The Nilgiris - Return to Paradise
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This year, the weather pattern all over India has been most peculiar. The Nilgiris were no exception with extended monsoons leading to landslides and serious disruption in the Ooty and Coonoor areas. Our part of the Nilgiris was by and large, unaffected. We took the usual route with our faithful Coimbatore driver Jagadeesan [+91 95004 70007 / +91 94862 79917 ] via Mulli, Geddai and Manjur to Avalanche. This quiet, beautiful ghat road with numerous hairpin bends, is now a regular route to Ooty as the main Mettupalayam Coonoor road is under repair. Even so, there was hardly any traffic on our way up.
The recent rains and warmer climate had resulted in a profusion of wildflowers of various hues, a delightful bonanza for plant lovers like us. Many, we had never seen before. Usually by mid December, most wildflowers in these high altitudes succumb to ground frost.
See my wildflower photos from this trip, with botanical names at:
Sorted photos from this trip in sets at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thenilgiris/sets/
We spent our first four days at the Avalanche Forest Rest House, a quaint cottage surrounded by forest with its own little shola waterfall gushing through the grounds. As before, we preferred to walk everywhere. The Nilgiris are a walkers delight. One can amble along for miles without feeling any fatigue, thanks to the salubrious winter weather. This year it was not at all cold in the daytime, even the nights were not bitterly cold.
It is amazing how many new places are waiting to be discovered on every visit. New mountain tops, new meadows, new sholas, new views, new inlets of the lake and plenty of new wildflowers and birds. Some flowers looked like temperate Himalayan species.
They were indeed, as we learnt later. Crimson coloured insectivorous Drosera were in abundance near the lake.
Walking through the meadows by the lake shore, we soon found our old buddies, the Toda feral buffalo herds. How shy these enormous beasts are. One look at us and they soon turned tail and scooted off into the forest. It ought to have been the other way around!
One of the highlights of this trip was Bedmund. At the end of a broad track through pine and eucalyptus forest, we were delighted to discover a small tea plantation on the crest of a grass mountain overlooking the lake. It was heavenly. The 2400m peak above Avalanche Power House and the Kolaribetta Microwave tower were visible in the distance with the clouds playing hide and seek. It was like our private view point. There was no one else there. A simple stone shrine stood at the edge of the tea estate. A while later, an elderly man came through the pine forest, studiously ignored us and walked halfway down the tea plantation. Surprising. Usually people here are very eager to talk to obvious outsiders. As he walked back, we greeted him. It turned out that he was just very shy! Now that the ice was broken, he was most happy to engage in conversation. He told us that he was a Toda who spent his early years here in Bedmund – an original Toda hamlet. Subsequently the Todas were relocated by the government to nearby Mulli Mund [Mullimunth], but permitted to manage the tea plantation and eucalyptus forest at Bedmund. The old stones were a Toda shrine.
Our new acquaintance warmly invited us to visit Mullimunth. We assured him we would.
The road to Mullimunth is a 2km dirt road leading off the main Avalanche road. At the end of the path was a vegetable farm surrounded by a very large swathe of dense shola forest. That would be a good shola forest to explore – minus the leeches ….. Something for a subsequent visit.
We could not see any settlement and enquired with two maxi clad young ladies passing by. They pointed above and invited us to visit their village. Sure enough the distinctive Toda houses emerged atop a grassy knoll on the left, overlooking the lake, with another shola above. So different from the token Toda mund atop the Ooty Botanical Gardens.
There were quite a few of the barrel shaped thatch houses here blending into the landscape, all with electricity. Some had satellite dishes too. A Toda temple, a couple of modern cement houses, and a cement square completed the picture. Two little girls and a small boy welcomed us, curious to know where we were from. One of the little girls Videha, spoke fairly good English. She told us that all the Toda children attended the government school. Our little guides showed us around, and called their mothers and grandmothers out to pose for pictures. Videha's mother was embroidering a traditional Toda shawl.
The grandmothers were traditionally clad with their hair in loose ringlets.
Videha proudly informed me that the bright yellow cement house belonged to her grandpa!
The little boy Meishak was playing with an old fashioned scooter consisting of a wooden pole with handle bar and one crude metal wheel.
The joy of simple toys. Would any spoilt city kid deign to look at this contraption today? We were regretfully told that we had just missed a traditional Toda wedding celebration by a few days. Oh well …… We left after some time, promising to return. We surely will on our next visit, with toys and books for the sweet children. See my Mullimunth photographs set here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thenilgiris/sets/72157622983325979/
The Todas are the original inhabitants of the Nilgiri mountains. They speak their own language as well as the state language Tamil. More information about the Todas from Wikipedia:
Not sure how accurate it is. Contrary to Wiki info about Todas being strictly dairy farmers, the Todas of Mullimunth obviously engage in agriculture viz. tea and seasonal vegetables. I asked the little girl Videha if they ate non vegetarian food and she said they ate chicken and fish sometimes but never red meat. So much for the Todas being strict vegetarians subsisting on dairy products! I must admit however, that the Mullimunth grandmothers were clad very much like their ancestors in this 1871 vintage photograph:
Compare the 1871 photo with this one from 2009 and see for yourself!! http://www.flickr.com/photos/thenilgiris/4230751127/in/set-72157622983325979/
The book to get is "Travels amongst the Todas: or The study of a primitive tribe in South India ..." by William Elliot Marshall, George Uglow Pope
Another interesting article is from The Frontline – “The Truth about the Todas”
We returned many times to Bedmund during our stay to enjoy its tranquil ambience and the ethereal views. Sometimes, troops of shy Nilgiri Langurs from the surrounding shola kept us company.
After four days, we had to shift to the Power House Colony as the Forest Rest House was fully booked. Our friends there had arranged one of vacant quarters away from the main colony. Our house was basic but clean, surrounded by wild hedges, on a small grassy plateau overlooking the lake. In the mornings as the sun rose through the shola, a colourful assortment of birds would entertain us for a good two hours, flitting in and out of the wildflowers. A velvety purple sage bush in front of our porch, never failed to attract a pair of White Eyes.
On the last two days we saw a muntjac deer strolling just outside! He scooted the moment he became aware of our presence. Could one ever ask for more? Our friends said that sometimes a tiger would also come by, however His Majesty did not grace us with an audience. Never mind. We had seen Mr Tiger on our earlier visit.
A climb to the valve house on the mountain way above the Power House was a must, so with a packed tiffin courtesy our friends, we made our way through the shola to the penstock steps. These steps alongside the penstock are at a very steep gradient, making us unfit city slickers pause every few steps to catch our breath. They were pleasurable halts, for barely 100m higher yielded a mass blooming stretch of Kurinji Pooh [Strobilanthes Kunthiana] – the violet blue flowers that give the Blue Mountains their name.
Bright red Nilgiri Rhododendrons [Rhododendron Arboreum var. Nilagiricum] were also flowering as we went higher. These are called Pongal Pooh locally as they bloom in profusion during the Pongal festival in mid January. We weren’t complaining that the trees chose to flower in advance. Every few steps further brought new wildflowers. This was an unexpected bonanza, thanks to the warmer weather.
The view from the valve house was awesome as usual. The vista from the air - well much higher up, was even better with even more wildflowers including some rare, high altitude gentian, impatiens and utricularia species. Very large orchid pseudobulbs were growing on a vertical rock, along with what appeared to be pink sonerila flowers. It was so exciting!
Herds of Nilgiri Tahr inhabit the sheer rock face and grasslands just above the air well. They were not to be seen that afternoon, although their hoof marks and droppings were much in evidence. The return along the road was a longer 8km downhill walk through naturalised plantation forest. Tame compared to the way up. A solitary male sambar gazed imperiously from atop an electricity line meadow path en route.
We hired a jeep from Saga, our local driver friend of last year, for a day’s outing to Lakkidi lake and beyond. The Lakkidi landscape never fails to amaze with its stark beauty, vast expanses of true Nilgiri grasslands, patches of shola in the gentle valleys with gushing small streams, and the ethereally beautiful crystal waters of the Lakkidi lake.
These are the backwaters of the Upper Bhavani catchment. This time the Nilgiri Rhododendrons added flashes of brilliant red to the canvas, along with a few small waterfalls courtesy the extended monsoons. The typical clumpy coarse grass found here is used by the Todas as thatch. The clumps are dense and comfortable enough to sit on, like little stools. The Upper Bhavani reservoir further down is scenic but Lakkidi has its own unique charm. One can spend a whole day just walking through the grasslands here.
Entry to the Mukurthi National Park at the Upper Bhavani dam is restricted and we had not bothered to obtain permission this time. Frankly, there is as good if not better to see and enjoy in the surroundings outside the sanctuary boundary, without all the restrictions. Saga however insisted that we go at least up till the so called “Folding Mountains”; his friend was manning the gate and allowed us to go through with another friend.
The Folding Mountains are undoubtedly scenic being a large expanse of grass mountains with shola forest in the pronounced “folds”, ergo the name. The wavy mountain ranges of Kerala in the background, and the red rhododendron trees complete the picture postcard.
Unfortunately, one may not walk about here at will, so after enjoying the scene briefly, we decided to return to Korakundah.
Korakundah is a vast expanse of tea estate, reportedly more than 300 acres, the unique feature being the retention of large swathes of shola, grasslands and naturalised forests interspersed between the tea plantations. The estate is well known for its organic and green teas. There is visible evidence of considerable effort taken to preserve the natural habitat, in as much as it is feasible through “sustainable agriculture”.
Beautiful big waterfalls and small serene lakes flow through the estate. A deer family trio emerged from the bushes and were in no hurry to scuttle away, obviously used to human presence. It is a most sylvan setting and would be a wonderful place to stay. I wonder if the estate lets out its cottages to visitors. Reduced price premium tea is available at their factory further in.
From Korakundah we drove through the Thai Shola which is a mix of shola forest and plantation forest leading to the Thaishola tea estate. The shola forest here appeared somewhat different from the shola at Avalanche. The road condition was appalling and we were glad we were in a jeep. A winding ghat road on the side leads to Kinnakorai and the tip of the Nilgiri plateau over Kerala. That is for another visit.
At around 4pm Saga sensibly suggested we turn back so as to see the animals before dark. Our deer family was still around at Korakundah, this time accompanied by a troop of Nilgiri langurs on a nearby tree.
Further along the road, a magnificent stag with healthy antlers appeared, followed by several more sambar and other assorted deer – one had a distinct beard. Then came Mr Very Large Bison, a huge, majestic beast, grazing languidly against the scenic backdrop of the Upper Bhavani backwaters.
He eyed us in a bored manner. We took our fill of photos without Mr Bison so much as batting an eyelid. After he was obviously full, he sauntered down the valley at an unhurried pace. A few deer later, we came across another bison walking alongside the road. This one promptly went into a shallow stream nearby. He snorted menacingly so we moved on. The best part was to see all these mammals in good light.
Before we knew it, our stay came to an end. Reluctantly we left for Coimbatore, along the same Manjur Geddai route. At Manjur we bought some excellent butter biscuits, the best flaky pastry vegetable puffs and the lightest, moistest English pound cake I have ever eaten. A pity we tried them only after getting home, else I would have bought kilos of these goodies. Who would expect a hole in the wall bakery in hole in the wall Manjur to be so brilliantly good. The Manjur junction has at least five bakeries. Those Badagas certainly love their baked goodies!
Our driver Jagadeesan who spent his childhood in Geddai, took us to a little known “Suicide Point” atop a steep cliff. The valley was covered in mist, parting every now and then to reveal the dangerously deep gorge below. He also took us to a small Kurumba run tea plantation with cute woolly rams running through it!
A side road leading to the Geddai winch house was colourfully lined with lantana hedges in full bloom and yet another plethora of unusual wildflowers.
In Jagadeesan’s over enthusiasm, he lost track of time and after a major panic halfway through to the Pilur dam, we did a quick about turn, reaching the airport barely in time for our flight home.