The trail begins at Iruppu, a picturesque waterfall where pilgrims to the Rameshwara temple are eager to strip to their barest and enjoy a shower. It is also perhaps the noisiest place in a radius of about 10 kilometres – and not because of the cicadas. Mercifully, as we begin the trek to Brahmagiri, 1350 m above MSL, the human voices fade behind us. Butterflies with startling blue wings sail past, while turquoise dragonflies dip their pointed abdomens in the limpid pools. As we round the bend in the hillside, the shrill crescendo of cicadas hangs in the air like white noise.
Birdsong is patchy – an occasional Hill Myna or White-rumped Shama calls in the canopy. The climb is steep but steady, and soon my lungs balk and my heart pounds in my face, my jugular pulsing like a bass drum. The forest transforms suddenly, turning into dense groves of that monstrous grass, bamboo. The tall, ancient stalks creak in the wind. Far away, really far away behind us, we can still hear the waterfall’s ghostly whisper. But it’s a memory, and its place is in the past.
As for me, I must only look ahead, and climb what’s left of the trail. Which, dauntingly, is most of it.
Four kilometres to go, announces our guide Lakshman, named mysteriously after the holy spot of Lakshmanatheertha that we have just passed.
It is warm in the bamboo forest, and the exertion pumps the water out of me. I have driven most of the night without a moment’s shut-eye and the strain begins to tell. Our guide has loped ahead, and soon I can’t even see the backs of my fellow trekkers. Only Froggie sticks by me, faithful but equally exhausted.
The bamboo forests give way to thin deciduous forest, the leaf litter paving the path with a mosaic of red, black and russet brown. My shoes slip on the smooth leaves. The climb is steady. Cicadas screech around me – I can see them clasping the tree trucks, crying to bring down the rain. Robberflies buzz about my ear, while their several smaller cousins are already gorging on generous samples of my blood. My backpack feels heavy – weighed down by the two 2-liter water bottles.
After the hardest stretch, the trail begins to level out. Not discernibly, but my thighs and lungs can feel the easing strain. We hear the gurgle of a stream but it disappears from earshot, like a mirage. The trees are larger here. Strangler figs are wrapped around some of the older forest trees. With sunlight hidden by the canopy, the woods are dim and cool. Butterflies cavort in the glades. Brilliant red stink bugs swarm the leaf litter. The earth is moist. I look about for signs of the promised lion-tailed macaque, one of the most threatened primates in southern India, but there are none.
We reach a pool under a tree. A spring, with water bubbling into it from some source beneath the ground. Pond skaters walk its surface. The water is cool, clear and sweet. The forest ends after an abrupt 20-foot ascent. Then the grassland begins. This is the great wide open that Tom Petty sang about, with magnificent views on all sides. Above us only sky. And stream-cooled evergreen sholas in the valley below us. The rustle of reptiles in the grass and undergrowth – mostly skinks and small lizards. And birdsong – bulbuls, woodpeckers, barbets, thrushes. Even the freewheeling song of a Malabar Whistling Thrush that must be heard to be believed.
Dried elephant dung is scattered about – this region is one of the last strongholds of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) but I am not eager to run into any just now. There is more to the trail but no climbing for a while. The track meanders through lush shola, with magnificent views at every bend. Mysterious birdsong echoes in the woods, but the birds are all well camouflaged.
Revived by deep draughts from a bottle of Electral in water, I am recharged again. But not for long. At the next halt, I drink greedily from a forest stream. And the group wolfs down methi rotis with ginger pickle. We pause to examine a beautiful Bronzed Frog by the stream. It holds its smooth body still, flecked with droplets, as we scramble to photograph it. It is some 25 degrees here in the shola forest. Air-conditioned. And the sweat drying on your skin makes it cooler. The air is fragrant with the fresh scent of green foliage.
Can you get high from too much oxygen?