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.
Greeted by flowers on the way to Idukki dam
Pretty sights full of tea estates dot the road to the Idukki dam. Take a moment to stop by and breathe in the crisp air.
Clouds can roll in really quickly in Munnar
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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. Continue reading →
Often on the coastline, you come across endearing sights of backwaters surrounded by palm and coconut trees. There is an alternate version of life going on, on these waters that is at once laid back, languid and yet extremely charming. Hands up, if you haven’t sketched some of these scenes in your primary school drawing books.
A chance conversation on Indiamike (a popular forum for travelers visiting the breadth of India) a few years ago made me look curiously at a long thin stretch of beach that I had never heard about earlier. Udyavar, as Google calls it, has a stretch of tarred road that merrily runs along the entire stretch. In between, the sand tries to reclaim the road but we push on nevertheless. It is a long 10 km ride that ends near the naval shipyard at Malpe. So untouched is this one, far away from the crowds that the locals peer curiously at our vehicle as it speeds along.
There are a few locals at the end of the stretch, where a stone barricade has been put up. They were busy catching fish, this being off-season fish fetches a handsome price – even the sea threw some of the fish back on to the land and the crows made a noisy feast of it.
We ended our sojourn in the Karnataka coastline at Mangalore the next day, but visited Kaup beach and its famous light house in between.
A view of the beach from the base of the lighthouse
The Kapu lighthouse from up close. My friend pronounced it as ‘Kapu’ – thats what it is called in the local dialect.
One more shot of the lighthouse
Many a film has been shot here, with the lighthouse adding a fair bit of drama
Monsoon makes its presence evident in the green moss on these rocks
As always, the reward of exploring and traveling lies not in the pictures we take back, but the memories we create and by that yardstick, this trip was no different. Anyone fond of beaches and the sun, should not miss out on the gem that the Karnataka coastline is. Although it might not offer the familiarity of Goa; it might yet be the next backpacker paradise in waiting. And to become that, it possesses unlimited potential.
So strong is the itch of travel that you can literally scratch it sometimes. And for itches that still do not go away, there is always one more destination to cover. The picturesque Karnataka coastline had been on my mind since the past year and a half but for some reason or the other, kept getting ignored. In August this year however, it finally came true. Although we skipped Karwar and Gokarna (Gokarna, well, started it all), we did cover the 180 km stretch from Honnavar to Mangalore. This covers stretches of the Uttara Kannada district (Karwar-Bhatkal), Udupi district and Dakshina Kannada district.
Even in the peak of the monsoon season, I was undaunted by the prospect of rain forcing us indoors during the trip. Heck, deep down, there was even a secret desire to watch the rain gods pummel the coast when they made landfall, just for the thrill of it.
Not too far away from the southern tip of Goa lies the port town of Honnavar. A town steeped in history, it finds mentions in ancient Jain texts as well as 13th century Persian and 16th century Portuguese accounts. Another claim to fame for Honnavar is that it hosted the famous Ibn-Battuta on his travels. Situated only 60 km from the famous Jog Falls, Honnavar serves as an ideal point to explore both the Western Ghats as well as the coastline. It is also where the Sharavathi river finally bids goodbye to the mainland and unites with the Arabian sea.
As with any beach town, the smell of the sea hits you square in the face when you land at Honnavar. It still retains the charms of a small town that hasn’t quite given in to the ways of modern life, which is a very good reason to make a pit-stop here.
The estuary where the Sharavathi meets the sea can be viewed from a vantage point on a hillock. A tarred road takes you to within walking distance of the hillock. Other spots worth exploring include the seemingly popular Apsara Konda beach which also has a charming waterfall in the vicinity by the same name.
Temples in India are one of the best indicators of a crowded tourist spot and Murudeshwar is no exception. More so, because it boasts of a towering Gopuram and a mammoth Shiva statue that is visible even from if you are traveling in a train on the Konkan railway. The story behind how Murudeshwar came to be is conveyed through a series of life-size sculptures situated in a cave underneath the Shiva statue. Wikipedia is as good a place to read about it – here is the link.
Bhatkal and Baindoor
Further down south is the taluka of Bhatkal. We couldn’t stop here as we wanted to reach Udupi before evening. However, Baindoor (more famous for the Kollur Mookambika temple that attracts a lot of devotees) situated at the tip of Bhatkal offers a gem of a spot called Ottinene. Ottinene offers a bird’s eye view of the Baindoor river meeting the sea. It is renowned among the regulars as a wonderful place to enjoy the sunset and is a spot that is not to be missed at any cost.
The Trasi-Maravanthe stretch first caught my eye when I read that it is the only highway of its kind in India. Flanked by the Sowparnika river on the east and the Arabian sea on the west, it offers an enchanting sight for everyone. Trasi-Maravanthe has been featured on a lot of popular magazine articles, travel guides, blogs and even TV shows. As a result, small stalls selling soft drinks and tender coconut have sprung up on the road. These serve as ideal bait for the tourists passing through, even if they are blissfully unaware of the scenery that surrounds them.
If the Arabian sea is angry and even a little violent on one side, the Sowparnika paints a picture of dignity and calm. Its presence has created a few islands along the stretch and the locals still use ferries as a mode of transportation, just as in the old days. Which adds to the charm of it all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
Pykara, for those who are ignorant of the phenomenon called Mithun Chakraborty has a waterfall which features prominently in a lot of his movies.
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.