A glimpse of Kalvari Mount

When I first tasted the joys of travel during my MBA days, I naively started drafting a list of destinations. A sort of to-do list. And on top of this list, the very first destination that I wrote, was a little known place named Kalvari (or Calvary) mount. Why Kalvari mount, of all places ? The desire then, was to go truly offbeat. My biggest source of travel reports in those days was the travelogue section on motoring forums in India. And one look at the photographs was convincing enough.

With the advent of smart phones and social media, that place wasn’t to remain off beat for long. A regional film released in 2013 implanted it firmly in the mainstream consciousness. But it wasn’t until I came across Ram’s blog that memories of that dusty old list were rekindled.

When plans for a weekend excursion to Munnar district started germinating, there was hardly any excuse to not visit this particular place. Although, with not much information available even now, we had no idea how the roads were, what kind of terrain would we have to cover to reach the point, and most importantly for me, would we encounter leeches.

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Follow the Google maps route, but take the diversion to Adimali and then rejoin the road towards Idukki. Though slightly longer, this is a flat stretch of road whereas the Google maps recommendation is narrow and awkwardly steep in places.

An early start, as I always endorse, was treated with much disdain by my travel mates. Sumptuous breakfast notwithstanding, we covered much ground in the morning but as soon as we left the hills of Munnar, the incessant heat wore us down steadily. Stepping wearily through the gates of Kalvari mount (there is a ticket involved), we were greeted with an enormous cloud cover that blockaded the sun’s heat entirely.

Our first view was nothing short of breathtaking.

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Behold, a bird’s eye view of the catchment area created by the Idukki Dam. A small shelter made out of bamboo stem pillars and a thatched roof occupied the otherwise verdant viewpoint.

Not a single sound pervaded the place. Not even the gentle rustling of the overgrown grass in the breeze. It was as if everything stood still for a tiny moment and etched a sharp technicolor photograph inside your brain.

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Tiny islands dotting the catchment area, almost seemed to have been added as an afterthought, in order to add some more variety to the scene.
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I remembered reading somewhere, that on a lucky day, you could see elephants from the forest wading into the waters.

While the eastern side of the hill is owned by a private party that runs a tea estate, the western side of the hill throws open more panoramic views. A rough road connects everything and I walked over to the western side, past a basic toilet, a small garden with vegetables and a few grazing cows. There I came across the caretaker Benny, digging and planting a few plants, who told me that there is a lot more to explore on the western face.

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Benny, the caretaker’s hut is like a dream come true. He told me that the forest office was building a few cottages on the hill, to let out to tourists. 

The sky grew darker through the afternoon. Before long, the calm was interrupted by the sound of thunder in the distance. A strong wind brought in it’s wake, ominous dark clouds from the western horizon.

Kalvari mount deserved a lot more time, I realized with a heavy heart. Something for the future maybe.

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One last look from that view point again. 

Oct – Jan would be an ideal time to visit Kalvari mount though monsoons cast a different kind of magic on the place. A tiny shop provides noodles, packaged snacks and other refreshments at the entrance to the place. Though the road to Kalvari mount is not tarmac all the way, we saw hatchbacks carefully treading the incline without too much fuss. 

You have an option to stay in one of the two cottages built for tourists on the hill. Each one accommodates 5 and includes basic sanitation facilitiesthere is no provision for cooking. Get in touch with the forest office at Idukki or Mr. Thomas at +91-9447166084 for reservation.


 

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Zorbing in Kolukkumalai

“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.

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While one tyre would be climbing up a rock, it’s partner would be diving into a ditch and the remaining 2 would be dealing with problems of their own. It felt like being inside a toy raced around by a 5 year old with a total attention span of zero.

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. Continue reading

On to Varkala

That night after the movie, we hurriedly got onto a Kerala state transport bus that goes to Trivandrum, hoping to reach Varkala by morning. “3 tickets to Varkala please” was met with an expression of uncertainty..this time, the conductor consulted other passengers (yes, not the other way round) to find out which would be the closest stop to Varkala. That  turned out to be a place called Kollam. So the whole night was spent travelling to Kollam on the ultimate when it comes to luxury transport – a Kerala state transport bus. In the morning, 2 buses and an auto rickshaw later, we found ourselves at Varkala, a beach that ranks right up there along with the best that India has to offer.

In the monsoon (this must be the 2nd week of September), Varkala is not at all crowded and accommodation wouldn’t be a problem. But expect some sections of the beach to be inaccessible due to strong waves and even the locals discourage you from exploring places that they deem a little dangerous. Nevertheless, our stay at Varkala was punctuated by alternating spells of strong sunshine and heavy rain. There are 2 hills which overlook the beach and although accommodation can be found on both of them, it would be better to stick to the bigger hill. It houses a variety of stay options and small shacks as well as restaurants, and you can while your time away sipping a cocktail inside one of these while resting your eyes on one of the best vistas you can experience in Kerala. We spent an evening there contemplating the benefits of getting a managerial job and/or crunching numbers in an investment banking job versus the prospect of opening an establishment like a restaurant on such a beach and waking up to the sights and sounds of the sea every single morning.

Night time meant catching a return back to Kozhikode, be warned though – it can be exasperatingly difficult to get a rickshaw back to Varkala town after evening. We had to walk a while before good luck shined on us, and had to catch a train to Kozhikode (2 actually, don’t ask) before we could end up sleeping away to glory in our campus rooms in the morning. All in all, this had been a trip where the eventual destinations (both of them – Alleppey and Varkala) turned out to be quite a long way from the original plan (Payipad and Munnar) and one in which we had spent a lot more time travelling rather than relaxing. But still, they say, it is the journey that matters and that was how matters were laid to rest. At least till the next trip.

The backwaters of Alleppey

I woke up the next morning to discover that the bathroom had a hot water faucet, manna dey from heaven for people like me, who are used to Siberian winters on the hill top in our campus (not really, but it had been ages since I had a bath with hot water). After the bath, I decided to adjust the settings on my DSLR so that it could be trusted to deliver when asked to perform. To my unmitigated horror filled with shrieks right out of a Ramsay brothers’ movie, I discovered that I had forgotten the batteries at campus.

Since Don and Bhai were not exactly world class photographers in their own right, and neither had brought their Nokia Vertus or digital camera, the only recourse was to depend on my trusty phone camera (which is a bit like resorting to a moped because your spanking new sports car broke down). So after Don and Bhai had finished laughing at the photographer’s folly, and then finished ruminating over the sad fact that there won’t be any glamorous photos of them against the backwaters of Kerala, we did the only other thing that was most important in our minds. Breakfast. You usually get pretty good south indian food in an Udipi restaurant and having had our fill, we made our way to the KSRTC bus stand to catch the next bus to Allepey.

From Kochi, Allepey is about 2-3 hours by bus and the first thing that strikes you when you reach Allepey is the narrow canal of water that runs adjacent to the road.

It costs around 1000 bucks for a 2 hour ride on the backwaters in a small motor boat. But if you have cash to splurge, you can opt for the Kerala houseboat (called Kettuvallam) and spend an entire day cruising around in a floating home replete with all the amenities – TV, a kitchen, bedroom and of course, the floating porch.

The backwaters themselves are a chain of brackish lagoons that lie parallel to the Arabian sea and the view is something that you’ve probably never seen before, unless you are a Mallu who was born right there.

Imagine floating along on narrow canals surrounded by lush green paddy fields, people going through their household chores on the banks, children going to school in a boat, and the gentle rocking of your boat. On top of this, sometimes it starts drizzling and the whole experience becomes utterly mesmerizing. Rain rain don't go awayThat is when the guy driving your boat asks you if you would want the company of Bacchus. No, you say, you’d rather sip some coconut water and get something to munch on. That is when he pulls over to a bank and you trod to a small shop and make the mistake of purchasing some stale tapioca chips to go along with the limitless quantity of coconut water inside the coconut he hands over to you.

For the rest of the er..voyage, it would be advisable to just sit back, and let the slow life grab hold of you.

It has to be said however, that sometimes you begin to curse the crass commercialism evident on the scene, with too many houseboats, launches and boats passing you by. I bet the locals living on the banks do not want to feel like animals in a sanctuary either, with the tourists taking photographs of them cutting fish, or washing clothes.

That said, the 2 hours pass by charmingly well, and before you know it, you are back on the road, literally. Payipad, the venue of the snake boat race and the reason we started off on this trip, was apparently a little too far from Allepey and nobody could tell us how to get there with any sense of certainty. Plus, we had certainly experienced a slice of heaven in that two hour boat ride, so we were not that enthusiastic about making a trip to an unknown place. So it was, that there was a slight change in our plans and we decided to go back to Ernakulam instead and proceed straight to Munnar from there.

We did reach Ernakulam by about 1700, but by then the last bus to Munnar was just departing and we still had to collect our bags from the hotel. With no other mode of transport to our destination, that meant Munnar would have to wait until next morning. Trudging back to our rooms, we realized we couldn’t really experience Munnar in half a day, since we had  to head for campus the next evening. That meant our Munnar plans would have to shelved too, in favour of..Varkala a beach that lies to the south of Allepey and just before Trivandrum. Turns out, lots of buses ply between Ernakulam and Trivandrum all through night and day and we’d have to catch one in late in the night, so we’d be in Varkala by early morning.

Evening would have to be spent in Ernakulam itself and we decided to head for the marine drive area there, have dinner and catch a movie at the local theatre. If you’re the sort for whom marine drive is synonymous with the queen’s necklace, Jazz by the Bay and Nariman point, avoid this one like the plague. With nothing much to speak about on marine drive, that brings me to the movie we caught after having dinner – this – a life experience in itself. Before the movie starts, the audience at the back of the theatre went crazy, dancing as if they were extras in a Govinda-David Dhawan movie. Wolf whistles, cat calls, whoops and pelvic thrusts accompanied every beat of the song being played before the start of the movie. Although tempted to join in, better sense prevailed and we occupied a place farthest from those guys. We were expecting more when the actresses came on screen, but queerly (no pun) enough, that is where Kerala failed us – not a single reaction when Kareena Kapoor came on screen. Still, the movie was made out of the purest variety of MDH masala that only your mom would know about, and we relished every single scene. End of the movie, and we made our way to the KSRTC bus stand to catch the next bus to Varkala, blissfully unaware of the adventures that were to follow, but that requires another blog post

Adventure in Alleppey – Prologue

Start of a long weekend, and I awoke to a lazy morning at around 1100, only to be caught up in a discussion about which place to travel to with Vishal (aka Don) and Vinay (aka Bhai, the species normally found in Dubai). Don wanted to go watch a snake boat race happening in Payipad which, according to my theory of non-Euclidian geometry, is about 1104 stones thrown away from Kozhikode. Google maps puts it at around 276 km from Kozhikode. The original travel plan
From there, we would go to Munnar, which every tourist in Kerala worth their body salt has to go to, it is the holy grail of hill stations. The plan was to catch a train to Allepey (or Allapuzha), find a place to sleep, go to Payipad the next day, wonder in amazement at the snake boat race and then make our way to Munnar and spend a day there as well.

As luck would have it, the train we had hoped to catch in the afternoon was completely booked. Turns out, there is no general compartment in the Jan Shatabdi train, so you cannot behave like a Mumbaikar and get in even if there is half the population of Equatorial Guinea in it. Decent law abiding citizens that we are, plans were hastily changed  and tickets were bought for the next train, which would only go upto Ernakulam. We would have to spend the night at Ernakulam instead of Allepey, and then march in full armour towards Allepey as soon as it was sunrise.

The next train was a passenger train and you can ‘upgrade’ your tickets to a reserved ticket by talking, no, pleading to the TTE. So we managed to get some comfortable seats and would have soon died of sheer boredom and famine if not for two things. One, the train stopped at Shornur where we found the crispiest, tastiest medu vadas this side of the Tropic of Capricorn. Two, Don had with him his iPod touch and this amazing game happened to be loaded on it. Enough said.

We reached Ernakulam between 8.30 and 9 and to our dismay, all the hotels near the station were booked. Bhai’s contacts suggested a rather nice place on MG Road called Anand Bhavan, which offered a plethora of options on rooms. A three bed room booked, it was time to pay our respects to the stomach god. There was a restaurant near Anand Bhavan which offered ghastly food (if I remembered the name, I would have plastered it here dear reader but it seems to have been copied onto a floppy disk and then erased from my memories by the restaurant guys, which no doubt, is payback for not tipping). Thankfully, a Haji Ali juice centre is situated nearby and for you can taste heavenly falooda and icecream if you have deep pockets, which thankfully, we had more than one could wish for (Bhai had a suitcase full of cash and gold biscuits you see, much like Bollywood villains of yore).

We wanted to go and get some much needed sleep, but Wanted happened to be playing and Bhai, Don and me could not take our wicked eyes off Ayesha Takia. It was to be another 1-2 hours before we could get some shut eye.