This post is a blast from the past. I have been meaning to write it earlier. But my travels and work-between-travels pushed it effectively to the back burner. I draw on my resolve today to post this hitherto unfinished symphony.
Towards the end of November 2015, I received an email from the Times Group (Bennett Coleman & Co). It was an invitation to join their Western Ghats Times Passion Trekking Trail as their official trail photographer.
I had already worked with them as a photographer on a few trails. And I admired their commitment towards the cause of getting people to live what they loved.
Excitedly, I clicked open the itinerary. That is when I realised while the trail is in the Western Ghats, the entire itinerary will be taking us around Idukki – the hill district of Kerala.
While I may not be fond of trekking, I do love travel and photography. And, Western Ghats happen to be a UNESCO heritage site. So, within the next few hours, I had responded to the invitation in affirmative.
The Trail Begins
I flew down to Kochi on 11th December and met up with some trail participants at the airport. Jatin Kapoor from the Times Group (the organisers of the trail) and Manoj Joshi from Yatra.com (the sponsors of Times Passion Trails) told us that some more participants will arrive in the next hour or so, and that is when we will proceed to Munnar.
Trail’s Experience Architect was Hashmat Singh. A mild-mannered, diminutive, pleasant Hashmat had decades of trekking experience behind him. The participants in the trail were a motley bunch from different regions and different age groups.
Soon, all the participants had gathered and our bus took off for Munnar. En route, we made two photo stops – Cheeyapara Waterfalls and Valara Waterfalls. The beauty of Western Ghats had already begun to cast its magical spell!
At the Munnar hotel, we gathered around for a briefing by the local trek organisers (Kalypso Adventures). While briefing us about our comprehensive itinerary and its details for the next day, they also mentioned about us spending our nights in tents.
I asked if it was because the Western Ghats being a rough terrain deters the hoteliers to establish properties here. Dispelling that impression, the Kalypso representative shared an example – he said there were more than 400 hotels in Mahabaleshwar, another hill station in the Western Ghats. He went on to say the trail organisers had specifically asked for an outdoorsy experience for the trekking enthusiasts.
During our briefing, we were adequately warned that our Day 1 trek is going to be the toughest!
Day 1 (12th December 2015):
We started early from Silent Valley near Munnar. Armed with a pair of trekking poles, my loyal DSLR slung across my shoulder, I struggled through the slushy, slippery cardamom patches. Every time we would see a road, we would just cross it and trek on through the plantations. Oh, we were truly off-roading!
During the first half day of trekking, I had already fallen behind by half an hour. This half-day trek was just 6 km in distance, but a cumulative climb of about 3500 ft. We had just reached Rodo Valley, our lunch spot. This half-day trek effectively showed me that trekking and smoking don’t mix well!
It was time to have a chat with the organisers.
I made them see the point that I was there to shoot and not to trek. I persuaded them to provide me with a jeep that would help me stalk and shoot the trekkers during their trek.
The trekkers carried on to climb the highest Western Ghats Peak in Kerala – Meesapulimala (loosely translating to Tiger’s Moustache Mountain). And I gallantly proceeded to the pick-up point (Kolukkumalai Tea Estate) on my new-found steed, a 4×4 jeep provided by the organisers.
Once the exultant achievers returned from their gruelling yet satisfying day, we proceeded to Anaerangal Campsite near Suriyanalli town. They had done a trek exceeding 20 km and their cumulative climb had been around 4500 ft. But then, hadn’t they been forewarned!
The evening was spent pulling out leeches from the socks, footwear, lowers, and more. The blood and victorious giggles flowed freely, along with the hot soup that accompanied our dinner!
Day 2 (13th December 2015):
The trekkers looked fresh and sharp – ready to self-inflict some more pain. They were setting out from the Anaerangal campsite. A mild warning was issued – the campsite name carried that warning. Anaerangal in Malayalam means ‘where elephants come down’. They were told to watch out for the wild elephants as they climbed another treacherous peak called the Phantom Head.
I clicked some customary ‘happy face’ photographs and the group trekked away! My jeep carried me to the lunch sojourn where I waited for the passionate lot to arrive.
They came, grabbed their lunch packets and proceeded towards Pappathi Chola, a stream that they would eventually cross, pass through a butterfly migration zone, wade through slushy cardamom plantations and reach the B L Ram Campsite later in the evening.
At the campsite, they agreed that Day 1 trek was indeed a lot tougher!
Day 3 (14th December 2015):
This was the day the trekkers spent a lot of time walking on the road. But they were rewarded fairly after they reached the lunch collection point on Mettu Road. From there, they proceeded to a tribal colony – Aduvilunthan Kudi. The colourful route then took them through Mathikettan Shola National Park – the home of Slender Loris. Their trek then took them past Pethotty village to finally conclude at Santan Para Campsite.
The high point of Day 3’s trek was the group trekked the whole afternoon in a steady downpour!
Day 4 (15th December 2015):
The brave hearts set out on this beautifully sunny morning. The forecast was ‘thunderstorm and rain’. Naturally, quizzical looks were exchanged. As soon as they finished climbing a couple of hills and reached the scenic border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, they were greeted by whiplash winds and a blinding rain!
The rain did not last for long. As soon as it stopped, the gentle sunshine turned the view of the Tamil Nadu plains beneath truly mesmerising! This is a spot where the group stopped and spent longer time than their characteristic whistle stops!
The campsite at Chaturanga Para accorded a rocky view as against the usual greens and browns of the spice plantations throughout the rest of the trek.
Day 5 (16th December 2015):
This was the last day of trekking. Before the trekkers were flagged off, the guides tried cheering them up by sharing their best-kept secret – their day’s end destination was going to be the most scenic.
Wary of the muck and slush faced during most of their trek, the group wasn’t too optimistic about this statement. All the same, there was a trek to be done and they diligently embarked on the task ahead.
It was a 17-km trek day. The last stretch of this trek was a steep climb through the thick undergrowth of elephant grass. The route was the usual slush and muck. Bottomline: yet another leech-infested day!
I was fortunate to have been transported to the campsite in my usual 4×4. The climb up to Pushpakandam plateau was a grade 9 off-roading experience – one slip, and you could be history. And, the entire uphill stretch was through thick elephant grass hampering your visibility.
The little church of Pushpakandam
Once you hit the vast rocky plateau, you realised the guides were not wrong. This indeed was our most scenic campsite. As you approached it, the tents were pegged on two sides while the dining tent was facing you. The entire plateau was higher than the hills around, with one exception – there was a mound at the far end of this flat stretch. A small church was delicately perched atop this mound!
Soon, the trekkers started to appear on the horizon. Their excitement for the scenic plateau became evident as instead of making their way to the tents, they ran towards the mound. Despite a tiring trek, they decided to chill near that cute church. Many-a-selfie later, we all freshened up and sat around the bonfire that was organised by the folks from Kalypso Adventures. It was a welcome relief from the whistling wind that was sweeping across the open plateau.
The air was heavy with the awareness that it was our last evening together. At the same time, there was an undercurrent of happiness as the group truly jelled through the ups and downs of an arduous trekking trail. The chitchatting went on till late that night!
Stairway to Heaven (Travel Photographer Meets Serious Trekkers)
Next morning, as we all got into the coach to get back to Kochi Airport, during the journey we formed a WhatsApp group – Stairway to Heaven Trail. It has been over fifteen months since this trail happened. But, till date, the group members continue to interact with each other with genuine fondness. This trail through the Western Ghats ended up connecting people’s hearts, and this travel photographer has become an integral part of this group of serious trekkers!