Finally after 5 years of long waiting I have succeeded to climb Agasthyarkoodam peak in Trivandrum. It has been in the “to do” list from year 2010. Four times I could manage to get the tickets but couldn’t start due to various reasons. But this time everything came my way. After the last season in Jan- Feb I was planning this trek. March and April went futile as some security issues were getting highlighted there due to unauthorized entry from Kottoor and Tamilnadu side. To make things more complicated, In March 2016 UNESCO has added Agasthyamala to its World Network of Biosphere reserve and it become difficult to get the pass for off season trekking. So it was heard that after this May package trekking is going to get stopped. I could easily evaluate this would be my last chance to get this done. It was then I got the much awaited call from Rahul mentoining that they have arranged for a trek in Agasthyarkoodam. Rahul is an active member and program coordinator of Tree club, a non-profitable organization conducting nature camps, environmental awareness classes, wild life photography tutorials, nature walks, bird watching camps, wild life conservation campaigns family tours and adventure treks. They promote preservation and protection of nature and natural resources. Without a second though I was in and this time I didn’t wanted to miss it.
Topography, Flora and Fauna:- To begin with Agasthyarkoodam peak is a part of Neyyar Wild Life Sanctuary in Trivandrum district of Kerala. The Agasthyamala bio reserve lies in the close proximity of Tamilnadu and Kerala. It shares its boundary with Trivandrum and Kollam districts in Kerala and Kanyakumari and Thirunelveli districts in Tamilnadu. Lot of rivers originates from this hill ranges. The Neyyar River Karamana River, Kallar River , Peyar River (which eventually turn out to perennial Thamarabharani River when it reaches Tamilnadu) and numerous tributaries of these rivers originate from this hill ranges. The eastern side of the peak shares its boundary with kalakkad Munanthurai Tiger reserve of Tamilnadu. West side is the bonaccord estate. North side comprises of the core area of sanctuary like Pandipathu and later on to Ponmudi hills. South is the Venkulam forest range sharing borders with Tamilnadu again. Agasthyarkoodam is the highest peak of South Kerala standing at a height of 1868 mtrs (6129 ft.).
The lower altitude areas of Agasthyarkoodam is rich with medicinal plants of over 2000 varieties which are widely used in Ayurvedic medicinal sectors. It can be unarguably said that Agasthyarkoodam hand holds the richest collection of medicinal plants in the entire Western Ghats region. Rare medicinal plants like Mrithasanjeevani and Arogyapacha are believed to be found here. It is believed that apart from medicinal plants some of the areas in the core area are having poisonous plants also. But it is not unveiled by any chance as of now and hence remains as a myth among the tribals. Apart from the rich flora this range is home to large number of mammals like Elephants, Indian Gaurs, Leopards, Tiger, Sloth bear, Sambar dear, Dhole, shripe necked mongoose, Nilgiri Langur, lion tailed Macaque, Bonnet Macaque, Mouse dear, Barking deer, Malabar giant squirrel, Indian porcupine, jungle cat, slender loris, Jungle boar, mountain otter, fishing cat and small Indian civet and Black Naped Hare are some of the commonly seen mammals in this range. Apart from this almost fifty types of reptiles and more than hundred types of Butterflies and birds are found in this range.
How to reach :- Agasthyarkoodam is accessible only via trek path from Bonaccord. It is 60 odd kms from Trivandrum City. Road is there only till Bonaccord. KSRTC buses are available to reach bonaccord from Vithura and KSRTC bus stand Trivandrum but frequency is very less. During season Agasthyarkoodam becomes a pilgrimage centre. Prior permission need to be taken from TVPM forest office for trekking this route. Online booking is available during season. The trek can be completed as a two day venture.
Believes and Myths :- There is a full size shrine of Lord Agasthya on top of the peak. There is a mythical story behind Agasthya’s visit to this peak. It goes like this. For Lord Shiva’s marriage every living thing on earth went to Kailas. Due to the excessive weight of everything on the northern tip, earth’s balance went for a toss and to compensate that Lord Shiva requested Agasthya to go to the Southern Most tip and Balance with his divine powers. Thus Lord Agasthya went to the top of the peak and meditated there to balance the earth. It is also believed that during his ascend the ghee from his kettle over flowed and later turned into Neyyar (meaning – a river of ghee). Later Lord Agasthya entrusted the tribal people of this hills to be the protectors of the floral wealth of this place. The season here is from Makaravilakku to Shivaratri (From Jan 15 to March first week.)
History:- Before Independence British were the first to established tea estates in nearby hills like Bonaccord, Braimoor and Ponmudi. Later it got flourished up to Athirumala. But due to lack of accessibility and rough weather they retarded from this place and concentrated more on low altitude areas. They even built an observatory on top of the peak but rough weather destroyed it all. Earlier before the invasion of British this place was known as Pothiyaan mala and it was a Buddha worship center. Pilgrims and believers from Srilanka as well as Tibet used to visit here and the evidences are there in the Mahayana manuscripts of Ghadavyuha.
Travelogue:-_Everything was as per the plans but I could believe it only once it is done. I haven’t waited for any treks for so long in the past. To materialize the long pending dream I took an additional leave on a week end and reached Trivandrum. Though the package is only for two days, with the personal acquaintance in the department we were able to get three days permission (precisely 2 nights and three days.). We had requested permission for a ten member team but surprisingly very few people turned around. It was the week end followed by the assembly election in Kerala and hence so many people couldn’t join. Some of them withdrew on the last minute. Finally it was only a compact team comprising me Rahul, Manu Joseph from Alappuzha and Krishnadas from Trissur. It is always better to be compact. I started by 7 am in the morning from home and on the way picked up Rahul. We reached Nedumangadu by 8.10 am where we were supposed to meet the other two. We had a small shopping for vegetables and some essentials and reached Kanithadam check post by 9 am. As we were a little late to reach the guides who were supposed to come with us has turned back and there was some confusion. By 10 am we reached the Bonaccord picket station1 from where the trek starts. The guides took some more time to come which gave us ample time to get ready with our back packs.
By 11 we started the trek. What an odd time to start a trek!!!. It was an over cast day and we expected rain gods to shower us their blessing any time. As I had some recent encounters with rain inside thick foliage I was praying to her majesty not to rain. The trek trail started besides the picket station. Initially it was a small muddy trail and become wider as we moved in. We were sure that there is a clear trail as thousands of people took this path just two months before in the season time. It was reasonably a flat terrain except some small ascends.
The route was wild and the over cast day spiced it all. Sun light was very less and the canopy was too thick to let light in. There were small dried up streams and water falls every now and then. After 30 minutes we reached the first big stream where we took our first small break. Water was cold. After a small photo session we moved ahead.
Right after crossing the stream it started drizzling. I was worried as I have to put camera back inside if it is raining. Couldn’t even imagine going back without capturing all this beauty. Besides there are chances that we miss the views if it is raining and foggy. Luckily the drizzling didn’t power up. It was just manageable. We were moving fast as it was a flat terrain. After an hour we were deep inside the jungle and it started raining heavily. Our guides guided us to a small cave where 5-7 people can fix in. We stayed there giving the rain a bit time to get subsided by itself. It was cool inside the cave. It was a beauty to watch the thickets getting wet in the rain from there. A new experience to watch the rain from a cave.
After 20 minutes or so rain subsided and we started again. We were already a bit late, and the rain already showing up, our guides urged to make it fast. Leaches were everywhere and we also fought back with lot of salt, Dettol and all. Finally accepting the defeat. The numbers of enemies were so huge that we had no other way than to consider it a defeat. We reached Karamana River by 1.15 and was feeling a bit tired from the long walk. We opened up our lunch packets and it was over in no time. Gobbled the chilled water from the stream and felt the difference with the bottled one. Without delaying much we started by 1.40 pm and marched along the trail.
By 2.30 we reached the Attayar River and took another break there. Started again by 2.45.pm. The climb actually starts from here. After Attayar the ascend goes up rapidly and the pace come down eventually. I was feeling tired and was gasping for breath. This part of the stretch is known as Ezhumadakkan (meaning – seven ascends). The ascend is topographic in seven steps initially the forest stretch then the grass lands and then again forest. I was literally crawling through the first forest stretch. Wanted to take a break but couldn’t stop anywhere due to leaches. After 40 minutes of tough ascend we reached the grass lands.
It was an absolute treat to our eyes. Long running grass lands across the hills. As there was occasional rain for past few days it was all green. For the first time today we were in an open area. Cameras came out of the bag and clicked repeatedly. It was beautiful to see the light green grass lands bordered by thick forest covers with enormous mountains engulfed in mist creating walls around them.
The grass lands where also steep enough to give us a tough time. We took a longer break here on the vantage point of the grass land from where we could take a good view of the surroundings. After the break we again entered into the deep forest. The climb was also cruel. This stretch is known as the Muttidichan theri. One of the toughest stretch on the way to Athirumala. As there was clear trail all of us managed to reach on the base camp by 5 pm wanting to crash down somewhere. Athirumala base camp is an open area on the very base of the peak. Earlier there was a dormitory here which could accommodate nearly 150-200 people. After last season the dormitory is demolished due to safety issues. Five Aluminum sheeted huts have replaced the dormitory. We kept our bags inside the hut and rested for some time.
Our guide has noticed some edible mushroom growth near to the camp site. We plucked it all and cleaned it and gave to guides for preparation. Myself and Rahul went to take a dip in the nearby stream. The water was chilling cold and all the fatigue was washed away in the very first dip itself. We came back by 6.15 and sat down with some chit chats. Rahul lighted some interesting wandering experience and I was all ears. By 7.30 the food was ready. Rice, Sambar, Pappad, Pickle and delicious mushroom roast. I hogged like a beast. We spend some more time outside the sleeping shed waiting for the mist to come but in vain. As it was an overcast day it was not so cold. Desperately we all went inside after some time and stretched our legs in the bed. The faint silhouette of the peak was still there behind the sheds looking formidable. Tomorrow I will be on top of that peak. That was a nice feeling. End of Day One.
Woke up early in the morning. After finishing the morning ablutions had breakfast. By 9.30 we were all set for the trek. It is 6 km from Athirumala base camp to the top of the peak. But unlike yesterday’s terrain this is going to be far tougher. The entire stretch from Athirumala to the peak is steep ascend. We started slow and steady. The ascend was tough and the terrain was mostly rocky. Only good thing to cherish was that there was a clear trail which was obvious. The weather was clear. We reached some view points on the way but all were dying hard to reach the top.
45 minutes into the trek we reached the bamboo growth. We concluded that we have reached the very base of the rocky stretch as seen from the base camp. The trail was so steep that we could take hardly a step in three seconds. We didn’t want to lose much time on the way hence we managed to take breaks only when it was impossible to move without a pause. By 11.30 we reached Ponkalapara the main land mark in the stretch. We took a break here. Luckily the sun was covered by clouds and there was a comfortable shade so that we didn’t get juiced up in the heat.
From this point we could see the head of the peak and the origin point of Neyyar in the deep crevasses in the rock. There was only a sign of water flow in the rocks. We had a brief stop here for photos and further more up on the trail we could see the Thamarabharani river and more views of Tamilnadu including some parts of Thirunelveli town. In the entire stretch ropes are facilitated for the ascenders safety in five places. Some of the portion is almost 65-70 degree steep and it makes it impossible to attempt the climb without the rope. Before attempting the last rocky stretch we removed out shoes in respect to the Agasthya shire on top. It is believed that if we attempt to climb with shoes on, it would rain and will get strangled on the top. By 12.30 pm we reached the top of the peak. We offered our prayer to lord Agasthya first and wandered around for getting the views.
The view from the top was impeccable. Towards the east we could see the Ezhilampotta and adjoining peaks and towards the west we could see Tamilnadu side views. As the mist already started showering we couldn’t get good pics of the surrounding area. The strong wind helped getting some good views sometimes but the Ezhilampotta and the Tamilnadu side views were mostly engulfed in mist. We could get some nice views of Neyyar and Peppara reservoirs and the hill ranges up to Varayattumotta was clearly visible. This is a must do thing in any hikers life. We spend almost 1 hour on top wandering around and gazing at the amazing cloud movements in the swift wind.
It was getting cloudy by then and we got the red signal. It was time to return and by 1.30 we started ascending back. The rock stretch would take almost the same time to descend but the trail after that was comparatively easier and we could do it fast. From one of the openings in the bamboo growth we spotted three Indian Gaurs on the grass lands near to Ponkalapara. We could only hope that we would be able to get a closer look when we reach down. Leaving the back packs with other Rahul and I silently crawled on to the area of the sighting and to our embarrassment there were a larger group lying on the grasses. It would have been at least a 15 member group with 1 male some females and 3 kids. We could get some closer look but as soon as they noticed our presence they vanished into the thickets. We managed to get some long shots. That also constituted to the adventures of the day and we started climbing down rapidly. Though it was not good enough by any standards we made it to Athirumala base camp in 3 hours. 30 minutes past 4.
The first thing to do was to eat like an animal. Everyone was dying out of hunger and today’s menu was almost similar to the previous day. Beetroot replaced Mushroom the rest was as usual. Rice, Sambar Pappad and pickles. Took a bath in the chilled water and lied down for some time. It was drizzling again and it was comparatively a colder night than the previous night. We couldn’t spend much time outside as it was raining. After the dinner with the same menu we stretched down into the sleeping bags and had a sleepless night due to harsh rain making it impossible to sleep under the aluminum sheets sounding like bullets hitting it over and over again. End of Second day.
Woke up by 7 am. There was nothing much to do today except the 14 km walk back to Bonaccord. We were ready after the breakfast by 8.30 and by 8.45 we bid good bye to Agasthyamala. The descend was swift . There was a comforting drizzling which made it a cool affair. Leeches were double this time and that was the only thing to worry about. We covered the forest stretch and reached grasslands. Had a short break at the vantage point and continued to walk. Next break was at Attayar and without much delay started. We reached Bonaccord half past 1. After a small break there we returned back to our normal lives. Dropping Rahul at his place I reached back home by 4 pm.
By all means Agasthyarkoodam trek will get Ranked against one of the top five treks I. have done so far. The forest covers, caves, landscapes, grass lands and the impeccable views from the top would be a thing to remember for a long time at least. Dont know when I can return back to this place. But there are so many places undone there like Pandipathu, Venkulam, kizhakkenada and so on. Hope to come back soon to this place with other destination in mind. offering my thanks to mother nature and lord Agasthya for keeping us safe throughout the entire stretch.Concluding…
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