Our travel plan ran into serious trouble in Munnar. My father, who had so far been crabby about being ‘made to walk too much’ in the Fort Kochi area, refused to leave this tea-plantation town on schedule. He insisted on staying for an extra day, revisiting the Anaimudi peak — which, wrapped in a blanket of Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes) flowers, has currently turned bluish-mauve.
On the day of our arrival, the first thing we did after checking into our hotel was head for the Eravikulam National Park at Rajamala, which is drawing tourists in droves as the Neelakurinji is in bloom after 12 years. A forest department bus took us from there to the peak, the highest in South India. From there on, we had to trek on the winding road, making our way through a carpet of Neelakurinji that broke the monotony and ended in a sky bending under clouds.
Surprisingly, my father had stopped complaining though the climb was hard. To be fair to him, his mood had improved much earlier—during the Kochi to Munnar drive through rubber plantations, followed by natural forests. The beauty of the stretch, dotted with waterfalls, had made us stop at various points.
At Anaimudi, clouds were hovering over the 2,695-high peak, blurring our view of the flower beds. Their misty effect definitely had a romantic appeal. But, the Nilgiri tahrs (rare mountain goats found here) probably didn't think so. They had all gone into hiding. We failed to sight a single one, though the guards — who seemed to be posted at every 20 metres — kept assuring us that they might pop by at any moment. It had started raining by then. Rain-drenched, even though we had hired umbrellas for Rs 5 each, we went up to the highest possible point, keeping our eyes peeled for these endangered species. But no luck.
Feeling almost slighted, we were climbing down grudgingly when the clouds lifted all of a sudden, baring the Neelakurinji-embellished hillscape. Sunlight streamed in, the view was gorgeous to say the least. But God's own country has a habit of overwhelming expectations.
On our way back, I wanted to buy a bunch of bright-red carrots with glossy leaves that farmers were selling along the road, not because I like eating them but because they looked so nice. The idea was promptly shot down. That evening, we had no choice but to stay in the hotel wrapped in blankets as the rain intensified. And of course, we kept asking for tea. In Munnar, tea-drinkers are spoilt for choice. Mint, cardamom, ginger, masala, lemon and vanilla-flavoured teas are just some of them. And they even tempted a non-regular tea-drinker like me with their aroma and flavour to have several cups.
Next morning the sky was clear. Going on a walk and exploring the nearby tea gardens was the most obvious thing to do. The morning aarti and chanting of mantras at a small temple filled the air. Moving lazily among swathes of lush green manicured tea gardens, with their rain-washed leaves glistening in the sunlight, set the mood for the day.
We were going to travel around the hill resort — situated 1,600 metres above sea level—full of hairpin bends and twisting roads. Our first stop: Mattupatty dam and lake, located about 10 km from Munnar.
Corn on the cob
The tourists had not yet descended at the Mattupatty dam when we reached. Perhaps that is what added to the Mattupatty lake’s lazy atmosphere; that and the floating clouds. We made a beeline for roasted corn on the cob, also bought caps for Rs 10 a piece. They fitted our heads snugly and are all the rage with tourists in Munnar.
Then we were off to Echo Point. Once there, we joined the crowd screaming their lungs out. Our efforts were more than rewarded with those (not so pleasant) sounds reverberating manifold from across the hill-locked lake.
At Kundala lake, we were faced with a dilemma: horse riding or a boat ride? We plumbed for horse-riding since none of us had ever ridden a horse. It took close to an hour to reach Top Station from Kundala. The expanse of the Western Ghats can be best captured from this place, the highest point on the Munnar-Kodaikanal road, on the Kerala and Tamil Nadu border. Apart from that, on the way to Top Station, you come across spectacular velvety green tea gardens sweeping the rolling hillsides with silver oak trees that seem to touch the sky.
By the time we returned to the hotel, we were dizzy from driving on circuitous hill roads. But not my mother; she went berserk buying God knows how many varieties and packets of tea. I stuck to homemade chocolate, which can give the best branded ones a run for their money.
Late in the afternoon, we started for Periyar. But we were not yet through with Munnar. For the next 40 km, our vehicle took us through tea gardens and suspended clouds — they seem to exist cheek by jowl in Munnar.