The Remarkable Beauty of Tamilnadu's underrated Wilderness!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Pechiparai Dam near Kanyakumari
{ Pechiparai Reservoir from a dam built over Kodayar River in Kanyakumari district }

Imagine sitting by a serene lake reflecting a deeply satisfying green instead of the blues we are so used to. Mist-laden evergreen forests surround the lake, lending the lake its color. The only sound apart from swooshing of wind and rustling leaves is that of distant birdcalls. Occasionally, a fish or a frog plops over the water creating ripples while a cool breeze brings the pleasant scent of fresh wilderness. Otherwise, it is tranquil, except for the beating heart that just cannot be still, lost in the jaw-dropping beauty of the land. If you pictured this to be somewhere in Kerala, you are mistaken. But given the title of this article, you must know where it could be, right? This would be at Kookal Lake in Palani Hills of Tamilnadu.

A small patch of evergreen rainforest around Kookal in Palani Hills
Roadtrip to Valparai through dense jungles Eucalyptus tree lined road to Kookal near Kodaikanal
Evergreen Rainforests mostly have been wiped out of Tamilnadu due to deforestation but small patches survive like this one around Kookal Lake near Kodaikanal (Top); Roadtrip to Valparai through sections of forests interspersed by tea plantations (Bottom left); Eucalyptus lined road to Kookal through the pristine forests surrounding Kodaikanal (Bottom right)

Kookal – Where the grass is green!
Hiking on the Shola Grasslands of Palani Hills near Kookal Hiking on the Shola Grasslands of Palani Hills near Kookal, Tamilnadu
Hiking on the Shola grasslands of Palani Hills, my first tryst with Tamilnadu's natural beauty!

A decade ago, if you were not from Karnataka, chances were you’d have had no idea about how wonderful Western Ghats really are. Even today, if you weren’t friends with some maverick travellers who take much joy in trawling the backcountry roads, to discover pockets of serenity blessed with unparalleled beauty, you’d have no idea how wonderful Tamilnadu’s wilderness really is. Luckily for me, I happened to make few such friends during my stay in Bangalore, which led me to being introduced to the greener and higher side of the southern state known more for its temples than mountains.

My earliest memory of Tamilnadu’s wilderness is of an evening high up in the hills above the resplendent Kookal Lake, 32kms away from Kodaikanal. Camping on a grassy knoll with a 360-degree view of verdant grasslands as well as layers and layers of mountains, our group of hikers watched a herd of Indian Gaur move into the forest on the neighboring hill. Unfortunately, a lone gaur wandered into our cluster of tents causing a little bit of havoc but it ran away to safety soon. Such a close encounter was an unreal experience, marking the beginning of a fixation. It was also my first introduction to the montane ecosystem of Tamilnadu, the lovely high altitude shola grasslands as well as moss-draped forests. Just revisiting all these memories while writing this post today is tempting me to book flight tickets to Tamilnadu once again. Few emotions match the joy of letting yourself be surprised and Tamilnadu’s wilderness is just the perfect playground for such encounters.

Valparai – Where the wild things are
I realized this when a friend of mine who’s a roadtrip aficionado and an excellent, untiring driver took me to a hitherto unknown to us hill station called Valparai. I had heard heaping praises of this hidden gem from far-flung corners of the internet but a wildlife haven in the middle of sprawling tea plantations in Tamilnadu all seemed self-contradictory. Needless to say, we were raring to find out.

Nallamudi Poonjolai viewpoint on Kerala/Tamilnadu border near Valparai
Tribal settlement inside the deep valley at Kerala Tamilnadu border near Valparai
Goats lounging on the grass patches next to Aliyar Dam, Pollachi
Clockwise L-R: Nallamudi Poonjolai, a viewpoint on Kerala/Tamilnadu border near Valparai; Soaring mountains and verdant grasslands surround Aliyar Dam at the foothills of Valparai; Tribal settlement inside the deep valley as seen from the viewpoint

Surrounded by national parks and protected areas in every direction, Valparai is a little cluster of buildings in the middle of hauntingly beautiful mountains and forests. The town itself is garish and nothing out of ordinary. But here in Valparai you may find a leopard cross your path or watch a troop of endemic Lion Tailed Macaques observe you as curiously as you observe them or follow the antics of Malabar Giant Squirrels right from the roadside or even watch a herd of Elephants walk into a tea plantation. All of this sounds like it could be Kerala but it is very much Tamilnadu. But perhaps I should add that Valparai lies on the border with Kerala. In fact, the entire stretch of Tamilnadu bordering Kerala has inherited a small portion on Western Ghats before it flattens down to the plains. This section is gorgeous, thriving and mostly ignored in favour of the neighbouring behemoths of Kerala and Karnataka by the rest of the country. But here be the treasures.

Ooty’s highlands – Where good things come to those who wander

Ooty's Golden Everlasting flower growing on the green mountain slopes
Ooty's Golden Everlasting Flower growing on the green mountain slopes around Avalanche Lake. The petals of these flowers have a paper-like texture making them last very very long. Hence they're often used in floral decorations and are a popular souvenir to take back from Ooty.

Ooty had been the reigning queen of hill stations in southern India for an exceptionally long time. Deservedly so as well. But its charm and allure were soon lost to waves of commercial gentrification and tea plantations leaving the once-famous hill town in dire need of being just left alone. So I did, until it presented a challenge like nowhere else – a 32 km cycle climb on a 36-hairpin bend road all the way up to Ooty from the plains of Masinagudi.

I cannot ever forget how intensely I felt the fear and thrill of cycling among wild animals of Mudumalai National Park in Tamilnadu. A herd of Sambar deer was grazing by the roadside when suddenly few of them decided to jump across the road, while we rode past them so close that I could’ve almost touched them. We cycled on through the evening and after dark despite the villagers’ warning that elephants were seen on the road. Another time when an opportunity presented itself, I left the crowds of Ooty in favour of the twin lakes of Avalanche and Emerald near Upper Bhavani Dam area. There, my evenings were spent admiring the plethora of flowers that bloom of the mountain slopes and mornings were spent on a hilltop watching the lakes change color as the sun rose. I realized then, Ooty, much like Kodaikanal still had a lot to offer. However, the true charm of both these hill stations manifested only outside the boundaries of civilization.

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Evergreen forest covers the hills surrounding Kookal Lake in Palani Hills Lush forests and plantation below Mathur Aqueduct, one of the longest in Asia
Early morning mist drifts into Mannavanur's bowl-shaped valley near Kodaikanal Surprise Rhododendron blooms on the way to Kookal Hilltop
Clockwise L to R: Shola Rainforest at Kookal Lake; View of lush foliage below from the Mathur Aqueduct bridge, one of the longest in Asia; Surprise Rhododendron blooms on the Montane grasslands and forests in Palani Hills; Early morning mist drifts onto the meadows surrounding Mannavanur Lake near Kodaikanal.

Palani Hills – Where the best secrets are closely guarded
Mannavanur Lake on a stormy evening
Storm descends over the idyllic Mannavanur Lake. Set in a depression between rolling meadows surrounded by dense montane forest, Manavanur Lake is an up-and-coming picnic spot near Kodaikanal.

I vividly remember the rain-drenched meadows around Mannavanur Lake one evening when we tried to take shelter under stunted trees, as an escape from ferocious lightning and thunder. After greatly being unsuccessful in trying to erect tents in that pouring rain, we spent the night at a local school verandah, listening to the thunder of storm and shuddering to every flash of lightning that tore the sky apart. The next morning we woke up to ethereal mist floating into the bowl-shaped valley in Mannavanur that’s at a distance of 32 kms from Kodaikanal. Pointed pine trees pierced the white blanket of fog and the ethereal drama reflected in the mirror-like lake that calmed down after a night of storm lashing it out.

Later that evening, I took my friends to the very first hill I climbed on my very first tryst with Kodaikanal, through a leech-infested jungle. Dripping blood from our limbs, we hiked barefoot on the rocky trail to reach the cliff top in pouring rain. Furious winds lashed out and the cold was unbearable to our soaking wet bodies. But nothing came in the way of enjoying the beauty of that evening. Jagged mountain edges spread out in every direction we could see and an ominous mist that hovered above those cliff tops. Summer, it seems had long gone in Palani hills; there was only lush greenery around. Not a sign of civilization in this remote corner that can be reached after a mere 45-minute hike. No wonder I fell head over heels in love with this little known corner called Kookal. It was only expected that I would return to Mannavanur and Kookal the third time. I did, with my family.

Kanyakumari - Where the lowlands rise up to the challenge
On that summer vacation with family, I made my way from the tip of Tamilnadu at Kanyakumari all the way till another tip at Dhanushkodi with an obvious detour to Kodaikanal thrown in between. By then I was already quite aware of the charms of Tamilnadu’s high mountains. But in the far southern reaches, there was more to be discovered. One afternoon, where it poured again, despite it being summer, I found myself jumping over a wall to see the jaw-dropping beauty of Pechiparai Reservoir. Through the evening, we drove though rustic villages at the foothills of cliffs covered in floating layers of mist and dense forests where light wouldn’t even dare enter. Clearly, I had barely scraped the surface of Tamilnadu’s wild places.

The jagged hills around Kolukkumalai in Palani Hills close to Kerala border
The jagged hills of Palani Hills as seen from around Kolukkumalai Tea Estate close to Kerala border

Naturally, my friends and I, we made many plans to further explore the roaring waterfalls of Kolli Hills, the secret mountains of Meghamalai, the dense jungles of Satyamangalam, the holy forests of Agasthyamalai to begin with. But life happened and everybody moved in different directions, leaving our plans to float aimlessly in a vacuum. Maybe someday I will go back to realise those dreams. However, I now fondly look back at the fortunate and fortuitous turn of events that led me to new friendships and fascinating sights in the most unexpected of places. For that alone, Tamilnadu will always hold a special place in my heart! ❤︎

Interesting & related reading that'll give a sense of Tamilnadu's wilderness:
Hugo Wood: The man who saved the Western Ghats
You’d Think Cutting Kodai Plantations Will Save Its Grasslands. It Won’t.
The Grey Forest in the Western Ghats

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12 comments

  1. I so much love to read your articles. And literally keep waiting for new ones! Beautifully written. Just want to be at each of the places you have talked about in the blog and soak in!

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    1. Thanks so much, Pratibha! :) Such encouraging words are perhaps the only reason I managed to keep this blog alive for a decade.

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  2. The only memories of Tamil Nadu, I carry, are the Marina beach, Kanyakumari and Auroville that I visited as a kid with my family. This year, I definitely intend to explore TN, will put some of these places on my list.

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    1. It was the same with me as well, Deepika. In fact I even studied in Chennai for a while but all of this became known to me only after moving to Bangalore, as strange as that sounds! :D

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  3. Amazing, loved it. Hopefully can explore some of these places.

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    1. Thanks Hema! Kodaikanal, outskirts of Ooty and Valparai are definitely worth exploring and are easy to organise. Hope you will visit one of these. :)

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  4. I have got a good itinerary for my next Tamil Nadu adventures. Love how insightful the write up is.

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  5. Wonderful read of your experiences. Ooty and Kodaikanal despite being beaten to death, definitely has some unexplored corners. Valparai is a gem!

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  6. Beautiful, beautiful landscapes captured brilliantly in words and images. We lived in the Nilgiris for over a decade and travelled often between plantations in Valparai and Coonoor. So this stirs many fond memories. Avalanche and Mukurti areas around Ooty are even more spectacular and pristine. Sadly much of the inhabited areas of the Nilgiris have been reduced to overcrowded shanty towns since.

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  7. Hello, Thanks for sharing such a fantastic blog. I really appreciate your blog to share informations.

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  8. If you ever go to Meghamalai/Highwavys (yet is it wavy!!) don't forget to go to "vattaparai" and also hike to other side of the mountains near vellimalai. You get to see all the forests types of S. India except for coastal mangroves. Meghamalai/Highwavys can knock all the above mentioned wildernesses out of the park!

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  9. would you please share your itinerary of valaparai

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