Tag Archives: trekking

In Search of Spider Valley – Part II

Continued from part I

So we were off onto a broken dirt track that supposedly led (in the wrong direction) towards Kempakerai and supposedly would return to blacktop within a few hundred meters. The latter was true and soon we found ourselves climbing a mountainside, deeper and deeper into the jungle. Within a couple of kilometers, we climbed to a ridgeline and came to a fork in the road. There was a stone sign, presumingly giving directions and distances. Unfortunately it was in Tamil and nobody in the car could read the Tamil script, so it was no help. Both directions seemed equally jungly and we were certainly not where we planned to go, so we randomly went left. Within a few minutes, we came to a bridge over a dry riverbed. We parked the car and started exploring up the riverbed.

It was easy walking and we could look for animal tracks if any were to be found. They were to be found in abundance, but were all cows and goats. There might possibly have been deer among them. I find the tracks difficult to discern, but there were at least three types of spoor in the river bed. There were the usual cow patties, the tiny balls usually associated with goats and deer and a third kind. It consisted of small, elongated cylinders, about one centimeter in diameter and three centimeters long. These were in turn woven into logs. I’d seen them before while hiking in the Western Ghats and there were no goats of cows in that area. Might they have been sambar or chital?

Eventually, we stopped and had a lunch of bread and hard boiled eggs brought from home. We were at a bend in the riverbed, just below a peak. As we ate lunch, we watched a small jungle fire slowly spread. We photographed it, listened to its crackle and eventually decided to clear out of that area lest we get caught in a spreading forest fire. That was the first of several such jungle fires we saw. None of them seemed to be in any hurry to start a conflagration the way fires in the Pine Barrens do. We need not have been concerned.

So we went back to the car and made our way back to the work in the road, so that we would not be caught on the wrong side of the ridge if the fire reached there. As the fire was far from the fork, we quickly forgot about it and went to explore the other way. We wound our way down switchbacks with spectacular views of a large valley between two rocky ridge lines. Eventually the way came down to the valley floor and as we drove along, passing tribals collecting sacks and sacks of tamarind. We also started seeing elephant dung. We reached a washed out bridge over a dry river bed (the same creek as before, only downstream) and rather than risking getting the Innova caught in the sand, we stopped there and started exploring the riverbed and the trails in the area. We found the usual signs of domestic animals as well as old, dried up elephant spoor and what appeared to by a deep footprint left when the earth on the riverbank was last soft.

Taking a break back at the car after one of the exploratory forays, we shared our cookes with some villagers heading home after collecting tamarind. They were delighted to have our cookies and the eldest man among them divided them up very carefully, ensuring that every man and woman received the same number of cookies. After they finished, rather than simply tossing the bag aside, they took it with them. Can I infer that tribals don’t litter? If so, I’m delighted. Wrenzo informed us that they had told him that we should not be around after dark as elephants regularly came through there and you never knew what mood they might be in.

We still had time though, so we set out to use our last hour before we had to leave. We followed a trail uphill through the scrub jungle. Sammy was loudly announcing that we were in the scrub jungle and that there were elephants and leopards around; ensuring that there would in fact be no leopards or elephants within a one kilometer radius. Near the top, we saw a group of large, dark, rounded shapes? Elephants or boulders? If they were elephants, they would likely bolt if we approached. If they felt that the young had to be protected, it could turn ugly, so I held the kids at a safe distance while Hanna and the Daniela’s sisters cautiously approached. I brought the kids up when it was determined that they were boulders. We did find lots of dried up spoor in the area of the boulders. There were no recent signs or tracks however, leading me to believe that the pachyderms have moved to wetter areas –possibly to the banks of the Cauvery – for the dry season.

We also found large, ground based spider webs everywhere. Notably, they seemed strewn and clumped among the rocks of the riverbed as well; seemingly washed there. Given that the riverbed has been dry for weeks or months, this is a testament to the durability of the spiders’ work.

When we got back to the car, Wrenzo informed us that some of the jungle dwellers had told him that there was one lone elephant in the area with an injury. It was ill tempered and had overturned a vehicle a couple of days earlier. I’m not certain about the authenticity to embellishment ratio of the story was (especially given that the signs of elephant activity were old), but I’m certainly glad that we did not see any lone, irritable elephants.

Reluctantly, we returned to Bangalore. This is exactly the kind of place that I had been looking for this past year and I’ve already started formulating plans for the next trip. Interestingly, during the trip, I recorded our various places in my GPS. It is a Garmin Forerunner and not really intended for navigation, but rather as an advanced training device. It is a useful tool for marking locations and recording paths. After arriving home, I put them into Google Earth to see just how far off we were and what landmarks we should keep an eye out for next time. I now believe that we were actually in “spider valley”.

Astonishingly, we ate lunch a mere mile downstream from Kempakerai. Had we continued up the river bed, instead of turning back due to the jungle fire, we’d have shortly reached Kempakerai. Had we driven another few minutes instead of stopping at the bridge, we’d have reached the same by road. The directions had been correct; despite not mentioning the fork in the road. We had thought that we were north of where we were, on the main Anchetti-Pennagaram road, when in fact we were south of that on a road that was not on the map. Where we parked the car the second time was about 4km from the banks of the Chinar river and a mere 12km from Hogenakal Falls as the crow flies. The other option for spider valley has a road running through it. The valley we were in has a paved road, but it is only a single lane track; not a proper road and it seems to fit Anderson’s description quite well..

In any case, I plan to return.

In Search of Spider Valley – Part I

I’ve been reading a lot of Kenneth Anderson lately. He was originally a big game hunter who worked in the middle decades of the 20th century in South India. He made his name hunting down numerous maneaters (both leopards and tigers), as well as the odd rogue elephant and people-killing bear. In his later years, he became a writer and a conservationist. He had a slightly earlier and better known counterpart who followed a similar track; a man Jim Corbett, who now has a tiger reserve named after him at the foot of the Himalayas. Corbett concentrated on North India and Anderson concentrated on the south; mostly places within a 200 mile radius of his home in Bangalore. Anderson serves as an inspiration to South Indian nature lovers and conservationists. In fact, there is a local conservation group named after him; which reminds me that I’ve had a sealed envelope with my membership application sitting on my desk for a month and need to call the courier service.

A considerable part of his writing involves an area of Northeastern Tamil Nadu, north of the Cauvery River and especially an area he calls Spider Valley. Hanna mentioned that she’d like to do a bit more hiking before heading back to Germany. As I’d already been scouring maps, Google Earth, finding it on wikimapia.org and going through a blog post about a recent hike there, I suggested that we try to find this place. I say “try to find” as Anderson wrote forty years ago about events a decade or two prior to that. In addition, he was often coy about describing exact locations for fear of them being stampeded.

So we set out from Bangalore yesterday morning with the objective of finding either the village Kempakerai or Kodekerai, both of which are repeatedly mentioned in Anderson’swritings. The general idea was to find one of the villages, find a local willing to work as a guide and then hike a bit; or just wander off into the woods as we saw fit.

Within an hour and a half, we had reached Denkanikotta. After that, we entered the hill country and it became very jungly. Along the way, we were lucky and spotted a crested hawk eagle sitting in her nest near the roadside. Things looked promising.

Nested Hawk Eagle

Nested Hawk Eagle

After subjecting the poor raptor to the paparazzi treatment (though we used a telephoto lens so that we could keep our distance), we continued on our merry way. Getting as far as Anchetti was easy enough after that, the directions from the villagers became vague; often with half the men in a hamlet turning out to debate the proper way to go. Eventually, at one hamlet, we were told to turn onto a dirt track and that Kempakerai would be a few kilometers up the track. We were also informed that the rough dirt track would turn into clean blacktop soon after leaving the village. The only catch was that it led to the left. If we were following the road from Anchetti towards Pennagaram, these two villages should have been on our right. Such is finding your way in India.

Foreigners are not allowed to have Survey of India topographical maps, so we have to rely on Google and asking for directions. This is a pity as that region has not changed much in the past half century and I have excellent orienteering skills with a map and compass. Given our past experiences with “I don’t actually know the way, but I don’t want to say so. So I’ll just give directions based on my best guess”, I resigned myself to not finding spider valley that trip. I presumed the track to lead off towards the North side of the Anchetti-Pennagaram road and thought that in any case, we’d find a nice place to do some hiking and with a little luck, we might even come across the forest department’s Aiyur rest house; where we might be able to find more reliable information.

So we followed the track.

To be continued.

Pic of the Day – The Scorpion

A scorpion that we ran into while hiking at Skandagiri two weekends ago. The little bugger was about 6″ (15cm) long. I have no idea what species it was or just how poisonous it was (or was not). The shot was taken by Siva’s husband, Horst.

Scorpion

Scorpion

May I have your socks Sir?

No really, a guy actually asked for the socks I was wearing!

Among other things, we went hiking yesterday. The location was a near a pilgrimage town in Tamil Nadi, called Tiruvannamalai. There is a holy mountain there called Annamalai. It has an ashram (monastery) at the top of its 600 meter (2000 ft) high peak with a small trail leading to the top. As the trailhead was in a city, it was not quite the wild adventure of the Ranganatha Swamy Hill trip, but was a fun hike anyway.

The hike itself was “unsuccessful”. We hiked in 35 C (about 95 F) temperatures under a blazing sun with no forest canopy, which we had been expecting when we chose the location. So in climbing about halfway up, we managed to consume 9 of the 11 liters of water that we had brought with us. As the prospect of running out of water and risking heatstroke did not appeal, we turned back. On the way down, we ran into a barefoot man who had apparently walked up the hill to catch up with us – on a side note, I really, really, hate this. We are searching for solitude while hiking and are out to commune with nature, not talk to touts.

He stopped and smiled, dashing any meager hope that he might me heading for the Ashram further up the trail. He tried to talk us into taking him on as a guide; after all, we have to be careful on the way down. One of our hiking companions (neighbor from Palm Meadows), a Tamil woman named Shiva more or less told him to get lost because he was useless anyway; yet he lingered. Jeez I hate touts! After she told me about the “we have to be careful” bit, I made it a point to do my mountain goat best and leap between rocks just drive home the point that being a westerner does not make me some fragile doll who needs someone to hold his umbrella and carry him down the mountain.

He smiled and complimented me on my jump. Then he asked me.

Sir, may I have a pair of socks?

I only have one pair of socks. They are on my feet. They are also sweaty and stinky.

Sir may I have a pair of socks? Just one pair! I have to work on the trail every day and I have no socks.

After I did not give him the socks off my feet, the smile vanished instantly as it always does when one of these toutish types realizes that we’re not going to be his personal ATM machine. He then went away and walked back down the hill.

But really… the dude coveted the socks off my feet!

First Trek – Part II

Continued from part I

Snakes Seen: 0
Other Animals Seen: 0
Leopards Seen by Sammy: millions (at least)

After starting up the incline, we left our guides behind. The ubiquitous tracks of domestic animals also disappeared, so I guess the cows were not into rough terrain. The kids probably also thought better of actually making the long trek up the hill.

From there on, we saw nobody! Not a single soul was on that mountain, which is pretty amazing for India. We heard small animals in the brush a few times (mongoose? civets? monkeys?), which Sammy always insisted were leopards. Naturally, he “saw” them as well. Daniela was concerned about leopards. The region does have them in abundance. Last year, a school in the outskirts of Bangalore had a family come onto its grounds and another wandered into a shopping complex in Hosur on a Saturday morning, just to the east of where we were. It is hard to estimate how dangerous they could be. I reasoned that they are essentially mountain lions with spots. The two species are the same size, weight, inhabit the same ecological niche and have the same “performance envelope”. Mountain lions – technically being small cats – can purr, while leopards can roar. So we used the protocol for hiking with kids in mountain lion country; no wandering off alone and keep the kids close (no more than 15m/50ft away) and visible. In the future, it might be wise to ask the locals if they have lost domestic animals to leopards recently.

About halfway up, we stopped for a break on a rock overlook, where we relaxed for a while the kids turned themselves into naturalists, studying the local insects and flowers. We debated having lunch there. Eventually, we decided that if we had lunch there, we’d not make it to the top and the top was just a short distance away. In fact, it took over an hour to reach the top from there. As Nitya later said, if we had known how far we were from the top, we’d not have tried it. As it was everyone was glad we did. Tara’s three year old legs gave out and Ram stoically carried her on his shoulders. I also took her for a while to give him a break. It has been a while since I carried a talkative three year old up a mountain on my shoulders. They are heavier than in my idealized memory.

Near the top, we found dung from a large herbivore. There was some debate about whether it was elephant or gaur (Indian bison), but none of us really knew for sure and had left my Indian mammals field guide at home.

On reaching the top, we were treated to the Ranganatha Swamy temple, one of several in the Cavery river basin. This is a small one, built under a gigantic boulder at the top of the mountain. It only operates on Saturdays and is otherwise deserted it seems. We enjoyed the solitude, ate lunch, lounged and explored the temple grounds. Eventually, we took the hint of gathering wind and thunder in the distance as our cue to descend.

When we got back down to the village, we had one last interesting encounter. There was an old woman who had a burning question in her mind; one that must have been bothering her all day.

Why did you go to the Ranganatha Swamy temple on the wrong day? Today is a Laksmi fewstival, not a Ranganatha Swamy festival.

I’ll make a mental to always hike to remote temples on the “wrong” day.

First Trek – Part I

On Independence Day, we went hiking with two other families (the bus stop crowd) at a place called Ranganatha Swamy Hill. It lies in a largely deserted stretch of hill country just south of Bangalore called the South Bangalore taluk. This is the mythical “nature” that we had been seeking almost since we arrived in India.

One problem that we as hiking junkies and nature lovers have encountered here is that India simply has no hiking culture. This means that when you ask around about the good places to go, people express bewilderment at the very idea of walking in the jungle for fun and then direct you either to the Lal Bagh or Nandi Hills. The former will be a gentle stroll between camera flashes and the latter will involve dodging monkeys and touts in a trash laden tourist trap. Neither was what we were looking for. We eventually found it by scouring the vicinity of Bangalore in Google Earth, looking at maps, asking people and simply beating search engines to death. We had a shortlist of places to try and after reading a blog post trip report for Ranganatha Swamy Hill, decided to give it a try.

The trailhead was in a village called Konavaradoddi, a few kilometers off of the Bangalore-Kanakapura road. Konavaradoddi is very far off the main road and getting there was an adventure in itself. We stopped in a village market on the way so that Daniela could buy bananas. I went digging in the console for a Karnataka state roadmap. When I looked up, I found myself surrounded by curious onlookers and beggars. I’ve been pestered by beggars before. One only needs to stop for a nanosecond or two at a traffic light in Bangalore for that to happen, but the crowd of curious onlookers was more extreme than anything I’ve seen before.

Finally, we got everything taken care of and were on our way again. A few more miles down a twisty, one lane road led us to Konavaradoddi and the trailhead. Konavaradoddi is remote. In fact, there were no motor vehicles in the village; only cows, goats and barefoot villagers. We must have been a strange sight. As a group, we were made up of a motley collection of Tamils and foreigners of various nationalities. I got the feeling that they did not see outsiders very often and foreigners were even more of a novelty. We parked and started gathering up our packs to head down the trail.

The local children gathered around our cars and started asking for chocolate. We did not have any (we did bring some as part of lunch, but not enough for every kid in the village), but perhaps in the future, we’ll bring some along for local kids. We finished gathering up our packs and started off down the trail, with half of the village children in tow, still asking for sweets. I stopped to adjust my trekking poles and they all gathered around me to watch. Daniela saw this and took the camera out to photograph the scene. As soon as she did, they stopped gawking at me and posed for the camera.

As we walked up the valley to the base of Ranganatha Swamy Hill, we passed through coconut groves and farmland where life has hardly changed in millennia. It was the epitome of rural idyll, thirty miles and a world away from downtown Bangalore.

Three of the kids persevered and after a half kilometer or so, Daniela dug out an Oreo for each. They declared that they would be our guides to the top and wanted to be paid in bananas. Along the way to the base of the hill, we also picked up a couple of cows in our procession.

Finally, we started up the hill and left our multiple species of “guides” behind. To be continued.