This is the story of a hunt for highest mountain peaks of Karnāṭaka while traveling in a bus.
Across the Mountains
A story of the journey across the tallest, biodiverse Western Ghat mountains of Karnataka.
12 Mar 2022
I always love to travel across the mountains for several reasons — they are beautiful to look at, they host a plethora of flora and fauna, their elevation and valleys give a chance to sight more mountains nearby and far away, and they have long fostered different cultures and belief by isolating groups of people — all of which I get a chance to observe. In one of my earlier posts, I wrote about the experience of traveling to Mysore from my native while capturing most of the top-10 peaks of Karnataka. I recently traveled across the same route. Fortunately, the PM2.5 levels in the air were low, enabling viewing longer distances. After two days, I returned on a different path, seeing a different range of mountains. This is the story of both routes, combined with the photographs of mountains and learnings of geography, forests, and agriculture along the way.
Let’s Begin! — The Home
I’m situated in the Central Western Ghats, near the Kuduremukha mountain range. The mountain range features shola forests – a grassland-forest complex. Atop some 1860m height, the Kuduremukha peak, the 3rd highest in Karnataka, is home to montane evergreen forests and grasslands. The mountain is clearly visible from my house, so it was the first photo of the day! Although it is hot and sunny in March and most of the grass is dry and brown, we still see some green patches of grass, thanks to the moisture content in the air and the forests capturing them. While the forest cover in the last layer of mountains (the Kuduremukha peak) is native, some of the green covers in the subsequent layers of mountains are due to introduced tree species, now invasive in some regions.
My native, Kalasa, is located in a small plain land surrounded by hills and mountains in all directions. They were grassland-forest complexes around 50 years ago, now occupied by introduced species and coffee plantations. Patches of evergreen forests survive today, with some deciduous trees in between.
The First Ascent
The journey slowly takes us towards the core Western Ghats bordering the coast, resulting in an ascent. This is due to the Western Ghats’ gentle slope towards the east. During the ascent, we see a lot of Coffee, Tea, and Areca Nut plantations spreading across the mountains, for which the Chikkamagalur district is famous. The Kuduremukha mountain is still seen behind some of the mountains, although the peak is obscured along the way.
Soon, we arrive at a relatively flat mountain plain. This place is rightfully named Hirebylu (lit. the large plain, as per the mountain standards 😅). It is situated near the Mallarasana Gudda hill, filled with Coffee plantations, some under the native forest canopy.
Then, the terrain quickly changes within a kilometer (yeah, this is a mountain plain, that too, a big one!), and we find ourselves at a slope of the core Western Ghat mountains. Being at that elevation gives a breathtaking view of a short plain, followed by Chandradrona mountains, an interior extension of Western Ghats (such extensions in the inland are rare across the Western Ghats).
Since Chandradrona mountains rise from the plateau, as opposed to the core Western Ghats, which arise from coastal plains, they are at a higher altitude. The Mullayyanagiri Peak and the Bababudangiri, a part of this mountain chain, are the first and second highest mountains in Karnataka.
The Coffee plantations on the way still preserve some native, evergreen trees that were a part of a larger tropical jungle. Some trees bear colorful leaves during Feb-April as they grow new foliage. The pre-monsoon showers accompanied by thunderstorms help to sustain their new growth. The trees with fresh foliage are a sight to behold and enjoy.
Continuing in the route, we see Mertiparvata, the 6th highest peak in Karnataka. Its name ”Merti” seems to be derived from a holy mountain in Hindu and Buddhist mythology with 5 peaks. The Angkor Wat temple complex is also said to resemble the peaks of the mythological Merti mountain. Suiting the mythical characteristics, the Mertiparvata also has 5 peaks, of which only 2 are visible in Kalasa. We see a beautiful view of all of its sharp peaks in this route.
We also see the cliff-mountain, Ballarayana Durga, which hosted a fort (Durga) of Hoysala kings based out of the same region and then expanded their territory to the plains. This fort was their last resort when the Sultans of Delhi attacked and ruined their kingdom.
We then come across the British-era Kelagur tea plantation, spreading across several mountains.
We also see the bordering Western Ghats, with plantations on one side and forest and grassland on the other.
As we inch towards Kottigehara, the plains in between the mountains become much more prominent. The Western Ghats confine themselves to the border regions, and fewer mountains are seen after them. This is a regular trend in the Western Ghats, with some exceptions, as in Kalasa region and Coorg. While the plain lands were evergreen forests earlier, they were long converted into agricultural farmlands. Now the mountain forests are also encroached by Coffee plantations!
Across the Mountain Plains
After Kottigehara, the plains become much broader, making the sight of the mountains rare. We still see some mountains at a distance, at the bordering Western Ghats. Apart from them, there are some smaller hills here and there. A mountain with power lines atop catches our attention moving through this route.
If we look back at the path from which we came, we still see the bordering Western Ghats, standing majestically.
Soon, we reach Mudigere, situated at a slightly higher elevation than its surroundings. I knew that we could see Mertiparvata from Mudigere at a 36km Line of Sight distance while navigating Google Earth. However, I wasn’t sure of the weather conditions and obstructions. I was fortunate to view Mertiparvata directly from the Mudigere bus stand (actually, from its restroom 😂). When I was a child, I remember seeing it earlier and being told that I was mad at that mountain to see it everywhere 😅. Photographing it provided solid proof and satisfaction!
The regular route from Mudigere to Mysore operates through Belur and Hasana, which fall entirely in the plains. I was not ready to give up the mountains so early in my journey, so I de-boarded the bus and headed towards Sakaleshapura, a town similar in geography to Mudigere. Surprisingly, a monkey was collecting food to eat from the passengers on the bus, as humans would beg money. However, when the bus engine started, the monkey ran away — It knew the business very well!
The route from Mudigere to Sakaleshapur passes through several coffee plantations and small hills. The land here is not as plain as it is along the route from Kottigehara to Mudigere. We encounter several hills along the way.
Just around 8km before Sakaleshapura, one can see a majestic view of Kumaraparvata, the 5th highest peak of Karnataka. This view is rare, as the mountain is covered with clouds during monsoons, and air quality is poor during other times. Although I knew about the visibility of the Kumaraparvata from that place, I had never seen it. Once, when traveling in a crowded bus, I remember seeing something and disregarding it as an illusion. I was happy and heartfelt to see the illusion manifest itself as reality.
Apart from the Kumaraparvata, we see other mountains from the same place, which I was familiar with earlier.
After reaching Sakaleshapura, I had a choice of going back to Hasan in the plains to reach Mysore. In fact, I took this several times when I was de-routing from the regular route for the first few times. However, we still can stay in the mountains for some time by heading to Somavarapete in the Coorg. One has to be careful about the route, though — the route via Shanivarasante does not pass through as many mountains as the route through Hettur-Mageri. In fact, I learned about the difference between these routes the hard way by making mistakes and going to Somavarapete via Shanivarasante.
The Second Ascent
Once we depart Sakaleshapura and head towards Somavarapete, we are back at the mountains. I remember seeing a long chain of mountains, probably Chandradrona. But I couldn’t verify it as I missed taking a photograph. We also see a long chain of bordering Western Ghats as soon as we pass the entrance of the Shiradi Ghat.
In no time, as we near towards the Vanagoor Kudurasthe, where the 3 roads meet, we start seeing Kumaraparvata again. One may have trouble recognizing it, as it appears in an entirely different shape than as seen before Sakaleshapura. This is because we are now much nearer to it.
The route moving forward from Kudurasthe is scenic and beautiful. There are several beautiful and rocky mountains, with grasslands, tropical evergreen forests, and agricultural lands all combined.
Soon, we reach the entrance of the Bisle Ghat road, which descends near the coastal town of Kukke Subramanya, situated directly below the Kumaraparvata. The route to Somavarapete now heads parallel to the bordering Western Ghats covered with evergreen forests, reminding me of the Bhagavati forest in the Kuduremukha Range.
As the Somavarapete region is situated at a higher altitude than its surroundings, the route starts to ascend and descend the mountains while maintaining an overall elevation gain. Just 8km before Somavarapete, we reach a calm and beautiful village situated aside a mountain, Shantalli. Surprisingly, the literal meaning of its name resonates well with the current description that I just mentioned. We get a beautiful view of humans living alongside nature there.
The town of Somavarapete is situated atop a hill, offering an excellent view of nearby mountains. The view of Kotebetta, the 7th highest peak in Karnataka, captures anyone’s eyes, as it has a steep cliff at its one side.
We still see Kumaraparvata, although several of its foothills obscure its view. Without the help of Google Earth, I couldn’t have recognized it.
At Somavarapete, I can still travel across the mountains by either going to Madikeri or Virajapete. However, they would make my journey to Mysore more elongated and deviate me from the direction of Mysore. Thus, heading to the plains is the only option left. Leaving behind Somavarapete and heading towards Kushalanagar, the elevation slowly decreases, and the characteristics of the forests gradually turn from evergreen to deciduous.
The deciduous forest during March-April is arid, and the trees are leafless. Teak trees constitute a significant part of these forests.
Although the landscape is generally dry, the agricultural lands still grow the crop, thanks to the irrigation system constituted by the Harangi reservoir.
As we near Kushalanagar, we see Harangi river, outflowing from its reservoir, which soon confluences with the Kaveri River. The Kaveri River constitutes the border between the districts of Mysore and Coorg. At the Kushalanagar, it is entirely plain land.
At the Plains
The journey between Kushalanagar and Mysore passes through the long-stretching plains. These plains are not entirely plain but have slight elevation differences of a few meters across large distances. Several small, rocky hillocks raise, seemingly out of nowhere. The Chamundi betta of Mysore is significantly more giant out of these hillocks.
The plains also host several lakes, some fed by the river canals constructed from the reservoirs, some others by the rainwater. The canals and lakes have enabled the farmers of the plains to grow paddy multiple times a year and adopt farming crops with enormous water demands like Areca nut and Black pepper. In some regions, growing Coffee is also being experimented with!
Back to the Mountains
Staying a day in Mysore, I returned to my native by choosing a different route to see the Chandradrona mountains more closely. This route passes through Hasana and Chikkamagaluru situated in the plains.
The hillocks of the plains provide an excellent opportunity to harness wind power, which is abundant there since there are no large mountains to obstruct and change the wind patterns. The wind energy farms are seen near the stretch of the route from Hasana to Belur.
In Belur, one can see the Chandradrona mountains on a clear day. As we move towards Chikkamagaluru, the mountains become nearer and clearly visible. Out of this range, the sharp peak of Devirammana Betta is attention-grabbing.
Although Mullayyanagiri is also seen in this route, it does not stand out from its neighbors, as it is blended with other mountains of the range.
The city of Chikkamagaluru is situated at the base of the Chandradrona mountains, although it is still in the plains. We can see the mountains often obscured by man-made features such as buildings passing through the city.
Leaving Chikkamagaluru behind and towards Balehonnur, after some 20km, we are back at the mountains. These mountains are extensively covered by the coffee plantations, with some patches of the deciduous forests reserved.
Along the route, one can witness the majestic look of rocky side ranges of Chandradrona, covered majorly with deciduous forests and grasslands.
Slowly, the forests turn into a mix of evergreen and deciduous, similar to Somavarapete. But, the terrain of the deciduous forests near Chikkamagaluru is much more mountainous.
The deciduous forests here are composed chiefly of Teak trees, as they are near Somavarapete. In fact, it is tough to guess the location of these forests by looking at the photographs.
As we reach Balehonnur, we are greeted by the sight of the tail of Chandradrona mountain at one side, the Mertiparvata at the other side. My journey to my native is towards the Mertiparvata, and the forests there, are evergreen again.
A journey like this on a bus is exhausting and time-consuming. Although beneficial for capturing photos, the last seat of the bus hurts. In fact, things like being hit by the window frame dragged aside and thrown away are not uncommon 😅. However, they say that any beautiful thing does not come without suffering. That’s true in my case. I even had to be specific about the side of the window seat and exchange it with other passengers to capture some mountains!
This travel gave me a lot of understanding about the differences in the mountain terrains, forests, plantations, and cultures. Although much of the forests of the Western Ghats is now converted into monoculture Coffee, Tea, and Areca Nut plantations, it is saddening to see the encroaching and deforestation of the remaining forests. The effects the land development and construction works seem to be devastating.
Although, after growing the crops at the cost of nature, the farmers of the Western ghats suffer to get reasonable yields and then gain a good price at the market. While the Kasturirangan Report encourages creating special markets and brands for the crops of the Western ghats, it is funny that the people oppose it without reading the report, mentioning that they will be evacuated from their lands. The people should listen to scientists, not politicians!
The farmers of the plains are at an advantage here. Their crops thrive with the reservoirs constructed across the rivers originating at the Western Ghats. They are also experimenting and finding success in the crops native to the Western Ghats — Areca Nut, Black Pepper, and Cardamom, by controlled irrigation. These crops in the Western Ghats are now failing due to the extended rains — a direct consequence of Climate change.
The Western Ghat mountains are geographically older than the Himalayas. Its tropical forests and grasslands constitute a global biodiversity hotspot. Our duty and responsibility are to think scientifically and sustainably, and, protect the mountain ecology and live with it. The people outside the Western Ghats must think before asking to construct dams to fetch them water, railroads to have fun trips to mountains and temples, and cable cars to fly above the forests — they are just money-making ventures for the constructors and politicians, and a permanent damage to the mountains and their ecology.
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