The morning was a blur of movement as we sped through a deserted Mumbai to the airport. It seemed as if the city had already emptied out for the Easter weekend. There were some queues at the airport, but we breezed through to catch breakfast at the food court. The plane was delayed on the tarmac; due to “VVIP movement”, we were told. The flight was a little rough with bouncy pockets of clear air above a horizon-to-horizon sea of clouds. After landing in Coimbatore there was a minor wait for our luggage, before we were out in the stifling noontime heat and into a waiting car.
The Tamil villages we sped through were a blur of coconut and banana orchards surrounding brightly painted little houses. It has been almost a decade since we came for a holiday to these parts, and as before, I am struck by the bright and dark greens, reds and purples contrasting with pinks and yellows on buildings. These are colour schemes which I only see on silk saris otherwise. From Coimbatore airport we sped towards Pollachi, and then to the Aliyar dam.
We stopped for tea just outside the dam in a little shop selling tea, coffee and the inevitable “tiffin”. In the last decade there has been an important invention: there is a kind of oven which was in use to boil water for tea and coffee. You can see it in the photo above. The fuel seems to be coir, the waste product from coconuts. Of course, one can use anything which is handy. Neat invention.
Immediately after this we entered the Annamalai Tiger Reserve, and the road started climbing up the Nilgiris. This part of the land suddenly turns green because of the water. The scrubland gives way quickly to forest. The milkweed disappears, and soon lanata begins to appear. The air is full of butterflies.
There are 40 hairpin bends on the way to Valparai. Everyone stops at the ninth to take photos of the lake behind Aliyar dam. As we climbed, the jungle gave way to tea estates: bright green interspersed with the purple of Jacarandas. The air was full of the smell of Eucalyptus and Jacaranda. We turned the last bend and saw a signboard announcing we had arrived. The remaining 9 kilometers still took us half an hour.
A long long time ago I was travelling to Delhi by train. In the coupe was a small child and his mother. The grandparents had come to the station to see the their grandson off. Just before the train left the station they gave him a huge slab of chocolate. When the train was on the move, and the boy was about to start on the chocolate, the mother asked him to share it with us. You could see the shock on the kid’s face. The mother was adamant: is your heart so small, like a mouse’s? That’s exactly what I feel like when I hear about leeches: mouse-hearted.
Scouring the web about Valparai I discover good news and bad news. The bad news is that other travel bloggers complain about leeches. My heart shrinks to mouse size. The good news is that you can get quite a lot of birding done just walking around the grounds of your hotel.
There’s nothing I can do about the bad news except hope that in April Valparai is still covered in forgetful snow (metaphorically) and that the land remains dead and lilac-free. Also I can carry leech socks. The Family refuses to do anything until we have to pack, so I am left to confront my base fears alone in the dead of the night.
Birding is another matter. Radha has a long and detailed post from her visit half a decade ago. So does Anushsh Shetty. A look at the photos Anushsh has posted is heartening; it may not be too hard to spot the Malabar squirrel, the tahr and the lion-tailed Macaque. Sankara rates this as the number seven birding spot in India, ahead of Mishmi hills, Pangot, and a lot of other places. You who look to windward, tell me if you agree. [Note added later: it is a great place for birding, read about our experiences here]
This is not going to be the relaxed holiday I was dreaming about. It will be hectic: rising in the morning before the birds, chasing macaques in the afternoons, silent evenings waiting for glimpses of tahrs. No lazing in the sun with a Long Island Iced Tea and a splash in the pool afterwards. Our Grimett and Inskip will be more battered, both my cameras will be image-laden, and, as always, I will need another holiday afterwards to recover from this.
The Family says she knew this. I gnash my teeth silently. Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt who said “Gnash your teeth and charge your batteries”? I resolve to do that.
April is what I am talking about, of course. It begins with a long weekend. Which means travel. The Family lays down the law: I have to start looking. Can we go to Corbett? No, that requires a longer vacation. What about Munnar? No, same reason. Badami? Hotels don’t look too inviting. North Bengal? Too short a trip. Assam? No.
I’m lost. The Family says Valparai. Where’s that? I look up Wikipedia. It looks like we should fly to Coimbatore and drive a hundred kms. Valparai seems to be essentially tea and coffee estates on the edge of a forest which you are not allowed to go to. Now this actually begins to look like a dream weekend getaway. Maybe we can spend three days loafing about: eating grass, going for strolls across tea gardens, and sleeping.
Edge of the forest? Bound to be some birds there. Take my camera along. The Family never travels without her binoculars and the battered Grimmett and Inskipp. Battery packs, several skeins of usb connectors, a laptop. I read further: lion-tailed macaques, great hornbill, the Nilgiri Tahr. This will be fascinating. I’m already enchanted.
But there is more on the web. valparai.com tells us “It is a place to be visited at least once in your life span, to bring out the joy and peace within you”. The 40 hairpin bends on the road to Valparai may bring out more from within me.
I keep my misgivings about food to myself. Does man live by grass alone? Could they have interesting mushrooms? Wikitravel is silent on the topic of mushrooms, but promises “lots of good bakeries with fresh eatables, biscuits, breads and other bakery products”. It’s been a long time since I had bakery products like fresh eatables. So I’m definitely looking forward to this.
There’s also a fascinating virtual tour showing what looks like snow. Can’t be, I tell myself. Valparai may be 3500 feet up, but it is in the Annamalai range. No chance of being buried in the ice and being dug up 10000 years later with wild mushrooms in my pockets.
Mundane matters will now follow. Finding a hotel, transferring money, buying tickets. But I am charged up. April is no longer the cruelest month. I will not fear a handful of dust.