It had been over a year since I did some major trek. The last one I did was to Kalawara Betta (Skandagiri) in Feb last year.
So when Manja asked me if I wanted to come for a trek to Ettina Bhuja and Ombattu Gudda, I was in 2 minds. On one hand, this is an opportunity not to miss. It had been a long time since I had gone on a trek and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. On the other hand, both Ettina Bhuja and Ombattu Gudda are moderately tough treks and require the help of guides. In fact, Ombattu Gudda is known for people getting in and never coming back, and then being found unconscious. There have been incidents of snake bites, and people getting lost forever. In fact, most of the people who had come with us on the trip had gone to Ombattu Gudda just a couple of weeks back and had lost their way in the woods. Thankfully they found their way out to tell us the story. They said even the GPS was useless because of the dense vegetation. This time, not only were they planning to go again, but take an altogether different route which was seldom taken. Further, it was 2 treks in 2 days. To add to it, I was kind of busy with my office work and the fact that it had been a year since I did a trek made me a bit uncomfortable. It is in these situations where the decision that you take in the moment makes a difference. I decided to go.
Manja did the complete organization and I didn’t have to do a whole lot. We communicated over mail and the trip plan and the list of things to carry was all known a week prior. Here is the list: 1 or more pairs of dress, torch and spare batteries, cap/hats, camera, match box/lighter, sleeping bag, knife, tissues, kerosene, sunscreen lotion, 2 liters of water bottle, food items (chapathi, jam, noodles, chocolates, biscuits, dates, glucose, electral, fruits, salt), a good backpack, few spare newspapers/plastic bags, tents, first-aid, paper plates. The plan was to go to Shishila and from there, conquer Ettina Bhuja on the first day, camp there the first night, and then head to Ombattu Gudda the next day and go to Lakshmi estate where we asked the driver to pick us up. The total distance we were planning to trek was about 16-18km.
The preparation for the trek started a week prior to the trek. I had to get a slightly bigger backpack (rucksack) as my backpack would not suffice to carry the sleeping bag, and 2 days worth of food and clothes. I also needed some good shoes as I was uncomfortable with my present one. So I bought a Rucksack (Wildcraft Trailblazer 50 lt), Woodland shoes and a sleeping bag (Wildcraft) over the week. I started wearing the shoes to make sure I am comfortable in them and I started walking to office as swiftly as I can. More than the physical exercise I needed the mental preparation.
We left to Shishila on the night of Feb 11th. I had only an hour or so to put everything into my bag and was extremely nervous of missing something due to the last minute packing. We reached Shishila early morning on 12th at around 6:30. We had made breakfast arrangements at a person’s (by name Gokhale) house. We had breakfast and got our food for the afternoon packed from there and headed to Ettina Bhuja.
It wasn’t long before the excitement began. In the first 15 minutes of our trek, we had to cross 3 streams. Typically when you trek to places, the first few minutes you are extremely careful about not getting your shoes/clothes wet and are wary about our moves. But once you accidentally drop into the water, you stop caring and that is when the actual excitement begins. It was the 2nd stream when it happened to me.
It was uncommon to come across streams, dried up river-beds, dense vegetation, numerous previously unseen strange plants/trees, plain grass-lands etc. The elevation was not a lot to begin with but it steadily increased as we neared the summit. If you ask me, this is not quite the right time to go to Charmadi Ghats since the summer heat makes you perspire and lose water – which can lead to dehydration or muscle cramps. It was extremely humid and the 8kg baggage on the back only adds to the woes. I had my camera hanging from my neck during the initial part of the trek, but this only made things worse as I had to hold it with one hand to prevent it from swaying and this made it difficult to climb. So during the tougher parts of the trek, I had to keep it in my rucksack so that I could balance my body better.
Having an SLR is wonderful if someone could drop it at the summit along with the lenses and the tripod, but if you need to carry it with you for every inch of the trek it is an entirely different situation. I was in 2 minds when I started the trip as to whether to carry my 70-300mm lens, whether to carry the camera bag or to just stuff the body and the 18-55 lens in the rucksack. I decided to go with the telephoto.
You ask the guide how much time it takes and whatever he says, you don’t think of it as a lot, but then you realize that the time he says and the time you take could be easily a factor of 3-4 apart. 🙁 So after a while you get used to multiplying the time he says with 3 and estimating the time remaining. It is very similar to situations where people keep their watches 10mins faster than the actual time and automatically read it by deducting 10mins when they need to know the time. My previous trek experiences had taught me one thing. Expect more. Prepare for the worst. Unless you are at the summit, you are not there (I know this might seem obvious, but if you have trekked somewhere you will know what I mean).
You go through dense vegetation which provides you some relief from the sun. But there are grass-lands where the sun hits you directly. In these situations you rely on your hat to protect yourself from the sun and this makes you feel hotter and you feel like removing your hat and feel the sun is better, atleast it doesn’t make you feel you are inside a sack.
It is easy to get philosophical after a while and you start thinking about the experience and put it in the context of your comfy homes and polluted cities and debate in your mind, why one is better than the other.
I am not sure how many hills we had to cross to finally reach the summit but I can tell you it was a lot. Although I had a heavy breakfast I was extremely hungry after about 4 hours of trekking. We stopped to lunch on the way and lied down to take a small nap. I actually rested on some pointed rocks and had announced that I am not getting up until we are moving again. The food that we packed consisted of 5 chapathis each and this seemed like god-sent. It was as if we deserved it for some feat that we had achieved. We constantly compared this to the expensive and unworthy food that we have in Bangalore. After lunch, I used my sleeping bag like a pillow and rested for some time. It was a blissful moment.
Post the lunch break we started off again. It seemed like everyone had revitalized themselves and the first 15 mins after lunch everyone seemed to climb very quickly. But then it was the same story all over again. Typically you expect your bag to become lighter as the day progresses, since you drink water and have food, but then when you put the bag on your back you don’t feel any difference. We entered a grass land and it got extremely hot. We actually took more breaks than before lunch.
At one point close to the summit I just dumped my bag beside a rock and collapsed next to it. I was extremely exhausted and wanted a break. I think I rested for about 15 mins and then when I pulled my bag up I saw a snake right below the place where I had dumped the bag. It was brownish in color and about a feet in length.
Beyond this it was just another 10 mins and we reached the place where we were supposed to camp. There is a small stream about 5 mins from the camping area; we filled our bottles, washed up and started pitching our tents. We didn’t have a lot of time as it was already 4:30 and we had to get firewood for the campfire and pitch our tents and then head to the peak – which was another 30-45 mins of climb – we had to be there before sunset.
The final climb to the summit is extremely dangerous but entirely worth it.
You can see the wonderful hill ranges, and the sun setting behind them. One of the important peaks visible from the summit is Amedikkallu. We clicked quite a few snaps and I got to use my telephoto.
We didn’t want to stay there until sunset as it would be extremely tough to climb down in the dark – considering that it was a new moon day. So we got down to a slightly lower elevation and continued to experience the sunset.
We got back to our tents and started preparing noodles. One of the hottest topics that we discussed was the plan for the next day. We realized at this point that the guide (who supposedly has been doing this for 20 years) had not once taken the route that we planned to take. He showed us a huge peak next to ours and said “Cross that, and then another one, and then another one and then you have the peak of Ombattu Gudda” – that’s 4 in all! After the first day’s experience most of us were not prepared to go through with this and we started enquiring about alternate routes.
As a parting remark, let me add something from Bill Bryson’s ‘Walk in the woods’: If there is one thing that the AT (Appalachian Trail) teaches, it is low-level ecstacy — something we could all do with more of in our lives.