Category Archives: Road Trips

3 Guys, a drive & Coorg

Ah weekends! The time when you catch up with family, friends, your hobbies, the pile of clothes you haven’t washed for a month. All of these are perfectly legitimate uses of 48 hours. So also a 650 km drive to nowhere.

There once was a Chinese philosopher who said that the true traveller does not hurry to the destination as he realises that the journey itself is the destination. That is the kind of philosophy you need when you go to Coorg. Most people think Coorg is this one place where you do your regular tourist thing. You know, go to the Lovers Point, take a look at the Suicide Point, gawk at the Sunrise Point(c’mon how many of us can even begin to comprehend that there is a concept called sunrise; and that the sun does not immediately jump to overhead when we wake up). In theory, you could do all of this. But then, that is not the best way to enjoy Coorg. Besides there is just one point, Raja’s Seat, in Madikeri. And conveniently it’s a sunset point.

See, there are these two Coorgs. One is on every tourist’s map. Go to Madikeri, spend an hour at Raja’s Seat; go dip your feet in Abbey Falls & Irupu Falls; stop by at Bailkoppa and Nisarghdhama. Which is also good enough for the weekend. Then there is the trekker’s Coorg, Tadiyandamol, Brahmagiri et al. However, for someone with no fixed agenda, mixing both of these can be quite rewarding. Unfortunately, this means you require a means of transport. Car is good. I believe bikes would be better.

The road to nowhere. Or the long way home.

Here is what you do. You plan to start early on Saturday morning. Then you leave the waking up part to friends (The Usual Suspects); one of who is curled up with a John Grisham with about 100 pages to go late on Friday night and the other who sleeps like he is in the middle of a lecture. Then you thank your lucky stars that you live close to a temple that has a speaker that loudly invokes the Lord’s name at 6 every morning. You then go kick said friends’ butts to wake them up. Travel.

We took the Mysore Road. Now that the construction is almost over, this is an excellent piece of asphalt. The almost part is as there are still some un-nerving sections when you find out that suddenly all vehicles are coming in your lane. To get to Coorg via the scenic route, take the right turn to Ranganathittu just after Srirangapatna. Keep following the road through some excellent rural settings to hit Hunsur. Madikeri is 64 kms from Hunsur. The road after Hunsur gets bad, and in sections is just a figment of some greedy bureaucrat’s imagination. Apparently for the last 2 years, the PWD is labouring to construct a 4 lane road from Mysore to Madikeri.

A little over 16 kms out of Hunsur, there is a fork in the road. Both eventually get you to Madikeri. As the movie gag goes, “Yeha se jao, ya waha se jao, sab rasta God ko jaata hai.” In this case, the right will get you to God; or at least to one of his abodes. Around 20 kms from this fork you will hit Bylakuppe, which is home to the largest Tibetan settlement in India. This is also home to the Golden Temple (of the Buddhist variety). It is quite interesting to be seemingly thrust into Tibet, with red-robed monks and prayer flags, and hear Kannada all around you. The Golden Temple is a monastery, and is open to all to visit. While the monks break for lunch; between 12 and 1; you will not be allowed to roam in the main prayer hall. Once they are back, you can walk in and pretty much go anywhere in the hall. For all the foodies, avoid the BDA-like food court outside the temple complex. Instead a little further along the way back towards the highway, you will find a board advertising Olive, a restaurant. It looks like a house, and probably is, but its proprietor Tsering will serve you authentic Tibetan food. If you are lucky maybe you can bum a packet of cigarettes off him too!

Moon-rise over the Namdorling Monastery at Bylakuppe, Coorg.

The nearest place from here is Nisargdhama. This is a 2.5 km sq. island in the middle of the Cauvery. The forest department charges you 10 Rs. as entry fee, and there is a rudimentary deer park, a couple of over worked elephants that you can ride if you fork over 10 bucks. There is also boating if you fork over an extra 10 bucks. You will have to ask the dis-interested person manning the booth if the boating is on. You can stay here, there are cottages available, and the Forest Department charges you 650 for double occupancy. There is food available in the canteen a little away from the huts. Just so you know the folks there speak Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam. Hindi works fine too. The huts are your basic fare, but sit on some excellent piece of real estate, and would be well worth the stay, if you are looking for 2 days of peace and quite. Or whatever quite you can find in the midst of your regulation hordes of weekend picnickers. You can combine this with a visit to Harangi Dam or Dubare or both. The park itself is open between 9.30 AM and 5.30 PM. Harangi Dam is an excellent picnic spot.

We however, made tracks for Madikeri, another 30 kms away on agonisingly bad roads. Madikeri is a good place to stay if you want to explore the countryside around. In fact, for the budget traveller, the Cauvery hotel near the bus stand is an excellent place for budget acco – 300 to 400 Rs should get you a 3-bed room with hot water (very essential in these cold climes). This is central to the town, and if you are pressed for time, a 14 km hike to the Abbey Falls and back is an excellent way to enjoy the weekend. A little out of town, and you have the more “expensive” fare. We stayed at Crystal Hotel; it has a board as you enter Madikeri, follow the signs. They charged us 1190 for a 3-bed room. It’s a new hotel, so it is clean, and more importantly has hot showers. They have cottages being built in an estate opening soon. At 5000 bucks a weekend, only those who are loaded need apply.

The next day we set out from Madikeri. There are those who extol the beauty of the drive from Madikeri to Siddapur. It’s a 30 km drive to the south. However, if you go roughly the same distance to the South-west, you reach Talacauvery, the place where Cauvery springs over ground. A 300 step climb from the spring will get you to the top of the Bramhagiri which will give you extensive views of the surrounding countryside. This entire place is a temple complex – or at least it will be soon – so be careful that you do not disturb the sanctity of the place.

You can then drive down to Madikeri, and thence to Bangalore or as we did, take a random turn to the right towards Siddapur. We spent about 3 hours on the back-country roads of South-west Coorg district before we passed through Nagarhole, and got back on the main highway connecting Madikeri and Mysore. This drive passes through some amazing locations, and there are places you can take a break and have a light picnic. Be sure, however, that you clean up the mess after you. Most of these places are coffee estates, and you don’t want to test the adage that the Coorgi is born with a gun in one hand and a hockey stick in another! If you are close to the coffee estates of the venerable Tata group, you might not even need that. All those estates are ringed by electrified fencing. We did however stop to ponder how a coffee-running Mafia can siphon off the coffee by jumping over the fence. None of us actually wanted to put our theories to test. If someone is game enough to try them, please feel free to contact me. For the saner ones, if you ask around, Tata Coffee arranges for coffee estate tours. But remember to ask politely!

The random right turn presents itself around 10 -15 kms on the way down from Talacauvery. You take the road leading to Napoklu. Once you reach there, make tracks towards Murnad, and at Murnad ask anyone the road to Ammathi. There is a semblance of a road from here, that leads you on to Titimati. From Titimati you take the straight road, whence you will enter Rajiv Gandhi National Park, or as all of us know it, Nagarhole. Just as you exit the National Park, the road forks. Taking the left will take you back to Madikeri. There is some truth to the saying that the straight and narrow road will lead you to good things. In this case it will take you to the fork in the road near Hunsur I mentioned earlier. Bangalore is about 175 kms from here.

I am harping on the bad roads bit, however, the drive is still an extremely satisfying one despite that. The other thing is that the road is mostly lined with small dhabas, that might not serve you full scale lunch. You will however get your regular Coorgi fare. Comes highly recommended. If you plan on going exploring the country side in your vehicles, be sure to top up on fuel in Madikeri.

For those not feeling up to the drive can stop at Nisarghdhama or Madikeri and just relax. For the rest, there are still nowhere calling.

Doing Nothing.

Yercaud is also known as the Poor Man’s Ooty. It’s quite uncalled for. It is nothing like Ooty. If you discount the lake. And the hills. And the boarding schools. And… so, fine. It is a lot like Ooty. But it is a heck of lot closer to Bangalore. At 230 kms, it is a good 100 kms closer than Ooty. Plus Ooty does not have Suhas and family and their heavenly food. But more about that later.

A late winter evening at the lake in Yercaud.

The Yercaud trip was was with a group of friends from work. And for a change, we decided to drive down ourselves rather than take the 20 odd people in a bus. Solid common sense and financial issues also played a hand. The TN govt. has mandated that all who enter its fine state need to cough up 11000 Big Ones if they are visiting in any vehicle which seats more than 13 people. So the second option of packing 20 people in 4 vehicles was exercised.

A couple at the Pagoda Point in Yercaud. And no, there are no pagodas here.

It was quite fun actually. We decided to leave office by 6.30, come hell or high water, so we left at 7.45. Hey, co-coordinating with 20 people is difficult OK? The drive was excellent, take the Hosur road (NH 47) upto Salem, turn left at Salem, and take the state highway up the hills for the last 25 kms. We were put up at the “House of Peace” a missionary, which lets out rooms at 150 Rs. per person per night. Of course, with 20 of the best and brightest of the travel club, for the next two days, it was anything but the House of Peace!

An ivy covered wall in Yercaud.

Yercaud, again, is not a place where you go to do things. It definitely affords a two days break where life goes on at an extremely leisurely pace. You can take walks in the town or around town with its long, winding mountain roads with tall conifer, kurunji trees and coffee plantations. Yercaud grows coffee. There, you got your difference between Yercaud and Ooty. While Ooty is famous for its tea plantations, Yercaud is known for its coffee plantations. Admittedly, tea plantations are more picturesque. But hiking in a coffee plantation is quite pleasant.

And this is exactly what we did. We were met by Suhas, who was our host for the duration of our stay, who took us on a short hike across Yercaud. The hike was quite pleasant and not at all strenuous and took us to through the outer edges of the town, across a wooded area and ended in a coffee plantation. The weird thing is, with all the coffee growing around, the only coffee you get is the instant variety! After the hike, followed an important – nay the most important part of any weekend. A 3 hour siesta. The evening, we went to the various points that any self-respecting hill station has. Don’t miss the Ladies Point. Don’t ask me just why this was named so. It looks over Salem, and since we reached around 8.30 in the night, all of Salem was laid out below us like a million stars and there was a gorgeous full moon lighting up the sky. It was a sight to remember. Nightfall saw a campfire where a spirited game of Dumb Charades was enjoyed by all. It ended with both sides claiming victory.

Now comes the important part. The Food. Suhas has a coffee plantation and also conducts short treks all around Yercaud. His wife cooks for all the people who join his treks. And boy, can she cook! The reason this travelogue is short on details is I spent the time just gorging on the food. For any of you interested in a weekend getaway to Yercaud, do contact Suhas at go2yercaud.com. His family will give you a great treat of a lifetime.

Spending Weekends.

A new car, overly enthusiastic room-mates and a sick grandmother lead you to Munnar. At least it did me. The new car and enthu roomies are mine, the grandmother is one of my roomies’. My roomie expressed a desire to spend Christmas with his grandmother who had just recovered from a brief illnes, so off we went to Kerala. Turns out his place is close to Munnar. Relatively speaking.It’s about 90 kms from where we stayed, but having travelled 530 kms already, I wasn’t going to crib about an extra 90.

Munnar rises 5,000 ft above sea level and at about 600 km from Bangalore, the drive is not something to be attempted on a regular weekend. However, it is the perfect getaway for the longer weekends. Summer temperatures range between 15°C and 25°C. In winters the temperatures vary from 0°C to 10°C. The best time to go would be September to May. And since common sense dictates we go at the best time, we went in the middle of winter; December to be exact. Thus proving once more, that common sense is not so common. However, we took comfort in the fact, that we were not alone in our stupidity. We encountered crowds from half the states of India during our 2 day stay.

“Iridescent colours streaking a clear sky, low clouds, the twittering of birds, squat green tea bushes spanning acres of land, and meandering roads” is how a travel site describes it. Apart from the “iridescent colours” part the rest of it is spot on. Munnar offers a lot places to drive, take short walks and generally enjoy the peace and quiet.

Winding roads leading to the Ervikulam National Park. Yes, it is this green.

Take the Hosur road and get on the NH7 – NH47 combination right up to Salem. Just before you enter Salem proper, there is some work going on on the Salem bypass. At this juncture there is an excellent dhaba – I don’t know the equivalent in Tamil – where you will can stuff your self on good South Indian breakfast. Three hungry guys having a go at the fare like refugees from a diet camp, and we ran up a bill of 45 bucks. [Update: Sadly, progress has consumed this restaurant; after the 4 laning of this highway]. After you cross Salem, take the turn to NH215 towards Coimbatore. Coimbatore you can bypass the town and get on an excellent road which will lead you into God’s Own Country (you know what they say about the people). You get to Munnar via Thrishur, and Palakkad. After Palakkad take the road to Permbavur. Munnar is 90 Kms from Permbavur on the Munnar-Alwaye road

Munnar is also known as the Darjeeling of the South so there are lots of tea gardens there. The road from Permbavur is excellent and fairly fast if somewhat narrow. It winds its way through some beautiful countryside, and is best taken early in the morning. The first 3 hours in Munnar were spent trying to get acco. We knocked on the doors of all the staying places, high-brow to low-brow, and found none. There are a lot of touts – as is common with all tourists places, and even they declined room for us. We finally settled for Spring Valley Dorm a little outside town. At 100 Rs. a bed we were not complaining. The place is surprisingly clean – including the toilets – the owner is quite helpful, and they have some sort of private areas for people travelling in mixed company. We did see a group which was thus. Having said that, the prop. was surprised that we weren’t tight as owls when we checked in, so be warned.

An early winter morning at Munnar.

Places to stay are not a problem, there are plenty. The problem is getting one the exact same time that you want it. For those taking their own vehicles, there are Indian Oil and Bharat Petroleum outlets in the centre of town. Both take credit cards.

Munnar is not some place where you ‘do’ things. But if you are all up to it, you can do the tourist thing, which basically involves going to the Matupetty dam, the Echo point, and the Eravikulam National Park. About one-third of the world’s population of Nilgiri Thar (allegedly a mountain goat – but looks more like a small mule) is in Eravikulam. These goats are surprisingly tame, and will allow you to come quite near. The park is about 15 km from Munnar and the entrance is from Vaguvarai (auto fare is Rs 75 one way and Rs 150 for a round trip). Now the thing to wonder is whether this is worth it. As a nature lover I would’ve said yes. As a car-owner and someone who likes to keep breathing, I would’ve passed. Saying that the road is narrow is like saying Bangalore traffic is a little senseless. The road is about one car wide. One small car wide and has a healthy 1000 foot drop on one side and the mountain on the other. Oh did I mention the blind curves? Again, allegedly, elephants, gaurs, sambars, mountain goats and tigers can also be seen here. But I didn’t see it. You could drive to the base, where there is some sort of fall(a water fall, not the kind where you drop off), and climb the last 3 kms. Much safer. The park is open from 7 am to 6 pm. Anamudi, the highest peak in south India, is located in the southern region of the park. One can trek up to the foot of the peak. Permission for trekking can be obtained from the District Forest Officer in Munnar (Tel: 530 487). Another trekking area is Rajamala – the natural habitat of the Nilgiri Thar. But you’ll need to check with the District Forest Officer before you do so.

A Nilgiri Thar getting on with it's life, unmindful of gawking, squawking humans.

There is the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary about 20 Km from Kothamangalam, which is on the way to Munnar. Boat rides are available form Boothathankettu to Thattekkad and the best time to visit is early in the A.M. That time, I believe, counts most folks out.

Top Station is known for the Neelkurinji plant that flowers only once in 12 years. It is at a distance of 37 km on the Munnar-Kodaikanal road at an altitude of 1,700 m. Top Station also has a panoramic view of the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. A round trip to this place by jeep would cost about Rs 400. While the drive itself is quite scenic, top station itself might not appeal to all. It used to be a station for the rope-way, whence all the tea used to be transported to TN in the earlier days. Nothing of that exists now.

However, the rest of Munnar is still yours to explore. And that’s not a bad way to spend a long weekend.