A Date with Leeches at Kudremukh

A lush green montage of rolling hills, sprawling grasslands, and tropical forests….

“Good Lord, Eewwwwww!” I shrieked. A swollen wobbly leech just fell off from my upper arm as I took off my rain-jacket. Stuffed and all pumped up after a sumptuous blood meal sucked out of my arm, the hale and hearty leech was wriggling on the ground trying hard to move around. Sounds gory, isn’t it? Not quite! Leeches are creepy but pretty harmless creatures, something I learnt after I trekked to Kudremukh peak in Western Ghats.

I soon discovered that there were three more leeches – one on my stomach and two on my feet that were happily feasting on my blood while I was engrossed with all the wonders of Mother Nature surrounding me. I had managed to dodge tonnes and dozens of them all the way and these were the lucky four that secretly found their way onto my skin. And it was not until I was back from the peak that I discovered them.

I’m still not sure if I have overcome my fear of leeches – not fear, rather the uncomfortable creepy feeling associated with these creatures. However, these wriggly-wiggly creatures surely added to my overall experience of Kudremukh.

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Pic 1: The green mosaic of thick vegetation, vast grasslands, rolling hills, and dreamy clouds

Trekking in the lush green Western Ghats had been in my wishlist for a long time now. Kudremukh was an obvious choice to experience Western Ghats for the first time after having seen mesmerizing photographs of the chain of rolling hills laid out in a mosaic of sprawling grassland and dense forests.  It was with this motive that I had started following Tranquil Voyagers on Facebook and it’s been more than two years now. However, life is paradoxical and I landed up discovering Himalayas in the far north while I kept contemplating Western Ghats, which is right next door.

Tranquil Voyagers is a trekking company in Bangalore run by Shravan Kumar. Having observed them on Facebook for quite a while I decided to join them in my quest to discover the beauty of Western Ghats. Being with the right people is extremely important when it comes to hiking, trekking and exploring nature and I must say I am quite selective about that. Shravan himself leads all the treks conducted by Tranquil Voyagers and they exceeded my expectations with their idea of fun combined with high levels of energy, responsible trekking, and ecofriendly practices. I highly recommend them. (http://www.tranquilvoyagers.co.in).

It was early monsoon in the month of June. We reached Kudremukh National Park at dawn and were put up in a homestay with very basic amenities. Surrounded by tall trees, thick vegetation, and green hills, it was nothing but heavenly. Soon after breakfast, we started out towards Kudremukh peak.

Kudremukh or Kudremukha is a peak in Chikkamagaluru district, in Karnataka, located within Kudremukh National Park. The name ‘Kuduremukha’ is derived from a view of a side of the mountain that resembles the face of a horse. ‘Kuduremukha’ is a Kannada word meaning ‘horse-face’.

A group of 18 of us walked along chit-chatting with the early morning sun shining brightly and adding cheer to the newly found acquaintances. An important topic of discussion was the leeches that we knew we would be encountering and everyone had their own theories and stories to tell. All of this was doing little to drive away the discomfort I had at the very thought of the slimy wriggly-wiggly creatures. I had done my own research and had read up quite a few articles but the knowledge I gained did nothing to ease my apprehension. Very soon we started encountering them. And as we stepped into the forest, they were all over. It took me a while to recognize them as they can be easily mistaken for twigs scattered amidst the big brown leaves all across the forest floor, until you see them moving and stretching all around looking out for potential unsuspecting victims.

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Pic 2: Refreshing shades of green

Keeping aside the leeches, the wide variety of landscapes throughout the trail was a source of constant delight. The green carpets of grasslands would merge into smooth hill slopes with a very few or no trees at all. Patches of shrubs and bushes would appear intermittently. This would quickly give way to stretches of evergreen Shola forests with foliage so thick that the sun rays could hardly penetrate. (Shola is the local name for stunted tropical montane forest in South India). Once in a while the gurgling streams showed up gushing through the forests complementing the humming cicadas and chirping birds creating a surrealistic experience of dream and fantasy. Crossing the streams was great fun as we carefully made our way through the stones and pebbles, some of which were slippery due to the moss, lichens, or algae covering them.

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Pic 3: Walking through the shadowy groves of ‘Shola’ forests enjoying the leafy canopy and trickling sunlight
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Pic 4: The giggling stream greeted us as it happily passed through the forest
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Pic 5: The stream smiles, lit up by sun rays piercing through the thick jungle foliage.                               Pic Credit: Nikunj Amipara

It rained every now and then, adding to the enchanting aura created by the varied landscapes. The National Park houses a variety of wildlife and herds of sambars, spotted deer have been seen on the trekking route. However, we weren’t that lucky but we did see a couple of birds including a few peacocks. Not to forget the leeches though! To make sure that the creepy creatures didn’t catch us, we literally ran across the leech-infested forest floors and didn’t dare hang around to admire the pure serenity of crackling leaves, crunching twigs, and rustling foliage. There was no escape, whatsoever! Every now and then we would have to stop to remove the slimy creatures off our clothes and shoes. Once they sneak in and attach themselves to our skin, it gets tricky. Then, it’s important to take them off along with their suckers or else infections may set in. I was armed with a packet of salt but contrary to my knowledge, I learnt that sprinkling salt on leeches is not a good idea at all as that not only entails killing the leeches mercilessly but can lead to severe skin infection. Apparently, once the creature attaches to your skin, leaving it there and letting it fall off after it’s done with sucking your blood is a safer bet. Of course, I have no idea how you can do that without psyching out at the very thought of it.

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Pic 6: Carpet of green stretching as far as one can see  – a real treat for the eyes

As we were nearing the peak, after a few stretches of steep climbs, it started raining and a thick layer of fog engulfed us. I felt like I was walking in a vacuum of white as I couldn’t see anybody or anything ahead or after me. The heavens were not kind enough and by the time we reached the peak, the rains intensified. Along with that, the winds blew strongly and it was really cold. Drenched from head to toe, our raincoats provided little respite. The thick fog ensured that we got no view at all.  Shivering and trembling in the cold coupled with disappointment of not being able to see anything, we decided to descend. After a while, the rains stopped and the fog cleared just for a few minutes and that was our only window to catch a glimpse of the hypnotizing rolling hills undulating in all shades of green.

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Pic 7: The thick fog of grey that engulfed us as we approached the peak
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Pic 8: The window that opened up for a few minutes provided a glimpse of the undulating green hills that lay behind the clouds

The rains lashed hard again and didn’t stop till we were back at the homestay. Some areas, especially while climbing downhill had become slippery, forcing our concentration on the path ahead of us leaving us with no opportunity to stop and admire the enthralling surroundings. Though a few of us did stop at the clearing that was lined up with mango and jackfruit trees. With the raw mangoes hanging low, we couldn’t resist gobbling up a handful of them with salt before the salt was washed off in the rain.

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Pic 9: Happiness is walking into clouds through a soothing stretch of green
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Pic 10: ‘Onti Mara’ – The Lone Tree stands tall in the barren hillside undeterred by the thick fog.

Back in the homestay, after clearing the leeches, we bathed in hot water and feasted on onion pakodas and hot tea. The hot water bath was quite a luxury I must say!

It was an experience of a different kind, even though we couldn’t see anything at the peak. The journey is always more important than the destination and the beautiful and varied landscape we experienced made for an enchanting experience.

However, I have to say that having experienced the Himalayas, nothing else truly makes a mark upon me. Though, I know it’s unfair and I should not compare a hill with a mountain!

The leeches turned out to be harmless but something else almost killed me that night after I was back to my city in Bangalore but that’s another story. You can read that here – When my Immune System Overreacted

When Kedarkanta Happened!

My First Tryst with the Himalayas…

The year 2016 was particularly difficult for me. Certain things happened that negatively impacted my personal environment changing the course of my life, perhaps forever. Alongside something else happened. Again impacting me, but in a positive way.  Even though this cannot compensate for the other things that have gone so wrong, I feel fortunate and blessed.  And here’s what happened – I undertook two fascinating journeys discovering the intriguing beauty of the majestic Himalayas as I trekked to Kedarkanta and Kuari Pass in Uttarakhand.  In an attempt to share my wonderful experience, I am penning down the story of my Himalayan sojourn.

Let me start with Kedarkanta…

I am not getting into the details of how I landed up deciding to go on a Himalayan trek.  It was a very impulsive decision and how grateful am I for that!

It was the third week of April, the week of my birthday. Accompanied by my friend, Partho, I embarked on my maiden venture to the Abode of Snow with IndiaHikes (a trekking community). Kedarkanta peak is located in Govind National Park and the trek starts from a tiny village called Sankri, tucked away well within the park.  We started from Dehradun and the entire route to Sankri was a picturesque one, making the 10 hour drive really pleasurable.  Sankri is a tiny little beautiful village with a population of just about 300 offering some stunning views of the mountain ranges in Uttarakhand.

I was trekking for the first time, though I had gone for a day trek in Bangalore before but I don’t consider that to be of any significance. Kedarkanta is considered an easy trek but for people like me with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle, it wasn’t all that easy. I did have an edge though – at least that’s what I would like to believe. After all, I belong to the mountains, having spent the first 30 years of my life in the Eastern Himalayas in the beautiful little hill station of Shillong. My hometown, fondly known as the Scotland of the east, the capital of Meghalaya – abode of clouds!

We were in a group of 25 people of all age groups with the youngest being 9 years old. Most of us were first timers. There were three families and half the group constituted members of the same family.  However, by the end of the first day, the entire group had become like one big family.

As we climbed up towards Juda-ka-Talab on Day 1, it was raining intermittently.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the steady ascent through the forests of pine, deodar and oak trees. Occasionally, we would pause to admire the rhododendrons that were blooming all the way.  We even plucked a few to satisfy our curiosity of tasting the flower petals. This was totally new to me. I had no clue that we could eat rhododendrons!

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Pic 1: Our colorful raincoats blending harmoniously with the surrounding forest.

The changing landscape kept us engaged all along – forests with shades of all kinds of green with tinges of yellow and orange; trees with intricate trunk patterns having roots that spread far and wide; occasional green meadows irresistible to our already aching feet. We also came across one or two shepherd huts that appeared abandoned. These are places where the shepherds spend the night when they come up grazing their sheep as they cannot go back on the same day. We later learnt that the shepherds of the adjoining villages usually move around in team of twos armed with ‘kukris’ so that during the night while one rests the other watches over the sheep, protecting them from wolves and bears.

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Pic 2: Multiple hues splashed across the forest creating a divine aura.

After a continuous climb of 4 Km for about 4 hours through countless pines and oaks, Juda-ka-Talab revealed itself as a small pond in a tiny little clearing amidst the lush green and dense forest. Legend has it that Lord Shiva opened a little of his hair and water flowed out to form this small pond.

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Pic 3: Behold, the impressive Juda-ka-Talab!

A little after we reached Juda-Ka-Talab, the rains intensified, forcing us inside our tents.  After a continuous spell of about an hour or so, the rains disappeared without trace and a bright and sunny afternoon greeted us.  We didn’t see a frozen Juda-Ka-Talab as the ice had melted just a week before we had arrived. No complaints, especially with the snow-clad mountains around us and the reflections of the surrounding pine trees on the ‘talab’ making the entire place an ecstatic visual delight. With our minds and hearts overwhelmed, we retired for the night as the stars shone bright and beautiful making the whole experience blissful and magical.

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Pic 4: Upside down or downside up!

We looked up and saw the Kedarkanta peak at a distance that was partially covered in snow.  It was Day-2 and we had just arrived at Kedarkanta base after a very short and steep climb. The quick ascent left us pleasantly surprised. While most people were delighted with the thought of being able to rest and relax in such heavenly abode, I was excited about the prospect of exploring the adjoining woods. Being the naturally energetic person that I am and with my mind busy fantasizing the witches and fairies of the woods that surrounded us, I wasn’t going to spend the rest of the day just idling around the tent.  At the same time, I couldn’t master enough courage to venture into the woods all by myself. I found the 55-year old Vinod for company whom I had befriended the day before, and who amazed me with his stamina and fitness, passion for trekking, his grit and determination, and his love for the Himalayas. We shared our common love for yoga.

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Pic 5: Time for a break!

Time stood still as we walked through the enchanted forests of oaks and pines, admired the lichens and mosses, listened to the rustling of dry leaves below our feet, took note of the birds calling out every now and then, discovered streams and waterfalls, relaxed in the meadows, clicked selfies, talked to the occasional shepherd appearing from nowhere with his flock of sheep and disappearing in the same way, encountered the extraordinarily friendly mountain dog, and chatted about our lives and experiences. I was living in a picture postcard. Life seemed perfect!

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Pic 6: Time stood still as we lay on the soft green just below the Kedarkanta Peak…
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Pic 7: The extraordinarily friendly mountain dog.

It was 3.00 AM in the morning and we were already on our way to Kedarkanta peak with headlamps and torches lighting our paths. It was cold and we walked in silence in one straight line being led by our trek guides.  The cold eased a bit as twilight approached giving us hope and making Day-3: the Summit Day seem a little more achievable.

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Pic 8: As dawn broke, there was magic everywhere! 

As twilight gave way to early morning, we were delighted to see patches of snow glistening with the first rays of the sun.  There was some fresh snow indicating that it must have snowed the day before.  The terrain constituted patches of steep ascents and continuous gradual ascents as we huffed and puffed our way towards the top. In some patches, the snow had turned to ice making it a slippery and risky affair.

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Pic 9: The choco-vanilla landscape is a complete contrast to the lush green landscape!

Finally, after a climb of 6 Km for 6 hours, we reached Kedarkanta summit standing tall at 12,500 ft! The 360 degree panoramic view of some of the famous snow-clad peaks and mountain ranges was simply jaw dropping. Swargarohini, Bandarpoonch, Black Peak, Gangotri and the Yamunotri range, Chanshil Pass and Kinnaur Kailash ranges were clearly visible. Keeping my eyes wide open, I was gorging on every moment as my heart and soul danced with joy.

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Pic 10: I could have sat there forever!

Climbing down was tricky at times especially during the initial descent where the slope was steep and in those places where there were patches of ice.  We also did a slide in one patch that had some good amount of snow. It was some real fun as we twisted and turned, rolled and slipped, amidst hooting, laughter, and cheer!

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Pic 11: The slide!

After a brief rest at Kedarkanta base camp, we continued walking down towards Hargaon. While I was always amongst the top five people while climbing up, I was mostly lagging behind while climbing down – a clear sign that my knees needed some workout. Once again a spectacular trail through oaks, pines and streams led us to a meadow laid out in a carpet of green where we were camping for the day. It was a sunny afternoon with clear skies and we spent the rest of the day chit-chatting, reveling in the beauty of the surrounding snow-clad mountains, watching the horses grazing in the distance, walking barefoot on the soft grass, and playing cricket.

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Pic 12: Sunsets are gorgeous anywhere and more so in the mountains!

As Vinod and I basked in the sun along with a few others, a shepherd we had met the day before passed by with his flock of sheep. It was a moment of mutual delight. This time we chatted longer and learnt more about their lives and it was by no means an easy one. A pang of guilt hit me slightly as my mind did a spontaneous comparison of the kind of life I lead with all amenities at my disposal and here was someone whose life was a constant struggle oblivious to all the comforts that modern life has to offer.

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Pic 13: Picture postcard it was!

Starting early on day-4 and revisiting our rhododendrons through the forest floor laden with dry pine needles and cones, we descended back to Sankri, the village where we had started.

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Pic 14: The forest floor strewn with pine cones and pine needles.
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Pic 15: Rhododendrons – Yes we did pluck and gobbled a few!

At Sankri, we further explored the village, visited the ancient wooden temple of Bhairava (a fierce manifestation of Shiva), mingled with the locals, bathed in river Supin, watched young children play joyfully without a care in the world before finally calling it a day.

It was the end of my first Himalayan trek. However, for me this was the beginning of a new chapter in my life – a newly discovered love and passion for the mountains.  I was spellbound – the enchanting Himalayas had captivated my soul. It was intoxicating and I knew I would be back very soon, which I did…. (Kuari Pass Trek)

The Mythology of Kedarkantha

Uttarakhand is considered to be the land of Lord Shiva and Kedarkantha peak has its own mythological story related to the Lord. The word Kedarkantha means Throat of Lord Shiva. The story goes back to Mahabharata. After the war of Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were looking for Lord Shiva to atone for the sins committed during the war. First they went to Varanasi, Shiva’s favorite city, which has the famous Vishwanath temple dedicated to the Lord. Infuriated by the death and dishonesty at the Kurukshetra war, Shiva wanted to avoid the Pandavas. So, he assumed the form of a bull (Nandi) and hid in the Garhwal Himalayas. Not finding Shiva in Varanasi, the Pandavas went off to the Himalayas. Bheema spotted the bull and recognized it to be Lord Shiva. He held on to the bull not letting it go. In the resultant struggle, the bull was torn into five parts that appeared at five different locations. This resulted into the Panch Kedar: Kedarnath – Back of Lord Shiva; Kalpeshwar – Hair of Lord Shiva; Rudranath – Face of Lord Shiva; Tungnath – Arms of lord Shiva; and Madhyamaheshwar – Navel of Lord Shiva. Locals believe that during that time, the throat of Lord Shiva fell at Kedarkantha peak and that’s how the peak got its name. A small temple dedicated to the Lord is situated at the summit.