Wednesday 14 September 2011

Munnar- the mystical mountains

Ask any Malayalee (Keralite) which part of the state is most pretty and they will pronounce 'Munnar'. Comprising of the wild and dense forests sprawling into Tamil Nadu,dramatic green tea plantations, spice plantations conquering the roads, vast lakes and soaring mountains- Munnar's landscape is mind-blogging. Rain or shine, being the most sought-after tourist destination of Keralites and foreigners, Munnar is packed through the year. At 1524m altitude, this air-conditioned hill station is a relief for the people from the hot and humid lowlands of South India. Known as 'High Range' in Kerala, Munnar is today the commercial hub of tea-growing estates, notably Tata's Kannan Devan Hills Plantations.

Note: This trip is for the backpackers using mass transport and covers the not so often visited places. If you are looking for creature comforts seeking resort holidays, you are at the wrong place.

In the month of August, it is raining unstoppably in Kerala like never before. Dropping the idea of riding RX100 motorcycle to Munnar, Megha and I boarded an early morning 5am bus from Cherthala to Munnar on 31st Aug for a 5-day trip. This 'Super Fast' KSRTC bus will go through Ernakulam-Aluva-Kothamangalam-Adimali and reach Munnar in 5 hours. To reach Munnar from Bangalore, Coimbatore-Udumalpet-Marayoor route is shorter. We met Susanne from Germany in the bus and Megha was excited to chat with her in German. The route to Munnar gets very scenic after Neriyamangalam bridge and the winding roads start. We had to witness a Mahindra Bolero hard-braking which toppled and drifted almost 20m on the road- no causalities. The numerous waterfalls were in their full swing, thanks to the rains. Cheeyappara was the most magnificent among those.

After reaching Munnar at 10am, we settled at Green View home stay near Sree Parvathy Amman Kovil very close to the KSRTC bus station. Deepak and his friendly staff provide you basic amenities at Rs 500/- for a double room with hot water and TV. Phone: 04865-2330940, 230189 Mob: 094478 25447 They offer you excellent trek options suiting your fitness and risk appetite We could not use their expertise in the next five days as it was drizzling perpetually. DTPC office is very nearby and if you want to explore Munnar on a guided tour, this is a good option at Rs 300 per seat. Contact 04865- 231516 (9am-7pm) and booking your seat in advance is recommended as they have a 12 seat mini-bus. If you are looking for a better place with restaurant away from town Chithirapuram Resorts, Munnar-Anachal Road is a good option. Phone: +91-4865263255 Mob: +91-9446005519 Tariff starts from Rs 1000.

Temperature was between 15 degree Celsius to 24 on the higher scale. It was drizzling day and night which dipped the mercury even further. Wind was not strong but occasional breeze made our chins shivering. At an altitude range of 5000-8000ft, Munnar has something to offer despite I had been there more than a dozen times. There are three routes local buses ply from Munnar apart from the Munnar -Cochin route. For each route there is a different bus stop in the town. Each route requires a day for a return trip.

Route 1: Eravikulam-Lukkom - Marayoor - Chinnar -Udumalpet-Coimbatore or Marayoor-Kanthalloor

Route 2: Devikulam-Pooppara-Theni or Pooppara-Nedumkandam-Kumily

Route 3: Mattupetty-Top Station - Koviloor

We walked to Munnar town and tested the culinary skills of Saravana Bhavan at the center of town. We spotted 'Sangamam' private bus which leaves at 2pm from Munnar to Kanthalloor - the last stop -via Marayoor, 80km (2hours) away, ticket costs Rs 45. The front seat of the bus left to the driver provided impressive view of the tea plantations and waterfalls. After Marayoor, this route goes through rice paddy fields and sugarcane fields bordered by rain-soaked mountains. You will see many huts with smoking chimneys where jaggery is prepared in huge vessels. Marayoor - famous for jaggery- is a small town and Kanthalloor is 15km from here. Heavily guarded sandalwood forests of Marayoor is famous but it is not something to see or smell. At 1455m(4800ft) Kanthalloor is a tranquil village you can explore on foot, there are not much of civic amenities here sans a few home stays and shops. Marayoor has lots of shopping options -honey, lemon grass, jaggery etc and also provide basic accommodations. TVJ Hotel -04865 252853 has s/d/dorm. The driver and conductor in the 'Sangamam' bus were friendly and explained about the jaggery industry and sandalwood forests. We were back in Munnar town by 6:30pm. Realizing the fact that shoes are not a good option, we bought a pair of slippers for the next 4 days.

Next day, we travelled to Chinnar Wild Life Sanctuary, 60km northeast of Munnar, 10km past Marayoor. Any bus heading to Coimbatore or Udumalpet will drop you there- mostly KSRTC and Tamil Nadu buses ply in this route. This rain shadowed forest boasts of elephants, deers, leopards and the endangered grizzled giant squirrel. Forest Information Center will arrange treks for Rs 100 per head to Thoovanam waterfalls. This was the first time we were trekking wearing slippers and when in doubt about the slippery rocks, I was on barefoot as it provided better grip. We could reach the waterfalls in 45min at the same pace as our guide Raju- he is from the tribal clan living at the nearby tribal settlement. He was picking up the plastic bottles dumped by the urban citizens as he was aware of the damage it might cause to the forest and wild animals. Crossing many streams and elephant dung, we reached a shallow river. Raju declared us lucky as this river could be deeper making it impossible to reach the waterfalls. He had many wild animal encounter stories to narrate in a mix of Malayalam and Tamil. Watching the humongous waterfalls with cold water sprayed onto face was an enthralling experience. Returning through another route, we could see more jungle trails which required us to squat and leap. We were back to the WLS office and hot black tea and sweet peanut were available at the tiny shop. You can stay inside the forest on tree top wood houses for Rs 1500 per head including food, not for the faint hearted. Contact 04865 -231587 for booking.

Day 3 -was a shorter day as we were waiting to see if the rains will come to a halt until 9am. If it was a sunny day, we could have gone on a trek to 2400m(7920ft) which would be the highest altitude trek in India sans The Himalayas. Rain Gods were not kind and we were at the bus stop next to Jeep Stand in the Munnar town boarding a bus to Koviloor- the remote village at Kerala -Tamil Nadu border, bus ticket costs Rs 43. This is most visited route for 'sight-seeing' by tourists. The bus driver stopped a few minutes when he saw a herd of wild elephants on the left side of the road next to the lake. Driving past Mattupetty Dam, Echo Point and Top Station this route takes you to Pampadum Shola WLS. Contact the Forest Office for a day trek in Pambadum Shola paying Rs 195 per head. You can also stay in tents overnight inside the forest. Contact Forest Guard Manoj at 09446836712 for arranging this. There used to be a road from here to Kodaikanal which is closed to preserve wild life. The 10km road from Pamadum Shola to Koviloor is through one of the most dense forest in Western Ghats. Koviloor is famous for carrots and you will see many industrial machines to clean the carrots and pack to jute sacks. We walked back from Koviloor to Top Station enjoying the scenic views and light drizzling. After steaming rice/sambar lunch at a tiny restaurant we did the obligatory walk to the Top Station view point and later in the evening we boarded a returning jeep to Munnar town.

Day 4- Munnar-Kumily route via Devikulam-Pooppara-Udumbanchola-Mayiladumpara-Nedumkandam was our choice. This is another jaw-dropping experience as you will go through tea plantations, spice gardens, edge of the seat thrilling half-lane roads next to the cliffs, waterfalls and jungles with scanty daylight. We boarded 9:30am Tamil Nadu bus to Theni and bought tickets to Pooppara-Rs 28 per seat. Theni/Madurai bound buses take a diversion from Pooppara. Another route from Pooppara goes to Adimali via Rajakkad, Anachal, Rajakumari etc. The way the driver tackled the hair pin bends was precarious - sometimes the front of the bus was out of the road in the air above the tea plantations. You can never underestimate the loss of friction due to rain and mud -we had seen a few toppled vehicles on the way. After reaching Pooppara, we took a Kerala private bus to Nedumkandam. The 'High Range' of Kerala offers excellent experience - cardamom, ginger and many more spices overgrow onto the road and you will not find symbols of modern civilization- just lush green. After lunch at 'Hotel Yuvaraj' Nedumkandam, we boarded a 2pm bus back to Pooppara and then KSRTC bus to Munnar. Megha was fascinated at the string and bell system with a spring in the private bus which sounded unique while taking reverse. We were back in town by 5pm. By this time we were friends with the guys who run the small restaurant where we had our breakfast and dinner regularly. I was happy when they complimented about my Tamil- at least one Indian language I am good at other than my mother tongue.

Day 5- We decided to walk the first half of the day. After reading about the 12km DIY trek in Lonely Planet guidebook, we headed to the bridge named after Sir C.P Ramaswamy and crossed this bridge walking towards Pothanmedu viewpoint. Megha was excited to splash the poodle of water on the road. The road down from there was deserted and found none to ask for directions. After walking for two hours, we were lost and found ourselves in the midst of a tea plantations with a few cows grazing around us. Two of the plantation workers were our rescue team and gave us clear directions to walk to Attukadu waterfalls. They asked us to walk across the tea estates to save time instead of the long and winding route. You may get stopped in this route by locals as this trek route goes through private properties. Ask for permission before entering tea estates. We reached the deserted hospital in the village. After a while, we got a jeep heading back to Munnar town with 16 people - better than the auto rickshaw with 8 people. Megha was a victim of leech bite and turmeric was handy to stop the bleeding. By 12noon we bid adieu to Deepak and Prabhakar promising to return in December for a mountain trek. For Rs 5000 for five days for two, it was the most value for money trip we have done.