Nowadays, the weather is just not what it used to be like. Sometimes, it's a reason to complain, but this one time, the pleasant weather in Chennai was enough to inspire me to plan my next trip.
Impromptu trips are usually the most fun, and my travel-partner (and life partner) Maitry, is always up for an adventure. So, in a way, we were all set to leave, except that we didn't know where exactly we wanted to go!
I love the mountains, but travelling from the South of the country to the great Himalayas in the North is quite an effort, both in terms of time, as well as money. So, it seemed like a better idea to try a nearby hill station, and Munnar had always been on my list. So Munnar it was, we set off from Chennai Central station, heading towards Madurai.
Munnar can be reached from many different routes. Most popular are from Thekkady (Kerala), Madurai and Coimbatore. We decided to go via Madurai. Munnar is a smooth, 4-hr drive from Madurai, and the journey is beautiful one, along winding roads in the lap of Mother Nature. For the first two hours, you get to enjoy the green beauty of rural Tamil Nadu, with lots of coconut trees and huts around after which starts the uphill journey. We took a small break on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, enjoyed a nice hot cup of coffee, put our warm clothes on, and set off on the final leg of our journey to the 'Mystic Heaven'.
Once we reached our destination, the first thing on my list was to find a place to stay. I decided to break convention, and put up in a 'home stay'. I had always liked the concept of home stays, but this was my first time actually staying in one. It felt like someone had handed over to us his own house, along with all the necessities like grocery, kitchen equipment, a good cook, a caretaker, a driver, almost everything. It was a wonderful experience, and it didn't even make a big hole in our pockets, unlike other so-called 'star' hotels. The only word of caution I'd give is that one should carefully check the home stay and its facilities before checking in.
August is a month, when it rains in most of the southern parts of India. Munnar was no exception. This trip was important to me because it was basically a trip to test my new SLR and associated lenses. But continuous rain disappointed me to an extent. Anaimudi, the highest peak in this circuit (around 1800mts), was also hidden from us behind a thick veil of dense clouds and the accompanying rain. Hence, our first day was passed in a leisurely manner, sipping coffee in the garden of our home stay, sitting beside the river, watching a variety of birds, listening to the whispers of the after-shower silence, and romancing freshly drenched Nature.
Any tourist place generally has a list of sight-seeing spots that the local cab drivers/travel agents tell you about, and take you to. We too decided to hire a cab and take a tour of popular places in and around Munnar like Echo Point, Highest point, and Eraviculum National Park. Besides these, one should also visit the tea gardens, tea museum, tea factory, numerous waterfalls, damns, boating etc.
Anywhere across the world, in any place you visit, it's always interesting to take a peek at its history. For instance, the actual owner Munnar was the Royal Family of Poonjar. During the British rule in India, Munnar was identified as one of the summer getaways of Southern India. But it seems that the natural beauty of this place was not the only thing that attracted the Queen's company... they had some bigger/better plans for this rich and beautiful piece of land.
The entire area was leased from the Poonjar King for 99 years by a European gentleman, Mr. J.D Munro. Identifying the immense agricultural potential of the place, Munro formed a co-operative named 'North Travancore Land Planting and Agricultural Society'. It was 1964, when the TATA-Finlay group was established, and till date, Munnar is equally famous for its acres of tea plantation, mostly setup by the TATA group, as it is for its virgin beauty.
Munnar is blessed with three beautiful river-streams called Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala. The name 'Munnar' is actually a Tamil word, where 'Mune' (pronounced 'm-oo-n-e') means three, and 'ar' means river. So, in the lap of lush green hills, where three beautiful rivers joins their hands, lies the place called 'Mune-ar' or Munnar.
Both Madurai and Coimbatore are equally far from Munnar (approx. 145 KM). But there is an advantage in returning via Coimbatore; one can stopover at various beautiful waterfalls and also venture interesting jungle trek in Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, which comes on the way back to Coimbatore. Since we had already seen the Madurai route on the way to Munnar, we decided to return via Coimbatore.
There are many known/unknown wildlife sanctuaries in India. Most of them have got some conventional tours to attract the tourists. These include elephant safaris, jeep safaris etc. Some of them even run battery operated bus for tourists. If you are interested in actually spotting wildlife, jeep/bus safari should not be your last option. At least my experience has reinforced this belief. Since these jeeps/buses drive through a defined route everyday, over a period of time most of the animals start avoiding places near these routes. An elephant safari can prove to be more effective here. Anyway, in Chinnar, we opted for trekking. This was almost an 8 km trek, deep inside the jungle and the route was breathtakingly beautiful. We could see a range of hills from the distance, the peaks lightly covered in a blanket of clouds
After finishing some formalities for entering the forest, and hiring a binocular and local guide, Manikanandan (Mani), who works for the forest department and belongs to the local tribe, we started making our way through the jungle, clearing the weeds, and breaking dead branches of unknown trees. Mani was surprisingly extra cautious in terms of his senses. Be it a new sound, smell or colour, he was extremely quick to sense it. I could feel that the pulse of this jungle was perfectly synchronised to his, and so it is for all the local tribals. Mani kept on trying his best to spot some animals. Luck was on our side and we spotted some sambars, peacocks and langurs.
Cactus plants were in abundance here. As I often tried to capture a bee sitting on a cactus flower, Mani thought I was particularly interested in the plant, and asked me if I would like to taste the cactus fruit. This was the first time I tried a cactus fruit! It is difficult to spot the fruit in a cactus. The fruit is covered with thorns and looks like one of the other branches. The process of extracting the fruit was even more interesting than the fruit itself. But, trust me, I liked it so much that I had almost three.
Finally we reached near the Chinnar River, a cold stream that flows through the jungle, splitting it into two halves. Like all other hilly streams, it has its own chorus- a sweet and silent roar that keeps the jungle awake. Tired and exhausted we finally sat beside the river. The cool breeze, the melodious chirping of unknown birds and the cold, ever flowing stream of water were soothing for our aching limbs.
The trek was done and as evening approached, we started back towards Coimbatore. The hills, the trees, the silence, nature... everything was slowly moving away. I packed my dinner and boarded my train. After a long and exciting day, it was time to sleep. The pillow on the berth beckoned, and the train pulled away from the station. As I closed my eyes, I saw the falls, the hilly streams, the mist, the clouds, the tea gardens; I waited eagerly for that mist covered dream, to come over me.