I love cities. I love living in one. I love my job. Hmmm… I guess that was little too unbelievable. But it’s true. I really do. It makes me appreciate the long weekends that I can wrangle. I especially love it when I can get an extra day off, and take a 4 day vacation and loose only one day in leave.
Visions of appam and beef fry that I enjoyed last Christmas at my roomie’s place in Kerala were still fresh in my mind. And my stomach. So Kerala it was; twice in the past 2 months. Republic Day saw me heading Wayanad-wards. We’d (one of The Usual Suspects and I) decided to stay here for a couple of days, and head on down further south towards. But, then when inveterate journey-is-the-destination kinda travelers travel, all plans where thrown out of the window the moment we crossed Muthanga and drove towards Bathery (Sultan Battery for all of you imperialists). This district – and not a specific place – is one of the lesser explored parts of Kerala. Those 4 days were absolute bliss, and then I found about about Chembra and how you can trek there. So I decided to come back and do it one of these days. Well, the weekend of 11th & 12th March, found me doing just that. To be honest, I don’t think Wayanad is something that can be covered in 2 days. There are too many places of interest for the regular tourist and gawkers. There are a couple of treks there. Chembra I mentioned, and another one close by called Vallarimala. I would really have loved to camp there. But then not everything can go one’s way, now can it?
If you are in Bangalore, then the way to get to Wayanad is Mysore, onwards from there towards Gundulpet/Ooty. Just after the Gundulpet police check post the NH 212 heads towards Calicut. A little into the drive and you hit some beautiful countryside. Now this is what I call the problem of plenty. If you start from Bangalore early in the A.M., then you would reach here sometime in the afternoon. This is, of course, considering that you are not one of those who like to leave sonic booms in your wake. If you start out late at night – midnight is suggested – then you will get to Muthanga around day break. And watching the sun come up from the trees is a sight to behold. This route is by far the fastest way to get to Wayanad. There are other routes. When I’d travelled in January, Lonely Planet’s India & Bangladesh road atlas suggested there was an alternate route from Mysore. We spent about 20 minutes trying to find it and then gave up.
Bathery provides you with the assorted lodges and The Resort. At INR 500 for a double room, it is definitely a place to stay. For all those “bleddy alkoholiks” it also has a bar attached. In fact all the places I stayed had a bar attached. The Resort’s bar is one of those gloomy places where the accent is on how much you can consume rather than providing you with any sort of ambience. Bathery is the place to stay if you want to explore the Edakkal Caves. Or rather cave. Umm… make that rock fall. This has some Stone age carvings, and a treat of a view if you climb a little further from the rock fall where the carvings are. Oh, did I mention a climb? It is a very short climb, but it is steep as heck. It also has the Edakkal Hermitage. If nothing, this establishment sits on some excellent real estate. It is a collection of 8 cottages (INR 3300) and 2 tree houses(INR 3900). I didn’t verify if the tree houses were suitable for adult entertainment. By the way, if you want to enjoy the view and the carvings get there well before 16.30. They don’t allow folks to climb after that. Bathery is also close to the Wayanad Heritage Museum in Ambalavayal, the excavations at Muniyara and some more spots.
The drive from Bathery to Kalpetta is excellent. You pass through some excellent scenery, and it is quite easy to become part of it. Enthralled as you will be with the passing flora, keep an eye out for that peculiar fauna, the Kerala bus drivers. Unlike other fauna, it is not at all territorial. It just assumes that the entire road belongs to it. The problem is that the NH 212 that goes to Calicut is in excellent condition (circa early 2006), and it just begs you to cruise.
Lonely Planet suggests that Kalpetta is the central place to stay. It is definitely the place where there are more hotels to stay. Kalpetta is like a junction. You can go further South-west towards Vaithyri or go North-East towards the Tholpetty Nature Reserve. This Nature reserve along with Muthanga is part of the Bandipur, Mudumulai & Kudremukh parks. Kalpetta is also where you can stay at the PPS Lodge (INR500) a short walk away from the New Palace Hotel. Now I must pause here. And savour the taste of the puttu, appam, ackora fry and beef fry that New Palace serves up. And if two people gorge there, they can run up a princely bill of 75 to 85. Strongly suggested pit stop place.
From Kalpetta, the Sentinel or Soochipara waterfalls are about 18 kms. The falls it self is not all that great. And besides, I never did understand the fascination with waterfalls. Be that as it may, when I went the second time around, my entire group spent rapturous times there. Some adventurous souls did try and climb behind the falls. But saner sense prevailed. You can drive up to a km. away from the falls. Then there is this descent to the falls proper. Try and get here in the evenings. The sunsets are great. Plus, to get to the falls, you take a diversion off the NH 212 at Chundale, from where the road winds through tea & coffee estates and to sound repetitive, you have to stop and look at what is spread out in front of you. We stopped at one point, where the tea estates with the high mountains in the back drop offered excellent views. Turns out that the estate has donated that spot along with around 10 acres for a college. Now that is what I call conducive environs for academics!
Because we came in this big group, the first day, we only had time to go to Pookote lake and Soochipara falls. Pookote is a bit further away past Vythiri. The lake itself is not all that big, but it is clean. You have your regulation boating along with a very interesting walk around the lake itself. I would suggest taking the walk. This is also seems to be a very popular place for all the schools around the area. Both the times I went, it had hordes of kids all over the place! Night was spent at the Haritagiri (750 to 1500INR). It has a swimming area – that is claimed to be a pool. Not to mention a little chlorine-loving pool keeper. My eyes watered like heck after half-an-hour of swimming. The next day was the trek.
Now a lot of our group probably didn’t expect the trek to be so tough. And it is not. Chembra looks formidable. The trick is to keep climbing. That is what Vikas, constant companion on the trek, and I did. It is spread out in a series of climbs followed by a plateau like area. As you reach one plateau, you see that the next climb is steeper. It is only when you start climbing it that you find out that it is actually quite easy. Because the grass grows in some sort of steps, if you keep off the beaten path, it offers you excellent grip. And once you reach the top, the views are to die for. Chembra also is along Soochipara way, so the trek proper starts from a tea estate. You need forest department permission to climb and to camp. There is a peculiar feature on Chembra after the second plateau. There is a heart-shaped lake there which gives you excellent grounds to camp. The heart-shapeness (OK, that word is made up) is not evident unless you climb further up. We started our climb around mid-morning, and the sun was harsh enough to sun-burn the delicate skins of some (read women). The ideal trek would be to get up to the lake around night fall, set up camp and climb at the break of dawn. Since I didn’t do that, it means, I have yet another trip to make. Sigh. Nevertheless, this day trip was worth the effort. And a lot of us did make an effort. While there were still others, who ensured that a lot of Chembra stuck to their jeans when they got down. They shall remain un-named.
Now here is the kicker. Wayanad seems to make you want to stay back. One way to return is via Mananthvadi and the Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary. This is where I spent a soporific 90 minutes driving through the park for about 450. At the end of which, the guide helpfully pointed out that the best time to come to the park is on a Tuesday between March and mid May. This is when you are most likely to spot a Panthera tigris. The cost structure is 350 for the jeep – if you are not driving your own – 50 for a guide and 20 for still cameras.
So for those of you with 3 days to spare, check out this part of God’s Own Country. But don’t make any plans, and you will find out what they mean when they say that the journey is the destination.