Tag Archives: Western Ghats

Driving Down

Avoiding “season” in India is probably not an easy task. But it is not an entirely impossible task. Considering the size of the country, it is off-season somewhere. The only time being summer vacations, when hoardes of kids are let loose from schools and Mom and Dad travel the length and breadth of the country with them; wishing that school was still on. But as a tip, if you’re planning to travel to Thekkady, then be advised that off-season is between 1st April and 30th October.

Travelling, as we did, in late January will get you some deals on stays; not as much as you’d think though. Late January and early February is season in Thekkady as people come in from all over to enjoy winter mornings at the Periyar Project Tiger reserve. So do, apparently, a lot  of honeymooning couples. As you can imagine wildlife watchers and honeymooning couples do make a very strange combination of fellow travellers.

But I digress. Thekkady, by itself, is not very big. The Periyar National Park is the focal point here and it has a range of stay options along the NH220 and the Thekkady Munnar road. The stay options range from the budget to the one’s that allow you to wallow in luxury. Why you’d want to wallow in luxury at a National Park, is a debatable.

The National Park provides a well maintained site (with the obligatory apps for your phone). It provides a host of details there. While you’re at it, do sign-up for the early morning walk through parts of the forest. There are 3-4 varieties of these walks, all with varying degrees of difficulties and cost. For details look under the Eco Tourism link at the National Park’s website.

The boat ride on the Mullaperiyar Reservoir gives you a chance at stunning landscapes.
The boat ride on the Mullaperiyar Reservoir is an interesting ride.

The Park is also known for it’s boat ride that take you on the reservoir created by the Mullaperiyar Dam. The ride itself is a bit of a gamble if you’re taking this ride with the sole intent of watching wildlife. The boats are fairly large, with two decks and if you’re stuck away from the sides, you’ll have to edge over your fellow “nature enthusiasts” to catch anything. With cost of storage so cheap, you’ll find people clicking at every little leaf that they ignore in their daily life because “Now you’re in a National Park, it’s Nature and it is meant to be clicked”. Animal sightings are possible if you travel in the summer months when the water recedes from other parts of the Park and the animals come to this reservoir. But, you’re better off taking the trail in the Park itself, if bird-watching or animal sighting is your aim. Having said that, even then, it’s not always guaranteed you’ll see any animals.

The boat rides take you some distance in.
The boat rides take you some distance in.

Apart from this, there are other “things to do” in Thekkady. There are numerous locations where there are short shows of Kathakali and Kalaripayattu. Both forms of art that were originally long drawn affairs, especially Kathakali where stories from ancient texts were played out through the course of a night. For the people who like to get their fix from Twitter and Facebook posts, there are 2-3 hour versions that play every evening in and around the main road in Thekkady. Yeah, they don’t get any shorter than that, so if you can handle what Bollywood regurgitates every Friday, you can damn well handle this.

Thekkady, then, is also part of the triangular circuit that is sold to tourists. Land in Kochi, travel up the backwaters of Vembanad, come up to Thekkady, go further to Munnar and thence back to Kochi and home. Or variations of this with Alappuzha thrown in as well.

Since we trusted the collected wisdom and coupled with the fact that we didn’t want to go to Munnar, Alappuzha was the next stop for us. We’d been here before, more of a social thing than the travelling thing, so we had another go at it.

The town is absolutely bursting with things to do, the least of which are the famed rides along it’s backwaters. A tip here, is to get hold of the smaller shikaras. These are more easily available, cost about 1.5K to 2K for ~3 hours or so. The joy of travelling up smaller lanes of the back-water, the chit-chat with your boatman and the sampling of food from the small places along the way is one of the best experiences you can have as a traveller. The tickets can be availed at the main loading point at Alappuzha and the length of the rides can be negotiated. This obviously works best when you’re in small groups as the largest shikara (as they are known locally) could accommodate only about 8 people or so.

The small shikaras go where the larger houseboats can't and you get to experience the backwaters in a very different way.
The small shikaras go where the larger houseboats can’t and you get to experience the backwaters in a very different way.

If you’re looking for activities, there are a lot to do apart from the backwaters. There are ayurvedic massages, tours of the spice traders or just to walk around the town.

Or you could start driving up the coast. There is an excellent, if somewhat narrow, 2 track that starts from Alappuzha beach and goes all the way up to Kochi’s fort. This road, the SH-66, is one of the best coastal drives you could do in the country. The usual rules about keeping a lookout for that peculiar species, the KSRTC buses, apply. Especially so, since you can easily get distracted by the scenery passing you by.

The drive along Kerala's SH-66 is mesmerising.
The drive along Kerala’s SH-66 comes highly recommended.

You can take the entire day to cover this stretch and it’s just the drive. You’ll still have to find time for the treasures of Fort Kochi. Starting off early, you can stop off at the beaches of Thampoly, Mararikulam, Thaickal, Kattoor, Arthunkkal, all the way up to Fort Kochi. The way back can be a little leisurely and you can stop off at any of the small food places along the way. To be on the safe side, if you’re planning a trip to the Jewish quarter in Fort Kochi, most of their buildings are closed to the public on Friday and Saturday, the days of the Jewish Shabbath.

The beaches along the route from Alappuzha to Fort Kochi are heavenly.
One of the beaches along the route from Alappuzha to Fort Kochi.

Now that you’ve done the tourist circuit, keep in mind to come back next time, out-of-season and soak this up all over again.

Getting cold in Kerala

Both times I’ve been to Munnar, I was taken aback by it’s temperature. I mean, who would think that somewhere in Kerala, of all places, gets cold. But it does. And bitterly so. Or at-least bitterly enough for the season. The first time I went, it was middle of December. Granted we should’ve been forewarned by the season. But refer to the first sentence. The second time around, it was a last minute change of plan – go to Munnar instead of Kanyakumari – that did us in. While on this drive, The Missus decided that since going to Kanyakumari would entail a long drive back home, we should go some place closer. Various options were considered and discarded before we settled on Munnar. We booked ourselves into the Kannimalai Estate bungalow. The prices are a little on the higher side, but since we were on our annual vacation and more importantly, keeping the Missus happy was of prime importance, I didn’t quibble.

The drive from Madurai to Munnar is super fun and if you’re not careful about your driving, you’re likely to end up being part of very scenic scenery. Travelling when the monsoon is active means that a lot of the drive up the hills is very misty. Coupled with the propensity of Kerala bus drivers to think that they’re on the special stages of a WRC rally, you’re likely to encounter some hairy moments on them hair-pin bends. To put it mildly. The Kannimalai bungalow is little past Munnar town and the last 400 meters is basically a dirt road. For those who need details, the route is Madurai > Usilampatti > Andipatti > Theni > Bodinayakannur > Devikulam > Munnar. The one thing we noticed is that here, the Kerala Police/Forest officials were very thorough in checking your vehicle papers.

Now, I still don’t know what it is that you do in Munnar. We did see some honeymoon-types, so there is a thought. For the others, the fact that unlike Ooty or Coonoor, things are not exactly placed closed to each other means taking long drives through the country-side. It helps that it is very pretty country-side. Especially in the wet-season, when there are lots of small to largish streams cascading over the hills. Landslides would be a possibility though, so that is something you need to keep in mind if you’re planning your travel during this time. Plus, you need to like the rains, I mean sheet-of-water, misty and cold rain. When sometimes all you can do is curl up with a book. If you don’t like this, then it is probably not the time for you to visit. Or you could be one of the honeymoon types…

What we did was take a ride up to Top Station. In the rains, the last bit is a mess and you can’t go all the way down to the view point. Apparently that portion is part of Tamil Nadu, and access is now closed. A better option is to travel a little past Top Station, to one of the smallest National Parks you can see, the Pampadum Shola National Park. It is about 11 sq. km. total. There are a couple of forest huts that you can trek up to. There are two sorts, there is a short walk that you can drive to and a proper 3 to 4 hour trek. Since we didn’t want to provide leeches with any more blood than what the Gormint sucks out of us, we decided to drive. The walk itself was very interesting, we saw a family of Nilgiri Langurs. Theylook like LTM, without the white mane. Sort of. Then we saw what we thought was a fox at that time, but then later realised was a dhole. I didn’t know that they could be found at these altitudes or cold. For those interested, you need appropriate permissions from the DFO in Munnar. We found a very helpful, if a little un-informed guide, Sudhakaran (094427 84015). He claims to arrange for these permissions if informed in advance. Be advised that having a guide is mandatory.

Spooky dead trees in a small check dam at Pumpadum Shola National Park. The dam acts as a water-hole for the animals in the Park.

In fact, this is not the only trek in Munnar. There is the famous Munnar to Kodai trek. It will go past Pampadum Shola National Park, but according to Sudhakaran, getting permission from the TN forest department can be a pain sometimes. However, for those who want to trek in the High Ranges, head over to Eravikulam, for a day long trek. The starting point is a little away from the Park’s tourist zone.  For all the other tourists, there is always the Mattupetty dam and the boat rides there. Or Pallivasal. Or Top Station. Or the Tea Museum. Just make sure you don’t catch a cold in Kerala.

When in Munnar next, consider a day trip to Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. This is in the rain-shadow region of Kerala’s Western Ghats. I think this is still the High Ranges of the Western Ghats. At the foothills is the Indira Gandhi National Park. This is where the hills would merge into the Anamalai Hills closer to Valparai. I’m always confused on the Southern-most ranges; where the Eastern and Western Ghats merge and multiple ranges abound. Both of these sanctuaries are on the Munnar – Udumalpet road. If you’re driving back to Coimbatore or Bengaluru, considering stopping by at the Amaravathi Nagar Dam. A pleasant experience overall.