“It’ll be 1600 Rs, Sir” said the driver.
“Let us fix it at 1500”, I tried to bargain it down.
“You take a look at the roads first. Pay us only if you think we don’t deserve it”, he retorted.
That reply totally caught me off-guard and I had to agree with the rates he was quoting. We were in Suryanelli, a small town near Munnar on a cloudy afternoon, with dark clouds looming ominously on the Kollukumalai hills above us. Kollukumalai, an attempt at discovering the slightly offbeat side of Munnar, was what had led me here. As it turned out, only 4WD vehicles with a generous ground clearance can attempt the roads to the tea estate situated on these hills. And hence, the deal with the jeep driver.
Once we bundled in, the jeep lurched forward and for around 10 minutes, my companions doubted whether the roads really were that rough. No sooner did we cross a bend than the driver stopped and engaged the 4wheel drive on his Mahindra Major. We could see that the remainder of the way uphill was a rock-strewn, off-roading exercise, masquerading as a road.
Soon, the backseat of the jeep felt like being inside an orb, albeit without the cushioning. One moment, our backs would be thrown against the seat, and the next, our heads would almost bump into the canopy. The overhead bars in the jeep provided some purchase, but even then, it almost felt like your insides were being tossed about violently. For what seemed like hours, our bodies were subjected to this unrelenting torture until the driver finally stopped the roller coaster ride and pointed outside, indicating to us to take a look. It took a moment for us to realize our organs were still in their rightful places, before we stumbled outside, where, the most magnificent sight awaited us.
Before long, the roads made way for a softer patch along which the jeep started climbing with relative ease. There we sighted a board welcoming us to the tea estate. The driver told me what we had seen so far on the ride belonged to Kerala, and now, we were looking upon the Tamil Nadu side of the hills. Here, we could sight craggy hills with a green patina on one side and forests on the other. Unfortunately though, the tea estate on top was still some distance away and along with the dwindling soft light, rain clouds also threatened further advance. Reluctantly therefore, we turned around to go back down.
Assuaging our decision was the fact that it soon started to drizzle and then, started pouring cats and dogs. Water dripped in from gaps in the Jeep canopy. Faulty vipers and driving in neutral gear all the way downhill meant an hour and a half of nerve-wracking, bone crushing drive. It was a relief to finally be on smoother roads again. What a well-kept secret this drive to Kollukumalai had been. Munnar had won us over, just like that.
Kollukumalai also has stay options available that are more valuable than a stay in good old Munnar town. It is advisable to book in advance – the view of sun rise from there is supposedly spectacular. We booked a Mahindra Major to take us up the hills, a different model with more seats is also available. Be warned though, the bone-jarring ride to Kollukumalai is not at all recommended for people with back or neck problems. An umbrella is also advisable during the monsoons. So is a cup of hot tea after you get up there.