Oops, sorry!” was a phrase I found myself constantly repeating throughout that day, as I dodged people. All around me was the clackety-clack of boots and poles as other trekkers marched past in twos, threes or fours, nodding at our group in greeting. I almost felt guilty for not being purposeful enough, for not aiming to reach the peak quickly, unlike those walking on. A few broke their march-past to peer into whatever bush we were peering into. They’d see nothing, and walk away with an indulgent smile and a slow shake of their head. Some, seeing me sprawled on the ground, stopped to enquire if I was injured and needed help.
Thadiyandamol, Coorg’s highest peak at 5,724 feet (1,748 metres), is a favourite: enjoying its beautiful vistas and summitting it is on most trekkers’ wishlists. Timing the trek too is important to many. I, however, had decided to stop and smell the roses—or the kurinji blossoms, in this case. What if I didn’t look at the views around me, but at the ground beneath my feet, for a change?
I was in Coorg just on the heels of the monsoon, when an errant painter seemed to have run amok with his bucket of green. Life-forms were undergoing changes on Thadiyandamol, after the invigorating rain. Somewhere, a frog croaked to attract its mate. A snail moved at, well, snail’s pace, glistening raindrops riding piggyback on its shell. Picture-postcard streams emitted clichéd gurgles as they swooshed around egg-smooth pebbles and seeped into parched crevices.
A cold, damp morning found our group of five at the beginning of the trekking route, in an open clearing under the rainforest canopy, through which we locked eyes with an ominously cloudy sky. Surrounded as the clearing was by some of the tall primary forest trees that had survived human brutality, this area became the object of our affections. Rain the previous day had made the ground slushy, and the morning stillness now reverberated with sounds of the earth sucking our shoes in, followed by the popping of shoes being released.
In a corner, a burst of purple perked up the forest floor—impatiens nodding away in the gentle breeze. These bright flowers grow near water or in moist conditions, and are endemic to the Western Ghats, of which Thadiyandamol is a part. An iridescent damselfly and a sluggish snail later, our naturalist urged us to move ahead, only because we needed time at hand for completing the trek before either the rain appeared or the sun disappeared; or worse, both. If we made good time, we could be slower on our way back, he promised.
The vistas along the trek route were undeniably captivating; as we moved first through rainforests and then through shola grasslands, we were hard-pressed to look elsewhere. The sholas are a characteristic forest type of the region, which lends the hills the appearance of being cloaked in patterned green velvet. But then, a sudden flash of colour would catch our eye, or that very faint call would have us perk up our ears, and a search would ensue. The vegetation along the path varied—some stretches had trees and plants densely packed on either side, revealing spiders, grasshoppers, frogs or orchids, if we knew where to look. Other stretches opened up on the valley side, offering sweeping panoramas of the sholas.
These grasslands brought us a variety of wildflowers, and a surprise! Every 12 years, kurinji plants flower en masse, draping the hills with a purple carpet, a phenomenon which currently relied solely on my imagination to visualise it. To help me along, however, a couple of stray kurinji had decided to be the delinquents of their tribe, eliciting a jig out of me. The sudden calls of the golden-headed cisticola—which is as tiny as its name is long—was all that was needed for our entire group to first break into a jig, and then a jog, as we tried in vain to keep up with the hyperactive bird. By then the sun had reached its pinnacle, it had begun drizzling, and we had just gone past the mid-point. A deliciously cold stream soothed our aching feet as we energised ourselves with lunch and some well-deserved rest before the steep and rocky last leg of the trek.
Nearing the summit, we stopped yet again. Sure, it helped us catch our breath from the climb but, more importantly, it brought us face to face with our most prized sighting—drosera, the carnivorous plant. Calling it a ‘sighting’ is probably a stretch: the species found here is smaller than blades of grass, barely discernible to the naked eye. The ingenuity of a plant this size is mind-boggling—rather than being easy prey, it’s actually a predator. Each ‘leaf’ has glandular tentacles, which are topped with globules of sticky secretion. Assuming these to be dew, insects get stuck to the plant, ending up as its food.
We would have missed all this drama had we just trekked past. Lying down on the ground had lent a new perspective: meeting Thadiyandamol’s inhabitants. They hear the grasslands perform a synchronised sweep in that midnight wind. They live under a sky, which stars light up with different patterns each night. They witness Thadiyandamol disappearing into the morning mist, only to emerge slowly later, leaving early bird trekkers sighing at the poetry of it all.
Back from the trek, lying supine in our guest house’s terrace, we plucked leeches off our clothing—and our stomachs and necks too—with the nonchalance of seasoned ground crawlers. My energy now draining as fast as the setting sun, I succumbed to the evening breeze that was lulling me into a slumber.
In my mental map of the trek route now are numerous landmarks; what was at the beginning of the trek just an indistinct swathe of green now has memories imprinted on it. To the people I meet, my conversations about ‘the bush where we saw the orange orchid’, ‘that puddle where the frog was half-submerged’ or ‘that rotten trunk where the sparkling fungus grew’ may sound like ramblings of an unhinged mind, but to me, they are indispensable parts of my Rowlingesque Pensieve, taking me back to Thadiyandamol. To that exact spot and that exact moment in time. To relive the trek, until I add new memories and markers from my next.
Getting there: Coorg is easily accessible by road from most cities in southern and coastal Karnataka, and northern Kerala. The trek begins from near Kakkabe. Virajpet, approximately 30km from Kakkabe, is a larger town with good bus connectivity. Infrequent local buses ply between Virajpet and Kakkabe. Mangalore and Kozhikode (both around 165km), and Mysore (about 110km), are the nearest airports.
Where to stay: Palace Estate (from Rs 3,700), a homestay next to the Nalknad Palace, literally at the beginning of the trek route, makes for a very convenient base. It tends to be extremely popular with non-trekkers too, so book well in advance. The well-known Honey Valley Estate (from Rs 1,200 plus taxes for doubles) and its newer, sister property Chingaraa Guest House (from Rs 2,200), where I stayed, are located at a 20–30min drive from the Nalknad Palace. The Tamara (from Rs 22,000) offers super luxury on the same road as the Chingaara.
The route: The most popular trek route to Thadiyandamol begins near Nalknad Palace and is a little over 6km and 3–4hrs each way.
This trek route (known as the ‘palace route’) is a well-worn trail, and if you stick to the path, is easy to follow. If you are arriving by a local bus from Virajpet (going towards Kakkabe), alight at the junction of the road to Nalknad Palace. Your only option may be to walk the additional about 2.5km uphill to Nalknad Palace, taking your trek length to 8–9km till the peak. The palace route is motorable until a few kilometres beyond the Nalknad Palace. If you do hire a vehicle from your resort to drop you off and pick you up from this motorable point, you can shave some more distance off the trek, bringing the distance to about 4.5km each way.
Another trek route begins at the Honey Valley Estate. It’s almost double the distance (over 14km each way), and it’s not easily navigable without a local guide. Though this route is reputedly far more scenic than the palace route, it’s out of bounds for everybody except guests of the estate.
Top tips: I travelled with Bengaluru-based naturalist Dilan Mandanna ([email protected]), who also organised the stay. Having grown up in Coorg, he’s very well-versed with local flora and fauna.
The route is open all-year long, but the best season for the trek is October to February, when the SW monsoon has just passed, the weather is cool, and the skies are relatively clear. Wear at least a light jacket—the weather in Thadiyandamol can change without warning, bringing mist and a cold breeze.
I’ve been told that an official board has been put up, prohibiting camping on Thadiyandamol. It would be best to check locally. I would recommend staying in the region for an additional day, especially if you are fond of wildlife. All the accommodation options mentioned are expansive estates, and a haven for flora, fungi, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.