Chasing Bends in Brahmagiri

Trekking through a pretty, no-garbage range nestled between Karnataka and Kerala.  
The Iruppu Falls is a sought-after tourist destination and a sacred spot due to its association with the Ramayana and Lakshmana. Photo by: Vinodkumar M/alamy/indiapicture
The Iruppu Falls is a sought-after tourist destination and a sacred spot due to its association with the Ramayana and Lakshmana. Photo by: Vinodkumar M/alamy/indiapicture

I breathe without my tongue getting that dusty-crusty coating and if I clench my teeth, which I frequently must while pulling myself up the steep hillside, there’s no grit between them. I’m in the Brahmagiri Mountains, a mere 270-kilometre drive from Bengaluru, but far enough so that no pollution can reach it.

Over two days in the hills, the only filth I see is the cap from a Bisleri bottle that some previous trekker chucked on the pristine green ground. But thankfully, most other trekkers follow the diktat issued by the Forest Department: the Brahmagiri range is a no-garbage zone. And it shows. A few kilometres back we crossed a stream with water so crystal clear, cool and pure that we drank it straight. From there, the trail wound its way through shola forests watered by several more streams, the dense groves clinging to the hills like green beards.

They are apparently something of a hot spot among the world’s ecosystems and rife with medicinal plants, which explains why Kerala, abutting Brahmagiri peak, is where Ayurveda first took root. Approximately 2,015 of the flowering species are endemic, or native to this limited geographical area. When I breathe deeply, I sniff something pungent which I presume to be the scent of wholesome Ayurvedic herbs, until the forest guards quip that it is the reek of wild tuskers lurking outside our vision range, waiting for us to pass by so that they can come out and frolic.

A small peak near the ominously named Tiger Hill affords stunning sunset views. Photo by: Zac O’Yeah

A small peak near the ominously named Tiger Hill affords stunning sunset views. Photo by: Zac O’Yeah

Other than their cannonball-sized poop balls, I spot pug marks of giant tigers, and one of my co-climbers steps on a baby snake by mistake. The white bands on its black body identify it as the venomous common krait, though both trekker and snake survive with a scare. There are also jackals, leopards, sloth bears, wild boars and all the monkeys, birds and butterflies one can wish for. But it appears to be an unwritten law that animals, plants and humans respect one another: the wilder ones allow us free passage as long as we don’t trouble them.

High on the spur of a hill, I spot a deer perfectly outlined against the horizon and the blue sky, gazing down at us who struggle across the semi-alpine meadow.

Our group of mostly novice climbers started out the previous day at Kodagu’s Iruppu Falls, 50 kilometres south of Virajpet, a nondescript town on the Mysore-Kannur highway. From the falls it is a steep uphill trek for five kilometres along a jungle track. We haul up provisions—juicy vegetables like cucumbers, gallons of buttermilk, cooking oil, sacks of rice—each of us carrying upwards of 10 kilos or enough for two lunches, one dinner and one breakfast. I had no idea we humans consume that much. Note to self: A bag of porridge ingredients that can be boiled in fresh mountain water would be the best next time.

A quaint British-era forest inspection bungalow is our overnight halt. There are cots inside for the ladies but the gentlemen sleep on the porch. The bungalow is surrounded by solar-powered electric fences to keep wildlife out, but even so one wall has been rammed by a pachyderm—the spot still visible as a quadrangle of repair work. Next morning my trekking mates complain that I slept restlessly. They should count themselves lucky that my thunderous snoring kept prowling jumbos at bay.

We get up at the break of dawn for the ultimate ascent. It is a 7-8 kilometre hike, the last portion of which is extremely steep until… finally! We reach the 5,275-foot-high peak of Brahmagiri. I swoon in a sweaty but happy heap. Though not for too long: the views are so stunning that I want to spend as much time as possible gawking at Kerala’s greenery deep below.
A temple is visible in the distance. It is rather heartening that this hill is blessed by Brahma from a Kerala point of view, while from the Karnataka side we started climbing from a point hallowed by the fact that Lakshmana once visited it.

Other trekkers display more practical mindsets and take quick naps since we have been given a 30-minute break before the descent, which must be completed before the elephants come out to drink at the streams we borrow water from.

A horned animal skull outside the 100-year-old forest inspection bungalow is a popular selfie spot. Photo by Zac O'Yeah.

A horned animal skull outside the 100-year-old forest inspection bungalow is a popular selfie spot. Photo by Zac O’Yeah.

A few are deeply engaged in the noble art of taking selfies and have come equipped with the latest selfie sticks. They do their best to get as close to the edge as possible. According to a recent newspaper report, India leads the world statistics when it comes to so-called ‘killfies’: 60 per cent of all cases globally resulting in the death of the photographer, typically by falling down a hill or waterfall, involve an Indian.

A perhaps bigger danger for me is making my way safely downhill.

There’s a sheer vertigo-inducing drop before my nose. The gradient is something like 45 degrees—leaning forward a wee bit too much can result in a toppling over which, if a domino effect is created, may affect all the other climbers ahead of me. Secondly, the earth is soft and crumbly, and often yields underfoot.

But get down I do. No busted kneecaps. My backbone is lightly bruised and ahead is a gentler 13-kilometre descent. I tumble a few times and cut my knee, some of the others slide down slopes where the dry leaves give way, but everybody makes it home without broken bones. At last, we exit the jungle and gazing back towards the top it feels amazing that we conquered it. As soon as my bruises and insect bites heal, and muscles stop aching, I’m going to sign up for the next available trek.

Essentials

The Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary is a garbage-free area and activities, including loud noise, that may disturb its wildlife are frowned upon. Photo by: Zac O’Yeah

The Brahmagiri Wildlife Sanctuary is a garbage-free area and activities, including loud noise, that may disturb its wildlife are frowned upon. Photo by: Zac O’Yeah

The 27-kilometre trek to Brahmagiri peak begins from Iruppu Falls from the Karnataka side. The hills can also be reached from Kerala. Avoid trekking in the monsoon, though. November to April is the best time, and do hire a guide. A few canteens sell water, hats and snacks at Iruppu Falls, and the surrounding area has a couple of homestay options. Carry a hat, an umbrella and sunscreen lotion. Do pack in drinking water and energising snacks.

Other important trekking destinations in Kodagu include the Talacauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, the Pushpagiri Wildlife Sanctuary, the Kottabetta cliff (near Somwarpet) and of course Kodagu’s highest peak, Thadiyandamol. Permissions for most routes must be obtained from the Forest Department in Madikeri, but the Brahmagiri permit can also be taken from the Range Forest Officer (RFO) at Srimangala. Lots of trekking agencies based in the district help make arrangements. Half-day treks start at around Rs 500.

  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?