Take a hike

A collaborative grassroot conservation project is on its way to make a mark by familiarising unknown trekking spots and engaging local commmunities
Representative image
Representative image

CHENNAI: Lose and find yourself in the mountains where the air you breathe is not cluttered with thoughts but echoes with answers, there is no snooze button on your alarm as the birds chirping is loud enough to wake you up, where your computer or mobile do not obstruct the views. Still, on the fore, there are trees, plants, and clouds that get closer with each step forward. These are the factors why trekking is usually associated with a soul-searching expedition.

To embark on this journey, a checklist has to be prepared. Backpack — check; poncho and umbrella — check; waterproof shoes — check; socks and gloves — check; jacket — check; cap — check; first aid, sanitiser, and hygiene kit — check, check, and check. Now that the essentials are packed, the only activity to add to the to-do list is to locate the right hill or mountain.

“Trekking is truly a transformative journey. The mind, body, and spirit as an experience are completely different,” says Suhas Saya, head of trek exploration and documentation at Indiahikes, a pioneer in the trekking industry. This process can be intimidating when you don’t know where to start. Finding a trekking/hiking spot can be a task, especially since the state has shut down trekking routes. This ban was implemented after the 2018 Kurangani Hills forest fire in Theni claimed 23 trekkers’ lives.

Understanding the purpose

Six years later, Supriya Sahu, former additional chief secretary, Environment Climate Change & Forests, Government of Tamil Nadu, took to X (formerly Twitter) last week and wrote, “Tamil Nadu Forest Department is coming up with an online trekking trails Atlas to enable people to go on their favourite treks in beautiful TN by booking treks online”. With this tweet on our screens, CE reached out to Supriya regarding the details of the project.

“The idea behind this initiative is the realisation that people are interested in trekking and hiking. But they do not know how to access those trekking routes. Access is an issue since information is not in the public domain,” she says. The government has taken this step to retrieve data easily for people to understand the trail, the distance, the difficulty level, the prerequisites, and what to expect in terms of the environment. “It is an entire world out there which is unknown to us. So, we wanted to bring that world online and make it valuable to people in a credible fashion with verified information,” points out Supriya.

Making information available online requires ground-level research work. To do so, Indiahikes, a trekking organisation with a vision that everyone must trek, was called in January this year. Suhas says, “Realising the importance of trekking and how it provides employment opportunities to the locals, the Tamil Nadu government invited us to work with them.”

Working for the people

The government proposed 119 trails in 15 forest divisions (nine districts). After talks and discussions, Suhas, his colleague, and around three office guards went on a mission to view the different trekking routes and analyse the possibility. “A major shift is happening now. All this while, the forest officers had to stop people from entering, now they have to change that perception. That is where Indiahikes comes in to bring credibility,” he shares.

Suhas and the team studied the trails starting with Vellore and Krishnagiri during January, February, and March. The tracks were explored for safety, sustainable trekking, and how exciting it is for the trekkers or the varied experience offered. “For example, the Biligundulu-Rasimanal trek on the banks of the Kaveri river; an experience like this is difficult to find not only in Tamil Nadu but in the country. Here, you walk along the sounds of the Kaveri river’s flowing water, right next to you, or camp on the sandy surface like a beach,” shares Suhas. The documentation procedure involved talking to locals to understand the route from them and obtaining permissions from the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) and Range Forest Officer (RFO).

The locals play a huge role in this project. These tracks are places where habitation is scarce, only the local tribal community resides there. “These are the treks where we already have the Eco-Development Committees (EDCs). EDCs are a group of tribals working very closely with the forest department. They are an integral part of our forest culture and any income generated is always shared with them,” points out Supriya.

Taking advantage of this programme, the tribals are under training. One of three rounds has been completed. “Training in terms of teaching them the language. They know what a butterfly is called in their language but what it is called commonly? We are aiming at that kind of achievement. Because these locals are to work as guides for the trekkers,” she explains. While the locals will guide the trekkers, the online bookings will be monitored by the Tamil Nadu Nature Heritage Corporation, and ground-level operations by respective DFOs.

Welcoming the move, Roshni Regina, a trekker says, “This initiative by the government is the need of the hour. By roping in locals, we get to learn about the region. We trekkers are always searching for explorations, when we go to a place, we want to learn about the language, customs, and culture of that place. Getting to know that from the people who belong there will be mind-blowing.”

The pilot phase

“Trekking was a small niche in our country almost 15 years ago. The definition of a trek has changed. Earlier only if you reach a peak or a minimum of 16,000 ft, it was considered a trek. Today, even a small nature walk is considered a trek,” explains Suhas, adding that the involvement of youngsters and kids is rising in the sport. “I have a lot of hopes from the new generation because they are glued in when it comes to nature, protection of nature, and conservation. They are sensitive and conscious that we are giving them this platform of opportunities,” shares Supriya.

Finalising 40 routes — 10 easy, 18 moderate, and 12 tough — Indiahikes has explored a few of these already. Following their inputs, the government is to put up photos and videos on the website to be launched by the end of this month. “We want to collaborate with them. They have a lot of experience and we want to learn from these platforms. For example, when there is a trek they offer, how do they make the makeshift washrooms? How do they collect plastic? How can we ensure that there is no littering?” Supriya adds.

With work in progress, the trekkers need further information about the initiative. Fredrick, a mountaineer from Coimbatore says, “While this is a great step by the government, we want to know more about what they are doing in terms of disposing of garbage, dress code to be followed, the pollution, and the carrying capacity. The one good thing about this is that the cost will come down and more people will get on to this sport as it helps build a person.”

The project is in a testing phase where the team is working on the software, safety, and cost. “We are now doing trials with our staff acting as trekkers and hikers. This is a conservation initiative,” says Supriya. The to-be-released online portal would need a health update, self-declaration that the person has no ailments, the first aid to be carried, and how not to litter the environment. There will also be a carrying capacity on how many people can trek on which particular trek on which day. Additionally, a handbook in the Tamil language about the trek explaining the do’s and don’ts will be released.

“The biggest takeaway for the government is that we want to work with the local communities, most of these treks are operated by the tribals. We want to create a huge conservation effort, making you appreciate nature, and try to protect it,” shares Supriya, adding that the nature school involving activities such as trekking and hiking “is an indispensable part of someone’s life and it should be so.”

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