At the dawn of the day, light gently streamed through giant ficus and jackfruit trees, painting peacocks golden as they sat on tree-tops, warming themselves. Areca trees swayed gently in the breeze, seemingly orchestrating the lifting of the delicate veil of mist, revealing layers of blue-hued hills of the Western Ghats. This biodiversity hotspot has many hills to be explored: some very popular, and some, hidden secrets known only to a few. And on this day, I was set to scale up one of the hills – Ballarayana Durga.

Ballarayana Durga, also known as Ballalarayana Durga, is located in Chikmagalur District. It was once home to a majestic fort built in the 12th century, but only the periphery walls, arches, and entrances survive, overrun with vegetation.

Vegetation—some muted, some colourful—seen all along the trek route.

A plant growing on rocks.

The play of clouds made it a perfect day to trek, and I looked forward to being entertained by Malnad’s very own winged beauties and their music orchestra. The initial part of the trek was through luscious green forest, where giant trees and thick undergrowth offered a plethora of sights – fungi on fallen trees and branches; Orange-headed Thrushes that emerged when our footsteps stopped; bulbuls, whistling as they hopped from one branch to another; the Malabar Pit Viper that stayed perfectly camouflaged among leaves, looking like a fallen twig; and leeches that tried to attach themselves to the next warm-blooded creature that passed.

Fungi in the undergrowth.

Rhythmic to our walking, Flame-backed Woodpeckers chiselled wood, and occasionally, pairs flew to wherever their next party was. The cooing of Spotted Doves added a different beat to the music the woodpeckers and bulbuls were producing. Rustic and Common Crow butterflies fluttered around even as a Jezebel dazzled me with its colours, and a pale, beige butterfly kept me guessing if it had four rings or five.

Walking out of the tree cover allowed for a break in the trek without worrying about leeches. But that was not what stopped me in my tracks – it was the views of sun-kissed olive coloured hills, with a canopy of beautiful white clouds dotting the clear, blue skies. As a breeze began blowing, I could not help but wonder if the elephants that inhabited these hills were gentling flapping their ears to provide some relief to my tired limbs.

The few trees on these hills seemed to tell stories of their struggles to survive – their bent trunks indicated the direction that the wind has been taking for years, and the colours of their leaves were remains of the season that had just gone by. If they could talk, they might have told me stories of the king who built this fort high up in the hills.

The Ballalarayana Fort is believed to be constructed by the wife of Veera Ballala l, who was the king of the Hoysala Empire in the 12th century; it was built in the Hoysala style of architecture. What remains now are just fort walls stretching for miles, having stood the test of time. However, the absence of a fully preserved fort is more than made up for with sweeping views of shola-grasslands.

A lone surviving tree is the focus of this misty view.

A view of the lush shola-grasslands.

While humans have no use for the fort walls now, Danaid Eggfly butterflies had taken quite a liking to them: I saw them often using the walls as their resting stop. Painted Lady butterflies seemed to like the flowers that were growing out of the cracks on the walls. If only I didn’t have to travel onward to Bandaje Arbi waterfall, the fort wall would have been a dreamy location from which to watch the sky being painted in shades of red at sunset.

Wildflowers around the fort.

Bandaje Arbi (Arbi meaning waterfall in Kannada) is another hidden gem in these hills – a waterfall known for its sheer drop and stunning views. A long trek through lush green grasslands is needed to reach the waterfall. I kept waiting for Gaur to emerge from the tall grass, but it wasn’t my lucky day. But I was sure they were hiding in the shola, watching every move I made. The well-trodden paths devoid of any grass revealed rocks and stones shining like new jewellery, unwittingly drawing attention to why this region is being mined for iron and mica.

Bandaje Arbi waterfall, dropping down the steep edge.

A familiar tune—like someone whistling a catchy jingle—caught my attention, and it was undoubtedly the Malabar Whistling Thrush keeping me company, adding a spring to my steps. The mist slowly descended again, making everything around grey, but the sound of gushing water led the way, and it seemed like the destination was not too far. When I finally reached the waterfall, the sun was out again, and the stream leading to the waterfall was brimming with action. As I rested, I watched water spiders fishing, frogs jumping between rocks, and dragon and damselflies flying by. Just a few metres away was the edge of the hill, offering stunning views of the waterfall and the valley below.

If I had the luxury of time, I would have spent hours just taking in the beautiful setting, but dark clouds were rolling in, and at a distance, I could see rain pouring over villages. I walked back, taking with me memories of a day well spent and a habitat worth preserving.

Frogs are found in plenty in the stream.

Rain clouds depositing rain over villages.


Getting there:

The trek to Ballalarayana Fort and Bandaje Arbi takes approximately 7 hours, if done from Durgadahalli, near Sunkasaale. The route from Mundaaje is longer and more strenuous. Though there are water points that you encounter during the trek, it is better to check beforehand, as the water source might be scarce during summers. Since the trek is through forests, you will need to carry sufficient food for the duration of the trek.