The road from Aizawl to Lunglei is long, winding and arduous. The city feels farther away than most cities in India. But it’s worth taking the bumpy ride for the pristine mountain scenery on the way. The closer you reach Lunglei, the more scenic it gets. Verdant hills surround you with mist enveloping the green slopes.
Lunglei is the second largest city in Mizoram with a population of over 57,000 people. But you wonder where all the people are when you check in to the Tourist Lodge run by the Mizoram Government in the outskirts of the town. The lodge, at 700 Rs. a night, is one of the best bargains to be had. From its surroundings, you only see foggy hills around you.
Lunglei city gleams in the distance with dense clusters of buildings crowding the hilltops. It looks more beautiful from the distance than it does up close. I had to venture into the town only to book my onward jeep ride to Lawngtlai.
But it, too, is an experience to remember. While Lunglei is no culinary paradise, it’s only when you walk through the town and eat momos in its cafes that you get the true sense of what the city feels like. The steep winding lanes and high buildings built on near-vertical ridges can be both dizzying and exhausting.
Beyond Lunglei, the road gets worse but the scenery only gets better. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can venture even further to the unspoilt mountain towns of Lawngtlai and Saiha and climb Mount Phawngpui, the highest peak in the state of Mizoram. There are budget Tourist Lodges at both Saiha and Lawngtlai. You might need to hire a vehicle for maximum flexibility but it is possible to find share jeeps if you look hard in the town.
In July 2012, a fellow traveler and I employed a horseman from the village of Darcha in Lahaul and walked up to the village of Padum in Zanskar. I’ll recount the episode in more detail in future posts because it was an eventful, adventurous journey with emotional upheavals and strange encounters but the principal focus of this post (and the one after) would be the pictures I managed to capture of the landscapes and some of its people.
While there is a motorable road that swings by the trail today, in 2012, the only way to traverse the high pass of Shingo La and cross into Zanskar, perhaps the remotest corner of India, was to walk. The first 4 days leading up to the pass were a pure wilderness where the only signs of habitation were the ramshackle tea-tents put up at the campsites. The walk up was a brutal slog, with perilous stream crossings, precipitous scree slopes and the temptation to turn back and call off the hike to go back and chill in the comfy German Bakeries of Manali grew with every step, an urge we were glad we didn’t succumb to when we reached the pass.
Shingo la, at 5091 meters (16, 701 feet) was an airless wilderness, an amphitheater of sorts where one was surrounded by the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range on one side and the jagged spurs of the Zanskar mountains on the other. There was a dainty, partially frozen lake, shimmering blue and turquoise at the foot of the pass. It was a gloriously beautiful scene and we would have lingered far longer than we did if we weren’t gasping for air and didn’t have to walk 5 more hours down to the campsite in the valley below.
It never rained during the 2 and a half days I spent in Mawsynram but it is known to be the wettest place on earth because of a long monsoon season during which it receives a mind-boggling average of 11,800 mm of rain every year. It’s a fairly big village about 60 odd kilometres from Shillong, a typically beautiful ride through rolling hills and high clouds. The village itself isn’t particularly pretty with concrete houses galore but step outside of it and hidden groves, alluring knolls and obscure little caves are just a little hike away.
We had booked a room at Emily & Sankrita’s Homestay through Airbnb and this beautiful cottage is perhaps the only comfortable place to stay in the vicinity. Sankrita’s friendly hospitality and delectable cooking is reason enough to make the journey here. We gorged ourselves on Jadoh (rice cooked in pork fat/blood), pork intestines in salty broth, pork salad, dry pork intestines sliced into small pieces, another preparation of pork served in a delicious broth and some chicken. We were also served some vegetarian dishes to go with these meaty delights like rajma, mashed potatoes, squash and carrots which were done so well that they would have been a perfectly satisfactory meal in themselves.
To burn all the calories we had consumed, we had to get some exercise. So Sankrita arranged for a local boy named Biang to take us on a gentle trek around the hills. The path wound down to a rivulet winding through rocky pools and then up and over into the airy hills. It was a quintessentially wild Khasi landscape with bald, bulbous hills punctuated by thick, forested groves. We reached a point at the top of one hill which was crowned with a pair of Khasi monoliths and dolmens, memorial stones erected to honour the spirits of the ancestors.
We then wound our way down a narrow trail deep inside a forested grove bisected by a dainty little stream. The trail here was slippery and we had to cut our way through the thick foliage to get back up to the main trail at the top of another hill. From here there was a stunning view of the forests below with a beautiful stream winding its way through white, curvy beaches at the edges of the jungle.
Our final stop was a limestone cave formation called Krem Dam. Meghalaya Tourism appears to have big plans for the place because they were constructing a staircase to enable less hardy tourists to reach this spot more comfortably. We had to sidestep the construction site to scramble our way down to the stream which runs down the cave. It was an impressive sight and a bit of a struggle for less sure-footed people like myself and S to get to. Biang, who was springing over rocks like it was a garden stroll, wanted us to follow him and have a look inside. But we had a hard time just balancing ourselves on the slippery knife-edge of the rocks we were standing on, so hopping over them like Biang wasn’t ever an option.
After the cave, both of us were tired and hungry. Biang wanted us to see another (in his opinion) unmissable cave nearby which apparently had a naturally-formed Shivling but neither of us were too keen. This exercise was exhausting and rejuvenating enough and all we wanted to do was go back to Sankrita’s house and eat more food.
Mawsynram was also memorable to me for one other incident. After the late lunch, Biang took us on a walk to a “sunset point”. On the way, I slipped on a loose slab of rock and hurt my left arm. It was already badly fractured a few years ago in a terrible accident in Laos and two metal plates had been holding the bones together since then. We ran immediately to the Primary Health Care Center and I had a few anxious moments as I was waiting for the doctor to arrive at seeing the soft tissue on the injured section swelling up. But thankfully, there was no fracture. After getting back to our room, Sankrita came up to give me a bottle of a local tribal ointment which she said would help my wound heal quickly. I never used the ointment but hey, it’s the thought that counts and I’ll always be grateful to Sankrita for showing concern.
Mawlynnong, a peaceful little village of 80 odd households tucked away deep in the Khasi Hills might seem like an unlikely candidate for mass tourism when you go there and look at it but as of 2018, it’s among the most visited spots in Meghalaya. The reason people come here in droves is because of a splendid marketing campaign advertising the place on the one hand as “God’s Own Garden” and on the other as the “Cleanest Village in Asia”. While the latter moniker may sound gimmicky and the claim appears a bit of a stretch, the people of the village have earned their right to it by keeping their surroundings commendably clean over many generations.
I wish I could say something nice about the room we stayed in though. We had to trawl through online forums and have a local contact named Embor book a room for us because all the places we called appeared to have been booked out by a big South Indian film crew that had set up camp in the village. While Embor was highly efficient in arranging a good driver to take us in and out of the place, the homestay was a disappointment. The room cost 2000 Rs., which was somewhat outrageous for what it was. There was a tiny living area, another cramped, musty bedroom and a bathroom with a squat toilet. The man running the homestay told us he had given the room we had originally booked (allegedly nicer and furnished with a western commode) to a family that checked in before us. We had booked for two nights but the room was so crummy that we chose to spend just one. It was a pity because that gave us very little time to explore the village at leisure.
To cater to the tourists who make their way here on day trips from Shillong, some “attractions” have been devised. So there’s a “Balancing Rock” (essentially one big rock on top of a tiny rock that looks like its levitating in the air) and a “Sky View Point” which is a bamboo ramp leading to an elevated platform that delivers views of the Bangladesh plains in the distance. These views are considerably better in other parts of the Khasi Hills, most notably Cherrapunjee, but the one from Mawlynnong is nothing to sneeze at. Having arrived here late in the evening from Dawki, we could only catch the dawn view which was very good.
By far the best thing we did was to walk 2 kms to the village of Riwai where a flight of stony steps leads down to a stream above which hangs one of Meghalaya’s famed living root bridges. I have been to half a dozen bridges in the Khasi Hills and this was the easiest to get to. It might be the reason why it’s among the top draws for day-trippers from Shillong. We avoided the crowds by leaving at the crack of dawn and the only company we had was another group of people taking in the scenery quietly while we watched bands of butterflies flitting about and little fishes and tadpoles swimming underneath the crystal clear waters.
So having spent just a night and a few daytime hours in Mawlynnong, do I have the urge to come back here? Probably not. Life is too short, the journey is a bit too tedious and there are far better spots to idle in the Khasi Hills. But I’ll say this, if the accommodation had worked out and the film crew hadn’t taken over the place, I could easily have spent a couple of days lounging around its brooks and groves.
“Now we’re going to show you a very rare bird. It’s roosting here but the sight of people staring at it for long durations could be disturbing. So we’ll go 2 at a time, stay quiet, take a picture or two and move ahead so others can see it too.”
I was a bit groggy after a long day’s exhausting walk and travel but the moment I saw the Ceylon Frogmouth, perfectly camouflaged on the tree, giving me the cutesily grumpy “yeah, whatever” look, I could have done somersaults. The Ceylon Frogmouth is a nocturnal bird and prefers to stay put during the day, the camouflage being an effective defence mechanism allowing it to catch up on sleep without worrying about being eaten by a predator.
The Wildernest property that the Frogmouth had chosen to roost in is spectacularly located within the Swapnagandha valley close to the tri-junction of Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka. It’s surrounded by thick forests and gives away views of the waterfalls in one direction and the Anjunem lake ringed by forested hills on the other. It’s a wonder that the place even exists today because many of the hills around were marked for iron ore mining but a group of passionate nature lovers and conservationists came together and bought the massive chunk of land in an endeavour to keep at least a section of the forest alive and undisturbed. The rooms are immaculately well-designed. They’re comfortable and blend with the foliage around. None of the people who work here have hospitality experience and I wouldn’t have known this if Nirmal Kulkarni (a conservationist and one of the directors) hadn’t pointed it out in his talk. They’re all local men and women, trained in both grass-roots conservation and the nitty-gritties of running a resort. I never found anything lacking in my time here (except maybe a sighting of the Hornbill!) There’s an infinity pool for the more luxury-seeking kind that I tenaciously avoided after hearing a big, loud group splashing and hooting in it all day long.
It’s a wonder that I even made the trip as I had happily drunk a few beers while chatting with Roy at his beautiful heritage guest house, Hospedaria Abrigo De Botelho in Panjim the previous evening and eaten a rather bloated dinner of Pav Bhaji at Bhaiyya’s. My room at Roy’s place was so comfortable that despite my alarm going off at 7.30 in the morning, I woke up at 9 and walked lazily down to breakfast. There I got talking to an old American couple, also career vagabonders. They asked me what my plans were for the day which was the cue for me to scream, “Holy shit!” and rush upstairs to go pack my bags. My plan for the day was to join the BNHS group at Thivim Railway Station at 10.30, the very reason I had come to Goa in the first place. Well, it was 10.30 NOW and I made a frantic phone call to PG, who was the group leader, saying I would certainly be late. Fortunately for me, the Indian Railways happens to be just as sluggish as I am. The train was late by over an hour and I could comfortably switch buses quickly enough to meet them in time to leave for the wildernesses of Goa.
Although I’m a dyed-in-the-wool solo traveller, I chose to go with the BNHS for this trip because after my underwhelming tour of Mudumalai and Wayanad, I thought it would be a good thing to go with people who knew their plants and birds and animals. Both PG and PS knew about much of the flora and fauna we saw on the way and my eyes (and I’m sure many other eyes in the group) were being opened to a new world that was both fascinating and easy-to-miss.
Every now and then, one of the members would yell, “Leech! Leech! Leech!” and instead of helping her get rid of it, everyone else would frantically start looking at their feet to make sure they didn’t get one. Goa’s forests crawl with leeches and this being the monsoon, it was a veritable feast for the little blood suckers. I somehow escaped despite the malfunctioning “leech proof socks” and a couple of trips made with chappals. In the midst of all the leechy chaos, we saw Malabar Trogons, insectivorous plants, habenarias, bio-luminous fungii, countless sunbirds, the Malabar Giant Squirrel, Gaur, green vine snakes, dracos, slugs, blister beetles, the daath fada (teeth tearing) plant which is apparently used in dentistry to take your teeth off, an astounding view of the Anjunem lake ringed by forested mountains everywhere, the mist enveloping the entire Mhadei plateau, the Chorla Falls, pill millipedes, centipedes, bronze toads, picture-wings, green barbets, the Tambdi Surla Temple and, well, tigers at the Bondla Zoo. Okay, the last one I could have lived without. But the sheer amount of bio-diversity in the region boggled my mind.
During the British days, this whole region used to be called the Goa Gap, which is to say that the hills here were never officially acknowledged to exist on paper. The region was under the Portuguese who never took cartography too seriously. As a result, much of the vegetation and bio-diversity here went unexplored until recently. Large-scale mining is possibly the most burning issue in Goa but what conservationists like Nirmal fear is that, in the rush to exploit resources, we’re probably condemning species that are both undiscovered and endemic to this region, to extinction.
Many dedicated naturalists now love to hang out at Wildernest because there is such an abundance of life here that you never know what you’re going to find. My afternoons were spent talking to KS and LV, who love coming to the place. They spent much of their time around the dining area, always hunting for the tiniest of insects on the walls and grounds of the property and showed off their discoveries with glee. The tinier the insects, the more fearsome, strange and colourful their bodies were. KS had been an ornithologist and now worked with the extremely well-run Jungle Lodges properties in Karnataka and LV had been to “places on my bucket list that I’m sure I’ll never visit” (which is to say, places like Antarctica and Alaska) and was now doing a play with children in Bangalore. They made what would have been otherwise boring afternoons, very worthwhile.
In many ways, this trip was like a perfect storm that one would love to be caught up in. The 2 P’s from BNHS made the trip immensely enjoyable and so did the well-trained guides from the Wildernest who knew the forests and the plants and animals that live in it very intimately. It lasted just for 3 days but I felt strange returning back to Panjim. Spending time in the wild and with people who love the wilderness changes you, even if just temporarily. On the train back to Mumbai, as I was reading my copy of Nirmal Kulkarni’s lovingly compiled “Goan Jungle Book”, I swore that the next time I come to Goa, I would spend more time in its forests than its beaches. And, yes, I’ll do more BNHS camps!
After calling a few ridiculously expensive “resorts” in Masinagudi and deciding that I certainly didn’t need to spend several thousand rupees a night on a place with a f’ing swimming pool (!) in the forest, I went to the unusually friendly Project Director’s Office in Ooty to see if I could book a room at one of the forest rest houses (FRH). My idea was to spend a few days in each of the FRH’s, taking long walks in the jungle and clear my head in network-less peace. My idea was resoundly rejected by the booking officer, because in his opinion, there was a danger of me dying of boredom if I spent more than a couple of days within the park all alone. I laughed and told him of the many lonely, intrepid days I’ve spent in desolate places only to find a cold, battle-hardened face staring back at me. Finally, after 3 trips to the office, he let me book 2 nights at Theppakadu and one at Abhyaranyam.
The man had a point because there is not much one can do around the FRH’s if you don’t have your own vehicle. Sylvan Lodge, where I was put up, was a clean enough place with a great location by the Moyar river but I was only allowed to walk the 100 meters to the bridge or around the property grounds. I am not the restless type and could easily spend days doing nothing but usually even those tranquil days involved a little walk on the beach or a traipse up the hill. After a few hours sitting by the river, I got stir-crazy and even my attempts to walk along the highway were deterred by a stern forest ranger who scared me off with many tales of unsuspecting amblers getting charged by a tusker or mauled by a leopard or gored to death by a gaur.
The reception center ran bus tours of the park every time there were enough people to fill the bus (20 to 26). It was the monsoonal off-season and in the afternoon, I had to wait for hours at the office for a jeep full of day-trippers or a big bus-full of package tourists to arrive making it the only time in my life that I was hoping such a mass of cheerfully loud humans would come my way. That evening, I felt incredibly fortunate to have seen any wild animals at all (a few gaurs and chitals) considering all the hooting and squealing that was going on behind me. A restful time in the jungles of India, this was not.
On the way back, I saw more animals in 15 minutes at the Sylvan Lodge (wild boars, flying squirrels, peacocks, babblers, woodpeckers, eagles) than I did in an hour in the core area of the forest. In the evening, some entertainment was in store as M and his family checked in. M was from Chennai and had taken part in many a tiger census in Mudumalai. He was understandably dismissive of the bus tours run by the Forest Department and was here only to show his daughter (who runs a biryani restaurant in Edinburgh) and his grand-daughter (who squeaked Adele songs in a Scottish accent) a good time in the woods. He told me that I was wasting my time here and it was only worthwhile coming here if my aim was to gain access to walk or safari deep into the core areas of the forest. The trick, in his opinion was, “Come often, tip well, praise everybody. You never know where money can take you”.
Despite his pessimism, M was very excited about the bus tour the next morning. We went to the reception center at 6.30 a.m. to catch the first bus into the Park and as I expected, we were the only people around. M was understandably agitated but being a man of “soft words and hard deeds” (in his words), calmly asked a forest ranger how he expected 25 tourists to show up that early in the morning in extreme off-season. The ranger had barely reacted when two jeeps, one with a Gujarathi family and another with young Delhiites zoomed in. We had enough time to chat and know each other because the man at the ticket window arrived more than half an hour later, having been chased by an elephant on the way.
It was raining very hard and this time, even the gaur and chital visible to me yesterday weren’t around. M was sad that all little Adele could see were “water and trees”. Later, we went to the Theppakadu Elephant Camp where she was thrilled to bits watching tamed tuskers being fed and bathed. M was vehemently against domestication of wild elephants in theory but was glad they were being domesticated momentarily for the sake of his daughter’s happiness.
In the evening, I was joined for dinner by SJ and LK. It was Ramzan, they were Muslims and having fasted all day, were stuffing themselves silly with kebabs and biryanis. SJ was a rich, young politician from Bangalore who also dabbled in real estate. LK worked under him and SJ wanted to show him “how wonderful Mother Nature was”. He had been coming to Mudumalai for more than a decade, bought many properties in and around the area thanks to his rapport with Forest Officials and was being pampered and hero-worshipped by everyone around. He had been to “every corner of Mudumalai” and when asked how he managed that feat, he said (with a wink and a smile), “Add an extra 500 Rs. and you can get anything you want here.”
The next morning, SJ took me on a drive to the Moyar river and Singara Reserve Forest, where I saw more birds and animals than I did from the rumbling tourist bus. SJ wasn’t a bird-watcher but was impressed by my ability to identify many of the (easily identifiable) birds. He had been in these parts many times but was always on the look-out for big animals, which he seldom saw. I was excited too because, although the Mudumalai NP teems with bird-life, the bus would never stop to look at any of them. SJ was a patient man and at the end of our 4 hour trip, was very happy that he now knew what a Green Bee-Eater and an Oriental White-Eye looked like. In his Hyderabadi hindi, he told LK, “Dekha kaise parindiniyon ka majaa le re hai. Politics ke jungle me aise parindiniyan dikhti kya?” (Look at how he’s enjoying watching birds. Can we see such birds in the political jungles?)
SJ dropped me at the Abhyaranyam GH, where he was given a princely welcome by the staff there. After ordering them to show me around and take good care of me, he took his leave. I had known him for hardly 12 hours of my life and he had already made an impact with his extraordinary generosity. My days at Abhyaranyam were decidedly low-key because I was the only guest here and the staff were not very keen to make conversation. I walked about the little patch of grassland around the guest house, scaring whole herds of chital with my presence and watching little worker ants go about their business. I did enjoy the peace and quiet here, but I also felt very happy to take the bus back to Ooty the next morning.
The rest of my days in Coonoor were spent relaxing in the upper storey verandah of YWCA Wyoming and drinking a lot of tea. A colonial building over 150 years old, now converted into a guest house, it’s probably as good a deal as one could get in the hills. My room, which would have cost an arm and a leg in more business-minded hands, cost only 414 Rs. It was the perfect place to linger without the pressure of making the days count and the fear of losing my bank balance. My regular visitors were the house sparrows and red-whiskered bulbuls that chattered endlessly in the green surrounds. One day, a herd of gaur (wild bulls) made their way into the pastures of the property compound. Another day, V showed me bear’s paws marked on the building wall. It was a wild and remarkably peaceful setting, in perfect contrast to the cacophonic mess of Lower Coonoor Town.
By the end of my 3 weeks in the YWCA, I had come to know everyone who lived and worked there. V, who worked at the reception, was a Coonoor boy and would march me off to his favourite eateries in the town. His suggestions were unfailingly good. So, thanks to him, I got to taste the masala varkeys and biscuits at Crown Bakery (the oldest bakery in the Nilgiris, possibly even in Tamil Nadu, still run by the same family from 1880), veg rolls at the New Bangalore Bakery on Mount Road and the twisted varkeys and Nendrampazham (Plantain) chips at the New Indian Bakery near the bus stand. He also made me go to Hotel Ramachandra on Mount Road, which became my favourite restaurant in all of Nilgiris, to gorge on their biryanis and parottas that were served with spicy curry and watery raita and wash it down with splendid coffee from Tamizhagam. I made a trip all the way to a small bakery in the Barracks area called Needs only because V told me it was the best black forest cake he had ever tasted and he wasn’t far off the mark on that one either.
G, the cook at YWCA, had worked at the Fernhills Palace with the Mysore Maharaja and had a knack for making one crave for even basic dishes like chappati and dal that were cooked simply yet tastefully (and with a lot of pride!). His meals were always delicious and healthy and made sure I never got sick when I was there. S, one of the security guards, had served in three wars for the Indian Army, got hurt multiple times and yet was having to work post-retirement to earn a living for himself and his family because the pension he received was a pittance. V’s principal obsession was tracking prophecies and conspiracy theories and his many weird, surreal youtube video recommendations kept me entertained days on end. Thanks to V, G and S’s appetites for long conversations, my days at Coonoor were never lonely and when I left, it was with a feeling of sadness and a promise to return some day.
The evenings were invariably spent in a couple of cafes in the Bedford area. My personal favourite was Dew Drops, a cafe which served supremely well-brewed tea and succulent snacks like cheese sandwiches, veg cutlets and uh, stuffed capsicum. This was a new place but seemed to have already developed a loyal customer-base. It was a convenient stop-over for my trips to the Bakers Junction where I shopped for locally-made jams, bread, honey and Acres Wild cheese.
Apart from gastronomic excursions and the jaunty ones I wrote about in the previous post, my only trip out in Coonoor was the one I made on the first day, to the beautifully wild Sim’s Park. After getting exhausted wandering its many labyrinthine tracks for hours, I settled down for a meal at La Belle Vie, known for its French cuisine. It’s housed in an old colonial bungalow nestled amidst tea plantations on a cliff-side that commands a stupendous view of the valley below. These were early days, so I still wasn’t jaded looking at tea plants everywhere. I wish I had just looked at the view and left though because the food was an inedible, expensive and oily mess. I know nothing about French cuisine but I’m pretty certain they don’t dunk their veggies in 3 inches of oil. When I narrated my Belle Vie ordeal to V, he told me of an old French couple who had gone there after hearing rave reviews. The exchange went something like this –
“Did you like the food?”
“It was okay.”
“So was the food really French?”
“A little bit, yes. The names were French, the food very Indian.”
I felt vindicated.
My favourite place in Coonoor though wasn’t Sim’s Park or Dolphin’s Nose or Lamb’s Rock or the Tea Museums. The place I loved the most was the terrace of the Ayyappa temple that served as a short-cut for the steep yet peaceful hike from Lower Coonoor to the YWCA. It was an ideal location to break the journey which worked both as a rest-stop and as a place which gave unobstructed bird’s eye views of the Lower Coonoor town below.
Sitting on the steps on the terrace, I could spy on a hundred roof-tops, get a perspective on the urban mayhem down below, listen to the chaotic symphony of honking cars, hooting trains, the hammering and drilling of construction work and the chirping of countless red-whiskered bulbuls and oriental white-eyes and watch the clouds decapitate the hills in the distance as they find a way through the valleys enveloping entire villages in opaque mist in the process, and all of this in good privacy. Barring the few who used the stairs of the temple to cut across to the town, I had the whole place to myself. I never took my phone or my camera with me when I went there and it was a blessed relief to be disconnected, if only for a short time, from the trigger impulses of checking and clicking and being busy.
Of the 5 weeks I’ve spent in the Nilgiris so far, 3 have been in Coonoor. Thanks to ennui, laziness and the peaceful confines of the YWCA Wyoming, only two days out of the 21 were spent traveling around the town and they too happened only because of coincidentally timely visits by a few friends.
One of them was a drive around Wellington with A and P (you know who you are if you’re reading this), through the military area and the golf course, to a little puddle with paddle boats they called the “Wellington Lake” and then to a nice property they had stayed at called Tea Nest which had big rooms, friendly staff and delivered gorgeous views, sprawling tea estates, massive hills in the distance, good tea and a story about a bear that likes to pay a visit every now and then.
The other was a trip with D to Dolphin’s Nose, Lamb’s Rock and Lady Canning’s Seat two days before I left the town for good. We could see nothing but walls of clouds around us when we were on our way and I began to think it was a terrible idea to do the trip in that weather. But thankfully, once we reached Dolphin’s Nose, some of the mist had cleared and while the views were still somewhat hazy, one could see all the way down to Mettupalayam and Coimbatore in the plains below. M, our rickshaw driver, insisted that there was a map of India imprinted in the landscape somewhere. I squinted hard but couldn’t see anything so cartographically precise but when he started getting agitated and directing my eyes to every hazy outline decipherable below, everything I saw started resembling a map of India in one way or the other. I pretended to see whatever he wanted me to see to get rid of him momentarily and break out of bizarre illusions.
While we were standing there admiring the view and ignoring resident primates and trigger-happy tourists, M started telling us about a traumatic incident he witnessed a few years back. He had come here with some gullible tourists and was showing them the landscaped map of India. A young couple were sitting on a rock behind the view-point having what he felt was a leisurely chat. Suddenly, the boy (of the couple) walked down calmly and jumped into the valley below. I asked him if this is what passed for “suicide point” in this area and he laughed and said that the suicide point was on the other side of the hill where even more gruesome events were known to happen. I discovered that vertiginous suicides were one of M’s pet obsessions when he tried to convince me that Lamb’s Rock was so named because a certain Mr. Lamb jumped from his eponymous rock, which is utter nonsense as I learned from a little google research later.
Our next stop was Lady Canning’s Seat and I could already sense a fidgety impatience in M when he started playing loud Tamil songs and telling us that there was nothing to “see” there. But we wanted to tick all the boxes, so up we climbed the desolately mossy steps to a “seat” that was scratched and scribbled with notes of people who must have wanted to record their memories in stone. D wondered why it was called “Lady Canning’s Seat” to which I cunningly replied that it must have been because a Lady Canning sat there. We had the whole place to ourselves and the clouds were doing a ballet in the air waltzing over the villages and estates below creating a dreamscape that stays in your head long after but is impossible to photograph (with my limited skills anyway)
We then merrily hopped towards Lamb’s Rock, where M issued a stern warning to us to make it quick because we were going regularly over the “time limit”. But Lamb’s Rock proved to be the place we lingered the most, not because of the views, which were just a slight variation of the views you get from Dolphin’s Nose, but because I started developing a sudden interest in herpetology. Down on the rocky cliff were many multi-coloured reptiles basking in the sun safe in the knowledge that no human being would be stupid enough to venture where they were. After spending an inordinately long time watching and taking pictures of the many lizards on the rocks (some extremely well-camouflaged), we remembered M’s grumblings and hustled back.
M’s rickshaw started rebelling against him as it sputtered and stuttered to a halt. He rather somberly shut the music down and started focusing on solving the problem at hand while we were solemnly contemplating walking the 8 kms back. D had foreseen this much earlier but we hadn’t done anything about it. Would our inaction bite us in the ass? Fortunately for us, M solved the problem soon enough and we romped home.
After spending a year on the coast and the cities of the plains and enduring the resultant heat and dust, it felt great to head back into the hills again. As the bus wound its way into the Shevaroy Hills from Salem, the air felt crisper with each of the 20 hair-pin bends that wound their way through the forested slopes. But the minute the bus screeched to a halt near the market by the Yercaud lake, I was swept over by a wave of disappointment. There was garbage strewn everywhere I looked around and loud Tamil film music was blaring from (very) loud-speakers amid the chaotic squalor to the rhythm of non-stop honking traffic. The only consolation was that the air was, if not cleaner, certainly cooler.
I walked around looking for a place to stay and after being rejected by a whole line of hotels for being a solo traveller (excuses ranged from “manager is on leave” to “where is your recommendation letter?” to “sorry, we only take tourists”), I went up to the lonely, decrepit, over-priced and depressing Tamil Nadu Hotel. It was a cheerless, inflexible and downright rude Government-run hotel. During my 3 days there, I could see only a couple of couples in the entire sprawling complex and yet, the manager insisted that the season was booming and asked me to leave if I wasn’t willing to pay the extortionate rates they were charging for their extremely basic rooms. At the end of a lot of haggling where I lost and he won, I coughed up 1100 rupees per night for a dank, mouldy, cob-webbed room with a bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for weeks. There was a little verandah that over-looked a terraced lawn that was strewn with rum and vodka bottles and a fabulous view of the dusty, broken windows of the buildings to the left and the right.
To avoid getting too depressed at my sordid fate, I took a walk around the lake. It was supposed to be one of the very few natural lakes in the hills of the south but one that somehow managed to pull off the stupendous feat of looking kitschier and uglier than its more popular artificial cousins in Ooty, Kodaikanal and Mount Abu. The road that sloped along the lake started off with a touristy cluster of stalls selling omelettes and chai opposite the “Deer Park” and soon became an open gutter that one had to dodge to walk further to the part where the sweet odours of a massive open garbage dump welcomed anyone who dared to walk that far.
But one had to walk that far to reach the point where the road bifurcated up into the newly constructed Botanical Gardens that lead to a series of viewpoints, first the Children’s Seat, then the Gent’s Seat and finally the Ladies’ Seat that showed spectacular views of the towns of the plains and the hills and the valleys beyond. I spent hours just lounging there, taking siestas in the afternoons, speaking with the odd tourist or two who was up for conversation, listening to Bach and Sabbath on my earphones or reading books on my Kindle. In the evenings, a chilly breeze and the cacophony of a hundred bird-calls lifted my spirits and everything that had to be endured to get here felt entirely worth the trouble.
While every other gypsy had gone looking for tigers, I managed to persuade Arun, who was my gypsy driver, to take it easy and show me some birds instead. He looked surprised and unhappy initially but gave me a wide smile when I showed him this picture of a couple of bee-eaters perched on a branch.
One of the true delights of traveling alone is that you can do whatever the hell you want. I could have saved money and shared my gypsy with other people but since most people go to tiger reserves like Pench to see tigers, I would have been trapped in their narrow-mindedness and ended up missing truly beautiful moments like this one. I wish more people would go to wild places to see birds, animals, even insects and be pleasantly surprised when they see a big cat.