Chembra Trek

Trek Notes

Date: Nov 2005
Team: Vasu, Sudu, Venky, Satz and myself
Starting location: Bengaluru (Bangalore)

Info

Chembra Peak (Malayalam: ചെമ്പ്ര കൊടുമുടി) is the highest peak in Wayanad, at 2,050 m (6,730 ft) above sea level. Chembra is located near the town of Meppady and is 8 km (5 mi) south of Kalpetta. It is part of the Wayanad hill ranges in Western Ghats, adjoining the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu and Vellarimala in Kozhikode district in Kerala. [Source: Wikipedia]

The weeks before the trek were filled with a flurry of emails containing location details, pictures photographed by people who had been there before, and any challenges we may face out there. By the time it was the day of departure all necessary shopping and renting of materials like backpacks, mats and sleeping bags (as required) had been collectively taken care of. Since I was unable to recover my backpack from a friend to whom I had loaned mine, I had to adjust with a smaller rental, which was the only one available at the last minute. I thank Sudu for sparing me the trouble of traveling to Jayanagar to pick it up. On the night of departure I headed to Sudu’s place and once Venky arrived we made our way to Majestic bus stand in his Maruti Gypsy. It was raining lightly when we reached Majestic and I made a silent wish for favorable weather in Kerala.

Note: The weeks prior to our trek Karnataka and Tamil Nadu had seen torrential rains due to the effects of a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, which was why I thought a trek in Kerala was probably our best bet as the perfect getaway.

Soon, Satz and Vasu arrived and after some last minute purchases we located our bus. We dumped our backpacks in the luggage compartment of the bus when we noticed that there wasn't a lock for the door, but it had a latch. Venky wearing a "don't worry" smile on his face stepped forward and produced a number coded lock from his bag, which we used to safely lock the baggage compartment.

At 2200 hrs we settled into our seats. Vasu and I talked late into the night, while Sudu engaged the bus conductor in conversation. Sudu woke up intermittently when the bus hit a bump or a ditch and heard pieces of our conversations and later recalled a much more interesting and entirely different version of our discussion.

We reached Kalpatta at 0400 hrs, which was much earlier than what we had anticipated. We got down from the bus when a young chap who had also traveled on the bus approached us, and asked if we belonged to a photography group called Bangalore Shutter Bugs (BSB); he seemed to recognize Vasu and myself. His name was Krishna Kumar (aka KK) and he was also a member of the online BSB group. Our online activities had been conspicuous enough for this gentleman to have taken notice and recognize us despite never having met us before (three cheers for the internet). Upon learning his name and nickname I recalled looking at his photography work online as well. Lucky for us, he was familiar with Kalpatta and was kind enough to direct us to a decent and inexpensive lodging nearby.

We woke up around 0830 hrs, and divided ourselves into two teams. Venky and I headed out to checkout the DPC, while Sudu, Vasu and Satz took over booking the tickets for our return trip. They joined us at the DPC once the booking was done. At the DPC the person in charge gave us a detailed talk on Wayanad and all the places that were worth checking out. He also informed us that camping there was no longer possible like before as the the forest authorities had recently suspended it. While we worked on possible alternatives, a guide was contacted and called down to meet us. Once the guide arrived, Sudu and Vasu managed to pull some strings and secured permission from the authorities to camp there. Our guide would stay with us at our camp and make sure we kept out zero impact camping promise. With that taken care of, we headed out for breakfast, the local cuisine was calling out to us and we gorged ourselves on puttu, some idiappam and parothas.

The negotiation of rates and guide charges happened over breakfast and coffee. I managed to take a few clicks in Kalpatta as we waited for the jeep we hired (also setup through the guide). B/W film and a 300mm lens on a bright day in the streets were put to good use. The few minutes I got felt like seconds and left me desiring for more.

Once the jeep arrived we headed to our lodge, picked up our bags, settled the bill and took off. In a short while we passed Meppady and then entered the estate after paying the toll at the gate. We could see the watch tower around 100 m away… this is where our trek would begin. Unfortunately the forest guard was not around and had left to the hospital due to an injured leg. We decided to go on and meet him on our return. Armed with walkie-talkies we began; The climb was steep and our climbers were exhausted in under 10 min. Vasu started downing his Red Bull, and slowly we pushed on with our camera packs dangling.

Taking pictures at every opportunity, we took frequent breaks as the day's hike was a small one. An excited Satz hit the ground looking for critters with macro written all over his eyes. Every insect that made its presence known became the next victim. The guide and I reached the heart shaped lake first and we scouted around for a campsite. I started cleaning the place to set up camp and the guide went about collecting wood. Venky hit the lake next and helped out. Eventually everyone reached the rocky surface near the lake and we set up the tent. Then we realized that one of the radio units was missing. Sudu (accompanied by the guide) volunteered to go find it and ran down the route, managing to locate and retrieve it.

Camping, was the best experience here. We explored the areas around the lake and found many interesting view points where we eagerly spent time with our cameras. It drizzled a little, but luckily we were all armed with ponchos. I had even carried an umbrella, which later turned out to be a very useful prop for our clicks. The sunset was not one of the best I have seen. But it was still good to be in the wild, listening to the silence and watching the sun drown in the hilly horizon amongst the clouds. Every moment was worth it. We headed back as the sun set and parked ourselves near the lake. Vasu had found some bones, leftovers of a kill, and we used that as a subject - discussing choice of aperture, shutter speed, DOF and possible compositions. We made many clicks amidst debates and kept hassling Venky to take a picture on his digital (Nikon D70) and show us the result to settle the growing technical babble. The light shimmered over the water and the experience was close to bliss. The hum of insects, occasional croaks by frogs and the wind in our ears created a paradoxical and deafening silence as the light slowly faded.

Once we were back at the camp Vasu kept us laughing for a long time with his jokes. We occupied ourselves by cooking food and sitting around the fire. With our bellies full we began the night experiments with the camera. Sudu and Vasu took the lead in this while Satz posed as a model in some. Experimenting with light painting using a torch and coupling that with the use of an occasional rear flash, many interesting and creative (and some scary) clicks happened over slow shutter speeds. The clicks were made on Venky’s D70 and we put that Sudu and I had hauled with us to good use.

We decided to turn in for the night. The tent was ideally made for four, but we had to accommodate the guide. I offered the guide gloves and a monkey cap, and Sudu gave him his jacket. We all squeezed into the tent; it stretched the tent, but we somehow managed. Before we dozed off into our individual dreams, a small debate ensued over when to wake up in the morning before heading for the peak. It appeared as though the most stubborn would get his way. In the end a consensus was reached and we turned in, with the wind slapping the tent and many jungle noises in the background. Although it was Vasu’s first time in the woods, he dozed off in just a few min and kept his snores running till morning. I was amazed as he slept like a baby unaware and carefree. Satz remained jittery and uncomfortable for quite sometime and had difficulty sleeping due to a lack of space. I slept a little and was awake intermittently as always when in the wild.

I woke up later than I intended, around 0545hrs. As I maneuvered my way out of the tent, others woke up too. We each took care of some basic bodily functions and cleaned up. By 0630hrs we headed off to the peak. The route was fascinating and took us along the spine of the mountain. The mist was thick, but it cleared every once in a while giving us a splendid view of the lake and the campsite. As we hiked, we split into two teams - ones who wanted to reach the top quickly, and those who wanted to take their time. The route was obvious and we were armed with walkie-talkies, so we remained in constant touch as we hiked.

Venky and the guide lead the way as I followed, informing about landmarks and route via the radio to Vasu and Sudu who were taking their time, enjoying the sights. Sudu managed to usher Vasu to keep the pace, and finally everyone made it to the top within minutes of each other. The mist was all over; we were in a cloud and that left us with little photo opportunities. Then suddenly the clouds seemed to clear and the sun came out giving us a view fit for the gods. We were truly above the clouds now. The humidity, a trickle of sweat, the chilling wind and air as fresh as it could ever be… the sensations made us all high. The one sound that could distinctly be heard was the sound of all our cameras clicking. The guide sat down and opened up the umbrella (I had given to him in case it rained) and all our eyes fell on him as it became the perfect prop. Each pursued the scene with his camera and tried his best to land different compositions. Once more debates ensued regarding conflicting camera settings and it ended with many more clicks. Feeling ecstatic and proud everyone had a big happy grin stuck on their faces, a sign of success for a trek.

After a while, some of us decided to head down while some chose to stay on and pursue possible photo opportunities. The guide and I headed towards the camp. Once there I set about drying the tent, which was a hard job as the sun was still hidden. I wiped it dry and aired it out. With that done, I set about dismantling it in portions as the guide took care of getting water and put it up for boiling. I now shifted my attention to making breakfast. It was maggi noodle time, as we had finished all the bisebele bath, etc. the day before. Once done, the guide and I helped ourselves. Slowly I could see Venky and Satz climbing down the trail. They came down, sorted some of their stuff and ate their share of the breakfast. We saw other parties heading to the peak that day. Some of them were German women, so we had some fun pulling Satz’s leg as he was taking German classes back home. Finally, everyone was back at campsite and I realized the breakfast I cooked fell short of Vasu and Sudu’s appetite. Unfortunately the guide would not allow us to make another fire because he was in a hurry and we were camping there unofficially. If too many new parties that were hiking that day noticed it, that would make trouble for him. I set about packing while others took a nap and decided to pack later.

By afternoon we headed back. The guide took us down through a shorter but a more treacherous downhill route that made my knees scream. After a few hours we managed to reach the tea estate at the base where we met the forest guard and settled our permit issues and payment. A jeep that had brought the foreigners was there waiting for them. We struck a deal to take that jeep till Meppady after which we hopped onto another vehicle and headed to Kalpatta. After looking about for decent lodging we hit the PPS lodge there and relaxed. It was still early evening. Bath, discussions, food, beverages and some TV kept us occupied late into the night. As it neared 2300 hrs, we headed to the bus stand. Unfortunately we all could not get seats on the same bus, and ended up split between two buses. As we waited we took more pictures. Venky set about trying some interesting highway shots over long exposure, and they all came out well. The buses finally arrived and we parted ways, deciding to meet up in Bangalore sometime later in the week. That marked the end of an amazing trek in Wayanad, Kerala.

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