After juggling a lot of dates, our Kerala holiday was finalised for the latter part of May. An auspicious welcome to Kerala was a huge rainbow, spanning the entire universe, just prior to landing at Cochin’s Nedumbassery airport. Our taxi driver, booked through inspirekerala.com, arrived 20 minutes after we were out, because he was held up en route by a wild elephant! An exciting beginning.

The trip to Thekkady

 way to thekkady, kerala By cutegaldiya
Kerala’s lush greenery overwhelms the senses. In three years, I had forgotten how lush it actually is. After a hearty breakfast of the flakiest Kerala porottas with egg roast at an unassuming, but grandly named Taj Mahal Hotel at Kalady (the birthplace of Adi Sankaracharya), we drove to our first halt – the Periyar Tiger Reserve at Thekkady. We stopped frequently along the longer, densely forested route via Neriamangalam, past the long catchment area of the Lower Periyar, via Kanjikuzhi, then down to Cheruthoni where we stopped for lunch. After a simple but tasty Kerala ‘meals’, we resumed our journey via the impressive Idukki Arch Dam which connects the hills of Kuravan and Kurathi, through the lush plantation areas of Kattapana, Vandanmedu, Puliyanmala, Anakara, down to Kumily. We reached the Periyar House Hotel within the sanctuary at 5.40pm, barely within the 6pm vehicle curfew. The journey to Thekkady which should take just four hours, took almost eight. We just had to stop and explore every path, leading into every jungle along the way. Our driver must have been relieved to be rid of us at our hotel!
 Asclepias wildflower @ Periyar Sanctuary By snonymous
We enjoyed a short walk within the sanctuary before darkness set in. A troop of jet black Nilgiri Langurs greeted us from a tall tree in the hotel grounds. As we headed towards the boat jetty, a wild boar with five little piglets scampered across the road. The striped babies were ever so cute, like fat little rabbits. Several small orange and black frogs hopped here and there. By this time, our expectation quotient was naturally high, and we were not disappointed. Suddenly in the twilight, we felt a presence. A closer scrutiny revealed two big sambars across the road studying us intently. Just then, an evil, noisy bus sent them scooting off into the darkness. So much for the 6pm vehicle curfew.

The Periyar House is a simple stone clad structure, blending in with its forested surroundings. We had a basic but very clean room on the first floor, with a large terrace. Dinner and breakfast buffets are included in the room rates. Breakfast was good. Dinner was nondescript - a blessing in disguise. With no temptation to overeat, all the podge shed during the daytime treks, was not regained at the dinner table. Dining elsewhere is not an inviting option, as it is a good 4km walk to the entrance gate, and of course the walk back. Well I suppose that would take care of a hearty dinner!

Periyar Lake

 Boat rides at Periyar Sanctuary, Thekkady By snonymous
We had booked a whole-day trek with Bamboo Rafting for the next day, through the Forest Department’s Eco Tourism programme. As we sauntered towards the boat jetty, a racket tailed drongo posed for a picture, as did a Giant Malabar Squirrel and a Nilgiri Langur, both of whom were eyeing a large, ripe jackfruit. We were pleased to be the only 2 for the bamboo rafting trip that day. Two local guides and an armed guard accompanied us. After a very short raft ride across a ‘finger’ of the lake, we walked through mixed forest for a few hours, enjoying enormous tall trees, birds and insects; especially a small dense patch of butterflies by the marshy lake shore, mostly Wanderers, Crows and Tigers with the odd Red Helen. The magnificent Paris Peacocks and Blue Mormons regaled us elsewhere in the forest. Our guides offered us a welcome cup of tea and some snacks at a clearing, after which we went on a longish bamboo raft ride. The absolute serenity of the bamboo raft ride is beyond description, it must be personally experienced. Periyar Lake is composed of several ‘fingers’ which the regular tourist boats do not enter. The areas we traversed, is strictly bamboo raft territory. As we glided languidly through the water, we spotted several herds of bisons on remote banks. A solitary bison sleeping in a secluded marshy bank, grudgingly rose as we came closer, gave us a dirty look, and sauntered into the forest. He promptly returned as we moved away. After a while, we docked at the banks of another remote ‘finger’, where we enjoyed a most welcome lunch of mixed rice with delicious pickles, sambar and curds. Our poor guides had lugged all this in their rucksacks.

 Friendly wild bison By snonymous
We spent an hour on the banks, lethargically basking in the tranquility, interrupted every now and then by brilliant blue flashes of passing Paris Peacock butterflies, the wonderful sounds of insects and birds. A Paris Peacock condescendingly posed for an almost but not quite focused photograph. Those big butterflies never stay still for a moment. No words can describe, no photographs can ever capture the beauty and serenity of the surrounding jungles and lake.

After another lengthy round of rafting in and out of the remotest corners of the lake, we returned gratefully to the bank from where we started. It was mid afternoon, the sun was beating down with its full May intensity, and we wished we had brought wider brimmed hats. Inside the forest, it was shady and cool. A plethora of wild orchids and ferns cover most of the tall trees. Our guides were keen to learn their botanical names from us, and diligently wrote them down in Malayalam. Their enthusiasm, knowledge and sincerity greatly enhanced the trip.

The Elephants

 Wild elephants on our trek path @ Periyar Sanctuary By snonymous
Suddenly, just when we were resigned to not seeing any more mammals, a herd of elephants appeared on a nearby bank. Our guides were most alarmed as the elephants were in the middle of our return path. They told us that we would either have to wait till the herd moved away, or take an extremely circuitous alternate route to avoid the pachyderms. One of the guides ominously checked whether the guard’s rifle was charged. They even considered the possibility of taking the bamboo rafts out again to avoid the elephants. There were four adults and two adorable babies. They all looked so benign. We city slickers had no idea that wild elephants were so dangerous. We went wild with our cameras to the consternation of our guides.

 Elephants moving away from our trek path By snonymous
Eventually, the elephants moved towards a semi island in the lake, and the guides felt it safe enough for us to take a slightly circuitous route around them – but at a fast running pace through dense undergrowth – no easy task for us Bombay folks. We probably ran for no more than ten minutes, though it felt like an hour. Once we moved passed the immediate danger ‘zone’, the guides reverted to an easy sauntering pace. A Giant Malabar Squirrel showed up, along with some more huge butterflies as if to say don’t worry, we’re still around.

We reached to the Boat Jetty shortly after 5pm and bade farewell to our wonderful guides, just as a herd of sambars appeared on the bank immediately opposite the jetty. We must have walked about 14 to 15 km that day. Some strong tea, and a cold shower later, we set off again for a pre dinner walk. Our almost tame wild boar with her cutie piglings were there again, along with some other not so cute adult boars. No luck with the sambars. The nilgiri langurs lurked in their tree, tails dangling like furry black rope. After an early dinner, we crashed for the night.

 The Blue Mountains By snonymous
The next morning saw us rushing for the 7am boat. As usual, the Nilgiri Langurs and Giant Malabar Squirrels were up to their antics presenting a good photo opportunity, but we hurried along thinking we would miss the boat. We need not have bothered. The KTDC and Forest department boats, do not leave before 7.30am - only after every one is on board. The queue to board the boats needs desperate sorting out. The forest guard who checks the boat ticket, insists on the production of an entry ticket, which for tourists staying within the sanctuary, is a real nuisance involving a last minute dash to the Ticket Counter at the Information Centre. KTDC’s hotels and the Forest Department ought to co-ordinate this between themselves.

Eventually the motley regatta set off, one after the other. The unfolding vista of the lake with its silent dead tree sentinels sticking out of the water, consumes the memory cards of the professional photographer as well as the digicam wielding tourist. Soon enough, several wild boar appeared along the banks. These were followed by a family of sambars, and a wonderful panorama of elephants, boars and bisons on the same bank. It was much the same as when we were here previously. I am convinced that the KTDC and Forest Department have a secret pact with the animals, to put on a guaranteed daily show for the early morning boat rides. After letting everyone enjoy the scene from all angles, the convoy of boats headed slowly back to the jetty. By this time it was almost 9am and we were ravenous.

All that fresh unpolluted air does wonders for the appetite. Breakfast over, we called our driver to take us to some other places outside the sanctuary. Spice shopping in Kumily yielded with several purchases of locally grown cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg; and some vanilla as a special souvenir. Wish I had bought some more of the natural vanilla and jasmine fragranced soaps which are absolutely lovely. Shopping safely stowed in the car, we headed towards nearby Chellarkovil through the quaint and quiet plantation area of Anakara. Almost every house in this area has colourful hedges of brilliant red hibiscus, overrun with wild lantana and large deep blue ipomeas. There is something very attractive about this unknown, unassuming area, in a “simple pleasures” kind of way. We decided to visit Chellarkovil, even though many claim it is over rated. A good decision as it turned out.

Chellarkovil

Chellarkovil is a very small plantation village which also includes great viewpoints from the edge of the high cliffs overlooking the plains and mountain ranges of Tamil Nadu. The Kerala forest department is developing some land on the top of the ridge where a ‘tree house’ machan has been erected and some horticultural work is in progress. We stopped here and made enquiries with a pleasant young man Kuriakose, who invited us to visit his small plantation Valley View Gardens [91 9446926833] right next door - also with its own tree house machan. Valley View Gardens is simple compared to fancier plantations, but with an unparalleled view. Kuriakose took us on a short walk along a wildflower filled ridge overlooking the huge rock massif of Chellarkovil, the flip side of the Periyar sanctuary, and the horseshoe formation of mountain ranges enclosing the vegetable growing plains of Kambam and Gudalur all the way upto Theni, with the high Palani ranges beyond. Being a clear day, the entire range of mountains beyond Thekkady were visible as far as the eye could see. In the rains, there are spectacular waterfalls here which flow through dense evergreen forests below the rock face, going on to irrigate the farmlands below. Later, we walked through the completely organic plantation and were shown the cardamom, vanilla, jackfruits, gingers, pepper and other crops. Kuriakose kindly presented me with a rooted cutting of a vanilla orchid plant. His mother made us a most refreshing honey lemon drink, quite welcome in the warm afternoon sun. They plan to construct a couple of rooms as a home stay. We will be sure to stay at least a week when they do. The place has such a warm, welcoming aura. One could happily sit on the cliffs edge for hours, doing nothing. I liked Kuriakose, his sincerity and his love for his land came through with so much feeling. He accepted just Rs 50, which is nothing compared to other plantations who charge between Rs 100 to Rs 150 for a visit, and he put in so much more effort while showing us around.

After Chellarkovil, we decided to drive along the Peermed road, where we tried walking along wooded areas of the road. Not the best idea. There is way too much traffic as this narrow road is the main route from Thekkady to Kumarakom. We soon gave up and decided to return to the sanctuary. A nursery just outside Kumily caught our attention with its magnificent collection of huge Hawaian hibiscuses. The owner was pleased to allow us to simply enjoy the flowers, even though we were not buying. Back inside the sanctuary, we headed out to explore the several trails going inside the forest. Most visitors never explore these, primarily because people just dash through to the jetty by car or coach, overlooking the hidden trails en route. We followed a trail which first led to the lake shore along another ‘finger’, ending up in the magnificently located Forest department rest houses. These are on a mini peninsula jutting into the lake, with a deep trench dug on all sides to keep out the elephants. On our way back, we went along another trail on the opposite side, ending up at a grassy marsh land abutting yet another ‘finger’ of the lake. The changing hues of the setting sun in the pre-monsoon sky was an unforgettable sight. We could have remained there forever, but as darkness moved in, the thought of losing our way back and getting attacked by thirsty biting buchees, made us return to our hotel.

After a good nights rest, we awoke to nature’s alarm clock courtesy the resident ‘babbling’ babblers, or were they Indian Pitta’s?. A pair of handsome Malabar Tree Pies occupied the tree in front. We set out along yet another trail near the hotel. A not so startled wild boar slunk off into the undergrowth. While admiring some wild orchids, we heard the familiar sound of the Nilgiri langurs. Looking up in delight, we were in for another treat. A weasel faced, unknown animal with a bright yellow breast and fat black paws took a sneak peek at us from a high branch, retreated up his branch, returned for a better look, repeating this performance several times until finally he decided we were harmless. He then tucked his fat bushy tail around himself and promptly went to sleep in the crook of a tree branch, but not before obligingly posing for a few photos. We first mistook him to be a Giant Squirrel, but soon realised he was someone else. He could have been a weasel or civet cat. The path went on through wild guava forest abutting the lake shore, where we came across a few tribals fishing. The local tribals are permitted to catch fish in the Periyar lake, as our guides told us the previous day. The tribals kindly pointed out the path through the dense undergrowth. We continued, stopping every now and then to enjoy the serene lake shore, and the brilliant turquoise kingfishers flying past. If we knew about these trails earlier, we would have stayed on at a few more days within the sanctuary, and in the charming Chellarkovil and Puliyanmala / Vandanmedu plantation areas.

The drive to Munnar

 High altitude tea plantation at Top Station near Munnar By snonymous
The journey to Munnar stretched out to seven instead of the normal three hour drive, because as usual, we could not resist exploring every interesting place en route. While walking alongside a cardamom grove, a Great Malabar Hornbill flew past our noses to park himself in a nearby tree. Red Whiskered bulbuls were everywhere. As we ascended the ghats, the flora subtly changed with vast tea gardens appearing amidst rocky scapes as we approached Chinnakanal. By this time, a light mist settled in and we soon found ourselves driving through clouds and light sleet, on the treacherously narrow Lockhart Gap Road.

The Siena Village hotel where we stayed, is between Chinnakanal and Suryanelli, approximately 3 km beyond the better known Mahindra and Sterling Resorts; and very close to the high altitude Kollukumalai tea estate. We liked the layout of the hotel, a series of cottages set amidst undulating lawns and ornamental shrubs, with a superb view of the vast Anaiyerangal Lake below. Our cottage also had a view of the magnificent rocky mountains behind.

We had just settled in on our balcony to enjoy the view, when we were rudely disturbed by loud, cacophonous outdoor music. The hotel’s excuse in response to our protests was that the “children wanted some music”. We said play as much music as you want - indoors, or else clearly state on your website that outdoor music will interrupt the “tranquility of nature at its best” that the hotel proudly advertises. After initial reluctance, the music was eventually shut off for the duration of our stay.

 Surreal early morning view @ Chinnakanal nr Munnar, Kerala By snonymous
Colonies of red whiskered bulbuls, Magpie robins [?], crickets and a resident guinea pea fowl, provided enough natural orchestra. The children at the hotel did not appear to notice the absence of music. They were thoroughly enjoying running around the lawns and play area. To be fair, that was the only glitch. The hotel staff was extremely courteous, the food was good, the rooms comfortable, area serene, location excellent, and the views - simply the best. On our departure, the Manager Mr Sreeni invited us back, promising there would be no music to disturb us, whenever we chose to return.

The dinner buffet was sumptuous and varied, especially after the bland fare at Periyar House. No chance of keeping the podge off here. We woke at the crack of dawn to the sweet sounds of Red Whiskers foraging in our balcony for crumbs. Fried snacks must make a change from lantana berries. The vistas of the lake and the mountains behind were magnificent. The scrumptious buffet breakfast also offered an excellent Punjabi Poori Aloo, as good as that served at any North Indian dhaba. Mr Sreeni personally ensured that our poories were puffed to perfection. After the music episode, he did not want to give these finicky guests any more occasion to complain,.

Our driver suggested we first visit the Kolukkumalai estate nearby, but when we got there we discovered that the 3 km. journey had to be undertaken in a back breaking and grossly over priced jeep ride up an uneven, steep gravel path. The jeep owner was willing to reduce his price but his union boss stepped in to ensure he did no such thing! It is a bit of a racket. The jeep drivers union ensures that the road to the estate is not surfaced, thereby ensuring monopoly services by their own members. Having read that the tea estates at Top Station were at an even higher altitude, and along a good motorable road, we decided to give Kolukkumalai a miss and headed towards the Lockhart Gap.

The stretch of dense shola forest just before the Lockhart Gap was shrouded in mist, presenting an ethereal sight. We stopped to admire orchids and ferns, eerily dripping off the branches. Then came the ultra narrow, single lane, cloud covered Gap road. This is a treacherous drive in the mist, but our driver was a Munnar local who negotiated the stretch well. The Lockhart Gap road leads to Devikulam via tea gardens set in a picturesque valley. Our driver took us to a private lotus filled lake near the Chokkanadu estates, where he used to fish and swim as a child. We loved the pristine, serene lake and sat on the embankment for a long while, in the company of a magpie robin unmindful of our presence, barely 2 m away. A clump of beautiful purple iris like flowers grew wild on the banks amidst grasses and ferns. After some time, we walked along the banks with butterflies and bees flitting past. We could have spent the entire day there doing nothing, but reluctantly proceeded further to see the sights on our regular list. A short drive brought us to Munnar town, cluttered and grotty, as most such tourist towns are. Munnar like Kumily, has a large Tamil speaking population owing to its proximity to the TN border. Our driver told us that the majority of tea plantation workers are Tamils, who form the bulk of the locals.

We drove on to the Top Station Road, a pleasant drive through plantation forests passing the lush grasslands of the Indo Swiss Cow Breeding Station [off bounds to visitors notwithstanding what the tourist brochures say], the pretty but crowded Madupetty lake, on to the prettier and less crowded Kundala lake; then on to the high altitude [1900+m], steep tea estates near Top Station. The views along the winding road at Top Station overlook the Kolukumalai estate and the valleys of Tamil Nadu beyond. These views were much better than the actual Top Station point with its assorted tourist stalls. Some of the tea plantations in this area have almost vertical slopes, requiring the tea picker to have the agility of a Nilgiri Tahr.

Top Station is on the flip side of the Chinnakanal mountain ranges, according to our GPS, and confirmed by our driver. The dense, vast Pambadum Shola Reserve Forests stood before us in all its pristine glory. The Forest Department offers guided treks and camping inside this magnificent shola. If we had known earlier, we would have timed our visit for the morning. Next time!

The old short cut road [50km] to Kodaikanal via Madhikettan Shola and Berijam Lake, goes from Top Station, but is strictly out of bounds without Forest Dept. permission. The Munnar-Kodai road was made motorable during WWII to facilitate the evacuation of the planters to Madurai and beyond in the event of a Japanese invasion: Munnar’s World War.  It is not in a particularly usable state today, large sections are broken and overgrown. As a result, denizens of the forests roam wild, making it a much sought after trekking route. Escape Road, March 21-23 gives a good idea of present day road conditions. We contented ourselves with easy downhill walks along stretches of the regular Top Station - Munnar road.

Ropeway and railway companies existed in Munnar for several years. The 2 feet Kundala Valley hill railway was built in the late 1890’s to transport tea from Munnar and was operational till 1921 when it was destroyed completely by floods, never to resume again. The remnants of the Top Station Railway Station still exist in the form of a broken stone platform. The Kundala Valley Railway ended here. This station also housed the Munnar-Top Station Ropeway. Trains, and later ropeways, plied from Munnar to Top station. The Top Station-Bodinayakkanur Ropeway plied from Top Station down to Bodinayakkanur in present day Tamil Nadu. The Munnar Ropeway station is now used as a store. Rail and ropeway information courtesy:  Remains of Kundala Valley Railway, Munnar

Maraiyur and Chinnar

 Floral painted Tamil Nadu tourbus1 By snonymous
Our Maraiyur and Chinnar trip began around 8.30am the following day. Our driver suggested we also visit Rajamala in the Eravikulam National Park en route, however as there were at least 2000 people standing in the queue for entry tickets, we gave it a miss. The road from Munnar to Maraiyur and Chinnar goes along the deep valleys of the Nyamakadu, Talaiyar, Gundumalai and Vaghuvarai tea estates, ringed by high, imposing, rocky mountains all around. This is the most scenic route in the Munnar region, with tea gardens covering steep hillsides and deep valleys, interspersed with large tracts of dense shola jungles. Colourful flowering trees of crimson African Tulip [Spathodea campanulata], purple Jacaranda, orange Gul Mohr [Poinciana regina], scarlet Flame of the Forest [Erythrina] and bright yellow Laburnum [Cassia Fistula], turn the entire route into a series of pretty picture postcards. We stopped many times to walk through the steep tea estates, wondering how the pluckers managed to keep their balance on the near vertical slopes. Our driver – whose parents are tea plantation workers, showed us how to keep one foot always balanced against the thick trunks of the tea bush. It worked, though it would undoubtedly take some getting used to.

A vast expanse of dense shola forest bordered the road at some places. We attempted to explore a pathway going in. Big mistake!! In our excitement at discovering so many wild orchids and ferns dripping off all the trees, we went in deeper where it was very damp. Back on the road, we discovered to our horror that slimy leeches were creeping through our trousers, oozing their way through our socks and desperately attempting to permeate our shoes. It is amazing how much blood they extract in seconds. We pulled off as many as we could, hoping there were none left [discovered one more slimy fat blood-filled horror in the evening]. For reasons not hard to fathom, the shola forests did not seem inviting any longer!

The Lukkom falls came next. A colourful floral painted Tamil Nadu tourbus was infinitely more interesting than the litter strewn falls. The bus driver proudly watched as we took pictures of his masterpiece.

The famous sandalwood forests of Maraiyur were a big let down. The tourist sites shrewdly omit to mention that these are entirely fenced off. A couple of token unfenced Santalum Alba trees remain on the roadside, where people may touch and smell the fragrance from the scraped off inner bark. There was no sandalwood factory or garden in sight, contrary to what is mentioned in the tourist brochures. I did see a thatched machan inside the fenced off forest, so visitors may have been allowed in earlier. Presumably the fencing prevents vandalism. The plus side is that there is no litter at all along the entire fenced off forest. Interspersed with the sandal trees were several wild Cassia Fistulas [Indian laburnum] in glorious golden bloom, the entire forest from Maraiyur through Chinnar is filled with them, so they must be endemic to this drier region.

 Close up of Muniyara Dolmen nr Marayoor, Kerala By snonymous
Onward to the Muniyara Dolmens, the prehistoric burial sites scattered throughout this area. Our driver took us through Kovilkadavu to a government school at the base of a large rock massif topped by a white cross, aptly called St. Pious Nagar. We walked through the school compound, past the toilets at the back which abuts a roundish rocky hill face overlooking the scenic Maraiyur valley below. Several Muniyaras stood before us, simple small vertical slabs of stone, covered by a larger horizontal slab. The one closest was a receptacle for leaking sewage water from the toilets. Consequently, vincas grow wild around this hapless dolmen. There was not much litter, as few tourists bother to go beyond the first dolmen. Noticing plenty more Muniyaras beyond, we climbed further along the rock face. Being dry, it was an easy walk, if it rains it would be treacherous. Though these dolmens are neither ornate nor impressive, it is overwhelming when you realise that they have been around since prehistoric times. It is a crying shame that they are not better preserved through any responsible organisation. Several stone slabs had been removed for use as local construction material. A cluster of six dolmens in the valley below stood by the river bank, overgrown by a small banana plantation. As far as the eye could see, there were Muniyaras scattered on the rock face. According to wiki the Muniyaras are ancient burial sites, according to our unimpressed driver, they were dwelling places, for midgets! Almost two hours flew by as we walked over the rock face. By now, the mid day sun was uncomfortably warm. Maraiyur in the rain shadow, is a warmer, drier region than Munnar. Our GPS showed that from Munnar at 1450 odd metres, we had climbed to 1850+m and were now at around 1000m above MSL. Our route to the Chinnar checkpost at the TN border would bring us down to 500m. As we left the Muniyaras, we could not help notice a small open well just outside the school. Peering in, we were horrified to see it filled to the brim with empty Bisleri and Lays! What a pity.

 Cassia Fistula  Indian Laburnum By snonymous
From Maraiyur onwards, the forest was full of beautiful yellow laburnums and rock strewn valleys. An unpretentious lodge with a German signboard offering rooms at Rs 300 a night, next to a small pretty waterfall, looked like a good idea as it would require at least a few days to fully enjoy this beautiful area. http://www.marayoor.com/stay.htm has a list of hotels in the area.

The Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary begins here, subtly changing from dry to drier deciduous, with patches of scrub and thorn forest in the lower elevations. The road goes through to Udumalpettai in Tamil Nadu, barely 40km away. Our driver Munis told us that he once did a walking pilgrimage to Palani, along this road.

The road offers excellent views of the horse shoe shaped Thoovanam waterfalls, deep down in the valley. It is a one hour trek, each way, with a guide from the Forest check post at Alampatti. They also offer treks to dolmens within the forest, some with prehistoric paintings. If we knew earlier, we would have arrived early to do both treks. At 1.30 in the afternoon, it was uncomfortably warm, and the prospect of a hike in the heat was somewhat daunting. In two minds, we opted out, and continued, stopping every so often to enjoy the splendid view of mountains, valleys, cascades and interesting rock formations. There are several clearly discernible natural caves in the area which may well have been used as dwellings by our prehistoric ancestors.

A short walk through a forest clearing led to the discovery of elephant dung. Presumably the elephants venture down towards the river, mornings and evenings. We did see quite a few birds, a large snake, and although we did not spot the local Giant Grizzled Squirrels or Star Tortoises, we were entertained by a troop of shy Grey Tufted Langurs. The road to the border check post goes down the mountains in a horseshoe manner, so we soon found ourselves on the opposite side of where we had been earlier. Some more intriguing cave formations could be seen from here. This is one place that deserves lengthy exploration in the company of a local forest guide. We will surely return.

Passing the forest watchtower, we reached the border at 500m AMSL. From 1800+m we had gradually descended more than 1300m, passing through the entire gamut of moist evergreen, tea plantation, montane shola, sandal, moist through to dry deciduous, and eventually scrub forest. The Maraiyur Chinnar region is a distinct eco-tourism area in its own right, it is highly under rated, a blessing in disguise as it remains pristine with few visitors and even less litter. There is something exceedingly charming about this area.

The return journey

Reluctantly, we commenced our return journey. On the way we passed tea workers sorting through their days pickings. One of the ladies kindly let us have a good look at her tea cutting kit - a large pair of scissors fitted with a net bag on one of the blades. A bit like a hand held lawn cutter with its own collection bag. Most of the tea we drink is collected with these cutters. Only the very best leaf tea is hand picked.

A light rain near the Vaghuvarai estate brought the temperature down to a hill station “cool”, recharging many of the high waterfalls which were dry on our way out. Though the rain increased at Munnar, the Lockhart Gap was surprisingly dry and we even managed a view of the Bison Valley below; and of piles of litter thrown off the edge. The so-called “view” points should be renamed “garbage” points. Lockhart Gap is definitely nicer in the fog. The clear road ahead revealed the peculiarly shaped high mountain behind the Mahindra resort. After debating whether to name it Elephant or Monkey, we finally settled on Eagle mountain.

Next morning brought a surreal view of clouds covering the Anaierangal Lake. Pulled the cameras out for many shots of the constantly changing scene. A brilliant orange sunrise soon became overcast and misty, very humid but no rain. At breakfast, Joseph the F&B Manager told us about a road near the hotel going all the way up the mountains just behind. The road starts barely 500m from the hotel. It soon led to a locked gate where we left our car and driver, and started walking up steep hairpin bends on an excellent tarmac surface. Huffing and puffing, we took an inviting short cut through the grassland, but having completed one segment we reverted to the road for fear of leeches and other biting buchees. The clouds cleared momentarily, giving fabulous glimpses of the lake below. The tarmac surface gave way to a broad but steeper bridle path, with sharper bends. Visibility was down to just a few metres. Wild palm trees on the roadside, barely a metre high, were incredibly fruiting at ground level. The fern covered grasslands with colourful wildflowers here and there, soon gave way to a light woodland of plantation trees, leading to an abandoned solitary stone cottage with empty window and door frames, at the edge of a dense shola forest. Curious, we looked around, discovering stone fencing posts every here and there. A large patch of half dried elephant dung came into view, along with fairly recent bison hoof marks. Our GPS indicated that we were at 1753m AMSL. With the thick cloud, it was impossible to make out if we were anywhere near the top. A broad path went into the shola forest that was becoming mistier by the second. If we had not been leech fodder the previous day, we would not have hesitated to venture in, especially having come so far.

The increasing fog was the deciding factor, or rather excuse, to turn back at this point. A gravel coloured frog camouflaged well with the path, obligingly posing for a few close ups. Red Whiskered Bulbuls, Bushchats and Hill Mynahs were our constant companions, with the odd shrike joining in now and then. Although it was cool, the humidity was so high that our clothes were drenched by the time we returned to our car. The total walk took just over 3 hours at our unhurried pace. Such a pleasure to climb a mountain on an easily walkable path. No humans had ventured here in a long while, as there was no trace of the ubiquitous ‘Bisleri-Lays’ trail. Just as well. We learnt later that the property was acquired illegally, and is taken over by the district collector. Hence the abandoned cottage on top.

Next on our agenda was a walk through a tea garden. We asked our driver Munis to suggest somewhere where we could walk some distance downhill, rather than up. He recommended the Chokkanadu estate between Devikulam and Munnar town. Munis lives at Chokkanadu with his plantation worker parents. An excellent choice. The popular Munnar Tourism poster of a clump of trees atop a sugar loaf tea garden, is taken at Chokkanadu. Munis dropped us off at a suitable point in the estate with detailed instructions as to which paths we should take to reach the High Range Club much further down, where he would arrive at an appointed time. Walking through the tea pathways was fun. We discovered pretty tea flowers, including some which had fruited. The seeds have a subtle aroma of tea. Several wild ferns were growing on the base of the tea bush trunks. Wildflowers popped out here and there, and tree ferns were growing on the banks of the quaint little stream that flowed through the bottom of the estate. Crossing the stream, a path on the other side eventually led to the internal estate road. We had somehow lost our bearings in the maze of tea garden pathways. Walking on the road was equally pleasant, the sides were chock full of lantanas and wild daisies, copiously over run with the aptly named Ipomea ‘Heavenly Blue’. Friendly Red Whiskers and butterflies flitted in and out. Nilgiri wood pigeons languidly occupied a nearby branch. The road came out at the rear entrance of the High Range Club, along a river with people boating in the distance.

Timed to perfection, Munis arrived minutes later to drive us to the much touted Tea Museum, the biggest rip off ever. It is poorly run, an absolute waste of time, the over priced tickets which include a very mediocre cup of tea, adding insult to injury. A most expensive cup of tea @ Rs 75. Curiously, they took away our entry tickets in exchange for the tea, and all we had left was a small blank chit of paper with a rubber stamp. Wonder how the accountants tally the collections. Our previous driver who was once a tea worker, told us that Kollukumalai leaf tea is the best quality tea in the Munnar region, so we purchased a packet of BOP at the marketplace. It does have an excellent flavour and we ought to have bought some more. We also bought the local High Range brand Strawberry jam, marketed by Tata. Surprisingly, none of the shops stock home made jams and marmalades. We stopped to enjoy our private lake one last time.

Checking out late the next morning, we bid farewell to Mr. Sreenivasan, Joseph, Premsingh the Nepali porter who feels at home in these hills, and the rest of the staff at the Siena. Munis insisted we see the Pothamedu viewpoint but it was fog bound so we went on to the Athukad waterfalls at Pallivasal. The waterfalls were impressive even though it was still summer. They did look better from afar than from the base, where ‘Bisleri – Lays’ ruled the roost. Passing the very long penstock of the Pallivasal power project, we took our fair share of snapshots as there was no sight of the ubiquitous signboards proclaiming “Photography Strictly Prohibited”.

Descending the ghats, the trees became noticeably taller, and we enjoyed several easy walks alongside the forest on downhill stretches. More waterfalls awaited us, the Kallar, Cheeyapara and Vallara falls. They must be magnificent when in spate. From Adimaly to Neriamangalam, the road on either side abuts dense, moist evergreen jungles of very tall, cathedral like trees dripping with epiphytes, and thick bamboo undergrowth. I remembered our first driver Ravi, who was held up by an “elephant on the road”. After Neriamangalam, the plantations began: areca, cacao, pineapple, coconuts and rubber.

We pulled in to the Hotel Maria International at Kothamangalam at sunset, to a very warm welcome from the General Manager Mr Joy. We were initially booked at the Birds Lagoon which at the last moment, our Munnar agent Murugesan informed us was full; offering instead the Maria. Trepidation turned to unexpected satisfaction. The Maria was truly the best of the hotels. We stayed in a huge AC suite, overlooking a river with plantations on the opposite bank. The AC was most welcome as Kothamangalam does not enjoy hill station weather by any stretch of the imagination. Mr Joy’s welcome was genuine, from the heart, and he and his staff went out of their way to make our stay more than comfortable.

Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary

Joy personally accompanied us the next morning to the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at Thattekadu, a mere 15 minute drive away, to ensure that we got a reliable forest guide. This is most important. A poor guide can easily ruin the visit. We could not have asked for better. Our guide Sudheesh was a local from Thattekadu, with an immense and sincere love for his forests. He told us that although the sanctuary was only 25 sq. km., it was also a corridor connecting the extensive Neriamangalam and Adimaly forests at the foothills of Munnar. Within minutes we spotted India’s largest butterfly, the black and yellow Southern Birdwing, followed by an assortment of unique insects and smaller reptiles like the flying lizard. Kerala’s state bird the Great Indian Hornbill Buceros bicornis flew here and there, and we did manage a reasonable photograph albeit from a distance. The planted mahogany forests soon gave way to an uphill trail through indigenous tall evergreens. We halted by an enormous Bombax Ceiba tree, the second biggest in the sanctuary, according to Sudheesh. The unexpected highlight of the almost 5 hour walk was the sighting of a pair of highly endangered Ceylon Frogmouths Batrachostomus moniliger, for which Thattekadu is justly famous. We were so close, we could have touched them. Being nocturnal, they did not move from their perch, but did keep their eyes open. They were so cute with their froggy faces. We had to resist a very strong urge to cuddle them, taking lots of photos instead. Although it was not hot inside the forest, the humidity was a pre- monsoon 98% and we were dripping by the time we emerged. If we had wanted, Sudheesh would have been most pleased to take us all the way to Neriamangalam through forest corridors! I enjoyed the Thattekadu forest trek as much as I did Periyar. Both places are distinctly unique. Thattekadu is an excellent forest deserving much better publicity. It is so close to the Cochin airport at Nedumbassery that it ought to be included as a stopover, en route to Munnar or Thekkady.

After a reviving cup of strong Kerala chaiya at a roadside stall, we went to the serene Bhoothanthakettu reservoir nearby, abutting the magnificent Periyar River Barrage. One can not help remember that many school children drowned here just a year ago, when their over crowded boat capsized. Boating is no longer permitted. For some peculiar reason, photography is “Strictly not permitted” at the Barrage. Pity. The road continues further through dense forest, to the Edamalayar Dam.

Mr Joy personally ordered the most scrumptious Kerala dinner for us, just as he had done the previous evening. The special Coconut Rice was the best ever, as was the previous day’s Fish Masala with Ghee Rice. Our holiday almost at its end, we packed our bags, ready for the next mornings departure.

After a delicious Appam with Egg Roast breakfast, we bade the Hotel Maria farewell, reaching Nedumbassery Airport in half an hour, on an uncrowded road. Our flight left on time, touching down in Mumbai ahead of schedule. A satisfying finale to a perfect holiday.