Category Archives: Western Ghats

A Road Trip through the Western Ghats

Can I précis the last few days into one post? Not sure but will give it a try. The last post update was, I think, on Thursday evening and it is now Thursday again, a lot has been packed into a week.. Tiruneli Village turned out to be within the boundaries of the Tiruneli Elephant Reserve so later on Thursday evening a night time safari was organized, leaving at about ten pm. Briefly, it turned into a scene from Jurassic Park. We got stuck in the mud, along with a couple of other search lit jeeps, within a few feet of a most enormous elephant, three foot tusks and everything. After much panicking and gear crashing the jeeps were extricated. We saw an attack elephant, monstrous and grey, who with a disdainful look at us humans gave a massive trumpet and crashed off into the undergrowth. We returned to the Home Stay to discover the car driver (Ravesh, pronounced Rhajeesh) had lost his keys ! Brilliant. They were later found at the first loo stop, forty five minutes back along the trail. That could have been awkward.
On the road early next morning after renegotiating the dried up river bed and the terrible road, heading for Masinagudi Wild Life Reserve. Another dull drive through endless villages until we started to climb out of the Plain and into Tamil Nadu. Immediately we were in the tea plantations, miles and miles of tea growing. Very green, very scenic, very different from anything in my experience, absolutely lived up to expectations. We climbed up and over low tea clad hills and stopped at Gulalur for lunch at Walter’s Curry House. Good curry and for the first time I didn’t let the side down, ate the whole thing with my right hand, no spoon or fork, and to tell the truth I did rather well. On into Masinagudi Park, dodging elephants and monkeys along the the road until we arrived at the main town where we were met by a Kumar who had lots of brilliant ideas. Another night time safari, a dawn trek, tribal dancing. Oh no, please, let’s find the hotel first and review the plan. We pulled off the road onto a track signposted Wild Breeze, Paradise Regained. Ground to a halt in the dusty courtyard, befriended by dogs and sat in the open air dining area to wait for somebody, anybody. We sat and sat until a someone came along on a motor cycle and checked me into a two roomed block, me on the left and no one on the right. It looked ok, checked the usual things, is there any hot water, yes, ok, great, not seen that for a couple of days, does the lock work, yep, ok great. Checked with the all knowing Kumar if there was the wifi in the town, oh yes, so we all piled into the car, back to town. Alas no wifi. This whole two day stay over plan was beginning to look bleak so I changed the plan. No, we would only stay one night, no safari, no trekking, let’s leave at seven thirty tomorrow and head for Ooty. Unusually firm for me, but really, the place wasn’t at all great, on the plain, hot, dusty, crowded, noisy and a dramatic change of pace after two days in Tiruneli. Returning to the Wild Breeze I discovered I had neighbors, three twenty somethings, from India, with two bottles of vodka placed emphatically on the patio table. Uh oh. Sure enough, one thirty in the morning I woke to a Bollywood movie playing loudly on the laptop, much screeching and violent puking. How I bless my noise canceling headphones.
Seven thirty we were back on the road heading for (Snooty) Ooty. Across the plain we drove until we met this wall, a scarp slope no less, rising to 2,286 meters, the summit reached by a series of thirty six hairpin bends. Up and up to Ooty. The book descriptions of the town were discouraging, and the reality bore it out. No problem, I will get the nine fifteen toy train down the mountain, not the early afternoon run. We made our way to the Station of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, bought ticket, had breakfast in the Waiting Room, tried to persuade Ravesh to meet me down the mountain in ninety minutes at Coonoor train station, climbed aboard and off we went. Built in Eighteen something by the British to transport themselves up to Ooty in the summer months where it was cooler it still runs today, attracting enthusiasts, tourists and British history buffs alike. It’s really fun. Perched precipitously on the edge of steep mountain sides, passing through deep gorges, over high high bridges and to the delight of all aboard, tunnels. As we pass through each one everybody cheers, hoots and claps, it’s very entertaining. My travel companions were a prosperous businessman from Bangalore and his wife who seemed absolutely thrilled with the whole thing, smiling and beaming non stop, from top to bottom. After the short run down the mountain we arrived at Coonoor, looked around for Ravesh, no Ravesh. I had done everything I could think of, showed him my ticket, pointed to schedule, yes arrives Coonoor at ten forty five, made driving gesticulations at car, you drive to Coonoor train station, see you there, to no avail, alas. After hanging about and declining offers from every taxi driver in town to see the sights I was forced to call The Fixer, Romey, back in Fort Kochi. No problem, he will call you soon. Hmm. Eventually my phone rang, garbled exclamations of car breaking, big traffic, etc etc, and Ravesh drove down the mountain to Coonoor.
Down and down we went, I have no idea how high 2,286 meters is but I tell you what, with the ninety minute descent in the train and then another two hours descent in the car it had better be quite high. We were back on the plain, the Coimbatore Plain to be exact. More dust and heat, more village after village. Oh, and then we had an accident, a bus rammed the driver’s side rear passenger door, not a really big deal, but all hell broke loose. Shouting, waving, pointing, crowds gathered, people came running from every direction, Rangers vs Celtic, the SF Giants vs the LA Dodgers weren’t in the same league, it was quite exciting. I sat firmly in my seat eating banana chips hoping this wouldn’t turn into a Tamal Nadu vs Kerala riot. The police came, the Army came, the situation was stabilized, I ran out of chips. A call back to The Fixer in Kochi confirmed that the insurance was up to date and any damage would be covered, that was that. Interestingly Ravesh did not seem in the least fazed by this incident, we were straight away back into the four wide overtaking, brows of hills, blind corners, more laughs.
So we came to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve or it’s approaches. The first road block, you will pay three hundred Rupees and one hundred for each camera and why are you late? Pardon. You are late. Really, why, when. You must be here by three o’clock, really, don’t see that written anywhere, I think he was going to screw me for another few hundred, nope, nothing here about three o’clock. Now we must search the car. Really? Search away, please. We passed and were waved through the barrier. It was up and up, not sure how but we were climbing the Western Ghats once again, more switchbacks, more views of the dusty Plain, poor Ravesh, poor car, the road surface was dreadful. Then another checkpoint, I will see your passport, please fill in this form with your name and address, ok, fine. Filling in a form with San Anselmo Ca 94960 on a track, at a checkpoint, in the Indian jungle seemed, well, just a bit odd, frankly. Maybe its a next of kin thing in case i am devoured by a Tiger. Then another car search, hey, Ravesh and I had got it down! The mileposts said thirty five, gloom, but then we arrived at Mission Control Parambikulam, Army, Police, Forestry people everywhere but we were greeted amiably enough and I was shown to my tent, large enough for a bed and a bathroom, deck outside, beaming neighbors and long tailed monkeys, big ones, with very long tails, swooping about in the trees twenty feet away. Did anyone see the movie Greystoke ? Those hoo hoo hoo s had accompanied me these last few days, at a distance, on mountainsides far away, but here the hoo hoo hoo s were close, real close, in fact on my roof. Peacocks too, strutting about displaying their feathers outside my door. Birds sang in the trees, hogs snuffled about, it was truly Wildlife, at last.
Dinner was a group affair in a communal dining hut, circular, thatched with open sides where I met my beaming neighbors, Chris and Princela with their two children, holidaying from the far South. Chris is a Second Officer on a cargo ship and recently returned from Oakland where his boat had been delayed because of the Occupy Movement (Sebastian !), small World. With dinner complete there was little or nothing to do but go to bed. Up early for the Bird Watching Hike, can’t say we saw much, a Spotted Owl and a few others named in the local Tamil dialect so I have no idea what they were. Bringing up the rear I couldn’t help but glance back occasionally to check we were not being stalked by Shere Khan. Of the eighteen hundred or so Bengal Tigers left in India this Reserve boasts fourteen, alas of course we never did see one. There are also Spotted Deer and a type of Indian Bison, Leopards, Flying Squirrels amongst other beasts within the Reserve. Breakfast was served and I got to chatting with the neighbors, the lack of Internet access came up, naturally, Chris burst into action, producing gadgets by the pocket full. Within minutes we were f/b friends, they were reading my blog, exchanging emails and of all blessings allowed me to call home for ten minutes (two dollars), my first unstilted conversation in a week ! We all loaded up for a trip to a nearby village for the elephant riding, alas, the elephants were absent, not a big deal as the outing was really for the children and they didn’t seem too upset.
Later in the day I was ushered into quite a large van/truck type vehicle, with great suspension, and we made our way into the jungle on very narrow tracks. We saw the Indian Bison, I was shown the last Teak tree left in the forest, more Spotted Deer, huge squirrels, etc etc. I went for a paddle on a bamboo raft on a lake, saw a crocodile, and ended up at Parambikulum Village for tea at a tea stall. Inhabited by four different tribes the village prided itself on it’s literacy rate, a good thing. Another good thing is the Government owned cell service which covers the whole of India and provides Internet access also. I was told that any village can call the Government to have a tower built providing the inhabitants with web access on their very inexpensive phones. The guy next to me had three handheld devices which pinged and chirped constantly. They left me in the dust with my glitzy iPhone, another good lesson.
Ok, gotta wind this up, thanks for getting this far. So much for my précis. Am now back in Fort Kochi getting ready for the Rajdhani Express tonight to Goa.
More from there tomorrow.

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An elephant on a truck.

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Tea Plantation. Lots and lots of tea.

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Traffic hazard ahead.

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An elephant and me. An elephant and I ?

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Mother and baby.

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We are going up there, all the way to the top.

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A view from the Nilgiri mountain train.

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A view of the train.

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Crossing a bridge.

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The Age of steam is alive and well in Ooty.

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My tent at Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

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A Woodpecker, just.

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Indian Bison grazing.

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Hugging the last Teak tree in the forest.

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A very big bison bull.

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A Spotted deer fawn

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The jungle below looks like a carpet.

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A crocodile .

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Another day another boat.

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Main Street Parambikulam .

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Meet one of the neighbors.

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Last boat ride of the trip, the ferry back to Fort Kochi.

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Lastly, here are Princela and Eliza whose phone I used to call California.

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The Road to Tiruneli.

I don’t know what to think, I might be bored. We are now at two hundred and fifty kilometers, and have stopped once in seven hours at a truck stop, transport cafe type place, rather small, in fact very small, seated about twenty. The curry was ok, the bits on the side were better, the customers were exclusively male, lunch for two was six dollars. The drive north has been quite eye opening, a two lane road all the way, there are no passing places, ha, not even any any passing lanes. Overtaking just happens when necessary, blind corner, sure, brow of a hill, go for it, what is most alarming is when we are four wide barreling down a two lane road and a truck appears coming in the opposite direction. Of course the reverse happens too, we round a corner and there are four lanes of traffic coming right at us. Oh it’s a bundle of laughs. Unfortunately the scenery is deadly dull, village after village after village all looking fairly much the same and about a mile apart, all the way.
Ok, now it got dark and it got interesting. The Western Ghats just sprang out of the dull plain, one minute it was flat flat flat, the next we were climbing, through a series of eight hairpins and still we climb. I can look down at the lights on the plain far far below, it is reminiscent of the approach to Masa Verde. Of course people try and overtake on the hairpins resulting in beeping beeping, gears grinding and much hullabaloo. Looking up I see truck or car lights impossibly high up, are we really going all the the way up there. Cars are parked beside the road, people sitting on the walls enjoying the view. We pass through a check point, papers are handed over, not sure why. We are on a high plateau and everything is different, there are spice stalls, tea booths, honey for sale, tasty looking restaurants.
I kept thinking, we must be nearly there, we must be. But no, the driver started showing a lack of confidence also, stopping and asking the way frequently, not very inspiring I thought. The procession of villages started again, more interesting as the populations were out and about, but less navigable due to them spilling into the streets. We continued until finally driver said, would you like beer? Well sure, but no bar in sight. We climbed some dingy stairs and I joined a queue of the local, er, well, I have to say, drunks, to buy two bottles of beer to bring along for dinner. To say it was seedy would be an understatement, I think it was the only liquor outlet for miles around and attracted some pretty rum characters (pardon the pun), I feebly tried to protect my pockets from thieves, looked as if I knew what I was doing and emerged unscathed and triumphant with two bottles of warm beer, total price, one US Dollar. Good I thought, we must be getting close, it was nine pm by now, how close are we, I enquired, only about an hour he says. Despondency and near sense of humor failure. More stops to ask the way, road gets narrower and narrower, until really only a single lane. Funny how those expressions spring to mind, but couldn’t help thinking, if there is a hotel at the end of this road I will eat my hat. There are mile markers and I saw one that said fifteen, ok, if nothing appears after fifteen lets turn back to that Holiday Inn I saw a while back (not). By this point the road had ceased to be a road and become more a boulder strewn, bone shaking track. We came to habitation, not only habitation but a vast three storey building full of marauding children. Incongruous, yep. Apparently a school for the local, tribal children, a boarding school. Oh, then the track ended. Driver turns down what appeared to be a dried up river bed, oh come on, hat eating reconsidered. We bounced down and there was a man, standing by an open gate, he waves us in, we park. He turns out to be a charming young man who runs a “home stay” way the bleep out here, takes bag out of trunk, puts it in room, is that my room, I enquire, oh no, that is your tent. After ten hours driving it looked like a palace. At ten forty five I declined the offered dinner, I felt bad, but that late, curry, I just couldn’t handle it. One beer and I felt a bit better and walked about asking questions and getting acquainted. He has two rice paddies, a field of cabbages and one of carrots. He has a large plot of Capsicum. Roses, Morning Glory and lots of palm trees. I wandered over to the gate and he came scurrying after me, no no, you mustn’t go out, the elephants are coming, maybe tigers too. WHAT ! Any snakes I asked, only cobras, and king cobras, any scorpions, oh no. Well that’s a relief. I considered the second bottle of beer, and drank it.
Slept very soundly until five am when the chanting started, there being a Temple to Vishnu directly up the mountain behind, quite famous I hear. Sara, you would have loved it. A simple flute and a lady who had this knack of harmonizing with the echo of her voice, which came back, reflected off the surrounding mountains so there were two of her voices simultaneously. Not sure about these things but it sounded like she was joined at the important bits by other female chanters. Morning Ragas for real. Quite memorizing. It went on for an hour. Can I tape it and put it on Soundcloud? Well no more sleep for me. Wandered about in the dark, looking where I was going ! The sun came up, warming everything, quite cold at night. The day passed quickly, we had a stroll to the temple, straight up, vertically, for about a mile. No comment. Went to the temple but of course I couldn’t go in, being a heathen and all, but the grounds were pleasant and contained a four hundred year old working viaduct, and Maurice, a tunnel, fifty kilometers long that the locals used to escape the British years ago. It goes right under a mountain and comes out, well, fifty kilometers away. Interesting. It is/was hidden amongst the religious artifacts and was never discovered, or so the story goes, I had to take my shoes off to gaze upon the entrance and was not allowed to take a photograph. (just in case the Brits come back?!). Not much else happened for the rest of the day.
That was it then, a day in Tiruneli, high up in the Western Ghats. Perfect.

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The lunch stop.

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The dried up river bed approach to the Home Stay.

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The four hundred year old aqueduct.

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The four thousand year old ritual bathing pool at the Thiruneli Temple.

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Back breaking work planting rice.

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Sunset’s golden glow.

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Peppercorns in the sun.