Some journeys happen after a long long wait - like the proverbial hornbill waiting for the rains, some others happen on a whim, unanticipated. My trek to Agastyarkoodam belonged to the first category. And let me tell you why.
The trek to Agastyarkoodam is a limited one and the booking is done online. Ideally, just a limited number of people are permitted to take this trek and it is mandatory to get permission. I booked and ended up being disappointed. It was tough to convince myself that I had to wait a whole year, to try again next year. But it was difficult. Just as I was coming to terms with it, Salim ikka’s query came like a bolt from the blue. He asked if I would join him for an Agastyarkoodam trip. I nodded yes without any hesitation at all. Manaf too joined as co-traveller. The dates allotted for the trip were April 16-18. Only ten people are granted permission in a team.
Agastyarkoodam is an 1868 meters (6129 feet) tall peak in the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary of Western Ghats. It is 70 km away from Thiruvananthapuram on the Tamil Nadu border. It is 32 km from Neyyar Dam and 23 km from Bonacaud. Agastyarkoodam is part of Agastya Hills Biosphere Reserve. Established in 2001 it is spread over Kerala and Tamil Nadu states. Karamana river which provides drinking water to Thiruvananthapuram city, Thamarabharani and Neyyar rivers which are the main water sources for Thirunelveli district are all part of Agastya Hills Biosphere Reserve.
It is a treasure trove of biodiversity. Apart from a collection of around 2000 herbal medicines, it is also the habitat of various forms of wildlife like the elephant, bison, leopard, tiger, bear, deer and Malabar squirrel. Believers consider this place as the spot where Sage Agastya, one of the Saptarshis (Seven Sages) of Hindu mythology offered penance. Permission is granted every year for hundred people for sixty days beginning Sivaratri to trek the hills.
My Agastyarkoodam trip started the moment I boarded the bus to Thiruvananthapuram from Ernakulam at 10 o clock on the night on April 15th. As I reached Thampanoor stand at 2.30 in the morning and sat sipping a black tea, I was joined by Salim ikka and photographer Noushad P.T. The first bus to Bonacaud from Thampanoor is at morning 4.30. After reporting at Bonacaud forest office, we can set out for trekking with the guides assigned to us.
The bus ride started at sharp 4.50 am. We got seats as there was no rush. Four more were to join us. I was sleepy by the time we left the city and entered the village. We got off the bus at Vithura and bought breakfast and a parcel for lunch. The place names on the way from Vithura to Bonacaud were interesting. Rubber trees lend their shades on either side. Beehives flourished between them. We presented our ID proofs at the Bonacaud check post and signed before continuing our journey. We went up and down. Forests on either side. We spotted treetop houses in some places.
The bus reached Bonacaud. From there to the forest station is a three km journey. We could proceed only if the remaining folks also join us. We decided to wait. We kept our bags in the nearby waiting shed and ordered four cups of black tea at the tiny shop in front. A red siris tree stood in full bloom adjoining the shop. A white painted cross stood head high on the way to the nearby way mountain. We were told that it was from here that the kurishumala pilgrimage began. Noushad ikka had put his bag in the waiting shed and dozed off. Unable to resist sleep I too gently slipped into slumber. It was past 9 am when the rest of the group arrived. After a brief introduction, we set out for the forest station with the three guides.
On the way to the forest station, one first encounters a tea factory resembling a haunted house. During the British Raj these tea plantations were hubs of activity. Now factory was shut; the fate of the immigrant workers too hung in the balance. The workers’ houses lined the sides of the road going past the factory. Large fully grown tea plants lined the roadsides leading to the forest station. The forest station was deserted. We did not have any particular need since we had taken special permission.
Everyone took out their sticks for the jungle trek and started the journey. The sight greeting us was of trees with heads held high and shade-laden pathways. Crickets chirped. We trekked past paths filled with ups and downs. When exhaustion hit us we sat by a tiny waterfall and shared we had brought. We topped it off with a refreshing bath in the waterfall. There are several streams along the way. It was interesting to note that there was enough water in them even in this extreme summer.
During the monsoon, the city’s rivers survive on their abundance of water. Several days old elephant droppings could be seen on the way too. Still, my mind murmured that no animal will make an appearance. This is a path where a hundred people each had trampled their way for the past sixty days. Refuse including plastic waste left behind by the previous trekkers lined the path. This made me sad. And brought back the harsh reality that almost all postmortem done on animals dead in the forest in recent times had revealed the presence of plastic in their stomachs.
From there on it was uphill all the way. The cold of the jungle had died down. Now we were passing through a barren hill with a scorching sun above. Everyone was drenched in sweat and exhausted. The supply of water drawn from the streams was running out. We passed the barren hills and finally reached the base camp of Athirumala through sheltered by a thick forest of giant trees.
The only inhabitants of Athirumala are workers engaged in demolishing an old building and forest wardens. Merely a few pillars remained of the building. There were temporary sheds of bamboo and wood and covered with metal sheets. There is no rush as the season is over. We entered the first shed that we saw. Our accompanying guides went to collect firewood to make rice gruel.
We decided to take a bath as we were tired. Although the camp has a latrine and bathroom, we walked towards a tiny flowing spring on the border of the camp. Walking through the path lined with tall grass, we saw Agastya hill and Pandava hill from a distance. We turned left and arrived at a small stream. One thing I do not understand. How does bathing in a jungle stream wipe away all your exhaustion? What causes this rejuvenation? Black tea was ready by the time we returned to camp after bathing and washing clothes. The sky was darkening with intermittent sounds of thunder. I was sure that it was going to rain.
Having rice gruel and lending an ear to Noushad ikka’s escapades, it was time for sleep as we had to rise up early. Anticipating hot weather I had carried just a bed sheet and was in for a shock. The cold was severe! The biting cold disturbed my sleep through the night.
The guides woke us up in the dawn with black tea. After the morning ablutions we all ate upma and at sharp 7 am packed our water bottles and snacks and set out on the trek. A Nagathan (snake god) statue was seen just outside the camp. Many stone statues decked in yellow silk were seen in a nearby sacred grove. The tribal people here are nature-worshipping Kanis. The sights on either side on the way were of giant trees, gigantic trees uprooted and decaying onto the earth, civet cat and bear droppings here and there and elephant droppings. Drinking water was heavily used up as we ascended heights. We refilled from a nearby stream and proceeded. We passed bamboo thickets and moved from the cold of the jungle to the mountains.
A thick blanket of fog caressed the hills and the majestic Agastya peak stood tall. We were awestruck. We decided to take rest. The heat was rising. We saw fresh elephant droppings on the way. We walked, observing all around. Steep inclines were to come after Pongalappara. After a few inclines, ropes are arranged to aid the climb upwards. We latched on to them and started climbing like acrobats. There are ropes in six places on the entire trek to aid the visitors. A cool breeze started blowing as we approached the summit. The sight of the Pandavar hills just beyond told us that we were indeed at the summit.
At the summit stands a three feet tall statue of Sage Agastya. All around it lay several lamps, tridents, and scattered turmeric powder. Small trees nearby were completely festooned with colorful necklaces. A wooden cradle was tied to a tree, probably as an offering for begetting children. Most of the visitors here are Tamilian devotees. We hung around there for a while. Only after a photo session, rest and eating food did we realize that we had run out of water.
Now we have to descend the mountain and reach the plain to fetch water. We quickly started the descent. It was not as strenuous as the climb. We reached the camp by afternoon 1 o clock. By then a meal of rice, sambar and thoran was ready. After lunch and a little rest we set out for a tiny stream. Looking up from that path we could see the majestic Agastya Hills. It was hard to believe that this was the hills we conquered this morning. Someone once said that some desires can hardly be kept as that for long.
After bath, nap and evening tea we had a chance to meet Mathian Kani Asan. Asan is warden there and lives in Peppara. I saw Asan making something using a cane to have rice sieve out from the yard. His father had taught him this at the age of twelve. His wife had asked him to prepare and take it along when he went home. He has been here for twenty-five years but still not made permanent in his job.
At night we had rice gruel and went to bed early. We had to start early to be in time for the bus from Bonacaud to Thiruvananthapuram. We needed to reach Bonacaud by 1.30 at noon to do that. We drew water from the streams and rested a bit. On reaching Bonacaud we spent some time taking a dip in a little spring. We had lunch from a shop there and quickly boarded the bus. Back to the daily mundane life. But, for now, we had conquered Agastyarkoodam with the indelible memories of an unforgettable trip.