"No madam. We are not allowing trekking in the area now. You cannot go"
"But I spoke to someone on the phone who said there are dates for treks"
"Hmm..he has gone out to lunch. Why don't you come after two hours? You can also go the DFO office and ask there. You will need permission from them"
"No madam, not this one. This is the North division office. Mukurthi Peak falls under North but the entrance to the forest is under South control. You go check there"
"Have you checked with the Ranger first? Why don't you go check with him?"
"Yes, but you go ask the conservation society first. Then we will see"
It took us a couple of hours to get to the one person who could tell us what needed to be done. Mr. R at Wildlife Conservation at Ooty. This Wildlife Conservation org was a NGO inside the Forest Offices but nothing to do with them.
"I am glad you want to go up to Mukurthi. It is very beautiful and you are guaranteed to see wildlife. But I am afraid there are no dates this week. You have to stay in the fishing hut at night before starting the climb and the hut is booked out"
"Can't we stay somewhere else?"
"No, it is the only accommodation inside the Park. James is the caretaker there"
"What about outside the park?"
"The last bus stop is Porthimund. There is a tea stall there but nothing else. From there, you need to walk about 7 km to get to the hut. So no, you cannot stay outside and still make the climb"
"Can't we start from Ooty in the morning?"
"No. If its just young men, I can see it working. From the hut, they can get up to the Peak in just over 3 hours. Another 2 hours to get down and they can make it back. For you people, it would take 5 hours to go up"
This didn't go down well with our motley group. Moi, young and fearless Cousin Kali, Conqueror of Kili and dear friend Stu, and the Don (who just turned sixty and decided that the occasion needed some sort of a pligrimage and so here he was with us).
Stu: "But Sir, maybe its okay if we don't go all the way up. We can go as much as we can and if it gets late, we will head back"
Don, Kali and I all turned to look at her. This was the first time she had said a whole sentence in Tam. Not that she can't speak the language - she is very much a native speaker. But none of us had the heart to tell her that while in most places (and especialy in places outside the State), her Madras accented Iyengar Tam would open more than a few doors, this didn't look like this was one of them. Here, one might be better off with heartland Tam, Kongu Tam to be accurate but none of us could speak that. My idea of Kongu Tam was adding the respectful "enge" to every word which works quite well outside the Coimbatore-Erode belt but not within its borders.
"Hm...that is not a bad idea. I can give you a note for James and he will let you rest in the hut on your way. But you need to get permission from the DFO to enter the Park"
As expected, the DFO was out to lunch. We figured we might as well get something to eat but it looked we would be here for another few hours. Halfway through lunch, Don's phone rings.
Cousin Kali: "Mama, don't answer"
Me: "Yeah, Amma said not to answer. If you answer your phone while you are outside the state, you are going to get screwed"
Don being Don answers anyway.
"Who is this? Yes, Oh, Mr R!"
He hangs up after a couple of minutes.
"If I had listened to you both and not answered you wouldn't have been able to go on the trek"
"You mean we can go now?"
"Yeah. Some last minute cancellation. We can stay with James in the hut and go in the morning"
Stu: "Great. But uncle, how did Mr R have your number?"
"I gave him my card. I chatted with for a few minutes after you left to see the DFO remember?"
"Okay appa. Truth now. How much did you pay him?"
"If you ever plan to move back to this country, you have to learn to read people better than that. Do you think anyone in those offices wanted money? All the government people just wanted you to run from post to post for a while. As for Mr R, didn't you listen to him? He took voluntary retirement to take up this wildlife NGO job! All he needs is for people to tell him that they are genuinely interested in wildlife and his work"
"Whatever. Lets go and get this thing sorted out before someone gets there first"
"We will. But are you sure you all want to go?"
"Appa, what do you mean?"
"How come none of you told me about tigers? Mr R said that last week there were some attacks"
"Yeah, but that's for people who don't go with guide and who makes noises and stuff. We will have James with us"
"Will this guide have guns?"
"No...I mean yes, yes, of couse they will. Don't wory"
We got back to the forest offices. Mr R told us what we needed to do to get permission.
1. Mr R will write letter saying that acco is available in the fishing hut
2. Take letter to DFO office and write a request for permission, and the DFO will grant permission to enter the Mukurthi forest
3. Come back to Mr R and show him the permission letter. Now he will write a letter to the Ranger. He will also give us a note for James, the caretaker who will cook for us if we take provisions with us
4. Take new letter and the DFO letter to Forest Ranger who will give permission to climb Mukurthi Peak now that he (Ranger) knows that you have permission to enter the forest and to stay at the hut
5. Armed with three letters and note for James one is all ready to go to Mukurthi National Park
Me: "I don't get it. Why three letters? And why not at one place? Why can't they bloody streamline this?"
Stu: "Because you are thinking like a process consultant. Stop that and also stop this NRI act. Think like a government bureaucrat. Now tell me why three letters"
To be fair, everything went fine from then on. It took time because people were typing up and signing things and talking to you at the same time but no major hurdles. It even seemed as if everyone in the forest offices were conspiring to make sure we get to Mukurthi. They all kept calling Don's phone throughout the evening to make sure we have all the permissions. And everyone told us that James would take good care of us. Cousin Kali was convinced that James is the ghost of Mukurthi who would take us up to the Peak and then disappear and that the tigers would turn up and eat us all up. For some reason, she thought this was actually very cool.
If I die, atleast I would have seen a tiger in close-up. And I am not dying for nothing. The poor thing would get food
Kids of nowadays! What can I say?
By the time we got to this Youth Hostel place we were staying, it was quite late. The place was bad, as in really bad. But the people were nice, and they said that they are moving to a new building soon. We also signed on a new guide to take with us - all Don's doing really as he was convinced that if we had one more guide with us, then the tigers would not attack us. Turned out to be a real blessing (highly recommend this chap if anyone's going up Nilgiris) as there was no way we would have found our way without him. Babu, our new guide told us that we could do way more than Mukurthi in a day. We could also do Pandiyar Hills and come back to Ooty through a different route. He had this 22 km trek for Day 2 all planned out and we all promptly agreed.
That night, Stu, Kali and I dreamt of James, our caretaker ghost. Don dreamt of tigers.
(To be continued)