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India: Kerala: Ashtamudi, Kovalam, Munnar, Poovar
Munnar, Kerala: High tea amidst lush greens
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
The landscape at Munnar will put to shame many of manicured lawns in palatial homes. Thanks to the thousands of acres of tea plantations, Munnar is one large patch of hues of green. Dotted by silver oak trees and separated by valleys & lakes. To compete with the landscape, were the ever changing skyscape colours… hues of blue, shades of orange, grey and of course white fluffy clouds. And between the land and the skies, fog & mist played hide & seek. Munnar is sheer romance.
After a tiring 12-hour journey, all the way from Poovar, (refer to my journal on Ashtamudi, Kerala), we reached Munnar at 8 in the evening finding our way through rain & fog. That behind us, we checked in at Club Mahindra. After a quick bite, we retired for the day.
Thanks to my association with the travel industry, I was offered a room that overlooked the lake - a few thousand feet in the valley below. The property has rooms that overlook the forest & the mountains behind, a good restaurant offering a variety of cuisine (their breakfast & lunch / dinner package is quite attractive and has my recommendation), an activity centre that will help plan your time for the days ahead and a cozy little Auyervedic treatment centre.
The property, I would like to believe would rank amongst the best in town. However, it's located 20 kms from Munnar town on the Madurai highway. Irrespective of the hotel you wish to stay at, availing services of a cab is highly recommended. Almost all scenic locations are dispersed and would be at a distance from wherever you would be. Hotels do provide taxis on hire, but sadly, their charges are pretty steep. There were many taxi owners outside the property - each one of them offering local sight seeing tours at almost half the cost of the travel desk within.
We decided to laze around the next morning. A late breakfast and a 60-minute body massage rejuvenated us for the 2 days that were ahead of us. We hired a cab for Rs 300 (at the time of writing USD 1 fetched Rs 43). The vehicle would be with us for about 4 hours with a visit to a Spices Garden and the Anayirankal Dam & Reservoir. The return trip was about 40 kms.
The beauty of Munnar became obvious as soon as we hit the road. Mountains & valleys were covered with immaculately cut tea plants. Tata Tea has 15 estates and Harrisons have 3 in the region. Between them, they share thousands of acres of tea estates. Sadly, visit to the tea curing factories is not permitted for tourists. However, Kolukkumallai Estates - 7500 feet above sea level - world's highest tea cultivation land - does allow visitors, but for the trip you would need a 4-wheel drive Jeep. We decided to opt out of the bumpy trip as a 'massage ride' was not on our priority list. We had enough massages these past few days.
Good to know, that the tea plants in the region are between 80 & 100 years old. Fresh leaves are hand plucked every 45 days. Pluckers keep moving all around the region. It's quite likely that you would meet with a few of them. The silver oak trees are purposely planted at regular intervals in the tea estates. The trees have the tendency to preserve water during the rainy months. The water is then discharged during the summer months through the tree roots, thus keeping the soil moist.
As we moved towards the Spices Garden, we crossed a few orange plantations. Most of the fruit were green. Harvest was about 30 days away. The spices garden is a private 73-acre property, off which only about 3 acres is open to public. The caretakers of the spices garden charge a fee of Rs 100 per person for a guided tour. Since the fee amount is not printed, I imagined the same to be a negotiable instrument. I was successful in saving Rs 50 between the two of us.
We reached the garden at about 4 in the afternoon. We were late by about 8 hours. A herd of wild elephants were here in the morning and were around for an hour. A deep waterhole in the garden attracts them to the place. The forests in Munnar have a high population of elephants. Being under protection of the law, they roam freely, in the process damaging standing crops & trees. Banana is their favourite food. The garden has a tree house to post a sentry. On sighting elephants, crackers are ignited. The sound drives the elephants away. Lucky tourists get to see a few herds in Munnar region. I could not see any but I did come across huge elephant footprints and fresh dung! I am told, when in a group, these animals are quite social. The risk is from the lone ones. So watch out.
My spices garden guide was a graduate in agriculture. He was quite OK with his English & Hindi. He took us around for a 30-minute tour making us aware of the various herbs, spices and tree that the garden has. Notably, plants of White Chili, Insulin making leaves, Cardamom, Pepper, Lemon Grass, Vanilla, Robasta Coffee, Cloves, Cinnamon amongst others. After our lesson of spice making and its medicinal values we made our way to our next destination but not before buying a few packets of spices at the garden. Not too sure if the price was right. It was convenient though.
We drove back a little and then made our way towards the Anayirankal Dam. Literally translated, 'anayirankal' means 'coming of the elephants'. The water reservoir has been an attraction for wild elephants for many years now. We walked the dam wall and spent time soaking in the beauty around. We were at the hotel at about 6. That evening, we walked to nearby Mahavir Restaurant that offered home style wholesome vegetarian food - a refreshing change from our daily fare.
The next morning I woke up at 6 to catch the rising sun. Clouds scattered the rays and the entire skyline was a riot of colours. Keeping good mannerisms aside, I walked to the hotel front in my pajamas and camera. A good 30 minute stroll up and down the slopes did me good. At slightly sensible hours, we hired the cab for a 70 km return trip that cost Rs 700. We left at 9 AM. The first stop, about 3 kms away was at Periakanal Waterfall. Tall & majestic, the waterfall was in its full glory. Even during the summers, little water is still around. A few kms further up we made a brief halt at Lockhart view point. As the name suggests, the spot gave a magnanimous view of the valley. Only a panoramic picture could do justice.
10 kms further down (and up), was Munnar. A small town full to the brim with cafes and shops selling tea, spices and home made chocolate. Our stop was for breakfast. I would suggest a visit to Srinivas Restaurant. The menu offered a massive range of South Indian cuisine especially Dosas. Idlis & Wadas get over by 9 AM! Also ask for their filter coffee. The waiter will take pride in pouring the piping hot coffee from one container to another. The process will allow the coffee to fall down a couple of feet before being collected in a container below. Not a drop is spilled. In some parts of Southern India, this coffee is also known as 'meter coffee' - some experts handle the coffee for a meter in length! A picture in here will be of help. I am not a great cook, but I do know that the essential ingredient in the making of Dosas, Idlis and Wadas is grounded rice, fermented overnight. The batter is pan fried to make Dosas, steamed to make Idlis and deep fried to make Wadas. Of course the shape differs - flat, balls and balls with holes respectively.
After stuffing in a couple of Dosas and a drive of 4 kms saw us at the gates of a 'flower garden' under the management of the Floricultural Division of Kerala Forest Development Corporation. An entry fee of Rs 5 per head and Rs 10 per still camera is worth every penny. Hundreds of species of flowers, decorative & medicinal plants and cactus were on display. A botanist could easily spend a day out there. While every species on display was appropriately named, I focused more on the flowers instead. I must have shot dozens and dozens of pictures. Frankly, I wouldn't recollect the names of the flowers, but some pictures in here should be of help.
10 kms further up (and down) is the massive Matupetty Dam and Reservoir. The location is a very popular tourist destination. In the back waters, you could hire a speed boat. And on land you could opt for a ride on an elephant back. The ride near the bank offers a stroll on an elephant back along the main road. While another one, a few kms prior to the dam (you won't miss the sign board) offers a 30 minute ride through the forest. My vote is certainly for the later. The cost is Rs 350 per person.
4 kms further up from the dam is Echo Point. Tourists are expected to scream in the valley. Instead, most of the visitors were busy shopping at the stalls put up on the banks of the reservoir. I screamed, heard the mountains shout back asking me to leave. I promptly did.
Our return leg begins. The journey so far was a total of 35 kms. We reached our resort at 2 PM. Thanks to the heavy breakfast; we skipped lunch and instead opted for a few sandwiches with our afternoon tea - high tea so to say - befitting the tea slopes that I could see from my room window. Post dinner, we packed. We would leave Munnar the next morning to catch our flight from Cochin (now known as Kochi) airport. The cost for the airport drop in a medium-sized car is Rs 2000. Since I was in Munnar, I opted for Tata Indigo. After a Dosa breakfast in Munnar (you now know the name of the restaurant) we left for Cochin. Few kms down we negotiated two waterfalls - Vallara and Cheeyapara. The former is short & stout. The latter is tall and lean. Majestic, however, was a common feature. The distance to the airport was just 140 kms, but like I mentioned before, it would take up to 4 hours.
I had nothing to worry. The crisp mountain air had cheered me up.
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