Velliangiri hills trek - a trial of endurance and pain

Velliangiri hills trek - a trial of endurance and pain

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Tags: trekking, fitness, pain

Having just recovered from a flu, I went to a trek along with a friend and little did I know that it would remain the most gruelling trek that I've ever made. Also got lost during the trek.

April 1, summer of 2017.

I had just recovered from a fairly severe flu that I got in February. One of my friends invited me to join him in a trek to Velliangiri hills. I've gone to treks with him before, but they were easy ones. He said that it would be a challenging one. I had wanted to do a trek that was more difficult than previous ones. Also, I wanted to put my body to test again after recovering from the flu. The last challenging thing that I had done was a 3.5 hour, 25k run three months ago and before I got the flu. Hence I decided to join him in this trek. I'm writing this from memory and have perhaps forgotten quite a many details, though the most siginifant experiences remain in memory.

Velliangiri hills is a group of seven hills in Coimbatore. They are sacred hills and there is a temple to Lord Shiva in the seventh hill. The pilgrimage (and trekking) is allowed from February to mid May. During this months, its not raining and there isn't movement of elephants along the way either, making pilgrimage/trekking viable. Entry is controlled by the Forest Department. Also, women from 10-50 years of age are not allowed here by the temple for religious reasons. Menstruating women are considred as 'impure' in Hinduism, restricted from some activities, including entry in many temples (though there are temples in which only women are allowed). The trek starts from a temple at the foot of the first hill.

My friend, I and a couple of his acquaintences came here by joining with a pilgrimage group from Trichy. The group consisted of mainly families from the non-teaching staff of my college. They had hired two vans for the pilgrimage. My friend knew them and they allowed him and his friends to join. Before reaching the Velliangiri hills, we visited a few other temples along the way in Coimbatore.

After a visit to those temples, we reached a temple at the foot of the first Velliangiri hill at the afternoon of the April 1. The group which we accompanied had planned to stay in the temple overnight. Hence during that time, we would trek.

We started the trek around 2:45pm. We had to go through the temple at the foot of the hill. Footwear wasn't allowed inside the temple and hence we carried our shoes in our bags. There was someone selling some bamboo sticks for climbing. The hills were steep and it was recommened to use some sticks for climbing. Once we crossed the temple, we started the trek. Unlike other treks which started of easy, I was immediately confronted by a steep flight of stairs. I started off slowly. My heart was pounding by climbing this steep stairs, but it was not a problem. Being a half marathon runner, climbing up wasn't a problem for me. It would tire me out, but won't cause any other problem. All I had to do was to take breaks now and then to recover. The early summer climate was fairly warm (though not unpleasantly hot) at this point of time.

Picture showing a steep flight of stone steps with two of my friends (face blurred out)

Figure 1: A steep climb at the beginning of the trek.

The afternoon sun lighted the decidious forest in the hills providing a nice scenetic view. The paved stairs soon came to an end. Beyond this the path was uneven, making trekking challenging. After reaching what I thought was the peak of the first hill, there was a short distance of steep descent. I felt a little tired, but could continue. Till this time, I had no idea what lay ahead. Not even the distance.


Figure 2: Decidious forest in Velliangiri

There were small shacks selling water and fruit juice along the way. A glass of lemon juice cost Rs. 30 (probably fair enough, as they have to carry it all the way here). They provided much needed water for the pilgrims. One of the shacks had the flag of the ruling party (BJP) of the country. Either the shop keeper is a member of the party or the shop is sponsored by them. Since I already had brought plenty of water, I didn't have to buy water from them.

Picture showing a small shack selling water in the left, with a background of a grassy terrain and twilight sky.

Figure 3: A water shack selling water

We climbed up and down the hills (I lost count after sometime because there were several ups and downs, though mostly it was an upward trek). The terrain was a mixture of flat, easy walking paths and tough, uneven rocky terrian. The rocky paths made it tough to navigate. The toughest of which was a steep rocky slope about 2 meters, which we had to carefully climb down. There were signifcant fall hazards too - steep cliffs. Falling down in one surely results death. Soon it became twilight. The temparature dropped, but since this was a tropical area, it was tolerable. There were many natural streams and puddles. The water was okay and can be used for drinking if there is no alternative. There was one big puddle which was knee deep. I touched it and it was very very cold! I couldn't keep my hands or feet in more than 10 seconds.

Picture showing sun setting over a flat walking path in Velliangiri hills.

Figure 4: A flat terrian in Velligiri hills.


Twilight faded out into darkness. Most of the path was dark and required a torch light. I had brought my bicycle's rechargeable LED lamps for this purpose. Also my mobile phone's LED light also served the purpose. The only places lighted were the water shacks that we periodically came across. I had never trekked in night before and it was challenging to navigate the uneven terrain at night. It took some time to get used to it. Without a torch, navigating the uneven terrain would be very tough as it is difficult to know where to place your leg. Close to 8pm, we reached the Shiva temple at the seventh hill. We had climbed from an altitude of about 500 m at the foot of the first hill to about 1900 m at the top of the seventh hill (saw altitude at using the osmand app) and travelled perhaps about 13 km (according to sources, though in a straight line in a map that does not take into account ups and downs, it was only 5 km). I was a little exhaused after climbing all the seven hills, but the worst is yet to come. The temple had some space to sit. We sat and ate the food that we had brought.

Picture taken at night, showing a part of the temple. Mostly dark. A CFL illuminates some part of the temple, but nothing much visible

Figure 6: Shiva temple on top of Velliangiri seventh hill at night

After spending some time here, we started our trek back. I've always had trouble climbing down steep paths. Perhaps due to my relatively short height or some fear. I nervously climb down slopes and this results in me putting too much effort, resulting in my muscles getting tired out eaisily. The trek was mostly downward now. I experienced increasing levels of soreness as I climbed down.

Also I got lost at one point of time. During a break near one of the water shacks(probably in the 5th hill), I set off in the opposite direction. Only after a while I discovered my friends weren't following me. I thought that they might catch up. But they didn't. My suspiction of going into the wrong path heightened after I came across a steep slope which I had traversed earlier. I asked one person for a direction and he pointed out that I had been going in the wrong direction. I turned back. Now I encountered a situation something which I had never experienced before - travelling completely alone in the dark of an unfamiliar land! It was scary, but I prevented myself from panicking and continued. For about fifteen minutes, I saw no one and I was travelling by the light of my mobile phone's light which struggled to penetrate the darkness. I was vividly aware of crossing steep drops. Soon, I came back to the site in which I and my friends took a break. They weren't there and had probably travelled. I found them waiting for me at the next water shack.

Picture showing a uneven path with rocks protruding out. There are shrubs on both sides of the path.

Figure 7: Try crossing this rocky terrain at night

My soreness increased as time went by and I became slower than usual. My mobile phone was expending a charge of about 1% for every 5 minutes (network connectivity was disabled to save battery) to power its LED light. I used it for most of the climb down and about halfway down, the battery was down to about 20%. I decided to save it for last and I used a rather bright bicycle lamp. It had a runtime of about 2 hours promised by the manufacturer. I probably had about 3-4 hours of journey left. I decided to use the lamp as much as possible.

In the last quarter of the journey, I experienced levels of pain that I had never experienced before. I would walk for sometime and then stop. It was a nightmare. Till now, I hadn't seen many people. But after midnight, I saw lot of people coming up. Almost everyone had a bamboo stick like me and a torch. I saw kids, young and old men and old women (women of 10-50 years age are not allowed). Most people climb barefoot (I had trekking boots). My friend told me that most pilgrims trek up here only during the night. Starting at afternoon had its advantages though, in that you can take pictures and experience trekking during day and night.

I slowed down so much that my friends, who were weary themselves and wanted to finish the trek as soon as possible, went ahead. The pain I experienced reached unbearable levels. The one think I can compare to is the trial of pain that Lt. Worf of the star ship Enterprise faces in Star Trek. I took plenty of breaks when climbing down in the last part of the trek. Why would people endure so much pain to visit God? Cursing my friend for bringing me to this trek and promising myself that I'd tell him of next day, I lumbered on slowly. The bright torch lasted for about 3 hours. For close to two hours, it was in full brightness and for the last hour, it slowly faded out. After what it seemed like an eternity, around half past 2 at night, I reached the temple in the bottom of the first hill. It was some relief and was completely exhausted.

I vaguely noticed that another group from my college too had come here for trekking. After this, I slept on the floor of the outer part of the temple. The inner part of the temple was already occupied with sleeping people. Not being used to sleeping on the floor and not having brought any bed sheets for this, I didn't get much sleep. After about 3 hours of poor sleep, I woke up at 6am. The group with whom we had travelled from Trichy had arranged breakfast. It was pongal and vadai. It felt good eating after the gruelling trek.

After having breakfast, I didn't feel much at getting angry with my friend for this trek. My soreness had significantly reduced. After having breakfast, we traveled back to Trichy. The return journey had a minor incident - the other vehicle of the group ended up having a tyre burst, which fortunately didn't result in anything serious. I experienced moderate severe levels of soreness (DOMS) the next day. This was surprising as I was expecting some sort of injury or inflamation in joints. This remains the most gruelling trek that I've done till date. One day I hope that I'll do even more challenging treks once the coronavirus pandemic is over.

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