They say God is impartial, but there are some places on this tiny planet of ours that defy the claim. One such place is located right next to God's Own Country -- Kerala, not Africa.
Just an hour away from Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, lies the fresh-like-a-breeze Mannavanur valley. If, instead of taking a car, you choose to get aboard the state transport bus, do so on an empty stomach. You'll save a tonne of money but super human powers of balance and courage will be needed to withstand the ride.
The ancient bus will hurtle through winding hilly roads and hairpin turns at the speed of sound. For the duration of the ride, which is about an hour and a half, the bus driver will nonchalantly chat up passengers and conductor alike, oblivious that the bus is almost a breath away from certain disaster. But then, as Calvin's dad would say, "It builds character."
As you leave Kodai town behind, wilderness and terrace farms alternate, expanding into the valley below. But all the views and valleys and busted valves (yes, the bus breaks down from time to time) cannot prepare you for the Mannavanur valley.
The very first glimpse will ensure instant silence. The second will cause disbelief. By the third glimpse you'll try to take it all in. The rolling grassy hills with clumps of chola forests that take over at regular intervals, a lake located in just the right spot and the Perijam forest spread out like a blanket, its edges skirting the valley. Ferns of silver, bronze, green and brown invade the hills and offset the many shades of green.
A marshy stream escapes from the lake and snakes its way between the hills, its water plants straining against the wind. The road generously curves all around the valley offering you a panoramic view before it leads you to the Mannavanur village.
With over a thousand households clustered around the road and spread over the hills beyond, the village offers little more than a few condiment shops and three or four tiny hotels or chai kadais (tea shops), where you can get meals and meat, dosas and steaming hot cups of tea and coffee.
There are a few places to stay in, if you are ready to rough it out.
Otherwise, a kilometre long walk back on the bus route (or you could request the driver to stop on the way if you're alert) will take you to Bird's Eye, the best accommodation for miles.
A different perspective
It's pretty rustic as well, with bare stone cottages on a hill side with mattresses and coarse blankets on stone beds. But there are three things that redeem it. First, true to its name, a 200-degree view of the valley greets you every time you step out of your cottage. Second, there's no back-breaking climb to get there. You cross the road, step off, and you're in the valley, bounding over hills, racing towards the occasional trees carpeted with fluorescent fungi. There are several rough paths made mainly by zealously grazing cattle and, other than the marsh, there are no dangers you'll encounter on your way. Third, the loos are fabulous. Richard the caretaker, doubles up as cook and the man will bring you warm water whenever you want. If you take your own supplies, the kitchen can also be used for an extra fee.
The magical nook
There are plenty of hidden surprises to uncover, so if you have your own vehicle, explore the hills and valleys on your wheels. If you choose to walk, then do visit the magical enclave I stumbled upon.
A couple of kilometres beyond the village lies a path into a magical forest with plants and nooks the likes of which are rarely seen. And it all starts with a stream. Follow the stream and discover a wonderland that goes on and on, every turn revealing new curiosities and colours. Numerous visits aren't enough to explore this pretty patch. Other than leeches in the rainy season, there's nothing here that can bother you. With so much to explore, tremendous positive energy, an explosion of life and many scenes to drink in, Mannavanur is a place that promises to draw you back time and again.
From Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai, there are daily buses to Kodaikanal and trains to Kodi Road Junction located at the base of the hill, three hours from the town. The Nagarcoil Express leaves from CST on all days except Monday and Tuesday.
There's a bus that leaves every couple of hours from the Kodaikanal bus stand. The ticket costs Rs 30-40. Taxis are also available and are a more comfortable option. They cost anywhere between Rs 800-1,400 depending on the driver, your bargaining skills and the time of the year.
The best time to visit is between March to August, before the rains begin. There's a tiring 23km trek or jeep ride to Perijam lake but I wouldn't even speak of it in comparison to this forest close by. Permissions are needed from the Government of Tamil Nadu Tourist Office, Annasalai, Kodaikanal, Ph: 04542- 241675.
When he's not busy radio jockeying, Hari doubles up as a writer and photographer