Highs and lows

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Mullayanagiri Puff and pant your way to Karnataka's highest peak

It's not at all good for your ego when you huff your way up 450-odd steps and find that a cow has beat you to it. And when the cow looks perfectly content — no ragged breathing, no trembling legs — you feel even more silly. We watched it enviously for a little while, briskly tearing tiny leaves off the small, dusty shrubs, fixing itself an alfresco lunch on Mullayanagiri, Karnataka's highest peak. But looking around, we wondered what all the fuss was about; because, except for the 1,930-mt-above-sea-level distinction, Mullayanagiri was no great beauty. It was simply a very butch mountain, all broad shoulders and bare, muscular flanks; the sort you would automatically assume is male. And, we realised, anybody who wishes to come up here has to be pretty high on testosterone themselves…

About an hour from Chikmagalur, Mullayanagiri comes highly recommended as a ‘must-visit' spot. ‘There madam, just one hour by ghat road, very nice view' the people at the coffee-plantation we stayed in pointed out, in the general direction of the Western Ghats. And we felt we owed it a visit — it seemed friendly and benign from the distance. The drive was certainly lovely until the halfway point. The hills were blanketed with jewel-green coffee plants studded with ruby-red beans; they were towered over by graceful silver oaks, garlanded with dark green pepper creepers. The fierce afternoon sun became a lovely disco ball, throwing in a shaft of sunlight here and a dancing beam there; monkeys happily loped across the road, and birds whistled from the tall trees. All, as they say, was well, until we turned into the final eight-km section that led to the peak.

The road here became patchy and narrow and climbed in a series of terrifying hairpin bends. The gorge to the left grew steeper, the rocky cliff face on the right, higher. The mood changed in a matter of minutes, and we clutched the car seat with tense fingers. A few hundred metres from the actual peak, the road petered out into a dangerous barrier-free loose-gravel track. For a few very unpleasant moments, we watched two cars cross us; one small car that almost scrapped the paint off ours, had about 10 heads crammed inside, and they were all grinning. Were their risk appetites so high, or was ours low?

To cut an embarrassingly breathless story short, we made it to the top, after stopping in about eight places, pretending to take pictures. We weren't very happy to be greeted by the cow though — how did it get here, we asked a cheerful Srinivas, who was by then sitting cross-legged outside the temple, and chatting with the care-taker in Kannada. The caretaker replied in elaborate hand-gestures; we understood that the cow belonged to God. We chose not to ask about the smelly pile of cow dung, a little way off. Instead, we asked Srinivas to find out a bit about the topography. The care-taker now became animated, and pointed out ‘ooru' (Chikmagalur), ‘eri' (lakes which from that great height looked like two little blue puddles) and kept coming back to the Mullayappa temple right behind us, drumming his fingers on his cheeks, as a sign of reverence. We walked into the temple — a modest cement structure — and bowed in front of the idol of Lord Shiva, decorated with fresh flowers and garlands.

Srinivas by then had had enough; he set off to the car -park, taking the steps two, three at a time. We treaded our way far slower, distracted by zigzagging shadows — the swallows' curved, sickle-shaped wings, the butterflies' small, blunt wings, and the majestic wingspan of a kite. But the unrelenting sun and the bald peaks of the Bababudangiri Rrange killed all the joy of the descent; and we did not really pause to admire the hazy necklace of hills around us, their outlines blurred in the white heat of the afternoon. We reached the local ice-cream van, an oasis around which the young and the old had gathered; we ordered mango-vanilla cups, but pulled faces as we tasted the insipid milk -powder and over-sweet tutti-fruity. The drive back was a lot less frightening — but trading notes later with the other guests at the plantation, we realised we had gotten away easily… they not only had scratches on their cars, one family had come within an inch of certain disaster. Now if only they did put up those much-needed barricades, we might even go back some day — because, I happened to spot the peak later that very evening, when the sky had turned a deep coral and mist had softened its muscles — why, Mullayanagiri almost looked beautiful…





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