Stretching the limits and achieving what ordinary ones can’t do, is always an interesting matter to me. This journey was one of that kind.Being the second highest peak of Kerala, a part of the western ghats, its an exciting moment for every adventurer to climb this peak – Agasthyamala or Agasthya hills. It was my second time and there was something special to this journey. Because,this time I was hiking with my father, who was kind of new to that experience. Before getting in to the details of this terrific journey,you have to know certain things about Agasthyarkoodam, first.
AGASTHYA HILLS or AGASTHYARKOODAM ???
Agasthyarkoodam, a 1868 metres tall mountain lies on the borders between Kerala and Tamilnadu states, within neyyar wildlife sanctuary in Thiruvananthapuram district. Also known as ‘Agasthyamala’ in Malayalam and ‘Pothigai malai’ in Tamil. Agasthya mountain belongs to Ashambu hills, located in the southern part of western ghats. Out of 25 peaks in the Ashambu hills, Agasthyarkoodam is the tallest one. One of the the pristine natural forests in kerala, it is famous for the abundance of rare species of medicinal herbs and plants.Hiding one of the richest concentrations of biodiversity in western ghats, four main rivers naming Vamanapuram river, Karamanayar, Neyyar and Thamirabarani originate from this mountain. Thats how important it is. As a medium peak in the western ghats, even the wind here offers some medicinal properties according to the tribal settlements found here. Real inhabitants of these hills are a tribe known as ‘Kanis’. Currently there are about 600 kani families living around these areas. Their settlements can be found near the basins of streams of Karamanayar and Neyyar away from the core area of Agasthyarkoodam.The most fascinating experiences about Agasthyarkoodam trekking is the rapid changes in landscape as you trek towards peak. Starting from moist deciduous forest,you will trek through semi-evergreen,grasslands and evergreen forests. Finally,the trek will lead you to dense evergreen forests and treacherous rock formations upon reaching the peak.
LEGENDARY STORY OF AGASTHYARKOODAM
As a pilgrimage destination for many Hindu devotees,this peak is considered as the meditation place of sage ‘Agasthya’, one of the seven Maharishis (Saptarishis) in hindu puranas. As we reach at the top of the peak, a small idol of sage Agasthya can be seen.People coming as devotees perform pujas here. Agasthya sage is considered as the Guru of Ayurveda of traditional Indian Medicine. Most of his statues depict him with a stone crusher in one hand and a bowl of medicines in the other.He is also considered as the father of Tamil literature and Siddha medicine.
About Agasthyarkoodam,the main story from one of the legends says, everyone including Maharishis moved to Himalayas during the wedding ceremony of Lord Shiva and Parvathy. This caused the earth to tilt to one side and hence, Lord Shiva asked Agasthya to go to the south and balance the earth again. Agasthya came to the southern mountains and stayed here. Thus Agasthyarkoodam got its present name.There are some other interesting stories too.
AGASTHYAMALA BIOSPHERE RESERVE
Agasthyamala biosphere reserve was established in 2001 under the UNESCO’s MAB (Man And Biosphere) program in order to create biosphere reserves to protect biological and cultural diversity of region, while promoting sustainable economic development.Agasthyamal biosphere reserve is a large site covering 3500 kmsq. and spans across the forests of Kerala and Tamilnadu. Areas in Kerala under this reserve includes Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary, Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary, Achencoil, Thenmala, Konni, Punalur and Agasthyavanam biological park. Agasthyarkoodam is the eastern boundary of this reserve and it is protected by Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (TN).
The rich wildlife starts from the entry point of Agasthyamala biosphere reserve, Bonacaud, itself. During the trekking season, the forest department prepares the trek trail in a way that it will not disturb the wildlife. It is because the trail passes through the core zones of the biosphere reserve. But still you have to prepare for an encounter with animals because of the rich wildlife ecosystem. While you are near Athirumala camp,18 kms from entry point,elephants may cross your path as they have to reach the Peppara reservoir for water. We can see elephant droppings and bear droppings as the hiking progress towards the peak. So,you have to keep our eyes open, always. Around 43 species of mammals including tiger, leopard, sloth bear, elephant, sambar deer, barking deer, nilgiri langur and nilgiri tahr are found here. It is also home to over 230 species of birds, 45 species of reptiles and about 40 species of fishes.A rare collection of naturally formed Bonsai trees can be seen, as you reaches the foot hills of peak. Trees around the peak are heavily exposed to strong winds, throughout the year, covered with lichens, mosses and ferns. There are so many chances of spotting small insects along the trail.
As controlled by Kerala Forest Department, there are only 2 options for a nature enthusiast to visit this spectacular place. First one is a trekking program arranged by forest department during January to February every year. This pilgrimage/trekking program starts on the day of the Makaravilakku festival in Sabarimala temple and ends on Mahasivarathri day.In this year,2018,this program started from January 14th and ended on February 13. That means 31 trekking days. Only 100 entry passes are issued by forest dept. for each day of this trek. Usually,the entry passes run out on the first hours of online booking. The same happened this year too,on January 6. The entire passes were booked within the first hour of this online process.
The alternative option for trekkers is during off season. But you need to pay more (Rs.8000 for a team of 8 people). For that you have to contact the Wildlife Warden’s office at PTP nagar, Trivandrum. People attempt Agasthyarkoodam trekking with a wide range of interests.Some are interested in the physically demanding trek alone, for others, it will be about exploring flora and fauna around and for some others,its all about pilgrimage.We attempted this trek to enjoy its magnificent nature and tough trekking process through dense forest which lasted 3 days.
ONLINE BOOKING PROCESS OF AGASTHYARKOODAM TREKKING?
As mentioned earlier,in this year,the online booking process started on January 6.The details will be notified by forest dept. through newspapers.Usually booking process starts around 11 am.We have to book 2 tickets and our planned date was 31st January.The only thing you have to keep in mind is that,for online booking of tickets,your internet connection has to be at top speeds and consistent.If you have a long list of group members,please make sure that, their names and address details had to be entered pretty fast,during online process.Because,every time, the entire tickets for trekking program gets booked within the first 2 hours of online process. Thats why,you need to have a speedy connection,otherwise,the connection will hang and your chance will be lost.This online facility for booking was rolled out through Kerala e-Service Delivery Portal and you have to register an account on this portal before attempting the booking process.The online link used for this purpose is….
“www.forest.kerala.gov.in – Kerala Forest Department”
Up to 15 people can be booked on a single ticket and you need to pay Rs.500 per person.The trekking fee must be paid online through netbanking/credit card/debit card.At the time of booking,we need to have the ID proof with us.Once the ticket gets booked and money is paid,an entry pass will appear on the screen and we have to print it.As an alternate process,you can also book tickets through Akshaya centers.The entry pass also contains an affidavit which the team leader of the trekking group must sign.On the day of our trek,we need to report at Bonacaud Forest Station around 7 am with the entry pass,affidavit and Id proof originals of all members of trekking team.
CHECKLIST FOR THIS TREKKING:
Following are the items we carry, during our trek to Agasthyarkoodam.It is very important to have a proper plan,as we have to carry a light weight luggage because of the tough 50 kms (3 day) trekking process.
- Entry pass with affidavit and ID proofs
- an average 50 litre rucksack
- one or two spare dress,a bathing towel,a pair of under wears,socks and a bed sheet
- Two 1 litre bottles to carry water
- Light weight torch
- Camera and smart phone (You will get some amazing pictures)
- A set of footwears compatible for tough trekking.
- Minimum cash of Rs.500 for each.
- A small pack of salt for using against blood seeking leaches.
- Carry a multi-tool if you have one
- Toothpaste,brush and a bathing soap
- A small set of medicines including bandages
- A good hat for walking in grasslands
- A jacket/sweater for early morning walks and chilling night stays
GETTING TO BONACAUD
Bonacaud is an estate village located about 60 km from Thiruvananthapuram city, which is the starting point of Agasthyarkoodam trek. There are around 5 KSRTC buses available on each day,to reach Bonacaud from morning 5 am to evening 6.30 pm. If you are planning to drive from Trivandrum,take Ponmudi route via Nedumangad and then after about 1km from Vithura town, you need to take a right turn.Bonacaud is just about 18kms from Vithura town. Anyway, the whole trip will take about 2.30 hours.
But for us,the only option to reach Bonacaud check post, in time, was to reach on the day day before Trekking day (31st January). Because there was no early morning bus trips from my hometown, Attingal, to reach Nedumangad. Bike was not an option for us because of the bad road conditions upon reaching that village.So, the best way was reaching Bonacaud on 30th January.The forest office from where we begin the trek is located about 2.5kms from the bus stop.Finally decided to travel to Bonacaud on 30th January.
After packing our bags and checking other necessary things, on 30th january, started our memorable trip to Agasthyamala from home around 2.30pm, afternoon. The trip wasn’t that easy. KSRTC had cancelled 2 schedules to Bonacaud via Nedumangad because of some technical issues. So,we had to wait in Nedumangad bus station for about 2 hours.And then, caught a bus to reach Vithura around 6.30pm. The problem wasn’t over.Because the authorities informed us that only bus available from Vithura to Bonacaud on that day ,will reach there at 9.30pm. Then waited for another 3 hours and finally, we reached the destination near the old estate factory building on around 10.30pm, late night.
As the forest office is about 2.5 kms from this bus stop,we had to reach there by foot on that night.The area was completely dark.We had to use the torch light.After walking for about 30 minutes, the forest office became visible.Few vehicles of the visitors were parked in front of the entry gate. The scene was a huge relief for us. Walking inside forest during midnight was not at all safe. At the time,there were no lights on that camp.A small temporary canteen and a shop can be seen in front of that forest camp.Decided to sleep inside that canteen as we were pretty much tired.The night was so cold and windy.For me,sleeping there was a new experience .The clouds and stars were more visible as the moon light spread over the sky and can hear the roars of wild elephants from the deep forest.
DAY 1 – To Athirumala Base Camp (31st January)
The morning was not so cold as we expected.After getting refreshed from the toilet complex , available right near the start of the trekking path, its time for a hot tea from the canteen. Then we waited for the forest officials to start the checking process before the start of the trek. Done breakfast from the canteen in that time and which would cost you 60 bucks for each. Around 7.30am, officials from forest department started the checking process. It would take some time,as they had to check our entry pass, ID proofs and luggages. Please note that,any kind of plastic material including snack packets are not allowed to carry inside the forest. The official were seriously strict about this matter.Only paper/cloth bags are allowed from the starting point. You have to pay Rs.100 for keeping the 5 water bottles with you.And this amount will be given back , when you return back to this point. The checking process of first batch was completed within 2 hours and our trekking got started around 9.30 am. It was an awesome moment for a start as there were more surprises waiting for us in that forest.
Before telling my stories with some awesome pics, an overview of this trek is so important. “Agasthyarkoodam trek can be completed in 2days or 3days depending on your time,strength and interests.If you are looking to test the physical endurance of your body,go for a 2 days trek.But my plan was to expleriance the forest,its wildlife and exploring the flora and fauna of Agasthyarkoodam.Between your starting point and the peak, almost 24 kms has to covered.There is only one halting point – Athirumala Base Camp, which is 18 kms from the starting point.It is located on the western valley of Agasthya hills , offering majestic views of the peak.On first day, we have to reach Athirumala base camp which would take about 6-7 hours.Night stay here is safe since it is protected by trenches running around it.On second day,we have to climb the Agasthya hills, stretching about 6 kms and covering an altitude of 1000 meters from base camp.So,in total one has to hike for about 6-8 hours, around 12kms , on 2nd day.The final day can be used for our return journey from Athirumala to Bonacaud picket station.”
Now, its time for some photos to tell you the stories….
The early sunlight sweeping through the canopy gives a magical experience in this thick forest…
After 30 minutes of trek, we reached at the first camp of our guides, Lathimotta, covering about 2kms.Small shrines of deities can be seen around here.
A surprise guest on our trek trail …..“The King Cobra” (Young one)…..upon reaching near Vazhapanthiyar river.
This was the last river, Attayar, that we come across during our trek to Athirumala base camp. About 10 kms, we had covered at that time. Fourth and the final camp of our guides was located here.
Now, we are in the grasslands and can see Agasthyarkoodam peak far away…
Here comes the magnificent views of the landscape after climbing Ezhu Madakku …
The final stretch to Athirumala started after this magnificent views.It involved a vertical climb through dense evergreen forests.The wild elephants frequently cross this path.But we didn’t see any of them.After a tough hiking for about 1hr, the climb was finally over.The trail became flat and within few minutes, we reached our destination – Athirumal base camp.
Upon reaching Athirumala camp, around 3.30 pm,(6 hours of trekking) the forest officer in charge asked about our entry pass and showed it to him.Then, he issued a sleeping mat (on twin sharing basis) for us.We were so famished by that time.Need to have lunch from the canteen.After that, found a place for our sleeping mat in one of the tents.The forest department arranged a set of toilet and bathing facilities on the west side of that camp.Needed a proper refreshment and complete sleep.The activities for that day was over for us.A good night stay was helpful but the strong breezes in the night will test your endurance.
DAY 2 – To Agasthyarkoodam peak (1st February)
An important day for us.We had to hike for about 6 kms, covering an altitude of over 800 meters.So woke up by 5 am.Need to have a bath. Then, ate some snacks (Bread and Jam).That was our break fast.Things were packed and got ready by 6.30am. Started our hike around 7am. We were not allowed to start our trek before 7am. The images will tell you rest of the stories…
This final 6 kms holds the toughest terrain, considering the entire trekking sessions of this journey. You have to place your each step with so much care, because the trail is filled with pointy roots, slippery muds and rocks, steep climbs, sharp bamboo branches and so on. Therefore, please, avoid unnecessary actions and craziness while doing this trekking session….
You will get different views of the peak from this trail as the trek continues…
We have seen many fresh droppings of bears and elephants on this way.So kept our eyes open and walked in groups in these areas…
After hiking for around 1.5km, came across a giant rock on right side.From there, mesmerizing views of the valleys below and of the Agasthyarkoodam peak can be seen…
At around 2.5 km, came across a huge rocky area with a small water stream running through the middle of it.Halted here for 10 minutes to had some food.
Then continued our journey by crossing the stream, climbing up and walk over the ridge to reach a huge open space.The place is known as ‘Pongalappara’.From here, you will get the entire view of Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve…
Usually devotees cook rice offerings in Pongalappara.But, now, the forest officials would not give permission for that.Walking across this rocky plain leaded us to the final climb to peak (approximately 2km from here)…
The more noticing thing as we started the climb through this dense evergreen forest was that, a sudden drop of surrounding temperature.This part of forest was popularly known as “AC vanam” (Ac forest).Place was so treacherous and slippery as we progressing towards the top…
Finally,we came across a mountain side which was nearly vertical.There were metal and plastic ropes available for the final climb.Climbing would be tough, if you have fear of heights.First two sections of ropes were near to each other.Then we had to walk for atleast 10 minutes to reach the third rope.
A surprise appearance of a majestic mountain range having 5 peaks popularly known as “Ainthuthalai Pothigai” … located on the eastern part of Agasthyarkoodam biosphere reserve.
To reach the third rope, we had to walk for around 15 minutes through a small forest contained with medicinal herbs and bonsai trees…
On reaching the top (around 11 am), the strength of those ferocious winds was the first thing i noticed.We might fall, if we are careless.They were giving some heavy blows to the people hanging at the top.The spectacular 360 degree from the top will astound your mind and heart.It was a great feeling to complete such a humongous task.A mesmerizing gift to my father too.Agasthya shrine/idol is located in the middle of a small forest on the peak and that forest is protecting the Shrine from the heavy wind.We can see the Peppara reservoir from the top.Spending some time there will fresh up and enchant your heart.But, we can’t wait there for more time because my father was shivering.You can’t resist the chilling cold produced by those strong winds even with the presence of bright sunlight.After taking some amazing shots and resting for few minutes, the return journey was started.
Facinating views from the top of Agasthyarkoodam peak…
On our journey back to the base camp, took a bath in the stream near Pongalappara.Then ate some dates and rested there for 10 minutes.No shots were taken on that journey as my camera was in bag.It was because of the overexposed sunlight.Continued our journey and arrived at Athirumala base camp around 4 pm.Had some lunch from the canteen.Then, went for a walk in to the grasslands on the southern side of base camp.Usually trekkers go there to have a bath in the stream present on that valley.Once again, some interesting shots of Agasthya hills were taken…
Returned to the base camp around 6pm and the activities for that day was over.It was time for some serious rest.Because the return journey to Bonacaud picket station was planned on the next day.
Day 3 – Return Journey (2nd Febrouary)
Woke up by around 5am and done some repair works on my footwear. As usual, took a refreahing bath to maintain the body temperature. And got ready by 6.30am. Bought our breakfast (Uppuma) from the canteen.For that, coupons were issued on the previous night.Started the return journey around 7am. Lets see the remaining stories through the shots from my camera…
After a long walk of about 5hours, our journey, gets officially completed at 12.30 pm.The officials confirmed it by taking our signs in their register book.Thankfully, none of us got injured in any circumstances.A feeling of achieving something great was in our hearts.Now, we have to move on to our next task. That was reaching the bus stop near old factory building.It was important because we had to catch the 1.30 pm scheduled KSRTC bus arriving at that stop.In between that short walk, some awesome views were there…
Thankfully, the bus came at the right time.Time to say goodbye to Agasthyarkoodam. A happy moment for us.It was so memorable for both of us.In those 3 days, we were emotionally attached with that place.While the bus starting to leave this place, i was looking back to visualize all the happy moments happened in that trek and those feelings will stay on my heart as long as l live…
Suggestions on trekking Agasthyarkoodam from my experience
- Attempt this trek only if you are physically fit.Because it will test your physical endurance.
- Doing this trek in 3 days is more better as you can explore the wildlife at a maximum level.(On my first trip, i done this trek in 2days. So i know the difference)
- You should follow the principle ‘Less luggage, more comfort’.Especially, in hiking the peak.
- It will save your time, if you reach Bonacaud picket station by bike/car even though the road conditions are poor.
- The forest official do not permit you to stay in Bonacaud forest camp, now a days.They gave an exception for us because of my father’s age.So, always reach there on the trekking day.
- Trekking alone is not really a bad thing. As you can make new friends there.But there is always a chance to have an encounter with the wild animals.
- Always be alert and look out for animals.Loud noises will attract them.Animals such as elephants,bear etc attack only when they are startled by close contact.
- You should only carry a minimum money of Rs.500 for each person.Not more than that.
****Thank you so much for finding time to read this travelling experience with such patience****