The green escape

Wayanad in Kerala is yet to be discovered by hordes of tourists. It is a haven of tranquillity 
in the wilderness, right in the lap of Mother Nature, writes Sudha Mahalingam

Soulful silence reigns, occasionally interrupted by the chatter of exotic birds; scent of cardamom, pepper, vanilla and nutmeg in various stages of ripening hangs in the air; shafts of sunlight filter through the mist to spotlight a coffee bush blush with ripe red berries; your powerful SUV heaves on a winding, potholed hill-road that would deter all but the most persistent traveller wanting to escape the din of cities.

A visit to Chembara Peak is a vigorous six-hour-trek each way
A visit to Chembara Peak is a vigorous
six-hour-trek each way

We are on our way to Annapara — meaning elephant rock — hidden away on a hilltop amidst lush jungle in Wayanad in Kerala. Yet to be discovered by the tourist hordes that descend in droves on nearby Kumarakom in the same state, Wayanad has mercifully escaped the depredations of tourist overkill. Surprisingly, all three towns in Wayanad — Sultan Batheri, Vythiri and Kalpeta — have excellent road connectivity to Bangalore, Coimbatore and Kozhikode. And from any of these three Wayanad towns, you can take off to one of the many secluded and solitary hideaways that dot this landscape.

We opted for Annapara Homestay near Kalpeta. Being in Annapara is like retreating into the womb — secure, nourishing and peaceful. The road to the spot is only partially paved, which adds to Annapara’s allure, precisely because it is not easily accessible. It is a haven of tranquillity in the wilderness. Nothing comes between you and Mother Nature, not even electricity. Of course, a feeble generator produces just enough electricity to illuminate your way to the toilet in your suite, but leaves the other light effects to the myriad stars that crowd the firmament. Annapara’s appeal lies in its unfussy and minimalist d`E9cor that does not compromise on comforts.

Edakkal caves are famous for their rock etchings, made by primitive men and women
Edakkal caves are famous for their rock etchings, made by primitive men and women Photo by the writer

The drive from Bangalore takes you through Maddur, famous for its signature vadas, quaint Mysore with its old-world charm and parts of Bandipur Game Sanctuary known for its many wild elephant herds and an occasional tiger. Dense bamboo bushes dot the roadsides, forming a ribbed canopy overhead and creating latticework patterns of light and shade.

We reach Annapara by lunchtime and head for its al fresco dining facility with a 360-degree view of the surrounding valley.

The next day we head to our very own private waterfall and swimming pool, tucked away behind dense undergrowth and reached after an hour’s trek through tea plantations. It is so private and secluded that it doesn’t even have a name. You don’t hear the waterfall until you’re actually upon it, and you’d never know it is there unless friendly helper accompanies you. It is a benign waterfall but is forceful enough to make your body ache disappear.

Salim Zafar, the resort owner, offers us a trek to Chembara Peak, beckoning to you from the chinks in the foliage. It is a vigorous six-hour-trek each way, the last mile absolutely vertical and only for the hardy. Two of us being on the wrong side of 50, we give it a miss and choose to lounge around to do some bird spotting. Salim lends his binoculars and we head for the jungle. We follow the call of whistling schoolboy, a species of thrush that populates the tall branches of the trees. But it remains elusive. But we do spot woodpeckers, barbets, bulbuls, drongos and the ever-chatty babblers that always fly in groups of seven or eight. If you can’t place any of the birds you spot, you can always refer to Salim Ali, placed so thoughtfully, in the gazebo’s mini library.

We decide to do a jungle trek the next day. Sodden foliage sinks underfoot while gnarled tree-trunks, sporting wild orchids, form festoons overhead. The canopy above is so dense you can hardly see the sun. Crickets chatter and langurs swing from branches, screeching and scratching. We reach a cardamom plantation and the owner invites us into his jungle home where he has an ingenious furnace that dries the aromatic produce. It is hard work, shovelling logs into the furnace and drying cardamom in trays, fetching it to the market for auction, but he is not complaining. He likes it up there where he has brown pandas and jungle cats for visitors. He offers to ride us back to Annapara in his ramshackle gypsy and we accept his offer with alacrity. It is a very bumpy ride back but through a very scenic route in a jalopy very redolent of cardamom.

We wrap up our memorable trip to Wayanad with a visit to Edakkal caves, famous for their rock etchings made by primitive men and women. Climbing vertical Chembara Peak would have been child’s play compared to this most arduous trek up steep incline strewn with the jagged rocks. One has to watch every step, but that was the least of our worries. This being a Sunday, the place was packed with local visitors, including a huge contingent of kids in school uniform and there was risk of stampede.

But disappointingly, there was no board, no information on the etchings or a guide to unlock the wonders of the cave. Worse, none of the fellow visitors seemed to have any interest in the etchings except to get them as a backdrop to their own pictures. Thus we watched hundreds of flash bulbs pop and people posing and smiling with nary a glance at the wonderful messages carved by our pre-historic ancestors!