Saturday, April 24, 2010

Valparai and Neliyampathy

When I said I was going to Valparai, not many people registered it. A detailed search on the internet revealed that this place is a one horse town with little or no infrastructure. Few people who had been there claimed it was much more breathtaking than Ooty and its surroundings. That clinched the deal. I had no idea what Ooty or its surroundings look like now but if Valparai is better than someplace and less known, I got to see it. 

Valparai is one of the vertices of the tour triangle within Indira Gandhi Wildelife Sanctuary- Parambikulam Wildife santcuary combined reserve forest. The other two are Top Slip and Sethumadai. Of these, Valparai is the least wild and most abused in the name of plantations. Being surrounded by two other reserves (Evarikulam and Chinnar), it was the natural spot to start or end a wildlife tour. When I reached here late afternoon, I found a town that lived up to its 'singular' street, one bank, one ATM, one hotel, one restaurant, one school, one church, one bus station, one police station, one medical store....everything in Valparai is a unique sample....except tea.

Valparai was the tiny and laidback town I expected. It was not exactly a pretty place but was spared of all tourist invasion. It had however completely surrendered to the invasion of tea. The numerous tea estates have but totally put the land under the world's favourite brew shrubs. Some of these estates (one is even named Waterfall Estate although I could not find the eponymous feature anywhere near it) have vast tracts going up and down hill after hill. They make you wonder who the hell would walk all those winding paths? Well there are people to do that; men and women (in their unusual khaki contraptions)  who tend to the tea plants, nurture them, prune them, harvest them and basically do everything for your daily cuppa chai. Valparai is for them, a town of tea people.

Overall, Valparai turned out to be an unsure place. It was beautiful, maybe more than Ooty. It was green and fresh,  unspoilt by tourist taxis or touts. For serendipity, it had more green bee-eaters and red whiskered bulbuls than crows. But every time I looked at the rows and rows of young tea shrubs that carpeted hill after hill in delightful, different shades of green, I could not help thinking how will the hills look once the shrubs are all gone. Tea replaced pristine woods and drove elephants out. What will replace tea? 

Now for the pics:

I was never quite able to find out the name of this species but what you see are not flowers (or, are they?). What look like leaves are looking like flowers but are actually leaves. I could never figure them out but they are all over Valparai and possibly all over the south side of the Palghat gap.  They provided me an apt welcome to Valparai that confused me as much as this plant.

Those flowery leaves were not the first ones that welcomed me. In fact thew welcome was not all auspicious. As I negotiated the 42 odd hairpins on my climb to Valparai, I came across these huge clumps of bamboo in  gregarious flowering. It is quite natural for each bamboo plant of the same cluster to flower at the same time as the others.  Entire length of bamboo divert all their efforts into flowering which is followed by fruiting. Bamboo dies after fruiting. The collective blooming of bamboo in an orgiastic explosion seems like one last hurrah before the end. Rodent population increases drastically thanks to the over supply of bamboo fruit. As bamboo dies, building material becomes scarce. Harvested grain is targeted by the increased population of rodents. Disease, famine and desolation follows. Bamboo is the most sought after weed but becomes the bane of mankind when it goes. Thank you wikipedia! So much for good omens! Nevertheless this glorious golden hue presented a nice photo op.

Valparai had few interesting detours. One of them was the Nirar dam. In fact there are 4 deep dams in the immediate vicinity of Valparai. Nirar perhaps offers the best view of the surroundings.  My objects of interest are the tall peaks in the background. If my sense of geography and Eicher maps are correct, one of those peaks is the Anaimudi - the tallest peak in India south of Himalayas 

Most of the 'attractions' around Valparai can be finished off in a day. They do not offer any more than what you expect from a place about which no tourism brochure exists. But there was an interesting detour from Valparai that I was primarily interested in. Having seen some stunning pictures of Athirampally waterfalls in a chain mail, I was tempted to see it for real. The only problem was the 80km drive into Kerala from Valparai. This road which connects Pollachi and Chalakudi was not exactly a favoured route for many. The only fuel station in this region was in Valparai. There is absolutely no civilization after crossing the Kerala check post and a terrible excuse for a road. The forest ranger at Kerala check post spoke swift Tamil-Malayalam without favouring either language or accent. I could catch only three words in English and they were enough to agitate the mickeys in me :"5'o clock, dangerous, elephants"! There is certain romanticism about watching a tiger or leopard in the wild. There is none with elephants. They move in herds and have scant regard for traffic rules. Heaven hath no fury as a male elephant in must. But there were some bonuses. 40 km into the forest, we chanced upon the Paringalkuthu reservoir held back by yet another dam high up in the hills. The scene more than made up for the bone jarring drive:

There are times I am suckered into believing chain mails. I was stupid enough to fall for a chain mail with pix of Iguazu falls (Argentina) claiming to be Athirampally Falls in Kerala. The pics were so good that I planned the whole Valparai thing just to see the falls. The falls were not so bad and would have been even more spectacular right after monsoon. The real dampener was not those barren rocks but the realization that I was suckered into driving 80 km on horrible jungle roads for 6 hours through elephant territory to see something less spectacular. To add insult to injury, this place was embellished with all the tourist trappings and hordes of travellers that I specifically chose to avoid in this trip. I did not even bother to walk down the pathways leading to the falls. A brief stopover and a photo for memories and we were off to Chalakudy. There was no way we were going back the way we came. Rather we chose to do a long roundabout via Thrissur, Palakkad and Pollachi back to our hotel in Valparai.

The road to Athirampally did not disappoint us completely. There were brief stretches of wonderful asphalt and picture postcard perfect scenes. We stopped at this lovely spot by an old bridge. There were lot of empty beer bottles in spite of which, we found peace here. A perfect watering hole for the youngsters of Kerala to spend an lazy afternoon with beer and buddies, there were none of them that Tuesday afternoon.

The only disappointment was that we were late for our date with Athirampally and eager to get off the jungles before 5PM.  We spent just the amount of time to enable me a nice snap for memories.

Back to Valparai. It was time to wind up things here with all that tea. The plantations were not all that drab. They provided some interesting patterns.

Early morning sun bouncing off the young shoots was a treat to the eyes. For a moment, I did not bother with doomsday imagery of Valparai.

Tea plants are a pretty sight I must admit. They made me hungry each time I went close. They resembled a platter of garden fresh salad greens.

I had no idea what was the scale for. Probably a ready reckoner for harvesting. By the look of it, tea plants have a limited height. No wonder the hills resembled billiards table tops. I would have loved tall pines and oaks. But the carpet-like foliage of tea was not bad either. If only someone saw sense in conservation and balancing commercial interests with natural habitation.

I was probably blabbering. We left Valparai with mixed feelings. My wife liked the tea gardens. So did I but I can never cease to wonder the irony of this beauty in the backdrop of all the natural forestry that was replaced. We still had four lazy days to spend and had not planned anything beyond Valparai. A useful travel guidebook helped us find another "unspoilt" hill town not far off. With no advance bookings or prior enquiries, we decided to try it out. We reached Neliyampathy the same evening we left Valparai.


If Valparai is a one horse town, Neliyampathy needs a new ephitet. There is hardly a town or a main arterial. Just a collection of huts and vague buildings here and there.

  1. There were two main differences from Valparai. Coffee replaced tea as the flavour of planters, though there were enough tea plantations in Neliyampathy to recreate that Valparai feeling. 
  2. The rain forest was mercifully spared with some better planning of resources.

Neliyampathy is in Palakkad  district high up in the hills, as high as Valparai. In fact Neliyampathy, Valparai, Parambikulam and TopSlip  all fall in the same biosphere. As the crow flies, Neliyampathy, at the northern fringe of Parambukulam is 80 km from Valparai that falls between Parambikulam and Evarikulam. So both places share the same forestry although Valparai is almost bereft of forest. There were some tourist brochures for Neliyampathy even though it was smaller and almost unknown in comparision to Valparai. For some reason it featured oranges on the cover page. I read that Neliyampathy was famous for its oranges. I did not find any orange tree. Worse, the locals gave me a weird look when I mentioned oranges.  The coffee plantations had sprinklers that were timed to act at an appointed hour. I was fortunately close to one crop as the rain dance commenced. It was no less interesting than a musical fountain.

There were three resorts up the hills and one of them was outrageously beyond my budget. The one in the mid range offered the best value. Despite being isolated in a remote part of Neliyampathy that was frequented by gaurs and wild boars, the place offered all the jungle experience we looked forward to. It was actually a mixed plantation of coffee, pepper and other cash crops amidst unspoilt jungle. The nearest civilization was 4 km away by a torturous road. 

Within the resort premises, I found my prized catch. A Malabar Giant Squirrel. I found it on my walk around the estate. I would have missed it had the big fella kept quiet about his business of wooing his lady. Instead he made a big racket that echoed all over. I found him on a tree about 100 metres from my cottage.

The search for the squirrel turned into bird watching. What looked like a hoopoe is some kind of woodpecker that revealed itself with the loud hammering noise it made pecking on the trunks of trees. I am not sure if it is a woodpecker but it did not shy sway from the photo.

I thought I found an Oriole that belonged to this region but the little bird turned out to be a Scarlet Minivet. Only it was not scarlet in shade. It is the male that sports scarlet feathers, This one is the female of the species. Unfortunately the male's photo is not good enough to make it to this collection. This pic summed up the pleasant experience I had at Neliyampathy.

Neliyampathy was a serendipitous discovery. Despite the fact that the main attractions were closed thanks to the ongoing tiger census, the resort was provided us all the thrills. Not only were they happy to accommodate us on short notice but the estate proved to be a lovely hunting ground for bird photography.

One day, I might post another update to Neliyampathy with better pictures and more ground covered. Till then, I keep dreaming.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Gingee ஆங்கிலம்

I am not crazy about forts although I always wanted to visit Daulatabad. But guess I will end up enjoying Daulatabad thanks to Gingee. This fort takes the cake for defining the word impregnable

Well it is very accessible...just off the Tindivanam-Tiruvannamalai road some 160 km from Chennai. Easily reachable within 3 hours from Chennai.

The impregnable for the long gone warriors of yore whose physical fitness was far better than us urban cowboys. At least that is what the history of Gingee says.

Its history is rich contrary to its popularity within tourist circuits. Cholas, Hoysalas (Krishna Deva Raya), the Carnatic nawabs, Marathas led by Shivaji, Hyder Ali and then Tipu Sultan, the French, the British and finally, the Archaeological Survey of India...the ownership and care taking of the fort passed many hands.

The Gingee Fort complex is spread across three hills with each hill hosting a separate fort. The first hill is the biggest one called Rajagiri. As the name suggests, it was the Capital and most impregnable partly because it extends 300 metres high. The structure rests over and around a large rock. the citadel of the fort is isolated by a deep chasm that can only be crossed by a wooden draw bridge. The draw bridge of yore is now replaced by a permanent wooden bridge.

The other two hills are Krishnagiri and Chakkilya Giri. I could not visit them. Rajagiri, the biggest and grandest of the three took all my time and attention.

This fort culminates Hindu, Muslim and European influences with ample space for each.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Lodi Gardens

It is ironical that the most peaceful place in Delhi is the garden that houses the tombs of the least prolific dynasty that ruled the land. Probably this was their claim to fame. They gave Delhi the best urban oasis in Asia.

The Lodis were not known much for their rule as much for losing their domain to pave way to the Mughals in India. But they did build some fine gardens that happened to be my object of interest in Delhi.

The Lodi gardens is a vast sprawling complex of tombs set amidst a pleasant garden such that the tombs become a part of the park rather than the park serving as a landscape beautification to the tombs.

My three day visit to Delhi culminated with a walk through the park.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Appikonda అప్పికొండ

I lived not more than 6 km from this place for 10 years but never visited it.

Pity! I missed a great place to call my own.

Lone hill and clear sands...

...not to mention an ancient temple that froze time in itself.

2009 would have been a bad year for travel with me.

...but for a few good places to take my camera along.

One of them is Appikonda, some 25 km from Vizag.

Someswara temple on the sea shore at Appikonda. Believed to be around since the 12th century AD. Looks like the ASI never found it. The temple seemed as if it was never renovated in all these 700 years.

A lazy morning for the boats.

Wide beach and clean sands and shallow waters. The lone hill on the shore is the highlight.

A few metres away, the sea is rough

Local fisherman

A serene hidden beach

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Monsoon Ride to the Heart of India

Quite a few people asked my why was I picking this season to go there. Looks like nobody likes to travel during monsoon, especially to the heart of India! Why me? Because monsoon is like a car wash to India. Grime and dust gets cleaned off the landscape that gets covered in a wild splash of greenery. So why Central India? Because it is there...right there in the middle of everything!

Raghu messaged me one day asking me to plan a trip. I considered a few routes and discussed it with Raghu, Rajaram and Karthik. Finally, we chose the central India trip....because it was far away from home (Raghu- Hyderabad, the rest - Chennai). Raghu prepared his Mahindra Scorpio for the trip and the rest of us flew to Hyderabad with our back packs and cameras to join Raghu.

From there it was a drive for 5 days to Nagpur, Jabalpur, Chhindwara and Adilabad before returning to Hyderabad. The route map for the main circuit is given below:

Day 1: Hyderabad to Nagpur- National Highway 7
We started off early at 4.30 AM but lost way within Hyderabad delaying us by an hour.

Breakfast: Surprise!! Kamareddi had a superb original Udipi restaurant complete with Kannadiga waiters, crispy vadas, idlis and sweet sambhar.

NH7 was a mixed bag all the way to Jabalpur from Hyderabad, with the four-laning in progress. Parts of the road were ready but most of it was under repair.

Sriram Sagar dam near Pochampad as seenf rom NH7 over the river Godavari. The river here forms a border between Nizamabad and Adilabad districts.

Bad roads and ghat sections after Nirmal took their toll on trucks.

Post Nirmal we hit a wonderful ghat section with forestry(fringes of the Kinwat and Kawal Sanctuaries) that lasted all the way till the border of AP and Maharashtra.

Stretches of good roads, ghats and a relaible vehicle made the drive a pleasure.

A peasant and his wife till the land using a pair of bullocks somewhere between Nirmal and Adilabad (close to Neredikonda). Adilabad district grows a lot of cotton and maize and the people are mostly poor farmers.

Rains caused catchments to overflow with water that spilled into rivulets.

Lot of monkeys all along National Highway 7.

Pochera Falls, Adilabad District, Andhra Pradesh

Pochera Falls was not on our agenda. This place is literally off every tourist map and a totally hidden monsoon jewel. Fortunately, AP Tourism put up enough signposts along the NH7 to attract our attention. The detour from the highway was short enough to digress from our ride for a brief while. The detour comes at Neredikonda between Nirmal and Adilabad towards left side en route Nagpur. The signpost says winter is the best time but mark my words, make it here just after monsoon!

Now you know why I insisted on monsoon? The sky was not Photoshopped!

A nice grand stand to view the falls. I was surprised to see the neat landscaping by the tourism folks at such an obscure place. Of course they do rob the aesthetics. One more thing. I have absolutely no idea which river is it. Someone at the venue told me it is the Godavari. But we crossed it way before Nirmal. This might be one of those monsoon rivulets that go dry in any other season.

A total surprise package for us. A good addition to my growing list of waterfalls trips.

Dusk - Somewhere between Hinganghat and Nagpur. We had plenty of tea all along. Dhabas in Vidharba specialise in good masala tea!

Big cities, big woes. A nasty traffic pile up broke our run just outside Nagpur. It took us two hours to clear it amidst pouring rain and rapidly failing light.

Night Halt:
Hotel Gokul, Hanuman Lane Sitabuldi, Nagpur
Phone: 0712-2548587, 2541182
Rs 1000/- per night for a A/C double bedroom
Pretty decent and good service. Front desk was very helpful.
Dinner: Haldiram's close to the hotel. A snazzy two floor affair with multicuisine pure vegetarian fare.

Day 2: Nagpur to Jabalpur NH7

Breakfast: Our first tryst with Kanda Poha at a thela right outside Hotel Gokul. We polished off two plates each.
Lunch: Hot Samosas and Mava Jalebi at Seoni Chappara and plenty of tea en route

We followed the Ring Road right upto Kamptee and continued further. After Mansar, the fun began with this rather unusual natural gateway to the Pench National Park lands.

Jungle engulfed us. We were on our way to Seoni in MP.

Road improved suddenly even as we were still in Maharashtra. The teak jungle thickened. We were doing 140 kmph! Our attempts to enter Pench park proved futile as the park was closed for monsoon and a big swing arm gate blocked us. The detour to Pench is at a place called Deolaphar. One has to go via Sillari to Totaladoh from here. A tourism office is situated at the entrance for any queries.

Someone told us to head to Mogarkasa and its lake on the opposite side of the highway. So we headed in that direction forgetting the name every now and then and somehow retrieving it along with tthe route from the locals. The jungle kept getting denser as we went deep into it.

We found the lake deep in the forest far away from the nearest sign of civilization. It was uncannily silent and eerie. Adding to our anxieties were these signs posted on all the trees !

We found a hut and an abandoned bungalow (Goldilocks?) beside the lake. It turned out that Mogarkasa is actually a small wildlife sanctuary around it. The lake itself was covered with hyacinth and lilly pads. P.S.: It stank! Nevertheless the place was very beautiful. If only those Beware of Bears signs were not posted....

For all those bear signs, the only life we found in these jungle were these langurs.

Somewhere between Khawasa and Seoni, we came across some really cool sights like this one.

After Seoni...what looked like a mosque was actually a temple.

3 most common things on NH7 : Pot holes, dead dogs and trailers loaded with new tractors!

Post Seoni we were blessed with such table tops!

After Chappara we chanced upon this terrific scene by the banks of the Wainganga. A Monsoon Moment!

More scenes followed....Lone Mango Tree

We were awfully late....thanks to the scenes that played each kilometer.

Need I say anymore? That is still NH7 somewhere close to Lakhnadon, by the way.

At Lakhnadon, the shops reminded me of Raksha Bandhan two days later

Somewhere between Sukri Mangela and Bargi we had a tryst with the NG Railway too. The same one I had covered here.

Bye bye little train...

Bhedaghat-Dhuadhar Falls-Marble Rocks

Bhedaghat is 20 km from Jabalpur on the banks of river Narmada. Here the river through a beautiful gorge of marble for about 3 km. Dhuadhar Falls is also situated here.

The Narmada flowing towards Marble Rocks

Dhuadhar Falls as seen from the cable car

Monsoon again proved to be the right season to check out the 'dhuan' at Dhuadhar.

Could not make out what this was. Looked more like the ramparts of a watchtower or view point

Narmada gushing through the canyons of marble

Failing light at dusk made it somewhat difficult to shoot.

I still prefer Chitrakote Falls :-)

Ah! Yes! The cable car runs right over the falls

Night Halt:Hotel Arihant Palace, Russel Chowk, Jabalpur
Ph: 0761-327311
Tariff: Rs 975 for a double A/C room per day
Again a decent and well maintained hotel with friendly front office and a good restaurant
Breakfast: Plates and plates of poha with rassa , jilebis, samosas and plenty of tea at Narmada Devi Dhaba , Kareli

Day 3: Jabalpur - Chhindwara NH12, NH26 & MP state roads
Surprisingly, the state roads of Madhya Pradesh were in good shape. The Congress state government somehow woke up to the realities and Uma Bharati's campaigns and turned around the condition of the roads. We were skceptical of paying the toll everywhere expecting the roads to worsen but they turned out to be neat. However the dampeners turned out to be NH12 and 26 which we took to get out of Jabalpur and from Kareli to Barhman respectively. Full marks to MP govt. None to NHAI!

Barhman Ghat
This was not merely a Hindustan ka Dil trip but also a Narmada Darshan. So we wanted to see the Narmada not just as a rapid on rocks state but asa staid river goddess at a holy bank. Hence Barhman Ghat which was about 12 km from Kareli.

We crossed the river to reach the major Barhman ghat. The chota Barhman ghat lay across the bigger ghat but was not as easily accessible as the major one. The monsoon scene played out fully here with heavily overcast skies and a muddy rough river in spate.

The river splits into two streams and rejoins again forming an island in the middle. A Shiva temple stands on the island. Boats ply from both banks to the island. In oter seasons, there are almost seven streams in between.

The copious amounts of inflows indundated the ghats greatly. Almost submerged is a marble Shivalingam and Nandi that stands on the ghats.

Small man made islands of faith form every monsoon.

The boat that plies the faithful.

Tamia and Patalkot

We returned back from Barhman to Kareli and resumed our journey to Chhindwara via Pipariya and Matkuli. Seen here is the wonderful road that winds all the way to Pachmarhi. We avoided Pachmarhi conspicuously as it would need at least two days. The good road lasted only till Matkuli. From there it was a torture all the way till Chhindwara.

We went through a wonderful forest as the road climbed almost 900 metres above sea level to Tamiya. A short detour off the Chhndwara road from here took us to a place that proved to be a wonderful alternative to Pachmarhi - Patalkot. Little Tamiya village has a 'foreign liquor shop' it seems :-)

The road to Patalkot promised a lot!

We had to keep stopping every now and then in the 20 minute detour as the vistas were too good to ignore.

Finally, Patalkot was more beautiful than what we anticipated. Nestled in a 1200 feet deep horse shoe shaped valley it had a cluster of villages some of whose tribal inmates remained cut off from civilaiztion for many years. Seen in the picture above is another valley even deeper at the bottom of Patalkot that is home to the almost pehistoric Bharia tribe. We were at the top of the hill where we met Dr. Deepak Acharya. He started a venture named Abhumka Herbal (Ahmedabad) that develops herbal remedies from the hitherto unknown and rare tribal herbal medicinal system of this region which in turn supports the tribals enabling them to continue living and cultivating the land here. Dr Acharya is on a mission to protect and preserve the herbal medicine system, the forestry and the quality of life of the tribals here. It is was a culmination of sorts for me in meeting and chatting with Dr. Acharya by chance at Patalkot as I was inspired to visit this place after checking out his website Read the website to know more about Dr Acharya's initiatives and do provide him the moral support to his noble mission.

The highest point at Patalkot where the road ends. Monsoon is the best time to visit Patalkot. Dr Acharya tells me that the state government plans to build a golf course and a resort here and he is trying to prevent that. It will be a disaster to the lives of the tribals who are already tasting modern civilization and abandoning their usual way of life for small handouts. Already forest mafias made inroads into the valley. They have negotiated rather cheaply with the unsuspecting tribals and robbing them of the green cover and the rare herbal medicines. Some tribals already stopped cultivating grains in Patalkot thanks to the populisitc 2 rupee a kilo rice scheme. Patalkot falls within the constituency of Chhindwara, a long time traditional stronghold of Kamal Nath, Union Minister of Commerce. I wonder if he knows anything about these tribals and their way of life and the immense herbal wealth.

A legend says that Meghnath, son of Ravana entered Patal Lok from here and hence the place is called Patalkot. The Gond tribals here settled during Shivaji's rule and it is believed that there is a subterrenean tunnel somewhere in the nether regions of this valley that goes all the way to Pachmarhi

It was 6.30 PM at the top of the valley. Finally, we 4 were the only people around and were rendered speechless for quite sometime thanks to the sheer beauty of the place.

I would love to come back here the next year around the same time. This time I would also like to meet the tribals and learn about them.

Night Halt: Hotel Puja. Nothing great to write about. Totally avoidable. But then it is the best you can get in Chhindwara
Breakfast: Poha poha and poha at Sri Harihar Tea Stall opposite our hotel

Day 4 & 5: Chhindwara - Adilabad - Hyderabad - NH7

We had a last hurrah as we returned back to Hyderabad. Close to the spot where we took a detour to Pochera falls three days ago, we found another short detour towards the Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary. A few km from NH7 took us to a thick forest with yet another wonderful waterfall.

Kuntaala Falls
Kuntaala is popular amongst the locals at Adilabad who came in droves on the cool Sunday morning for picnics. The place is not maintaned by AP Tourism like Pochera. Since it falls within the fringes of the reserve forest of Kawal Sanctuary, the Forests Department maintains the infrastructure as a part of their Eco Tourism.

The falls is bigger and more spaced out than Pochera. There is a shallow slide first (seen above) followed by a quick and frothy rapid and finally big fall. Again I could not figure out which river is it. Someone again told me it is thw Godavari. There cannot be three Godavari rivers within 20 km of each other can they?

The roar was more pronounced than even Dhuandhar Falls!

Kuntaala had some nice rock formations

Beautiful forest downstream for treks and picnics

That culminates our week-long drive. Another day, probably another road...less travelled I hope.

The travellers: Scorpio, Me, Raghu, Karthik, Rajaram