopped at a brook, had the dosas we carried along, while Varghesettan cleaned the broiler and packed it.


                The initial stretch of about one km through the abandoned tea estate was extremely steep and we had several stops, not to break our lungs.


                   But Varghesettan rocketed up and was found waiting at many places, for the younger chaps, to keep up with him.


            At the end of this tedious stretch, we joined the horse track, that suddenly appeared from the woods. Few steps ahead we hit upon the milestone indicating the seventh mile, by the track side.


              The pipe laid by the British, to bring water from the hills to the estate, ran along the track and was still in duty, though slightly leaking at places.
 

        The track entered the jungle and the gradient of the climb lessened. Followed the track, just boulders at places and wide as a jeep track occasionally. Could hear the flow of Kallar - known as Vamanapuram river at a later stage, to our left. To the other side of the flow, located tall mountains, with heavy growth of reeds, paradise of elephants, for sure.


         Within half an hour, the jungle cover opened to grass hillocks, and could spot the ninth mile stone, hidden in the foliage.


            It was then, we noticed that the eighth mile stone was missing. Even Varghesettan is unaware, where the thing had disappeared.

                    Now we could spot the shelter at a distance, about a quarter mile ahead, bordered by the towering Chemmunchi hills, at the back drop.


             It started slightly drizzling then, spreading mist, and the walk went brisker. Crossed the trench and ran to the shelter. It was just a room and a kitchen, with two wire beds. Went into search for utensils and found that those for making chapatti, weren't available. Sujith was entrusted with the making of a customary one and we went out, with Varghesettan, for bringing water.



                Chemmunchi hills in the east, just behind our shelter, is where two major rivers  of Trivandrum district originates - Vamanapuram River and Karamana River. We were left with the option of either walking north for Vamanapuram River or to the south for Karamana River. Headed south for Karamana River, which caters to our home town, and it was just a five minutes walk. The infant river was tear clear, and we were back soon, generously feeding leaches.

Karamana River near its origin
         The drizzle strengthened then and we simply sat watching rain in the hills. Varghesettan was busy in the kitchen, struggling to lit the wet logs, for our chicken dish.



             Rain subsided by dusk and we went for a short walk, to the hillock to our west. It ended at a ridge, presenting the scenario of the valleys of Bonacaud.




    Did not dare to walk to the edges, as the wind was strong enough to grand us a fly.



        Temperature dropped and couldn't resist the wind supported chill for long.



            Returned to the shelter, once again pleasing the leaches.


    Varghesettan was ready with the chicken curry and it was the turn for Sujith, to go ahead with Chapatis.


              Dined and opted to hit the sack soon, as we were all worn out. The wind howled through out the night, often disturbing my sleep.

             Woke up early and ventured out, daring the chill, expecting Bisons or Pachyderms around, but none turned up. Hit Karamana river for the fresh up, and left over from the previous night, made a delicious break fast. As planned earlier, got out to trek to the State limits, where the Tenth Mile stone - Pandi pattu, awaited us. Crossed Karamana River and entered a shola wood sector. Half a km through the woods and grass hillocks appeared again, to our right, with shola woods to our left.



         The greenery and the mist played such a magic that none of us talked or walked. Howl of the wind and the camera clicks were the lone waves audible.



       Thus strolling, consuming about an hour for just around one km, stopped to see that our track split. Out of the magical spell, to find Varghesettan pointing to some thing and ran up to him. It was the Tenth Mile Stone, not upright, but lying on the ground.


             This stone indicates the state border and it is the 'Mundanthurai' sector of the 'Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve' further ahead. Track to the right leads to 'Athirumala', close to 'Agastyar Koodam' and we continued along the left, which leads to Kaarayar of Tamil Nadu.


        'The Travancore State Manual' published in 1906 has a mention on such bridle passes, across the Western Ghats, used by then smugglers, to cross over to Travancore from the Pandi Nadu

          Crossed a brook and climbed up a hillock, to an incomplete structure, once intended for a watch tower.


        The huge skull of a Bison, by the way side, stole away some time. Varghesettan says it would have been a tiger's catch.


          At the foot hill, found a huge rocky structure, by the track side. Varghesettan says, people used to perform rituals at this place. Climbed up a near by hillock, to find that the top of the rock was amazingly flat.


          Those early travelers, along this path, would have used the rock top for a night stay, to be safe from wild attacks and that might have resulted in considering it some thing divine.
 
           Decided to end our trek here, as it wouldn't be fare to intrude, without permission. Varghesettan had done the entire stretch to Kaarayar and Banatheertham falls, at the foot hill, which is connected to Papanasam and Ambasamudram of Tamil Nadu, by good roads. I had been to Baanatheertham earlier, through the other side and it was amazing to learn that it was just another 12 km climb down, from where we were.

     Returned to the shelter, along the same path and packed up for the descent. Aching legs took us down to the base, by around 12.30 PM.

View of Peppara reservoir from the return track
                             Drove down the treacherous track to Bonacadu, and while having tea at a small joint over there, planned of having a dip in Thodayaar, which joins the Peppara reservoir, near Kaanithadam Check post.  As Chemmancode tribal settlement was near by the flow, had a small walk to the place and returned along the reservoir side.


Thodayaar about to join Peppara reservoir
                       Washed away the pains in Thodayaar, back to the wheel, left Varghesettan at Vithura, filled bellies and drove, a hundred years, to our blessed city of Thiruvananthapuram, the once capital of the princely state of Travancore.

       The history part was dug out from ''Southern India: its history, people, commerce, and industrial resources'' By J. W. Bond, Arnold Wright, written around 1914 and certain other details from 92 August edition of  'Economic and Political weekly', apart from my precious copy of "The Travancore State Manual".