I almost resisted going on this drive because the assignment came during the busiest time of my professional year. But it was impossible to say no to the lure of travelling along the folds of the Western Ghats through three states, up to its highest point at Anamudi in Eravikulam National Park, its lowest in the Palakkad Gap, and through the Nilgiris, the ‘joint’ that connects it to the Eastern Ghats. The other big attraction was driving through Munnar’s High Range at a time when it would be veiled in a fine, misty, off-season drizzle.
We, my husband Ramesh and I, had decided to start early in the morning from Bengaluru, but by the time our driver turned up, it was past 9 am. As a result, we got caught in one of Bengaluru’s infamous traffic snarls, which continued on Mysore Road as well. However, Bandipur National Park more than made up for all that. We reached Bandipur a little after two and headed straight for MC Resorts on the edge of the forest. The resort had a safari going into Bandipur at 4.30 pm, and we got on it.
Unfortunately, we were accompanied by a bunch of boys who insisted on cracking loud jokes and in general making so much noise that not only was it annoying, but also, to the bitter disappointment of the rest of us, a tiger that walked out onto the path turned tail and scooted off back into the undergrowth. We spotted several other animals, however: large groups of deer, elephants, peacocks, gaur, parrots, eagles and monkeys.
The highlight of the Bandipur halt was the trek next morning. Ramesh and I were up at 6 am and Mara, the resort’s Betta Kuruba guide, took us up a hill called Aladagedde Betta. On the path, there were the pugmarks of a leopard, and as we began climbing, we could see families of deer that had come out to the forest’s edge to graze, viewing us with mild concern. The hillock, though small, offered a magnificent view of the forest. Going up Himavad Gopalaswamy Betta (4,770 ft) proved to be rewarding. There was a 13th-century temple with a grand view of Bandipur and the surrounding Neeladri, Hamsadri, Garudadri, Pallava and Mallikajunagiri hills and several gorges. When we were coming down, a young boy signalled us to stop and pointed out to us a herd of elephants, with three adults and two babies.
Driving through Bandipur and Mudumalai wildlife parks out to Ooty, the roads were uneven, with some stretches being particularly bad. We got to Ooty, checked into our hotel, drove up to Fernhill and then down to Charing Cross for dosas at Nahar’s Chandan Restaurant and then to Wally’s Coffee Pub for exquisite coffee and cake. The next morning, we were getting ready to go to Coonoor, when we ran into our English friend Allen, who is married to a Toda tribeswoman and who has lived in the Nilgiris for close to 40 years. He suggested we visit a Toda mund, or settlement/ hamlet. A Toda mund can be quite large with as many as 50 families living in it, or it can be small with just a handful of families, like the one we went to near Tamizhagam, the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s official guest house.
The Todas are one of the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris, along with the Badagas, the Kotas and the Kurubas. They used to live in the highest parts of the Nilgiris, and their ancestry still remains shrouded in mystery; interesting conjectures include theories of descent from the Greeks and the lost tribes of Israel. The Toda language belongs to the Dravidian family. They used to, at one time, live in unusual dwellings made of bamboo and cane, with tiny openings that they would crawl through. The munds still retain bamboo and cane shrines or temples, which are quite fascinating.
After the visit, we drove onto Coonoor, a gorgeous drive with the Coimbatore plains spreading out below like a scale model, the slopes stretching out as far as the eye could see on both sides, and the clouds drifting down and away in what seemed to be a game they were playing with the earth down below. This is one of the loveliest stretches in the entire drive. In Coonoor, we had a very pleasant stay at Velan’s, a hotel started by the British, which has preserved its oldworld charm. Coonoor is not as bitingly cold as Ooty and so evenings are pleasantly nippy; we went for a long walk and were told to carry an umbrella, and sure enough there was a fine drizzle later.
Going from Coonoor to Thrissur is a bit of a shock as you’re thrown into steaming heat from an inviting cold, and into the bustle of a town from the quiet of a small hill station. We checked into our hotel only to find that a 24-hr hartal (strike) was due to begin at midnight, so we quickly left for Fort Kochi, a charming place with its waterfront and sidewalk cafés and old buildings. We had a great time walking around Fort Kochi and the Mattancherry market, where you could smell the wares of the ancient warehouses even though their doors were shut. To walk down this ancient market is to be carried away into another time, when ships docked here bringing traders and goods from other countries.
Munnar, our last stop, offered us a literal high. As the road winds up towards the hill town, you’ll be surprised by the thick, almost undisturbed stands of sholas, and by how clean everything is. The next morning, we were up early to visit Eravikulam National Park, not only to spot the Nilgiri tahr but also to gawk at Anamudi, the highest peak this side of the Himalaya and the landscape in general: rolling grasslands, little knolls and shola forests. I had hoped to see a herd of tahr but we saw only one that walked away very quickly as if in a rush.
We returned to Bengaluru via Palakkad, from where the drive is great for part of the way because it’s a beautifully maintained toll road, free of trucks and other heavy vehicles. There are vast stretches of nothing on either side, and the road seemed like a bridge between the elation we felt about the trip and the thought of getting back to the demands of work and the city.
Our last stop was Salem, which we reached on a Sunday, when everything was shut. We drove out 15 km to Kandhasramam, a temple to Lord Murugan, perched on a hill, and stood there looking down at Salem town, which spread out like a Lego set far away. We were standing surrounded by tall trees, birds chirped on the branches around us, and a wild wind whistled in the forests spread out before us. It was a fitting end to our 10-day drive.
ON THE ROAD
This drive goes through three states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, through protected forests, up ghats, through town and country plains and along the sea. The road condition varies through the route. From Bengaluru to Bandipur, the roads are fairly good, but from here on through Mudumalai, they are in a bad state. The stretch up to Ooty through Gudalur is decent, except for the fact that there’s repair work happening and the road going up tends to get blocked. Similarly, all along the route back, starting a little after Avanashi till Hosur, there’s considerable roadwork going on and there are frequent stretches where the road is just mud and dust.
The stretches up to Munnar and down to Coonoor are a bit tricky, especially if it’s raining or misty, and need to be negotiated carefully. It’s best to avoid these stretches at night. From Bengaluru to Mysore, you take SH17; from Mysore to Gudalur via Bandipur and Mudumalai you are on NH212. Then you take the Mettupalaiyam Road or NH67 from Gudalur to Coimbatore via Ooty and Coonoor. From Coimbatore to Thrissur and then onto Kochi, it’s NH47. From Kochi to Munnar, you’re on NH49. Back to Coimbatore via Kalady (NH49), Angamaly, Chalakkudy, Vadakancherri, Alathur and Palakkad (NH47) and from there to Salem, again on NH47. From here you continue on NH7 to Bengaluru. Petrol pumps, puncture repair shops, dhabas and garages are available in plenty on this route. There are only two stretches where there’s almost nothing: between Mandya and Srirangapatna, and between Madukkarai and Karumadampatti. While driving from Coonoor to Coimbatore, and from Munnar to Palakkad, it’s wise to start very early in the morning, as roads tend to get crowded later in the day and you won’t enjoy the terrific view just as much. Also, do remember that the stretches into and out of Kochi and Bengaluru will be very crowded during peak hours.
About the author:
Kala Ramesh is a freelance writer who teaches writing in a Bangalore college. She enjoys travelling by car and likes nothing better than an off beat vacation. She loves the outdoors and would trade being in the wild for almost anything.