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Karnataka — a trekkers' paradise

An element of surprise and large stretches of wilderness are what makes trekking in this State so unique. R. LAKSHMI explores the varied trails.

Jog Falls...jungle trail

ENVISIONED primarily as the salubrious sink of silk, silicon chips, sandal, sculptures, sizzling coffee and now, perhaps, Veerappan, Karnataka is fast emerging as a prime trekking destination. Endowed with the mountain ranges known as the Western Ghats, or the Sahayadri, that run south to north across the State, the topology of this range encompasses lush tropical forests, hills and dales, caves and cascades, roaring rivers and gurgling streams and a great biodiversity of flora and fauna, making trekking and related activities a thoroughly wild and enjoyable experience. The pristine coastline too offers a contrasting diversity to one's trekking itinerary.

Trekking trails are mostly located in the "ghat" districts of North and South Kanara, Shimoga, Chikmagalur, Hassan and Coorg. Most are so remote and wild, that it is advisable to carry one's own food and camping gear to suffice for a few days. At times, village houses, temple courtyards, ruined structures or even a cattle shed can serve as camp sites for the night! Ultimately, it is the element of unexpected surprises, the raw wilderness and the vagaries of Nature that make trekking in Karnataka so unique. The best time to trek is just after the monsoon, i.e. September to December when the landscape is lush and green and in its best bib and tucker. There is no dearth of precious water, but leeches might be a mild irritant. The landscape looks less scenic if one treks during the dry summer months from January to May, but the trek will be leech free and good times can still be guaranteed. Although there are innumerable trekking trails in Karnataka, some popular ones are highlighted here.

THE district of North Kanara is literally a gorgeous trekking terrain with four mighty rivers flowing east to west. Of these, the "Kali River Bank Trek" starts from Ambikanagar near Dandeli and takes a rugged teak and bamboo forest trail along the dark Kali river and its tributary, the Kaneri. En route, is the Kavla cave where if one crawls into it with a bright torch light, a four-foot high Shivling-like stalagmite structure and some stalactites too can be seen. This cave has become a shrine and poojas are conducted every day. Another very popular route is the one leading from Sirsi or Kumta to Yana. Here, two gigantic limestone rock formations and numerous smaller ones stand like silent sentinels amidst the dense forest. The sight is truly stunning. Besides the forests, the best beaches in Karnataka are found here. Starting from Karwar, one can beach trek southwards through the beaches of Belikere Gokarna, Om, Kutle, Baada, Kumta, Dhareshwar, Haldipur, Kasarkod and Bhatkal. These silvery beaches are very picturesque, relatively lonely other than the local fishermen and have an unspoilt aura about them. The beachline is interrupted by rocky capes and cliffs and the mouths of four rivers — the Kali, the Aghanashini, the Bedthi and the Sharavathy, where ferry services are available. Some of the most beautiful cascades of Karnataka are located in this district namely Unchalli, Sathodi, Shivaganga, Doddamane and the Magod Falls. One can do a "Falls trek" to them from the nearest motorable point.

Shimoga district, well known for the glorious Jog Falls, the highest in India at 292 m (a cascade of the Sharavathy river) has lesser known trekking trails in the dense Sharavathy valley which lend an enchanting eeriness to a trekker's tally. Located in the thickets of the Govardhanagiri State Forest Range, the trek from the towns of Gerasoppa or Nagavalli to the ruined Kaanur Kote (Fort) situated deep in the jungle teeming with wild life is a mystical experience. This fort was the garrison of the Pepper Queen Chennabhairavadevi. Other trails in the valley include a trek to the tribal village — Meghane, situated atop a hill, that continues as a jungle trail leading to a Shiva temple built on a cliff face at Bhimeshwari where a pearly waterfall over this cliff ensheaths the temple during the monsoons. The trek route then descends deep into the valley to the delightful Dabbe Falls. The wildest trails are around Agumbe, which is best known for its scintillating sun sets. Ironically, Agumbe is also known as the Cherrapunjee of South India as it gets — 8,000 mm of rain every monsoon. A pretty meadow and forest trail leads from here to a jungle pond called Emkal Kere. Another trail leads to a hillock called Nishani Gudda which offers a panoramic view of the dense forest cover. From here, a jungle and jeep track trail leads one to Barkana falls, where the Sitanadi river falls from a height of 260 m. A very arduous and rugged trek route from here leads to the Narasimhaparbath peak, near Shringeri.

THE district of South Kanara is a popular pilgrim circuit. Trekking trails here are those leading to the Kodachadri, the Kumaraparbat and the Kolikamalai peaks. From Kollur town, famous for the Mookambika temple, a trail leads to the towering Kodachadri peak where a temple complex and a monument called Sarvagnya Peeta, the seat where Shankaracharya attained divine knowledge, is located. Also found here is a cave called Chitramoola, where Shankaracharya is said to have sat in penance. The much trodden Kumaraparbat peak trail which begins near the temple town of Kukke Subramanya ascends steeply through dense tropical forest to a single house "Eden" called Girigadde. From here, an undulating path curves through the grassy "shola" forests to reach a rocky peak and then tears through dense "cauliflower" forest to reach a stream where the wild calls of the jungle are distinctly heard through the night! This is truly a "complete" trek! A lesser trodden trail leads from Sulya to the Kolikamalai peak. The view from here of the Brahmagiri range near Talacauvery is absolutely awesome. The trail descends from here through the village of Patti to Talacauvery, the birthplace of the mighty Cauvery. Besides these peaks, the circuit of Ullal, Malpe and Maravanthe beaches form a pretty diversion.

Chikmagalur district is a petite, misty mountain territory home to the highest peak in Karnataka-Mulayangiri, which is a part of the Baba Budan ranges that streak across this area. The rugged Mulayangiri-Kemmangundi trek starts as a steep stream laced path from the Muthodi reserve forest leading up to Seethalayanagiri, a hill temple — interesting laterite caves are found here. Further up is the Mulayanagiri peak standing tall at 6,300 ft. From here a path leads to a shrine called Inam Dattathreya Peeta, worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims. The trail finally leads to Kemmangudi, a popular hill station, which is surrounded by breathtaking cascades. A unique trekking route which ascends up a stream line leading to the Kalahatti Falls, starts from the Shree Veerabhadreswara swamy temple, a popular tourist spot near Kemmangundi. This stream route is punctured with boulders and innumerable smaller falls and springs every 500 m or less, some of which have their own miniature pools. The path leads right to the top of the massive Kalahatti Falls. The campsite here is a cave cut into a cliff face! From the top, traversing over undulating hills and valleys, a route descends to Kemmangundi where one can visit the `Z'-Point, a vantage view point and continue trekking to the isolated Hebbe Falls. Another very popular trekking route in this district is the "Kudremukh Peak trail", the second highest peak at 6,200 ft., located near an iron ore mining area. It can be approached from Navur or Samse towns and the path leads all the way through the mining area down to Kudremukh town. Shola forests, ruins of a dilapidated church, streams, tall elephant grass and small hamlets dot this route which is extremely picturesque.

In Hassan district an interesting variation called "Railway Track" trekking can be a unique experience. One of the spectacular sections of the Western Ghats lies between the towns of Donigal and Kukke Subramanya on the Hassan-Mangalore rail route over a length of 40 km. Some 50 odd bridges and tunnels span this length of the rail track. Trekking on the railway track from Doniga station to Yedakumeri, Shiribagilu and finally Kukke Subramanya, camping for the night at each station, savouring the natural beauty and side tracking to soak oneself in streams or a fall and watching trains thundering past you especially in a tunnel is truly an "off the beaten track" experience. What is most important is to ask the station master each day about current running times of trains. This way, and along with some logical thinking, one is totally assured of safety on the track especially if one is crossing a long bridge.

CAPTIVATING Coorg — this entire coffee plantation district is virtually one continuous trekking territory. The greenery in all its verdant hues round the year, the hills and forests, the plantations, the rivers Cauvery, Barapole and Lakshmanteertha and the wildlife sanctuary, Nagarahole, all concoct and form an unbelievable Utopia of natural beauty, that a mere walk anywhere is able to reassure you that Nature in its most pristine form is within the reach of your imagination and means. All one has to do is to discover and drink in this beauty — slowly. Some of the well trodden trekking trails here are around the tallest peak in this district — Thadiandamol. An interesting trail leads from Chelavara village through the Emmepare Falls, Baliatra falls, Thadiandamol peak, the ruins of the Nalakkanad palace to the Iguthappa peak, which has a shrine of Lord Subramanya set in a mystical location. Another trail around the Barapole river leads from Makutta through the reserve forest to a jungle pool called Neelampole. Thick bamboo forests skirt the river banks and this is dense elephant territory. In the Brahmagiri ranges of Southern Coorg, a forest trail leads from Irupu falls to the Brahmagiri peak. The falls present a stunning sight during the monsoons.

Interesting trek routes are also found in the southern parts of Mysore district. From Bandipur, a wildlife sanctuary, a trail through the buffer zone of the reserve forest ascends to the Himavad Gopalaswamy temple on a hill. Another popular route is the "Cauvery river bank trek" from Mekedatu (where the mighty Cauvery assumes the breadth of a narrow gorge for even a goat to leap across) to Muthathi, where the river is a broad gushing expanse of water, creating innumerable small islands and finally to Bhimeshwari, home to the mighty fish — the Mahaseer.

Besides these long trails, numerous short trails leading up to boulder-strewn monolithic hills abound around Bangalore. These are the Rangaswamy Betta near Kanakpura, the Ramagiri hills near Ramanagaram, Devarayanadurga, Shivganga, Siddarabetta and Madhugiribetta near Tumkur, the Male Mahadeshwara Hills (M.M. Hills) and the Biligirirangan Hills (B.R. Hills) near Kollegal. These hills have temples, forts, forests or caves as in Antaraganga near Kolar. Rock climbing and spelaeology (which is the study of caves), are other activities one can undertake besides trekking.

While trekking, it is of utmost concern that the ecology of the environs is maintained, so choose a programme/people who lay emphasis on this. "Leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time, and shoot nothing but photographs and bring back nothing but memories" should be an eco-friendly trekker's motto.

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