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The misty mountains of Munnar
Munnar, February 19, 2013
Last week, we finally made a long hoped for trip to Munnar, clearly one of the more beautiful spots in God's Own Country, Kerala.
Being Malayalees who make regular trips to home in Kerala, we could have visited Munnar or the other popular tourist spots in the state any time, but we never got around to doing it. This time, however, we were determined to make it happen. Other places like Thekkaddy, Kumarakom and Ashtamudi also beckoned, but the sweltering heat in Kochi made the cool climes of Munnar the natural choice for a three-day break.
Munnar, located at a height of 6000 feet in the Western Ghats in the Idukki district of Kerala, has been attracting tourists from all over India and abroad because of its amazing natural beauty, great climate and unspoiled charm. For miles and miles all around you, there are tea and cardamom plantations, forests, hills, valleys and waterfalls.
The name Munnar means three rivers, a reference to the fact that the town is situated at the confluence of three rivers. The area was developed by the British as a plantation town and a summer resort, but has, over the years, grown into a hugely popular destination for all kinds of tourists, from honeymooners to those seeking adventure or wishing to enjoy nature.
We, of course, did not quite fall into any of these categories, and went about planning for the trip in some detail. The place is about 130 km from Kochi and we arranged for a car to drive us there and back. It is important to find a driver who knows the route as well as the area, and who preferably also understands English or Hindi in case you do not know Malayalam.
There are hundreds of options for stay in Munnar and surrounding areas, with scores of resorts, hotels and home-stay facilities. We opted for the Club Mahindra Lakeview Munnar, one of the better options in the area, located a beautiful 18-km drive (about 45 minutes) from the town. We wanted to make it as comfortable as possible for ourselves and booked two one-bedroom apartments -- two beautiful cottages overlooking a valley, with mountains in the background. But, as we discovered after checking in, one cottage would have more than sufficed for the four of us.
As part of the preparations, we had packed some light woollens, with the temperatures in Munnar around 6 or 7 degrees Celsius in the night and about 27 degrees C in the day time. As it turned out, we needed the woollens only when we went out for dinner in the evenings.
For those who need to remain connected while on the move, it might help to check if your mobile phones and data cards will work in the area. We were told there would be difficulties on this score, but there were none in fact. Our phones and data cards worked throughout, though the internet connections were a bit slow.
Apart from a good camera (for pictures of all those beautiful places), we also got ourselves trekking shoes, maps of the route to Munnar and packed some snacks to eat on the way, not being sure about the quality of stuff we might get on the way.
The day dawned bright and clear and hot and we could not wait to feel the promised cool climes at our destination. The check-in at the resort was 2 pm, and we therefore left only around 10 am, giving ourselves four hours for the trip.
We took the Kochi-Muvattupuzha-Kothamangalam-Adimali-Munnar route. It was new for us and we saw some interesting things on the way.
As we were leaving Kochi, we saw some huge oil storage tanks of three public sector oil companies at Irumbanam and scores of tankers carrying petrol and diesel as well as LPG cylinders on the way.
After a few minutes we were in Tripunithara where there were sign boards of the Hill Palace and a bird sanctuary. We passed by the palace and saw only a little of the grounds from the moving car. Then we reached Muvattupuzha and as the car sped by, the scenery too started to change. There were large gardens attached to impressive mansions separated by large tracts of greenery. Pineapple farms, banana orchards and coconut farms were becoming more common. Towns were giving way to the rural scene. The geography was becoming hilly.
We reached Kothamangalam town and stopped for coffee at a bakery. The coffee and the egg puffs were good and fresh. But no restroom!
Adimali was the next town but we did not stop there as it was getting a little later than we envisaged. We hoped to reach Munnar for a late lunch but our enroute sight seeing ate into our travel time.
Photos were clicked left, right and centre and we were amazed at the foliage and scenery that sped past us. Cardamom plants were becoming more common. They were however not lush as the season was past and the next season would be only after a few months.
There were a large number of churches of all sizes and wayside chapels to different saints. We also saw some little temples and some really grand and beautiful temples too. There were wayside shacks that sold fruit and some packed fried snacks and mineral water. People had stopped at such places for a break.
Hilly regions by definition are difficult to travel because there are so many twists and turns, some really blind spots and also the rising gradient. So a 10km ride that would take 25 minutes on plain ground took us close to 45 minutes or more.
It was after Adimali that we took a wrong turn and instead of going towards Munnar town we sped on to Anachal. Too many turns and some dead ends leading to stony dirt roads had us retracing our steps to the main road later. We were behind time. But the scenery was more than compensating. We chanced upon waterfalls, some that had water gushing down and others that were bone dry. Finally we got on to the right route and with a little help from a cellphone GPS, we were on our way.
Resorts were popping up everywhere and we could see the tea gardens in the distance. Munnar and its nearby areas house an impressive number of resorts and homestays and in peak season, they must be seeing a lot of traffic. However, this being the lean season, there was no hustle or bustle about most of them.
The track became more steep with each passing mile and there were so many sharp turns. It became very easy to understand the term 'hairpin turn'. We passed Bison Valley through forests that had warning signs of 'Do not scare the animals', 'Forest tree' etc. A few of the locals were seen, after long intervals, going about their work. Many houses along the way had pepper drying on large straw mats in the front yards. There were a few cows roaming free to graze on the green foliage around. Most of them had tags attached to their ears.
The road cut through lush tea gardens and we could touch the plants as the car sped by. Finally we reached the Club Mahindra property. It chanced upon us suddenly as we were so very engrossed in the scenery.
When we arrived at the reception, we were greeted with sandalwood paste tikka and a shot glass of something deliciously cold and sweet. There were exotic anthuriums in the lobby and some old traditional Kerala houseware like a wooden jewellery box and an old sitar in a corner. Bird of paradise blooms in the outer lobby were large and handsome. There were wooden chair swings outside and we made a beeline for it. We had left the hot and humid plains behind us and the slightly chilly winds made us pull our shawls and jackets tighter around us and thank the Almighty for such a welcome change.
We were soon shown to our apartments which turned out to be very tidy, very stylish cottages with large bay windows and window seats overlooking gorgeous emerald tea gardens. So much deep lush green all around you and the breeze was cold. It truly felt like heaven.
Since we had reached after lunch time, we decided on room service for a snack. After coffee and tea from the adequately stocked little kitchenette, we were raring to explore the property.
From the quaint balcony of our cottage, we could see a river meandering between far away mountains. The resort is not exactly in Munnar but a few miles away at Chinnakanal, which would mean small river in Tamil. The afternoon sun brought out the greens and blues in full relief. 'Gorgeous' comes to mind.
Dinner was in the Tea Room at the resort. We had opted for the 'breakfast and dinner buffet' that was available to members at a special price. As we hoped to move around in the day, lunch could be had in Munnar town or elsewhere. The large Tea Room was almost full but we were lucky to find a large table to hold us and our belongings with ease. The buffet spread was wide and inviting and as we were rather hungry, we ate more than our fill. The food was very good, especially in quality and variety. There was something for everyone, including those on diets and other medical restrictions.
The cottages being at a distance from the Tea Room, the walk back had us pleasantly tired out. We spent some time at a large swing near the cottage, gazing at the lights in the valley and the stars above. In the distance, cars were still moving on the mountain roads. We finally decided to call it a day. Sleep did not elude us and we were all dreaming away soon enough.
We woke up late, glad that the weather was still very cool. After a filling breakfast, again at the Tea Room, and deciding on the day's plans, we set out in a car arranged by the resort.
Our first stop was a spot where the tea leaf pickers were tying up their day's pickings in large sacks. These would be taken to the factory where each person's harvest would be weighed and wages calculated. The tea estates in these parts mostly belong to the Tatas and some to Harrison Malayalam. Thousands of acres of manicured tea gardens have been in production mode for decades. These estates are where we get our Tata 'chai' from. The estates have besides tea plants, orange trees and silver oak too. Mixed cultivation helps in maintaining the eco-system. The orange trees provide small sweet fruit in season. The ubiqutious silver oak is more than a fancy name tree. It is integral to a tea estate and is the life line of the tea plants. What the silver oak does is something amazing. During the monsoons, the roots absorb and store large amounts of life giving water and during summer, these roots release the precious water to all the plants around them. When the trees are finally felled, the timber is useful for making furniture too. The estates are dotted with these useful trees.
The second stop was at Muthukad Mountain valley, where the far away river is now wider and cliffs overlook the valley. It is a touristy spot with many people, especially newly-married couples, busy with their cameras. A wooden hanging bridge, built when the British were around, is still seen there spanning the river in the distant valley. The climate is very pleasant with an occasional chilly gust.
Soon after, we pass by the 'Peria Kanal' Tea factory. 'Peria' in Tamil means large. The urge to pluck a tea leaf is very strong and so we stop near a plant and pluck 'a bud and two leaves'. Here is also a little shed with a couple of local gentlemen selling ripe and not so ripe oranges. They assure me that the oranges are very sweet. I bought a kilo of oranges and found their claims way off the mark. Notwithstanding the quality of fruit, a lot of people stop to buy from them.
Our next stop was the Anayirankal dam. We got down to look down at the lake on one side and the dry dam on the other. Nice spot for a photo session as there were hardly any people milling around.
Along the way later, we see an elephant-trail. This is a very special ancient trail that wild elephants use to pass from place to another. The elephants have been doing this route for centuries and will continue to do so in the future. They will, according to our guide, never ever deviate from this trail. These trails are rough, rocky, dirt paths winding through the forests and tea estates, uphill and downhill. The guide also mentioned that it is inviting trouble if you loiter around these trails when a herd passes through. The locals, who have a deep understanding of the forest and its fauna, respect these ways of the wild. Similarly, the bison too has trails that they have used since time immemorial.
On either side of the road, we were constantly flanked by tea plants or the forest or cardamom plants. After using cardamom in the kitchen, it is very interesting to see where these little fragrant pods come from. The cardamom plants are large bushes with long leaves. The flowers bloom on stalks arising from the bottom of these plants. The flowers turn into light green pods which when crushed give out the trademark fragrance. These pods are collected and dried to give the world its cardamom. Cardamom estates are fenced with electrified fences to discourage any wild animal from rampaging the crop. Since, this is wild elephant and bison country, the lookouts or 'yermadar' in estates and fields are small tree houses. Most are very basic and a few very ornately done with arches and seats! Looked very posh in the middle of nowhere! Another plant that added dramatic colour to the landscape was the wild poinsettia. Forest trees laden with lilac blooms were another pretty sight.
Our next stop was an organic farm called the Spice Garden at Poopara. It is a small farm but is packed with all sorts of spice plants. The USP of this farm, as the guide said, was the organic farming methods used here. This is the home of Mr. Chacko Simon and he has converted the farm into a viable enterprise. There is an entry fee of Rs 100. The guide showed us around this rugged farm which also boasts of a small brook and rocks sculpted by the flowing water in interesting ways. There were spice plants such as cardamom, nutmeg, pepper vines, cinnamon trees and different types of rudraksh trees. There were other plants that we had never come across like the tree that had fruit which drove away snakes and a sort of tomato that grew on trees. These fruits were used to treat stomach ulcers.
Flaming orange anthuriums rubbed shoulders with exotic orchids and flox. We discovered a coop which housed not one but two large turkeys, a guinea fowl and a few different types of chicken, besides a languid rabbit and a very noisy rooster. The house cat, called Sundari, was nervously eyeing a rat snake that had got trapped in a net. The snake was the centre of attention till we came to a small dark shed. This was where raw cardamom was dried. It had a series of pipes running across slats to convey heat to different parts of the drying shed. It takes three days for cardamom to dry.Then the dried pods are packed for sale. The front of the house has a little verandah converted into a spices stall. Even though it was small, there was a variety of spices, teas, organic beauty aid lotions and other interesting things. We selected our stuff and lugged off a large bag of fresh spices and other what nots. The prices, we were assured, were lower than elsewhere.
It was becoming late in the afternoon and we decided to head to Munnar for a quick lunch. Munnar was only 13 kms away but it took us an hour reaching there. Opting for a light lunch, we got off at Silver spoon restaurant. After lunch we rushed to the Tata Tea Museum downtown. The closing time was 4:00pm and it was already half past three. Anyway, when we reached there, the place was inundated with tourists and admissions were still happening. So we joined in the queue and trooped in with our tickets at Rs 75 each. This was the erstwhile Kanan Devan Tea estate offices now converted into a museum. Machinery used in processing tea leaves and other instruments including a slew of typewriters and a complicated looking calculator took pride of place. Furniture and personal use items like a 'bowl and jug' wash basin and a large wooden bath tub only a little worn were also kept there. A large collection of black and white and sepia prints too adorned the walls. A short history of the formation of these estates also was framed. We had reached just as a 45 minute documentary of these estates had started and as we were getting tired, we decided to attend the lecture on tea instead. A small tea factory of sorts was functioning in the premises for the benefit of the visitors and a floor above we listened to a lecture on tea and all about brewing it. Very interesting and informative stuff. Afterwards we were each given a paper cup of hot, sweet, milky tea. That concluded the visit to the museum. It was getting dark and we decided to call it a day. All that travelling on bumpy roads had given us a good appetite and we enjoyed our second dinner at the resort.
The third day started with a slight drizzle and fine mist rolling in. The far away mountains looked grey and blue with grey clouds hovering between them. It was perfect hill station climate. Hot coffee in the balcony while reading the morning paper was just the thing. The previous day's outing was a bit more tiring than thought, so we decided to stay put in the resort and enjoy some in-house activities. We played scrabble and table tennis. I wanted to try my hand at basket weaving but found some nice books to read instead. We tried out some ayurvedic treatments and felt a lot better after the session. All in all a lazy day. We were at the resort for lunch and a short siesta later, we explored some more of the resort. The grocery had bare minimum essentials like milk, toothbrushes, paste, soap, chips and biscuits and other small eats. Bought a few snacks and visited the souvenir shop too. We took photos around the property and finally we went to have our last dinner at the resort. Many of the faces were new and a few new friends had already bid us goodbye the previous evening. Tomorrow, we too would be back in Kochi. All in all a holiday to remember and if possible to repeat.
Breakfast and check-out saw us winding down the hilly path. We would first go to Munnar and thence to Kochi. As we left for Munnar town, we decided to see the Mattupetty Dam, which was just a short detour away. The reservoir was full. Tourists were there in droves and sellers busy trying to get them to buy their fresh garden produce or to drink fresh tender coconut water. After the quietness of the forest, milling crowds seemed a bit too busy. You can go boating or horse-riding here.
Mattupetty is the location of a famous Indo-Swiss dairy farm, managed now by the Kerala Livestock Development Board. It has more than 100 varieties of high-yielding cattle.
From Mattupetty, we could have gone on to Top Station for a great view of the Western Ghats, but we were running short of time, and decided to skip it.
We were soon on our way but stopped on seeing passion fruit strung at some fruit stalls. Delicious passion fruit is found aplenty now and the price at Rs 70 a kg was a steal. So I picked up few kilos of this fruit for gifting and use back in Kochi.
It was lunch time and after a bite at the well known Saravana Bhavan, in Munnar town, we were on our way. It was enroute to Adimali that we passed the Elephant Park. We retraced our steps to investigate. We were so glad to have done that. It is a delightful enterprise where both man and beast enjoy each other's company. Here, elephants carry a couple of persons around a set path and at the end of the ride, the riders feed the elephant, fruits from a large basket. The elephant sees the basket and curls up its trunk to receive its 'fruity wages' from the excited riders. An excellent activity to take part in. There are other activities involving these giants, like bathing them or having them squirt water at you with their trunks. The popularity of these activities was brought home to us when we tried to get a ticket for our ride. We were pleasantly surprised by the long queue awaiting their turn. Newly weds formed the largest contingent followed by small families with kids. Awaiting our turn would mean our return trip would be delayed inordinately.
On the way to Mattupetty, you can stop at a Floriculture Centre run by the Kerala Forest Development Corporation to see an extremely well-maintained garden with a huge variety of flowers and plants.
Munnar is famous for the Neelakurinji, which flowers once in 12 years. This, however, was not "kurinji" season. We also did not see the 'varayadu', the striped mountain goat indigenous to this region.
There are several wildlife sanctuaries around Munnar, such as Eravikulam, Thattekad and Chinnar, and the hotel where you stay will make arrangements for you to travel to them. Hire a trained guide to accompany you. Many of the outings will involve back-breaking drives on dirt tracks.
Apart from spices such as cardamom, you can buy aromatic oils (eucalyptus oil, lemon grass) and fruits at various places in and around Munnar. And, of course, tea at the outlets of the Kannan Devan Hill Plantations (KDHP), a Tata company.
There are hundreds of places to stay in Munnar...from cheap home-stays to budget and economy hotels and resorts to the luxury resorts. Prices could range from Rs 500 a day to Rs 9000, depending on what you choose. Many companies also have guest houses in the area. Malayalam and Tamil are the main languages spoken here, but many people understand English and Hindi.
Apart from Kochi (130 km), Munnar can also be reached from Madurai (135 km) and Coimbatore (170 km).
Clearly, we could not do everything we could have in Munnar, and it looks like we will have to return to the misty mountains sooner than later for those experiences.
(Photos by Vinita Abraham)