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Friday 24 January 2020

Agasthyakoodam Trekking / Agasthyamalai / Pothigai malai

Five years ago i had an opportunity to trek the highly priced individual group trekking package to the peak but as the date approached i had to pull of the plan. I still remember the day when we started from home and after reaching Nilambur the fever which started two days ago accelerated quickly forcing me to cancel the trek. It was a dull moment when my father who was also part of the trek drove back to home because there were limited number of package treks going around at that time. We had to wait for weeks to get through the permissions but all plans collapsed. Somehow years passed and all those trekking packages were now closed for the past four years because of several man- animal conflicts along the trial and new entry restrictions set by the forest department to the preservation of Agasthyakoodam Biological park  which is now under UNESCO's Man and Biosphere program covering an area of 1700 sq km which includes sanctuaries such as Neyyar, Peppera, Shendurney, Achankoil, Thenmala and punalur. Even before the private treks the forest department has been conducting this on a controlled basis of 100 entry passes per day which lasts up to a month. Usually starts on January Makaravilakku festival in Sabarimala Temple and ends on Sivarathri. So each year the gates are legally open to a happy 3000 people. Some on a pilgrimage to worship Sage Agastya who is considered as one of the seven Rishis of Hindu mythology. Tamil language is supposed to be the boon from Agasthyar. Others  trek to enjoy the trail and nature through the vast lands of medicinal plants and forests. The biosphere harbors a rare flora and fauna with vast diversities of 2000 plus medicinal plants, animals and numerous birds and reptiles. Women were not allowed until 2018 as Sage Agasthya was believed to be a bachelor but after the Kerala High Court lifting the restriction, from 2019 onward women are also enjoying this beautiful trail of nearly 44km through the core areas of Peppara,Neyyar Wildlife sanctuaries and Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger reserve.
My cousin Sreejith intimidated just a day before the online booking date this year and i said i will try my luck because getting a ticket out of thousands would be pretty tight. Within 15 minutes all 3000 tickets will be blocked. Here are some tips exclusively for my readers ;) if you wish to do this trek because there isn't really an other option unless you are from Trivandrum as there are some specific Akshaya centers which gives away passes on the same date. There will be long queues from early morning and when the counter opens within minutes the passes are over. For online bookings first thing is keep track on Agasthyakoodam trek. Usually it starts on Sabarimala's Makaravillaku day in January. A week before the opening trek date the online booking window opens exactly on 11Am. Be informed from whatever source be it Newspaper/ Online groups/ FB or travel trekking groups the dates are just easy to find the only hard things is to get the tickets booked.  Do not confuse with the various sites provided on the web to book.  is the final site for booking. Register yourself a day before the online booking and see to it that you can login with ease because you dont want to mess with registering again the next day when your booking time is precious.  Even the official site of Kerala forest department provides only a link to this site. One person / group leader can book from  1 to 10 members on a ticket. Charges per person is 1200 Rs which includes permit and stay in Athirumala camp for two days. All food charges are additional in the Athirumala camp canteen. Keep all the soft copies of all the member ID's handy because while booking you will only be entering details from ID's so there is no submission of any copies by picture uploads. Govt ID such as Voters ID/ Driving License is valid and PAN card is doubtful. You will have to produce the Original of the same ID which you have used while booking  at the forest office when starting the trek. Do not mismatch another ID as the rules are very strict and you will be surely sent back if the numbers doesn't match as per your application.

Next thing is book your tickets after the first 10 days as it increases your chances. Be ready with the a specific date. The final trick is since you are already a registered member, even if the online booking starts at 11am you can login to your account 15 or 20 minutes prior and select the Agasthyakoodam trek. Fill in all details of all group members and hit the submit button for online payment within one minute after 11am. Make the payments online and your tickets are ready. I did the same and my number was 44 out of 100. Just see within one minute 44 tickets are sold and within the next minute all 100 tickets for the date are sold. So be quick else wait for an other year to try the same thing. Glad i got it in the first hit.

Our Trek dates were on 24th January . Since its nearly a 50km walk up and down, 3 days was required to enjoy the long stretch but we had no fixed plans. If its enjoyable we will stretch it to third day but if the mood doesn't matches with an ambience of 100 plus people inside a forest then we will finish it of in two day was the idea. My wife Akshara and son Ishan tagged along. They will be staying at her Uncles place at Trivandrum. We reached 23rd afternoon from Chennai and met Sreejith, Princy and son Raghuvamsh while they just arrived from calicut. We had lunch and went to the zoo to show our kids some trapped animals.
They enjoyed the place till evening. From big cats to birds and snake the zoo was buzzing with most cages stuffed up. Later in the evening reached uncles home and settled. Next day morning by 4.30 am Anil ettan droped us at Thampanoor bus stand. By 5am we jumped into the bonacaud bus with another 20 odd fellow trekkers all in full form. Bus took of by 5:15 via Nedumangad and deviated right from Vithura and Kaanithadam check post and reached Bonacaud at 8am. Our reporting place was Boanacaud forest office which was again a 2.5km walk through the Mud roads. Even though our reporting time was at 7am our bus was late by 45 minutes. We started walking passing the the age old abandoned tea factory. People with own vehicles can drive all the way up and park near the forest office. The walk was a warm up and within 20 minutes we were at the forest office.

I thought by 8 am people were allowed to climb but that was not the case. All the applicants were crowded in front of the office to submit the printout copy with Originals Ids. Each group finished their turn, had their breakfast nearby and packed lunch. Once that was finished there was a general briefing session from an officer about the biological park and the various rivers which generated from the mountains like the Karamanayar which provides drinking water to Thiruvananthapuram city and the Thamarabarani river which is the main water sources for Thirunelveli district and Neyyar river. After that each group started to leave. All bags were checked inch by inch. Plastics, alcohol,  sun screen, pooja stuffs and i even noticed someone carrying deodorants of different brands into the forests were all caught. In any case if you possess any prohibited items and don't have a vehicle you can leave it at the small shop nearby by writing your name and collect if when you return. Plastic wafers from snacks were to be removed and repacked into paper. Better do this before the frisking else you will loose time for all these. Camera charges are additional and 2 water bottle fees are collected which will be refunded when you bring it back.Each one gets a bamboo stick which is a must on such rocky trails. We decided not to rush and let almost all the big groups first. A group of 10 people is provided a guard/watcher usually the 'Kani' tribal settled inside the reserve. After some 80 entries we both entered the park by 10:15 am. We were among the last to leave the forest office.

It was a shiny and windy morning. We both were on our own without any forest guards. The first 1 km had mud roads which slowly faded away to a walking trail. Mornings are always refreshing when the sun is piercing through the thick forest. Any kind of forest whether it is dry, evergreen or dense i find the color tone pretty beautiful. Today was exceptional because there was an added pinch of yellow and green with a cool breeze, the start was perfect and trail was well marked with white arrow marks. At 600 meters ASL the forest were semi evergreen and i knew this was to be continued till athirumala camp which was 1000 meter ASL. For every couple of km there are small camp sheds with two or three forest watchers. For any help or emergencies they are approachable. They can also help you with first aid kits. 30 mins crossed we reached the second camp Lathimotta. I did not see any shed here but there was a signboard. A group of 10 were resting there, a usual scene with newbie trekkers within the first two km. The walk ahead was enjoyable as with more thick canopy and heavy winds the gradual descend to a small stream and a gradual climb again to descend to another stream continued for the next 2 km by then we might have crossed more than 6 small rivulets and a main stream.

Our walk continued for the next 2 km as we reached karamanayar river and 3rd forest camp. Some 20 odd people were resting and some were bathing. A group of five watchers were sitting in a corner guarding all of them. Some people were trying to cross the rope which was tied above the stream and soon the guards came to alert and brought them back. We continued without stopping for the next 45 minutes. We have already crossed some 30 members in the last 6 km and the next 20 people were floating and playing under the small waterfall of Vazapaithiyar river and fourth camp . We decided to have a break and sreejith and his gopro dipped and played with the falls as i  took some photographs around the river. After a while the place was getting a bit crowded when all the slow walkers reached one by one we left the place. Walking ahead we saw several patches of grasslands and forest mixed up. Whenever the grasslands came we could see vast areas of grasslands up above the sholas. After 2 km a rivulet falls appeared between the trees from a distance. As we came closer it broke the sense of monotonous landscape into a beautiful feeling.
 We stopped a while for refilling our bottles. There wasn't much change in the landscape for the next 1km because as we reached the last river Attayar and fifth forest camp. The altitude was still more or less the same from Bonacaud forest office. We have completed 10kms so far in 3 hours, it was 1.15pm. Opened our parcels for lunch while listening to the flowing river. We did have a jam packed veg meals bought from the canteen with all sambhar, kootu, pickle, buttermilk and what not.  Seriously i did not have a clue that i carried all this in my bag and this was the only thing available for parcel. A simple tomato or lemon rice would have made more sense. Anyways after lunch filled up the water bottles and started the next leg into the grasslands by climbing some quick steep climbs. Winds were blowing ferociously. There was very less cover and and even with such heavy winds the sun was heating us up. The advantage of not surrounded by tress or sholas is you are treated with views. As the climb progressed the view of huge mountains to the left and the valley of endless forest were good views in the back.

After a km there was a small forest stretch followed by grasslands again. On the way there was one final stream until athirumala. We halted there and sreejith climbed further up to fill up the bottles again. 12 kms have crossed and 3km more to go. Another small forest patch appeared. It was a cool off session while walking under the trees. Grasslands and views of Kumara Paravata in Karnataka crossed my mind and some places. Views were similar. The final stretch through the grasslands was a bit of a push through the rocky sliding path. After that we were again into the sholas for the final steep climb of the day. We were just walking non stop and my mind was preoccupied for an other hour of walk. All of a sudden the steep climbs ended and sreejith said think we have almost reached athirumala.
Well then i thought both of us are pretty fit for such task. The trail to the peak went left but our camp was straight. We reached there at 2:45 pm and it took us exactly 4:30 hrs with breaks for 15kms. Only few people were there. Sreejith has been here twice and recalled memories of those old bamboo sheds which is now entirely renovated with even bigger spaces. One big canteen and two much bigger halls all metal roofed which can accommodate more than a 100 people and at the back 10 clean bathrooms and toilets were built.  Sleeping area and bathrooms for women are separate and there are women forest officers in the camp to help them with anything. We went to canteen and had 1 Kanji ( Rice porridge ). Price was high but its understandable as everything from salt to rice must reach here by foot. After giving our passes we were given one mat for two us. With that we went in search for a place and captured the best corner for the night as we were free to choose because there wasn't anybody in the camp except yesterdays trekkers. We rested for a while and sreejith said there was a stream nearby and by 4.30pm we went through the small trail behind the camp.  On the way the scenes were just stunning. The cone shaped Agasthyamala, Dureyi Rock and the Ainthuthalai Podhigai mountains were all standing majestic as if we were in a fantasy world. Reminded me of the floating mountains in the movie Avatar.
We then went to the river and on the way back diverted into the grasslands and found a big rock away from the trail. The next two hours till 7pm we were just enjoying the different color shades of sunset hitting the Agasthyamala, to watch the heavy wind shaking up the whole forest below those huge mountains as if there were hundreds of dinosaurs running inside was just an awesome experience tickling the fiction dreamer in me. My binocular also came in handy to scan throughout the place. Palm trees in the huge mountains and steep cuts rocks were my findings. Time just flew away as we chatted lying on the rock.

Back to the camp always buy food coupons for the next meal before itself otherwise you will have to spent time on queues. By 8pm Kanji was again served at the canteen. It was a rush and people were in queue to grab the place standing behind people who is filling their stomach. Else forest department could have set up a bigger canteen since they are collecting 1200 rs per person * 100 people per day = 1,20,000 * 30 days which is 36 lakhs Rupees. Certainly i did not find that much money being spent here for infrastructure, food and salaries. Anyways we had Kanji stomach full after a wait outside the canteen and by 10pm the solar lights were switched off. People were still chatting and the whole place resembled and felt like, we were all prison inmates. Me and sreejith joked and laughed at that specific topic till 11pm and slept off with the mild aromatic smells of pain sprays and amrutanjan from all corners.


Usually while trekking i get super excited and sleep is a rarity. But today my deep sleep was disturbed by the alarm at 4am which was set for the previous day. i woke up, spent some time looking at the photos i took yesterday and came out of the camp. freshened up peacefully as i was the only person outside. Woke up sreejith and by 6am we repacked some essential stuffs into a small day bag for today's climb and went to the canteen. Yesterday night we had bought the coupons for today's breakfast. By 6:30 the canteen was again with long queues for coffee. I waited for nearly 20 minutes in the queue to get 2 coffees. By 7:15 we got the breakfast parcel and started the trek to the peak. I can bear cold to certain extent may be because i am from the Nilgiris. But Sreejith cant and most people in the camp were all covered up with all sweaters and layers. Seriously it wasn't that cold at all.  Its 8 km up and down to camp with an elevation of 900 meters. Today most of the trail is through rocky pathways already created by nature during the rainy seasons.

We took right from the Kaval deivam stone idols. Unlike yesterday from the start the climb was steep as we crossed a couple of small streams. Its semi evergreen forest here and you might just miss an elephant or two if you have a habit of day dreaming in the forest. We found many elephant dungs on the way but it was all 2 days old. The climb through the slippery rocks went on for an hour until we reached a big rock named as Naadukandan paara. From here you can see the views of the long lying neyyar wildlife sanctuary. Our camp can be spotted from here.  To the mountain on the left i found the palm trees which i spotted closely through the binoculars yesterday. Scene from the Pirates of the Caribbean - 2 when jack and will escapes from the tribal crossed my mind. It was all because of the palm trees.

Further climbing up, thick forest gave way to medium sized woody plants ( eeta pana ). Walking through the left side of agasthyamala took us to a grassland valley. Mist was escaping  through the valley from the other side. Steep rocky ways then a small patch of forest, this repeated like a loop for the next 40 minutes till we reached an large opening of flat layered rocks with a small stream and a pool. Sun was piercing through the thick passing clouds and it was a scene to behold. It was 9am and we were hungry. We climbed up through the stream to collect fresh water and had breakfast upma.

After sometime to the left we climbed those rocks and landed on a ridge which forms the Tamilnadu border because the vast forest you see in front was the Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger reserve in Tirunelveli district. The small ridge took us to pongala paara where devotees used to cook rice payasam to worship sage agastyar. All such activities are banned now. There is a small stream flowing into the Tn forest which is the formation of Thamarabharani river. The climb from here was the most fun.

Rocks with all sizes and shapes appeared in every turn. I saw a dark path into the forest which is now closed with ropes. One devotee told us it was an old trekking path to Papanasam. Until 6 years ago people used to come from Tamilnadu by this path in 6 hours to the peak. Since its been closed for long time i dont think the path would be traceable anymore. We reached a place called Muttidichantheri means where knee might your chest. As described each steps was a meter long and after that section i was checking the understiches of my pant to confirm if it was torn. More rocks appeared, some with ropes tied for balance. Sreejith told me there were 3 places where you have to climb on ropes but that is still way from another couple of patches of shrubs and thickets. High altitudes in western ghats are such magical places were you cross on different types of vegetation within short span of altitude changes.
Towards the end of that patch we reached the open steep vertical rocks. Sreejith took his stick somewhere nearby to hide it and i retracted it into my bag because we are left with only 3 rope climbing's. As we reached the first vertical rock the views were just extraordinary. One by one we climbed the first rock with the help of rope. Even without a rope its possible if your grip is good and one is not afraid of heights. But since a rope is lying there free of charge do not show your circus skills there  because one minor slip could probably miss your chance to have kanji from athirumala camp again. We did see some crazy fellows trying to show off such idiotic attitude there and we advised them not to do so. Second rope climb was comparably shorter but steeper. In between both of us sat on a tree branch to see others climbing.

Clouds have engulfed the nearby peaks but it was soon passing by thus giving us the floating cloud views too. The final climb takes you the peak directly. For a moment after seeing the views from the peak all around i was just spellbound by the beauty. This is the magic of trekking. You wont get this same feeling when you travel in a vehicle and see such a view. You say Wow, take a photo and will leave the place. But here you have earned it every inch to be in such special places where there is no traces of any civilization your eyes can reach. No roads and no horns or loudspeakers to deviate you into thinking that you are nearby a civilization. A group of humans and an plane passing over the peak was the only by products of civilizations i saw there. No wonder Sage Agasthyar choose this place even if was a belief i just wished he roamed around the place.

The Idol of Agastyar is fenced now by the forest department and no one is allowed to do poojas or enter the fence. Two guards are put on watch at the peak. To the east our tiny camp and behind that full views of peppara dam can be seen. Ainthuthalai mountains meaning five headed peaks were a stunner and on the west Karayar dam inside Kalakad mundanthurai could be seen. After spending some 30 minutes it was 11am. Suddenly felt like we have tasted the best of what agastyakoodam had in store and the thought of staying in that camp one more night irked us. It was not about the stay it was about the large number of people. We have been doing camping's and tent stay for years but this camp doesnt allow you to think that you are in the mid

dle of a vast forest. Anyways we said goodbye to Agasthyar, the peak and returned slowly climbing down all those vertical rocks through ropes, Until we reached the ridge we were carefull as the rocks were slippery. Still we couldn't decide weather to finish the whole trek today itself. After crossing Pongalapara and the ridge we had one more packet of Upma.
 So came down till Thenpodhigai manasarovar and rested near the pool and had the packet of upma. As it was already 12.30pm we left the idea of finishing the trek today itself and decided to spend more time here. Sreejith jumped into the pool cooling and playing for a while while i submerged my legs and laid on the banks of the pool.
 The food and cooling off charged us up and the remaining steep 2 km were finished in 30 mins. Some people who had own vehicles were walking back fast. We said goodbye to them. We went straight to the canteen to have some kanji and that is when i decided to the leave the place when the canteen worker told us today we have a huge crowd of 140 plus people coming. I told sreejith no way we are staying here with 200 plus people. Our only problem was we are dependent on the 5:30 last bus from bonacaud. Its a small village and finding a stay there will be task if we miss the bus. While inquiring with the forest officers they said it till take around 4 hrs to walk down very fast. We had to walk nearly 17 kms including the mud roads till the bonacaud bus stop.  We repacked the bags again without wasting much time and left the place by 1:50pm. We had 3 hours and 40 minutes in hand and hoped to fnish the trek. If we had a concrete plan for 2 days then we  would have speed up from morning and not wasted time in the water pool but anyways after two days of continuous walk of 26km this final leg of another 18km will be a test for our muscles.

When your legs are strong you can keep on climbing but when you ascend in tough and slippery paths the intense breaking and impact goes to the knees. We were speed walking through the steeps but were also extremely careful in placing our foots . After the sholas in the middle of the grasslands we met today's first batch followed by more people climbing up. Most of them were asking how many more kms usually we say its just 30 mins more no matter whatever the distance is, but since i was in a zen mode i replied just 3 more km and the steep climb is just to start. His head went down saying what sin have i done to climb all this. It was funny but i shouldn't have answered it straight.

After an hour we crossed Attayar river and reached the next small waterfalls. We have completed 5kms. In this distance we overtook around some 10 people who decided to leave that afternoon. Some were injured and some with cramped muscles, One man was stuck with his friend in the middle of the grasslands with knee pain. We offered him pain spray may be the guards may take him to the nearby shed. We left the place as we saw two guards coming from down below. Wherever there was a stream, river or falls we would fill the bottles, drink and walk and walk and drink which was our mantra for the day. We were sweating heavily but we did not rest for the next 3 km until we reached Vazhapainthyar river. 9km crossed in two hrs and 9 more to go. We had a five minute break grabbing some quick oranges and dry fruits with loads of water and kick started our engines. As more kms passed i am starting to feel the heat in my feet. There wasn't any pains or cramps but the constant thumping with high temperatures outside is boiling up my foots under skin. I quickly removed the shoes and cooled of my legs for a couple of minutes in the stream and all was fine. These are quick fixes because always listen to your body when something starts to build as there is no point in treating it after you have done the damage. Same goes to muscle cramps or knee pains.
After two more km we reached the Karamanayar river. There we saw a person who started climbing down today morning resting alone with swollen a leg. He was there at yesterdays camp but did not climb the peak, the guards at the camp has given him basic treatment but they cant do more since its swollen. He was waiting for his friends to pick him up. It was 4:10 pm we still had 7 more kms to cover.  It was a long walk till the second camp lathimotta because the forest was pretty much the same. Once we reached lathimotta we were happy as it was just 2 more km to the forest office but that is when we are realizing that most of the trail was graduall uphill. This was also the reason when the start was very comfortable yesterday. Even though we slowed up we finally managed to reach the forest office exactly by 5pm. It took us 3:15 hrs to walk those 15km from camp and 2.5 km left to the bonacaud bus stop. First thing we asked was about the bus timing and the officer told us 5:40 pm. We were hungry and had black tea and some snacks at the small shop there. The officer asked us to sign the registry and told, yesterday the bus took 10 minutes earlier and some trekkers like you missed it by minutes. He asked us to run the remaining. And that was what we did.

We jogged the remaining 2.5 kms with a 10kg backpack on our shoulders. We just did it for the sake of an Adrenaline rush because after walking for so long we were not just ready to miss the bus at any cost. Exactly by 5:30 we passed the old tea factory and reached the bus stop. The next 10 minutes were the golden hours of resting we had in the past two days. Bus came exactly by 5:40. There were no seats but we had to sit somewhere. We sat on the floor till vithura. From there took a bus to Thampanoor. Went straight into Indian coffee house and relished upon all the Non veg dishes there. We finally reached home by 10pm. It was a fulfilling trek after a long time because from start to end everything went perfectly well, we had brilliant views. i enjoyed the different terrains of the southern end of western ghats which was pending for a long time. I really wish to visit Agasthyarkoodam once again . Lets wait for it to happen.

What happens is after a trek i first think about only giving a picture description but then i feel like writing one or two pages and end up writing a novel about the trek. These long blogs are not intentional but it happens automatically while writing.  Thanks for reading and having taken time to experience the walk from my vision. And for people who just scrolled through the photographs Great! but please don't send me messages like that was one hell of a trek dude..heheee..and never ever ask me questions like how many km should i walk or where should i register and what socks should i wear. Spent some time and will have to read for that ;) ;) ;).


  Author and Clicks    : Anish vk
Team: Anish, Sreejith and a Hunderd more...
Place  :  Agasthyakoodam : Entry from Kerala but peak lies in Tamilnadu
Km Covered      : 2 days || 44 Kilometers