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.

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.