Thursday, August 27, 2009

Kodaikanal - A different approach

                     Long back, there was a road from Munnar to Kodaikanal, which went through Top Station, Vandaravu, Berijam and Moir’s pont. In the 90’s, the road between Topslip and Berijam was permanently closed, on wild life concerns. There after, the one via Udumalpet, Palani, and the other one via Batlagundu in the Munnar – Madurai stretch, were the only known routes to Kodaikanal. Then I read somewhere that there is a Jeep track up to Kadavari in Kerala and also from Kilavara in TN up to Kodaikanal. That meant, the 5 km stretch between Kadavari and Kilavara remains unconnected. Did some research on it and got different opinions. Some said there is a horse track used by farmers of Kadavari (infamous for Ganja cultivation) to take their products to Kodaikanal, via Kilavara. And another one said, it’s a Jeep track, which is a test even for a 4 wheel drive. Let’s see……………

                      A family visit to Kanthalloor and surroundings has long been under discussion, and we decided to club it with our Poonchira visit. On the return from Poonchira, had a stop at Thodupuzha for lunch, and headed for Kanthalloor by 1.30 PM. Just after Thodupuzha, took a right deviation from Vengalloor, to have a narrow but smooth stretch, which joins the Cochin - Munnar route at Oonnukal, near Neriamangalam. There after, the regular road up to Munnar, and further to Marayoor, 40 kms of picturesque stretch from Munnar. Just after Marayoor, a right turn and another 15 kms, took us to Kanthalloor by around 7 PM. 

                I rang up Suresh, the care taker of ‘Cheeni Farm house’, where we had booked a cottage for two days. As per directions of Suresh, we took a right turn from the Panchayath Office junction, and after covering a km, along the bumpy road, reached the gates of the resort. Some sort of construction work was going on and we couldn’t take our vehicle inside. Suresh transported our luggage in his bike, and we had a small walk to our cottage. The cottage is atop a cliff, inside an orchard of about 10 acres. They had about 200 apple trees, oranges, tree tomato, suberjill etc., in their farm. The cottage was a two storied building, with well appointed bed rooms and a balcony in each floor. 

             The temperature was then around 18 degree C, and we went into sweaters. The cottage over looked vegetable farms of Kanthalloor, and it had a nice lawn, with camp fire and barbeque facilities. Suresh’s wife prepared Chapathi and Chicken curry, as he was busy with our barbeque. As we had planned earlier, Suresh had arranged a new 4 wheel drive Jeep, in excellent condition, for our expedition, the next day. Even Suresh tried to pull us back, from a family adventure along unknown terrain, but we stood by it. I had also an agreement with Suresh, to send a search mission along the terrain, if we haven’t returned by the next morning, for I knew that mobiles may not come to help. Went to bed early.


             We were ready by 7.30 in the morning, and Satheesh, the hero of our journey, was waiting with his new Mahindra 4WD. Packed breakfast from a hotel at Kanthalloor town, with enough water and drove off towards Anamudi Shola National Park – earlier known as Mannavanchola. Tar road ended just 2 kms from Kanthalloor town, and the next time we saw tar mark, was after dusk. Jeep slowly crawled along the bumpy path, through the thick woods of Anamudi shola.         We spotted the rare species of Giant tree fern in the woods, and stopped a while, to have a snap.                Satheesh says that the locals call this tree ‘Kalyana theva’ and it is found only in Anamudi shola. After one hours drive, reached a forest check post named ‘Methappu’.There is a forest log house at this place, which overlooks Kanthalloor, and the thick shola forest, which can be rented for Rs.1500 per day.                 At Methappu, road split into two. Right deviation goes to Kundala dam – Topstation – Munnar. We took the left. Our first destination was ‘Kudalar Kudi’, a remote tribal settlement. Our plan was to move over to ‘Chilanthiyaar’, via KudalarKudi, and then to ‘Koviloor’, which is accessible from Munnar, via Top station. We found some tribals on the way, and Satheesh enquired about the track condition. They said the track is just motorable, and that a jeep has passed this way, 2 days back. 

               Went on and had a break, in the midst of woods, to have the food, we carried along. It was about 10.30 AM then, and we weren’t aware that the next stop for food will be at 7.45 PM. After about 10 minutes drive, we could have an aerial view of Kudalar Kudi.            There were around 30 huts, scattered on a nature made lawn, covered on all sides by towering green peaks. They had cultivated potatoes, carrots, garlic and cabbage all around their settlement.


            They take these products to Kanthalloor on pony back and purchase essentials. Satheesh pointed to the track passing through the top of the opposite peak. That means we have to go down this peak and to climb the other. The track became more treacherous after Kudalar Kudi.           Slowly descended and then ascended the opposite peak to have another view of Kudalar Kudi.             Two more turnings, and at the valley of two giant grass hills, we saw another small settlement, and Satheesh names it ‘Valassappetti’.            This one is accessible only on foot or on horse back. The great grass hills that fenced the settlement had caps of thick woods.                 Stopped a while to enjoy the sight, and continued. Soon we approached Chilanthiyaar, and after that,the road went more smooth.               We entered Koviloor – Vattavada region famous for terraced cultivation of vegetables like Cabbage, Carrot, Potatoe etc. The hill slopes, terraced for farming, presented another panorama.                   And we reached Koviloor by 12 noon. Satheesh parked the vehicle just in the midst of the road, not to fear traffic.
Koviloor Junction
Koviloor's Barbar shop
                                Satheesh hasn’t gone beyond this point, and we went in search of some one, who has actually traversed the route. Many said they have gone up to Kadavari earlier, and not recently. Finally met a man, who had visited Kadavari, a week back. He says a 4WD can try up to Kadavari, but Kodaikanal….., he nods his head. Another news was that, in the recent rain, a stream had washed away the track to Kadavari top, and it still remains so.

                         We were confused, and Satheesh came up with the solution. ‘Let’s go and see. If it’s impossible we shall return’. Stocked more water and biscuits and went on. From the main track, a right deviation goes to Kadavari. Just got into the track, and we knew that things won’t be smooth ahead.                There was a track, of course, but it was full of huge rocks and deep holes all around. The track went through beautiful fern hills and Eucalyptus plantations.                At a place, while Satheesh was negotiating two deep pits on either side of the wheels, land slid, left front wheel dropped into the pit and as the vehicle was about to turn over, it rammed into a bund aside, and got stuck. Not for the bund, it would have gone upside down. Got the passengers down and asked them to walk up.                I and Sunil stood on the right foot board, and Satheesh tried the reverse. Luckily we got it out of the pit, with a bent bumper and a broken suspension plate.                 
Kadavari Valley
                 Wandered around and collected rocks to level the hole and after about 20 minutes, could pass that point. By this time our ladies and kids walked up ahead. After this incident, at regions of doubt, we people walked ahead, and Satheesh drove the jeep alone, on our guide lines. Further ahead the track split into three. We knew, among these, two goes to Eucalyptus plantations and one to Kadavari – But which one is that? No time to loose and we went for a wild guess, and proceeded along the left most one. As we went further the track went narrower and harder and we thought that our guess went wrong. Satheesh was determined and his gesture read– Let us see where it ends. At places, even Satheesh walked with us, leaving the Jeep, to explore how the track went ahead.                      At a turning, we found a horse on the wayside. That indicated presence of human around, and we yelled and howled, but no one turned up. Surprisingly, the horse ran ahead and waited for us at the next bend. We went following, and after two more bends, we found ourselves on a hillside, with green farms and small huts lying in the valley beneath us, surrounded by much more green mountains.                        We went down the winding track slowly to reach a carrot farm, where three farmers stood, simply watching our plight. This was the first time in my life, that I was thrilled in seeing a human being. The first enquiry line was, “which is this place?” And we yelled in happiness on hearing that, “This is Kadavari”. It was 2.30 PM by then. That meant, we took more than 2 hours to travel the 20 or so kms from Koviloor. Few meters ahead, we were to face the next problem – track washed away by stream – as we heard from Koviloor. To our luck, the farmers had ditched the sides of the stream, for their horses to pass through. And now its on Satheesh, to test whether a Jeep would go through. Satheesh went on with some construction work, and finally he could get it to the other side. But that wasn’t the end.                The track ahead proved more testing. The next three kms we walked, and found it very difficult to take the vehicle along.                   At the muddy spot in the picture above, the jeep got stuck. The four wheel drive option, which had helped us all along, failed here. Two people, who were working in the near by farm came to our help with their spades. We dropped in rocks, dry soil, pushed and pulled the vehicle from all sides, and after half an hour’s effort, the Jeep screamed out of it, jumping over the rock aside. The performance of a Mahindra 4WD Jeep, is admirable in such terrains, for it’s not a vehicle then, it’s a creature. By then, we were all mud and dirt. Our ladies were watching our fight, happily chatting with a village woman, and our kids were playing around, all these time. And the chat revealed that each hut has, at least, one horse, and these animals are their lone mode of transport. This place is so isolated that, not even law enforcing agencies, reach here. Thus Kadavari remained a heaven of Ganja cultivators, for long. It was in a recent attempt by the Kerala Govt. , Kadavari got released from the clutches of Ganja mafia, though not completely. Two kms ahead, it was Kadavari top, Tamil nadu ahead. The next three kms went through Pine forests, and the track was steadier.             Then again carrot plantations appeared, and we happily realized that we were appraoaching Kilavara.             Rang up Suresh, to convey the good news, and to inform that we will reach back by midnight. From Kilavira we took a right deviation to Poondi, where we stopped to have tea. We had a talk with tea vendor about our previous hours, and soon people gathered around us, as if we were some aliens. Some others went around the vehicle. The tea vendor went ahead with a lecture, on how to go to Kodaikanal from Kanthalloor, via Palani, and adviced me to take that path on the return – I just smiled. After the tea, drove through the picturesque agricultural lands of Mannavannur and Poombarai, and again entered the reserve forests belonging to the Kodaikanal range.          A herd of Bisons jumped off the road to give us way.                 Roads were in good shape and we could drive into Hotel Meenakshi Bhavan, Kodaikanal, by 7.45 PM. The Masal Dosas and Ghee roasts were tastier than ever. Took the Palani-Manuppatti- Chinnar road, and entered Chinnar Wild life sanctuary by around 11 at night. A tusker, on the wayside, stole another 15 minutes, as he was reluctant to move away.                 Finally we decided to accept the risk, and drove by his side, in lightning speed. As we went past, he turned a bit to the right, and I heard someone scream – don’t know who! Back at Cheeni Farm by 12.30, and went to bed, after a thorough wash up, by 1 AM.

              After long trips, drivers usually hand over their mobile numbers, for future communications. But here, I had to ask for it.......

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ila Veezha Poonchira - Silent Patch of Greenery

                  As an earlier attempt to visit Ila Veezha Poonchira went out of our reach, this time we were determined. I, Sunil and our family got packed in our Alto and started at 9 AM on 5th August 2009. We took Ayur- Anchal – Punalur – Pathanamthitta – Ranni – Ponthanpuzha – Manimala – Ponkunnam route and reached Pala by 1.30 PM. After lunch, proceeded towards Thodupuzha, took a right deviation at Kollappilli, to bypass Thodupuzha town, and joined the Moolamattom road, at Muttom. Just after Kudayathoor, a sign board, directed right, reads ‘Ela Veezha Poonchira 8 kms’. Started the ascent from there. We had contacted the DTPC Kottayam earlier and had confirmed our night stay at Poonchira. The road was pretty smooth and picturesque, with a falls or a stream appearing occasionally.                        We had many stopovers for a snap or for a face wash and there at last, the tarred road transformed to a rocky hilly track. The local people confirmed that our Alto cannot be taken any further, and that the remaining one and a half km is to be done on foot, or in a four wheel drive Jeep. 

                 We stood there a while, and a jeep stopped near by. There were 5 passengers in it including Mr.James, the person in charge of the the DTPC rest house, at the top. The fellow passengers were his relatives, who came for a day’s visit at Poonchira. He had information about our visit from DTPC and he offered to take our luggage along with, as there wasn’t enough space in the jeep to accommodate us. We happily handed over the luggage, parked our vehicle by the road side, and started our climb along with the kids. In fact the jeep was always in front of us, as it couldn’t move any faster than us, such was the pathetic track. And finally reached the rest house by 4.30 PM.                     The three bed room building wasn’t electrified, and we had carried emergency lamps along with, as we knew about it earlier. It was located atop a peak, surrounded by such green green peaks all around. The peak to the west is named ‘Kudayathoor Bindal’ , and the one at the east is ‘Mainkallu Mudi’.
Kudayathoor Bindal
Mainkallu Mudi
                              The earlier visitors took the Jeep to Kudayathoor Bindal, and we people just wandered around. James and his relatives returned from Bindal half an hour later, and we expressed our wish to pay a visit to Bindal. Anoop, the jeep driver assured us, that he will return after dropping the others at the base. Aneesh, James’s assistant, also left with Anoop, to fetch provisions for our dinner. We had a chat with James, till Anoop returned. James had actually leased the building from DTPC and he is in trouble now, it seems. Poonchira being a very remote place, it is not being promoted by DTPC. As there is no power supply to the building, families (unlike ours) will never prefer an over night stay over here. A project to provide solar power is sleeping in files for long. The track to the building is not motorable, except for 4WD Jeeps. There is no fencing and not even a sign board, that this is a Govt. property…thus goes the grievance line. Sunil, being a senior official of Tourism dept., assured him that he would try his best to sort out the problems as soon as he returns – and James was happy. In fact, I found James as a man of great ideas, that he had even managed to fabricate a wind mill for the use of the building, in the event the power project is not through.

                      By this time Anoop returned with the jeep and we were out to explore the sunset at Kudayathoor Bindal.
       The track was so bumpy and rocky, that I could walk along with the Jeep.                 Once at the top, the view is awesome. The Malankara Reservoir, below, resembled a golden snake.                       Temperature dipped by then and many of us started shivering. Setting sun at the west and rising moon at the east, filled the silent place with a beauty, which words cannot express.                   I decided to walk down the peak and the jeep left with others. The DTPC rest house on the other peak, with Mainkallu Mudi at the backdrop, was the lone building in that wide canvas.                  By then mist spread blocking the view, and I slowly walked back to the night stay. I reached by 7, and by then Anoop had left for the base, where he lives, leaving the Jeep at the rest house, as we were to have a morning safari to ‘Muni Guha’, a cave inside woods. James and his assistant had prepared porridge for the kids, and was busy with rice, for the elders. We joined him and he took out all those preserved food, he had carried from his home, for his own use. Within this small interval, James became a good friend of ours, and he even rang up his house, which is near Thodupuzha, to get his mother on line, to explain to my wife, the recipe of a certain dish. The food he made was equally delicious as those by his mother, and we ate a lot. 

         He showed us a fully loaded long barreled gun, under his bed, to ensure us that we were safe in his custody – though we weren’t afraid of the loneliness. After the food, we took out our torches, and went for a short walk along the misty hillside. The mist and the overall silence had its own majesty, that we were out of this world. Spent a long time outside the building and went to bed by midnight. By then, I had planned an early morning trek to Mainkallu Mudi, and Aneesh had agreed to guide me.

6 – 8 – 09

                        Left for MainkalluMudi by 5.45 AM, accompanied by Aneesh. We had to descent our peak first, into a patch of woods and then on to a grassland, at the end of which the hike to Mainkallu Mudi starts. I slipped many time times, during the descent, luckily not sustaining any major injuries. The mist was so thick and it was still dark.                      Visibility improved at the end of the grasslands, but the mist was still thick. Started the hike to the top and I found that actually there is no specific path ahead. Aneesh was leading me just by the direction. The trek was fairly difficult for me, as we had to jump from rock to rock and I had to crawl at many places. Half way up, Aneesh pointed to the east, and we knew that the sun will be up soon. Waited for a while to capture sunrise, and amazingly the sun wasn’t red, but yellowish, in the thick mist. Kept on climbing and reached atop a cliff. Aneesh suggested that we shall wait here for a while, for the mist to clear off, that we can have distant a view of Pala town towards the south and, of course, our rest house on the opposite side.              Mist went off for a short interval and we could clearly spot our rest house atop our lonely peak, as a white dot.
The white spot at the back drop is the rest house
                        More closer look revealed people walking around, probably Sunil and James. Mist spread again, blocking the view and we started the descent.                     Many more slippings and were back by 8 AM. Anoop arrived by 8.30, and we started our safari to ‘Muni Guha’ by 8.45 AM.                      At the initial stage, the track was just rocks for about half an hour, and then after crossing a stream it transformed to grasslands. The grasses were so high to cover the Jeep and the path was too narrow.                          After about 20 minutes, grass lands gave way to woods. In the midst of the woods the vehicle came to a stop, and we looked around for the cave. Anoop reveals that a small walk down the woods would take us to the cave. It was a difficult stretch for me, as I had my two and a half year old, on my shoulders. After a short while we reached the entrance of the cave, which is a small hole, through which a man can just crawl in.                        Anoop went in first to check for pre occupancies, if any, and signaled us to get in. Once inside, it’s spacious enough for one to stand straight.                It was pitch dark inside and we moved on in the light of mobile torches and camera flash. At the end of the cave, there is a tiny cute water fall, which never dries off, it seems.             Anoop says it will be much more beautiful after the rains.                       The cave is believed to have been the temporary residence of Pandavas, during their exile. Got out and climbed up to the jeep.                  On our return, Anoop stopped the vehicle in the midst of thick grass hills and pointed to a distant rock, from where 7 districts of Kerala is visible, he claims. We decided to explore, but the grass hill up to the rock, was higher than we people. Anoop lead us with my two and a half year old on his shoulders, and we followed. At some points we did'nt even see others as we got fully immersed in the greenery of grass.                Some how crawled up the rock, to a wonderful view. I don’t know whether the claim of 7 district view - it included even Calicut – is true or not, but the rock is at such a height and the view limit was infinite. We could clearly identify the towns of Thodupuzha, Muttom and Pala.                     The tiny town of Melukavu – location of the Malayalam movie ‘Kadha Parayumbol’ - lies just beneath the rock. A bus parked at Melukavu junction appeared as an ant.                    Spent a while there and swam across the grass sea to the Jeep. Two kms ahead we had another stop to have a dip in the crystal clear, chilled stream, wayside.                  Finally back at the rest house by 12 noon. Had some porridge and checked out soon, as our destination today is Kanthalloor, near Marayoor, about 150 kms drive ahead. Bye to James and Aneesh, and Anoop dropped us at the base, where our car was safe by the roadside. Thanked Anoop as he was not just a driver, but a guide, a helping friend and much more.

           Drove towards Thodupuzha, and all of a sudden it started raining heavily. Let it rain and rain and the falls in Muni Guha thicken to beauty, for tomorrow’s explorers

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Pappilai Amman - The Deity Distinct

         Raj Vridhachalam, the man behind many of my trails, was the one to brief me on Pappilai Amman, the deity of a jungle shrine, deep i...