27 November, 2013

Bangalore to MM Hills - Travel through less traversed jungles and country-side (Part 1 of 3)

I drove with a couple of non-wildlife friends from Bangalore to the forests around MM Hills which until a few years ago were the safe haven of a very fascinating character named Veerappan. Along with his accomplices Veerapan was accused of killing dozens of law enforcement staff, from policemen to forest officers, chiefly in these forests. He had made these forests his home for much of his life. According to my interactions with sources (local villagers, local forest staff, policemen posted to capture him, forest staff kidnapped by him etc) since mid-1990s he knew the forest like the back of his hand, which combined with his extremely well connected network of informers and support/ fear by fellow caste members helped him survive in this hostile terrain that also is home to wildlife like royal Bengal tiger, Asian elephant, king cobra, among others.

Route: Central Bangalore (Benson Town) - Hosur - Krishnagiri - Dharmapuri - Mettur Dam - Stanley Reservoir backwaters (Tamil Nadu) - Palar village (near Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka) - Gopinatham village - Hogennakkal Falls (Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, Karnataka) - Palar village - MM Hills - Hanur village (K'taka) - Bailur (BRT tiger reserve) - Germalam village - Dimbam Ghat (adjoining Satyamangalam tiger reserve, T.Nadu) - Hasanur village - Punjanur village (BRT tiger reserve, K'taka) - Chamarajanagar town - K.Gudi forest (BRT tiger reserve) - BRT temple - Yellandur town - Kollegal town - Malavalli town - Maddur town - Ramnagara town and back to Bangalore City.

All roads in a decent shape, except the 20 km Palar - MM hills stretch and also the 20 km Malavalli - Maddur stretch, both the roads inside Karnataka. We travelled in a Renault Duster, but the roads are in a fairly decent condition to accommodate even small cars (Alto, Santro etc).
Leaving at 8:15 AM on 1 Nov 2013 from Benson Town in Bangalore it took us nearly 3 hours to cross Hosur town which is a distance of about 40 km, thanks to the festival traffic (for those of you who have lived for the most part of your lives in the West, Diwali is the Christmas of India). We felt 60-70 percent of the traffic was of people visiting the town to buy firecrackers which supposedly can be bought here for a quarter of their selling price in Bangalore.

During Diwali, Hosur is chock-a-block with fire works/ fire cracker shops who compete to attract shoppers from Bangalore City
Just past Hosur the highway passes through a stretch of  dense scrub forests, which according to Google maps is the Perandapalli forest.

Beyond Krishnagiri, the highway meanders along the Ponnaiyar river for a few kilometres with paddy fields interspread with coconut trees forming a spectacularly green backdrop during this time of year. Ponnaiyar is also known as South Pennar or Dakshina Pinakini. It takes its birth in Nandi Hills north of Bangalore before flowing down into Tamil Nadu where it meets the Bay of Bengal. 
Ponnaiyar river just beyond Krishnagiri town
Just after forest surrounded Thoppur ghat section, we exited the National Highway for the Thoppur - Mettur Dam - Erode road. Near Erumaipatti we stopped by the road to buy custard apples which were being sold at many places.

At this place in the backdrop (towards east) we could Thoppur reserve forests.

Eateries in little towns and villages located around the many freshwater reservoirs in India serve some amazing fish to eat. We had our share with some freshly cooked parotas (parathas) at one such eatery located bang opposite the main entry of the Chemplast Sanmar plant. 

Parota with freshwater fish fry and fish curry
From Mettur we drove to Hogenakkal Falls on the Karnataka side via Palar and Gopinatham villages. 

A view of the forested MM Hills range on the Mettur Dam - Palar village road
The state of roads in Tamil Nadu was good throughout the journey including the birder areas. About a km after Govinapadi village dense forests greet the visitor. There are numerous forest streams flowing down the wooded valleys as one nears Palar village just across the border in Karnataka state. And one could make out the difference in the road condition once we entered Karnataka. 

A forest stream that joins Kaveri river
At the entrance of Palar village we took a right turn (north) towards Gopinatham. About a kilometre later the road enters the MM Hills wildlife range of the recently expanded Cauvery wildlife sanctuary of Karnataka. 

The forest checkpost at the entrance of Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, about a km from Palar village

A view towards south from above check post
After twisting and turning for a couple of kilometres through dense scrub and dry deciduous habitat, the road runs parallel to the Kaveri river which is seen here after its long and arduous journey from its birth place at Talakaveri in Kodagu (formerly Coorg) District. 

The approach to Karnataka side of the Hogenakkal falls is parallel to the Kaveri river and has some pretty scenery
Some of the forests surrounding Kaveri river downstream of the Shimsha Hydel Project (Gaganachukki and Barachukki water falls) in Karnataka were notified as Cauvery wildlife sanctuary a few decades ago. They were recently expanded to include more forests, particularly the forested hill slopes and valleys around MM Hills. The Tamil Nadu Government announced in 2013 that some forests of Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri districts will be notified as Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, which is a great news for the contiguity and long term viability of the habitats that a source of water for many rivers. This will also ultimately help the wildlife here. The members and volunteers of Kenneth Anderson Naturalists Society (KANS) have played a significant role in the resurrection of Tamil Nadu side of these forests in the recent years. They deserve a huge applause for their tireless efforts to have these forests declared as a wildlife sanctuary by the Government of Tamil Nadu. They run an active group on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/KANSMembers/?fref=ts

From Gopinatham village, MM Hills village is hardly 3 - 4 kilometres as a bird flies. Gopinatham and Palar villages were synonymous with the mystery of Veerappan's character and were considered his strongholds. Driving further along the Sengapadi- Marukottain road it was almost dark as we reached Hogenakkal falls. To see the actual waterfalls you need to take a short ride in one of the numerous theppas (Indian coracles/ locally made boats) that are manned by locals. We decided to skip the boat ride given the lighting conditions.  

A short ride in the Indian coracle leads to Hogenakkal falls
The Kaveri river here separates Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Just across the road is the  road to Dharmapuri town which is about 48 km from this place but for the river that prevents four wheelers from crossing over. If you are riding on a 100 cc motorcycle the theppas can help you ferry it across the river. 

Apart from men, the theppas can also carry small motorcycles
The long drive had taken a toll on the time as we drove through darkness from Palar village to MM Hills. The drive from Palar to MM hills is supposed to be very picturesque with the forested valleys and hills all around the road. Unfortunately we missed them.

We halted at the forest rest house at MM Hills as loud speakers blared music from the nearby temples, this being the annual 3-day jathra (religious fair) of the famed Male Mahadeshwara temple. Fortunately the forest rest house is a some distance away from the village and the loud music didn't disturb our sleep much. We took a short walk post dinner around the forest rest house campus and sighted a wood owl on the hunt. As we returned, tens of different varieties of insects and moths greeted us, as they gathered around the tube light in the verandah. 

Any interaction with the villagers and forest staff of the places where Veerappan roamed are incomplete without hearing stories about this man. We had our share of fascinating narration of the many incidents that happened in MM Hills and surrounding villages and forests from the care taker of the forest bungalow. The forest bungalows in the region have framed pictures of Mr. Srinivas an IFS officer who was allegedly brutally beheaded by Veerappan, a reminder of this area's bloody past.

The rest house of Karnataka forest department at MM Hills. 
Early in the morning we had a surprise visitor as we sipped tea at the MM Hills forest rest house
We had our breakfast at the canteen inside KSRTC bus stop in this village the next morning - rice idlis with coconut chutney. As we drove downhill towards Kowdhalli along the MM Hills - Mysore main road, we could see the many beautiful forest valleys that encircle MM Hills.

According to media reports a decision to declare 906.18 sq km of 1,224 sq km of the Kollegala Range forest as Male Mahadeshwara Wildlife Sanctuary was taken during the fifth meeting of the Karnataka Wildlife Board held on December 15, 2012. Although it is said that the then chief minister Jagadish Shettar, who presided over the meeting approved this, the same information is yet to reflect on the website of the Karnataka Forest Department.

One of the many forested valleys that encircle Male Mahadeshwara (MM) Hills
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