Published: November 9th 2009November 9th 2009 Munnar - Friday 6, Saturday 7 & Sunday 8 November
One of three sets of falls, swollen by overnight rain, that we passed on our way from Thattekkad to Munnar
The patter of raindrops on Hornbill’s thatched roof, the croaking of a thousand frogs and the growing stuffiness in the tent caused by a lack of electricity to power our overhead fan woke us up before 7.00a.m. As night turned into day, the rain eased and the gardening boy gathered up leaves and some coconuts that had fallen in the night. Two pied kingfishers sat in a nearby tree and a small flock of white egrets skimmed along the river on their way to who knows where.
One of our waiters spotted us moving outside the tent and promptly brought some tea in a flask. Then, we showered, with hot water today, packed and walked the two dozen paces to the dining area, where the manager and three waiters eagerly served breakfast - grape juice, puri (a sort of fried chapatti), aloo masala (potatoes in a curry sauce), hard-boiled eggs, toast, butter and pineapple jam. The service and food at Hornbill Camp have been highlights of our stay. Nothing has been too much trouble for the friendly staff - bottled water and cups of tea had been provided at
Where there are tourists...
...there's always someone trying to sell them something
the drop of a hat, and the generator had been turned on especially during the daytime so I could recharge my camera and laptop batteries. Of course, somewhere like this, that’s fairly new and trying to find its feet, still has a few things to learn and I spent a few minutes with the manager counselling him on the need for beds to be made and towels to be replaced on a daily basis. These small deficiencies didn’t spoil our visit and I’m sure that, when we return some day, we’ll see great improvements (although, hopefully, not great expansion).
With smiles and waves from every member of Hornbill Camp’s staff, we set off for the 2½ hour drive to Munnar. We were quite sad to say farewell to this peaceful spot.
Our route took us first along a bumpy narrow road, passing a nursery growing hybrid cocoa saplings for Cadbury’s, rubber plantations and coconut groves, then eastwards on the main road. As the road climbed, the vegetation grew more lush and hills shrouded in mist appeared on both sides. Soon we were in, then above, the clouds on a road that twisted and turned every few hundred metres.
Until the recent rain, these falls were a mere trickle
Buses, auto-rickshaws and small trucks often approached at high speed on the wrong side of the road, horns blazing. We were pleased that seat belts were provided, although Jino seemed to anticipate the oncoming traffic and gave as good as he got!
Rain had swelled the three waterfalls at which we stopped along the way, each one attracting visitors and the inevitable drink and food stalls. The surrounding greenery was punctuated by the pendulous white trumpet-like flowers of what I think were datura, fiery red blossoms of Flame of the Forest trees and large, brilliant blue ipomoea. Occasional huge plants of poinsettia with their dark-green leaves and scarlet-red bracts reminded me that Christmas was fast approaching.
We had only stayed in hotels previously but, here in Munnar, we’d arranged a ‘homestay’ - India’s ‘bed & breakfast’, rooms in a private home. Ranger Woods
, run by Sunil and his mother Mary, is a large house set among cardamom and tea plantations at Pothamedu, about seven winding kilometres above the town of Munnar. Its three guest bedrooms, leading off a large open-air balcony with a seating area, are basic and could, maybe, do with a lick of paint, but they
A short walk from Ranger Woods
On our early morning walk with Sunil from Ranger Woods homestay
are perfectly comfortable and any shortcomings are more than made up by the friendly, homely atmosphere. Our room had a private wet-room style shower and toilet, and a terrific view of the forest on one side. This homestay is known for good food, prepared by Mary and her cook, and served in its small dining room. Sunil’s brother, Anil, together with his wife Jeeva, also run a very comfortable homestay named Royal Mist
, a little lower down, about ten kilometres away. Both have excellent ratings on TripAdvisor.
The temperature and humidity had dropped appreciably now were in the hills. In fact, it was positively chilly. Nonetheless, we arranged to take a walk among the tea and spice plantations on this first afternoon - but rain and low cloud put paid to that idea. Instead, Lajpal was pleased to watch Sachin Tendulkar make his 17,000th run in one-day internationals on the room’s television, while I set about starting this blog.
Over an excellent dinner of butter chicken, dhal and jeera rice (rice with cumin seeds), we met the only other guest, a brave young woman from Munich travelling alone by public transport. She’d been to Kerala before and was
Tea on the bush
The tea plant, a type of camellia, was first planted by the British towards the end of the 19th century
now spending just ten days doing some of the things she’d missed last time.
At seven o’clock on Saturday morning, after “bed tea” served on a tray at the coffee table and settees on the balcony outside our room, we set off beneath grey skies on damp roads for an hour’s walk with Sunil. We strolled uphill, past, on one side of the road, great stands of bamboo, flowering shrubs, bananas, and cardamom plants growing in the shade of high trees. On the other side were row upon row of tea plants covering the hillsides for as far as the eye could see and the gathering clouds would allow. Nearly all this tea will be for the domestic market - its eventual colour is good, we were told, but the taste is inferior to that from Darjeeling and Assam far away in the north of the country. Numerous unidentified varieties of birds flitted atop the tea bushes and the tall windbreak trees that grew among them.
We returned to the homestay for an excellent breakfast of masala dosa (a rice pancake, rather like a French crêpe, stuffed with a mild potato curry) served with spicy vegetable curry and
Returning to Ranger Woods
Strolling downhill towards the homestay after our early morning walk
coconut chutney, freshly-squeezed orange juice and milky tea.
It was very overcast as we got into the car for our planned excursion into the hills. Sunil thoughtfully made a phone call and discovered that it was already raining at Kolukkamalai, our proposed destination 23 kilometres out of Munnar. At an altitude of around 2400 metres there’s usually a spectacular view there. However, there seemed little point in going just to see clouds, so a change of plan was called for. It certainly seems that our worst fears have come true - the north-east monsoon has arrived! So, instead, we now set off for the Eravikulam Rajamalai Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the Nilgiri tahr, a mountain goat that’s so friendly it was easy prey for hunters during the colonial era and is now endangered.
Once there, as a foreigner, I was allowed to jump the queue and bought our tickets ahead of hundreds of uniformed school children on field trips with their teachers. That same privilege applied when one of the park’s seven minibuses arrived to transport everyone up the winding road between the tea plantations to the sanctuary itself. Light rain awaited us as we disembarked at the
Eravikulam Rajamalai Wildlife Sanctuary
This view sums up our visit to the home of the Nilgiri tahr!
visitor centre. We took a brief look at the exhibition explaining the history of the sanctuary and illustrating its flora and fauna, then walked up the continuation of the road for a further 1½ kilometres. There was no sign of Nilgiri tahr - or anything very much apart from a few flowering plants. The views across the tea plantations were soon obscured by low cloud and, even if there had been some of the almost tame beasts nearby, they would have been frightened away by the hoards of noisy children. On the way back down, we tolerated the usual friendly questions of “where are you from, sir?” and “what is your name?” from some of these young students eager to improve their English. By the time we returned to the visitor centre, our umbrellas were up and we were again at the head of the queue for the minibus back to the ticket booth. Sunil and Jino met us immediately and we made our way back to Munnar, dropping off Sunil to do some shopping. After lunch at a nearby restaurant, we visited Matupetty Dam, possibly of interest on a sunny day, when boats can be taken out on the
The people on and around the dam were more interesting than the dam itself
lake behind the dam, but a bit dull on a dull day! We returned towards Munnar, leaving me at the internet café in the town centre. At last, I could complete my first three blogs, which I’d prepared on my laptop and carried around on a memory stick waiting for an opportunity to upload them. Jino took Lajpal back to Ranger Woods, and returned to collect me an hour and a half later.
Banana fritters and tea arrived on the balcony shortly after my return to the homestay, followed by a lazy few hours before dinner, which tonight was a very tasty chicken biriyani. Afterwards, as I added to this blog and Lajpal read a Hindi novel, the noise made by rain on the roof immediately above our heads made us wonder whether we would be able to do any sightseeing tomorrow. There aren’t many indoor attractions hereabouts.
A violent storm raged throughout Saturday night, sheet lightning waking me several times and the intensity of the rain hammering on the roof making return to sleep quite difficult. It was still pouring when the alarm clock told us it was 6.45am and time to get up for another walk
Also at Matupetty Dam
We were tempted to try the locally-made chocolate and tea offered at these colourful stalls
among the tea plantations. We decided against the walk but sat on the balcony and enjoyed our ‘bed tea’ when it arrived 15 minutes later.
By 8 o’clock, the rain had stopped. The brook running beneath our window now ran fast with a few small waterfalls. The day seemed to be brightening up and we decided to try to make the journey up to Kolukkamalai. We ate a substantial breakfast of aloo paratha - a North Indian wholewheat bread made with butter, stuffed with potato and griddle-fried, toast, jam and delicious cardamom-flavoured tea (something we’re favouring more and more). Jino then drove us to Chinnakkanal. This was as far as we could go in the Indigo because the private roads from here up into the hills were steep and poorly maintained - an understatement as it turned out! Although it was now around 11 o’clock (we’d been delayed on the way by a collision between an auto-rickshaw and a jeep, both going too fast around a blind bend), the weather was still reasonably good, so we negotiated a price with a jeep driver for the onward journey to the Kolukkamalai tea estate and set off in anticipation of seeing
Early morning mist at Ranger Woods
The view from our room after a night of torrential rain
the awesome scenery on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border that we’d read about. Initially, the road was wide tarmac with an occasional pothole but, after only a few kilometres, it narrowed into an unmade track of rocks, mud, and holes that could swallow a bus. Now we knew why we had to have a jeep!
For the next 1½ hours, we bounced up and down, left and right, onwards and upwards on a rough, twisting track just one car wide and bordered by tea plantations tumbling down the steep hillsides. The fields of tea plants stretching into the distance with a backdrop of high hills topped with clouds were a stunning sight. The overnight rain had generated dozens of waterfalls, large and small, and we had to drive across deep, fast-flowing water where one of them crossed the track. At some of the sharp bends, the jeep had to back up in order to manoeuvre around them and, at one point, where the track divided, the driver chose to do the next section in reverse! The drops to the valley far below were a constant cause for concern and we hung on tightly. The seats of the jeep were very
On the road down to Munnar
The clouds started to lift, revealing tea plantations and hills beyond
worn and unforgiving on the backside and we were pleased to climb down when we reached the highest point. By this time, we were in the clouds, the anticipated views towards Tamil Nadu were non-existent, and it was raining.
With umbrellas up, we enjoyed a cup of tea before visiting the Kolukkamalai Tea Factory, producers of the world’s highest grown tea. This small, old factory, equipped with vintage British manufactured equipment, is still in use, although we didn’t have an opportunity to ask how it alone could possibly process the hundreds of acres of tea on these hillsides nor why it was at the top of the mountain when it would have been more sensible to have built it at the bottom. An elderly guardian, who was uneducated but spoke almost indecipherable bits of many languages he’d heard on television, showed us around the factory’s various rooms used for withering the picked leaves, and fermenting, drying, shredding and grading them. It being Sunday, the factory wasn’t operating but small demonstrations were given of each process. Fortunately, printed explanations of each stage were given in English on notices next to the relevant piece of equipment. Afterwards, we retreated to the
Tea bushes cover almost all of the undulating hills near Munnar
jeep in increasingly heavy rain and retraced our route back down the scary, rock-strewn track. The potholes had turned to puddles, the sandy rock banks had slipped onto the track in several places, the windscreen wipers didn’t work and, as we now had the fabric sides tightly closed to keep us dry, the windows had all misted up. The driver had probably done this same route daily for years and could now do it with his eyes closed - which he probably was
doing, although I couldn’t tell for sure as I had mine closed for most of the downhill journey! Reflecting on today’s excursion (while writing this blog resting sideways on my bed to avoid the pain in my bruised backside), Lajpal and I agreed that this was probably the most risky journey we’d ever made just for a cup of tea.
We returned to Chinnakkanal and the relative comfort of our Indigo, then back to Ranger Woods for a welcome cup of our favourite cardamom-tea. As it was now around 4.00pm and we’d missed lunch, we also devoured a portion of hot ‘finger chips’. A Chinese-influenced dinner of chicken and sweetcorn soup followed by chilli chicken and
rice, four hours later, made up for missing the earlier meal.
On Monday morning, the sun shone a little after a windy night and we left Ranger Woods, amid cheery farewells from Sunil and all his staff, for the 100 kilometre journey to Lake Periyar. We’re keeping our fingers crossed for a continuation of this good weather.
There are more photos below