Saturday, 1 August 2015

Thadiyandamol Trek: the ground beneath my feet


An unedited version of my story published in the August 2015 edition of Outlook Traveller

A view of the summit of Thadiyandamol

“Oops, sorry!” was a phrase I found myself constantly repeating throughout that day, as I dodged people. All around me was the clackety-clack of trekking boots and poles, as trekkers marched past in twos, threes, or fours, nodding at our group in greeting. I almost felt guilty for not being purposeful enough - for not aiming to reach the peak quickly - unlike those walking on. A few broke their march-past to peer into whatever bush we were peering into. They’d see nothing, and walk away with an indulgent smile and a slow shake of their head. Some, seeing me sprawled on the ground, stopped to enquire if I was injured and needed help. 

Thadiyandamol, Coorg’s highest peak at 5724 ft (1748 mts), is a favourite; enjoying its beautiful vistas and summiting it is on most trekkers’ wish-lists. Timing the trek too is important to many. I, however, had decided to stop and smell the roses - or the Kurinjis, in this case. What if I didn’t look at the views around me, but at the ground beneath my feet, for a change?

The endangered Blue-eyed bush frog, also known locally as 'Neel-netra', endemic to the Western Ghats

An endemic snail - the colourful 'Indrella ampulla'.
I was in Coorg just on the heels of the monsoon, when an errant painter seemed to have run amok with his bucket of green. Life-forms were undergoing changes on Thadiyandamol, after the invigorating rain. Somewhere, a frog croaked to attract its mate. Yet elsewhere, a snail moved at, well, snail’s pace, glistening raindrops riding piggy-back on its shell. Picture-postcard streams emitted clichĂ©d gurgles as they swooshed around egg-smooth pebbles and seeped into parched crevices. A plant that flowers once in twelve years awaited us, while a carnivorous plant lay waiting for its next prey.


A cold, damp morning found our group of five at the beginning of the trekking route, in an open clearing in the rainforest canopy, through which we locked eyes with an ominously cloudy sky. Surrounded as the clearing was by some of the tall primary forest trees which had survived human brutality, this area instantly became the object of our affections.  Rain the previous day had made the ground slushy, and the morning stillness now reverberated with sounds of the earth sucking our shoes in, followed by the curt popping of shoes being released. Alert leeches scanned for heat and blood, clinging tenaciously as we tried to prise them off.

The initial path of the trek

In a corner, a burst of purple perked up the forest floor – Impatiens nodding away in the gentle breeze. These bright flowers grow near water or in moist conditions, and are endemic to the Western Ghats, of which Thadiyandamol is a part. An iridescent damselfly and a sluggish snail later, our naturalist urged us to move ahead, only because we needed time at hand for completing the trek before either the rain appeared or the sun disappeared; at worst, both. If we made good time, we could be slower on our way back, he promised.

The bright Impatiens. The ferns seen in this photograph are also typical of rainforests.

The vistas along the trek route were undeniably captivating; as we moved first through rainforests and then through shola-grasslands, we were hard-pressed to look elsewhere. But then, a sudden flash of colour would catch our eye, or that very faint call would have us perk up our ears, and a search would ensue. The vegetation along the path varied – some stretches had trees and plants densely packed on either side, revealing spiders, grasshoppers, frogs or orchids, if we knew where to look. Other stretches opened up on the valley side, offering sweeping panoramas of the shola-grasslands, a characteristic forest type of the region, which lends the hills the appearance of being cloaked in patterned green velvet.


These grasslands brought us a variety of wildflowers and a surprise! Every twelve years, Kurinji plants flower en masse, draping the hills with a purple carpet, a phenomenon which currently relied solely on my imagination to visualise it. To help me along, however, a couple of stray Kurinji had decided to be the delinquents of their tribe, eliciting a jig out of me. 

Kurinjis, or Neelakurinjis, seen here in their habitat, with a dragonfly hovering over. These distinctive purple flowers led to the Nilgiris being named so – blue mountains. 

The sudden calls of the Bright-headed Cisticola – a bird as tiny as its name is long – was all that was needed for our entire group to first break into a jig, and then a jog, as we tried in vain to keep up with the hyperactive bird. By then, the sun had reached its pinnacle, it had begun drizzling, and we had just reached past the mid-point, identifiable by a big boulder on a fairly level ground. A deliciously cold stream soothed our aching feet, as we energised ourselves with lunch and some well-deserved rest before the steep and rocky last leg of the trek.

A view from the latter part of the trek, where the sholas give way to grasslands. Trekkers, seen to the right, are a small blip in the vast landscape.

Nearing the summit, we stopped yet again. Sure, it helped us catch our breath from the climb, but, more importantly, it brought us face to face with our most prized sighting – the carnivorous plant, Drosera. Calling it a ‘sighting’ is probably a stretch – the species found here is smaller than blades of grass, barely discernible to the naked eye. The ingenuity of a plant this size is mind-boggling – rather than being easy prey, it is actually a predator.  Each ‘leaf’ has glandular tentacles which are topped with globules of sticky secretion. Assuming these to be dew, insects get stuck to the plant, ending up as its food.







We would have missed all this drama, had we just trekked past. Lying down on the ground had lent a new perspective – meeting Thadiyandamol’s inhabitants.  They hear the grasslands perform a synchronized sweep in that manic, midnight wind. They live under a sky which stars light up with different patterns each night. They witness Thadiyandamol disappearing into the morning mist, only to emerge slowly later, leaving early-bird trekkers sighing at the poetry of it all.


Robberflies, mating
Grasshoppers, mating

Back from the trek, lying supine on our guest-house’s terrace, we plucked leeches off our clothing – sometimes stomachs and necks too - with the nonchalance of seasoned ground crawlers. My energy now draining as fast as the setting sun, I succumbed to the evening breeze lulling me into a slumber.

In my mental map of the trek route now are numerous landmarks; what was at the beginning of the trek just an indistinct swathe of green, now has memories imprinted on it. To the people I meet, my conversations about ‘The bush where we saw the orange orchid’, ‘that puddle where the frog was half-submerged’ or ‘that rotten trunk where the sparkling fungus grew’ may sound like ramblings of an unhinged mind, but to me, they are indispensable parts of my Harry Potter-esque Pensieve, taking me back to Thadiyandamol. To that exact spot and that exact moment in time. To relive the trek, until I add new memories and markers from my next. 


Some trees at the base of Thadiyandamol yield surprising varieties of fungi, like this one
The area around Thadiyandamol is host to a variety of butterflies, and their colourful  caterpillars can often be spotted feeding on suitable plants.

For information about the trek and my tips, read this: 
http://nomadandabag-guides.blogspot.in/2015/08/thadiyandamol-trek-information-tips.html


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