Frantic activities at the premises of Rotary Centre on Saturday morning was as unique as the crowd gathered there. 73 Rotaractors from various clubs of the Rotary International District 3180 assembled early at 7.00 a.m. ready to be part of a trekking expedition to the Himavad Gopala Swamy Betta.
Three vans with Rotaractors left Mysore towards Gundulpet; further 12 kilometers drive led to Hangala, and turning right through a huge welcome arch we drove 8 kilometers to a picturesque hamlet, Gopalpura, at the foot of Himavad Gopala Swamy Hills.
First two kilometers stretch of kaccha road flanked by the fields of sunflower, castor and jowar was like the calm before a storm. Most of us were under the impression that the entire trek uphill will be a piece of cake, but once we entered the Project Tiger area, there was no room for expecting a smooth ride. All the amateur hearts sunk encountering the gargantuan hill with a steep gradient, the road now wide and comfortable became just a wild narrow path winding like a snake around littered rocks and turning abruptly out of sight into alien woods.
I started chanting Hanuman Chalisa invoking the monkey god and appraising him of the situation at hand. I suppose, most of the 330 million gods and goddesses of Hindu pantheon were readily appealed to by many a fellow trekkers. Dragonflies, butterflies, dung beetles, parakeets, chirping birds, nothing could disturb my concentration on my feet; every step has to be measured, balanced and perfect, one slip and I am in deep trouble.
Fighting the heat from the Sun, off the rocks and that of body, everyone carried rucksacks on their back, drenched in sweat and listening hard to trace any unfamiliar sounds from a possible wild beast.
Halfway uphill, we came across a slopy clearing. The view across was breathtaking. The blunt peaks, continuous contours of the hills, greens, yellows and ochres of the dense valleys, silhouettes of farther hill ranges... It seemed like these giants of hills were lying exhausted trying to reach for the heavens. Rectangular mosaic of various hues of brown at the other end of the scenery marked a sharp contrast, I wish I had a camera that could capture my feelings.
Huffing and puffing we reached a site of medieval fortification at around 1 pm; huge stone blocks of perfect masonry made up this structure, which is now in ruins. It is approximately 700 years old. By now, I had naturalised to climbing and next ascent was comparatively comfortable. As I was nearing the summit, a cluster of tall trees intrigued me which was crowning the hill. Approaching it I was enamoured by them which seemed to belong to the family of Eucalyptus growing to a height of 40-50 feet.
Couple of paces more and we were at the guesthouse, our destination. It was 1.45 pm, after almost 3 hours of climbing the jungle path we had covered a distance of 5 kilometers. The feverish Sun, during ascent, disappeared at the summit, there was a sudden drop in temperature.
The guesthouse was at an altitude of 1477 feet above sea level. It sat snugly on a flat surface overlooking a shallow valley. Its immediate neighbours were weird trees with a heavy coat of moss and mini vegetation clinging on to their myriad branches which looked quite creepy.
Half a kilometer across, the ancient temple of Lord Gopala Swamy stood majestically on a high plinth. A flight of stairs leads onto a big quadrangle with a recently renovated central stone edifice built by Marasinga Dananayaka in early 14th century. The main entrance topped by a gopura leads to an inner courtyard which houses a tall flag mast and an ancient Bela tree whose branches were festooned with bits of clothing left behind as wish fulfilling offerings by the pilgrims. Jaya and Vijaya, the celestial guardians stood on guard flanking the door leading into the navaranga. The sanctum sanctorum enshrines the idol of lord Krishna, the divine cowherd, along with consorts Rukmini and Satyabhama.
In front of the temple there stands an equally ancient stone structure which must have stationed soldiers and guards during its heydays. Coincidentally, today it shelters 12 jawans of Special Task Force (this was before the death of dreaded Veerappan).
It started raining after lunch. Trekkers idled away the afternoon either in sleep or in a game of cards. Evening tea pepped up everyone and we set off for a short walk behind the temple.
We hardly covered a kilometer, there standing on the sloping gorge, the group marvelled at the creation of nature. Miles and miles across wherever I cast my gaze, hills, valleys and virgin forests beckoned my hungry eyes. A string of clouds were floating mid-air as if fluffy, snow-white cotton balls, fastened to an invisible thread, were dangling from the high heavens. To the right, a couple of clouds were nestled in the bosom of a tree-lined valley; far beyond, gray silhouettes of hillocks seem smudged-one with the distant horizon.
The word 'picturesque' sounds utterly pale to describe the drama that was being played before my eyes. Standing there, I was like a hungry person consuming the scenic ambrosia served on the golden platter of nature. The Sun was setting, changing hue of the sky by the minute. During the climax of sunset it seemed like vermillion and gold colours were splashed across the heavens, finally a flaming red Sun dipped away and took refuge behind a weird hillock.
Back at the guesthouse, with no electricity it was the blackest of nights. We had to find our way in the bobbing lights of numerous torches; everyone hopped into bed early, I snuggled cosily into my sleeping bag. We were told that elephants and bisons pay surprise visits to the place during nights, how comforting to sleep with the thought that these wild animals are roaming free in close quarters. The day's activities were so exhausting that even the scare of these beasts did anything but disturb the sleep; everyone hit the sack instantly.
Sunday started early. After morning ablutions we went on a jungle walk being towed by two forest guards. We entered core forest, it was a grassland on hill slopes, the private domain of elephants and bisons, their fresh dung littered around reminding us that we are trespassing in their domain. I saw two elephant bulls gorging on the grass, farther across the ridge two more elephants were seen with four bisons. When I snatched a glimpse at a bison through the binoculars, my heart stopped for a second… Its gaze was piercing mine, but we were very far apart, the thought of which brought blood back to my lungs.
Later, we ventured into the shola forest in one of the valleys searching for natural springs; it is said that there are 77 natural springs in this forest alone.
Returning back to the guesthouse, we packed to descend the hill. The raw heat made a hasty comeback tripling the weight of my backpack. We started down the asphalted road at first and traveled upto 3 kilometers. At the neck of a sharp curve in the road we changed our course for the scariest walk of my life. If I were to have been given a chance, I would have chosen to climb down the same path we ascended the previous day. There was no path here, absolutely nothing to guide us, only trees, shrubs, steep drops and rocks jutting out from everywhere.
Everyone was so anxious, I suppose they even forgot their prayers. The life and limbs depended on feet, balance, calculated steps and hell a lot of good deeds one had done previously. An elephant had trampled a local woman a month back in the same area. Even this wild threat was forgotten while climbing down.
After a grueling 2 hours of descent the landscape abruptly turned arid, thorny and desert like. Next 3 kilometers of walk was through this prickly stretch where the only vegetation was that of thorny shrubs and bushes packed ever so tightly together.
Fighting the darn bushes I was wondering about the abrupt change in landscape every couple of miles. Within 2 days I had encountered hilly terrain, lush green forests, grasslands, moist tropical vegetation of shola forests, rocky slopes and finally here I was, in a desert. I still wonder.
At last we came to Hangala where we had lunch, exhaustion didn't stop some of the Rotaractors from dancing, singing and having fun. The same three vehicles drove us back to Mysore.
I am scared of heights, I was scared when I had to walk on a path where on one side there was an abrupt drop, but when I saw fellow trekkers braving it, I overcame my anxiety and conquered it. The fellowship was evident throughout the programme. A small gesture of help, sharing a laughter, sharing water, sharing risk, extending a hand in support, helping a friend in distraught - it was an experience that I shall cherish for years to come.