The Indian monsoon broke several records in 2017, especially here in Karnataka. As usual, discussions about rain took center stage again. With too much rain, the pain of inadequate infrastructure hits city dwellers. Too little rain and the crops are under threat. That same year, an important festival coincided with a weekend and almost everyone I knew seemed to be traveling somewhere. I picked Bhagawathi Nature Camp in Kudremukh as my destination, closer to the rains.
I chose to drive from Bangalore via the scenic Hassan-Mudigere highway. When you travel by road, the vacation begins from the moment you leave the chaos of the city behind. In my case, I left Bangalore earlier in the evening to escape the impending festival rush. After halting at Hassan for a night, I resumed my drive towards the Jungle Lodges camp at Bhagawathi. Both, the tarmac and the countryside looked fresh after being washed repeatedly by the season’s downpour. All signs of fatigue were forgotten the moment I saw the green Shola forests of the Kudremukh National Park. The mountains were enveloped in the most soothing shade of green. The sky was overcast and there was a threat of a heavy downpour, but that seemed just right, for I was in the heart of the Western Ghats, in a tropical evergreen forest.
I checked into one of the huge tents at the camp, which consists of eight tented cottages and a 14-bed dormitory. The property is called a nature camp for a reason. Forest on three sides and a river on one surrounded us. The camp does not have electricity, and that makes the experience more authentic. I had to ration the usage of my camera. But I did not have to worry about my mobile phone usage because there was no reception anywhere inside the camp. The resident Sambar deer completed the jungle-experience even though I had only just arrived.
After a sumptuous lunch, customary in any Jungle Lodges property, the manager Pompapathi briefed me on activities for visitors, of which I liked the idea of a jeep safari and a trek to the nearby Kurinjal peak. In fact, these were the only two activities possible that day, given the weather. One can also laze around the river or see the waterfalls that dot the route to Karkala. Lakya dam, which is 3 km away, is off-limits to visitors. In other seasons, guests can go birdwatching and mountain biking. The place also allows good opportunities to photograph macro subjects. There are two trek routes in the Kudremukh. The most popular one is to the Kudremukha Peak. The other, where I was headed, is to the Kurinjal Peak. However, on my first day at Kudremukh, I chose to go on a safari inside India’s second largest Wildlife Protected Area.
Four of us huddled into a Mahindra jeep and set off on the safari. After a few kilometers, we left the black tarmac to go off-road. That is when the fun began. Our guide-cum-driver expertly navigated loose gravel and steep incline. The jeep rocked like a small boat in the high seas. The views got more spectacular as we climbed. It is hard to describe the feeling of traveling in a small vehicle through the vastness of the Shola grassland. The only wildlife we encountered was Sambar deer. But we constantly peered into the vastness hoping to catch a big cat. The Kudremukh range is a tiger reserve, and is part of the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. It is also home to the endangered Lion-tailed Macaque. But these sightings are impossible in monsoon.
Thick fog quickly engulfed the valleys around us as we reached the top of this unnamed peak, and we were in the midst of the clouds! The guide described the different sights visible from the peak on a clear day and I vowed to come back to see them. We then set back to the nature camp on different route. The safari lasted about an hour and is one of the must-do activities for anyone who enjoys landscape photography.
Later that evening, a friend was to join me from Bangalore and I drove to Kudremukh town to receive him. It was late in the evening and the gray skies matched the gloomy atmosphere in the erstwhile Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Ltd (KIOCL) township. Once known for the highest density of population in any township in South Asia, the crumbling walls of abandoned buildings now whispered a different tale. Humans were far and few in between. While waiting for my friend’s bus to arrive, I chatted with a local auto rickshaw driver who explained the history of the place. KIOCL operated in Kudremukh for 30 years but was forced to close in 2006 due to environmental issues.
My friend’s bus arrived after sunset and we headed back to the Jungle Lodges camp. On the way, we spotted more Sambar deer, Wild Boar and little furry creatures scampering away. Although there is no official ban of vehicle movement after dark, I was told that the route sees very few vehicles on other days. It finally rained once we got back to the nature camp, so we spent the rest of the evening talking while the staff supplied us with hot pakodas.
The next morning, after a brief visit to the river that runs through the backyard of the nature camp, we headed out to Kurinjal Peak. Our 21-year-old guide seemed to be dressed a tad casually for the trek, with his pants folded-up, sandals on his feet, and an umbrella in hand. On the other hand, I was in my boots, carried a hiking pole, a camera backpack and something very essential – a packet of salt. I had a run-in with the leeches of Kudremukh on day one and wanted to go into the forest prepared. It did not take long for me to realize that the ammo I was carrying was quite useless against the leeches.
We walked along the road for about 500m and then turned to walk on a trail that led straight to the mountain. The incline was gradual and we were on an open path. Half an hour into the trek, I looked down at my feet and was shocked to find at least 10 leeches in various stages of trying to make an entry into my boots. I called for a time-out to try and assault them with the salt I was carrying. It was a foolish idea, because once a leech is exposed to salt, it just falls off. In this case, they fell right into my boots. Stopping even for a minute meant more leeches trying to climb up for a free ride and more. Our guide, on the other hand, was unperturbed. He would simply flick the leech away the moment he noticed one on his exposed legs.
As we walked ahead, we entered a dense mist-covered forest with tall trees. The thick fog hanging low around the trees was atmospheric. We exited the forest after about an hour and from that moment on, we were surrounded by Shola grasslands all around us. As we hiked up, our path got rocky and slippery. Our shoes had absolutely no grip while walking on moss-covered rocks and my hiking pole came handy.
Our guide mentioned that on a clear day the Dakshina Kannada district is clearly visible from the peak. There is even a separate trekking path to Kurinjal from Belthangady. The valley was unfortunately covered in fog, so we didn’t have much to see. We were soon at Kurinjal peak and the vegetation closer to the peak was starkly different. Once on top, I couldn’t really place where I was because of the fog all around. A jungle fowl kept us company with its repeated cries.
We spent around 20 minutes at the peak. With nearly zero visibility around me, I got busy catching up on messages thanks to the Airtel network that my phone picked up after one whole day. A few drops of rain reminded us to leave and we quickly scampered back down. While walking down, the fog miraculously cleared to reveal the beautiful rock-face of the Kurinjal peak. I was thrilled! We hiked back to the Jungle Lodges camp and the trek took four hours in total. The rain spared us while we were outdoors, but 20 minutes after reaching the camp, it started to pour very heavily. The sound of rain was deafening and 4 pm looked like 7 pm.
After doing their best to hold back the rains, the skies had given up. In the 36 hours that I spent in Kudremukh, I managed to experience many different things. I knew that this trip was just the first of many installments. I certainly plan to go back.
An alternate way to reach Bhagawathi from Bangalore is to take an overnight bus till Kalasa. From Kalasa, all the local buses towards Karkala go via Bhagawathi. The entrance to the Jungle Lodges & Resorts property is right next to the highway, so you can get off the bus and walk to the camp, which is a kilometer inside. It takes about an hour and a half from Kalasa to Bhagawathi.