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Meghamalai - Rajapalayam - Ayyanar Koil bike trip in January 2013

I had not done much travel for a while and a few plans I made in the beginning last couple of weeks did not work out. So, when I got yet another free weekend - which I came to know in the last minute, I badly did not want to waste it. With hardly any planning and a packed bag - which I did in the morning, just in case - I got free soon after lunch. Did some browsing, looked at some maps, took some print outs and voila - I was ready to start. The plan was to take the Avenger for yet another outing - this time to Meghamalai and Rajapalayam.

Meghamalai (High and Wavy mountains) is a lesser known hill station, near Theni, which was in my ToDo list for quite some time. Rajapalayam, a town in Virudhunagar district in Tamil Nadu hosts some little known - but majestic - hill ranges in Western Ghats, which I have hitherto not seen / explored. Why both the places in a single trip? Are they close to each other? Not really, as the road distance from Megamalai to Rajapalayam is about 150kms. But yes in a way, as the geographical distance is only about 30kms!

The start of the trip was very similar to the Malampuzha - Siruvani trip. I started by 3.30 and hit the Hosur road flyover by 4. Post e-city, I went for a petrol re-fill. The backpack was already feeling heavy and I loosened the straps to make it rest on the seat, which helped. Soon, I was cruising down the highway and managed to reach Salem by 7.

I have passed through the Bangalore - Salem highway and Salem - Coimbatore stretch many times in the last couple of years, but this time, I had to continue on NH44 (old NH7) towards Namakkal. The last time I passed through the Salem - Namakkal - Karur - Dindigul highway was in Dec 2010, on my way back from a Valparai - Athirapally - Eravikulam - Bodimettu trip. Atleast, I knew that this road was a full 4-lane atleast till Dindigul - so there was nothing to worry and I continued past Rasipuram and Namakkal on a good speed, to reach Karur bypass in about two hours. Just after Karur bypass, I found a restaurant and stopped for dinner.

Earlier, during CBZ days, I used to avoid riding two-wheeler in the night. But, during the Malampuzha - Siruvani trip, I had gone some distance in night and was now feeling more comfortable riding in the night. This time, I have already covered a fair amount of distance (more than 300kms away from Bangalore) in night, but the next main town - Dindigul - was about 90kms away. It was time to start thinking about the night halt.

By the time I finished dinner, it was 9.30. So, the plan was to stop at the next roadside lodge - but, this took me a while and I did not see any place to stay till Dindigul. The stretch being a 4-lane highway with most of the towns bypassed, I could not even see any shops around. I passed by Aravakurichi and later Vedasandur without finding any lodges en route. As I was nearing Dindigul, I found a shop and stopped there to check if I can find any lodges en route - only to be told that lodges are available only in Dindigul town.

Eventually, when I reached Dindigul bypass, I decided to not take any chances searching for lodges in the bypass and headed towards the city. Soon, I could find a couple of lodges and decided to halt at 'Hotel Keerthi Palace'. It had been a good night's ride and I had covered a lot more distance than I expected to cover. In spite of this, I wanted to try and reach Meghamalai before it is too hot and sunny - so the plan was to start as early as I can in the next day.

I managed to get ready and start off by about 6.30 - soon hitting the bypass, towards Madurai. To go to Theni, I should take the NH45 extension connecting Dindigul to Theni and forks off from the NH7 bypass. But, I was enjoying the early morning ride, missed this turn and kept going ahead. The turn was marked with sign boards saying "Kodaikanal", but I missed the fact that Kodai is also via NH 45 extension. Anyways, I missed the turn and headed about 15 kms ahead of Dindigul and then realized my mistake. There was no point in going back now - instead, it was easier to take what is called 'Kodai road' and join the Dindigul - Theni road at Batlagundu (Vathalagundu / Vathalakkundu). A little past 7, I was near Batlagundu enjoying the majestic sight of Kodai hills shining with the morning sun!

After joining the Dindigul - Theni highway at Batlagundu, the Kodai road forked off soon. In another half an hour, I was at Periyakulam, taking a break there near a lake. I wanted to have breakfast here, but the restaurants were not ready by then. I had to wait about half an hour more to reach Theni, where I dig in to a masala dosa and a plate of idlis for breakfast.

Arch at Thenpalani
Welcome to Meghamalai!

Past Theni, I took the NH220 - towards Cumbum / Kumily - and reached Chinnamanur by 9. There, I stopped at another shop to enquire about the road to Meghamalai. A little later, I took a left turn from the Chinnamanur, to get to a tarmac road leading to Meghamalai. The route was not straigh forward as I encoutered many junctions on the way and had to ask many people, before finally reaching a semi-tarmac road, which looked almost like a jeep track. I could now see the hills at a distance and the road had tamarind trees on both sides, cut to form an arch around the road.

I first reached a village - with a sign board saying "Thenpalani" and on continuing further, the ghat sections began. Fortunately or unfortunately, the road was actually in very bad conditions - this would make sure that only the very interested will head to Meghamalai. Couple of turns and I was soon above the rest of the valley. The avian life was rich in the trees all around - I started off with a Barbet and then a Shrike, but soon the variety grew beyond my "vocabulary".

Theni valley from Meghamalai ghats
Going up the ghats

The ghat road had 18 hairpin bends and the road was very very badly maintained - making it an extremely slow drive. There were view points at some of the hair pin bends and the views kept getting better as I went higher. Towards the end of the ghat road, I saw a lodge as well - contrary to reports that there are no lodges in Meghamalai. Soon after the lodge, I saw a few buildings, but I hardly saw anybody around. It was past 10.30 by now and it was pretty hot here - in spite of the high altitude.

Lion Tailed Macaque at Meghamalai
Sighting of the day

It is here that I got the best sighting of the day - a Lion Tailed Masaque. It was sitting in a coffee plant and then moved up a tree, gave me enough time for a few clicks and then moved on to the adjascent tree, soon disappearing in the canopy.

Further ahead, it was tea estates all round - which rose up to hills on both sides. After a while, I reached near a dam, but was stopped by a locked gate leading to the top of the dam. On moving ahead, I could hear loud music and saw a junction, a temple and a tea shop. This is when I started wondering what to do next ... I have not even read up about Meghamalai. In a typical visit to a tourist location, one should read up about the place and plan what all things to see. But ... this is not a typical visit and I was never a tourist!

Dam @ Meghamalai
Top view of the Dam

Keeping up with the spirit, it was time to head further up. I first took a deviation which went directly above the dam. The track was a bit slippery, but the Avenger made its way through it, eventually taking me to the other side of the dam. From this side, I could enter the dam and I went in to get a good view of the river. The water was thick green and contrasted very well with the red soil all around and the greenery of the surrounding to make a beautiful scene.

I was soon back on the main road overlooking another water cachement area, which again had thick green colored water and surrounded by tea estates. The road took me by the side of a few shops before entering amidst tea estates. I took a deviation into one of the estate roads, hoping to catch a better view of the reservoir. A little ahead, the track was full of stones and slippery - so, I parked the bike and proceeded further on foot. A sign board stated that one of the buildings en route belonged to forest department, but it was locked and I did not find anyone around. Further ahead, there was another building, labelled "Anti Poching Watch Tower", which was also locked up.

I ventured further in to the bushes looking for a vantage point. There was no clear trail anywhere and I had to wriggle through the thorny bushes for most of the distance. With the thick vegetation all around, it was tough to get a clear view of the cachement area, but, as I go higher up, I could see hills all around. There were a few hills located higher and further away on the other side. I wished I could trek up to the tallest point and get a view of the valley on the other side! But, that had to be later.

Meghamalai Valley
High and Wavy Valley

After getting some view of the Meghamalai valley, I had to return, which was not exactly through the same trail. I ended up taking a trail further north, after losing my way a little. Eventually, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I got some very good view of the Meghamalai valley.

It was past 1.30 by the time I got back to the bike and I headed straight to the village. Next stop was Senthil's tea shop, which was also serving yummy lunch and I was quite hungry to miss it. I also talked to a few local people there and enquired about hills around Mehamalai. Apparently, the tallest around the area is Vellimala, which offers good view of the surroundings. They also told that I should head towards Upper Manalar estate, if I wanted to find out more about Vellimala.

Tea estates @ Meghamalai
Tea Estates all around

So I did, after the lunch - the road to Upper Manalar was covered in stone and slippery, but offered good sceneries all along. It passed by the river for most of the distance and had the greenery of tea estates all around. The ride took quite a while even though the distance was not too much - thanks to the bumpy / slippery road.

Bridge @ Meghamalai
Bridge en route Upper Manalar

I first reached a bridge and a check post soon after. On checking with a person there, I was told that I should go in and look for 'Narayanan Supervisor', who is the usual guide to Vellimala. The guard at the check post - his name was Antony - was a little suspicious when I asked him about Vellimala, but he eventually allowed me inside.

Reservoir @ Meghamalai
Passing by the river

Could of kms further I reached a colony - after enquiring with couple of people I managed to find the house of 'Narayanan Supervisor', but he was dozing inside after a few 'drinks'. I talked to a neighbor and managed to get his number, so that I could call him up for a later trek.

It was about 3.30 by now and time to head back - it took me more than an hour and a usual share of wrong turns before I finally managed to reach back the village. About an hour more passed before I descended down the ghat section and reached Thenpalani, from where Meghamalai was just a silhouette. It was time to say goodbye to Meghamalai and head towards the next target - Rajapalayam.

By the time I reached back Theni, it was getting dark. I now had to go on NH49 towards Madurai, via Andipatti / Usilampatti. Unfamiliar roads and towns in the night on a two wheeler is not a good idea. Common sense suggested me to look for a lodge in Theni itself, but I did not listen! Instead, I decided to go further and camp closer to Rajapalayam. I reached Andipatti quickly and stopped for a snack break in a bakery there. It was a small town and I could not see any lodges around, so I decided to go further. In another half an hour, I was at Usilampatti - it was already quite dark and it made most sense to halt there. But, I could not see any roadside lodges and some insane voice kept telling me to go ahead instead!

From Usilampatti, I turned to a state highway towards Rajapalayam, which was about 80kms away. I was passing through the eastern side of Meghamalai hills and I could see silhouettes of hills all around me, but there was no chance of recognizing anything in the night. The ride was not much fun on unfamiliar roads / towns with no chance to get to know the places better and I soon regretted not stopping at Usilampetti.

By the time I reached Peraiyur, a town located about 30kms from Usilampetti, I was really hungry and tired. The relief I felt was soon gone as I checked with a few people trying to locate a lodge. Even though it looked like a decent size town, I could not find a proper lodge. There were a couple of 'rooms' available, but they were locked up. People were really helpful, but my Tamil was only bits and pieces and I found it a little difficult to communicate. It got worse when I gave up on the lodge and started looking for something to eat, as none of the road side eateries looked interesting. The insane choice I had taken at Andipatti and Usilampatti - to continue riding - was now the only option left.

As the logical next step, I enquired for the way out of the town - towards Rajapalayam. In between, I stopped for a bottle of water and some snacks. Even at this time of the day, the Avenger attracted some attention as some people enquired about the mileage and the purpose of the wind shield. During a brief chat they were very surprised to learn that I am riding the bike from Bangalore.

It took me a while and a few wrong turns before reaching something that looked like a vilage track - isolated in the night and a bit scary. For most part of the journey I was not sure that I was on the right track - if not for the couple of people I met en route who convinced me otherwise. Eventually, after what felt like a endless journey, I entered a highway - the NH208 connecting Kollam to Tirumangalam (on NH44 / old NH7).

The highway was smooth and it looked like I was back to my comfort zone. A few minutes in, I was stopped by a police jeep inspecting highway vehicles and I was convinced that the night was about to get worse! But, contrary to my fears, the police party just warned me to be careful and allowed me to go as soon as they realized that I am riding from Bangalore.

The non-stop ride was by now getting tiring and I was constantly shifting around in search of a comfortable seating posture. I could never find it though - instead, I managed to find a couple of road side eateries. The first place were I stopped was crowded - thanks to a marriage pary - and I did not even get a seat after about 15 - 20 minutes. The second place was better and I could find a decent meal. With the hunger satiated and my posterior getting some more rest, I had a not-so-difficult-ride going forward - atleast for a while.

By 10.30, I finally managed to reach a town and was looking around for a lodge once again. The goofups continued as the staff at the first lodge was totally drunk and showed me to a room where the lights were not working. The attendant was expecting me to pay him a tip so that he could get me a different room - obviously a better choice was to walk out. Even though I was too tired, it was not wise to leave the bike outside at the mercy of these drunks! After some more searching and a few no-rooms-available lodges later, I managed to find a better lodge and crashed in no time. Only in the morning, when I enquired for Ayyanar Kovil road, I realized that I was not in Rajapalayam. This was Srivilliputhur, about 12kms before Rajapalayam.

In spite of the hectic drive in the night, I still managed to start before 6 in the morning. I was near Rajapalayam town in no time and as the sun light came out, it was hardly any effort to find what I was looking for. The awe-inspiring hills of western ghats rose majestically towards the west. Just before the Rajapalayam town, I took a road going towards west, which eventually took me to the Ayyanar Kovil road.

The ride to Ayyanar Kovil took away all my tiredness. The initial stretch was a single lane road passing through trees on both sides. I also passed by a water reservoir, which supplies drinking water to Rajapalayam. As I went closer, the hills looked more and more majestic, but I resisted making any stops as it was important to reach the destination before it was too hot. Before 7, I was at Ayyanar Kovil, right at the foot of the hills which were visible all this while. There were a few shops there - but no place for breakfast. I bought a few biscuits, parked the bike and proceeded on foot towards the temple.

The temple was normal, except for the surroundings - infact, I did not spend much time inside. What interested me more was the forest around it, which pretty much covered the view of the hills. I explored around a little bit, but resisted going deeper inside the forest. I even spotted a trail, which may lead to the top of the hill, but this was not the time and occassion for a trek.

A stream passes by the temple and I spotted a pretty Kingfisher waiting for its catch. Eventually, by the time I reached back the parking lot around 8, it was a crowded place. A forest guard was also around, who looked a little upset at me venturing inside the reserved forest with a camera. But, I managed to start a conversation with him and enquired about the hills around. He mentioned that the section of the hill on the left side (south) is taller, even though the center portion looked taller due to its proximity to Rajapalayam. The tallest portion is apparently called Kottamala and the central portion is called Pemala Motta. As soon as I enquired about possibility of getting permission to trek, he refused to talk further and asked me to contact the Range Forest Office at Srivilliputhur.

Rajapalayam hills
Red carpet view of the hills

On my way back, I took a few breaks. First, near a field which offered a good view of the hill ranges. The red soil offered some contrat to the greenery all around the hills. I also spotted a few birds, but did not manage to get any good shots.

Avenger in a field off Ayyanar Kovil road
Wandering a bit for views

Later, I noticed a foot track going inside the forest and took the bike inside. The foot track passed by a stream and there were a few people working there. But, I did not manage to get any better views in spite of wandering inside for a while.

Rajapalayam drinking Water reservoir
Water supply for Rajapalayam

The third stop was near the drinking water reservoir, which also gave a good view of the hill ranges. The blue water in the reservoir looked pretty with the hills in the backdrop. I took one more stop, but failed to get any good views. It was almost 10 by that time and I was late for breakfast. So, I bid adieu to the hills and headed back towards the highway at the outskirts of Rajapalayam. There, it was not tough to find a decent eatery for a quick Idli breakfast.

At Srivilliputhur, I spent a while searching for the Forest Range Office, but was unable to meet the RFO. The forest officers there confirmed the information I already had about the hills. But, when I asked about trekking permissions they also sounded helpless. Apparently, trekking is not allowed to most of these hills and it would be tough to get permissions.

A hill near Madurai
Hills near Madurai

I was back in NH208 soon and quickly covered about 55kms to reach the NH44 (old NH7) junction near Tirumangalam by 11.30. By 12, I passed by Madurai bypass and was on my way to Dindigul. After a lunch break near Dindigul, I was back on the highway at full throttle. Till the sunlight went out, it was pretty much a smooth ride. Except for the traffic blocks at the toll booths on the way - specifically a pretty bad one near Salem.

It started geting dark by the time I reached Krishnagiri and the ride was pretty difficult after that. The road widening work (4-lane to 6-lane) was in progress in this stretch and there were frequent diversions, which was particularly difficult in the night. There were a couple of traffic pile-ups as well, though I managed to wriggle through for most bad stretches.

Just like the beginning, the end was also similar to the Malampuzha - Siruvani trip. I managed to reach Salem by about 4.30 and passed Krishnagiri before 6. But this time, I lost the day light by the time I reached Shoolagiri and the construction zone was not so exciting in the dark with heavy traffic and so many diversions.

The toughest part was the condition of my posterior. Almost non-stop on the saddle for more than two-days was proving to be a bit too much. I had exhausted almost all possible seating postures, tried hanging the leg down or keeping it up or sitting sideways ... almost everything. Even the fingers were hurting as I usually hold the throttle with three fingers and the other two fingers on the brake. Helmet and bag was also feeling heavy by now. I constantly kept shuffling in the saddle searching for that one inch which was not soar!

After two long rides, I can also say that the seating posture of Avenger does not really favor me. May be the cruiser posture and the low seating is comfortable for people a touch shorter, but for me it put too much body weight on my behind, while the legs stay up without sharing the burden. It is comfortable for a city ride, but during a non-stop 2-day ride, I would rather prefer the sports bike poster of CBZ.

Eventually, I reached home for dinner and relished lieing down in the bed! But, this trip would definitely rate as the craziest bike trip I did. For the longest stretch of riding in the night, for clocking about 1240kms in little more than two days, for the lack of any planning, for lack of any proper "destination" ... and many more. After all ... where did I go? Just for some fresh air and to take a look at the mountains!



© 2017 Sandeep Unnimadhavan