It was a lovely Saturday morning – not too cold, with a gentle breeze blowing. Our vehicle had stopped that day at a decrepit tea shop a few kilometers outside Salem. I asked the kid there for directions to the toilet. In response, he just pointed to the backyard and uttered a single word “kaadu” (forest). I wouldn’t opt for that, but I did come back with a bemused smile on my face.
Our plan was to spend one day in the idyllic environs of Mannavanur, a small village 30 odd kms to the west of the popular hill station of Kodaikanal, laze around in Kodaikanal for the next 2 days before returning to the humdrum of Bangalore.
Numerous traffic jams and a sleepy driver meant that we reached Kodaikanal only by noon. It takes a better part of an hour to reach Mannavanur from Kodaikanal and the road winds through dense pine and teak forests bathed completely in mist. En-route, the enchanting smell emanating from the eucalyptus trees can make for a very heady concoction. Visibility can sometimes be restricted to a few meters as is wont to happen with the misty nature of Kodaikanal (literally meaning the ‘gift of the forest’). As per the instructions from the host of the place we were going to put up at, we took a diversion on the road that goes to the popular, very touristy ‘Pillar Rock’ and drove for around 30-40 minutes wondering whether we were on the right road. The forests cleared out in between to showcase the rustic village of Poombarai but then quickly closed in on us again. 13 kilometers later, the dense jungle opened up a little again and I spotted what I’d been looking for. A heart shaped lake, peeking out from between the trees and shimmering a rich silver, signaled that we were finally about to reach our destination.
It wasn’t long before we spotted the red bricked structures of the Camper’s Club, a small eco-tourism accommodation that provides only the essential bed, roof and toilet and nothing more. Electricity is provided through a gen-set and is limited to 3-4 hours a day, starting at 7 pm in the evening and few cellphone networks, if any are available. The cottages, which can accommodate two people each (but as usual in India, has space for 2 more), are situated on a hill which also has vegetable plantations laid out in a terraced farming pattern. The hills overlook a valley containing rolling grasslands and from our vantage point, almost seemed to have the lake at it’s center, laid out like a jewel. The valley itself is surrounded by dense forests and shola on all sides.
The skies were overcast that day and the threat of rains made us carry umbrellas on our way to the lake. The only road leads to a gate 1-2 km away, through which you access the path way to the lake. The lake itself falls under the premises of the Sheep Research Center, that is why you can see flocks of sheep and herds of cows grazing in the meadows throughout the day.
As usual, I’ll let the pictures do the talking then.
The lake is surrounded by moorlands in some areas, with dandelions, colorful heather plants and grass growing in wet soil. We decided to circumambulate the lake after some time, but were vexed at the prospect of having to wade through marshy areas with overgrown wild grass and weed. Some parts of the banks had soil that readily gobbled up my friend’s chappal (and half his calf) as soon as he stepped into it, another friend had to dislodge a thirsty and obviously disappointed leech from his feet. With the light fading fast, we decided to re-trace our way back to the entrance, although it turned out that the watchman (we didn’t know there was one) had come looking for us since we hadn’t come back by closing time.
I saw some stunning cloud formations on the way back to the entrance and it is amazing how images can evoke words to come rushing to your brain, even though you would never have remembered it otherwise – this time it was Cumulonimbus. However, I was mistaken and these clouds were of a different formation entirely. (Tangent: check out this link for more stunning pics of clouds along with their names.)
Back at the cottage, it grew too cold to have a bath. They do provide hot water if you ask for it however. We didn’t expect much for dinner but were pleasantly surprised by the simple yet delectable fare dished out – Chapathis and a Jain style Dal for a friend followed by piping hot rice, sambar and a delicious omelet. More than the food, we were touched by the genuine hospitality of the ‘amma’ who had cooked the food and her concern at the taste of the Dal. It was pitch dark outside and some rustling sounds and commotion at the top of the hill prompted our hosts to remark there were probably wild animals up near the plantations.
We fell asleep as soon as they switched off the gen-set, tired after the long journey and all the exertion in the evening. It is a wonder how devoid of dreams my sleep is, when I am that tired. Inspired by the famous NatGeo photographer Michael Melford, I had resolved to wake up at dawn to catch the sunrise. But little was I to know how utterly magical it was going to turn out to be.
After a breakfast of spicy cheese, jam, tomatoes and cucumber (from our own hamper) coupled with hot coffee from the kitchen and the magnificent view outside our cottages, we decided it was time to get moving. With a heavy heart, we bid adieu to the kind-hearted folk at our stay and the village of Mannavanur. Every single word I had read about it’s beauty had turned out to be so unequivocally true.
Note: Cell phone signal reception can be a problem (or a blessing for people like me) in Mannavanur. It is advisable to carry offline maps on your device in case you get confused on the road. The Camper’s Club website is at http://kodaikanalcampersclub.com/ or you can directly contact one of the caretakers – D. Sasikumar at 76394 50949, he speaks Tamil, a little Malayalam and faltering English/Hindi. The cottages and toilets (western style) are very rudimentary, expect the bare minimum only. The trust wants to promote the club as an eco-tourism destination and hence, it is advisable to be a little responsible during your stay. We visited it during Sep and the best time to visit seems to be from Sep to Feb, when the village and the forest are at their greenest.
Thanks are due, in no small measure, to Priyanka Ray for putting up information about Mannavanur. Without that blog post to catch my attention, I might never have come across this gem of a destination.