In terms of the landscapes and avian life we encountered en route, Kodai Munnar Trek in February 2012 was one of the best - but it left a lot of things incomplete and a lot of questions unanswered for me. To begin with, our guide did not have any permission to enter Kerala and we sneaked in via a trail connecting Kilavara and Vattavada - ofcourse, I was not aware of this until some time later. This meant that we missed out on Pampadum Shola National Park and a watch tower at the border.
So, as soon as we reached Top Station, I enquired around for more information. I could find two guides in that area - the first was Manohar of Forest Trails, a veteran who had been taking people for treks around Top Station for many years. We talked at length with him and went through his albums - which were impressive. The other guide was Rajan of Top Station Adventures - I could not meet him that day, but called him up later on phone and asked about the prospect of doing a Top Station - Pampadum Shola - Vattavada trek and he volunteered to take us. I also felt more comfortable with him and decided to go with him, instead of Mano.
It was a weekend plan - to reach Munnar on saturday morning and then head to Top Station by bus. We would then take the Kodai Munnar escape road towards TN border and reach the Vandaravu watch tower. From there, we would continue on the border trail for some distance, before turning back west towards Vattavada. On sunday, we could trek down towards Kurangini and board a bus from Theni without coming back to Munnar / Top Station. The plan sounded perfect - it was a good trek by itself and would also let me cover the remaining portion of the escape road.
For the unfamiliar, escape road was built by British during second world war, as part of an evacuation plan in case of a Japanese attack from east. It connects Kodaikanal with Munnar via an extremely scenic high-altitude route. When the road was closed for traffic in 90's, it stayed as a popular trekking trail. For last couple of years, trekkers from Kodaikanal are not allowed to enter Kerala side and vice versa. This is so, since the area near the border is a core reserved forest. I was fortunate to do one version of Kodai Munnar trek starting from Thoppithookkipparai (aka Caps Valley) and passing via Berijam lake and Konalar dam, before turning towards Kavunji village. From Kavunji, we reached Kilavarai village by road and then headed to Vattavada / Koviloor in Kerala, via a forest trail passing next to Vandaravu peak. From Vattavada, we headed to Munnar by road from Vattavada via Top Station.
Coming back to this trek, Jinu, Priyanka and Gladys were interested from the beginning. Rajan's initial suggestion was to book accomodation at Periyar Residency - a hotel in Top Station, but this was dismissed by all as too boring and expensive :) We explored the possibility of staying in a forest hut near Vandaravu watch tower, but Rajan said that the hut is lying unused for a very long time. Instead, he recommended another forest hut near the Vattavada - Top Station road and we agreed.
I booked tickets to Munnar in SRS travels - KSRTC was full by then - and return from Bodi in a KSRTC Rajahamsa. The SRS bus was expected to reach Munnar by 9 and there was a bus to Top Station by that time. Even if we miss that bus, there was another bus scheduled to start from Munnar at 10. Munnar to Top Station takes less than an hour and we hoped to start the trek, latest by 12, which should allow us to reach Vattavada by late evening. The plan was reasonable - but a lot of things went wrong on saturday morning!
SRS was carrying a lot of luggage in this bus and had an almost one hour stop at Erode - followed by another one hour in Tirupur. At 8 in the morning, we were at Pollachi! Ideally, we did not have to go to Pollachi, as there is a direct road connecting Tirupur and Udumalpet - but there were luggages to be dropped. I was sure by now that we will miss the 10'O clock bus and called up Rajan for alternatives. Apparently, there was one more bus at 11.50 and worst case, he will arrange for a jeep to pick us up.
By the time we reached Chinnar, it was quite hot - the forest looked barren as well. The only interesting thing to see was a waterfall called Thoovanam, which looked impressive even in this peak summer. Jinu, who had been there earlier, mentioned that the waterfall is quite voluminous during monsoon. It was 10.30 by the time we reached Marayoor and stopped for breakfast at 'Variath Hotel', where we also managed to finish our morning chores.
We had Dosa for breakfast, but it was a waste for me and Gladys as we both threw up a few times on our way up. The beautiful tea estates and the Jacaranda and Rhododendron in full bloom was not enough to distract me - even after my stomach was empty, I could still feel the intestines churning up. Priyanka had her share of trouble, when people sitting in the upper seat threw up and the vomit fell on her dress. By the time we reached Munnar it was past 12 and all of us were tired after this disastrous journey. The bus to Top Station was long gone by now and to top it all, our bus did not even stop at Munnar town - instead, it went straight to the SRS depot in Old Munnar town. I called up Rajan and he arranged for a jeep to pick us up from SRS depot and drop us at Top Station for Rs 400 - not a bad deal, considering that hiring a jeep would normally cost us almost double.
Munnar - Top Station road is picturesque - we made our way through sprawling tea estates and beautiful waterbodies, Mattupetty Dam and Kundale Lake, nestled in between hills. Rajan was waiting for us at his shop - Abi's Cafe - in Top Station, Ellapetty, when we reached there by about 1.30. We did not have enough time to complete the trek towards Vattavada. So, he suggested that we head to Vandaravu watch tower and a grass land - the tallest point in the hills according to him - before heading back to Top Station. The plan to go to Vattavada had to be scrapped and I had no option but to agree.
It took us some more time - before we all got ready. We had to carry only the basic luggage - camera, water and some snacks - and left most of the things at Abi's Cafe. Rajan had packed lunch for us and gave us a bag of snacks as well. We got the jeep waiting for us all this while and dropped us at the Pampadum Shola National Park checkpost, on Top Station - Vattavada road, about 2 kms from Top Station. This is where the escape road starts and permissions from the forest department is needed to go inside. For the trek that we have chosen, the entry fees was about Rs 195 per head, which Rajan paid. Apparently, we had the permission for a full day inter state trek - till Kilavarai village. This was required for us to go towards Vandaravu hills / Vattavada village, which was our original plan.
Soon, we signed on a declaration, confirmed our accomodation at the forest huts and started the trek by 2.45, accompanied by Rajan and a forest guard. The checkpost is actually a 3-way junction, with the escape road forking towards right, while coming from Top Station. It was tarmac laid and motorable to start with, but the road seemed to have come off in most places. A few minutes in, we spotted a milestone indicating 58kms to Kodaikanal - thats when it really dawned upon us that we are tracing a trail used decades ago by Britishers.
|Beginning of the Escape
The road had its share of fauna and flora - we could spot many birds, variety of flowers and even animal droppings - including Tiger's and Treefox's. The road zig-zagged on its way up and the ascend was easy to moderate. In the beginning, I kept up with Rajan and had a good conversation with him. I enquired him about the general geography of the place - including the possibility of doing a complete Escape Road trek from either direction. According to him, this would be next to impossible, unless permissions are taken seperately from both DFOs - which is a tough task to co-ordinate. Even the Top Station - Kilavarai trek or Berijam - Koviloor trek is set to be disallowed as the areas which this trail passes through is also being made a core reserved forest, the Kurijimala sanctuary.
I also enquired him about the current condition of the Koviloor - Kilavarai road and he said that its not motorable now. Apparently, entry is prohibited in this road even for trekkers / cyclists. Even if entry was allowed, the road is very difficult for anything other than 4WD vehicles or off-road bikes. He said that the bigger and heavier 150+CC bikes will be difficult on this stretch and suggested that the older 100CC 2-stroke bikes are better off. Rajan himself was an off-road adventurer and had taken on this road in his modified 2-stroke bike - a Suzuki Shogun. He totally dismissed that a Bajaj Avenger (the bike I own), with its low ground clearance and heavy weight can do this stretch! Given the fact that he owns a Yamaha Enticer - which is similar in build to an Avenger - too, which he used for a Leh - Ladakh ride, he was more than qualified to make that statement.
About 40 minutes later, we took a shortcut through the forest. Rajan suggested that this shortcut will bypass a few bends on escape road and save us about 3 kms. But, this would also mean that the trail is going to be steeper here - we soon found this out ourselves! A couple of minutes in to this forest trail, Gladys wanted a break. We continued five minutes later, only to take one more break in another few minutes. It took us some effort to cover this portion of the trek. I was feeling very tired, specifically after the throwing up in the bus and the empty stomach did not make things any easier. Gladys also found this stretch a little difficult and all of us stayed together pushed ourselves to move up.
Can I take a pic here?
One interesting thing en route was a tree branch which almost had the shape of a cradle. Rajan mentioned that this is a favourite photo stop for most trekkers - Priyanka made good use of the opportunity and demanded for a pic of hers. Soon after this, we were back on the escape road and the ascend became moderate again. We spotted yet another milestone - which said "Kodaikanal 33"! At the start of the trek, the milestones had indicated 58kms to Kodaikanal and I could not believe that we covered 25kms on escape road in about 1.5hrs. The confusion was cleared later when I realized that the milestone we saw just now was older and the distance was in miles - 33miles ~= 53kms. A few minutes later we saw another milestone (showing 52kms to Kodaikanal), which confirmed the theory!
This stretch was also interesting thanks to the variety of flowers we spotted here - including Rhododendrons and some yellow orchids. The views were also good as we could spot the Vandaravu grass lands much closer towards our south. The views to the Munnar side - towards our west - was also interesting, as we could spot a few hills towards that side - including the Messapulimala hills. At one turn, we could also spot a hut - complete with a green roof - on the slopes of the hills that we were climbing. Apparently, this is the same hut near the Vandaravu watch tower, that we considered staying in.
At 4.30, we were at the forest department shelter - used by the forest guards at Vandaravu. Priyanka, who was ahead of all of us, managed to spot an Indian Gaur, which the rest of us missed. The shelter was at a good vantage point - from where, we could see the Vandaravu watch tower towards north. Right ahead of us, was a ridge which was part of the Vandaravu hills. The hill seemed to be peaking towards the grass lands on the southern side and thats were we were headed to - later in the evening.
Hills of Munnar
Slope towards the watch tower
But, before all that, Rajan opened the lunch packets - lemon rice and potato curry - and requested us to finish it quickly so that we can get to the grass lands on time. We agreed and finished the lunch fast - by then we also had some coffee ready. Our first target was the watch tower and three forest guards joined us on our way up. We ascended the hill to our north, from where we could see the hills of Munnar towards our west. A level trail from here lead us to the watch tower in about 15 minutes.
Towering among the green
Tresspassers will be prosecuted!
Grasslands of Vandaravu
I had seen many pictures of this watch tower and was happy to finally reach here. One of the biggest disappointment from my last Kodai Munar trek, was missing this watch tower. This was a junction point of the two trails - the escape road which we had taken till now and the border trail. Continuing on escape road will take us towards Konalar, Berijam and Kodaikanal, while the border trail leads to the Kurinjimala sanctuary and connects a few other foot trails, leading to Vattavada / Koviloor in Kerala and Kadavari / Kilavarai / Kavunji in Tamil Nadu. The watch tower was two storeyed and had four flights of stairs going around it to take us to the top. The lighting was perfect when we reached the top - the hills of Munnar was towards our south west and the Vandaravu grass lands seen due south. The forest looked taller towards north, but Rajan was confidant that the peak is towards the grass lands in the south.
Which state is this tree lying in?
Can u guys make it a little fast?
It was already 5.30 and we did not have much time left. Soon, we descended down from the watch tower and headed towards south via the border trail. The border was clearly marked with milestones all along. The forest here was also different as it now constituted of Wattle trees and Pine. During the initial portion of the trek, we were trying to keep up with the forest guards who were ahead of us. The trail was mostly level, except for a moderate ascend for the last few minutes. This final ascend took us in to the grass lands - right in time for a beautiful sunset.
#1 to the right and #2 to the left
I later realized that one of the hills in Munnar region, towards right side of the sun is actually Anamudi - the tallest peak in South India. The tallest among the hills on the left side is Meesapulimala - the 2nd tallest peak in South India, thus making it a rare view. The border trail continued on towards our left - in southern direction - where we also spotted a herd of Indian Gaurs / Bisons. The Gaurs were a little too far for good photographs and Rajan told that it would take about 1.5hrs to go all the way to the end of grasslands and come back. We did not have the time to do that - so, we just turned right and climbed up the hilltop, which seemed like the tallest point of Vandaravu hills.
|The trail goes on ...
It was already getting dark and we did not have much time to spend at the peak. Our plan was to get down along the border trail for a while, before taking a shortcut through the forest to reach the escape road. I was with a forest guard in this stretch and enquired him about the places around the watch tower. I was specifically interested in figuring out how close I had come to the watch tower during our Kodai Munnar trek. From what I heard, it sounded like we crossed the border trail atleast a few kms away from the watch tower. It turned out that our guides during that trek - Mani and Velayudham - was well known to these forest guards. Apparently, Velayudham was even warned not to take tourists towards watch tower ever again. I could only laugh now about Velayudham's claim that he did not take us to the watch tower only because he did not know that we were interested to go there!
It was pretty dark by the time we found our way through the forest and reached back the escape road. The trail was not very prominent and had its share of thorns and small branches sticking out, making it difficult in the dark. But, we managed to reach back by about 7 without any mishaps. The forest guards - who joined us from the Vandaravu camp - said good bye and headed towards right on escape road. We headed left and soon entered back the forest - at the same shortcut which we took on our way up. I took out my torch and with the aid of a few more lights we found our way down the forest. Rajan was relieved that there was no elephant sightings on the day - but the presence of gaurs were expected.
After reaching back in to the escape road, we soon made another foray in to the forest. This time, it was not a shortcut, but a trail which would take us directly in to the forest hut. It was pitch dark by now and we were just concetrating on where to place the feet! The descend was moderately steep, with fallen tree branches and the loose soil en route making it more difficult. Finally, by about 7.45, we reached an open area and saw lights ahead of us - coming from the forest hut where we were scheduled to stay for the night.
A trunch was laid around the huts to keep the elephants and gaur / bisons away. The place looked nice and cozy with attached bathroom, sit-out and a courtyard. There was another group already camped there and a campfire was setup for them. Some of Rajan's people were already there - waiting for us. They offered to setup the campfire for us too. Rajan, meanwhile, headed towards Top Station in his bike, to get food and our luggage.
The sky looked beautiful too - lit up with many stars. It was quite cold by now and we also opted for a campfire, to escape from the cold. There was a chat about Priyanka's Srilanka trip and she was trying to rope in Gladys and Jinu. The discussion soon blew up in to a 'we-should-live-for-today' debate. Meanwhile, the food arrived but every body seemed to be absorbed in the debate. I had to push each one of them before we finally gave some attention to the food packet. Food was good and elaborate - rice, sambhar, rasam, chappathi, potato curry and chicken - and we ended up wasting almost half of it.
One problem was that, Rajan missed a few covers - one of which had my jacket! So, I picked up one of the blankets - all for myself to escape from the cold night. When I got up - by about 6 - I saw Jinu already up and raring to go. But, he was complaining of the freezing temperature outside. Without even a jacket to save myself from the cold, I hesitated to get out.
It was about 7 by the time I finally got up, finished brushing ... etc and went out. Jinu was seated next to the fireplace of our neighbors and it was a lot warmer than early morning - but still very cold. We had a chat with the other group - they were all from Kerala, working in different parts of the country. One of the guys held a Canon EOS 7D, fitted with a horizontal battery grip, which made it look more like a 1D. He was running a studio in Mumbai and had good interest in photography - so we had a good topic to discuss.
Soon, we heard the sound of a bike - Rajan's Shogun. It is now that we got a good look at his bike - it had wider tyres with better grip and raised wheel guards to make it suitable for off-road adventures. He came with tea and also brought along the missing bags with him. I was quick to take out the jacket and put it on - better late than never! The plan was to head towards Top Station and have breakfast from there. But, I was already feeling hungry and picked up some of the remaining food from yesterday for breakfast.
Thats the hill we climbed yesterday
After a small photo session, with Vandaravu hills in the background, we were out. Rajan's people left in the bike, while the rest of us proceeded on foot towards Top Sation. The start was good - as the small trail leading up to the main road (Vattavada - Top Station road) had tall trees on both sides and was infested with Giant Squirrels. I had never seen so many giant squirrels together and had a field day clicking pictures. There was also a good amount of birds - noteable was a Grey-Breasted Laughingthrush. Even after we reached the main road, there was good bird population around us - noteable was a Citrine Wagtail, which was moving just ahead of us in the road and kept flying ahead when we reached close.
The giant with his snacks
It was about 10 by the time we reached the Pampadum Shola checkpost. Considering that the checkpost is only a couple of kms from the forest hut, we had taken a lot of time - little more than an hour - to cover this distance. So, for the rest of the distance - till Abi's Cafe at Top Station, I kept the camera aside. Priyanka got bored of all the photography by now and walked ahead of us - missing the turn towards Top Station and heading towards Munnar in the process. So, Rajan had to take out his bike and pick her up. This was his other bike - Yamaha Enticer and Priyanka had a reason to feel happy to have lost her way.
After breakfast - idli's, chutney and sambhar, Rajan also showed us his Leh - Ladakh album. The pics were pretty and now, I was feeling happy that I chose Rajan as our guide. Time went by in chit chat and we took our sweet time to get ready and pack the bags. Unlike previous day, we now had to carry all our luggage, as we were not planning to come back to Top Station. It was about 12 by the time we finally started the trek.
En route Kurangini
We took a small track going behind Abi's Cafe and was soon face to face with the beautiful hills of Munnar. The Vandaravu hills was now behind us and a set of smaller hills - covered with grass, except for some burnt area - was to our left. Top Station itself was on our right side. It was quite hot, but the blue sky and a handful of white clouds thrown around made the landscape even more beautiful. The most dominant hills from the Munnar side was Messapulimala, with Kolukkumalai tea estates falling to its left. Kolukkumalai is, apparently, the highest tea plantations in the world, while Meesapulimala is the 2nd tallest peak in south India. The entire hill ranges looked majestic as we started descending down towards Kurangini.
Once again, for the unfamiliar, Top Station is the starting point of a ropeway used by Britishers for transporting tea and other products from Munnar. Kundala valley railway - operated between 1902 and 1924 - was used for transporting them from Munnar till Top Station, while Top Station served as a trans-shipment point. The ropeway starting from Top Station, passed through Central Station and ended at Bottom Station - a village called Kottagudi. Our trail would follow this ropeway for a while before deviating towards Kurangini.
Right at the beginning of the trek, we were joined by another group - a rather large and noisy group of guys. They were a bit troublesome as they were making some comments on Priyanka and Gladys - even attempting to take their pictures and video. We avoided them as much as we can, but bumped on to them a few times during their breaks. Eventually, they went ahead of us as our pace was very slow.
That one is Kolukkumalai
Isnt the trail wide enough for a Thar?
The trail was very clear with a few houses en route in the beginning. Later, it looked like a mountaneous jeep track - may be motorable for a 4WD. There was an alternate trail which was quite steep and goes right through the hills. But, we chose to go on the trail used by villagers. Apparently, Rajan had tested his motor bike here too and said that this is a popular cycling trail as well. The discussion then moved towards the cycling trend in Bangalore, with Jinu sharing some of his experiences as part of Bangalore Ascenders.
The triplet of top station and a giant of Munnar
The needle, greens and blues
As we moved down, the three hills near Top Station - which used to look small in comparison with Kolukkumalai hills, now started looking very prominent. The Kurangini - Kolukkumalai trail, used by workers on a daily basis, was also clearly visible as a zig-zag line on the grasslands. Rajan had a Kurangini - Kolukkumalai - Meesapulimala trek  package too which sounded quite interesting. Even the hills on the left side looked big now. These hills were greener and had a few odd-shaped boulders in it. Some of them pointing up towards sky - like a needle. With a blue sky behind these hills - sun being at the opposite side - they looked quite pretty too. Rajan mentioned about a foreigner who comes to Top Station every year, just to trek up to one of those boulders and meditate - an interesting obsession isnt it?
The sister act!
I also spotted some tiny flowering plants on the way and spent time to take a few pictures. With me taking a lot of time for all these photographs, Priyanka - who lead the way along with Rajan - got extremely bored. At one of the turns, she was waiting for us in the shade and looked quite annoyed - partly at the scorching sun and partly at the delay. I had no option but to cut down on photo time for the rest of the trek.
By 1.30, we reached a small village with a handful of houses - the Central Station. It also had a small shop selling lime and sharbat water. We had our choice of drinks and took a long break before proceeding further. Rajan suggested that we take a deviation after Central Station - towards a coffee plantation - and join back the village trail later. His idea was that the trail through the coffee plantations had good shade to save us from the scorching sun. This actually turned out to be a good choice as the trail was much cooler as he promised. As we entered the coffee plantation, there were a group of workers and some dogs in the area - but, once we went past the barking dogs we were on our own for a while. The trail became more interesting when the coffee beans made its appearance in two different forms - ripe 'n red and also raw 'n green. We also spotted a chilli plant with a few ripe red chillies! Further ahead, the coffee plants were blooming - this was the first time I actually saw a coffee flower!
We took a few breaks here also and the going was very slow - the idea was that we had enough time to reach Kurangini. It was about 3 when we reached a house inside the coffee plantations, where we stopped for lunch. Rajan had packed lemon rice and potato curry for lunch and we took our sweet time to finish it.
We started again by 4, crossed over a small cave and continued among good forest cover on a trail covered with dry leaves and grass. By 4.30, we reached near a stream and then a little later, spotted a water fall. We had come out of the forest cover by now and once again, the hills of Munnar was visible to our right side.
Apparently, this is where a person died in February 2010. He was part of a large group from Chennai and had fallen down while trying to take pictures. According to Rajan, the group was very large and they did not bother to take any guides with them. Another example to corroborate the argument that taking large groups for treks - how much ever experienced the group leader is - is a dangerous practice, if not criminal to the forests.
Yours truly - striking a pose
As we moved towards the stream, the village road - connecting Kurangini to Central Station - joined us from the right side. To reach the waterfall, we had to cross over a few boulders and then climb a hill to get a closer view of the falls. The falls was of moderate height and had only a little water - but good enough to make it nice and cozy. This stream is called Sambalar and was used for water supply in to the entire Bodi area. We took a dip in the stream and got fresh as we were going to board the bus soon. As we were getting ready to leave, I spotted a pair of bulbuls mating - time again for me to take out the camera.
It was about 5.30 by now and we were getting late - the last bus from Kurangini to Bodi was at 6. So, we had to rush down for the rest of the trek. We passed by yet another waterfall on our way down and then ran through the forest trail. I refrained from taking any pictures for a while and tried to keep ahead. Soon, we entered a tarmac road, but Rajan suggested that we keep on the foot trail as it was shorter. While, Rajan waited for Jinu ad Gladys to join us, me and Priyanka went ahead to see if we can catch the bus.
A few minutes to 6, we reached the village - I enquired about the bus to the first person I saw and was told that the bus had gone. I moved ahead, dejected, to reach the bus-stop by 5.55, where I was told that the bus is yet to come. The bus did arrive precisely at 6 and the conductor told us that it will wait for precisely 10 minutes before leaving. The rest of the gang was able to reach by then and soon we were on our way to Bodi.
At Bodi, we continued in the same bus to go to Theni, from where our return ticket was booked. Rajan stayed with us for dinner - idli at a restuarant in Bodi - before saying good bye. We promised to keep in touch and I was sure to come back for another trek with him in the region. He, then took a bus to Munnar - going via Bodi and Pooppara, one of my favourite routes, which I took during two of my road trips - Kodaikanal - Idukki - Thanjavur - Velankanni trip in July 2006 and Valparai - Athirapally - Eravikulam - Bodimettu trip in December 2010.
The return journey was comfortable and - unlike the onward journey to Munnar - we reached back on time to conclude another beautiful trek. I had a little disappointment when I came back and analyzed the GPS trails (Jinu was carrying one with him) on Google Earth - we had missed the tallest point in Vandaravu hills! The peak was apparently a km north of the watch tower. Never mind - with a friend like Rajan there, we could always go back!