In August, rain was a mirage in Chitradurga. Even as the rest of Karnataka battled flooding and torrential downpours, even as the reservoirs at Almatti and Krishnaraja Sagar threatened to breach, all that the townsfolk in this arid rain-shadow zone could do was glance at the cruddy sky and sigh. The great fort in the town’s heart, sheltering centuries of human history sculpted into rocks older than remembered time, gazed despairingly at the modern urban agglomeration sprawled at its feet, architectural aesthetics and topographic harmony thrown disdainfully to the winds.
Just 11 kilometres from the squalid reek of adulterated diesel, from squabbling dogs and garbage-munching cows, a macadam-topped road snakes off into welcome wilderness. The vegetation exhales oxygen. Brahminy Starlings chortle at private jokes. Grey Francolins bicker over real estate prices. A peacock, ungainly on the wing, rues the loss of a modelling contract to an Indian Robin strutting and primping in his neat black-and-white tux.
At the forest checkpoint, figures of a leopard and a sloth bear atop the entry gate raise the hopes of optimistic visitors. The blacktop road veers right towards the only place where they might see them — the Adumalleshwara Zoo.
Our vehicle ascends the dirt track towards Jogimatti. At our approach, a wild sow snorts a warning to her train of striped piglets. A covey of Jungle Bush Quail whirrs away into the shrubbery. My ears are pricked as I listen for birdsong — muscle memory stirs as I initiate the checklist in my head. Hearing, rather than seeing, is believing.
Jogimatti is not much of a peak, but it stands head and shoulders above the terrain at 1,159 metres (3,803 feet), earning itself boasting rights as a ‘hill station.’ It’s a claim endorsed by morning walkers (who arrive here at 5 AM) and birds (who are up earlier). In the woodland near the summit, Indian Blackbirds erupt into song. This species, usually partial to wetter hills, is a checklist rarity, and I have to spend a few minutes arguing with the eBird app, which accepts my entry with reluctance.
The air is muggy but rain is absent. We hear the same lament everywhere — that the monsoon has failed the district for 12 years. But the stubborn vegetation of the rocky hillocks, crowned by gigantic wind turbines whirling quixotically, suggests a curiously different story. The higher we ascend, the earth is moist, the tree barks are leprous with lichen, and the stones are encrusted with moss. Grass shoots stubble the edges of the track, and pale buds of fungi spatter the mulch. How could all this life resist a prolonged drought?
A plaque outside the forest guest house dates its construction to 1905. Dr Salim Ali stayed here when he visited to survey the avifauna of Chitradurga. He had noted the presence of the endangered Yellow-throated Bulbul, and we stalk the hillsides in pursuit of it. At one point, we follow its calls, loud and proximal, to a densely wooded patch, then lose track of it completely after I fail to suppress a sneeze.
Richer than the birdlife is the profusion of butterflies. Common Lime, Common Leopard, Great Eggfly, Crimson-rose Swallowtail, White Orange-tip, Common Crow… my enthusiastic but inexperienced eye spots them all.
There is a wealth of insects and arthropods, too. Digger wasps betray their camouflage with a flick of their metallic abdomens. Bee-flies hover, humming meditatively, at eye level. Millipedes of many kinds patrol the ground. Dung beetles make an endearing spectacle of their crappy lives.
A ramp of 155 steps leads to the summit of Jogimatti, where there is a small shrine beside the samadhi of a saint after whom the hill is named. A few steps away is a tall, green-painted watchtower. Clambering to its top demands a vertigo-defying ascent up a ladder at a 70-degree incline. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but the panorama is worth the panic.
The wind turbines that dot the landscape have been a cause for concern, with environmentalists blaming them for bird deaths and hurting the biodiversity. Using the windmills as markers, we explore the trails around the peak. There is an abundance of jungle tracks and they are all tempting, but the forest staff warn us not to wander away unescorted. Sloth Bears can be unpredictable, they say, but we note the heaps of plastic litter and smashed liquor bottles everywhere and conclude that the bears are at much higher risk from humans.
The rugged trail to the Himavatkedara waterfall winds through the jungle past a seasonal stream. Dry as a bone, it hasn’t flowed in years, we are told. Water has carved the rocks into shapes suggestive of a Shivalinga and the lord’s sacred steed, Nandi. My rational eye sees a limestone cave with calcite formations that human imagination has transformed into a shrine. No quarrel with that, except that reckless pilgrims have sullied its sanctity with mountains of plastic refuse.
The night is unexpectedly cold. A howling gale sweeps the peak and wind-chill cranks down the temperature. An early morning trek solves the mystery of the vegetation that seems to endure the lack of water. We step into dense fog that lingers for nearly two hours. The foliage is moist with condensation, and the earth is damp as if after a shower. Monsoon rain may have played truant in Chitradurga, but that hardly means that there is a dearth of life-sustaining moisture. What nature remembers about surviving drought, humankind has evidently forgotten.
Getting there: Jogimatti is 245 km from Bengaluru, just over 4 hours by road. Frequent buses depart to Chitradurga via Nelamangala and Tumakuru on NH48. From the town, Jogimatti is 11 km.
Accommodation: The forest department runs a basic but comfortable cottage at the Jogimatti peak. Electricity is supplied for a few hours. Cellular signal is scratchy. The kitchen serves simple vegetarian meals. Prior permission is required to stay at the guest house. Alternatively, you can stay in the city and make a day-trip to Jogimatti.