Kodagu (also called Coorg) has been on my bucket list for a long time and it definitely made my dreams come true. About 1,220 m above sea level, this is a mist-covered hill country stretching along the peaks and escarpments of the Western Ghats and criss-crossed by a network of rivers. Most of this is virgin land and nearly 60 percent of the district is still covered by rainforests. The district leaves a mixture of impressions with its never-ending plantations, the sounds and smells of the forest and the enchanting streams that you encounter ever so often. We spent a memorable afternoon in the waters of Kotte Abbi. After we washed off the dirt from the morning walk, someone had a brilliant idea, which was unanimously approved: lunch would be eaten in the water.
We found ourselves a shallow rock and pulled out the lunch bags, sitting deep in the water. The delicious puliogare (tamarind rice) made for a perfect meal. Another source of fun were the campsites. Chosen for proximity to streams that abound in the district, each one was green and thoroughly charming. A particular creek was reportedly a favorite with a herd of elephants and we were warned not to leave our tents if we heard them at night. But nature intervened and we were caught in a raging, spectacular storm that threatened to blow our tents away. Needless to say, the elephants didn’t force us to show up.
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On the other hand, there were many leeches. These moist creatures were numerous, swift, and persistent; they also seem to have amazing penetration powers, snaking through shoes and dust with slimy ease. Snuff or plain salt repels the creatures, but we weren’t prepared. For each heart-pounding stretch, the bellows would rise from the front runners and we would begin to move quickly, keeping a close eye. Once we were in the sunlight, we took apart shoes and socks to check between our toes for those that hadn’t noticed yet.
The Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI) organizes this trek, in partnership with local operators V-TRAK, once a year. It’s a pretty easy one: they provide the guides, the tents, organize the campsites and the food. All you have to do is grab your backpacks and trudge. If you choose to go it alone, it is still advisable to coordinate with local operators to plot your exact route and organize permissions with plantation owners for the use of campsites. Contact VTRAK Friends Tours and Travels, College Road, Madikeri, Tel: +91-8272- 229102/229974
DISTANCE 15 KM TIME 7-8 HOURS
The V-Trak base camp at Talathmane is 500 meters from Bhagamandala junction. The day starts early and there is a buzz in the air. The cabins we spent the night in are charming. Everyone is busy packing lunch and filling bottles. Yashwant, a man with a big grin, is our guide for the first three days. He knows the country like the proverbial back of his hand. Our group consists of a colorful crowd of almost 15 people: a few experienced hikers and quite a few first-timers. We start a little after 8.30 am and walk the first part through plantations.
Coorg is the ideal spice country and you will also pass many pepper and cardamom plantations and world famous coffee plantations. Enter the SH88 highway and follow it for about half a kilometer before slipping off onto a footpath. We wind our way north to Abbi Falls today. The falls are located about 4-5 km from Talathmane in the middle of a private estate. It takes us 3 hours and a good dose of energy to reach the falls by lunchtime. But I’m disappointed because the place, with a steady stream of tourists, turns out not to be the most restful of places.
This is where the Madikeri or Muttaramutta stream falls naturally from a 21m high precipice. The water flows from between huge boulders to a rocky lush valley. The spot is a favorite with locals, tourists and film crews. However, the waters here are deep and dangerous and it is dangerous not to sit under the waterfall for a spontaneous dip. The cataract is deafening and there is an abundance of natural flora. The British named the spot Jessie Falls in memory of the daughter of Madikeri’s first chaplain, but the name ‘Abbi’ (Kodava for waterfall) has prevailed.
The next leg, however, is simply glorious. Now we head northeast and cross a narrow wooden block over a stream and enter the woods. Tall stately trees flank our track. I hear birds calling, but the foliage is too thick to see. We haven’t stepped into the rainforests yet, but the forests are thick nonetheless. Every half hour or so, we’re excited to come across another stream. The trail runs along one side and thins into a narrow stream, gurgling softly as it keeps us a little company. The path then widens into a mud track, marking the beginning of a plantation.
It is almost five o’clock in the evening before we enter the campsite Devastur . It is located next to a stream, which everyone jumps into. The running water helps a lot to soothe protesting muscles. After dinner, including jackfruit curry, a specialty in these parts, Yashwant gets a roaring campfire that treats us and heats badam milk. The flames are hypnotic, but to his disappointment we shuffle away in our tents for two nights and a half hours.
DISTANCE 14 KM TIME 6 HOURS
LEVEL EASY MEDIUM
Sleep has done its magic: I’m ready to go. The first challenge of the day is to cross the stream in which we bathe. I soaked him barefoot, the pants rolled up in the middle. Once powered up, I took off and came to a captivating log bridge, high in a turbulent stream. It’s so Indiana Jonesish that it takes a while to cross: everyone wants a thrill of the view from there and to be photographed. The trail then descends south and turns east along a well-marked footpath. The woods are tranquil and beautiful. Devastur’s stream laps and we climb up.
The routes are sometimes so narrow that you have to cling to the mossy walls as you traverse them. I’ve been told that wild elephants frequent this area, which makes me eager to meet them. However, that is not the case, because after 2 hours we ended up on an asphalt road. This road connects Makkandur to Mukkodlu and we walk on it for about 4 km. The heat rising from the tar is uncomfortable and one has to stop at the many hospitable hamlets for water. After 11/2 hours we leave the road and turn right into a path. Heading east for an hour, the trail leads you to a most delightful watering hole, Kotte Abbi. The waters of the Hattihole Stream are clear and deep enough to allow for raw and splashy dives. The next part through the woods goes fast. Then the path to the campsite at Mukkodlu. This is truly a beautiful place. A stream is in full flow and the paddy fields are pockmarked with elephant footprints. Dusk falls beautifully and the rising forests around us are lit up with dancing fireflies.
MUKKODLU-KALOOR VIA MANDALPATTI
DISTANCE 13 KM TIME 61/2 HOURS
Today the walk heads west and I get my first taste of the real shola forests. They are really beautiful: thick canopies let in only thin strands of sunlight. The crickets sing with gathering power as we step over a thick carpet of broad leaves. However, we also meet the dreaded leeches. The trail through the woods isn’t a permanent trail and while we’re not hacking through bushes, we’re mostly coming from Yashwant’s sense of direction. The rest in the forest should last about an hour and a half, less if you try to slow down the leeches, more if you stop to deal with the problem.
The next leg is leech free but steep. I climb to overlook Mandalpatti Road and have a beautiful view of the hills. Among them is Pushpagiri , the second highest mountain in Kodagu (1,725 m) and Kottebetta , the third highest (1,650 m). When we change direction to turn south, there is a big difference in scenery: forests give way to rolling hills, dry bushes and rocks. We cross some hills as dark clouds gather. The hills look breathtaking in the purple light. We stop for a quick lunch under the trees and trudge on under a light drizzle.
The 2-hour descent to Kallur is precarious. Debris and mud come loose under my feet and I desperately grab everything in sight. Once in the coffee and cardamom plantations, the campsite is still almost an hour’s walk away. We then encounter a little slice of vanilla just before arriving at Mr Prasanna’s Farmhouse (Mob: +91-98450-04668; Tariff: Rs 3,000, with breakfast). It has 5 rooms and a hall and can accommodate up to 15 people. Larger groups can pitch tents near the river.
DISTANCE 14 KM TIME 7 HOURS
Our new guide Vijay Kumar will lead us to Ajjimotte today. I tap on insect repellent and sprinkle salt generously on my shoes. An hour north-northwest, we assemble at the mouth of dense shola forests, take a deep breath and enter the leech’s territory. We cover what normally took us 45 minutes in about 20 minutes, and rushed to the sunlight. Next goal: Ajjimotte (1,048m). The slope is steep and it takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes to reach the top, but the views are worth it. The peak overlooks several smaller mist-kissed peaks and the lush green plantation covered valleys.
The descent is, of course, tricky and slow, taking us nearly 45 minutes to reach the base of the hill and head south. The lunch stop is short and in fact it is not far from the Madikeri-Subramanya road. We continue south for about an hour, passing dry hills interspersed with moist forests. Then we turn north-north-west again to reach the beautiful tea and cardamom Vanachalu Plantations . The campsite is delightful, complete with its own waterfall made beautifully private by a screen of foliage. Alternatively, you can also stay at Ramesh’s on the other side of the tea plantation, near the school.
VANACHALU-TALATHMANE VIA NISHANEMOTTE
DISTANCE 15 KM TIME 7 HOURS
The trail from Vanachalu heads southeast and is both muddy and steep. The rain has left warmth and moisture behind. We leave the path after about 15 minutes and turn right to climb the hills. Almost half an hour later we walk south along the ridges of the Western Ghats. For almost 1 hour and 20 minutes, the track is mostly flat and very pleasant. However, the steep climb to Nishanemotte (1,337m) makes up for any previous lack of movement, not that we’re complaining. The views of the valleys and plantations are beautiful, but the descent to the eastern side, which only takes 15 minutes, is really treacherous as Vijay Kumar runs at a grueling pace.
Then, still south, is a 3-hour stretch through a veritable valley of spices that is truly remarkable. The mud road passes through almost every kind of spice and fruit plantation that can be found in the district – we find cardamom, pepper, coffee plants of both arabica and robusta varieties, orange gardens, cashew plants, ginger fields and kitchen gardens; a Kodagu microcosm, if you will. Our route rejoins SH88 at Katakeri and we return to base camp at Talathmane. Camp for the night and head home after breakfast the next morning.