I almost resisted this ride because the assignment came during the busiest time of my professional year. But it was impossible to say no to the lure of traveling along the folds of the Western Ghats through three states, to the highest point at Anamudi in Eravikulam National Park, the lowest at the Palakkad Gap, and through the Nilgiris, the ‘joint’ that connects it to the Eastern Ghats. The other major attraction passed through the High Range of Munnar at a time when it would have been veiled in a fine, misty, out-of-season drizzle.
We, my husband Ramesh and I, had decided to start from Bengaluru early in the morning, but by the time our driver showed up, it was after 9 am. As a result, we got caught up in one of Bengaluru’s infamous traffic disasters, which persisted on Mysore Road as well. However, the Bandipur National Park more than made up for that. We reached Bandipur a little after two and headed straight to MC Resorts on the edge of the forest. The resort had a safari to Bandipur at 4:30 PM and we started it.
Unfortunately we were accompanied by a bunch of guys who kept telling loud jokes and generally making so much noise that not only was it annoying but also, to the bitter disappointment of the rest of us, a tiger walking out of the path turned around and walked back into the undergrowth. We saw several other animals however: large groups of deer, elephants, peacocks, gaur, parrots, eagles and monkeys.
Read also: Brahmagiri-The Ridge Across Forever
The highlight of the Bandipur stop was the trek the next morning. Ramesh and I were up at 6am and Mara, the resort’s Betta Kuruba guide, took us up a hill called Aladagedde Betta. On the path were the pugmarks of a leopard and as we started climbing we could see families of deer who had come to the edge of the forest to graze and were regarding us with mild concern. The hill, although small, offered beautiful views of the forest. Going up Himavad Gopalaswamy Betta (4,770 ft) proved to be rewarding. There was a 13th century temple with a grand view of Bandipur and the surrounding hills of Neeladri, Hamsadri, Garudadri, Pallava and Mallikajunagiri and several gorges. As we came down, a young boy signaled us to stop and pointed out a herd of elephants, with three adults and two babies.
Driving through Bandipur and Mudumalai game reserves to Ooty, the roads were uneven, with some parts particularly bad. We reached Ooty, checked our hotel, drove to Fernhill and then to Charing Cross for dosas at Nahar’s Chandan Restaurant and then to Wally’s Coffee Pub for delicious coffee and cake. The next morning we were getting ready to go to Coonoor when we came across our English friend Allen, who is married to a Toda tribe woman and has lived in the Nilgiris for almost 40 years. He suggested visiting a Toda mund, or settlement/hamlet. A Toda mund can be quite large with as many as 50 families, or it can be small with just a handful of families, like the one we went to near Tamizhagam, the official guest house of the Tamil Nadu.
The Todas are one of the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris, along with the Badagas, the Kotas and the Kurubas. They used to live in the highest reaches of the Nilgiris and their ancestors are still shrouded in mystery; interesting conjectures are theories about origins of the Greeks and the lost tribes of Israel. The Toda language belongs to the Dravidian family. They used to live in unusual dwellings made of bamboo and reeds, with small openings through which they would crawl. The munds still maintain bamboo and reed shrines or temples, which are quite fascinating.
After the visit we drove to Coonoor, a beautiful ride with the Coimbatore plains spreading out like a scale model, the slopes stretching as far as the eye could see on either side, and the clouds descending and away in what seemed to be a game they were playing with the earth below. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the entire ride. In Coonoor we had a very pleasant stay at Velan’s, a hotel founded by the British, which has retained its old world charm. Coonoor is not as biting cold as Ooty and so the evenings are pleasantly chilly; we went for a long walk and were told to carry an umbrella, and of course there was a nice drizzle later.
Going from Coonoor to Thrissur is a bit of a shock as you are thrown into steamy heat from an inviting cold, and into the hustle and bustle of a city from the quiet of a small hill station. We checked into our hotel to find out that a 24-hour hartal (strike) would start at midnight, so we quickly headed to Fort Kochi, a charming place with its waterfront cafes and outdoor cafes and old buildings. We had a great time walking around Fort Kochi and the Mattancherry marketwhere you could smell the wares of the old warehouses even though their doors were closed. To walk through this old market is to be transported to another time, when ships docked here bringing traders and goods from other countries.
Munnar, our last stop, offered us a literal highlight. As the road winds towards the hill town, you’ll be surprised by the thick, almost undisturbed state of sholas, and by how clean everything is. The next morning we were up early to visit Eravikulam National Park, not only to see the Nilgiri, but also to peek at Anamudi, the highest peak this side of the Himalayas and the landscape in general: rolling grasslands, small hills and shola forests. I had hoped to see a herd but we only saw one who walked away very quickly as if in a hurry.
We returned to Bengaluru via Palakkad, from where the drive is great for part of the way, as it is a beautifully maintained toll road, free of trucks and other heavy vehicles. There are huge stretches of nothing on either side, and the road seemed like a bridge between the elation we felt about the trip and the thought of getting back to the demands of work and the city.
Our last stop was Salem, which we reached on a Sunday, when everything was closed. We drove 15 km to Kandhasramam, a temple to Lord Murugan, high on a hill, and stood watching the town of Salem spread far away like Lego. We stood surrounded by tall trees, birds chirped on the branches around us and a wild wind whistled in the woods that stretched before us. It was a fitting end to our 10 day ride.
ON THE ROAD
This ride passes through three states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, through protected forests, up ghats, through urban and rural plains and along the sea. Road conditions vary along the route. From Bengaluru to Bandipur the roads are quite good, but from here they are in a bad condition through Mudumalai. The route to Ooty via Gudalur is reasonable, except that repair work is taking place and the road uphill often gets blocked. Similarly, along the entire route back, starting a little after Avanashi to Hosur, there is significant roadwork going on and there are frequent stretches where the road is just mud and dust.
The stretches up to Munnar and up to Coonoor are a bit tricky, especially when it is raining or foggy, and require careful negotiation. It is best to avoid these stretches at night. From Bengaluru to Mysore, take SH17; from Mysore to Gudalur via Bandipur and Mudumalai you are on NH212. Then take the Mettupalaiyam Road or NH67 from Gudalur to Coimbatore via Ooty and Coonoor. From Coimbatore to Thrissur and then to Kochi, it is NH47. From Kochi to Munnar, you are on NH49. Back to Coimbatore via Kalady (NH49), Angamaly, Chalakkudy, Vadakancherri, Alathur and Palakkad (NH47) and from there to Salem, again on NH47. From here, continue on NH7 to Bengaluru. Petrol pumps, tire repair shops, dhabas and garages are available in abundance on this route. There are only two stretches where there is almost nothing: between Mandya and Srirangapatna, and between Madukkarai and Karumadampatti. While driving from Coonoor to Coimbatore, and from Munnar to Palakkad, it is wise to start very early in the morning as roads often get busy later in the day and you will not enjoy the amazing views as much. Also, don’t forget that the trips in and out of Kochi and Bengaluru will be very busy during peak hours.