Postcards from Valparai

Here are some more picture postcards from the trip to Valparai. Charming little Valparai and it’s pretty tea estates.

Sholayar reservoir
The roads are quite good and public transport frequents even the relatively deeper reaches of the hill station. Seen here is a bus making its way by the shimmering waters of the Sholayar reservoir. Sholayar itself is around 10-15 km from Valparai town and it takes almost 10-15 minutes by private transport.
Valparai tea estates
It sometimes feels as if somebody came, sat and braided the tea estates on Valparai’s hills. Just like hair. These tea estates are unbelievably manicured, uniformly wide-spread. Would dwarf the other hill stations in South India, without a doubt.
Valparai tea estates
And of course the mandatory, meandering road making its way through the tea estates !
Valparai tea estates
A charming little bridge over the charming stream of a tea estate. Quite picturesque, no ? To be honest, the stream was actually a drain carrying dirty water down from the tea estates.
Valparai tea estates
Another image of the bridge.
Aliyar dam from a hairpin
A panorama of Aliyar and the serpentine roads that lead up to Valparai. This was shot on the 7th hairpin. Observe closely and you can see the reflection of a cloud in the waters of the reservoir
Aliyar dam
We made our way down to the Aliyar dam and the garden. It was hot in the afternoon and the clouds provided a momentary respite . Seen here are ripples on the waters of Aliyar, against the backdrop of the majestic hills of Valparai.
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Valparai

The origins of this hill station, and the flourishing state of much of it’s tea estates are due in no small part, to pioneering gentlemen from the days of the British Raj. It comes as a bit of a surprise therefore, that history books are noticeably devoid of any mention of the beginnings of this place. Indeed, precious little is known about Carver Marsh, the man who introduced tea plantations to the Annamalai ranges. Without any further ado however, let us concentrate our attentions on the beauty of this place – Valparai.

Valparai_Route
If opting for a bus, Pollachi is the closest point that most buses from Bangalore will ply to. Most buses take the Salem-Erode-Tirupur-Udumalpet route to get there. However some people choose the Coimbatore route as well to get there. From Coimbatore, taxi operators offering services to Valparai are a dime a dozen. Pollachi also has quite a few but their fares do tend to pinch.

As one nears Pollachi, the early riser is greeted with views of wide open fields, coconut trees and towering wind turbines. From the looks of it, there is precious little to do in Pollachi itself, unless you are on a pilgrimage. Our cab driver is early to pick us up. After re-fueling and a quick halt for some south Indian breakfast, we speed along the road to Valparai.

2 hours .. Valparai“, our driver quips in faltering English, as we start.

Ghat section, more time.“, he adds for extra measure, to explain the inordinate time taken for a 60 km stretch. I nod in understanding and partially lower the windows to take in the fresh air. Instantly, the smells of jasmine, incense and cow dung all come together in unison through the windows. Pretty soon however, craggy hills shrouded in mist make their appearance on the horizon. Our driver points to the top and exclaims. “Valparai !

We pass by Aliyar dam and “Monkey falls”. The latter looks like a typical tourist trap with the weekend crowd queuing up at the entrance and hence, we pass it by without stopping. Ghat roads welcome us soon and after negotiating a few hairpins, a stunning bird’s eye view of Aliyar dam comes up. Here, our cab driver pulls over and we sleepily tumble out, only to be presented with a glorious view. Aliyar reservoir gleams in the morning sun but the rest of the hills are covered in a hazy, misty veil. The serpentine roads remind me in some idiotic way, of pinball. We’re not alone at this hour, though. There is a foreigner trying to photograph something that our eyes are slow to spot in the mist. Soon enough however, realization dawns.

It is the Nilgiri Tahr. Their nonchalance on these scary precipices invokes epiphany, and the meaning behind the idiom, ‘as sure footed as a mountain goat’ strikes you crystal clear in the head.

The road ahead consists of 33 more hairpins and musters grunts and squeaks from the cab. Soon enough, a thick fog envelops everything and the environs resemble a fairyland. These are the peaks of the hills and the fog obscures much of the tea estates. After descending a little though, the fog parts to give us the first glimpse of Valparai. It becomes clear in an instant that Valparai is home to some of the biggest tea estates in South India. Entire hills have been deforested and are covered in swathes of tea plantations. As the cab descends, seemingly bald (and tea-green colored) hills appear, one after the other, and their mere presence leaves you enchanted. There are still patches of forests left on these hills; but not for long, counters the mind. And we press ahead.

Our resort is located somewhere near the Sholayar reservoir and cellphone signal reception has already deserted us long ago. A few helpful locals guide us to a nondescript gate leading to the resort and restless after the long ride, we check in, and settle down for lunch. Lunch, prepared by the caretakers consists of simple sambar, rice and okra subzi. What stands out though, is the freshness and quality of the ingredients. It seems like even the vegetables are produced locally, lending a very homely feel to everything on the menu. We rest for some time, and set out for some sight-seeing late in the afternoon.

Valparai tea estates
Tea estates of every conceivable shape and size abound in Valparai. This one lent the feel of being in an amphitheater.
Sholayar dam
The picturesque Sholayar reservoir is a place of calmness and serenity, something that is disrupted only by the occasional vehicle. This picture speaks nothing about the beauty of the place.
Fog rolling in the hills of Valparai
As late evening sets in, fog rolls over in the distant peaks of Valparai. A signal for us humans to settle down for the night and let the forest and its inhabitants take over.
Koolangal river Valparai
The Koolangal river retains its beauty but from up close, it reveals some dirty water making its way downhill.

The sun goes down over the Sholayar reservoir after smearing the skies with a purple tinge. The next day reveals even more tea estates than the previous day. Every hill or mound, of every conceivable shape has been draped with a tea estate. We spot charming little bridges over small streams and rivulets of water running between the estates. The mist plays quite the character in Valparai, always hanging around in the background over the not so distant hills. And sometimes, reminding us of the place we have to go back to.

Pretty soon, it is time to bid good bye to this beautiful little place. But not without the promise of another visit. For we have heard, that the monsoons are when Valparai and its inhabitants come into their own. Some day, soon. We will.

Sholayar
The mist hangs around on the hills. Even from the banks of the glittering Sholayar, it is a reminder that we have to go back.

For a few more pictures of Valparai, visit this blog post.

Note: We visited Valparai in the month of December. Cabs from Pollachi to Valparai can be expensive. It is best if you have your own vehicle. We stayed at Deepika’s garden resort near the Sholayar dam. Cellphone signals were near to non existent except for Aircel. Warm clothes are not really necessary since it never got that cold even at night.  However, monsoons are when Valparai really weaves its magic and going by the reviews, it is a sight to behold. Valparai rarely witnesses the crowds that throng the more popular hill stations of south India, and hence, it is a place that you must experience now. Before word spreads.

RE-BLOG: A Higher Place, A Divine Treat | OPEN Magazine

Cannot help but re-blog a few scintillating pieces of writing that I read recently.

The first one begins with an introduction to the quaint British concept of hill stations and then delves into details of the writer’s experiences in the charming town of Kodaikanal. Rajni George paints a most endearing picture, one filled with fond memories, insights about the places that only somebody who actually grew up there can reveal, and most importantly, wonderful anecdotes about the people who live in Kodaikanal. Read on to find out more..

A Higher Place | OPEN Magazine.

The next one is a lip-smacking, culinary journey through the temple towns of Tamil Nadu.
V. Shoba guides us through a labyrinthine path across some esoteric and some famous temples; and particularly the ‘prasadam’ and ‘annadaanam’ doled out there, that are still in vogue. She digs into the kitchens of some of these, and whips up narratives on a cornucopia of foods, made out of simple ingredients using arcane cooking techniques and age-old utensils. The aftertaste of this article will lead you straight to one of these temples. I bet. Go on..read it. No, savor it.

A Divine Treat | OPEN Magazine.

To the Nilgiris once more

There is a lot more to Ooty and the Nilgiris than the traditional tourist brochures and websites would have you believe. I couldn’t get enough of the Nilgiris during my last trip and knew for sure there were a lot many things that lay hidden. To uncover these, you either have to know people who know about these ‘secrets’ or be a Google ninja. Either way (and especially if you own a vehicle), sometimes the best map to follow may be your intuition. Parsons valley and Porthimund lake were just two best kept secrets that I unearthed through countless hours spent reading forums and blogs. And once a rough itinerary materialized, things fell in place like clockwork – a Friday night bus to Ooty found 4 of us in its passenger list.

A beautiful Saturday morning dawned on us, and we decided to hire some bikes. A Royal Enfield Thunderbird and a Bajaj Discover were seen fit for the task, with a 600 rupee and 500 rupee rental cost respectively. People had heard of Porthimund and Parsons valley, but nobody could give us clear cut directions. Much to our frustration, digital maps were not of much use since cellphone signal reception is non-existent in the remote areas and there are too many roads and shortcuts that the maps don’t reveal.

Pothimund lies some 20 odd kilometres to the west of Ooty. Half an hour on the dreamlike Ooty-Gudalur road past Sandynulla lake, past the shooting meadows will take you to a nondescript diversion that seems to be the correct road. A couple of kilometres on a narrow road hemmed in by jungles on both sides, and you’ll reach a tea estate where you have to take another diversion. A villager who had caught a wild buffalo (with enormous curved horns and trying to ram the truck it was loaded into) happened to give us the correct directions when we took a wrong turn somewhere beyond the estate. Asking the locals at every point thereafter certainly helped. There are yellow signboards that were put up by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board and the Forest Department long ago – but the markings on these have faded beyond the point of legibility.

Route to porthimund
The lakes to the east of Porthimund are Avalanche and Emerald. Could there be a hidden road linking the two ? Google maps had no idea.

The road past the tea estate is a kuccha road that belongs to a different age. At some points, it is too narrow for anything more than a small hatchback, and yet, the ditches and stones on the road might not take kindly to anything with low ground clearance. Thankfully enough, our bikes seemed up to the challenge.

On the way, we saw black Nilgiri langurs scampering across the road. The thump of the Bullet was interspersed with bird calls that we’d never heard before and the occasional drone of insects. In between, a faint whiff of eucalyptus would enliven our senses. On certain stretches, the trees crowd around the road and lend a claustrophobic feel to the ride. So it was, that we couldn’t help feeling a little lost and doubtful about the direction we were headed in.

With no sign of Parsons valley after almost an hour, we were sure we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. After a brief pit-stop at a hamlet, we ran into a check-post where the guard asked us for a permit. Turns out, you need a permit from the Forest office in Ooty to ride beyond the check-post. The old Indian art of greasing palms works its charm in such situations but we bargained a little more. At first, they reprimanded us for bringing bikes and that too, one as loud as the Bullet. They also mentioned the presence of wild animals and told us it was too dangerous to go ahead, that too on bikes. However, after much cajoling, pleading and countless assurances to return in half an hour; we managed to get the go-ahead. Sure enough, within half an hour of twisting, curving roads – we caught our first glimpse of Porthimund lake.

Porthimund Lake
Our first glimpse of Porthimund lake from a vantage point in a thicket on a hill. The glimmering lake beckoned us and with not a sound to be heard, it felt like we had wandered miles away from civilization.

Our bikes climbed a few metres ahead on a gently sloping hill till we saw, what looked like the fresh spoor of some herbivores, potentially large ones judging by the amount they had left behind. But what rooted us to our spots was the sight of the lake itself.

Porthimund Lake
Absolutely bewitching. The waters of the lake seemed to change color with every passing minute – now turquoise, then a mixture of cyan and royal blue, then green in some areas, then again turquoise. The mountains in the background and the fluffy clouds descending on them added a lot of drama to the scene. There was a cool breeze blowing all this while. It was certain – all that long planning for this trip and the arduous riding through the jungle had certainly been worth it.
Porthimund Lake
As usual, I spent some time in quiet solitude and managed to click this fantastic photograph of my friend. Notice the wonderful traces of white that are visible in the water…wonder what could cause their occurrence.

We had hardly spent more than half an hour when two forest guards came out of nowhere and demanded to see our permit. Very clearly, this was a restricted area and without a permit, they were surprised we had managed to come this far. After having explained that we had taken permission from the check-post guards, they asked 2 of us to come with them to their forest hut. A few moments of panic and worry ensued but their jaw dropped when my friend told them they had bribed the check-post guard with a lot of money. Excited at the prospect of sharing the booty no doubt, they sent us on our way and warned us to go straight back to Ooty. Who were we to disobey them ?

On the way back, we took a diversion which would lead us out through Avalanche. Not only did we manage to avoid questions from the first check-post guard again, we were treated to a whole troop of Nilgiri langurs occupying the road. In huge numbers, they looked scary but thankfully, all of them scampered up the trees upon hearing the thump of the Bullet. A few miles later, we were treated to fantastic views of Avalanche lake.

Vantage views of Avalanche
Bliss. After riding through a mildly sunny day, the clouds gathered to drizzle and provide some much needed respite from the sun. The fact that this magnificent view was in front of us didn’t hurt either.

All along the way, Avalanche continued to provide glimpse after fantastic glimpse of its famed beauty. We pressed on further and encountered a pack of Bullet riders on the way back, leather jackets and saddles, flags and all.

Avalanche Lake
Another view of Avalanche. Look at the way the sun rays and the clouds light up the lake so splendidly. If only someone could have served me some tea fresh from the gardens here…aah. Need to reign in my imagination sometimes.

Sunday

The intention was to take in the sights the next day and relax as much as possible. So we hired a cab to take us to Kotagiri the next day. I asked our cab driver, about his favorite spot in the Nilgiris and without much thought, he said he would put Avalanche at number 1 and Kotagiri below Avalanche. I didn’t want to bother asking him about Porthimund and Parsons valley.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway
The Nilgiri mountain railway, whistles and chugging sounds included, delightfully makes its way across Ooty. It does look like a toy train from this height.
Kodanadu view point
The Kodanadu view point in Kotagiri offers fantastic views acoss the valley. Our cab driver told us that on a clear day, you can see the Bhavani river and parts of Mysore from here. The thumb shaped peak is Rangaswamy Betta.
Somewhere on the way to Kotagiri
One of the things I like most about Ooty is the splendid skies. Deep hues of blue dotted with fluffy white clouds and juxtaposed against the greenery of the tea estates below, it sure is a treat for sore eyes.
Ooty tea estates
One more of the fantastic landscapes somewhere near Ooty, lit up beautifully by the fading evening light.

As the light faded fast and the chill in the air rose, I realized that over two trips to the Nilgiris, I hadn’t seen Ooty lake, or the botanical or rose gardens or the Sims garden in Coonoor. On second thought, I realized I didn’t really have any intention of visiting these attractions.

I do however, intend to visit the Nilgiris again because the blue hills hide many more secrets from the ignorant touristy eyes. But till the next time, I have got a lot of research to do and some more planning to do.

Note: Porthimund falls into a protected area as it supplies water to most of the towns in the Nilgiris district. Hence a forest permit is required from the Forest office in Ooty before venturing inside. We just got lucky on that day to be let off with a warning, however it is a serious offense. Also, there is another road from Avalanche that goes to Porthimund that does not have any check-posts on the way. So it is a bit of a mystery why one of the entrances is unmanned. Even if you do manage to get inside, there is a barrier gate near Porthimun that restricts access to four wheelers. Bikes and bullets will manage to do so from a narrow passage on one side of the barrier. One more thing, there is a road that leads into the Mukurthi national park as well, but you require another permit for that and it covers a area that is almost 80 square kilometers in size.

Kodaikanal Trip Continued..

[Contd from here..]

With Mannavanur and Poombarai behind us, it was onward to Kodaikanal and only later did I realize that we had missed the beautiful town of Kukkal and the quaint and charming man-made lake in it. Something for the next visit I suppose, if there is one. But considering how breathtakingly beautiful Mannavanur was, I am optimistic there will be another.

On the way, we spotted this huge, fallen tree in the jungle. Because of the way it had fallen, it had enclosed a patch of resplendent green grass that stood out in sharp contrast to the dark trees around it.
As we walked towards the clearing, grass with fresh dew drops gently washed our feet. There was another fallen tree with mushrooms growing out of it’s trunk. Pine cones lay by the dozens on the ground. All of it made for a very picturesque morning sight.

Many photographs later, I felt a slight itching sensation on my foot and upon lifting the strap of my sandal, discovered a leech happily gorging on my blood. I quickly removed the other sandal to discover 4-5 of them trying to make a Saravana Bhavan out of my foot. Ran out of the grass on to the road to remove them one by one and discovered one more hidden in my left little toe. (I later spotted a big one settling down between my knuckles, while I was seated in the car as well.) Even after I removed all of them, the mind started playing it’s tricks, causing itching sensations at strange places – discarding those thoughts was an effort in itself.

Inside the Jungle
The ground near this tree was full of leeches…aargghhh

Back to the trip then, we went to the touristy Moir point and Pillar Rock, but lots of mist ensured we couldn’t see anything at all. Hot cups of tea near these attractions were a relief however and we made our way back to Kodaikanal to find a hotel (Hotel Bala near Astoria – 1380 for 4 people for a day in the off-season) to spend the rest of the two days.

Since it rained non-stop that day, there weren’t many options for us to do any sight-seeing. The rest of the day was spent lunching at Rasoi restaurant on Anna Salai road (decent north Indian food I must add), sipping coffee and tasting the pies, ginger biscuits and ice-creams at Daily Bread Pastry Corner (pretty yum), looking at the shops on Anna Salai and Seven Roads Junction and making another unsuccessful attempt to see if the mist had cleared at Pillar Rock. The entrance to Pillar Rock closes some time between 5.30 and 6 in the evening and on the return road along side the golf course, we sighted bisons, plenty of them in fact.

Back in the town, it still hadn’t stopped raining and an attempt to stroll around the Kodaikanal lake later, we opted for dinner at the Tibetan Brother’s restaurant near the Seven Roads Junction. Next day was to be our last day at Kodaikanal and I vowed to wake up early again to catch the sunrise at Coaker’s walk.

The body’s alarm clock went off at 6.30 and I rushed outside to discover it had stopped raining after all. Quickly woke up the others and we walked down to Coaker’s Walk only to discover that it opens only at 7.30. With nothing else to do, we waited outside and saw a caretaker drive a huge bison out of the Van Allen hospital nearby.

Bison near Coaker's walk
The bison seemed a little confused after being driven out but pretty soon, started walking towards the forest..muscles rippling and all

By this time, the gates to Coaker’s Walk had been opened and we strolled in, the first of the visitors that morning.

View from Coaker's Walk
Early morning view from Coaker’s walk..there was a thin sliver of golden yellow sunshine from the rising sun when we first walked in, but that was soon hemmed in by clouds from all sides
Early morning at Coaker's Walk
Walk among the clouds at Coaker’s Walk
Early morning at Coaker's Walk
It can get misty at the drop of a hat anywhere in Kodaikanal
Sunshine at Coaker's Walk
Yet sometimes, the mist parts to reveal sights such as these. Tufts of cotton-like clouds hovering over green peaks in the distance.
Cottage overlooking Coaker's Walk
Some mental kilojoules were spent contemplating the chances of owning a property like this. Imagine the views every morning from the verandah.
Mist at Coaker's walk
Pretty soon, the fog began to roll in, blanketing the splendid views. After a few hours you could view nothing beyond the leftmost tree here.

The clock had struck 9.30 by this time and we rushed back to our room to freshen up and check-out. Breakfast, at Astoria Veg nearby turned out to be true to the reviews I’d read. Seldom have we come across a restaurant where every dish we ordered seemed to be better than the previous one. This sumptuous breakfast was topped off with some shopping in the vicinity for chocolates, gulkand, ginger biscuits and tea (a little difficult to fathom why the tea should be popular, since there aren’t exactly any tea plantations in Kodaikanal).

Astoria Plain Dosa
The plain dosa. Absolutely yummy south Indian dishes for breakfast at the Astoria hotel’s restaurant. Pretty quick service too…adventurous folks might want to check out their Astoria special dosa at 300 odd bucks

Our last destination for the day was the dolphin’s nose, which is a tiring 1.5 km walk down and an even more exhausting climb on the way back. The spot itself, is a 1 meter rock jutting out into the vast emptiness of a valley below with no fences to hold anything back. Being an acrophobiac, I had to crawl on to the rock to peer below but I couldn’t bear to sit there for too long. On the way though, we had a few ‘tree tomatoes’ or Tamarillos. These fruits, indigenous to South America and probably introduced in India by immigrants, grows only at higher elevations. It left a tingling sensation on my tongue and it’s skin was somewhat bitter to taste. The area outside the dolphin’s nose entry point has a few orchards where you can get pear very cheap – almost at 50 bucks for a bagful and what is more, you get to pluck the ones you want straight from the tree !

Misty forests near Dolphin's Nose
The mist can create an opaque veil sometimes. And sometimes, it can create magic like this..Walking through this path felt like being in a fairy tale.

With sightseeing done, it was almost 3.30 in the afternoon and time for us to bid goodbye. It was a glorious evening down in the plains and a rainy night by the time we reached Bangalore. I will concliude this trip report with some images from the wonderful ghat section between Kodaikanal and Bathalagundu.

Huge clouds in Kodaikanal
It felt like Kodai was beckoning us once again. Splendid sights on the ghat section while exiting Kodaikanal.
On the Kodaikanal-Batalagundu Highway
Panoramic views on the highway..splendid and breathtaking at every corner
Panorama of Manjalar reservoir
This one turned out to be a good capture. You can see the Manjalar dam and if you observe closely, to the right you can see the Rat-tail falls as well.

 

Kodaikanal Trip – Mannavanur

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.

Mannavanur Lake
The view from our doorsteps looked out into the valley with the glimmering lake at its center. The promised lake !
Camper's Club Mannavanur
One of the two rooms in the bottom cottage was ours for a night. You can see mist engulfing the entire forest at the periphery of Mannavanur
View from Camper's Club
We decided to set out to explore the lake at around 3.30 in the evening. The overcast skies threatened to open up and that is why we carried the umbrellas (for our cameras, not for ourselves)
At the entrance to Mannavanur Lake
The entrance to the lake/meadow is to the left of this bridge. You will see a few village folk washing carrots and radishes at a stream beside this road.
Mannavanur Lake
Sit for a moment and let everything pass you by 🙂
Sheep at Mannavanur
The sheep will look up with a timid yet nonchalant expression, never ceasing to graze. Some of the curious ones even came closer to ‘check’ out the intruders..
New Zealand - Mannavanur
Grasslands ! Sheep ! New Zealand ! Shire ! Baggins !
Cross the lake
Walk through marshy banks and wade through knee-deep water to cross over to the other side

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.

Lenticular UFO Clouds shaping up over Mannavanur
Fascinating cloud formations I’d rarely seen before..These are Lenticular UFO clouds shaping up over Mannavanur.

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.

Dawn at Mannavanur
This sight awaited me as I groggily pushed the doors of my cottage open. Whoa ! Wisps of clouds and wafts of mist descending upon the lake, rays of scattered light breaking through the clouds, the sounds of birds chirping, the attendant from the kitchen shouting a hearty “good morning sir, coffee ?” as soon as I waved at him
Camper's Club Mannavanur
Compare this with the earlier image from the previous day – what a difference sunlight and blue skies can make to a photograph !
Sunrise at Mannavanur
Pretty soon, warm, golden sunshine bathed the hill we were on while sunshine had still not penetrated into the valley, it’s attempts obfuscated by the hills surrounding the valley
Mannavanur Lake in the morning
The pristine lake in the morning
Sunrise at Mannavanur
It had turned into a glorious morning, the early morning wake-up call had indeed been worth it. We ordered some coffee to go along with the breakfast hamper we brought along with us.
Sunrise at Mannavanur
I climbed up the hill to catch a better glimpse of the valley. Seen here is Kannan, a caretaker who lives on top of the hill in a tent, making his way down to the kitchen. The vegetation on his right is actually carrot, little orange ones peeking their head out of the ground and sprouting colorful ‘greens’. Further down below are plantations of turnip and radish.

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.

Poombarai
13 Km from Mannavanur, on the way to Kodaikanal, you come across Poombarai – a settlement with terraced farms. We stopped there for a brief while, entranced by the sight of the greenery – the only nuisance being a loudspeaker that was blaring loud music. Probably for the elephant headed god’s festival.

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.

To the Nilgiris: Travel Blog

Well, 2013 had dawned upon us and having travelled to Yercaud, Hampi, Chikmagalur, Belur, Halebid, Bijapur, Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal in the past 6 months, there was an ardent desire to kick in the new year with another trip. None of us had ever been to the Nilgiris and off-season is, I feel, always a better time to visit popular tourist destinations. The Nilgiris, so named due to the mist induced bluish appearance and also due to the blue Kurinji flowers that bloom once in 12 years here, can get terribly crowded as the summer months spring closer. Any time right after the new year would be a good time to visit these places as the partying crowds have already departed and only the faithfuls as well as the locals are left over.

Here is what the itinerary I had planned look like:

Day 1: Take the Nilgiri Mountain Railway from Ooty – Coonoor, roam around in Coonoor and take in the tea estates, a few famous view spots, drive back to Ooty and visit Dodabetta and the Botanical Gardens if time permits, check in to the hotel and stroll around Commercial street.

It is advisable to book tickets for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway in advance from the Indian Railways website, as tickets can be difficult to obtain on weekends and holidays. The first class seat at Rs. 110 each is the best option, as the second class ticket though cheap, is unreserved and can get extremely crowded. Ooty to Coonoor is around 18-19 kms and it takes almost 30-45 minutes by road. The same journey by train takes 1 hour and 15 minutes but is a vastly different experience. The Nilgiri mountain railway is one of the few existing routes on which relics of a bygone era, the steam engines, still ply regularly. The steam engine driven train runs between the Metupalayam – Coonoor section and is taken over by a diesel loco between the Coonoor – Ooty section. The former section has one of the steepest railway ascents in the world, surmounting which is only possible through a rack and pinion system which in turn, can only be used by a steam engine.

Day 2: Get out of Ooty and visit Avalanche and Emerald Lakes, then go to Pykara lake and Pykara falls and depart for Bangalore from there.

We hired a non-ac Indica cab from mycabsbangalore (a horror story waiting to happen) and decided to hit the road late on Friday night. This particular cab driver however, happened to be the slowest guy behind a wheel that I’ve seen in modern times. It was a surprise when we reached the Bandipur forest check post by 06:15 and Ooty in another 2 hours from there where a major shock awaited us. The driver didn’t know how to ride on ghat roads. Why the hell would the cab company send in a driver like that beat the hell out of us. I’d almost made up my mind to pay the cab company in sodexho coupons just to avenge this lapse on their part. Nervous laughter, cautious driving and 36 hairpins later, we reached Ooty and the Tamil Nadu state RTO check post. Here, we were to find out that the driver did not have the necessary papers with him. Obtaining the state permit without these were out of the question but some arguing, pleading and frantic phone calls to the cab company office and a miserable attempt to hire another vehicle later, we finally got the RTO official to let us into Ooty without a permit on one condition –  the driver would drive down and obtain the permit as soon as he got hold of the permit number and validity date.

Day 1

Our train was supposed to depart at 09:15 from Ooty railway station and with the driver driving at breakneck speed (I did not want to use the word ‘surprise’ again, but what the heck – surprise), we managed to catch it just in time. We settled into a relatively empty carriage and were on our way a few minutes later. The train turned out to be a welcome antidote to the frustration induced by the cab driver earlier. It snaked through lush green countrysides, rolling tea estates and woods full of pine and eucalyptus trees. Some of the sights are so endearingly beautiful, it is no wonder a lot of Indian films filmed this romantic journey as a major element of their narrative.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway
A pretty sight around every corner – the UNESCO certified NMR. Note the semaphone signalling system still used, on the top left corner.
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway
At Coonoor railway station
The Nilgiri Mountain Railway route
That is the route
The steam engine
The steam engine hands over its duties at Coonoor railway station to the diesel loco

Coonoor, though not as crowded as Ooty, was also founded by the British circa 1819 and is famous for its tea estates, more so than Ooty. With an average literacy rate of 82%, we shouldn’t have been surprised when the parking ticket attendant at the railway station spoke to us in unfaltering, perfect English. The dolphins’s nose viewpoint, around 12 km from the railway station was our next destination and the road meanders through refreshing views of tea estates on both sides, canopies created by overhanging branches of trees and mist covered hills in the not too distant horizon. Once you reach the viewpoint (watch this, from 03:48), you will be surrounded by views of a vast valley covered by forests in every direction and can see as well as hear the massive Catherine waterfalls, distant though they are. Just try not to be distracted by the vendors beckoning you to try out their teas – (chocolate, mint, various other flavours) and you’ll do fine. The little bits of land that are not under forest cover are guaranteed to be tea estates. As far as tea estates themselves are concerned, I do not think I’ll ever tire of seeing them – I have seen plenty in Wayanad over the 2 years I spent studying in Kozhikode. There must be something innately rejuvenating about the sight of green, manicured tea estates that keeps me enchanted every time I see them.

Tea estates as far as the eye can see
Tea estates as far as the eye can see
Greenery as near as the eye can see
Greenery as near as the eye can see
The spot where popular scenes from Bollywood movies were shot
The spot where popular scenes from Bollywood movies were shot

After spending a few tranquil moments surrounded by tea estates and nothing else and immersing ourselves in the chirps of birds and the clicks of camera shutters, we decided to head back to Ooty. There is the beautiful Ketti Valley that I wanted to check out on the way back, but evening was fast approaching and we decided to chuck it in favour of Dodabetta. A bad decision – Dodabetta is the tallest and the most disappointing peak in the Nilgiris and I was so disinterested in the views that I just wanted to get back to the hotel and relax after what was a very tiring day. The TTDC hotel situated near Commercial Street was the one we’d booked online. It has budget rooms that can accommodate 4 and cost 1800 in the off season, including breakfast.

Day 2

After bidding adieu to TTDC, we were on our way to Avalanche and Emerald, some 18-20 km to the west of Ooty, places that enjoy a reputation, very well deserved too, of being untouched by the maddening crowds that flock to Ooty – Coonoor. Blogging about their beauty is a bit of a paradox though – if you decide to visit them after reading this, you know what not to write in your blog.

Winding roads that throw open stunning vistas
Winding roads that throw open stunning vistas
Dotted by guess what...tea estates
Dotted by guess what…tea estates

The winding roads to Avalanche will lead you to a forest check post where the sentry will write down your names and contact numbers and let you in. Drive on the narrow road infringed by the forest and look for a small opening on the right that throws open this stunning view:

First view of Avalanche lake...too stunning
First view of Avalanche lake…too stunning

Have you ever imagined a little slice of heaven, all to yourself ? Picture the serene blue waters of the lake above, surrounded by a tea estate on one side, dense forests on the other 3 side; all nestled in the midst of hills.

From the other bank
The view from the other bank. You can see my friends as tiny specks where the bank tapers to meet the lake. Behind me were thick forests which admittedly, were just a tad bit scary – but this view was totally worth it.

After spending around 2-3 hours at Avalanche, we made our way to Emerald Lake. Emerald dam itself was closed to visitors but Emerald lake is every bit as beautiful as Avalanche is except for the fact that it is a little more crowded – with locals, a few tourists and grazing cows dotting the banks.

Our next destination, Pykara lake and Pykara falls was delayed due to a brief halt at a place called the Shooting Meadow and another one on the Ooty-Gudalur road. This stretch of road (near a place called Sholur if my memory serves me right) is a dream. The beauty of this stretch was accentuated by scattered rays of light penetrating through a canopy of overhead branches, something like this:

On the way to Pykara..
On the way to Pykara..

Pykara, for those who are ignorant of the phenomenon called Mithun Chakraborty has a waterfall which features prominently in a lot of his movies.

Pykara Falls
Pykara Falls
The sun splashes colors as it sets on a beautiful day in Pykara
The sun chooses to go down in splendid colors as it sets on a beautiful day in Pykara

With Pykara lake getting closed around 0530 pm, we had nothing much to do, except hit the road back to Bangalore. There was a scary moment when our cab started emitting a strange noise in the middle of the Bandipur tiger reserve with 13 km still remaining to exit the tiger reserve and only 20 minutes to cover that distance before the gate would be closed for the night. Some nervous silence pervaded the car for a couple of minutes but we made it through safely and were back in Bangalore by 3 am.

Till the next trip report then…adios !

P.S. : A word of caution on our experience with the mycabsbangalore service though. After our journey was completed, aforementioned troubles notwithstanding, the cab driver demanded 450 bucks for the Tamil Nadu state RTO permit issual (which, he never did get in the first place – we traveled for two days in Ooty without a state permit). When we refused to give in to his demands, he argued for an ad-hoc raise in the driver allowance from the initial amount (150/day) to 250/day. We didn’t give him a penny more than decided and sent him on his way grumbling. Reckless, cheats are the terms I would use to label this car company’s services, the only smear on an otherwise wonderful trip.