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Scaling Agasthyarkoodam, a trekker’s dream destination

 

Agasthyarkoodam: every trekker’s dream destination. The misty peak of Agasthyarkoodam is the second highest peak in South India, about 70 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram in the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in the heart of the pristine bioreserve of the Western Ghats, Agasthyarkoodam, situated at 1,868 metres above sea level, is the source of two major rivers — the Karamana river, which satiates the thirst of the capital city, and Thamirabharani. Home to rare orchids, trees, plants, birds and animals, the walk to Agasthyarkoodam offers stunning landscapes, sightings of rare flora and fauna and the challenge of a tough trek as the area includes the Neyyar sanctuary, Shendurney and Peppara wildlife sanctuaries and Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu.

Scaling Agasthyarkoodam, a trekker’s dream destination
 

Buffeted by high winds and rapidly changing climactic conditions, Agasthyarkoodam was once the location of an observing station built by John Allan Broun, a meteorologist who was appointed in charge of the observatory in Thiruvananthapuram in 1849. He scaled the peak to set up the station. Broun wrote: “There is no place in India where the magnificent phenomena which precedes the bursting of the monsoon can be seen and studied with more ease than on the Agustia peak. For a month or more before the final crash of the tempest, the whole operations of the great atmospheric laboratory are developed at our feet, while the summit of the mountain itself is rarely visited by the storms which rage over its western flanks…”

In 2008, Australian researcher Richard Walding from Griffith University visited Kerala to study about Broun and his pioneering work. However, he was unable to locate the remains of the station that had been abandoned long ago.

The grasslands near Agastyakoodam

The grasslands near Agastyakoodam   | Photo Credit: Senthil Murugan

 

Over the years, the peak, shrouded in the clouds, continues to attract those looking for an adrenaline rush and those seeking to learn the secrets that nestles deep in the forest.

In fact, wildlife photographer Suresh Elamon’s first trip to Agasthyarkoodam was in the late seventies or early eighties when he accompanied scientists from Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute who were mapping the rare flora there.

Beginning the trip from Bonacaud, as many trekkers do evennow, he recalls walking for about 20 km on the first day and camping at Athirumala after tackling Ezhumadukku Theri (Seven-fold incline), a stiff climb. Athirumala serves as the base camp even today. “We made a fire to keep off wild animals and slept beneath rock overhangs. We had to cook our own food and carry necessary provisions. It is about three to four km to the peak but it is uphill and not very easy once we cross a plateau,” he recalls.

Since then, Suresh has been up the peak several times. This is the same path followed by trekkers over the years with the help of experienced guides from the Forest Department.

Sunset at Agastyakoodam as seen from Neyyar

Sunset at Agastyakoodam as seen from Neyyar   | Photo Credit: Suresh Elamon

 

Birder and butterfly watcher C Sushant, coordinator of Warblers and Waders, had his Agasthyarkoodam moment in 1986.

Even as the media goes gaga over Dhanya Sanal, Defence Ministry spokesperson in Thiruvananthapuram, ascending Agasthyarkoodam this season after the Forest Department lifted a ban on giving permits to women to trek up the mountain, Sushant recalls that in 1997, his wife Bindu Meher, accompanied him, and in 2013, their 17-year-old daughter, Arya Meher, too followed in their footsteps. Sushant points out that there were no restrictions on women trekkers then and the ban on women must be a recent phenomenon.

“Many women such as environmentalist Anitha Sharma, Maya Mathew, who was then head of the Zoology department in University College, and several others have walked the distance to the peak. It was disheartening to read about the restriction and I am glad it has been lifted,” he adds.

Scaling Agasthyarkoodam, a trekker’s dream destination
 

Girija Pushpam, the first woman forest ranger in Kerala, explains: “I was the range officer from 2008 to 2010 and was in charge of the trekking season in Agasthyarkoodam. It must have been in 2008 that I trekked up to the peak. During my watch, I have been to Agasthyarkoodam several times and never ever did the Kani tribesmen create any problem,” she says. There was an idol of Saint Agastya but there was no temple or regular poojas, she points out.

According to her, the tough terrain and the inhospitable forest might have been reasons for the unwritten ban on women. “If you are physically fit and adventurous, there is no reason why women cannot go for the trek,” says Girija, at present an assistant conservator of forests.

City-based homemaker Hema Parameswaran also says she had trudged up the difficult terrain during the early nineties when Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum had organised a trek for a team of 15.

“I was the only woman in the group and we had been given permission by the then Chief Conservator Surendran Ashari. Since then, I went there two more times,” asserts Hema.

YM Shaji Kumar, Wildlife Warden (Thiruvananthapuram), points out that while researchers and scientists have always been given permission by the Forest Department, it is only now that women trekkers have been officially permitted to trek the mountain during the season. “Our primary concern is safety, as the climb is difficult. So, ever since the booking went online some six years ago, we have not given permits to women trekkers during the season,” he says.

 

He recalls with a laugh how the forest office in PTP Nagar used to resemble a houseful cinema in the days before the booking went online.

Saying that there are many reasons for the rush to trek Agasthyarkoodam, he says it is an unforgettable trip for each adventurer. In the case of Sudeep Elamon, a cinematographer, it was tantalising glimpses of the peak from the city of Thiruvananthapuram that called him to the mountain. He first went for a bird census in 2010. Meanwhile, researcher Sandeep Das made his way to Agasthyarkoodam in 2013 on a research trip to map rare amphibians in the forest reserve.

“Since we were in search of frogs, our trips in the forest were in the night. It was exciting but also dangerous since this is a forest teeming with wildlife. We certainly did not want to run into a sloth bear, elephants or a tiger,” recounts Sandeep, at present a researcher with the Kerala Forest Research Institute.

Every trekker has that moment of epiphany deep in the heart of the verdant forest. However, Suresh who has been up the peak some 15 to 20 times, feels that the ecologically fragile area should be left undisturbed and only researchers should have access to the place.

Unforgettable moments

Suresh Elamon: Lady’s Slipper Orchid is a rare orchid flower that is endemic to Agasthyarkoodam. It blooms in the wild.

Sandeep Das: Saw a tiger in the light of a dawn in the forests of Shendurney during a trip to Agasthyarkoodam. I was able to shoot a video fit before it disappeared into the foliage.

C Sushant: Laughing Thrush was one of the rare birds that we saw in the area. Another is the Nilgiri Wood Pigeon. These are endemic to the Western Ghats.

Peak season

For three months in a year from January to March, the peak, considered to be sacred by tribal communities, is opened to trekkers who will have to scale hills, walk through rolling grasslands and ascend steep inclines to reach the peak of the mountain, said to have to been named after sage Agastya.

Prior permission from the wildlife warden’s office in PTP Nagar is mandatory. On a day, during the three-month period, only 100 people are permitted inside the bioreserve.

This year, for the first time, the Forest Department has permitted women to trek up the hill, overturning an unwritten law that proscribed women from ascending Agasthyarkoodam.


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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 2:12:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/as-ardent-trekkers-gear-up-for-the-arduous-climb-to-agastyakoodan-veterans-men-and-women-recall-the-highlights-of-conquering-the-tough-terrain/article26004373.ece

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