Kodaikanal - Winter Paradise
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Our hotel was the Kodaikanal Club along the lakeside, booked courtesy a friend who is a member. Excellent value at Rs 1200 for a heritage stone cottage incl. scrumptuous breakfasts. Our room was one of these beautiful cottages set on a pretty lawn overlooking a quieter part of the lake near Bryant Park.
TTDC's Hotel Tamil Nadu offers cottage rooms for half the price off-season rates, but the view is on the other side overlooking a valley, marred by garbage. Believe me, it is worth the extra to stay along the lakeside.
Leisurely walks around the 4km circumference of the lakeside are most rewarding, the quieter portion away from the hotels area is filled with colourful birds and surrounded by vast private estates of eucalyptus trees and pretty stone houses.
Horseriding and cycling are also options, both are available on hire from the lakeside.
Coakers Walk and Bryant Park are nearby walks. Bryant Park is a botanical garden extending from the lakeside to Club Road uphill, with some wild growth of endemic tree ferns Cyathea Nilgirensis. Coakers Walk is a short paved stretch right on the cliffs edge. It is usually misty and cloud covered. When the clouds part, it offers great views of the valley below - albeit litter strewn in some places!
We hired a taxi for two days to take us to Suicide Pt, Pillar Rocks, Guna Caves, Moyar Pt, Mannavanure Lake and Gundar Reservoir.
Tip: Walk about 500m ahead of these 'points' and cut through the light plantation forest for much better views, devoid of littering tourists.
The Suicide Point next to the Golf Club is now called Green Valley View or something like that. It offers good views of the valley but the entire approach is lined with stalls vending all sorts of souvenirs, snacks, caps et al. You will see wild bisons on this stretch of the road in the early mornings. Apparently, they love grazing in the adjoining Golf course greens!
We saw Malabar Giant Squirrels playing on a tree branch near the Guna caves. The Guna caves area is full of treacherous bottomless crevasses, many hidden by a thin layer of undergrowth that would never withstand the weight of an adult human. The main "Cave" is actually fenced off by the government due to several fatal accidents, however taxi drivers will lead you in through a gap in the fencing. It is certainly worth visiting. Look down as you walk as the crevasses can suddenly appear without warning!
The entire hillside on the route was full of blood red rhododendrons and giant tree ferns everywhere.
The famous Pillar Rocks are three rock columns next to each other, across the valley. There is a cross on top of one of the rocks. You will get better views if you cut through the forest a bit further away from the official view point. Personally, I feel that the craggy Mahuli rock pinnacles near Mumbai could give the Kodai Pillar Rocks a run for their money, albeit that Mahuli at approx. 750m is nowhere near as high as these which are 2000m+ AMSL!
The road to Berijam and eventually Top Station in Munnar leads from the forest check post at Moyer Point. To proceed beyond the check post, permission from the Forest Department is required.
Exploring a pine forest on the road to Mannavanur, we observed that the forest floor was covered with "magic mushrooms" - reportedly hallucinogenic - we did not try to find out! They are reportedly very popular with the young Israeli population at Vattakanal. These particular pine forests were eerie as most of the cones and needles had dried out and the pine needles - leafs? - coated the forest floor and branches in an eerie shade of grey white. Very ghostly. I wouldnt like to wander here alone! We aslo saw bison herds twice on the road to Mannavanur, and several brightly coloured endemic birds in the hedgerows.
It is a good idea to tell your driver to go on ahead every now and then, and walk along the road. There is hardly any traffic and so much to see which you would miss out on in a car.
Mannavanur lake was a bit of a let down, being surrounded by denuded forests. There is a jeepable path from here going to Berijam Lake for those who are unable to get permission to use the route going from Moyer Point. You can also engage a local guide here and trek to Berijam. There are small patches of remaining endemic 'shola' forest on the Kodai - Mannavanur route, which are nice to explore.
Gundar Reservoir, a little beyond the Observatory was particularly nice and unspoilt, a decent substitute for Berijam Lake which is out of bounds now. Some tour operators deceive visitors into believing the Gundar lake is Berijam! There is a No Entry sign board at the approach to Gundar lake, however it was in Tamil, so we could legitimately claim not to be able to read it, not that anyone asked!
An enjoyable walk was to Dolphins Nose via TV tower, La Salette church, Pambar shola, Pambar falls and Vattakanal. The hillside was in full bloom with the deep purple Melastoma Malabathricum, and remnants of Nilgiri Strobilanthes Kuntiana - Kurinji pooh. Pretty views of pear orchards and deep valleys regaled on our left.
The walk from Vattakanal to Dolphins Nose is treacherously steep, we were grateful for our thick soled walking shoes but would have welcomed a walking stick or bamboo. The locals of course, navigate the slopes with practised ease!!
Vattakanal is a small settlement, full of young Israeli tourists who seem to stay there for months. They looked like hippies but were peaceful, minding their own business. The little shacks serve a variety of Israeli falafel and other goodies at rock bottom prices. Obviously a boom for the locals who have converted their cottages into guest houses.
On the walk back, near the Pambar shola we were thrilled to come across a wild Bison. He was as surprised to see us but after a moment of appraisal, he decided we were harmless and obligingly posed for photographs. Just as suddenly, he disappeared down the steep gradient! A magnificent beast, like a buffalo the size of a medium elephant, with white 'socks'. At the time, we were not aware that it is a dangerous animal. Just as well.
From the Pambar falls, there is a short cut bridle path to the Pillar Rocks area. Well worth a walk.
You can walk for miles in Kodaikanal as the roads are very good and in winter the cool, crisp, fresh air ensures that you do not feel tired. Hedgerows are full of exotic mountain birds and high altitude flora.
Shenbaganur Museum is extremely decrepit. The elderly pastor in charge kindly permitted us to walk in the adjacent grounds. He said that tourists routinely vandalise the museum and they do not have the resources to maintain it anymore. The once famous orchidarium is now relocated to their Jesuit headquarters at Trichy .
I did not spot any wild orchids except some oberonias near Dolphins Nose, but there are plenty of exotic ferns and tree ferns everywhere. On the road going downhill to Madurai, the higher branches of tall rain forest trees are full of exotic epiphytic orchids but too far away to make out exactly what. There are several waterfalls on this route but they were not in spate. Must be fabulous in their season.
Meals in Kodaikanal were a bit disappointing, unlike in Ooty where you are spoiled for choice. Probably this is an off season problem.
Never forget proper walking shoes and adequate warm clothing. Nights and early mornings are freezing. If you do not have enough, these are available quite cheap, if garish, from the Tibetan vendors found everywhere in Kodai. Bargain hard for taxis, they tend to be monopolistic rip offs as auto rickshaws are not permitted in Kodaikanal.
Spent a day at Madurai on the way back. We visited the famous Meenakshiamman temple in the afternoon. It was crowded and disappointing. [I enjoyed my subsequent visits to Srirangam and Tanjore a lot more].
We stayed at the TTDC Hotel Tamil Nadu on W. Veli Street near the Meenakshi temple. It was tired, but great value for a very large room with dressing room, walking distance from the temple and market area.
Shopping:- Excellent creamy Kodai cheddar cheese available really cheap, at most shops [there is a cheese factory you can visit on Convent Rd which we did not know about while we were there], home made dark roast crunchy peanut butter and local berry / fruit jams are of superb quality and value, buy copious quantities to take home! Home made chocolates are found everywhere, however they taste better in Kodai than when you take them to warmer climes. Liquor shops are seedy looking. Take your own booze if this is important for you.
All in all Kodaikanal is a nature lovers paradise, a guaranteed peaceful holiday and great value for money if you go off season. Winter is a most refreshing change for those coming from hot and humid coastal areas.