If you haven’t heard of Wayanad, or if you have and can’t place it, don’t blame yourself. Blame it on Kalpetta, the district headquarters. Unlike Kerala’s other well-behaved district headquarters such as Kasargod, Kannur, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Ernakulam, this one is not named after the district. On a recent trip, the locals lamented that one could never find a bus that said Bangalore-Wayanad, and it was precisely because of this oversight in branding that Wayanad never made it big on the tourist circuit. It took me a while to digest that, but it’s true. And in a way, it’s a boon to travellers looking for something new, something untouched.
Located south of Coorg and sharing a boundary with the Nagarhole National Park, Wayanad lies bang in the middle of the Western Ghats. Perhaps its most famous inhabitant is the Wayanad laughing thrush, and the chance to hear its laugh-like call is incentive enough to be here. The hilly district doesn’t have any linear trek route like in the Himalayas; instead, it’s fragmented into small one-day treks and walks that take a few hours. So plan your holiday according to time in hand. You can spend a weekend in one destination or spend a week tramping around all of them. While the number of days needed to cover Wayanad is just indicative of a bare-minimum itinerary, you’ll find it tough to leave the excellent resorts tucked away in complete wilderness.
To reach these far-flung nodes, you have to be at the mercy of the public transport system, which isn’t all that bad. But having your own vehicle saves time and also gives you flexibility. In essence, you enter from Sulthan Bathery, east of Edakkal, do a circuitous trip through the south via Meenmutty and Soochipara waterfalls, climb Chembra Peak, cover Lakkidi and Vythiri in the west, get to the central headquarters of Kalpetta and then head north to Thirunelly and Pakshipathalam. If you have the luxury of time and the will to do an extended trip, you can trek across the Brahmagiri Hills from Irpu in Coorg, cross over to Thirunelly via Pakshipathalam, do the Wayanad trek in reverse and finally emerge at Sulthan Bathery on the eastern fringe.
KUPAMUDI ESTATE AND AROUND
DISTANCE: AS FAR AS YOU WISH
If Wayanad is the High School of Adventure, there can be no better preparatory course than 400 acres of Kupamudi Estate, which has as many as 11 well-marked walks within the estate itself. To get here, turn left 5 km before Sulthan Bathery on Ambalavayal Road towards Edakkal. Cross the hump, then a bridge and you’ll find the estate’s blue gate to your left. For starters, you could try Indiana Jones (a moderate walk through coffee and bamboo clumps past rocky outcrops), Braveheart (an uphill climb for views of Wayanad) and walk past the old plantation bungalow to Sitakully, a pond where Sita is said to have bathed.
Once you have acclimatised, you can graduate to Cliffhanger (a steep hike to Kupamudi Peak for a 360- degree view), Terminator (an extreme downhill trudge) and Anappara (Elephant Rock), which lies outside the plantation. Since the area lies in the rainshadow area, it gets limited rain and is great all year round, though the biggest advantage is the absolute absence of leeches. The catch is, to enjoy the estate walks, you need to avail the hospitality offered by Tranquil Plantation (see below). Which means, you can’t camp outside the estate’s boundary and do what would amount to a cross-border infiltration trek! Billed as a top ‘all-inclusive exclusive’ hotel in the world, Tranquil Plantation Hideaway (Tel: +91-4936- 220244; Tariff: Rs 7,250-14,500) is a plush resort with a swimming pool and rooms done up in wood. The beautiful resort is situated in a coffee and pepper plantation. They have many walks and small treks within their own grounds. There’s a buffet of Continental, Indian and farm-fresh fruits. Contact Victor or Jini, Tranquil Plantation, Kuppamudi Coffee Estate, Kolagapara, for bookings.
DISTANCE 3 KM TIME 3-4 HOURS
Just 5 km from Kupamudi via Ambalavayal is the winding road to Edakkal and you can either take a bus or hike down the scenic stretch. From the makeshift parking lot at the base of the mountain, the Edakkal Caves are a 1- km uphill trudge through a hillside peppered with coffee and other plantation crops. The climb takes 30-45 mins, though it’s not the gradient but the scenic landscape that makes you catch your breath. Entry tickets can be picked up from the remotest ticket office you can ever hope to come across. Edakkal, perhaps on account of its precious prehistoric drawings, is guarded by an iron gate and kept under lock and key. Wilson Thomas, the security officer, accompanies visitors to the caves and doubles up as a guide. The steep climb from there is made easy by a couple of steel ladders. You need good footwear and the trek is avoidable during the rains when the trail becomes very slippery.
◆ Entry fee Adults Rs 15, children Rs 10 Timings 9.30 am-5 pm From Edakkal Caves, a 305m climb takes you through a lush boulder-strewn landscape to the top of Ambukuthymala, which takes about 11/2 hrs. The trail is a lot firmer in this stretch and the absence of lowlying foliage gives a more panoramic view of the surrounding areas. Legend has it that an arrow shot by Lord Rama pierced the mountain causing a strange deep cleft. Ambu means arrow, kuthy is ‘to pierce’ and for sure, the gigantic fissure is there for you to see from Cave 2 down below in Edakkal.
You can stay at Edakkal Hermitage (Tel: +91-4936-260123; Tariff: Rs 3,950, with meals), which is the only habitable dwelling available in the area — that’s if you don’t include camping out in the open on the top of Ambukuthy. This picturesque resort lies at the base of the Edakkal trail. The oldest cottage, which has two rooms, is named Fawcett after the famous Malabar SP who excavated Edakkal, while another two-bed cottage, called Holtzsch after Fawcett’s assistant, is on a higher elevation and hence commands the best view. The Hermitage also has probably the only cave restaurant in the country. On clear days, you can see your next goal, Chembra, the highest peak in Wayanad, looming in the distance. Contact Sibiraj or Shokraj Raveendran for bookings.
DISTANCE 7 KM TIME 3 HOURS
Meenmutty may be no competition to Amazonian waterfalls, but trying to get to the place is no less than an adventure in the Amazon jungles. You have to first reach a tiny hamlet called Vaduvanchal, which is 13 km from Edakkal. From here, a 6-km dirt road takes you to Chellangode, a small junction where you can get a guide, and which takes you to a track, nearly obliterated by the heavy rains. In some patches, the undergrowth is so thick that it almost wipes out the track. Take a guide or trek alone at your peril! A 1-hr walk takes you through undulating terrain and a perilously steep decline till you finally reach Meenmutty, but the effort is worthwhile. This majestic waterfall in the middle of nowhere cascades down in three steps and can be best experienced from the Neelimala Viewpoint.
From here, you could also check out Kanthanpara and Soochipara waterfalls, further south. It is near Vellarimala Village and the closest town/ base camp is Chooralmala. Named after a sharp needle-like (soochi) rock (para), over which the waterfall cascades down, Soochipara is also called Sentinel Rock after the Sentinel Tea Estate nearby. The District Tourism Promotion Council sometimes organises rappelling down the rock face in November. The wide stretch of waterfalls ranges from 30-90m and the shallow pool that forms below is good for swimming and rafting. Soochipara also has treetop huts that offer an excellent view of the Western Ghats. For a place to stay, you’ll have to head to Meppady via Vaduvanchal and stay at some of the modest hotels or the PWD Rest House. If you are looking for more comfort, from Vaduvanchal, drive or take a bus 22 km north to the district headquarters Kalpetta. Call the DTPC office at Kalpetta for more information.
TIME 4-6 HOURS
If you want to see the beauty of Wayanad, what better place to do it from than Chembra, the highest peak in the district. Standing majestically at 2,000m, Chembra is located near Meppady, and a trek to the top takes half the day. It’s a hard climb, but the trail is well marked, making this the most popular hike in Wayanad. Take permission from the Ranger, Meppady Forest Department, before heading to the top Once you reach the top, the land levels out into a grassy patch. The freshwater lake on the summit makes camping very easy. Day-trekkers are tempted to stay at Chembra for a couple of days, so make your plans accordingly. Provisions can be picked up from Meppady but it’s better to hop across to the DTPC in Kalpetta (17 km away), from where you can hire guides and rent sleeping bags, canvas tents and trekking implements.
On your way out of Chembra, you can drive to Pookot Lake (3 km south of Vythiri), easily the most visited tourist spot in Wayanad. Surrounded hectare natural freshwater lake offers boating and a lovely 2-km stroll on the pathway around it. The tourist complex has an aquarium, cafeteria, nursery and an Uravu Eco-Shoppe selling local handicrafts. During peak season (Sep-May), there’s the added attraction of a half-a-kilometre horseride at Rs 15 per person.
◆Boating fee Rowboat costs Rs 40 per person, pedal-boat for 2 Rs 75, pedalboat for 4 Rs 150 Timings 9 am-5 pm Entry fee Adults Rs 10, children below 12, Rs 5. Contact Pookot Lake office, Tel: +91-4936-255207 At Vythiri, you can stay at Green Magic Eco Resort (Thiruvananthapuram Tel: +91-471-2330437; Tariff: Rs 6,580-9,400), where a forest trail takes you deep inside the jungle. Perched above the canopy of trees, 30m from the jungle floor, is a tree house that would put Phantom and his Bandars to shame. Well-furnished, with a low maharaja-sized bed, a sitout, bathroom with running water and a fabulous view, Green Magic is easily the Attic of Wayanad.
Those who find the tariff too high can try the much cheaper cottages below. It makes sense to book a day’s stay and get picked up from Vythiri. Vythiri Resort (Tel: +91-4936-255366; Tariff: Rs 6,500-12,000), with 18 cottages, 6 rooms and 9 huts and all the trappings of a tourist resort, is a slightly cheaper alternative. Stream Valley Cottages (Tel: +91-4936-202787; Tariff: Rs 6,500-9,000), which has wooden cottages built on stilts, a fully equipped kitchenette (with food on demand) and a murmuring stream flowing nearby, is an eco-friendly option. There’s also the picturesque Rain Country Resorts (Tel: +91-4936-329798, Tariff: Rs 3,500-4,800) in Lakkidi that has 8 rooms in conical heritage houses and a natural swimming pool.
DISTANCE AS FAR AS YOU WISH
Since Green Magic lies in absolute seclusion, the area is very rich in birding. You can spend the morning birdwatching from the tree house and come down later to do the treks. You spot a lot of scarlet minivets, sunbirds, flycatchers, and some of the endemic birds you can see include the Malabar grey hornbill, Malabar parakeet, Wayanad laughing thrush and the Malabar whistling thrush. A leisurely forest walk may throw up other surprises like the bright yellow butter snail and the Indian marten. Vythiri is perhaps one point in the whole itinerary where you find it extremely painful to leave and continuing onwards feels like a rudely broken dream.
However, do not walk back in an attempt to savour the surroundings as it’s a good 20 km from the main road. It makes more sense to take the jeep transfer to Vythiri, offered by the resort where you’ve stayed and head onwards to Kalpetta. Here, you can stay at Hotel Green Gates (Tel: +91-4936-202001; Tariff: Rs 2,000-5,500), just off NH212, the best that Kalpetta has to offer. It has spacious rooms, Internet and the excellent multi-cuisine Pazhassi Raja restaurant.
Green Gates has an accessall authorisation from the DTPC for extensive exploration of Wayanad and provides tents, trekking equipment and guides. They also organise excursions to Chembra, Edakkal, Kuruva Island, Pakshipathalam and many other destinations, making it a one-stop shop for your holiday needs. Since most tourists who visit here are weekend travellers and shops are usually closed on Sundays, the hotel has a boutique selling handicrafts at reasonable rates. Contact Manjunath for bookings.
Another staying option is The Royal Palm Resort (Tel: 206096; Tariff: Rs 1,700-7,000) with 6 cottages, a restaurant, much-needed Internet facility, Ayurvedic massage and a yoga-cum-meditation centre. They also have a swimming pool, boating and outdoor games. You can also shop at Uravu, a handicrafts village at Vellithol. About 4 km from Kalpetta towards Sulthan Bathery is a small town called Muttil, from where a right turn takes you 6 km to Uravu. It has a small artisan’s community (Tel: +91-4936-231400) that manufactures a wide range of pretty bamboo and clay handicrafts, sold at reasonable prices.
DISTANCE 10 KM TIME 4-5 HOURS
From Kalpetta, you drive north and cross Mananthavady (35 km) to reach the Kartikulam-Palvelicham Road, from where a 5-km hike to your right takes you to Kuruvadweep. A good place to eat before you set off is Asbe Restaurant in Mananathavady. Fish curry, chicken curry, fish fry, mutton fry, beef, prawn masala, mussels — this place serves it all. The food tastes home-cooked and the service is fast. A hearty meal for three will cost around Rs 200. Kuruvadweep is 950 acres of evergreen forest on the tributaries of the eastflowing Kabini.
The river is about 70m wide with no bridge, no boat and not even a bamboo raft to help you across. You simply have to wade across in kneedeep water, which in the monsoons becomes a raging current and for three months, Kuruvadweep becomes out of bounds. If you are staying at Green Gates Hotel in Kalpetta, the hotel provides a naturalist, takes care of the logistics and can arrange guides. However, you can ask around at Mananthavady or Kartikulam for a local who’ll double as a guide to Kuruvadweep. There are three islands here with a few submergible satellite islets. The main island has two freshwater lakes and several migratory birds can be seen here.
These islands are uninhabited and hence have a well-preserved ecosystem rich with various herbs, orchids and flowers. There’s no place to stay but with prior permission from the Forest Department and with the help of their guides, you can camp and walk around on the thickly forested island. After a day trip to Kuruvadweep, you can head for Thirunelly to stay for the night before you head out for Pakshipathalam. You can stay at Panchateertha Rest House or the Inspection Bungalow in Thirunelly.
DISTANCE 7 KM TIME 3 HOURS
The steps behind the Thirunelly Temple lead to Panchateertha and the Papanashini spring. The legend of how the Papanashini gained its cleansing powers is that as Brahma was consecrating Vishnu’s idol at Thirunelly, Garuda was escaping with the amrita kumbha (pot of nectar), arriving at Thirunelly just in time for the installation of his master’s idol. He circled above thrice and a drop of amrita fell into the stream, endowing it with amazing purifying powers. It is believed that after his aerial circumambulation, Garuda perched on Karimala, where today you can see a small projection shaped in the form of an eagle. The rock is known as Garudapara and Garuda, the King of Birds, stands guard over his winged subjects at Pakshipathalam, a veritable avian paradise.
Pakshipathalam or ‘Birds of the Subterranean’ is a natural rock cave located at the northern end of the Brahmagiri Hills. A 7-km trek from Thirunelly takes you there through a dense jungle and can be covered in 3 hrs. There’s no accommodation available, so most people do a day trip and trek back. If you are an avid birder and want a prolonged stay here, you must carry camping equipment and take forest guides from Appapara Forest Station or a local from Thirunelly. There’s also a watchtower here, 4 km from Thirunelly, that offers a good perch for bird-watching.
◆ Permit Contact the Forest Department at Tholpetty/ Appapara or the DFO (Tel: +91-4935-240627) at Mananthavady to go to Pakshipathalam. Currently out of bounds In the monsoons, from June to August, Pakshipathalam remains out of bounds as the path is faint, the trail is slippery and the forest teems with leeches and irritated animals of varying sizes. During the dry months, from February to May, there is danger of sudden forest fires.
By Anurag Mallick
About the author: From copywriting to Travel writing and a rock band to a radio station, Anurag Mallick is a nomad at heartand writer by choice. He has trekked in the Himalayas, taken a dip in the Maha Kumbh, meditated in a Buddhist monastery, documented the Ranthambore Tiger Census and several bird surveys.