Kodaikanal - Munnar trek along the Escape Road is one of the most famous trails in South India. Built by Britishers, this road connecting Kodaikanal and Munnar was the highest motorable road in South India. The road closed a couple of decades ago, due to wildlife concerns, but the trail was open for trekking enthusiasts for some more years. I had heard about this trek many years ago, but never managed to go for it. Apparently, a few years ago, the trail was closed from Kerala side and doing the entire stretch along the escape route is now not possible - atleast its not easy to do it legally.
But, a lot of people had been doing this trek along different trails passing via villages. One person who is a monopoly here is Mani - usually refferred as Kodai Mani, he is been trekking along this route from his childhood and taken scores of people along with him. A warning I heard about him was that his guide fees were on the higher side. This was one reason that dissuaded me from taking this up. But, with 2012, I had a resolution to travel more and Preethu badly wanted to get back to her hiking shoes, after 16th August, 2009. When I talked about a leisurely day in Munnar after a three days trek from Kodaikanal, I got her attention very fast and she was soon ready with a new pair of costly shoes!
Preethu did most of the talking - with Mani and Velayudham, the forest guard - as she could handle Tamil quite well. As expected, Mani did quote a huge fee for the two of us. His explanation was that the costs will be higher for two people and it sounded fair - so we agreed. We did confirm with him that the trail is through some of the landmarks known along this route - like a watch tower in the Kerala / Tamil Nadu border and he acknowledged.
The plan was quite simple for us - arrive at Kodaikanal on a saturday morning and we will be in Munnar on monday evening. We just had to turn up with a torch light and jacket, while Mani would arrange for everything in between! Since, it was only two of us, Mani even offered to try and get permission from Kerala side ... everything sounded quite good now ... or so we thought!
We booked our seats in a KSRTC Rajahamsa to Kodaikanal and return from Munnar in the same, four days later. The friday evening was a dash as always - but we somehow managed to reach the bus stand on time for the 21.15 bus. About eight hours later, we were at Vattalakundu, updating Mani about the arrival. After a short break at a nearby restaurant, the bus was soon on its way up the ghats.
My memories of Kodaikanal is faded since a day at Kodaikanal in July 2006, but as the bus moved up and the views got more and more majestic, I recollected names like the Silver Cascade falls. This time, though, I could not take any photographs, as we were moving in a bus.
As soon as we moved closer to the town, we could see the tourist guides starting their work, trying to rope in the tourists. One of them even managed to get in to the bus and talk to each and every one. We only had to tell him that we are going for a trek and he totally ignored us after that :)
Soon, we were in Kodaikanal town. Mani had arranged for a room at J C Residency, Woodville road, right opposite the Kodaikanal bus stand, for us to freshen up. It cost us Rs 200, but the actual room rent was much higher. The room was neat and they provided hot water which made Preethu happy :)
By 8, we were ready and was searching for hotel Astoria, as per Mani's suggestion. The restaurant was located close to the hotel we stayed and the place looked packed with tourists. Preethu wanted to have an 'Astoria Special Dosa', but the waiter told that it will be too big for two of us. So, we settled for normal Masala Dosa, Idli and Poori.
Mani also wanted us to buy some parcel for lunch, but the restaurant did not have anything ready by then. So, we opted for idli, vada and upma, which was also packed up as we finished our breakfast. After another conversation with Mani, Preethu told that we have to buy 1 kg rice, bread and noodles. This was a bit surprising for us, as we expected Mani to take care of this. If told earlier, we could have got all the required things from Bangalore itself - now hunting the streets of Kodaikanal for groceries did not sound very interesting!
Preethu asked Mani to get rice himself, while we found the noodles and bread from some nearby shops. Preethu also managed to find some yummy home made chocolates from a shop. Both of us were carrying only small bags and after packing the dress and snacks it was almost full. I managed to shove in some more things, but it did not have much space left.
For the next couple of hours, we waited at the hotel reception as Mani turned up only by about 12! He came in a Maruti van, with Velayudham and a driver. The guy looked younger and smarter than I expected. He told us that Velayudham, another kid called Aslam and Mani himself will accompany us for the trek. Mani and Aslam will return around the Kerala border as they do not have permission to go further. A watcher from Kerala forest department will join us instead - now it all sounded good.
Soon, we were headed towards Berijam and Aslam joined us from the next junction. He was a small kid and is apparently Mani's neighbour. Aslam and Velayudham took some of the things - bread and noodles - from our bags as they were full and we were finding it difficult to close the zip.
|Thats how the caps fly back
As we passed through a few check posts en-route Berijam lake, where Mani seemed to be the man-of-influence-who-knew-everybody, mist covered the entire area. I was trying to note the roads and specifically saw a road forking towards right with a sign board indicating Mannavanur. We soon reached the Thoppithookkipparai or Caps Valley. Once, we packed up and got ready to go, Mani showed us why the place is named so. Apparently, there is a gush of air which gets pushed up after hitting the rocks, so that anything light - like a cap - thrown in to the valley will rise and come back. He threw a few leaves and small branches in to the valley and it did fly back.
The place was covered with Wattle trees and he also started talking about the trees planted during British times - Eucalyptus, Pine and Wattle has covered the whole of Kodaikanal and surroundings by now and it is tough to spot any of the local trees. As we walked down through the forest trail towards Berijam, this became more and more clear. The trail was marked with Wattle trees on both sides and the place looked very foreign.
Happy to be among the woods ...
It was about 1.15 when we started our trek here. Apparently, the views from Thoppithookkippara was breath-taking but we were totally blocked by the mist. We did not complain much because the mist itself was beautiful. It gave an eerie feel to the long line of Wattle trees along the trail.
Is the hunter still around?
The eerie feeling was not limited to the mist alone - as we soon started seeing signs of wilderness. Some tiger poo here and there, a few big bones and fallen trees were seen consistently. The trail was mostly flat with a slight descend. Along with the misty climate, trek was quite easy. Preethu was especially enjoying the stroll in her new pair of Puma shoes and kept beaming 'I luv my shoes' :)
Things changed a bit as we descended down this hill through its edge. The Wattle trees had given way to an Indian shola here sprinkled with some flowers. Apparently, this forest is part of Mathikettan Shola. According to Mani, the place is named so as people entering this forest region are sure to lose their way. Hopefully, with the right set of people to lead us, we should not have any such issues. Soon, we crossed over to another hill and started climbing it, suddenly catching us out of breadth. But, the ascend was short and soon we reached the top of this hill with a nice resting place. It was past 2'O clock now and we stopped for a little munching.
I took out the packed idli / vada / upma, but Mani wanted to have lunch only later. So, we had a quick munch instead and left most of the packet for later. Mani had a couple of lemon rice packs with him and we tried it out too - I specifically liked the potato curry that was there with it.
Keep me safe in the jungles ...
After the munch, we had some photo / tree climbing sessions before starting again. The vegetation was much more varied this time as we descended further through the shola forest. By 3, we reached a level ground with good forest cover, when Mani started cleaning up a small corner under a tree. There was a small stone kept there, with a dried garland around it and a few lemons. He picked up a new garland and few lemons from his bag, replaced the old ones with it and started to kneel down and pray. Apparently, this is the nature god that he believes in.
As we started walking again, he narrated a story, when a few years back he lost his way here and wandered around for almost two hours. He had a dream in the night, which prompted him to believe that there is something powerful in this forest. From then onwards he had been following this ritual.
The forest stayed thick and Indian for some more time and we had fun exploring various kinds of leaves, creepers and mushrooms. We even spotted a few porcupine quills in this trail. Apparently, we were already in the Berijam range of forests and Berijam lake was a few hours away. Soon, we could spot a fence to our right side - which seperates the Indian Shola forest with the forest hosting Pines, Eucalyptus and Wattle. We walked along the fence for some time, before coming out of the forest in to an open area, with a tiny stream flowing along.
Is the water too deep ... if I fall down?
We took a longer lunch break here and spent time clicking a few pics. Water in the stream was very cold ... as expected. The mist was gone by now and we had a clear view of the forest all around us. The lunch was light, yet again, as none of us were tired much. I still had a few idlis left, which we decided to use for dinner.
An hour later, we crossed the stream through a slushy area and ventured inside a Pine forest. Now, we could see a lot more litter along the trail and Berijam felt quite near. In about 15 minutes, we could hear the sound of vehicles and we soon emerged out of the forest in to a motorable road - the Escape Road section towards Berijam lake.
The rest of the day's trek involved walking along the Escape Road. At a few points, we avoided the long turns in the road and cut through the forest itself. The vegetation around us mostly comprised of Wattle trees at this point, but it looked better than Pine trees which was extremely monotonous.
Lets build a house ... right here!
By 5, we could see the Berijam lake. The lake was as pretty as I have heard about - meandering in to the hills covered with Eucalyptus trees. We ventured in to its grassy banks to get a better view and spend a while there enjoying the breeze.
At 5.15, we were back in to the Escape Road, walking along side the lake. We had to wait some time en route as Mani went over to a camping spot to check something else. By the time he was back, the light had faded and we hurried towards the forest guest house neighbouring the Berijam lake. We soon reached a group of guest houses and a temple to go with it. After Mani offered his prayers at this temple, we were soon on our way to the guest house allocated to us.
On one of the older houses in the group had "Britishers transit camp at the escape route" painted on it. So, it was reason enough to believe that we were now going on the Escape Road. But, I was quite sure that we will deviate on the next day and take a trail though the villages - what I was not sure was that how much were we going to deviate.
Another thing that we noticed pretty quickly was the abundance of birds in the area. Infact, when we were nearing the guest houses, we saw a group of people taking the picture of a Black and Orange Flycatcher. But, the light was not good enough for me to look for birds. I was hoping to spot a few interesting birds the next day.
A bad news here was that none of us were carrying the 1KG rice that Mani wanted us to buy, which Preethu later expected him to buy. Apparently, there was a confusion but he told not to worry about it and he will arrange for it.
The night was cold and the campfire was a must. Also, with no power supply in the place, lack of any background lights and moon still not risen, the sky was clear and we could count a thousand stars. While we sat there looking at the sky, Mani & Co went down to one of the other guest houses to prepare the food. We were already feeling hungry, by the time they came back with rice and sambar, which we gobbled up in no time.
We were planning to get up early morning and go for a morning walk, which prompted us to ask what time we should start the next day. Mani and Velayudham surprised us by saying that we have only 4hrs trek for the next day and we can sleep as long as we want. They said that we are going towards a village called Kavunji and camp nearby. We asked him to start earlier in spite of that and suggested 9. Thus, we would still have time for a morning walk and trek leisurely enjoying the views and taking as many pics as I want.
Boat, water lillies and the mist
Next day, me and Preethu woke up at 6, only to realize that its freezing cold and dark outside. So, we took our time before heading towards Berijam once again. The lake had a layer of mist on top of it and looked beautiful. We spent a while lazing around it, listening to the chirrup of the birds and then trying to identify some of them.
|Now ... thats where I want my house!
By about 8, we headed back towards the guest house and saw Mani, Aslam and Velayudham walking back towards the lake - apparently the first two were going for fishing, while Velayudham stayed back. After some more lazing around, we headed back to the guest house and ate some bread. It was 9 already and there was no sign of Mani. I met Velayudham as he was going down to boil the noodles for breakfast / brunch. He said Mani will come back soon.
Even after we finished eating noodles, there was no sign of Mani and Aslam. We were soon ready and waiting for Mani and Aslam to return. It was about 11, when they came back - apparently they had gone back to some camp site for some other work. We were told to go ahead with Velayudham and they will catch up with us later after having food.
We were back on the Escape Road, which looked in bad condition from here on. The tarmac was mostly gone and stones stood up making it hardly motorable. We cut through the forest a few times when there were long turns in the road. I did not see much bird life around, but Velayudham spotted a majestic Giant Squirrel sitting among the trees.
Soon, we reached a junction point where the road looked like splitting up. The actual Escape Road - I guess - goes towards left, while another road goes towards right. But, Velayudham lead us stright ahead - first going down and then leading towards a (yet another) Pine forest. We waited a while for the rest of the people. At about 11.45, Mani and Aslam joined us and we ventured inside the Pine forest.
Doesnt really look like an Indian forest!
It took us about an hour to cover this area - which had its fair share of animal poo, sambhar fur, porcupine quills and bison bones. At a particular place we saw a whole set of bones - belonging to a hunted bison, but only the horns were missing. Mani mentioned that he has seen these bones for a while now, but the horns went missing only a few days back - somebody seems to have a made a fortune out of those horns!
Freezing water at Konalar
In a while we emerged out of the Pine forest and reached another lake - apparently the Konalar dam. As we crossed over to the other side, Mani queried if I want to take a dip in the lake. And why not - I soon dived in and took a round. The water was ice cold and I was soon shivering. Aslam dived in too and enjoyed a dip himself.
We started again by about 1.30 - the trail continued to be among Pine trees. But, soon we could see signs of civilization - from toffee wrappers to abandoned shoes. It looked like we were nearing a village, when I heard wood cutting noises. Velayudham dismissed this as villagers collecting firewood, but it sounded more like somebody cutting the wood. The sound continued for some time, until we reached another open area with a stream flowing by. The place had a few cattle grazing around - sure enough, we were approaching the Kavunji village. It was past 2'O clock and we took a lunch break here - packed noodles, some more lemon rice and biscuits.
Any remaining signs of wilderness quickly vanished after the lunch break as we headed on a foot trail along side the stream towards the village. The good thing here was that the Pine trees gave way to more Indian shrubs. Accordingly, I heard more chirrups of birds - specifically that of jungle fowls. I descended down towards the stream to only catch a glimpse of a cock fleeing away from us.
Another common sight was villagers carrying firewood on their head and some guys even weilding an axe. Clear signs of deforestation, I felt - but this was probably justified as villagers collecting firewood. Before 3, we crossed the stream through a bridge and walked around to reach a trail overlooking the valley towards North - West. We could see some hills in the backdrop with thick forest cover in between. According to Velayudham, the village that we could see there was Mannavanur.
One step at a time!
As we proceeded on this trail, the forest cover gave way to terraced agricultural land. Land was divided in to small fields at different altitudes to counter the slopes. With the hills of Mannavanur in the background this made an excellent landscape - one of the best I have ever seen - and I was lost taking pictures after pictures. This slowed down the pace - till the trail landed in to a tarmac road at Kavunji. The road was the one connecting Kavunji to Kodaikanal via Mannavanur and Poombarai, going further towards Kilavarai.
When Mani asked us what we would like to have for dinner, Preethu promptly said 'chicken'. So, he took some money from me and proceeded to buy chicken, rice and vegetable for dinner. I was busy chasing some birds - a Long Tailed Shrike this time - when Mani called us to board a bus. Apparently, the trek was done for today and we had to board a bus to reach the forest office. Mani and Aslam said good bye to us here, while Velayudham was supposed to stay back with us for the rest of trek.
A lot of things went wrong after this. I was expecting the bus journey to be a short one, but it turned out to be rather long. Obviously, this was an alternative to trekking that distance. Apparently, this was done to make sure that we did not get late - and this made me furious. We were ready to start the trek as early as 7 in the morning and the delay was caused only because of Mani. Now, a portion of the trek is being converted to a bus journey.
We landed at some stop a little later and headed towards a forest office - Vandaravu forest guest house, where more bad news awaited us. The person who was supposed to have done all the arrangements for us was not around and a new officer was coming in today - jeopardize our stay and cooking arrangement. As we were waiting outside, a jeep came in with a few forest officials. We walked further down as we saw Velayudham standing in attention, talking to an official. After a while, he came out and told us that we should move out now and can come back only after a while - once the new official goes out!
The place had a good bird population and we did not have much trouble spending time, walking around and chasing birds. Velayudham came back after a while, saying that the officer has left and we could come in. Things changed drastically as we reached back - all the officers now present seem to be Mani's friends and they assured us of a nice stay for the rest of the night. I was not too worried about this particular incident as we both were prepared to camp anywhere. But, I was very unhappy about missing out a part of the trek and taking a bus instead. I conveyed this to Velayudham too and insisted that he pass the message to Mani as well.
Rest of the night passed by smoothly counting stars, recounting the stories and eating rice + chicken curry. Velayudham mentioned that we have about 5hrs of trek for the next day too. But, this time, we insisted Velayudham to start early in the morning. Also, I did not want any more shortcuts to be taken. So, we agreed on an 8'O clock start and hit the bed after dinner.
We woke up next day to a beautiful morning and Velayudham was also ready by 8'O clock as promised. As we got out, we were welcomed by the chirrups of so many birds. Though, the trek was on a tarmac road, it was very interesting with the views around us and the amount of avian life. We seemed to be walking along the slopes of a mountain towards our left (i.e., west) and to our right, step cultivation was utilized for farm lands. The hills to the west of Mannavanur - apparently the Amaravathi Reservoir area near Udumalpet - formed an excellent background to the green carpet formed by the farm land.
Hills and greens at Kilavarai
By 9, we were at Kilavarai - a small village about 45kms from Kodai, by road. We had some idlis for breakfast from a small shop there before abandoning the tarmac road and heading towards the Kerala border. Our trail would now go up the hills, while the road would go around the hills towards Kadavarai. The initial part of the trail passed next to farmlands with a lot of people around, but soon the wilderness increased. The bushes started giving way to Pine, Wattles and Eucalyptus. Gradually, the ascend became steeper and we started gaining altitude.
Soon, we reached the top of a hill and started moving in an open area along a level trail. Gradually, we moved in to another hill and the forest cover came back again - so did the ascend. Apparently, Kilavarai is an altitude of about 1900m, while the hill that we were climbing - Vandaravu peak at Kerala / Tamil Nadu border - has a max altitude of 2500m+. The Escape road meanders towards south after Berijam to avoid this peak, while a jeep track (connecting Kilavarai to Kadavari and Kerala border) passes by its northern side.
Are we in Kerala now?
A little past 11, Velayudham stopped at a junction and told us that we are now crossing over to the Kerala side. Apparently, the Kerala side of forests belong to Pampadum Shola National Park. I had read about a watch tower in the Kerala / Tamil Nadu border and was expecting to reach there soon. The trail went straight ahead and was lined with Wattle trees on both sides. It had a few more ups and downs before reaching a river. A little further, there was a bridge to cross over. I also noticed a trail going southwards - possibly joining the Escape Road.
The trail was level for a while after crossing the river, but soon it changed in to a descend. I could get glimpses of a valley on the other side and was quite eager to get there. After a very steep descend, we finally came out of the forest to face the valley towards west. We could see a few hills ahead of us and some very tall hills nestled in clouds further away towards South - West. One of the peaks in that group looked familiar and I could not help thinking that it is Meesapulimala.
Velayudham told us that Anamudi - the tallest peak in South India at 2695m - was not visible from this point as it was behind one of the smaller hills. Nevertheless, the view was spectacular. There was a village in the middle of the valley ahead of us - Vattavada, near Koviloor, our destination for the day. I moved down a little to take photographs but could not get a good panoramic view anywhere due to the tree cover. While I was at it, there was a guy climbing up from below. Preethu and Velayudham had a conversation with him, which helped us in identifying some of the nearby hills. The hills at the left most is the top station area, while the area around the nearby hill to our left is called Pazhathottam. The hills at the centre is near Kudalur Kudi and the one at the right is Chilanthiyar, while further right is Marayoor area.
Hills towards Kadavari and Marayoor
There was a wider road towards our right possibly leading towards Kadavari, but Velayudham lead us through a foot trail straigh ahead (towards west). Once the initial euphoria of identifying the hills was over, I suddenly realized that we had missed the watch tower before crossing over to the Kerala side. I strongly suspected that Mani & Velayudham skipped it on purpose so that they could avoid any forest watchers from the Kerala forest department. While Velayudham inisisted that he did not know about our interest in the watch tower, I had difficulty believing it. According to him, the watch tower was right next to the place we crossed over to Kerala, but I felt it was further south - towards Top Station. The fact was that we had repeatedly checked about the watch tower during our conversations with Mani and missing out deliberately or otherwise was not acceptable. I was extremely upset with this and decided right there to not pay all of the agreed fee to Velayudham.
The descend from here was steep and Preethu found it a little tough, especially with the loose soil. We took a lot longer to get down in spite of her new shoes! By now, it was about 1 and the sun was at its peak. Soon, there were a lot of labourers - again carrying / cutting 'firewood' - and we could feel that the village is nearby. But, it took us almost an hour before finally descending down at Vattavada.
A little after 2'O clock, we were having lunch at one of the hotels in Vattavada. Later, we managed to get a trip auto heading towards Top Station, who dropped us near the View Point. Top Stations had its own splendid view of the hills of Munnar and Vandaravu region, but it was too sunny when we visited. I talked to couple of the people there and picked up some contacts there, so that I can plan some other treks in the region later.
We had long conversations with Velayudham and Mani (over phone) to explain them why I would not pay the full amount - I hope the message was clear to them. I did not want to do this myself and usually pay the guides more than what they ask for. But the way they organized this trek was very unprofessional - way above my threshold. Especially after asking for a very high fee, this was just not acceptable. I wanted to come back to Kodaikanal and Munnar for further treks and told Velayudham the same, but I was not sure myself, if I wanted to go with them again.
Beautiful lake at Mattupetty
A KSRTC bus - driven by an extremely skilled and fast driver, to the extend of being scary - took us to Munnar, where we parted ways with Velayudham. We had a day's stay in Munnar which was mostly spent lazing around at the hotel and some time at the beautiful Mattupetty lake. The anti-climax was when we missed the bus next day - but managed to catch it 30kms away from Munnar with the help of some locals and a taxi - costing us an extra Rs. 1200.
This was defenitely one of the best treks I ever did - in spite of the bad-guide-experience - and I was soon plotting more trips to Kodaikanal and Munnar region. After reading a lot of literature in Internet and peering in to Google Earth, I could develop a good understanding of the geography of this area. The Escape Road, goes almost goes due south after Berijam, while the trail we took was towards North - West. Some of the tallest peaks and cliffs in the region - Vandavaravu peak and the Ibex Cliff - seems to be lying South - West of Berijam. With so much to explore in this area, I simply cannot wait to get back to those hills.