You know when the perfect dreamless sleep happens and when you wake up, it takes you a good few seconds to figure out where exactly you are! Aahh… This night’s sleep was that! Just perfect! All the weariness from the bones gone! Yet, the warm bed and cosy blankets refused to let go of us.
After a struggle we did manage to get out of our beds, bathed, had our breakfast and set out towards our destination- Munnar. To get to Munnar you could also take a shorter route from Chennai but we decided on the Valparai – Athirapally – Chalakudy route which does take longer but definitely worth all the effort. This route instills all kinds of emotions in you. Fear, ecstasy, thrill, sadness, anticipation! Thanks to the Anamalai hills and the incredible Athirapally forest road. Take this route if you want to test your nerve too (forewarned!). Our first stop in Valparai was the Sholayar dam.
The locals decided to play the STARE game with us. Again! Just fyi, when we ride, we are covered head to toe. He looks like an alien who has descended on earth with his man-killing machine and also because of his aero-dynamically designed helmet whereas I look like the human version of Hello Kitty with my All Pink ensemble ). So you can imagine how we must look like together. Now it is commonplace that Beauty is always fraught with Dangers. I experienced this in its full glory here. Leech attacks( OK! just one baby leech clung on to his jacket), long, winding , treacherous roads, wild animals lurking nearby. I had had my share of beauty and dangers.
Sholayar Dam, one of the many beautiful dams surrounding Kerala and Tamil-Nadu. It was surrounded by the same rolling hills that greeted us the previous day, add to it the mist that was hovering above, swirling and dancing to join the clouds. There was this huge water reservoir which then ended with the high dam. It was a sight to behold because we were used to seeing dried patches of land where rivers should have been and high-rise buildings where trees should have been. There were all kinds of aquatic birds on their morning swim. Looked adorable!
As we were clicking away there came a white and black coloured Autorickshaw ( also known as a ‘tuk-tuk’). It dashed to a quick stop at the dam, a white figure peeped out to see us and the rickshaw shot forward again! Now that piqued our curiosity. We decided to find who its occupants where. Eventually we did.
The Autorickshaw and our bike had to stop at the Malakkapara checkpost. The norm was to fill out a form stating the registration number of the vehicle, the number of people entering the forest and the number of plastic articles we were carrying. The Vazhachal forest division is a plastic-free zone. Hence you are forbidden to throw plastic inside the forest. While exiting the articles are checked again to be sure we did not throw anything out while inside the forest. As we were filling out the form the curious Autorickshaw pulled to a stop beside us. The forest officer manning the checkpost seemed as curious to know the story of The Autorickshaw. It was ‘housed’by three men from the Czech Republic. They were on a tour of India and they had chosen the ‘Autorickshaw’ to truly experience India from within. They had started out from Meghalaya (a north-eastern state) and had travelled through the east coast and now were crossing over to the west. I was stumped. I thought WE were nuts. Oh no! We looked completely sane in front of them. There were messages scribbled on all sides of the vehicle. Congratulatory notes, names of people they had met, names of curious onlookers who wanted their names etched on the back of the legendary ‘Rickshaw’, the route they had taken and many such things. The officer fell short of words. Eventually words did come out his mouth and he wished them good luck.
After the formalities, we set out on what was the longest 40 kilometres I have ever had to endure. I developed the ‘Defence Stance’. Both feet firm on the foot-rest, hands on his shoulders holding on for dear life, eyes wide open and head swerving left to right to left to catch any movement, any flutter. There were several times when I jumped in my seat. Like when a broken tree branch creaked under our tires or the leaves rustled silently or when we spotted fresh elephant dung. Yeah there was fresh elephant dung on the road, on the sides of the road, everywhere. The only thing I wanted now was to sight the other gatepost, alive.
We drove at a steady 30kmph because the signboards kept reminding us against speeding. This particular route has been featured numerous times on many travel sites as one of the most scenic routes to take a road-trip. Now I knew why. Oh my! Beautiful would be an understatement. Tall, green, moss and lichen smothered trees, owls hooting, sunlight barely touching the ground, the forest floor replete with a dried leaves, twigs, ants, an occasional brook passing under the ground. I was thrilled, adrenaline gushing through my veins as I was scared of the calmness and eeriness that surrounded us. We had already left the ‘Autorickshaw’ far behind us. So the feeling that we were alone now was quite unsettling. After a few anxious minutes we had company. No, no. No wild animals, just an urban one. It was a white sedan. Phew! But that guy seemed to be in a hurry more than us! He just whizzed past us into the forest and I was anxious again. Mainly because I had hatched up a plan to ambush the car and get in if we spotted a leopard and now that couldn’t happen. Don’t judge me now. Be there and travel the road which has signs every 100mts. saying “This a a leopard prone area. Exercise caution!” or ” Wild animal crossing!” and has the pictures wild bulls, elephants. The scariest and funniest (yes! funniest) of all the signs was probably the one that read ” Crocodiles in the water. Dont lurk around. If caught by the crocodiles and you survive,you will be PROSECUTED!” I’m not even kidding now.
I guess since we had started very early there weren’t a lot of vehicles on the move. But as the day progressed there were trucks, cars of all sizes, bikes all moving to and fro. After about an hour and much coaxing from husband we decided to stop at a place which overlooked a beautiful emerald green lake on one side and the face of a hill on another. While hubby was busy clicking away I decided to keep watch like the dutiful watchman I always am. After a few clicks we got back on the bike. After a little more than an hour my dream came true. We had made it alive out of the forest. On reaching the check-post we were asked to submit the receipt we had been given while entering. The forest officers made a few entries in their register and we were off to the mightiest falls in Kerala- The Athirapally.
We were praying for the Athirapally falls office to have a cloakroom so that we could leave our stash in there. And it did! Yay! We dumped everything in there and climbed to the waterfall. A short climb. The waterfall came into view slowly and with every step it just got mightier. And then at the highest point it unleashed its entire fury and glory. The huge Chalakudy river after wading through the Vazhachal forest breaks into three waterfalls, Vazhachal, Athirapally and Charpa. Charpa being the smallest which we came across second after the Vazhachal falls and then the huge Athirapally. At Athirapally , the Chalakudy river flows until it reaches the cliff and drops a deadly 80 ft. The water when hits the rocky bottom bursts into zillions of droplets and drenches everything within a distance of 20 ft. I don’t even think you see the actual water falling ’cause the silky mist created by the droplets engulfs the entire waterfall. We admired the top view for a bit and then climbed down to view it from beneath. From below it looked like a giant beast devouring everything in its path only to calm down after the deadly drop. After getting sprayed by the waterfall we were then greeted by the rains. But fortunately it stopped raining after a few minutes and we had simplest Keralan lunch of rice and vegetable curry, don our ‘travel garb’ and set off towards Munnar.
Munnar is about 140 kilometres from Vazhachal. The route passes through little towns, cities, thickly populated, thinly populated but never did we encounter a piece of land which was devoid of people. Now going to Munnar wasn’t the challenge. Because you can reach Munnar fairly easily, though we did have to ask around a bit after veering a little off route. Our real challenge was to reach Suryanelli, the little town about 40 kilometres from Munnar because our hotel was in Suryanelli and we had to reach there by hook or by crook.
Now when I say 40 kilometres, on a road on the plains is easy-peasy lemon-sqeezy. But 40 kilometres on an ever-ending, winding road ascending and descending the mountains, when the daylight is quickly fading is quite the task. We got lost a few times (when I say few, it means many times), the sun kept sinking not paying any heed to our woes. The phone GPS totally bailed on us. We kept asking people for directions. Some were pretty clear some were SO NOT. Since it is a hilly region even small muddy roads were in fact main roads connecting two towns. But we had our doubts every time we saw small dingy roads. After about travelling an hour and half we decided to switch to an alternate route. That proved costly. It added an extra 40 kilometres to our already perilous journey in the mountains. All said, I have to say those roads were the most beautiful ones we have ever been on. Oh my! The mist twirling and revealing the dark forests beneath. The giant 20 storied five star hotels standing so elegantly right in the heart of the mountains. Tea estates on one side and a stark, deep drop to the abyss on the other. We were fighting every ounce of eagerness and anxiety we had to climb down and capture these surreal images of Heaven on Earth but the fear of getting lost in the mountains and tea estates kept us moving. I did manage a few shaky snaps though.
40 kms. on the mountains took us about 2 hours if not more. My nerves got tested the most. Even the usually calm husband was anxious to get done this with and reach the hotel. He remained stoic most of the journey but when even after hitting the mentioned landmarks we couldn’t find our hotel, panic set in. But finally after a struggle of about 4 hours we arrived in the hotel with our faces full of dust and panic. The sigh of relief we both heaved, could have been heard miles away. We were overjoyed! The hotel was The Double Tree Villa. A very decent place for a decent price. One downside though is the travel. But the place is close to Kollukumalai , a small village on a hilltop that hundreds of tourists frequent on holidays. So people planning to visit Kollukkumalai stay here. Coming back to us; we filled our tummies with some food and fell asleep only to be awakened by the crowing rooster.