Tired of being stuck at home on too many long weekends, I sent out a SMS one fine morning asking people if they would be interested in a trekking trip. About 6 were interested and I fished out an old newpaper article about a place called ‘Mannavanur’ which had been featured in The Hindu’s ‘Road Less Traveled’ series long ago. The picture that had featured in the article was worth a thousand words and was good enough for me to hold onto that page for more than a year and now it was time to actually go.
Mannavanur is not a very well known destination and when you call up the local coordinator in Chennai, you know why. Any avid P.G.Wodehouse reader would remember Robert Baxter, Lord Emsworth’s secretary. Baxter’s tagline used to be ‘Baxter suspects’. He did not suspect anyone about anything in specific but used it as a general worldview. The gentleman I spoke to was Baxter’s real world equivalent. He suspected. He suspected that we would be a bunch of yuppies waiting to get to Mannavanur to douse ourselves in alcohol (which some of us did in the cold), throw plastic papers all over the place (which we did not do) and generally change of the fabric of local people’s lives (ha ha. Why would anyone care about us!). So he reluctantly parted with the details of the stay and the cost. Then he came to interview me and I spent a good one-hour convincing him that we were worthy of staying in those cottages and being allowed to trek in restricted areas. The cost per head per day for stay and food came to a glorious INR 550 so it was well worth spending the time with him.
There are many treks one can do from Mannavanur. The one featured in the article was a long one (23 km round trip) to Berijam. This however required permission from the Forest Reserve and I simply did not have the time to get that organized. Later on I found out that if we had told the people in charge of the cottage the previous evening, they could have arranged it.
Day 0 – 1
Friday night, the bunch of us set off for Kodai Road by train. We had arranged for a Tata Sumo to take to our destination but the station had enough taxis. On the way we had breakfast at Kodaikanal and after a sum total of 3 hours we were there.
The place looked pretty basic, full of brick cottages set at different levels. There was one cottage for the dining room, with its wide array of curiously ugly, homemade masks made by the owner of the place and foisted on unsuspecting guests. There were levels for the squeaky clean common bathrooms and other cottages. The 30 step steep climb to our cottage got most of us panting and I was rather glad we were not doing the Berijam trek. Once we dumped our luggage though, we stepped out of our rooms and came across the most amazing view ever. The cottages were set just below the lips of those hills and hence afforded a panoramic view of the valley below. There was a lake in the middle of the valley, which changed colours as the day progressed. All around there was nothing but greenery. One could sit for hours and just gaze.
After a round of catching up on sleep, washing up et al, we arrived freshly scrubbed for lunch. Post lunch, was a 6km walk to the lake. The weather was pleasant and the walk went through pretty grasslands and hillocks and upon reaching the lake we did nothing more than plonk down and chat or doze. Clearly, this was not going to be one of those strenuous trekking holidays.
On the way back, all of us decided to take snaps against the grey-black rocks that appeared on one side of the road from time to time. A correct angle made you look like Spiderman effortlessly clambering up the mountains. If the public was expecting to see snaps in the trip of us climbing every mountain, fording every stream etc etc, they would not be disappointed.
The place had no electricity but the owners provided two hours of light thanks to a generator. After which there was nothing but candlelight for us to move about. SR decided that the atmosphere was perfect for describing his close encounters with ghosts (yes, he was serious) and told us more and more fantastic tales about ghosts sitting on this watchman’s chest, ghosts blocking gates and so on and so forth. Atleast it got couple of the group members wary about walking to the bathrooms by themselves.
Soon it was time for dinner and a good nap in the increasingly cold weather. I piled on three blankets and still shivered. Sometimes I wonder if I am just psychologically prone to feeling cold in really cold places or is it really cold.
The jeeps, which were supposed to take us to the trekking point, had gone off on election duty. The caretaker suggested alternate trekking routes and transport plans. Finally we decided to take the local bus at noon to get to the trekking point. We were assured that the jeep would have returned by the time the trek got over and we could return in relative comfort.
It has been a long time since I have taken a local bus. We got into the bus and instantly everyone pretended they were not looking at us while staring at us through the corner of their eyes. Given that the women in the group were all wearing pants and t-shirts, this was not entirely unexpected. At least people were being polite enough to not directly gape. The ride was quite interesting. The road fitted the bus the way clothes fit models – absolutely no extra space to provide a margin for error, an especially worrying fact at the never ending hairpin bends. The driver was however a veteran of the roads and did not blink an eye while pulling the bus back from sharp cliffs at the last second. The locals also treated the bus like their private vehicles – getting off every now and then to catch a quick drink if the bus was planning to loop its way and come back to the same point.
We reached the starting point and set off. The road was picturesque and a river ran by the side throughout. The scenery changed from green valleys, eucalyptus trees to pretty pines. After a while we stopped talking, instead just walked on and on. Eventually we reached our destination – Kilakarrai Falls. The real name of the falls is Vellai Tawalai (White Towel) but the area is called Kilakarrai and hence the misnomer.
The Falls was deserted and the water sparkled gently in the sun as it babbled down. We spread ourselves in convenient spots – S and self choosing to get an instant pedicure by dipping our feet in the cold running water while sitting on the warm rocks, the guys deciding to catch a nap in the shade nearby and the others chatting away on the grass. An hour flew by quickly and it was time for the return trip.
Our guide was quite keen that we also see the bottom of the Falls having come all the way. Five of us decided to trek down through a narrow path covered with dry vegetation hiding shallow pits. After some fumbling, we made it down and gazed at the pool for a while. It was colder though and we were happy to start climbing back up. The guide decided that we could use a short cut through the vegetation and we started following. After five minutes I spotted my worst nightmare – a colony of leeches waiting to spring onto unsuspecting trekkers. I immediately sounded the alert and before I could finish the rest had started scrambling back up. We reached the road and checked for leeches and realized the wily creatures had managed to climb onto our clothes in the space of those few seconds. With some quick action, all of us were rid of leeches. An hour later, we halted for a break and Cherie discovered that one leech had still managed to escape detection and had bulged so much with her blood that its eyes were practically popping out. Cherie screamed and pushed away the leech and tied a hanky to cover the wound, which, as expected bled for some more time.
It is paradoxical wanting to trek but not being happy with leeches. I have been mentally trying to prepare myself for a very long time to handle leeches. Before every trip I have a logical conversation with myself pointing out that leeches just look gross but are not dangerous. However when the moment arrives, I turn hysterical, leap about like a banshee and in general behave like a person who has had the pleasure of knowing what a 2000 V electric shock feels like.
After that brush with nature’s bounties, we started back. S and I had a long conversation reminiscing our hostel days and it felt very strange and pleasant to think that after eleven years we were trekking together through an unknown road, sharing stories which the other had failed to hear while in school and had moved on in life so much but could still bitch about our hostel warden with the same school-girlish intensity.
About half a kilometer before we reached the bus stop, we found the caretaker waiting for us. The jeep had been arranged and we were glad to be on the way back. By now we knew that hot tea and some calorie-heavy divine snack would be waiting us for on our return. The thumb rule of trekking is to figure out how many calories you are going to burn and then eat merrily. Invariably, I always overestimate the distance I am supposed to walk and underestimate the amount of food I will be consuming.
By now we had told the caretaker that we were quite happy to pay extra for non-veg food and the cook had prepared quite a spread. After a heavy dinner, it was time for the traditional bonfire. Possibly it was the absolute lack of any other source of light, or the mesmerizing effect of the bonfire, most of us managed to stay up till three in the morning sharing sad, happy, funny and weird personal stories. We could not have been more honest if we were devout Catholics at a Church confessional. An unspoken understanding not to spread the stories was also reached. This was not too tough to keep given that people were too sleepy or too high to actually remember the bare details.
It was a destined to be a day of tension. The weather became hot and sticky as we descended to the plains. One of us had a bus ticket from Kodaikanal to Bangalore and hence had to get off halfway through and that signaled the end of the trip. The train tickets back for the rest were not confirmed. We figured out bus tickets would be a challenge in case the train did not work out and we may end up traveling in some third rate bus with wooden seats, if at all.
Luckily around five my parents called to say that four out of our six tickets had been confirmed. This improved everyone’s mood considerably and we made the last visit on our agenda in high spirits.
I confess I have not been one of those diehard fans of visiting Tamil Nadu’s temples and it was only when the Madurai Meeanakshi temple got into the list of potential wonders of the world, I decided to go and see it. The trip lasted just an hour but was well worth it. The temple complex was massive to say the least and in spite of all the tinsel and lights that been hung all over to mark Vijayadasami, the place looked glorious. We had also arrived on the day the 108- Veena concert was in progress and in the midst of the rushed schedule managed to drink in the sound waves that reflected off the stone walls, pure and clear.
Reluctantly (atleast for me as I had managed to buy a cheap book on the temple’s background and wanted to explore the place further), we left for dinner. The place, Royal Court, was just opposite the railway station and for a reasonable price you could sit at the rooftop restaurant, which had a view of the temple. Everyone was subjected to a quick summary of the temple’s history, mythology and architecture, courtesy my book.
Finally it was time to board the train and we got in and found to our delight the TT from the onward journey was TTing again. We explained that two of us were still on waiting list and he agreed to turn a blind eye if we managed to share our berths. A complicated process to stuff four people into two berths began. I think that must have been the first time in my life I must have slept sideways continuously for eight hours.
And the next morning, it was back to the grind. Albeit with a slightly aching side and some lovely photographs in the digital camera waiting to be downloaded.