3/17/2008 to 3/20/2008 and 3/27/2008 to 4/3/2008 | India , Kerala , Tamil Nadu

The Ghats

The Ghats are southern India’s mountain range which stretches from its southern tip northward.  Before branching into the eastern and western Ghats which create the boundaries of the central plateau of India the Ghats run along the boarder between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.  It was this region in which I spent the most time, predominantly on the Kerala side.  While not the snow capped spectacles of the Himalayas in the North, the Ghats offer a rich variety of plant and animal life harbored in a number of National parks and wildlife sanctuaries.  In the populated regions an incredible array of crops are grown along the hillsides and in the fertile valleys.  Coffee, teas, rice, coconuts, aryovedic (traditional Indian medicine) plants, as well as a host of fruits are all grown in the region.  Unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate during most of my visit, which was marred by frequent unseasonable rain.  Still the cool and wet climate of the hills was a welcome relief to that of the hot and humid plains.

My fist destination after Sabrimala (covered in a previous report) was the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, or precisely right next to it.  Being rather turned off to Indian Wildlife parks, due to my poor luck at seeing anything interesting, the steep foreigner entry fees, and the very controlled nature of the visits, I didn’t actually go in the park.  The wet weather didn’t add any incentive either.  I did meet a girl who saw a tiger on the ranger led walk, the morning I arrived.  The guide told her that was the first Tiger he had seen in 6 months.  I made a mental note to come back in 6 months, maybe then I’ll go in when there is a tiger sighting due.  I did stay in a very nice “tree house” room overlooking a meadow in the sanctuary, where I could work on my laptop while getting the occasional glimpse of Sambar deer and wild boar from the comfort of my dry bed.  From the Periyar I continued along the mountains northward to the tea growing region around Munnar.  Munnar is possibly the prettiest region I’ve seen in the Ghats, with an array of tea and forest covered mountains capped with rocky peaks.  The weather let up enough to allow a hike up one nearby peak, a seven hour round trip, which might have been slightly more rewarding if the peak had not been swamp in clouds and cold drizzle during the entire 45 minutes I waited on the summit hoping for a clearing.  I eventually gave up knowing it would clear as soon as I came down, and of course, it did.  Nevertheless, it was a rewarding day of hiking, more so than the following day’s visit to Top Station, touted as the highest tea growing region in the world (I’m not sure I believe it) at over 2000 m, the area allegedly has beautiful views over the mountain range.  I was lucky to see the vague outline of a tree across the road from the tea shack where I took refuge from the cold steady rain, while waiting an hour and a half for the return bus to Munnar.

After descending to the plains of Tamil Nadu for my previously described Chola temple tour, I returned to the mountains via the Tamil Nadu hill station of Ooty.  Ooty is most famous for its cool climate which draws middle and upper class Indian tourist seeking refuge from the summer heat of the plains like the colonial English before them who founded the city as a summer headquarters for the Madras government.  The blue mountain railway that winds its way up to Ooty is a tourist draw in itself.  One of the last steam lines in existence, the steep grade made possible by interlocking tooth tracks require that only the original steam powered locomotives are used.  It was my second time on the train to Ooty the first right before the Indian holiday of Diwali, on my first visit to India, was more memorable for its cramped discomfort than the views.  I gave the blue mountain railway another shot given that the guide books gush about the beautiful views.  I was still less than impressed with the views but it is a kind of cool experience to ride aboard an actively used steam driven train.  That was pretty much the highlight of Ooty for me, an area whose beauty paled in comparison to Munnar but plagued me with the same bad weather.  The Indian tourist town didn’t entice me into staying longer than a day, and I caught a bus back into the Wayanad district in northern Kerla.  On the bus to Wayanad I met a Brit, an Aussie, and a Kiwi, and I decided to join them on a hired jeep tour of southern Wayanad, a tour which despite my stance against Indian wildlife sanctuaries included a visit to the one in Wayanad.  On the early morning guided walk of the sanctuary my jinx on wildlife spotting continued, as the most interesting fauna we saw were Asian bison, and we did not even catch a glimpse of the relatively common wild elephants that the region is known for.  Nevertheless, hiking through the forest and not seeing anything is far superior to riding around in a jeep with chatty Indian tourist and not seeing anything.

I headed north, while the others went south, intending on only a brief stop to check out the ancient Thirunelly temple set amidst the mountains and forests of northern Wayanad.  However, while looking for accommodation in the town of Mananthavadi I was approached by a man offering a home stay at his brother-in-law’s plantation.  As I wasn’t having much luck finding reasonably price accommodation in town and with the assurance he would work around my budget I went with him to check it out.  It was an enjoyable place to stay with communal family meals featuring fruit, vegetables, rice, and coffee all grown organically on the plantation in the evening and hiking in the daytime.  One day quickly turned into three. I was intending my next destination to be Madikeri and the Coorg region of southern Karnataka but from the bus window I decided the region was too similar to Wayanad, in addition the weather had taken yet another turn for the wetter, so I merely switched buses in Madikeri, left the mountains and headed to Hassan and the Hoysala temples of Halebid and Belur.

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