Our hearts go out to those who built the rock steps to Vellingiri. The trek, penitent as it is, would have been almost impossible without them.
Thirteen of us set out from Coimbatore to conquer the Vellingiri Hills (on a trek organised by the Chennai Trekking Club). This range of seven hills, the seventh being 1,600 metres above sea level, is also called Dakshin Kailash. The 15-km trek leads to a Shiva temple. The trek began at 8.45 a.m. from Poondi temple at the foot of the first hill. We began climbing up the unending flight of stone steps. A mild drizzle accompanied us along, as the foliage grew thicker. The gradient is steep and not for the faint-hearted — one of the trekkers had to stay back at a temple, the first base.
We trudged along passing uprooted trees felled by the monsoon. The lovely woods began to get misty. Trees gave way to bamboo, flowers and tall grass. The rain grew feistier and the bamboo began to creak. We gulped more glucose solution as mild fatigue set in. There was no point wearing rain parkas any more. Rain and sweat had drenched everything. But then, we stumbled into paradise.
After about half an hour’s trek, the ragged rock steps led to a beautiful patch of lantana shadowed by a tree with maroon leaves. The path ahead was blocked by the huge trunk of a felled tree, covered with bright green lichen. Even the carelessly-strewn tourist litter could not mar the beauty of the place.
The sun cut through the cloudy skies to magically light up the scene. The cobwebs, studded with raindrops, shimmered, as trekkers stopped to take photos before climbing over the trunk and moving on.The rain increased with our fatigue. Water gushed down the steps making the ascent dicey. Flowers flowing in the storm-water streams formed a red carpet. They soothed our aching feet. The steps gave way to slippery rocks and gushing muddy water.
At an altitude of 1,275 metres, the glucose was over, the first hill was behind and the gradient easier. Fog covered everything. Wet clothes, fog and strong winds aren’t very comfortable and all conversation had turned monosyllabic.
Only shrubs, ferns and grass survive at that height, with the odd sturdy tree clinging to the slope. Huge boulders dot the terrain from the second hill onwards. The rain had paused and the fog gently floated down the slopes, and on to us. The fog thickened and visibility reduced to about 20 metres.
It began to rain again, but this time it was pricking and accompanied by strong winds. The lush green was subdued with a sinister grey as the fog-laden winds threatened to blow us away. I clung to wild grass and paused behind boulders for temporary respite from the onslaught.
We staggered from hill to hill, slipping in muddy streams between rocks. The terrifying beauty of Nature was awesome. A few hills and stiff hips later, we ran into a couple of abandoned mud huts covered with tarpaulin. We lunched there on polis, chips and apples — the apples were the warmest objects around. A villager passing by said that the temple was a hill and half-an-hour away. The fog-shrouded villager could have well been a ghost; his face lost in the white rain. On the sixth hill and 1,500 metres high, we decided to turn back due to inclement weather.
Somewhere in the fog, I lost track of the retreat and was left all alone. I don’t know how long I walked, alone, with the howling wind. It was a scary experience until I ran in to our trek leader Senthil. “Never trek alone,” he said. The sky cleared as we retreated. I asked Amod, a fellow trekker from IIM- Kozhikode, why we do what we do. “To test our limits,” he said. “To inflate our ego,” added another trekker. Or, to greatly deflate it, I thought as a bare-chested barefoot mendicant hopped past us down the rocks. I will have my tryst with Shiva on a brighter day.
How to get there
Vellingiri is about 40 km from Coimbatore. Buses ply from the Town Bus Stand, in Gandhipuram, to Poondi. Trek up from there.
The pilgrimage season is from February to June. Religious restrictions prevent women on this trek.