Pouring rain in Kerala in mid autumn is quite an unexpected phenomenon. A thick shroud of rain covered Kochi, and the planned trip to Munnar next morning looked like a disaster. Munnar in the hills is a three-hour drive from Kochi.
The morning dawned with a continued downpour. The road was smooth, the hired car was comfortable and the driver accommodative. But all this was not enough to lift the spirit. As we stopped for a cup of tea near a magnificent waterfall midway, tourists returning from Munnar warned of a doomed holiday in the hill station.
But the weather Gods were kind. Ascending the hills, the eyes were savouring a feast of beauty, the gurgling waterfalls, rain-fed and fattened now, the sky suddenly spread out over us like a blue chador. Luxurious growths of poinsettias in reds and creamy yellows swayed against the sun-dappled canvas.
And then the famed tea gardens came into view. Tea gardens here look different from those in the Northeast where they carpet the gently sloping Brahmaputra valley, or even hilly Darjeeling. Here they cover the steep hillocks like tufts of sheep-wool, only the colour is dark green. They stretch, from one hill to another like a landscape drawn by an artist in love with the hills.
Thankfully, Munnar is yet to be over-developed like many hill stations, where the kitsch and noise of city tourists break into the gentle rhythm of the place. The main bazaar area may be uninteresting, but go a little further and it still retains the aura of a beautiful hill station nestling in the loving arms of what was known once as the High Range of Travancore.
Situated 1600 m in the Idukki district of Kerala, Munnar literally means the confluence of three streams Mudrapuzha, Nallathani and Kundala. It was once the summer resort of the British in south India. This is also where the famous blue flower Neelakurinji blooms ó but every 12 years. The hills were earlier known as Kanan Devan Hills after a landlord of the same name. The British started the tea plantations here in 1878.
The resorts, which have come up at the outskirts of the town, have done well to preserve the air of tranquillity. Individual cottages, nestled amidst lush greens, make you forget the hustle-bustle of city life. And the air is always heavy with the aroma of cardamoms and eucalyptus trees. Explore a little and you will be able to find coffee-bean plants and whole spices. The perennial sound of water, like raindrops falling, creates a soothing background for total relaxation.
A drive to the Eravikulam National Park at Rajamala (15 km) is a must. The picturesque ride is a reward in itself. From a distance, the bare hills look as if lined with white streaks; nearer they turn to be mountain streams tumbling down in great torrents. The park is also home of the Nilgiri tahr, an endangered mountain goat. The sanctuary has been winning accolades as one of the best maintained in the country. Sensibly, the authorities do not allow plastic packets inside the grounds. In fact, the courteous guards check your bag like customs officers before allowing you in. Itís quite a climb to the plateau which looks like a tableland, but itís an exhilarating walk. The tahrs are rather shy; a binocular helps to observe them more closely.
The Muttupetty dam, ensconced among the hills, is big draw for picnickers. Those who want to take boat-rides can do so but the hiring charge is rather steep. Drive a little beyond and the Kundala lake is a better bet, which has motorboats at a much more reasonable rate.
On way to the Top Station at the Echo Point (a favourite with young lovers) enjoy amazingly sweet local pineapples sliced and smeared with masala and listen to your voice coming back as Ďechoí from the hills.
Nobody returns from Munnar without buying tea or spices. The shops in the bazaar are well-stacked with bottles of strawberry jam (delicious), spices like cardamom, cloves and nutmegs and eucalyptus oil, which is prescribed for backaches, colds etc.
How to go:
Nearest airport and railhead: Kochi