We’re in the city of Coimbatore on day 10 of our first trip to India. Breakfast at the Residency is of the standard we expect from a good business hotel, with a wide range of options. I stay with cereals and fruit, conscious of the 5-6 hour journey we have today.
We’re heading for Munnar, up in the hills of Kerala. We set off through the Coimbatore rush hour amongst the bee-like swarm of two-wheelers and other traffic. We’re getting used to this now, although there are still plenty of moments when we can’t help being astonished at the fearlessness of the participants.
Gradually we ease out of the city, and the traffic thins out again. After a couple of hours we pass through a busy town and Biju suggests a coffee stop, so we swing over to a restaurant on the right and park. The place isn’t serving coffee so we go two doors along to what is obviously a family run cafe, and Biju orders coffee with milk for the three of us. It comes in the small steel beakers that are common everywhere we’ve been, with the beaker sitting in a steel dish itself half full with coffee and hot milk mixture. Biju shows us how to mix them by swishing from dish to beaker and back before drinking, topping up as we go.
The cafe owners are obviously keen to serve us, and Biju tells them we are from the UK. They seem delighted, and when we’ve finished our coffee the son asks if he can take a selfie with us? Mum and Dad squeeze in too, and we all smile. Our three coffees are 60 rupees, less than 60p. We offer a 20 rupee tip, but we almost have to force it on them. They would probably struggle to comprehend that the same 3 drinks would cost upwards of 750 rupees where we come from. They wave to us as we drive off. We think we’ve made their day.
Biju tells us that there is a crocodile farm ahead. After another half an hour we turn off the main road for a few yards to find it, driving past a huge dam installation. The croc farm is closed, but we park and Biju walks us through a gate and up a concrete road. We realise he wants to show us the dam. It’s a huge reservoir stretching into the distance, hills rising beyond, and it’s a lovely sight.
The Amaravathi Dam was built in 1957 and covers 3.6 square miles. It is home to tilapia fish which thrive here and also, I read later, a community of wild mugger crocodiles. We don’t see any of those, but we walk along the dam wall and the coracle boats of the local fishermen are lined up below. We descend back to the simple village, and men sit in a circle slicing and gutting their catch using a tree stump for a chopping board. Dogs fight for scraps at their feet, and beyond them crows hover and strut wanting a piece of the action too. It’s a scene that feels as though it could have been enacted here for millennia, long before the dam was built.
We drive on and reach Animalai Tiger Reserve. There are numerous checkpoints on the route through the parks, and Biju goes to sign in. The Reserve is similar to Mudumalai in its foliage and terrain, and we stare into the forest as we drive hoping to glimpse elephants, or even a tiger. No such luck.
We get to the border and cross from Tamil Nadu into Kerala, and the park becomes the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. Biju is clearly pleased to be back in his home state. Next to the border is a cafe and information office. We use their toilet facilities and then buy biscuits and 7Up, but Biju has ordered lunch. He smiles as he tucks in to the contents of his ubiquitous silver tray. “Kerala rice,” he says. “Much better!” When we return to the car he shows me his carefully written lunch receipt. “80 rupees,” he says. Even he can hardly believe the bargain price. I ask the lady serving behind the counter if I may take a photograph of her. She is self-conscious but agrees and smiles for the camera.
The road begins to get twistier as we rise through the park, and the views get more spectacular. We stop at the roadside to look down at a roaring waterfall, perhaps a mile away below, but clearly audible from here. A group of three motorcycles pulls in, looking unusual in that they are all wearing proper riding gear. One is a KTM, and I’m interested that they are represented here. We’ve passed a couple of dealerships in the bigger towns. I’ll have to suggest to Tim that he opens a branch here.
We reach the town of Marayoor and Biju pulls in to show us the jaggery factory. Jaggery is a sweet substance made from sugar cane, and it forms the basis for lots of sweets and cakes as well as being a delicacy in its own right. He shows us the machine that crushes the juice from the canes, like a mangle. The extract is captured in a huge metal vat, perhaps 15 feet across, under which a fire burns. Water is added and the mixture brought to the boil. The crushed canes are put out to dry in the sun and then used as fuel for the fire. As the mixture reduces it turns a golden brown colour with the consistency of treacle, and it is worked until it can be formed into large balls for sale. The factory (in reality a large open barn) operation is fascinating to watch, having remained unchanged for many years. We try a taste of jaggery and it’s like a soft, gritty fudge, very sweet. We’re a bit cautious, it’s clear that the Food Standards Agency hasn’t reached these parts yet.
Further on we enter the Sandalwood Forest. Apparently the wood is prized for the oil it produces, so much so that the forest is circled by fencing and sentries are employed to stop illegal removal of trees. The sandalwood trees on the roadside outside the fence are all ringed with barbed wire and individually numbered with tags.
Biju points out the coffee trees also growing here, some laden with berries. But if it’s beverages you’re interested in, there’s only really one option here. We’re entering the land of tea.
As we continue to rise up the mountains, we enter the tea plantations, and we can’t get over how stunningly beautiful they are. Acres and acres of lush green tea bushes roll over the hills, all carefully manicured and tended. Among them grow large trees with lovely red blossoms, a perfect complement to the scene. Biju tells us that they are mosquito killing trees, with nectar that attracts the insects which then become trapped in its stickiness. Set as they are in the gorgeous scenery of the mountains, this is just wonderful to behold. We are utterly captivated by the whole experience. It was worth coming to India just to travel through this paradise of green.
This feast of greenery goes on for mile after mile, the backdrop ever changing. We spot ladies picking tea next to the road and get out to take their picture, reminding us of the illustrations we’ve seen on packets of tea everywhere. They smile and wave, honoured to be photographed. We watch as they use special clippers to shave off the tips and transfer them to their baskets. Apparently the bushes are cut every 15 days. Looking at the acreage of tea here, this must be a monumental operation. We notice tags on each row identifying it, and are reminded of the vineyards we’ve seen in Germany, which must have similarities in the way they are farmed. A significant part of these tea estates is owned by Tata, the huge Indian conglomerate and owner of the Tetley tea brand in the UK, so some of these leaves could well be finding their way back home.
As we travel the roads deteriorate. Our briefing from Audley has warned us that it’s a bumpy ride, and they’re not wrong.
A small dirty red car flies past, and as it does so water sprays from it onto us from one of it’s windows. Biju shouts, he’s clearly not happy.
We reach a traffic holdup, and he explains that the bridge across the river here was washed away in the floods two years ago. It was repaired then washed away again. It’s been replaced yet again, but the road is in a dreadful state.
As we pull up we spot the red car ahead. We’re clearly going to be here for a few minutes and Biju gets out. I follow behind. He remonstrates with the driver about the water throwing and the driving, and the five young men within all look very sheepish. I tell them I am here on holiday and welcome them to Kerala. They look a bit bemused. It probably helps that there’s a policeman standing a few yards away supervising the traffic.
I walk to the head of the queue to see a large JCB spreading granite chips into the road. It moves forward and backwards a few times crushing the stones into the road. It’s a rough and ready repair method, but eventually the digger moves off the road and traffic starts to flow again. We pass over the single lane concrete bridge, the remains of it’s ancestor sitting alongside. The river is shallow here, and it’s easy to see how it would have succumbed to the volume of water that must come down here in the rains.
The road gets even worse as we go further, with progress down to a crawl as Biju negotiates pothole after crater after pothole. We’re feeling pretty jaded and churned by now, and the hotel seems to be buried in the jungle. We both have the same thought – this had better be good!
We are now deep in the Bison Valley, passing through small villages, over rivers and streams, and negotiating the narrow, bumpy road. Finally we spot a sign for the Spice Tree and, with a sharp 300 degree turn off the main road, drop down to the hotel.
We are greeted by a personal welcome as we exit our car, and handed beautiful red flower blossoms carefully wrapped in foil, together with a refreshing hibiscus fruit tea drink. We are shown to our room, to find a delightful flower arrangement laid out on the bed to greet us. The signs are looking good. We’ll find out more tomorrow.