Wikipedia tells me that Chamarajanagar is Karnataka’s “second most backward district”. Having spent only a few days in its precincts, I’d be hard-pressed to comment on its economic disappointments. But given that one man’s backwardness is another man’s pristine jungle, it is this failing, I suspect, that is largely responsible for the district’s foray into eco-tourism. For an initiative of the Karnataka government, it is functional, accessible and non-mysterious. It is, also, expectedly affordable.
Such then, are the facts: 2.75 lakh hectares of forest, six hiking routes, at least five species of wild animal (bison, elephant, deer, tiger and python) and at least three species of tame person (local, tribal and Tibetan).
Chamarajanagar has a firm place in my imagination, and in that of every other South Indian who read a newspaper these last 15 years. And no, it has nothing to do with flora or fauna, but everything to do with our own homegrown homo indomitus, one Koose Muniswamy Veerappa Goundan (1952-2004), also known as Veerappan. We tracked his exploits for years, as reporters breathlessly expounded on his every move: poaching, smuggling, kidnapping, killing and, crucially, evading capture until the ‘encounter’ in 2004 that resulted in his death.
Today, there are no wild people — only wild animals — and understandably, the Karnataka government is relieved that Chamarajanagar can be put to good use, offering every urban adventurer the kind of experience that was previously available only to a few terrified residents.
We drove from Bangalore, refuelling at Kamat Yatri Nivas in Ramanagaram with dosas and sugarcane juice. Chamarajanagar town is a couple of hops away from Mysore, and when we got there we were confused about where thetrek was actually supposed to begin. We drove further, to Punjur, where a Range Officer told us to move on to Bedaguli, 25km away. On the road, about half an hour and several kilometres down, we noticed that all the signs were in Tamil. We were on the wrong road, in the wrong state, so we turned back and plunged into a winding, rocky path that would eventually lead us to our trekking HQ.
The border, however, would stay with us through the trek. It’s a funny thing, because it shouldn’t matter — after all, none of us need worry about being on the other side, and as much as I am from Bangalore, I can speak Tamil. But the moment our guide pointed out the decidedly phallic objects that mark the state border, we couldn’t pretend they weren’t there. Our trek was mainly in what is officially Karnataka. Occasionally we would stray into what is officially Tamil Nadu, and it felt weirdly wrong, even if we were in a remote part of a huge forest with no one to watch our transgressions but a couple of disinterested birds.
At Bedaguli, a pleasant hamlet, we disembarked at the Inspection Bungalow to get this trek on the road. We were informed that we were to spend the night at Jodigere, 8km down. The accommodation, we were further informed, was basic. The three of us — me, Srikanth the photographer, and Martin, a friend — were all male, and had brought an all-male set of things, that is to say, soap, underwear and books. Madhav Pant, our guide, worriedly told us it would be cold. Cold? Ha! What more would we need, we said, than some pillows and sheets? We filched some from the meagre supplies at the bungalow, took Madhav Pant’s advice on beverages (basically, buying up several sachets of arrack, the kind we were assured “does not make you blind”) and procured a bag of rice and dal for food.
We started out tamely. True, there were about five others in our party, and one of them was walking ahead with a double-barrel gun, but it couldn’t kill anything, let alone a rogue elephant, and we were on a tarred road. I had a sneaking suspicion that we were on a yuppie trek — a jungle jaywalk.
Four hours later, the sun had set, we were still walking, I could feel muscles that I had forgotten existed, and we still hadn’t got to our destination. And we had passed many shy elephants, one grumpy bison who derisively snorted and trotted away, and several incredible trees, including clumps of impossibly perfect silver oaks, straight, aligned and toweringly tall, as though lurking in a surrealist canvas.
Madhav Pant was curious about Martin; they had not had foreigners here before. Families from Bombay, yes, and many women too — I was told — all of who had no difficulty trekking — I was reminded — every time we stopped to catch our breath. At sunset, the sky around us exploded into several colours I’ve not actually seen before, and certainly never together. The vistas were majestic and strange and poetic, and also, a perfectly respectable reason to take a break from walking uphill.
At some point in the fast-closing darkness, a house loomed in the distance. As we got close, I saw that it was built on stilts —an anti-poaching camp, we were told, recently built. Two rooms and a bathroom reached by a set of stairs, staring out into a vastness of nothing, mysteriously sunken lights at two of our peripheries — on one side, Chamarajanagar, on the other, Kotagiri, a mere 400km away.
At first sight, it was wonderful. We had a place to put our heads down. The wind was howling, but it was not yet freezing cold. There was no electricity, but we had candles. The bathroom was even usable. We got a fire going. At some point later it got mighty cold, and we got mighty hungry — so we started with raw onions, moved on to egg bhurji, and finally attacked our dal and rice with a crazed, primal gusto.
As we lay down—three in a row, our heads on meagre pillows, resting on a threadbare mat, our bodies covered by thin cotton sheets — Srikanth cheerfully predicted that none of us would get any sleep since it was only going to get colder. No way, I thought; my body might be directly in contact with a stone floor, but it wants to sleep and it jolly well will.
Fat chance. I can still remember every second of that night vividly. The temperature slipped from cold to very cold to extremely cold. If I did happen to fall asleep accidentally for more than a minute, the howling wind would change direction, and make some new noise to wake me up. As the first rays of sunlight appeared, Srikanth woke excitedly to photograph wild animals while Martin exulted over the incredible views. I, however, sensing a distinct thaw in my lower body, grunted comfortably into sleep.
A hearty breakfast later, we were on the road again, this time to Bylore, 16km away, most of which was down the sheer face of a steep hill. We were a chastened, cheerful trio, greedily soaking up the sun and mildly annoyed that it was possible to be so sweaty and hot immediately after being so bloody cold. We slip-slided our way down, stopping to drink delicious water from streams that appeared out of nowhere, sunning ourselves on rocks. When we hit level ground, my thighs took some time to adjust, trembling gently to the change of pace.
When we got to Bylore, our guides were fresh and unruffled, never mind that we had trekked for the better part of five hours. Residents came up to greet us in a friendly, mystified kind of way. There were definitely three tourist attractions in Bylore that afternoon: us.
I’ve decided that trekking is a bit like French theory. You’re never quite sure why you’re doing it, except that many admirable people are. There are moments of immense fun but for the most part, it’s difficult, incomprehensible and unpredictable. Once done, however, you are changed, and you suspect you’ve become a better person, though you don’t quite know why. What you do know for sure is that you will make a dazzling reference to it at some point, somewhere, leaving everyone very impressed and slightly jealous, even if you still don’t have a clue as to the meaning of it all.
But I’m beating about the bush. Fact is, the trek, the landscape, the service, our guide and the experience altogether was wonderful. The Chamarajanagar forest is the most beautiful place you’ve never seen. This government-organised trek is among the friendliest, cheapest and most honest trips you are likely to make.
On our way back to the urban jungle, I had visions of Horlicks, hot baths and warm beds. Getting away is lovely; so is getting back.
The starting point of the trek is Bedaguli, which is 275km/7hr from Bangalore via Chamarajanagar. The end point is Bylore, which is 200km from Bangalore via Kollegal.
Mystery Trails, run by Karnataka’s Forest Deparment and the local community, is an eco-tourism venture. The forest through which the routes lie was inaccessible till 2004 thanks to the bandit, Veerappan. The Bedaguli-Jodigere-Bylore trek takes two days and covers 22km. Treks start at 2.30pm each day. Six to ten people form one trekking group and only 20-50 people are allowed inside the forest at any given time. At least one guide accompanies each group. Bring along plenty of food and drink, and definitely warm clothes and a sleeping bag. Nights can get very cold.
Entry fee: Rs 100 per person; guide fee: Rs 300 per group; trekking fee: Rs 100 per person; camping fee: Rs 150 per person.
Contact: Deputy Conservator of Forests, Chamarajanagar Division, 08226-222059.
There are five other trekking routes in the Chamarajanagar Forest. They vary in scenery, wildlife and difficulty. Mystery Trails helpfully ranks them in terms of difficulty, appeal and so on:
BRT to Chenni Halla: This one-day trek is the easiest, more a walk in the jungle.
M.M. Hills to Naaga Male: This is a difficult two-day trek and you will pass many of the former hideouts of Veerappan.
Bheemeshwari to Chellure Hill: This easy one-day trek includes crossing the Cauvery.
Elephant Camp to Muthathi: A moderately difficult two-day trek, you can climb the 1,125m Soligere Peak.
Yerekem Halla to Gopinatham: A difficult eight- to 10-hour trek, which takes you to the village where Veerappan was born.