Yet another long weekend was coming around Easter and we had to make use of it! We had a few places in mind - like Kabini and Rameswaram, but I wanted to go to a place which will utilize all three days. So, Kabini was out - we can go there even on a normal weekend. Rameswaram was too hot in this summer and Preethu vetoed it. I was back looking at the map and noted something at the southern end of Coimbatore district! I had seen a few blogs about this hill station and suggested this to Preethu. She later discovered that one of her colleague's - Hari - family stays there and she can talk to him and get the accomodation booked - thus we locked on Valparai!
When I mentioned that I am going to Valparai to one of my colleagues, he asked 'Val ... what?'. I explained to him that it is a small hill station near Kodaikanal and he was like ... 'Why are you not going to Kodai, then?' Ofcourse, I had no answer to this. I did not know much about Valparai myself and preferred to discover it after reaching there :) I only hoped that he will like the pictures, when I come back!
Preethu was a little tensed as this was the first time we were doing a trip with the little one. I am sure he will become a light / non-fussy backpacker as he grow up, but the first time was always different. So, we did some shopping couple of days earlier and made sure we have a stack of all the things he needed! Hari's father booked the accomodation for us in a homestay. We could not afford to travel unplanned as I normally do. Also, there was no detours during the journey. So, we would reach there on first day evening, roam around a second and come back on the third - simple and straight forward plan!
To avoid the heat as much as we can, we decided to go early morning. The plan was to start as early as 4 AM. I had a product release on wednesday and thursday evening should be peaceful - or so I thought. To make sure that the release happens on thursday, we all stayed late on tuesday and wednesday - but it did not help! It was another hectic day at office on thursday and it went on till about 1.30 in the night. That is when Preethu called me and gave me the ultimatum - 'You are coming home NOW or we are not going tomorrow!' So, I suggested this simple plan - the release will be done on the next day. All my colleagues will come on the long weekend and make the release - as well as take care of some of the pending features that I was supposed to finish. Thanks guys!! for making it happen! I hope to return the favour some day!
Finally, I was home at about 1.30 - Preethu already took care of packing. With Versa, the space was never a problem; so we could take all the things that Manu may need. Stuff like his bath tub, a water heater and most of his toys were packed in to the car. We debated whether we should take his dining chair also and decided against it ;-) In between, we also got a few hours of sleep and by 5'O clock we were all set to go. Manu was still sleeping and we took him wrapped up in a blanket! When he gets up this morning, he will find himself zooming in the highway instead of his usual play ground - the bed :)
We filled up the petrol tank on the way and hit the Hosur road express way. The last time I travelled in Hosur road was two days before the elevated express way opened for public. So, this was the first time we hit this express way ... and boy ... isnt it good! Not only the express way, but the entire highway till the border was spruced up to a 6-lane highway, complete with flyovers at all major junctions. It was a treat to drive till the border.
At the border, we experienced our first pile up near the RTO check post. Even past the border, there was some traffic, especially at the bus stops and junctions. This went on till Hosur - once we took the flyover at Hosur and got to the Hosur - Krishnagiri stretch, traffic eased out considerably. By about 6.45 we were near the Krishnagiri toll plaza and spotted the sun coming up on our left side. It was time for a break and some photographs. Manu also woke up to see this beautiful sunrise and the break became longer than expected. It was about 7.30 by the time we started again. The long breaks were going to be a feature of this trip as we needed enough breaks to keep Manu in the best of his moods and make sure that he is fed well.
I more than made up for the longer break as we covered the 110 kms to Salem in a little more than an hour. The smooth 4-lane highways (part of the Golden Quadrilateral till Krishnagiri and North - South Corridor till Salem) did help too! All major towns in this stretch was bypassed and the ride was really smooth. I could not help remembering the perennial traffic blocks at Kaveripatnam (about 20kms from Krishnagiri) and the Saravana Bhavan restaurat at Dharmapuri. Infact, during a bike trip to Palakkad (the first one along this stretch), the rocks were being cut out to make way for road expansion. I said something like 'it used to be a small 2-lane road when I did my bike ride to Palakkad' to Preethu, only to be reminded that this is not the first time she is hearing it from me! Boy .... I've become a brag and in future Manu will say: 'the old man started again ... he was saying all this even when I was a toddler!'
Just after Thoppur ghat, there was this Thoppur - Mettur - Bhavani road which was quite popular earlier. But, now that most of Thoppur - Salem - Bhavani was 4-lane, it did not make much sense to take the state highway. The other road was shorter by about 10kms. At 8.45 we were at Salem and looking for a place to eat, finally settling for a small restaurant at the NH7 - NH47 junction. I was very hungry and quickly finished a Masala Dosa and a set of Puri, while Manu fed on an Idli we took from home. Finally, after feeding Manu, Preethu handed him over to him and proceeded to munch on her share of Puris and Masala Dosas! After all these, we said good bye to the restaurant and NH7 to get to the NH47 stretch (between Salem and Coimbatore) by 10.00.
A small portion of the NH47 (which comes under the port connectivity project of NHAI) after Salem is still under construction. But, we could see a huge grade seperator and a new 4-lane bypass road forking off it towards the current Coimbatore road, just before reaching the restaurant. In a couple of minutes, we reached another flyover where the current highway joined this new 4-lane road. From then on, the 4-laning was mostly complete with some incomplete stretches for some more time. Once this stretch, the grade seperator and the new bypass road is complete, it should easily save another 10-20 minutes for the traveller.
Once this small stretch was over (say, around the Sankari bypass), the highway was again world class. The traffic was also lesser than the NH7 and we could cover the distance quickly. I noted the exits to different towns - Komarapalayam, Bhavani, Chithode, Nasiyanur, Perundurai and a miriad of other towns - all of them were getting bypassed. The only hiccup was the toll plazas - I am sure the amount paid is more than justified, but the time it takes to go past the toll plazas were not. Especially when the traffic is high, small queues were building up at the toll plazas. I am sure the authorities could come up with a centrailized way of paying for the tolls, which can save time.
Around 100kms from Salem, we crossed the last toll plaza (which was not operational yet) and soon entered the real old world of two lane highways. The road here is reasonably wide with some potholes in between. Driving is a lot more interesting in a 2-lane road as the driver is more involved. But, it also felt like the traffic has doubled (when infact the road has halved)! Soon we entered Avinashi town and crawled through a pile up. There was a road connecting Avinashi to Pollachi, which should have been ideal for us. But, since we did not see any proper sign boards, it was missed and we went ahead towards the Coimbatore bypass.
The Coimbatore bypass felt a lot longer than it actually was - thanks to the heat. We first hit the NH67 (Gundulpet - Ooty - Coimbatore - Karur - Trichy - Thanjavur - Tiruvarur - Nagapattinam highway) junction and then the NH209 (Bangalore - Kanakapura - Malavalli - Kollegal - Chamarajnagar - Sathyamangalam - Coimbatore - Pollachi - Udumalpet - Palani - Dindigul highway), from where we took a left towards Pollachi. NH209 is a quiet highway with some vegetation on both sides. But, the heat was touching its peak now. Manu was getting a little cranky too as he was getting bored sitting inside the car for such a long time. We stopped near an industrial area and I took him out for a brief while. But, the sun was really strong and we soon got back in to the car.
We continued with the a/c at its full capacity, but the heat was still there. The going became very slow too and it was about 1, by the time we reached Pollachi. With Manu becoming a little restless, we were desperate to make a stop. As we were entering the town, I spotted a sign board saying 'Hotel Ruchi' and we made a beeline to the hotel.
It was a small restaurant, but it did not matter much. What we really wanted was a good break. They did have an a/c room and it was a great relief in the heat. I took Manu around to calm him down, while Preethu prepared his meal. In a while, he ate something and we ordered our lunch too. We spent some time inside the a/c hall to escape the heat outside. But, eventually, at around 2.30 we resumed the journey.
We got a little lost in the Pollachi town, before checking with a few locals to get to the Valparai road. But, once we got to the Valparai road, it was a smooth ride. By, about 3 we were in Aliyar dam region and stopped to have a look. It was still little hot, but it didnt make much sense to climb up the ghats with the windows rolled up and the a/c on! So, I preferred spending some time here, let the heat settle down and then continue to the ghats.
|Waters at Aliyar Dam
Manu was up and quitely clung on to me, while we climbed up to the dam cachement in the heat. The sun was showing signs of settling down, but it was still hot. Once, at the top of the dam, the view was good. Aqua blue/green water spread over a huge area and good views of the mountain that we were going to drive up. We could actually trace the winding road going up the hill. I wish, we were there at early morning or in the evening. The place would look a lot better in the evening / morning light.
Before saying good bye to Aliyar dam, we checked out the small shops, baught a small toy for Manu and had some lime soda, which had a refreshing effect on both of us. Soon, we were back in the car and heading towards Valparai. There is a check post just after this point, where we were warned not to make many stops and reach at Valparai, before its too late. A little ahead of the check post, we saw a board saying 'Monkey Falls' and only saw monkeys there. The falls was all dried up!
A little more ahead, there was a small bridge and yet another water fall. Here, there as some water coming down from a canal cutting though the hill. We stopped, got down and was chased by a monkey, looking for the plastic covers Preethu had in her hand. One of the covers had garbage and in a bid to escape, Preethu threw it towards the monkey and diverted him. In a flash we were back in the car and decided to not get down again.
The real ghat section, winding roads and the hair pin bends started soon after this. The boards indicated that there are 40 hair pin bends and the climb was very steep. With just a few hair pin bends we gained a lot of height and the view of the dam cachement area became awesome. It was one of the best ghats I have driven on. Very sharp turns, narrow roads and steep climb. To top it, a great view of the valley and the cachement. I did not want to take breaks and get delayed, especially since I did not know how much time we will actually take to reach Valparai. So postponed the photography for the return journey.
We soon reached another checkpost and a town called Attakatti. From here on, the climb was moderate and the hair pin bends was not as sharp. Also, the view of the valley was missing. But, the route was very scenic and the temperature was much cooler. We went amidst flowering trees - I guess these are the same Jacaranda Mimosaefolia trees which is commonly seen blooming in Bangalore during Feb - April. The only difference is that the tree usually sheds it leaves in Bangalore, while here the trees were retaining their leaves.
Next up was a place called 'Waterfalls'! There was also a small waterfall here, which was almost dried up in this summer. In spite of that the greenery was considerable and I could not wonder how beautiful a place this will be during monsoon. A lot of the greenery was owing to the numerous tea estates dotting the landscape. A little while after 'Waterfalls' was 'Rottikadai', which had a church. Being a Good Friday, the church was crowded on that day.
The last (40th) hair pin bend was soon after 'Rottikadai'. At the hair pin bend, we also noted a road forking off with a sign board saying 'Balaji Temple'. Preethu remembered that the temple is quite well known and one of the major attractions at Valparai. We thought that we would have enough time to check out the temple and could do that later.
Another road forked off to the right with a sign board saying 'Sholayar Dam'. The road that we were travelling was the Pollachi - Valparai - Athirapalli - Chalakudy state highway. Athirapally is a famous waterfalls in Kerala and Chalakudy a town between Ernakulam and Thrissur in NH47. A few kms past Valparai, one could cross over to the Kerala state.
We were thinking of calling up Hari's father to ask about our accomodation. Thats when we noticed that both our cell phones had no signal. Looks like AirTel had no presence in Valparai - BSNL rules here! Anyways, Preethu had an SMS with the name of the hotel - the Green Hills Hotel. There was no address, but we hoped we could find it once we reach the town. Soon, we reached the Valparai town and just before getting in to the busier part of the town, there it was - on our left side - a sign board saying Green Hill Hotel!
View from our window!
I parked the vehicle inside, checked with the guy at the reception and called up uncle from the hotel reception. Our accomodation was booked at a home stay away from the town and uncle said that he will meet us there. One of the boys at the hotel accompanied us to the home stay, which was a few turns away from the main town area and offered a beautiful view of the hills and valleys. Everything seemed to be covered by a blanket of green - thanks to the tea shrubs. A little bit of mist thrown in made it magical. Mist? in this summer? after passing through all these hot and dry areas? Yes ... and that was the best thing about Valparai!
Uncle also came to the place by then and we had a small chat. He left after inviting us to his place the following day. It was almost dark by then and we lazed around for a while. I noticed that there are so many bird varieties in this area - but hardly any crows! In any other town, crows or mynahs would be the most common bird - but here, I guess the most common bird was the Red-Whiskered Bulbul :)
Once it became dark we got ready for dinner. We headed back to the town for dinner and saw a Plaza Restaurant, which served yummy Kerala Porattas and Ghee Rost for dinner. I also headed to the Green Hill Hotel to talk to the person at the lobby. He promised to arrange for a guide cum driver. We were expected to go down to the hotel at 8 and start from there. Just when we were back at the homestay, I felt that the power steering was not working. It felt like the battery is weak. I opened up the battery compartment and cleaned up the neck. Power steering was working fine with that and I could peacefully go and sleep.
Whiskered neighbour of ours!
Next day morning started waiting for the sun to come out of the hills brightening the hills and clearing the mist. The sun was kinda bright by the time it came out of the hill ranges and so it was not a great sunrise, theoritically! Never mind, I still enjoyed what I saw! We almost got ready by 8 and thats when uncle came in to check on us. Preethu wondered if we can get some hot water for Manu to which he agreed and left to get it from his house. While, waiting for him to come back, I had a lot of time to photograph the birds. I had never got a clean shot of the Red-Whiskered Bulbul and here, with so many of them around, it was not a difficult task at all.
We could leave only around 9. I dropped Preethu and Manu at the Plaza Restaurant and headed to the Green Hill Hotel. Just when I was entering the hotel's parking lot, I again felt that the battery has gone weak, this time because the horn was down. Anyways, I managed the park the car at its place and found that the car is not starting now, which I believed is due to a weak battery. The guide was already there and he turned out to be an experienced driver as well. Infact, he was one of the oldest drivers in Valparai. So, I checked with him what the issue is. He said that he will take it to the nearby workshop and check it out by the time I have my breakfast and come back.
While having breakfast, I called him up again and was told that there is some problem in the starter?? which I found hard to digest. I went back and found that the car is at the parking lot and the driver has gone out for some work. Sure enough, the engine is not even cranking when I try to start, head light is feeble and things like viper and horn are not working well and even the window is not going up. I got a sand paper and some oil from the nearby hardware shop and cleaned up the battery neck once again, but the result was same. No signs of life from the engine. I called up the guide once again and told him that it cannot be an issue with the starter.
|River, Slopes and the tea estates ...
He reached soon and we pushed out the car. Thankfully there was a slope and the engine came back to life. We managed to reach till the workshop and found that the guy responsible for electrical components is not yet in. So, we left the car there and went back in an auto. The guide, his name was Damodaran, had a car of his own and I decided to take that car for the sight seeing. He promised that he will make sure Versa is repaired by evening.
Finally, when we left Valparai town in Damodaran's car in his Ford Ikon 1.8D, it was about 11. Not the ideal time to start sight seeing in the middle of summer, but we were glad that we could get out :) Soon, we were out of the hustle - bustle of the town and entered a tarred road cutting through tea estates. Damodaran, showed us the sprawling tea estates and the guest houses where we can stay for our next visit :) During the rounds, Damodaran also showed us the tip of what is the best place to visit at Valparai - the Grass Hills. Apparently, one need to get advanced permissions to visit Grass Hills. Also, April was not a good time to visit there. He told that we should come back in November to visit Grass Hills.
After taking a few rounds along the tea estates we headed towards the Nallamudi estate, which hosts one of the most famous view points at Valparai - the 'Nallamudi Poonchola'. The view point is maintained by the forest department and we had to go through a forest checkpost and pay an entry fee of Rs. 30. We continued in a jeep track in the midst of the tea plantations and reached a junction, where Damodaran parked the car. From here, we had to walk a little to reach the 'Nallamudi Poonchola' and it was a beautiful path to walk through!
Godman @ Nallamudi Poonchola
The most interest feature of the 'Nallamudi Poonchola' was the godman! I dont remember his name, but he told me that he had seen god! To be precise some 37 years and 315 days back!!! Ofcourse, he also told me what his age was (in days) when he met god! I dont remember the age part now :) What I remembered is that he used to look up at the heavens (at the sun, to be precise) and shout something aloud. It was indeed a sight!
Damodaran enjoying the view
About the view point, it was not as interesting as I expected - mostly because we were there at the wrong time. It was a little dry and with sun at its peak, a little hazy too. So, there was nothing much which was visible. Damodaran pointed to some tribal settlements in the valley, which were visible from here and he mentioned that he has done trekking to those settlements. Must be interesting - I thought.
Manu liked his new seat!
Endless carpet of green ...
On our way back to the car, we did have some good time shooting pictures among the tea plantations. It was almost noon by then and our next destination was Chinnakallar Dam. But, our stomachs signalled that it was already lunch time! We first stopped near a telephone booth and Damodaran called up the workshop guys. The Versa's battery was alright, but the dynamo was faulty. He said that it will be taken care of by evening.
We passed through some more winding roads and in between I saw a sign board pointing towards Lower Nirar dam. But our immediate destination was a small shop which served some yummy home made lunch. The food was simple, with all the normal items, rice, sambhar, rasam, curd, pappad and a vegetable side dish. Preethu also had an omlette, which also smelled yummy :)
Post lunch, we headed straight ahead towards the Upper Nirar Dam at Chinnakallar Dam. This place also has a waterfall, but Damodaran told that the falls are not good at this time of the year. On the way to the Dam, we stopped at a valley view point on the road side. There were a few ladies working on the tea plantations here, with equipments to cut the tea leaves. This is nothing but a crude pair of scissors with a metal plate underneath it so that the tea leaves which are cut will fall in to the plate and get collected there.
Top, right is the tip of Grass Hills - from Upper Nirar
At Upper Nirar Dam, it was confirmed once again that April was not a good time to visit Valparai. Inspite of Chinnakallar being a place recieving very high rainfall, it was all dry around the Dam. The cachement had just enough water to announce that we were at a dam site. The best thing about this location was the presence of many beautiful birds. Also, we could sight a tip of Grass Hills from this point.
Cachement @ Lower Nirar Dam
It was about 4'O clock when we left the Dam site and headed towards the Lower Nirar Dam. In another 20 minutes we were at the Lower Nirar Dam. The river and the cachement was fuller here and the views were good. Since Manu was asleep by now, we decided to go one at a time so that the other person can be with him. But, while Preethu was in the Dam site a bigger crowd came to the location and the sound woke up Manu. He was up on his toes soon and wondering 'where am I?'
A flower with the landscape ...
With little time and day light left, we headed to our next destination - the Vellai Malai Tunnel. This was an 8km long irrigation tunnel made to transport water from the Nirar Dam to the other side of the hill. There is a small metal bridge made over the tunnel for the visitors and it turned out to be a nice place for photos! Even on our way back to the parking lot, we saw loads of timber stacked up making for more photo-ops!
There is a shortcut road from here to the Balaji temple, which was closed for some repair at this time. So, to visit Balaji temple, we would have to go back to Valparai town first and we both decided against it. But, Damodaran knew another jeep track along the canal which will take us back to the main road, without circling Valparai. The initial portions of this road was in a very bad condition, but it improved quickly as we moved ahead. We could also see the canal coming out of the tunel joining other small streams, finally making it a full blown river.
By then, we have reached the main road and I started thinking about more mundane stuff - like our transport back home. First, we dropped Preethu and Manu near our homestay and then I headed towards the workshop. Fortunately, the vehicle was ready and in good condition. I picked up the car, thanked and said goodbye to Damodaran and headed back to the homestay.
Later in the evening, we headed back to Plaza Restaurant for dinner and then visited Hari's parents before settling down. Aunty told us that there is a good chance of spotting Niligiri Tahr, if we start early enough and we decided to do the same. Sight seeing in Valparai was not something special, but the landscape was quite mesmerizing, even at the peak of the summer. So, I was quite sure that an early morning drive down the hill will be more rewarding than trying to cover some more routine tourist spots the next day.
Adding mist to the greenery ...
Waking up for another beautiful day
So, we were up early morning and ready before day break to say good bye to Valparai. Just as we left the town, we got a preview of what was in store. The roads flanked with tea estates on both sides were covered in mist making it a breath taking. Driving amidst the greenery dipped in a touch of mist turned out to be one of my best driving experiences.
Among Jacaranda Flowers
We could not help stopping at many places and took so many pictures. Once we went past the mist and tea estates, the full blossom Jacaranda trees took over. The fallen flowers made a violet carpet on the road side and we had to stop for more photographs. I almost forgot about spotting Nilgiri Tahr and gave up on that as the sun was out by the time we reached the ghat section. It was about 8, by the time we passed the Attakatti checkpost and almost another half an hour when we got our first view of the valley down there.
Winding road to the tea country
I rued not taking many photographs while coming up as it was quite hazy on our way down and the photos did not come as good as I wanted it. We stopped a few times, majorly at the Loam's View point, the 9th hairpin bend. Soon after this, couple of guys coming up on a bike told us that there are Nilgiri Tahrs on our way down at the next hairpin bend. Thats when I remembered the real purpose of starting early!
Meeting the Nilgiri Tahr!
I walked down along the road and spotted a herd of Tahrs in the next bend. They were not so afraid of human beings as they were quite used to them. So, I got ample time to take my shots. I was looking to take shots of Nilgiri Tahrs for a while now. Especially during the trek to Mukurthi, I was expecting to spot these animals, but came back disappointed.
With all the shooting, it was about 9.30 when we passed 'Monkey Falls' and another half an hour as passed Aliyar Dam. Both of us were quite hungry as we have did not have breakfast yet. Hari's mom has told us about roadside Dosa stalls, but most of them were closed by now. We checked out a few small restaurants on the way but all of them had finished serving breakfast and we finally settled down for some bananas.
Before noon, we were at Pollachi and spotted another restaurant outside the town. This place served yummy meals good enough to compensate for the lack of breakfast. After lunch, we asked for the Thirupur / Avinashi road (SH19) instead of heading towards Coimbatore. This turned out to be a better choice compared to the mad traffic on Coimbatore bypass, but we still made a mistake at Palladam (NH67 junction) and entered NH166 here. The result was that we got back to NH47 at Avinashi town and had to still wade through some heavy traffic at Avinashi.
A better option should have been to continue at SH19 till Tirupur and then head towards NH47 at Perumanallur. In any case, after about 15 kms after Avinashi, we got back to the 4-laned stretch and from then on the drive was a breeze.
The only problem we faced from here on was that Manu was already tired of the incessant travel and started protesting. This called for frequent breaks to calm him down, which made us a little slow. I compounded his pain by closing down the car window when he was holding on to it. Luckily, I stopped just before crushing his little fingers, but it did scare him a little and we had to show him around the village side to make him forget about it.
Sun, Preethu and Manu!
Finally, by sunset, we were about 50kms to go for Krishnagiri and reached Krishnagiri just after 7. At Krishnagiri toll plaza, what awaited us was a huge pile-up of vehicles. There were some 10 vehicles ahead of us and took us a while to get out of the toll plaza. Nevertheless, the ride till Hosur and the elevated express way from Electronic City hardly took any time and we were home for dinner!
In spite of heading to Valparai during the wrong time of the year, we really enjoyed the trip - the mist, the ghats, the tea estates were all mesmerizing. Also, this was Manu's first road trip - making it a trip to remember.