Captain's LogTravel logs

Captain’s log 25012018 – As above, So below.

This write-up began at an altitude of 6000 feet. It will definitely be done at the least 72 hours later in my dorm room but right now, this very sentence is being typed with cold,numb fingers at 6000 ft above sea level. Why is this important? Because it is cool, that’s why.

I am successfully at week number four of my ‘a-post-a-week’ decision and I can already see the ramifications take root. I find myself saying yes to things I would normally not to, just so that I have an interesting story to tell here later. I’m quite excited to see how long this lasts. I had just returned from 8 days of constant travelling, whose stories still sit in an unfinished draft, to the intimacy of my own bed but new experiences came calling again in the form of old friends and one last trek before college winds up for good. It was with a group of about 17 people, perhaps four of which I knew well, to a quite popular trekking spot that I’ve seen my peers go to time and again but have always kept a few spots down on my college bucket list. There’s no time left to empty the bucket entirely now but I might as well make an attempt to tick a few things off.

The plan was drawn – we climb the hills overnight, rest a bit, wake up just in time to catch the sunrise and then climb down before the sun gets overhead and boils the ground. In all fairness we did stick to the general spirit of that plan, but the details got a little fuzzy around the edges. After a rather uncomplicated dinner, for it was the hills who were calling me, might get unpleasant if nature did too midway, we stocked up on plastic torches,water, biscuits, chocolates and basically anything sugary and small that we could get our hands on and set out to the bus stop, wherein the bus was delayed an hour and half. Not surprised at all. As we waited, we met couple of other groups of college students just like us, hoping to climb the hills overnight. Finally the bus arrived at 10 P.M and it was filled before it could even come to standstill. Earphones in, everyone zoned into their own worlds as I began to read up on what lies ahead.

The Lore

Velliangiri Mountains, a part of the Western Ghats located on the border of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu and Palakkad, Kerala is a small chain of hills revered to be sacred as the abode of Hindu Lord Shiva. It is practically one long stretch of mountains but its undulations make it seem as if it comprises of seven distinct hills. There are multiple stories about why Lord Shiva left his primary residence in the Himalayas and toured this far down south, however my favourite story is about this young girl from the southernmost tip of India who desired to wed Shiva and took a vow to kill herself if she isn’t wed to Shiva by sunrise. Girls, am I right? smh. As Shiva rushes to console her, the other Gods feared that he stay there forever with her and never return back to the north. So what? Let the man live. So they light up an enormous mound of camphor to make it appear like sunrise just before Shiva makes it to the girl. Again, deceit? Not very God-like but okay. So Shiva is disappointed in himself and climbs up the nearby mountain and sits down in despondence. This is where it’s different. Most sacred spots have their God resting in peace or after a victory or sometimes in anger, but this spot holds a disappointed, dejected God, who had to take a moment to catch his breath and ponder over his shortcomings. Me too bruh, me too.

The bus came to an abrupt halt after ages of piercing through dark roads at the foothills of Vellaingiri where a small temple sat empty. We split the food and water, few picked sticks to help them climb, others changed into shorts and shoes. I did neither. I’ll improvise as I go. A banner blocked the entrance stating that the public may undertake the trek only during the months of March and April and attempting to go on without permission from the authorities could lead up to six months of imprisonment. The other two groups that had come with us in the bus were far ahead of us by now and we too followed suit climbing the walls around the blocked gate, beginning our climb at nearly sharp 11 P.M

A Stair-y affair

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The first hill was marked with continuous stairs built by stacking irregular stones one after the other. Thick foliage grew tall around us on either sides and we couldn’t see more than barely a few feet ahead of us owing to the cheap torches. The looming darkness brought the bushes to life and every rustle felt like an approaching intruder. We were warned of elephants and wild dogs, and the occasional wild boar and snakes but right then even a gust of wind made all twenty of us stop still in our tracks. Soon enough fear gave way to excitement and people began howling back at anything that howled at us. The stairs did not make it any easier to climb and seemed to go on forever. Soon people were taking off their shirts from the perspiration and there was a gradual gradation of the group. The hills grew steeper and I was somewhere in the middle of the group with one other friend nearby. We could see the torch lights of those ahead of us and behind us at a considerable distance but nothing more. I didn’t bring a ‘support stick’ as I didn’t quite see how it’d be useful but the lack of balance while climbing irregular stone stairs in the dark with nothing to hold onto really put things in perspective. Soon enough we were climbing up holding hands, building a steady pace. Holding hands with a friend as you support each other climbing a hill in complete darkness with impending death all around you can really put any kind of romantic hand holding to absolute shame.
People were beginning to get tired and grumble already, about after an hour of climbing stairs when the first trident appeared marking the end of the first hill.

People who had gone before us had set up a short bonfire around which we were all soon huddled around, not for warmth, rather for the companionship. Candies were devoured and the trek resumed.

Catching up and falling down

The next hill began with interspersed stairs and plain rocky terrain. The stairs were rather cut into the hill than composed of individual rocks. The torch light barely illuminated two steps ahead of us and the treetops didn’t let any moonlight fall to the ground leaving everything else in inky blackness. Soon enough the ache in our legs took a backseat as the conversation began to flow freely, as it always does when two friends meet after a long time. We lost track of time and as we exchanged stories back and forth, stopping now and then only to pop in a chocolate to keep the energy high. We soon reached a small water spot, where water trickled down from inside the rocks through a series of cut bamboo sticks carefully laid in ages ago. The water was cold and pure and has to be the most crisp water I’ve ever had. And is probably being sold off somewhere at insanely high prices labelled as invigorating mountain water. We refilled our bottles and I had to change into different pants with a zipper in the pockets because my phone kept falling out of the one I was wearing. Initially I had hoped to make notes as I climbed but that seemed to slow us down terribly so I had to stick to taking the occasional photo and hoping it all comes back to me later when I see them. It didn’t. I’m trying my best to remember but next time I’m definitely making notes.
This small pause was enough to completely split us both from the rest of the pack and we began making our way up. Soon enough we caught up with two others one of whom was on the verge of passing out from exhaustion. We weren’t even two hills down and the trek was taking its toll on us. Can’t climb it just if you want to, the mountains must want you to as well. The second trident welcomed us shortly after. 2 hills down in 2 hours. 5 more to go.

A Bumpy ride

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There were no longer stairs, just a pile of rocks cleared of vegetation that you just assumed to be the path and climbed on. We often had to resort to physically climbing over steep rocks and fallen trees. Either side of the path was still covered with reasonably tall trees that seemed to quietly watch on. Somehow made me feel safe, in its own inexplicable way. The terrain was starting to be particularly heavy on the calves and every once in a while when we had to crouch or crawl all the way, using our upper body as well, it was a welcome relief to the legs. Now a stick would’ve been really handy. There was a second water sprout on this hill too, with a steadier flow of water. I didn’t keep very good track of time or distance but this hill definitely felt to be the longest. My sole companion began frequently complaining of pain in his hamstrings and to be honest, the thought of heading back did cross my mind now and then.

As above, so below.

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The vegetation had reduced to small bushes,allowing for more moonlight to get down to us and the path was much more even than the previous hills. However the air had begin to thin and grow cold. Up until now, we had been sweating profusely and trying to wear as minimal clothes as possible, but now the mufflers and hoodies had to come out. For a while the hill turned into a sort of empty clearing with albeit a slight slope and that’s when the view hit us. The city was spread before our eyes, dotted by countless lights in the distance. As someone who’s lived in the city all his life, the horizon is something I’ve only seen in movies and occasionally on road trips along the highway. But when you’re this high up a hill, in the night, with such clear skies, the darkness of the city almost seamlessly flows into the black sky as well. You can actually see why they say stars twinkle. They do twinkle like they do in over exaggerated disney movie backdrops. It’s all real! For a moment, you feel as if you’re standing on a floating rock inside an empty black sphere, there’s twinkling lights above you, and with the city only recognisable by its streetlamps, there’s twinkling lights below you as well. We tried and miserably failed to capture the view in our smartphone cameras. Needless to say, this hill took a lot of time to cross as we had to pause and look around every time we reached slightly higher ground.

Plain nothingness

Hill number five is when we rise above the clouds. Much to my dismay the clouds don’t look all fluffy like they do when you’re in an airplane, over here the view of the city below just gradually fades away and you’re no longer able to see what’s on either side of the pathway. We had to strictly stay on the lane because the fog made it hard to discern if there was more hill or just an empty chasm on the other side. We did see that it was indeed the case on our way back. Some of these walk ways get dangerously close to the edge and we had absolutely no clue about it when we had climbed up. For the most part this hill was just plain empty, with a few rock structures here and there. The time was close to three in the morning and we had to hurry if we were to make it in time for the sunrise.

Jack and Jill

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The hills suddenly stopped rising up and began sloping down, rather steep. We were already told by those who had done this trek before that the 6th hill is marked by its signature downhill climbs and the constant sounds of a flowing brook. Up until now the only sounds were those of wind tickling the leaves and us, bickering back and forth about who’s more tired and what hurts by how much. The sounds of flowing water was a refreshing change and gave us a sense of direction and progress. There was no other way here, we had to crawl and climb down using both our hands and feet. Any over confident jumps would drop us in loose rocks and send us tumbling down. We kept moving ahead in whichever direction the sounds got louder and finally came to a stop where few others were seated in meditation, or maybe sleeping? Couldn’t tell in the dark and I was in no mood to investigate a bunch of people draped in white sitting in the dark atop a hill. What used to be an open pond was now bunded with a short wall and the water flowed across in a rather narrow lane which we very easily crossed across on logs. Any plans of going for a swim on the way back had to be dropped.

Come no further

The sixth trident was next to another bunch of people who had set up camp around a fire and warned us that the climb ahead would be the toughest. It was close to 4 A.M and we expected perhaps an hour and half of trekking left to be done. Both of us were extremely tired and his hamstrings were still killing him and we had to halt after every 10 steps or so. During one of these halts, as we were sitting down and laughing about something, a random swing of the torch into the wilderness revealed sudden movement and a growl a tad too close and sent us scurrying up ahead into the hills. Wild boar was our most probable guess, although other friends later revealed they saw what looked like a small fox or a wolf more or less near the same spot earlier.

The route seemed to get rather unnaturally slippery and we couldn’t help but wonder how the rest of them made it up so far so fast. Thankfully enough four locals were on their way back from the top along the same path and pointed out to us that we were trying to climb up the path that was meant for the way down and that we had missed a left turn somewhere along the way. They accompanied us down till we found the other turn, which was closer to the edge of the cliff but also rockier, giving us better grip to hold onto and climb. We soon met with a couple of other friends who were also in the middle of taking rest and one of them was literally in tears and was urging us to stay there for the night and return at daylight. Any attempt to encourage him to take just a few more steps ahead was met with angry and very colorful abuses. We were so close. He calmed himself down and we climbed on only to discover that after barely twenty steps or so the rocks paved way to a clearing lined with tridents and the rest of our friends sleeping soundly. What a shame it would’ve been if we had quit and stayed down only to wake up within earshot of the peak. We rushed to find ourselves a rather even rock to rest our eyes for a while. The temperature had dropped heavily out of nowhere and even three layers of thick clothing did no good. We had maybe an hour left before sunrise and the rest of the pack was in deep slumber just as fast as they went down. Not me. How could I close my eyes when the clearest sky I’ve ever seen was bare open in front of me. No light pollution here, the arrogant clouds were below us, no longer hiding my view. I could see countless stars I knew not existed, clusters and patches that normally take me hours to pinpoint using binoculars were just out there, welcoming my naked eyes for the first time. Meteors streaked across with surprising frequency, while a steady comet raged on high in the north-eastern sky, whose name I’ve now identified to be C/2017 M4 (ATLAS). I missed my binoculars. I missed the phone signal so that I could tell about this immediately to someone. I missed having someone always there to tell all the things that excited me or saddened me. I hastily took out my phone to make short notes for this very post and eventually the weariness took over me and I drifted off to sleep amidst the unbearable cold. Homo Sapiens are weird. Which other living being leaves its natural habitat and puts itself through so much strain to reach a place its so uncomfortable in, its so not built for, just for the experience of it all ?

We were woken up in another twenty minutes or so and all but Jupiter was gone from the sky and the early break of dawn was all around us. We skuddled, still wrapped around in blankets, to a clearing to view the sunrise but it was nowhere to be found. The skies became brighter and brighter but still no sign of the sun. Eventually it crept out, a tiny glowing ball of light, out of the clouds and steadily grew in size.

The warmth of the infant sun was not enough to thaw us out and we made our own tiny fire in a pit using dried grass. However the lure of selfies soon drew us out one by one as the surrounding scenery came into view, layer by layer as the fog lifted. I’m not a big connoisseur of selfies but I did manage to shoot quite picturesque views from the peak. All of whom vanished into thin air due to some glitch in Google Photos. Luckily the few I had uploaded to the WordPress library for using here survived, albeit I can’t download them to any device. Maybe I’ll go up again, better equipped just for taking photos. Maybe not. After nearly two hours of incessant photo shooting, the climb down began at 8 A.M sharp.

Gravity, thou art a bitch

One would think climbing down a hill would be much easier because good ol’ gravity would be of assistance. One would be very, very wrong unless one plans to jump straight down the hill. Going up takes its toll on your quads and calves while climbing down, in a controlled descent, is particularly hard on your knees and shoulders where your bag weighs down. The irregular and slippery footing throws all sorts of curve balls at your ankle joints and making it down without falling down even once was quite the challenge. We came down six hills in about 3 hours and the final hill, the one with the never ending stairs of doom took us another solid hour to climb down.img_20180126_1206311343399905.jpg

You’d think you can see the ground at the base and you’re getting close but that’s where you’re wrong my friend. The ground, or rather what looks like the ground, comes into view about an hour before the climb can actually end. It gives you hope and pulls the rug from right beneath your feet. Nature is evil. Daybreak also brought with it animals that were sound asleep on our way up. Mostly monkeys, lots of creepy crawlies. There was suddenly all this life abuzz around us, all excited to start their days while we were struggling to put one foot ahead of the other with shaky legs and sweaty everywhere. Nature is annoying. We finally made it down at midday and sat at the base for about twenty solid minutes just reveling at the fact that it’s finally over. Soon the monkeys were beginning to get too close and we had to leave. Mobiles and earphones were drawn out almost immediately as we stepped into our bus, the conversation ceased as everyone checked into Facebook and uploaded their Instagram and just like that life returned to its clinical sense with only the ache in our bodies to remind us that a trek happened at all .

Some of the photographs published above belong to @mr_kick_buttowski

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