Inside the Sankhili forest
The forest air is filled up with bird cries from the Kambaka trees. The Kalladayar rises and falls amongst the rocks and boulders and envelops the air with her stoic charm. The forest invites you with her open arms, walk in to her mystery of greenery, adventure and life decked away in her silent depths.
Sankhili forest is the destination, and the entrance to the forest is Arippa. An ornithological treasure hunt awaits us in the nearby Ammayambalapacha. Past a fresh water swamp called Karinkurinjipacha where mangroves stand up on their stilts, breathing in air Sankhili awaits us with her mysterious charm. Kalladayaar flows by, lending her glean and sheen, adding to the musical revelry of the forest. The Ponmudiyaarriverbrings in the cold chill of Ponmudi and joins the Kalladayaarenroute, so does the Vellymalayaar, gurgling her way past the rocks.
A nest of King Cobras may slither around in the banks. Stories of elephant herds and bison are abound. Sacks of vessels and vegetables and bags of trekking materials awaited us under the arches of the Institute of Forestry Training, Arippa and the KFDC plantation. The guides arrived and we set off uphill early morning. There are tar roads till the Forest School. Thereafter the roads of the plantation start and after this, one can take off on the forest trail.
NIGHT AT ARIPPA
Abdul Lateef received me with a wide smile at Ernakulam South railway station, and in his smile I saw the horoscope of the trek. He came straight to us, smiling amidst a sea of black clothed Ayyappa devotees, headed for another trek, one of belief, to the Sabarimala Hill. He identified us instantly despite meeting for the first time. The Cochin Adventure Society Foundation secretary Noushad was waiting for us outside, we set off on our night journey, past Kulathupuzha headed to Arippa. Milpalam is our base camp. By the time we reached the Sastha temple near Kulathupuzha, the air was already heavy with the chill of the river. Kaliyugavaradan (Lord Ayyappa) is believed to have grown up here. I wondered if the river was chanting, if the air here was simply meditating.
Our tent was up at two and Danesh, Francis and Abhilash were already asleep. Tonight we are sleeping on a broken bridge, It could be longing to touch the bank, but the river seems to have refused and so it stays, longingly. As we call it a day, Orion swaggers his sword above, it’s time to rest.
The road flanks Thiruvananthapuram district on one side and Kollam district on another. The Amayamblapacha bird Sanctuary is situated in the Peringamala panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram. It is famed for the first discovery of the ‘Makkachikada’ (Ceylon Frogmouth) in Kerala. This place houses the second largest number of birds in Kerala after the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Ammayambalapacha is home to over 270 species of birds including, ‘Vezhambal’ (hornbill), ‘meniponman’(the oriental dwarf kingfisher), ‘kaattumoonga’ (spot-bellied eagle owl), ‘Thadikkaran Velithatha ’(Bluebearded bee-eaters) and ‘Kaatuthatha’. Endangered species such as the ‘Kakkamaramkothi’ (Black woodpecker) and the Whiterumped Shama (Copsychusmalabaricus) are also found here. We walked past Ammayamblapacha and the plantation, onwards to our destination, Sankhili. Baby and Shashankan, two young local guides walked ahead of us. Our guides knew the forest like the back of their hands. Past five kilometers we came to an Ayyappa temple, no doors or walls, a sanctum of belief, a baby was being fed his first morsel of rice there.
Noushad and his team had embarked on a trial trek to Chinnapullu hill but for Baby who knew better. He steadily refused warning us that it was steeper than Ponmudi and will take at least four to five days to trek up and down. Also, this place, he said, was bewitching be it day or night, with dew falling on the grass even during late afternoons. Elephants and bison abound and the route is treacherous. We should attempt it next time, Baby reassured us. Abhi was enquiring if there are any easy routes. Baby reassured, next time. We changed course and headed to the Idukkampara Waterfalls. En route we were to rest at Anjanakoppam. Koppam is an elephant trap, the story goes that there are five such Koppams on this hill. From here on our phones are free of networks, it’s just the forest and you from now on.
Twelve kilometers ahead we sight the Idukkampara Waterfalls. The river cascades over several layers of rocks here, as she swirls her way downstream, froth melts into the air. There were signs of some recent camping on the banks. Madhuraj took out his camera and the others hurried to set up our makeshift kitchen. The twelve kilometer trek had given just enough rest to snack on some bread and oranges. Dhanesh, Abhi and Francis were already cooking as I dived into the Ponmudi river. Just as I finished there were chapatis, dry fish, onion roast, pulses and gruel awaiting us.
TRACING ALONG KALLADAYAR'S BANKS
Ten kilometres ahead from Idukkampara falls is Ponmudi. But the walk to Ponmudi will be through plantations and we had already decided against it. Instead we dived into the depths of Sankhili forest. The Ponmudiriver flows down five kilometers from Idukkampara and merges with the Sankhili river. Janardhanan Kani told us this spot is called ‘Patham Number’. We decided to camp at Patham Number that night.
Kalladayar assumes different names in different lands. She flows as the Kalladayar and the Kulathupuzhayaar. In the Sankhili forest she becomes the Sankhiliyaar.Vellamalayaar and the Sankhili river meet each other at Idamalayaar. Five kilometers ahead towards the right from Irattumukku, at Idashed, there is an even bigger waterfall than Idukkampara on the Vellamalayaar. Rivers flow down frothing from Pandimottai and Ponmudi. We followed along the track of the rivers on our third day. Breakfasting on special dum upma, we set off to cross the forest and rivers only to dive into more.
Arippa and Sankhili are separated by five hills, Vaiduryakunnu, where old timers say Vaidooryam (cat’s eye chrysoberyl) was found, Uppuzhikkarakunnu which resembles a mount of salt, Velakkodikunnu which is believed to be in the shape of a ‘nilavilakku’ and Anjanakoppam. The earth was wet and leeches covered us.
Sankhili is the forest of King Cobras. The local name is ‘eettapampu’, since this snake lays her eggs on mounts on ‘eetta’ (bamboo) leaves. While we had no sightings of the King Cobra, the ‘PachilaPambu’ (common green whip snake) posed for our cameras. By afternoon we found fresh traces of bison and elephants ahead of us.
We treaded carefully, descending steep slopes, pegging our lives onto the roots of the old trees holding the earth together, we were entering the river again. Ponmudiyaar and Sankhiliyaar meet here to flow down as one. We settled down to set up our travelling kitchen. Our rice was cooking while we waded in for a swim. Fresh after our bath Baby and Noushad suggested we start our ascend immediately.
Sashankan stayed back near our kitchen and the rest of us crossed the river and started the climb uphill. The forest was dark even in the afternoon, leeches unleashed their attack on us and traces of elephants and bison reminded us we had to be careful. A large owl flew away defiantly from our cameras. We walked around silently for hours and were back at our camp, Sashankan waiting for us, by sunset.
The silence of the forest crept into our last evening in Sankili. The dark descended upon us. Sometime in between we heard an odd sound of breaking branches and the flashlights followed the sounds immediately. We were msolty silent that night, the return trip weighing heavy on our minds. Early next morning we descended down from the forest through different routes and caught our buses. The forest lingered on like a fond melody while Joyce Kilmer’s word’s that received us at Arippa resounded in my mind,
“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.”
On our last evening an old man stood aghast seeing strange trekkers in the forest. He saw our local guides and came nearer, dropping a large bag and a bundle of firewood he was carrying on his head. He was Janardhanan Kani, a resident of the PottomavuKani settlement. He climbs up to collect forest produce like honey, stays for a few days and leaves and this time he had come for some Kundirikkam (Indian Frankincense). There is enough space for a man to sleep in the banks of the river and Kani stays here. He gave a smile showing his beedi stained teeth and sat down to open to us the stories of the forest.
He came here in 1952 to work for the paper mill in Punaloor. Ever since then he has been living here, knowing the pulse of the forest better than anyone. He was a forest watcher from 1962- 2004. Even today, the forest officials rely on Kani’s knowledge of the terrain to trace poachers and other intruders. He shared with us vivid memories of the torrential rain of 1992. The river swelled, the water brought boulders the size of elephants and many people who were collecting forest produce either died or went missing. The British era Sankhili bridge that connected Ponmudi to Kulathupuzha was washed off in the surging river. The damaged bridge we had camped on, at Milpalam was also a casualty of this furious rain in 1992.
Kani was in the forest at that time, he had come to assist a team that was numbering the trees. He was stranded in a quarters en route to Sankhili. It was only on the fourteenth day that he managed to escape, that too clinging on to a piece of logwood through Manakkavu. He lost his wife and three children, lonely men can save all their love and time he said, lighting his next beedi, looking into the forest, now asleep in all her charm.
Sankhili forest aka Sankhili valley, is included in the Kulathupuzha forest range in Kollam district. Famous for the varied biodiversity and presence of wild animals, this place is a hotspot in the Western Ghats. Sankhili valley is situated close to Ponmudi, Chenthuruni and Mundanthurai reserve forest in Tamil Nadu. Better to enter the forest is from Arippa after taking a road trip from Thiruvananthapuram or Kollam. Arippa is situated on the Thiruvananthapuram-Shencottai road, prior to reaching Kulathuppuzha. Almost 9-km away from Madathara junction. From Thiruvananthapuram, take Thenkasi, Kulathupuzha buses to reach Arippa. From Kollam, you can reach here through Kulathupuzha. Sankhili forest can also be reached by taking a eastward turn from Venkollla after Madathara in the Thiruvananthapuram-Shencottai road.
Noushad (General secretary, cochin Adventure Foundation) Ph: 9961631096 Kulathuppuzha Forest range office Ph: 0475- 2317827. One have to procure prior special permission from the department of forest for trekking. (www.forest.kerala.gov.in)
Located 52 km northeast of Thiruvananthapuram city along the Thiruvananthapuram-Shencottai State Highway 2, Arippa has about l,000 hectares of forest plantation in a compact area. Wooded highlands of the Western Ghats surround this belt, offering a calm and peaceful destination for tourists amidst the forest environment. Arippa is known for its diverse species of birds and wildlife and is a renowned haunt for bird watcher.
Trivandrum International Airport (60km). Thiruvananthapuram Railway Station (52 km). Arippa is accessible from Thriruvananthapuram via Nedumangad – Palode – Madathara along the Thiruvananthapuram-Shencottai State Highway 2. (52 km from Thiruvananthapuram city).
(Translated by Jyothisha V J)