Munnar, Kerala’s best known hill station, is set in a land of undulating hills blanketed by tea estates.
Located in one of the many cardamom plantations that cling to the side of the higher slopes, our hotel grandly calls itself “Olive Brook: Republic of Nature”. It sits up a one in three climb just off the only road running along the valley beyond Munnar and consists of six bungalows overlooking a colourful and well-maintained garden. So far, so good.
As is the norm in India every car that approaches a bend beeps its horn, several times: there are curves in the road on each side of our hotel. Not so good. Contrary to expectations, however, we were not kept awake all night by frantic horn blowing as it turns out everyone retires to bed early in these parts; since the road takes you nowhere but to other hotels it was virtually deserted after 9:30pm. Phew.
Our ‘bungalow’ was vast. We had a front sitting area and an inner sanctum home to a huge double bed and an even bigger bathroom. We could have fitted two Espers in there. Each night we sat on our veranda in the evening, sipping beer and wine, listening to the sounds of the jungle. The food was less than inspiring in the hotel, pretty to look at but rather bland in taste, so after the first night we chose to eat in Munnar at the same place as our driver. The unfortunately-named “Roachas” is not in any tourist guide but it serves locals with real Keralan food. We had a fantastic fish supper of Meen Moilee and enjoyed a very tasty lunch there too for less than a quid each.
Less rugged than the rainforests of Kodaikanal, Munnar is a seemingly gentle place. Tea plantations – by necessity pruned to within an inch of their lives – are arranged in perfectly straight lines, a green candlewick bedspread draped over the crumpled land, with pretty shade-giving acacia and orange trees dotted here and there.
Flora Of Munnar montage by Liz
Like a nice Surrey garden these pampered cultivars are painstakingly fussed over. Like the Home Counties, dig a little deeper and you will find lurking underneath all that serenity some scary truths. Our guide looks uncomfortable when at dusk I suggest we extend our walk round the cardamom plantation, through the rain forest and into the tea bushes. Going off the beaten track seems to be a no-no. He avoids my gaze when I quiz him a little further,
“There were reports of wild elephants very close to here yesterday.”
How sweet, I think. My opinion of elephants changes when he tells us that this is not such a good thing: wild elephants regularly trample everything in their way, including people. The guide, buoyed up by the dawn of fear in our eyes digs deeper into his bag of horrors and tells us there are foxes in these parts,
“If you are alone and they are hungry they will attack you.”
These Indian foxes are bigger than our Beatrix Potter foxes back home, resembling small and fierce Alsatian dogs. My fondness for exploring evaporates.
“Also, madam, there are many snakes.”
OK, OK, I get the picture. He doesn’t want to venture further in the rapidly dwindling light.
Jamie and I are not deterred from venturing in the area during the day, however, and we walk till our knees can take no more. The endlessly green terrain is fresh and scented, unlike anywhere else we have seen. Women migrate around the hills picking new green shoots from the tops of the shrubs then placing them in sacks which they pile onto trucks. One male overseer makes sure they get on with their work. He stands, or sits, or lounges making helpful suggestions while stoical women march back and forth laden with tea. We visit a tea museum, a facsimile of a working tea factory, and learn how the fresh leaves are turned into our familiar tea drink.
The English introduced tea to the area in the nineteenth century, but it is now very much a local business. The workers of Kenan Devan Hills Tea bought out the company from Tata in 2005 and were the first ever cooperative tea plantation in India. Employees own 69% of the business with the remaining 31% of shares spread among Tata and others. As Keralans – being a highly educated lot – prefer not to indulge in manual labour, the company brings workers over from poorer Tamil Nadu; their families are housed by the company so that they can stay together. Schooling, healthcare and crèche facilities are also provided. From what we could see, and without being able to interview the workers, it appeared to be a friendly and happy place to work. Jamie met nearby villagers, who were welcoming and chatty.
Remembering what our guide had said about snakes I ask if working in the fields is dangerous,
“Certainly our workers are bitten by snakes, but we carry anti-venom here and are able to treat bites immediately.”
Later on I read it is important that visitors to India learn how to identify potentially deadly snakes. This is so that you can tell the doctor or pharmacist what bit you and the correct anti-venom can be administered. There are over 270 species of snakes in India out of which about 60 are venomous. If I am with you when you get bitten by a snake don’t be insulted if I grab a camera or a sketch pad, I’m not being unsympathetic. I just don’t think I can learn all the species of snakes off by heart, so an image is going to be the next best thing!
We were delighted to discover that plantations in this area are ‘green’, using only a third of the land for tea, leaving the rest in its natural state. Now, whether the land remains untouched because the terrain is unsuitable for cultivation I’m not sure, I’m just thankful that man and nature seem to be living in harmony here… finally. Of course we have the lovely British to thank for decimating the area of its tigers, as we did all over India. Sigh. With embarrassment. Again.
Found 10kms outside Munnar, Eravikulam (above and right) was declared a sanctuary in 1975 and upgraded in 1978 to a national park, in part due to its unique flora and fauna. We went at the wrong time to see the enigmatic Neelakurunji, a plant which produces its carpet of blue flowers every 12 years (go there in 2014 for the next viewing) but we did see the fabulously rare Nilgiri Tahr, the only species of Caprine ungulate (look that up in your Funk and Wagnall’s) found south of the Himalayas. There are around 2,500 left of this friendly wild mountain goat in the world, ensuring its place among the status of ‘endangered’ in the WWF list of rare animals.
We arrived at the park excited at the prospect of seeing rare goats and climbing Anamudi (2690m), the highest peak in India south of the Himalayas. We ascended the foothills aboard the park bus and jumped off with about 40 Indian tourists at the high entrance pathway. We were not allowed to deviate from the path and were asked to keep quiet so as not to upset the wildlife. Fair enough. Accompanied by families of screaming children scrambling in the undergrowth, shouting groups of men and chattering women in bejewelled thong sandles and saris, we tried to pretend we were at one with nature. The goats crossed the carefully designated pathway in front of us ignoring the noise; the 25 species of other mammals, 132 species of birds, 101 species of butterflies and 19 species of amphibians recorded in the Park kept their distance. An abrupt end to the path made it clear we would not be allowed any further, ending our dream of reaching our first real peak in India.
A little disappointedly we returned down the hill-path, trying to find a moment of tranquility among the tourist madness. Anyone who has visited India will know this is never an easy task. We gave up at the bus drop-off point, and, in a last ditch effort to find some serenity in the beautiful surroundings, decided to walk back to the bottom. Fat chance. A guard shooed us back up the hill and we joined a heaving bus of tourists back to the park entrance.
Oh well, we saw the goats.