Parshathy. J. Nath walks in the footsteps of John Sullivan who set out to explore the Nilgiris in 1819

The aboriginals preferred prison and death, over a journey to the Nilgiris, which they called “the land beyond the mists”. But the young and ambitious John Sullivan, the District Collector of Coimbatore, entrusted with the task of exploring the mountains by the East India Company, was not deterred. On a cold morning in 1819, he and a contingent of native prisoners, huntsmen, elephants, dogs and ponies set out. The journey was a nightmare. By the time they reached 1000 feet, they had abandoned their bags and left behind the elephants and horses. They completed the rest of the climb with the help of ropes and pulleys. On the sixth day they reached plateau, where Sullivan hoisted the British flag.

Two centuries later, a humble contingent of 11 trekkers, including photographers and nature enthusiasts decide to retrace the very same route travelled by Sullivan. The trek organised by the Nilgiri Documentation Centre (NDC), to celebrate the 225th birth anniversary of John Sullivan, begins at Uliyore. Some forest guards under the leadership of A. Anandakumar and an anti-poaching team are waiting to lead us through the dense forest.

We walk into the forest in a single file and fill our bottles with water from the small wayside brooks. Soon, shrub gives way to tall trees. Half an hour into the trek, we are already panting. Bars of chocolate and gallons of water sustain us, as we trudge up the 5,000-feet hill.

We have to switch off our last contact with civilisation, the cell phones. “This is an elephant corridor. The ring tones will attract the animal,” says Anandakumar. The thought of a ferocious tusker chasing us up the hills accelerates our pace. Big boulders serve as footholds as we inch up to Thodavaparai, where a giant rock juts out from the tip of the mountain. From here, we get a panoramic view of Sirumugai, Uliyore, Mettupalayam and the Bhavani river. The breeze cools the sweat on our brows and we settle down on the rock and relish lemon rice with a setting sun for company. Nearby is the 350-feet Uliyore waterfall. It is only a sad trickle today. But when Sullivan stumbled onto it as he was on his way to the Nilgiris, he christened it “the killer cataract” as many of his companions drowned in it.

The gradient thankfully gets gentler as we walk on cobbled paths, passing Irula settlements. We rest at a tribal school in Mettukkal where the guards bid us goodbye. We now pass through tea estates, and at the Kil Kotagiri tea estate, we board a bus to Kothimukku. Keppiyamma, the 80-year-old “ooru thalaivi”, her son Natarajan and the Panchayat President Chandran, along with a bunch of noisy tribal children, welcome us to steaming chai and biscuits. We spend the night at Kothimukku after spending a pleasant evening around a bonfire.

The next morning starts with a few warm-up exercises and hot vadais, idlis and sambar. After walking up the hills and down valleys we hit Paambarai, where we pluck sweet jamuns and blissfully eat them as we stare at the Rangaswamy Peak in the distance. A lively debate ensues. “The peak is named after an ascetic called Rangaswamy who did his penance there,” says one of the trekkers. His friend instantly rubbishes the claim. According to him, Sullivan asked a local villager what the peak was called. The villager did not know. Then Sullivan asked him his name. It was Rangaswamy. So Sullivan declared that henceforth it would be called the Rangaswamy Peak!

Passing the Kadasolai valley, we reach Denad, a Badaga village beside a forest. As we enter we hear laughter and conversation. Kanchana and Sumati are collecting firewood for their annual Badaga festival. “All our Sundays are spent collecting firewood as we can not afford to use gas frequently,” says Kanchana. A one-and-half-hour walk from Denad takes us to Elada, where here we hop on a bus to Kannerimukku where Sullivan built a bungalow, which is now the NDC.

As we enter the warm red bungalow, we are greeted by photographs of several tribal communities, and of Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Kenneth Anderson who visited the Nilgiris. The black-and-white photographs of Ooty in the early nineteenth century, bustling with bullock carts, adorn the walls. There are also volumes of books about the history and geography of the Nilgiris.

“Sullivan did a lot for raising the economy of the Nilgiris. He played a key role in improving the lively-hood of the locals by initiating them into agriculture and business. This building was a tribute to him by the locals,” says Charles Mohan, our guide and also a resident of the Nilgiris. As I walk around the museum, my eyes are drawn to the portrait of a dashing young man. It is a faded painting of a young Sullivan. He is smiling and his eyes speak of a dream that pushed him to see what lay beyond the mists.

The two-day trek was organised by the Nilgiri Documentation Centre and Association of British Scholars, Coimbatore Chapter. The trek, covering around 40 km, started at Uliyore valley and ended at the bungalow of John Sullivan in Kannerimukku, Kotagiri. For more details, visit www.sullivanmemorial.org.