Monday, September 19, 2011

A Road Less Travelled - Swiss Riviera

Early morning mists still hangs loosely over the blue-green water of Lac Léman as the first ray of the sun touches the tiled roofs at St. Saphorin. The heavy droplets of the overnight dew drips of the vine leaves and the smell of freshly baked baguettes wafts through the steep and narrow alleys of Rivaz. At this very hour when the late night crowds haven’t left their crumpled bed sheets at Lausanne and Genève, Monsieur Pierre checks the health of his Chasselas and Gamays. With whiffs of lavender in its cool morning breeze from the Jura Mountains every new dawn ushers in La Cote. Bonjour Swiss Riviera!

When the sensory deprived Brits head for Cote d’Azur or Canary Islands for their annual dose of sun and garlic and flight loads of honeymooners throng Interlaken, Swiss Riviera remains to its locals. This is the place known for its illustrious locals. So with Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton or Shaina Twain as neighbours no body is complaining either.

The best way to start your journey is from Montreux! A ride by Golden Pass Panorama through the picturesque Bernese Oberland in the Swiss Alps takes you to this glamorous little city overlooking the haute lac Léman. Made famous by the ‘Deep Purple’ classic ‘Smoke on the water, fire in the sky’, when a Frank Zappa fan with a flare gun burnt down the Casino where the band was performing. 

Starting with the International Jazz festival in summer and numerous wine festivals in autumn till the Christmas Markets in winter, the city offers a unique blend of art-culture and gastronomy all year round. A vibrant night life and the sun drenched lake front draws all and sundry as the white sailboats and the graceful swans dot the shoreline.

A luxurious ride from Montreux on a 1915 vintage ‘Belle Epoque’ Pullman Car, can take you to the medieval village of Gruyères, known to all cheese lovers around the world. The ascent continues till Broc, where the famous Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory offers you the tricks and tips of fine chocolate making. And sure, the complementary chocolate tasting won’t cost you a dime! The ever popular cog wheel train ride to Rochers-de-Naye is not to be missed either! So before you head for the ‘Marmot Paradise’, gorge yourself on the spectacular view of Montreux and the vast expanse of Lake Geneva. 

One of the best preserved medieval castles of Château de Chillon is located only 3 kilometers down south of Montreux. This thirteenth century castle from the Savoy era on the lake shore fired the imaginations of great minds like Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Lord Byron. As the sun sets over Evian across the lake and the heady aroma of Clos de Chillon and oozy goodness of Fondue fills the air in the cafes, the last cruise boat leaves for Lausanne through the rippling grey waters of lac Léman.

A brief but spectacular train ride along the shoreline takes you to the historical yet modern at heart city of Lausanne. But then you are missing out on the best part of the Swiss Riviera! The 32 miles stretch of UNESCO heritage trail through the Lavaux region, separates Lausanne with Montreux, and this is where some of the finest variety of Swiss wines come from.

Started by the Cistercian Monks way back in the twelfth century the terraced vineyards at Dézaley still yields truly world class Chasselas based wines. Switzerland has always known for its mountains, cheese, chocolates, Oh! and ever punctual trains, but never for its wines! With its wide repertoire of grapes and distinctive wine making styles Swiss wine is a veritable treasure trove waiting to be discovered. 

The wine trail is perfect for two days long hiking trip. But if you are not much into wines or your daily walk is limited between the parking lot and the office desk, you have better choice. Take a short train ride from Montreux to Vevey in the direction of Lausanne and board Les Train des Vignes. As the train meanders its way through the endless acres of the appellation and climbs uphill, the sun-drenched Corniche de Lavaux opens up for you. Get down at the small village of Chexbres and start walking down the gentle slopes of the well marked trail towards Cully.  The lake Geneva will remain your constant companion as you trudge along this historical trail through the terraced vine yards. The small villages like St. Saphorin, Rivaz or Riex could be the ideal resting places on the way. Try out fresh fishes from the lake, the local cheese and variety of sausages aptly complimented with the red or white from the restaurantiers’ own backyard. The people are warm and friendly at heart and just Bonjour Monsieur or Bonjour Madam can do the trick. Explore the caveaux or the wine cellars and taste some of the finest of Gamay, Chasselas or Pinot Gris. Usually the cellars remain open between 4 and 5 in the afternoon and you need to take prior appointments with the wine makers. Meanwhile take a nap on the grass at terrace of La Mottage or sip some more wine and see the distant sail boats on the lake, as time goes gently by. The rustic charm of the small villages, the earthly flavor of the wine, the breeze and the Lac Léman, a memory forever!

As you move out of your state of perpetual bliss in Lavaux and step into the multi-ethnic vibrancy of Lausanne, almost, almost immediately you would fall in love with it. Lausanne, known for its Protestant history has transformed into a modern day city for rich and famous. From the busy alleys with their flea markets in the old town to the hip cafés and boutiques, Lausanne is an absorbing city. Here the Chardonnay sipping – Cézanne chasing ones mingle with the Gitanes smoking University crowd at ease. 

The ladies at the information counter in the station are pretty and ever helpful. Oui, they do speak English! Start your day at the steep cobbled stone slopes opposite to the station. Then head in the direction of the older part of the city. Walk your way past the numerous pavement cafés and flower market to reach Notre-Dam. With its carefully crafted portals, porches and rose windows, this thirteenth century Cathedral built in French Gothic style is arguably the finest in Switzerland. Climb up the south-west tower to get a spectacular panoramic view of the city and the Lake Geneva. Around the Cathedral you could find some really charming narrow alleys strewn with studios and old book shops. At the heart of the old town lies the square of Place de la Palud. On market days of Wednesday and Saturday this place gets really busy. The fresh produces from the surrounding areas, good cheese and café with crépe draws in the locals and a perfect place to get charmed by something so mundane! 

No trip to Lausanne is complete until you see the famous Olympic Museum located on the lakefront of quai d’Ouchy. The promenade along the shoreline takes you to this famous landmark next to the International Olympic Committee’s world headquarter.  The promenade has a very relaxed air attached to it. Whether you are sitting on a bench, reading a book or just casually gazing at the pristine blue water of the lake or just dozing your holiday of it’s all your choice! 

That is so special about the Swiss Riviera, it’s not your regular weekend holiday destination or an ever busy hiking trail or a ski slope. It’s a place where you are never in a hurry to catch the next tram, or to bargain for a pricy watch or waiting in the queue to get a good dinner at a snobbish restaurant. You enjoy at your own pace yet you get the best of the goodies. So, when the inter regio to Bern leaves the station and the glittering waters of the lake at sundown bids you ‘good bye’, you leave with fistful of precious memories, which you won’t let ever slip off your heart!

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Call for a Cuppa

“The spring rains should be falling already. They will end the dry dormant winter period by stimulating the growth of the year's earliest, most delicate shoots, Darjeeling's famous First Flush.” ….says Kevin Gascoyne in his book ‘Art of Eating’.
Then at the George Howells’ they say, “A smooth cup infused with whispers of candy lemon, ripe apricot and mellow traces of ginger and Darjeeling tea. Mellow acidity with medium-light body! I am confused…

Tend to become more confused as Rajah Banerjee says, “…it has three distinct layers of flavor; first the magnolia then of moonlight and then it smells of sex.”

The motley crowd at the Planter’s Club in Siddapura keep on adding, “…the cups from the Elkhil estate are very smooth, full-bodied with subdued acidity, lingering bittersweet chocolate and traces of black pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Ohh God…these people must be crazy! They probably have their orgasms in their cups and might have already reached their karmic nirvana and living in a state of perpetual bliss.

Don’t know, but I guess I’m more of a tea man! It doesn’t mean I don’t like coffee. The smell of freshly brewed Arabica and Robusta can equally arouse me. But it has been a tussle of a sort for past few years. Whether it’s the berries from the Alathcad, Sand Banks-Polycad, Elkhil or the Honey Valley at Kodagu or the first flushes from Castleton, Happy Valley, Makaibaris! Finally I decided, coffee goes with cell phone and the tea with serenity. It’s a matter of choice, it’s a matter of taste but I don’t know what the fact of the matter is!

Being a Bengali, tea has always been much closer to heart socially and politically. But I detest the atypical north Indian style of CTC (cut, twist and curl) chai, with lots of sugar, milk, cardamom and what else…malai marke…Praaji. Am I not trying to be too puritan! I wonder, because when you get those too milky, too sweet, all too hot teas at the dead of night on a deserted railway platform, on a desolate check post inside Sathyamangala forest or at the bends of the Ghat roads on a rainy afternoon, it tastes even better! Better than what or what not? I can not argue. But I can say, a fresh green tea with hint of lemon at the Keventers or some exotic flush prepared with apple and honey and sipped on a kuasha gehra Kurseong backdrop comes with its added flavor and sense of sensuality.

Although, it seems sacrosanct to the connoisseurs of tea, but for me; tea is always like red wine, it loves to go with food. Whether you are having it with apple pie or ham sandwich or with more mundane telebhaja-muri it doesn’t matter, only thing that matters is the kind of tea you are having and the way it has been made.

Ours is a vast country and like clothes, foods, musics and landscapes our drinking habits vary. Think of a quintessential Bengali bhadralok, who wakes up to his morning with a cup of hot tea and Anandabazar Patrika and think of a true blue Tamil nallavar whose mornings are never good without the staple dose of idli, ‘The Hindu’ and a steel tumbler full of freshly brewed filter coffee! We’re Indian, we’re different!

To be honest, I’m a very young coffee drinker. But after moving down south; in past three years I might have consumed hundred times more coffee than whatever I did in my entire life in Calcutta! Coffee used to be a winter luxury at our houses like Christmas cakes from Nahoums’ or Flury’s or like newly bought books from boimela. But the aroma was as eternal as the smell of after lunch oranges on the rooftop under the mild winter sun.

Coffee has evolved and so have the coffee-drinkers. From the semi-dark, smoky Coffee House with its intellectual air of existence, it moved on to glossy and gossipy Coffee Days. Cold-Coffees have made space for Kappi Nirvana. But India Coffee House has survived beside Barista.

I’ve learnt to drink coffee, coffee day way. Might not be the most elegant way off course. But, then some where you have to start. Counter chaps at some of the joints I befriended with in Bangalore were quite good indeed. They might not know how to roast the beans or to brew the best of Arabica but they can at least give you some decent leads. Then my infrequent visits to Coorg and Chikmagalur kept the coffee quest alive. Etheopian Kahwa or the Columbian Quest have always been personal favorites but for that early morning caffeine kick I always trust the hot and black, Espresso!
One disturbing fact I found in most of the coffee joints is, overdose of chocolate! It simply kills the coffee. More of a ‘Video killed the Radio Star’ kind of a phenomenon I call it. I prefer whipped cream on Irish coffee or in Cappuccino. It goes well. The subtlety of aroma is not lost whatsoever!

Coffee always reminds me of a very personal tag line conceived during a journey to the west coast through Chikmagalur and Malnad region of north Karnataka. Initially I thought it for a travelogue never written! “Mocha highway leads to the Golden sunset.” Oh, thank God! Finally I managed to put it somewhere.

So whether the Mocha that takes you closer to Moksha or the Kho-Cha that always gets you something Cha-hat se zyada is a purely personal thing. But irrespective of the fact whether it’s coming from the upper lines of Makaibari or from the fringes of Nicaraguan rain forest, once served hot it always creates a storm in the cup!

Copyright Abhishek Mitra, 2007

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Nelliyampathy - all alone in the Palghat Hills

Nelliyampathy...ever heard the name? If you already have, what are you waiting for...just be there? Being there is not that easy although. From Mysore, it took us a five hour long bumpy bus ride to Coimabtore, then a train ride to Palakkad, a local bus ride to Nenmara and finally a jeep ride up in the hills to reach Nelliyampathy. Nelliyampathy, once famous for its goose-berries is probably the most secluded hill station I've ever been too. Hidden inside; acres of tea plantations, orchards and unspolit jungles of the Palghat Hills, Nelliyampathy makes for an ideal hideaway from the clamours of urban sprawls.

Reach Nelliyampathay....the blue hills and the Green Acres!

The Hermitage cottage at Greenland Farm House beyond Nelliyampathy. The resort is located 7 kms out of Nelliyampathy village on the way to Mempara peak.

The Cicada Trail through POABS Organic Farm...before you reach the Greenland Farm House.

In Bloom at GreenLand Farm House...

On the way to the Mempara Peak next morning. A 4-wheel drive is a must! Although you will feel that a walk through the leech infested jungle for 14 kms is a far better and safer option! You call it a Road!!! atleast the hills disagree.

The best of Shola forests I've seen in the Western Ghats.

Clouds literally rolling over the hills. The strong and shivering gale from the Palghat Gap always keep the low clouds busy.

The blues and jungles of the Palghat Hills...en route Mempara Peak!

Living on the Edge..beyond Mempara Peak. The awesome view with Churliyar, Mingera and the distant Malampuzha lakes dotting the plains.

At Seethargundu Estate. The Organic farm for tea and cofee plantations on the way back to Nelliyampathy from Mempara. The nearby hills of Kesavpara, Padagiri and the Pothundy reservoir also worths a visit.

The best of mocha - Arabica coffee berries at Seethargundu.

View of the Palghat Plains from the suicide point at Seethargundu.

Where the wind blows gently.....

Quickfacts: Nelliyampathy is 75 kms/ 3 hrs from Palakkad town. Accessible only by couple of local buses and personal vehicles. Other option is reaching Nenmara from Palakkad and hiring local jeep (Rs 100) to Nelliyampathy (20 km/ 1hr). For reaching places like Mempara, Padagiri, Kesavpara a 4 WD is a must. Hotel options are limited so enquire before heading for the hills.

The jounery back to the plains was very refreshing, with friendly people, sun soaked paddy field, banana plantations, cool breeze on the face and fading blue lines of the Nelliyampathy hills on the horizon!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Down the Salvation Trail...

This is National Highway 58 and I’m traveling on a DTC bus on my way to Haridwar. Today is 10th of June and I‘ve reached New Delhi at around 10 o’clock in the morning. With a heavy breakfast in my stomach headed for ISBT on a notorious Delhi auto rickshaw. Got a bus at eleven and heading for Uttaranchal now.........zzzzz.......feeling sleepy!

It’s my first trip to Haridwar! Although we had to cancel our trip to Dehradun and the beautiful little Mussourie due to time constraints...never mind...there is always a next time!

11th June, 2004
So done all the needful; didn’t climb Manasa and Chandi Pahar(I’m not supposed to ruin my holidays just by queuing up for so long) , watched the evening prayers and rituals of Ganga Pujan at Har ki Pauri(my bloody automatic camera betrayed me with its low flash power), traveled all the way to Rishikesh, visited Lakshman Jhula, Ram Jhula, Gita Bhavan, took dips on holy Ganges, swallowed enough Lassi to beat North Indian summer, smacked sumptuous Rabri (remembered unprivileged few back in Kolkata) and put my taste buds and appetite on a test of handling North Indian veggies and adding not to my surprise it responded in pretty positive note! Well I must mention about our staying place at Haridwar. Anyone traveling to Haridwar can certainly check out this place called Anand Niwas near Har Ki Pauri and I say; you would love the place!

12th June, 2004
On 12th we left Haridwar and headed for Rudraprayag on a TGMOU bus at around 6:30 in the morning. Reach Rishikesh just 24 Km away from Haridwar, cross the river Ganga and suddenly see the road starts climbing the mountains. It was a lovely sun drenched morning, on one side of the road the hills and mountains have rose tall and on the other the river flows down the deep gorge. It was summer time and the river was not so wild, otherwise the river Ganges near Rishikesh is much famous to adventure enthusiasts for white water rafting. Monsoon river is wild and belligerent, the cascades are real challenge!

After a brief stopover at Vyasi for breakfast the bus headed for Gourikund. The colours of the mountains are ever changing, sometimes it’s due to types of vegetation; the sub-Himalayan forests are nature lovers’ delight and sometimes the geological diversities are the reason. We crossed Devaprayag at around 10 o’clock in the morning. Devaprayag is the sangamsthal of Alakananda and Bhagirathi river. Not much happened on the bus. After traveling for around six hours, crossing number of sleepy villages and smaller mountains we reached Rudraprayag in the early afternoon.

Rudraprayag is famous as the sangamsthal (confluence) of two holy rivers; Alakananda and Mandakini. It is a small hilly town and district head quarter of jila Rudraprayag. You can find banks, police chowki, lots of hotels and all the hustle bustle of a typical Garhwali town. We managed to get an accommodation at Baba KaliKamli’s dharamshala located very close to the sangamsthal. A nice cozy verandah opens just over the rough and grey streams of Alakananda and you can see the green rapids of Mandakini embracing it downstream. The sound of the gushing waters was deafening. Annapurna and Jagadamba temples are situated right over the sangam. The temple of ‘Rudranath’ Siva is located next to them. Probably this has given the name ‘Rudraprayag’ to the place. The place is also the meeting place for NH 58 and NH 109. NH 58 is the road that leads to Badrinath via Joshimath and the other highway find its way through a tunnel after crossing river Alakananda towards Gourikund via GuptaKashi, SonPrayag. If you are traveling the places by car, can spend a day or two here and then you can visit Koteswara Mahadeva’s cave-temple and Gulab Rai’s Choti famous for its connection to Jim Corbett. Usually people traveling by bus don’t prefer to stay here. They like to head straight for either Gourikund or Badrinath. There is only a single public bus (daak gari) for a day that travels to Badrinath. And we have no other choice but to take it the next morning. Early bookings managed us some preferable seats although and left the place the following morning.

13th June, 2004
The road towards Joshimath gets Alakananda by its side all along as it passes through KarnaPrayag, NandaPrayag, Chamoli and lots of other smaller towns and sleepy little hamlets. I have traveled to different parts of the Himalayas over the years but the specialty of this particular trip is that wherever you wish to travel, you have to make very long journeys. To some it may seem a sort of botheration but I personally enjoyed every bit of it. All shades of brown and green, amazing landscapes, frightening landslip prone mountains and river down the bottomless gorges fascinated me! But you will miss the snow during this part of the year! On the way, Srinagar is a lovely place where the river opens up on a large plane valley. It’s quite a large town among the hills with all kinds of residential areas, bus stands and facilities of civic amenities. We reached Joshimath before noon and the driver assured us of arriving Badrinath by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. But the destiny had its own plan!

AdiGuru Sankaracharya built ‘JyotirMath’ and ‘Nrisingha’ temple at this place during 8th century AD. The name subsequently changed to ‘Joshimath’ over the time. During the winter; for six months the idol of the Lord Badrinarayan is brought to this Nrisingha temple by a holy procession and the pujas and usual rituals are practiced. Apart from its religious significance it is also a busy town and surrounded by mountains on three sides. On a clear sunny day you will be able to see Nandadebi, Kamet, Mana, Nilkantha and host of other snow-laden peaks from this place. The journeys for a number of famous trek routes like Hemkund, Nandan Kanan, Kuanri Pass, also begin here. The famous skiing resort of Auli is only 14 kilometers away and those staying here for a day or two, which I strongly recommend, can get there by hiring a cab. Auli is also famous for its world’s second highest cable car way at a height of 3016 mts. Auli was not in our tour itinerary. But you can certainly have a handful of the picturesque mountains and green valleys down under!

After some funny goof ups by few fellow passengers the bus started for the rest of the journey at around 12:30 in the afternoon. Passed lovely looking small resorts, Garhwal Scouts’ (“mushkil waqt, scouts sakht”) barrack and lots of blooming gardens only to halt at a check post only a kilometer down the road. A long queue of buses, trucks and cars are waiting ahead of us! “What the hell has happened” everyone seemed to ask each other. And then it came out of the blue! Someone told us, there was a landslide down the road a few kilometers ahead and at least four people got killed.

We could see the road downhill; there were some movements of drazers, scrapers and caterpillars towards the landslip site. Our bus driver told that he would take the bus back to Joshimath so that we could manage some refreshments as and when needed. The bus went back to Joshimath and the waiting for the road to open started. Hours gone by and the driver suggested us that we should better look for accommodation here because if it gets delayed beyond four o’clock he would not be able to reach Badrinath today. The waiting was an experience itself. It was a quite afternoon. Some sort of ceremony was going on at a primary school nearby. The kids were singing some typical Garhwali song. I couldn’t understand their language but the tune reminded me of some good old Rajesh Khanna-Shammi Kapoor movies! Listening to the melodies of mountains on a tranquil afternoon…Ohh…it was blissful!

But just before four we suddenly heard that the road has cleared and saw cars and buses coming uphill towards Joshimath. Everybody took a sigh of relief! At last we left Joshimath and headed for Badrinath. The beauty of the road beyond Joshimath is beyond imagination of the people never been there. The mountains are fearsome, rocky, loose rocks hanging over the road and signboards put up by BRO on the way will make you feel the clear and present danger of landslide always. The river is wild and runs through deepest of gorges. Near the Hemkund Sahib famed GovindaGhat we crossed Vishnu Prayag where Alakananda has met Khiro Ganga river coming from west. Seen first few glimpses of mighty Neelkantha through the clouds and crimson lights of the setting sun. It was fabulous! We climbed few thousand feet very fast and all of a sudden the trans-Himalayan cold started knifing through my windcheater. The melting glaciers started to show up on the towering mountains around and we could clearly see the moraines coming down with the glaciers. At last we managed to reach our holy destination at around 7:30 in the evening after a never-ending journey that lasted for almost thirteen hours.

Badrinath is one of the oldest of the Hindu pilgrimage by the river Alakananda and is situated at an altitude of 3200 meters. This Vishnu temple is believed to be built by Adi Guru Sankaracharya. The mountains named Nar and Narayan are guarding the temple town on the west and the east. The snow capped mighty Neelkantha creates one of the most picturesque backdrops under the sun. The myriad facets of the gorgeous mountain under different light conditions are probably the most shot and sought after sights in the Garhwal Himalayas.

14th June, 2004
We stayed at the Birla guesthouse in BadriNath. The next morning we decided to visit Mana village, three kilometers off Badrinath town. Mana happens to be the last Indian village on the way to Tibet. The Sino-Indian border is 42 kilometers away from this sleepy little village.
Mana is famous for Vyas Gufa, Ganesh Gufa and Bhim pul. The river Saraswati has originated from a cave at Bhim pul and flows a very short distance, only to meet the Alakananda at KesavPrayag. A short trek of 5 kms can lead you to the famous waterfall of Basudhara. A number of famous trek routes like Satopanth glacier and lake, Kalindi pass, Gangotri khal start from here.We offered our prayers and puja at the temple in the afternoon and after having a hearty dinner decided to call it a day and relaxed at the hotel room.

15th June, 2004
Left Badrinath very early next morning after having last few glimpses of the mountains and glaciers amidst morning mist and the carrot sun. Tried to capture the majestic mountain, which was ‘burning bright’, in my automatic and pledged to come back more than once among these mountains, in my mind!

We reached Chamoli the district headquarter before noon. The bus turned here, crossed the river Alakananda and took the Vukh-Hartal route. At Gopeshwar we decided to have the lunch break. The bus then headed for Mandal. The road beyond Mandal is through very thick forests. Beauty of this journey lies in the smell of sub-Himalayan jungles, in the vast expanse of greeneries over the valleys, in the sounds of the unknown cascades through the jungle. We had by then entered the ‘Kedarnath National Park’ and this region is famous for ‘black buck deer’ or Kasturi Mriga.

We reached Chopta just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon. It is another beauty spot on the face of Garhwal Himalayas and recently came up us as a very popular travel destination. In the months of April-May Chopta gets draped by the beauty of blooming rhododendrons. The lucky few can get glimpses of wildlife in the surrounding forests. Chopta gets rainfall almost round the year and hence the velvet green on the surrounding hills are ever lasting. The horizon beyond the green hills are dominated by peaks like Kedar Dome, Gangotri, Neelkantha, Choukhamba, Bandarpunch and host of other anonymous mountains. We decided to beat the soggy chill of the afternoon with a cup of hot tea with lots of sugar, milk n elaichi, akka North Indian style. The famous pilgrimage of Tunganath (12,400 ft) is only 3kms away from Chopta. Those having a little bit of trekking habit can also move further to Chandrasila.

Our next destination was Ukhimath only 30 kilometers away from Chopta; on the way to Gourikund. Long ago this place was known as Shonitpur. Then it was named after the daughter of king Baneshwara, ‘Usha’ and over the years the place known as Ushamath changed its name to Ukhimath. Like Joshimath the place is also religiously significant. The bigraha of Lord Kedarnath is brought to this place for pujas during winter and taken back to Kedarnath Dham on Akshay Tritiya, the day of the opening of the holy shrine.

16th June, 2004
We decided to stay at Ukhimath as per our travel plan and managed to get an accommodation at the guest-house of Bharat Sevashram Sangha. The guest-house is located just outside the small town; hence you can avoid the clatter but can enjoy the advantage of the motorway. It’s an amazing place! You can enjoy the views of the mountains like Sumeru, Kedar dome, MadaMaheshwar, etc and also the bluest Mandakini hundreds of feet down the hills. The guest-house is located just on the slope of a mountain and apart from a school building beside it no other houses are visible nearby. Since Ukhimath is not located on the regular route of Gourikund from Rudraprayag visitors are very few in number. People traveling through this Vukh hartal route are the privileged few, I believe. Apart from the sevashram guest-house there is GMVN bungalow and only two to three smaller hotels around. The sight of small villages on the distant hills, number of shades of green down the glades, river Mandakini and the majestic Himalaya make a perfect milieu for an ideal getaway.

Those staying at Ukhimath for more than a day, which is again strongly recommended, can travel to Sari village only 10 kilometers away on the way to Chopta by hiring a cab. The mighty Choukhamba creates an amazing backdrop beyond the smaller mountains for a perfect celluloid scene. A small hiking through the jungles will get you to Deoria Taal. It is a nice little lake at an altitude of 2201 mts with crystal clear water. The reflections of all the four peaks of the mystic Choukhamba are clearly visible on the water of the lake. The place is calm and serenely poised beyond your wildest of imaginations.

17th June, 2004
It was a dull and cloudy morning with chilly wind blowing across the mountains and the pine forests on the slopes. The sky started getting clearer as we took down the road of GauriKund. The road to GauriKund is via GuptaKashi, ShonPrayag. The 1500 years old and religiously significant temple of Madhyamaheshwar is some 12 kms off the road. We reached GauriKund just after 10 o’clock in the morning. It was a real shocker! The gateway to Shiva’s adobe is of immense spiritual importance and thousands of pilgrims from all over the country throng the place on the bank of river Mandakini round the year barring a few months of winter. This simply turned the once a pristine small village to a shanty town full of ponies, porters, dhabas and dharamshalas. Best way to avoid this ordeal is to reach the place late in the afternoon and start your journey for Kedar very early next morning.

18th June, 2004
We spent the night at the sevashram guest house. The Kedar Dham is a 14 Km walk from GauriKund towards north. For the uninitialized it’s a pretty decent ascend during which you climb from an altitude of 1800 mts to 3600 mts. We had a plan to start as early as five o’clock in the morning but the overnight rain and the fear of rock fall deferred it till six.
The walk to KedarNath is along a cobbled path known as cheh-footiya or six-footer. It’s a continual ascend which is quite tiring. The path is quite busy with pilgrims, horses and dulis. The river Mandakini down in the gorge is a constant companion along the way. The slopes on the other side of the gorge are full of thick pine-birch-oak forest with occasional waterfalls. In the north on a clear day you could see the Kedarnath peak shining with all its glory. The trail eases at Ramwara (7 Km from GauriKund). Although you have to take a lot of small breaks on the way uphill but it’s a place where you can rest your heels for some more time and sip a nice hot tea. Try to drink a lot of water and keep dry-fruits or biscuits handy. In the later half of the journey you’ll feel the real need.
Try to walk in a group of two or three people. Otherwise you will feel more tired. I myself found two nice fellas from Indore as companions. Although the vistas around me were getting more and more exciting with every paces I walk but the altitude and the thin air were really forcing me to gasp for breath. When you do feel such low look at the mountains around you, look at the surreal Mandakini Valley much below and suddenly realize you are on an altitude of more than 12,000ft above msl. Take heart and move ahead. The road just before Kedar Dham flattens. After a continual ascend for more than seven to eight hours it’s a welcome break. The moment you cross GarurChatti and enter the Kedar valley the splendor is waiting for you! The moraines, snow, river and the majestic KedarNath massif behind the 9th century AD temple of Lord Shiva, all are waiting for you. The lush green grassy slopes soaked by number of small streams below the snowline will pose the perfect contrast only the nature could offer.

It was getting cloudy in the afternoon and when I reached the KedarNath after an endless walk that lasted for more than nine hours it started drizzling. All the snow and the grandeur of mountains were behind the cloud curtain. I hurriedly rushed to the Birla Guest House where we had a previously made booking. There is very little to talk about the night when the hell bent over us with an incessant rainfall and mercury touching the freezing point. The only good thing was that we managed to have some hot khichdi , papad and pickle to survive the night!

19th June, 2004
The next morning we woke up early. It was still raining and dark outside. Offered our Puja in the temple and strated our journey back to GauriKund! We were pretty apprehensive about the weather and the imminent landslides that happen under such conditions. The news of bad weather conditions in BadriNath multiplied our fear. But the journey back was not all that bad as the weather condition improved considerably. I was a bit upset because couldn’t make a trip to Vasuki Taal or Gandhi Sarovar nearby. Reached GauriKund within five hours and settled for a hearty lunch at the sevashram.

20th June, 2004
The next day we boarded the morning bus to Haridwar and reached by 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Spent the evening at Har ki Pauri, gulped down some nice cool lassi and went for a much needed sleep.

21st June, 2004
11 o’clock in the morning. Again I’m on the NH 58, traveling on a DTC bus…heading for Delhi. The farm houses, ganne-de-khet, telephone towers, thandi beer ki dukan, dhabas, pretty faces on the hoardings, Horn-OK-Please symbols on the trucks…..zzzz…feeling sleepy!

The Journey continues…
© Abhishek Mitra, March 2006

Beyond Coffee County

It was sudden and unplanned, so it was a "been there done that" kind of a trip! What all was decided that we are leaving Mysore at six in the morning and heading west.

3rd Dec 2005,

It was a cool and cloudy morning. Although we got a bit late but were on the road by six thirty. A lot of seemingly enthusiastic people retracted on the very last moment and there were only two of us and the ‘pulsar’ took off to the Madikeri Road. The previous posting tells you all about the needful to be done on the way to Madikeri. So, this time it’s Madikeri and beyond. The story begins on Sunday, Dec 4th. It’s a small story; all about a journey and not merely reaching the pre-planned destinations.

4th Dec 2005,

It was my first trip on bike and got an irritating back ache after riding through the bumpy roads yesterday. But the sound sleep overnight helped and I was all set to Go next morning! The morning was cloudy with chilly wind blowing across the hills. We were on the way to Virajpet from Madikeri. After a steep descend from the hills of Madikeri the road goes though evergreen coffee plantations and paddy fields. The road condition is awesome and the surroundings surreal. The winding road leads through virgin landscapes, coffee estates and cinchona/ pepper plantations. The distant hills from Bramhagiri and Madikeri and the cloud covered heights create a perfect backdrop. Occasional villages dotted with old Kodagu style houses amidst paddy and ginger fields and the traditionally worn sari claded women drawing our attention more often. The ride was punctuated by several stop-over to grab the perfect photo-ops. Reached Virajpet before eight o’clock and took out the map to chart out the route to Nagarhole NP and Iruppu Fall over a hot cup of filter-coffee! The road to Iruppu fall goes via Gonikoppal-Hudikeri and Srimangla. The waterfall is 52 km. from Virajpet and 90 km from Madikeri.

The road condition is not all that good beyond Gonikoppal but the altitude starts to increase and forest gets thicker. This is a land of red spring flowers (palash). Often the road is covered by the flowers and you can view some lovely looking bungalows amidst the thick foliage of the plantations. You would always like to live in a place like that. The aroma of robusta, the verdant valley overlooking your living room window, the smell of typical Coorgi food and the calmness of the nature around, what else could you ask for? The only bad thing is that, you would never like to leave the place!

We reached the base of the waterfall just before ten o’clock. The trail to the fall starts beyond Ishwara temple and a trek of 1 km through the lower Bramhagiri WLS will take you to the Iruppu. Before the trek; have a good look of the boards put up by the temple committee and the Forest Department to know more about the mythological background of the place and the forests around. If you reach early or on weekdays you can always enjoy the tranquility of the place only broken by the occasional chattering of birds. The three stepped 51.8 m drop of the fall is just too good. The flow meets with the Lakhsmanathirtha River down stream. You can enjoy a nice bath on the cold water of the pool formed by the cascade. But for heaven’s sake don’t throw away plastic pouches and shampoo sachets. You are in an ecologically fragile zone!

A few trek routes start from Iruppu fall to upper Bramhagiri WLS. But for that you need prior permissions from the Forest Office at Srimangla or Chief Forest Warden at Bangalore. For a nominal fee you’ll be given permission and guide for the trek routes. The jungle trail leads you to Bramhagiri Peak (9 km) and Munikal – ‘sages’ cave’ (7 km). Bramhagiri is situated on Kerala-Karnataka border where Bramhagiri WLS meets with Tholpetty Sanctuary in Wayanad. It is a land of evergreen forest and on the upper ridges the tropical jungle gives way to the shola grassland. The jungle used to be haunted by tigers and leopards not long back. The name NarimalaiBetta (Tiger Hill) corroborates the same. Now the jungle is predominantly a home for Elephants, sloth bears, gaurs and hmmm…. A few leopards! A long and treacherous trek can lead you to Pakshipathalam, every bird watcher’s dream land!

But never try for these trek routes during monsoon or without guide. Nature has its own deterrents…the ‘leeches’. We tried and suffered! It sucks. Always keep salt, tobacco or deo-spray handy. It’s a simple lesson learnt by sheer experience J

After the ‘leeches’ episode we were too eager to get out of the place. Two SOBs even tried to venture inside my helmetL. We came down from the hill before noon and were planning to head for Nagarhole. But the Forest Dept official gave the real dampener. We won’t be allowed to enter the NP on two wheeler and the next safari will start at 3:30 in the afternoon. So it was nearly impossible for us to go for the safari as we had to ride back 150 km. to Mysore the very same day! Nagarhole (Rajiv Gandhi NP) is only 18km. via a place called Kutta (7 km from Iruppu).

So, we decided to go back to Gonikoppal. After having a true Mallu style lunch with boiled rice, curry and fried fish headed back for Mysore. Saju raced the bike on an average of 50 mph and Mysore was not far away!

Yeah! I can read your mind….don’t worry! Next time I’ll take the permission from the forest office…n yesss…will arrange salt n tobacco for your bloody legs also!

A Weekend Getaway to Coorg

If u’re sick n tired of the endless traffic snarls of Hosur Road and BTM layout and looking for a place that could give u a complete peace of mind over the weekend; Coorg is your perfect hideout destination. Waterfalls, deep ravines, grassy slopes, coffee n spice plantations, verdant undulating topography, u wish ‘em and‘ve it all! Madikeri or Mercara is the district town of Kodagu or Coorg. Located 243 km SW of Bangalore and can be reached through Mysore Bypass via Ranganathittu-Hunsur-Kushalnagar.

One fine Sunday morning (after giving a Saturday break to the Friday late night troopers) on February we decided to make a one day trip to Coorg. Babu, our driver came down with the hired ‘Qualis’ when it was still dark outside. Got a chance to see the first sunshine bringing a misty morning over Mysore. By the time it was a full grown morning we had already reached Bylakuppe; what used to be a Tibetan camp is now a full-fledged settlement. Spread over the wide open Bylakuppe are the beautiful monasteries of Sakya, Sera-Je, Kagyur and Namdroling. Namdroling was our first stop-over in the journey. The spectacular golden monastery houses gigantic statues of Padmasambhava, Buddha and Amitayus. Bylakuppe is just off Kushalnagar. When we reached Kushalnagar, it was around 8 o’clock in the morning and decided to have our breakfast.

Reached ‘Cauvery Nishargadham’ next with our stomach filled with set dosa and rava idli! Nishargadham happens to be a large island covered with thickly dense forest. Small streams from the river Cauvery meander through the jungle here, only to meet the mother river beyond the island. It’s advisable to take a brisk walk through the jungle and u’ll get enough photo-ops; which will help u to claim that hiking by the river trails is ur ultimate passion.

Harangi Dam was not on our trip itinerary. But Babu suggested us that it’s really worth a visit. So after an hour long bumpy ride through the sparsely dense February forest when we reached before the turquoise blue water of the reservoir, we knew Babu really meant it. The view from the top of the dam was a real treat. The place was quite empty, devoid of Sunday visitors and lovebirds, excepting us and a few old monks from Bylakuppe. Descending through the rock laden face of the dam to reach the edge of the water was quite exciting. The pristine blue water and the distant mountains on the backdrop kept our digicams busy.

Our next destination was ‘Dubare Elephant Camp’. The road that leads to Dubare is through thick coffee plantations. U’ll get to see the coffee bushes studded with red berries and the air is filled with strong aroma! The training camp is sandwiched between south bank of Cauvery and Dubare Reserve forest. If u reach early in the morning, u’ll get a chance to be part of the ‘Elephant Interaction Program’. It starts with a luxurious bath in the river where u get a chance to scrub the elephants. Then u can feed ragi and jaggery to the pachyderms. Since we reached Dubare quite late, so missed the rituals but made our fare share of enjoyment by riding the ‘biggies’ for some half an hour though the jungle. At Dubare u can always take a lazy ‘coracle’ ride on the river to breathe some jungle out there.

We reached Madikeri via Siddapura just after noon. It was lunch time. Although u can try out some local fares like pandi curry (Kodavas like it hot, full of plantation spices) or akki rotis but we preferred to play it safe. It is strongly recommended to make an overnight stay in Madikeri to enjoy the cool breeze and the laziness of Coorg. U can also stay at Siddapura (14km from Madikeri) in the heart of Coorg’s coffee country. Fishing and angling in Cauvery could be a real fun. On a lucky day and with lot of patience u can get even a 10kg Mahseer (our very own south Indian version of Trout).

We left for Thalacauvery, some 42km from Madikeri just after the lunch. It’s the birthplace of the sacred river Cauvery and situated on Bramhagiri Hills. If u’re able to walk all the way up to the hill just above the Cauvery temple, can get a 360 degree view of the Mystique Mountains and forests around. But mind that, u’ve to go barefoot to the top.

When we came back to Madikeri the sun was disappearing behind the grey hills. A chilli darkness was approaching when we reached ‘Abbi’ falls, a mere 5km from the town. It’s inside a privately-owned coffee estate and a big tourist draw over the weekends. As all good things come to their ends, our day trip to Coorg ended by seeing Abbi falls.

But a lot still remained. So next time u’re here; get those boots on and get moving. Ups n Downs of the hills, the strong smell of Robusta and the graceful Cauvery; all are waiting for U!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Monsoon Clouds, Shades of Emerald & the Malabar

A weekend getaway to Wayanad and Kozhikode

As the wise saying goes, “never miss an extended weekend in IT industry” and that too when you’re living a three hours drive away from “God’s own country”! It was August, the monsoon had fed Bharatpuzha and Perriyar well, the Ghats were under the wrap of emerald carpets and the clouds were firing the imaginations of the poets. Everything was perfect; I mean almost. The brooding buddies were still confused as always; late to reach the decision, but all too well that they finally reached it before Friday midnight. People scrambled over their tracks, Nike shoes, sunglasses, toothbrushes and budgetary calculations till one o’clock in the morning. Finally I called up BIT office at 1:30 am, seems ridiculous and obviously nobody picked up the call.

13th August, 05
7:30 in the morning. We were sipping the hot massala tea at K.D Road. Two girls miraculously reached on time. (May be I’m being too nice to them!) Pretty girls always enjoy this much privilege. I called up the BIT for the third time, “I’m going to Kerala for three days and want a cab within an hour!” BITwalas were helpful as ever and by 9:30 we were on the highway.

Now, I can’t tell you why we chose Wayanad over host of other places around. During my last trip to Munnar I crossed the region under the dark of night and mist. So I didn’t have much idea either. May be, some friendly suggestions and occasional readings here and there! ‘Wayanad’ in Malayalam means ‘paddy country’ but there is hardly any trace of paddy fields so this is a land of unknown and unstated. There in lies the charm of Wayanad!

After Gundlupet (66 km from Mysore) on the Ooty Road take the right diversion to follow the inter state highway to Kerala. It was drizzling outside and I could clearly smell the fragrance of the wet leaves from the jungle ahead. Just before you enter the forest pull over by the unknown lake beyond ever blooming marigold and sunflower cultivations. The cloud covered distant Nilgiri hills create a perfect backdrop beyond the lake. Catch herons and egrets busy fishing on the edge of the water as your hands and hair get wet by the moisture in the air. Soak yourself in the tranquility of the nature. Breathe some life beyond the world of pollution, smog and computer.

Beyond the lake the tree line gets thicker as you enter the Muthanga WLS which is an extension of Bandipur – Nagarhole NP circuit in Kerala. The state road tax collection check post is just beyond the jungle. You can always enjoy the cool breeze after the rain, the vista of lush banana plantations and nearby hillocks over a cup of strong and hot tea!

We reached Sultan Bathery just before noon. Sultan Bathery is located just beyond lower Wayanad WLS. It derived its name from the old ammunition dump of Tipu Sultan located near by. Our next destination was Edakkal cave. It’s located on the upper ridges of Ambukuthy Hills. The caves discovered in 1890 by one English man are in two levels and the upper cave hosts stone carvings dated back to Neolithic and Mesolithic ages. In Malayalam Edakkal means ‘gap between rocks’. One huge block of rock creates the roof of the cave. You can get a glimpse of the valley down under through the narrow gap between two parallel rock faces. Scramble upwards for another 300 meters through the rocky steps beyond the cave to reach the hill top. The gorgeous view of the evergreen forests and distant hills is a true pleasure for your lenses! Don’t attempt to reach the upper ridges after rain. It gets really murky and dangerous!

When we came down to the base of the hill it was well past noon. Lunch time! We managed to get some egg curry and rice in a road side dhaba. Next we headed for the Meenmutty waterfall.

We reached the spot from where the trek starts at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Here all sorts of people were present to discourage us from trekking for four treacherous kilometers. And thankfully we didn’t pay hid to them. Initially the path is through the tea garden which gives way to thick tropical rainforests beyond the plantations. It was drizzling and the sky was grey. Soon we lost our way in the jungle. We could hear the distant sound of raging water but it was beyond visibility. Suddenly we heard a voice from our back. A tall, slim fellow in a mundu and brown shirt was calling us. “Where exactly do you want to go, you people are heading towards deeper jungle! If you want to see the waterfall, come with me”, he said in a distinctive and assuring voice. The next twenty minutes was a real hell bent over us, scrambling through rock faces, descending through wet rain forests on a 70-80 degree exposure with fear of leeches heavily on body n mind. But what we got back was an experience of a lifetime. The raging murky torrent of the Meenmutty was before us swiping away everything on its downstream like an angry bull. While we were appreciating the vista straight out from national geographic channel visuals we had to balance ourselves on a two feet narrow, muddy edge over the downstream current of the fall. Kunjaman was explaining the meaning of the word Meenmutty, it means, fishes can come downstream but can not retrace their path back through this waterfall! It was getting darker due to the cloud cover and the approaching evening fog. So we started climbing back. Getting up to the starting point was very tiring and I was literally gasping for breath. One friendly family helped us with some cool water to drink and to sprinkle over our faces on our way back. Before the darkness approaches we waved Kunjaman Good Bye and headed for Kalpetta.

On our way to Kalpetta we met Saju, Kiran and couple of buddies from the office. They informed us that most of the hotels in Kalpetta are heavily booked. So we decided to go straight to Kozhikode that night itself. We reached Kozhikode at ten o’clock and managed to check in at a comfy hotel for the night.

14th, August, 05
Next Morning we went to the Kappad beach which happens to be a local beach and 8 kms north off the town. You could see the old mossy green stone monument with scriptures written on it that Vasco Da Gama landed here in 18th May, 1498. The beach was almost empty and we enjoyed a bath over there. The long arch shaped beach boasts an old Light-House at a distance. It’s perfect for a beach walk during evening with slippers on your hand. You could enjoy the white wet sand under your feet! After enjoying my first sighting of the Arabian Sea with a cool pineapple juice under the shadows of coconut trees we drove back to Kozhikode for the lunch.

After the lunch we left for Kalpetta once again. It was monsoon time and watched the cloud covered valley and the misty hills from Thamarassery Ghat view point under the ephemeral drizzles of August on our way back to Vythiri. We managed to get a nice lodge in Kalpetta and put our heels on rest for the night.

15th, August, 05
Next morning started early, at 9 o’clock  and our first destination was Pookote Lake. We preferred to have a walk along the pave way around the lake instead of the boat ride. Pookote Lake is located at a place called Lakkidi which has the reputation of receiving maximum rain fall after Cherapunjee-Mousinram. Our next destination was Suchipara or Sentinel Rock waterfall. The road to Suchipara goes through endless tea gardens with Chembra Peak being a constant distant companion along the road. It’s a short one kilometer descend through the forest from the parking space in front of the juice n tea stall. The narrow waterfall with all its monsoon rages was a sheer delight for eyes. You can reach the base of the waterfall by scrambling through the wet rocks. On a sunny day try to capture the rainbow formed on the mists sprayed by the fall!

Banasura Sagar Dam was the last destination in our tour itinerary. True Kerala monsoon started showing its color by then. We reached the Dam, some 22 kms off Kalpetta amidst incessant grey shower! The Dam boasts Asia’s largest earth reservoir with occasional small islands dotting the lake. I managed to take a few snaps of the dam and the cloud covered hills around and hurriedly got back to the car.

The return journey was almost uneventful excepting a few sightings of the wild tuskers in Bandipur forest! We reached Mysore at ten o’clock in the night. Back to the world of dust, smog and computers!

Colonial Calls, Green Waters and Cloud Nine

It is a land of rice and fish curry, banana chips, coconut plantations, green backwaters, Chinese fishing nets and the Kathakali. A land of centuries old temples, churches and Colonial settlements. Of tiger infested jungles, raging waterfalls, golden beaches, misty hill stations and endless tea gardens. It’s a land of football, cartoonists, and Communism. Welcome, my dear readers, to Kerala!

The Trip
Whenever I travel long distances, I prefer traveling at night. It helps me avoiding the daytime traffic and you can always step on the gas. So on the journey day we left Mysore after ten o’clock and within an hour, we were darting down the darkness of interstate highway. Crossing the jungle under the cover of the night is always exciting. The smell of the forest and the dancing fireflies give you an eerie feeling. My last trip to Bandipur National Park was quite exciting with a number of sightings of the wild tuskers at night but this time around, the pachyderms disappointed me! We crossed the Thamarassery Ghat Pass and reached Kozhikode on the west coast after three o’clock in the morning.
During my last trip to Kerala we took the route via Thrissur and Angamali to go down south. But this time our first destination was the port city of Kochi or Ernakulam, so we took the highway along the west coast bypassing the famous temple town of Guruvayur.

Day One
The dawn was breaking as everyone, except our driver Krishna and me, were deep asleep inside the car. The cool morning breeze with a hint of salt from the Arabian Sea was blowing across the paddy fields and banana plantations. The distant hills wrapped under the cloud curtains were blushing with the crimson of morning sun. At around eight o’clock, we pulled over to a roadside tea shop on the busy highway and by nine we were amidst the hustle and bustle of the city streets of Ernakulam. Kochi and Ernakulam are more like twin cities with Kochi port and the backwater separating the two. The older town of Kochi boasts most of the Colonial hangovers and Ernakulam is more like any other modern Kerala city with visible evidence of cash flow from the Gulf.
We checked into a hotel near North Ernakulam railway station and soon headed for the Cherrai beach in the Vypeen Island, located 20 kilometers from the city via North Paravur. The gorgeous looking St. John's Basilica painted in bright yellow and white and the old lighthouse en route are worth a few snaps. Vypeen Island is a popular beach destination near Kochi and can be accessed either by the regular ferry service or by road way through the newly built bridge across the backwaters. Cherrai beach is quite narrow but you can spend time in the water as well as on the sand. On the way back, famous Chinese fishing nets at the backwaters reminded us of the trademark picture postcards from Kochi.
In the afternoon we went out to see the Old Kochi after a modest lunch. The Kochi Fort, Jewish cemetery and Synagogue, MattanChery Palace, Colonial Kochi offers a lot! Do not miss the old world feel at the Jewish Street, the milieu of cultures is truly amazing. Try to spend some time at the antique shops and cafés down the narrow alleys of the old town. Go for a ferry ride at the Kochi port in the evening. The neon lit city line and the reflections of the huge ships harbored on the dark water look quite amazing! The ferry ride brought the day's end at Kochi as we retreated to bed with dreams of green water cruise in our eyes!

Day Two
Alleppy or Alappuzha was the next destination! Green backwaters, narrow canals with endless coconut trees lined up along the banks, lush green paddy fields, Kettuvallom, Ayurveda and traditional spas, boat races, fried prawns and cool todi shops - that's Alleppy for you. Once we reached Alleppy, we hired a motor boat to cruise down the backwaters. But for a more leisurely and comfortable ride you can always go for Kettuvallom or the traditional rice boats, which cost a pretty penny but offer an experience of a life time!
The backwater is host to a huge variety of flora and fauna. Even if you are not a serious bird watcher you won't like to miss the herons, egrets and kingfishers busy fishing. The waterways are the lifelines of the people living in the backwaters. The boatwallahs are usually very informative, talking about people, boat races, their families, their traditions and festivals, fresh and sea water cycles in the backwaters, crop patterns and the utility of cool todi on a hot and sultry day! Sipping some coconut water under the hot tropical sun will always keep you cool!
When our boat reached the vast expanse of the Vembanad Kayal, it was an awesome sight. The kayal happens to be the second largest backwater lake in India after Chilka in Orissa. It is surrounded by the backwaters of Kochi, Alleppy, Kollam and Kumarakom from all four sides. Locales say experiencing the vista of the sunset over the kayal with thousands of birds returning to their nests is something you would always like to carry back from Alleppy.
Now that we had experienced the sea, sand and the green water, it was time for 'Munnar' …!

Day Three
Nestled amidst the Western Ghats and the greenest of tea plantations; this quaint little plantation town is Kerala’s best-kept secret until recent times. Located at an altitude of 5250 feet, it makes for an ideal tea county.
Today it is quickly emerging as a hot-spot hill station; full of starry/ moony eyed honeymooners, planters and the backpackers! The mist covered hills, the verdant slopes, the old feel of Raj are being taken over by weekenders from Trivandrum and Bangalore. Yet it retains an almost tangible aura of serenity and ‘serendipity’ is one word you can feel at every turn of the road.
Waking up early on a leisure holiday is strictly a matter of choice. But how many times have you lived in a place where you wake up to see a Malabar whistling thrush or a spotted dove in your own courtyard? How many times have you sipped on early morning sun while walking through abundance of hydrangeas? Our cottage on the Mattupetty road offered them all and lots of tranquility that could not be broken even by the shrill of cicadas!
In Munnar during the day, travel all the way to Eravikulam or Rajamalai to catch glimpses of the endangered Nilgiri Tahrs and the amazing valley views across the tea gardens. We started with a bright morning but as the day progressed it got cloudy. By the time we reached the waterfall, where the road takes a sharp left turn towards Rajamalai it started raining.
The fog and low clouds were approaching very fast and we lost our way. The range of visibility came down to barely ten-fifteen feet and the subterranean chilly wind with mists soaked us to the heels. After traveling for quite some time with fog lights on, a truck going towards Chinnar showed us the way and we retraced our way back towards Munnar. The clear view of the huge rock face beyond the tea plantations helped us find our way to Eravikulam.
The Eravikulam National Park is home to the endangered Nilgiri Tahrs, thanks to the aggressive protection of forest officials. The park is divided into three different zones; core, buffer and the tourist zone. You are only allowed to roam around in the tourist zone, while the core zone of the park is inhabited by elephants, giant Malabar squirrels and tigers.
The road that takes you back to the lower hills of Munnar is narrow and winding. It goes through endless tiers of tea plantations. Have a walk through the tea gardens on the slopes of Rajamalai. It will give you some unforgettable memories to cherish for a lifetime.
Small trek routes are aplenty around Munnar. Trips to Top Station, Lockheart gap or to Kundala Lake can offer you some fascinating vistas and ‘good life’. For serious trekkers Anaimudi (8842 feet), south India’s highest peak, could be a challenging option. While you are in Munnar it is always advisable to visit the tea factories and purchase some fresh leaves. A walk through spice and rubber plantations can also give you some more oxygen. But before visiting any plantation, try to get the required permissions. Usually hotels arrange for the permissions upon prior notice. The Mattupetty Lake and the nearby Indo-Swiss Cattle Firm are reasons good enough to visit old Munnar.

Day Four
The next day we woke up to a bright morning after a chilly winter night. A trip to Devikulam, 7 Km off Munnar on the Munnar-Madurai Road, was scheduled. The Sita Devi Lake is situated inside an estate that belongs to Tata Tea and it requires prior permission to enter the estate. We didn’t have any and decided to travel a few kilometers further on the Thekkady Road. What we got back; was an experience of a life time.
The vast expanse of snow white cloud enveloped us! It was literally ‘Cloud Nine’ and the resort nearby could really justify its name. The endless green, tanned high hills, soft white clouds and the turquoise blue water of the lake - the word ‘panorama’ was re-defined just before our eyes. Before such splendor you are bound to get spellbound. Go down the slopes of plantations to reach the edge of the water and do whatever! The only problem with such a place is that you hate to leave it and you keep on thinking, “Wish I could live here forever!” But it will not remain a surprise for long, my wit told me. With a new day and a new road, ‘panorama’ gets refined again!


The shadows of distant hills and the countless rows of windmills are our companions now as we race along the Coimbatore high way. The homemade chocolates of Munnar, the sandal wood forest at Chinnar, the eerie jungles of Indira Gandhi NP are well settled in my memory. The journey that began four days ago from Mysore is coming full circle, with some content and more than happy souls!

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Copyright: Abhishek Mitra, Jan 2007