Sunday 10 March 2013

Kumily, Munnar and the 'High Range' road

Periyar Tiger Reserve got the status of Numero Uno National Park in India. Whatever that means, this Tiger Reserve boasts of 925 km2 of forest bordering with Tamil Nadu almost 90km. Interestingly, Tamil Nadu does not seem to be interested in the wildlife, but just the water from Periyar River. Mullaperiyar Dam is situated in the midst of PTR, notorious for the political fight between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. A river which was flowing west was diverted circa 1895to the east using four himongous penstock pipes to facilitate the needs of Tamil Nadu.

Kumily (elevation 800m) is a small farmers' town which has high tourists’ inflow most of the year except heavy monsoons. The Western Ghats in Kerala is widely known as 'High Range' and dwelled by migrant farmers- sprea across Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Idukki districts. Kumily is well connected to Theni in Tamil Nadu. You need to reach Kottayam in Kerala for frequent buses (Rs 43, 4hrs).  There is a KSRTC bus from Pathanamthitta to Kumily via Gavi- another scenic route to if you have enough time.

There are plenty of accommodation along the main road and Lake Road starting from Rs 400. The road adjacent to the bus station, Bypass Road, is crowded by home stays. Next to Chrissie's Cafe, Elephant Hills (Tel: Mob: 9447667994,04869 222952, email:,  dbl Rs 300-1200) is run by Chandran and family in the midst of lush greenery complete with a swing and hammock. They provide scrumptious breakfast upon request and do everything possible to make your stay memorable. Don't keep any food items outside your room; nasty monkeys are smart enough to unzip the bags and pick up what they want. Chandran's grandfather was a postman in Kumily and hence migrated two generations ago. He has many childhood stories to share about the forest. Hotel Habeebi next to WilderNest, Lake Road is a budget option for your meals. It was a big relief for us on two days of hartal (general strike). Most of the big restaurants are catering to foreign taste buds and some even refuse entry to domestic tourists. Small eateries are around the bus stand.

Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR) Treks
Official treks and stays are organised by the Eco Care Center (04869-222571) on Lake Road- they are quite expensive. Check the website -  for more details. These ‘touristy’ treks are not so rewarding, but for an ornithologist it may be ideal. The entire forest is divided into three- core zone, buffer zone, tourist zone. Aptly named, tourist zone is where you will be taken for 3hrs to 8hrs walks including one in the night. The 8hr trek which goes through the border of Tamil Nadu, named Border Hiking is the best value - Rs 1000 per person including meals. Other walks might be spoiled by disinterested guides or other jabbering tourists. Foreigners need to pay an additional Rs 300 as entry fee, Indians Rs 25. You may see a herd of wild gaur, dozens of langur and slender loris, sambar deer and a variety of birds on these elephant dung filled trails. According to the officials there are 45 tigers! Keep complete silence inside the forest and sit down the moment you see any animal- to sight and not to be sighted by the animal.
We were lucky to spot a big hornbill taking off like an aircraft from the branches of a huge banyan tree. This particular tree was hosting many varieties of birds- Resul Pookutty would be happy to record the genuine sounds of a forest here. If you are on a low budget, just take an entry ticket to the man-made lake and stroll up the 4km through the forest. The boating is a chaotic experience, not recommended if you have agoraphobia. Except the speeding vehicles and honking, everything else is welcoming.  

Another cheap option is to cross the border and walk down a few kilometers towards Cumbum. There is a huge waterfall at Erachippalam- which channels the excess water to neighboring which cannot flow through four huge penstock pipes a while away. On this route, you can get panoramic view of Tamil Nadu plains. Chellarkovil and Ottakathalamedu are two options around Kumily for that sweeping gaze of the valley, the latter best visited during sunset. You can rent a bicycle from Kumily town or hop on to a bus to reach here in 15min.

Kumily -Munnar Road
This may be the best route through Western Ghats in Kerala. Driven by only slow 'Private Buses' with frequent stops (Rs 85, 5hrs), this roller coaster ride goes through spice plantations and some vantage points overlooking Tamil Nadu. As you make your way through Chellarkovil-Nedumkandam-Kattappana-Santhanpara-Devikulam you will reach valleys filled with rushing waterfalls, terraced tea gardens at an elevation of 1500m and above. We were headed to Top Station to meet Manoj (Tel 9446836712) who resides just below Top Station. Manoj's dad was an operator for the ropeway from Top Station to the Bottom Station in Tamil Nadu- this was abandoned in by 1978 as the roads developed from Kodaikanal to Munnar. This road is currently closed as it passes through dense forest of Pambadumchola National Park which was declared as a National Park in 2006. Manoj can arrange accommodation in tents at Top Station (1900m) and guide you for treks (Rs 600 per person) while his loving mother cooks dinner and breakfast for you.

Shola Forest and Grassland Complex Trek
A thrilling trek from Top Station to Middle Station climbing down 400m and return takes more than 3hrs covering 7km. Walking through the valley that you view from the Top Station view point, criss -crossing between Kerala and Tamil Nadu borders, against the backdrop of green grassy slopes of the mountains crowned by Kolukumalai tea factory and overlooking the habitats at Kelattukudi shouldering the dense forests of Pampadum Shola National Park. Locals in Munnar trek down to Kelattukudi -a rehabitation colony for the forest dwellers and catch a jeep to Bodhimettu and ride a bus to Theni.

Wake up next morning before 6am; you can capture in a single sweeping gaze the cotton clouds resting on the lofty peaks of dazzling mountains, terrace fields carved from hillsides and misty tea estates. If you are looking for a dense forest with lot of huge trees, ask Manoj to take you to Pambadum Shola National Park (admn Rs 65 for 2hrs) trudging along the soft bed of foliage - unique to shola forest. Even in summer, this trail will be damp, carry lemon to squeeze the juice onto your shoes to prevent blood-thirsty leeches. The blood pumping walk did not raise our heartbeats too high. But seeing the carcass of a wild gaur killed by a tiger definitely raised the heart rate to 3 digits.

If you are serious about multi-day hikes, Munnar could be the best place in Kerala. There are many operators offering treks starting from Rs 600 per day per person. Be specific about your needs, some of the treks could be just a walk through pesticide sprayed tea estates and plantations. Meesappulimala is a favorite destination and could be the highest point in Munnar and hence Kerala. Remember, the highest mountain peak in South India- Anamudi (2695m) - is in Munnar. Many do the trek from Top Station to Kelattukudi and then head to Theni. There is no official trek route through the forest from Munnar to Kodaikanal. The erstwhile Kodaikanal-Munnar road remains a forest jeep track ending at Bandharavu where two watchmen rotate in a 15 day/night duty. Manoj could be going there once in a while, so call in advance if you are taking his help.

Munnar had a tramway until 1928 operated by British to carry the goods from the hills to the port. If the ropeway had been kept, it would be a big tourist attraction today!