There is something common between these mountain cities in India. Shimla and Darjeeling; Ooty and Mussorie; Kodaikanal and Nainital. Of course they were built by the British to escape the hot and dusty summers in the plains. But the common thread to is the unbridled development which has made them concrete jungles just as in the plains below.
At the arrival of first snow, the road between New Delhi and Mussorie is clogged up with cars. By the time you reach the place all you can see is brownish mud and listen to only honking by the impatient drivers.
Once the preserve of the ruling British Raj, today all these towns are accessible to us and with typical ‘freedom without responsibility attitude’ of the general public, inept state governments, avaricious politicians we have seen to that all these beautiful towns are totally destroyed.
The entire Himalayas (well most of it anyway) would have disappeared by illegal quarrying but for the personal involvement of our erstwhile Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi who put a full stop to it. For the past few days, major headlines in our newspaper is the water shortage in Shimla at the peak of tourist season.
There is a magic in mountain towns. The cool breeze, undulating landscapes, thousand of trees which dot the mountains and the snowfall in the northern hill-stations and the year round rains in the ghats down south make the romance with the mountains complete. And three of these hills stations have their own mountain railways, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, the Kalka Shimla Train and the Darjeeling Toy train. By some providence, the trains on these routes are still chucking.
In 1986, when I first paddled a boat on Ooty lake, I could hardly see anyone in the lake. Today if you take a ride, you can hardly see the water in the lake. One, the lake has shrunk and two there are always a thousand boats, and million tourists waiting for a ride you would think you are in a village mela and not in a mountain lake.
One hill-station fortunately has escaped this destruction, Valparai in Tamil Nadu. I first visited the place in 1990 when I was based in Udumalpet a town about 80 KMs from Valparai. I was told there are 40 hairpin bends on the Pollachi – Valparai route and it was a challenge to ride up the mountain.
I have mentioned about the power of India automobiles in my blog, Romancing the RX-100 – A Southern Odyssey -1993. Part -1. If Yamaha RX 100 had the power of David Hardy’s electric razor, M-50 (a Bajaj Moped) would have had the power of his toothbrush. This is the bike I drove up the mountain. In the entire stretch on the hairpin bends, I had to climb on first gear. It was a dream landscape, the mountains, the tea plantations, the rivers and dams. Two things are still fresh in my memory.
I went to Sholiyar dam in the afternoon and while coming back, I had a flat tyre half between the dam and Valparai town. It was late in the evening and there was nothing except miles of tea estates all around. I pushed the bike for a mile and saw a small hut inside the garden. I parked the bike outside, removed the wheel, went inside and informed the owner of the house that I would keep the bike there and collect it the following morning. He said the bike would be safe and no one would come to steal it, but he can’t guarantee safety from the bisons which may trample all over it.
I took a chance, flagged a bus down and took the wheel to Valparai. By now it was dark and the only puncture repair shop was already closed. I booked myself into a small hotel. Next day I got the tyre mended and took a bus to the dam. “Where to?” the conductor asked me. I told him, “I don’t know. My bike is somewhere on this road. Please give me a ticket to the dam and I will get down when I see my bike.” I went to the diver and told him to stop the bus when he sees a bike standing on one wheel. He laughed when I narrated him the story of the flat tyre and said “you have guts to park the bike in the wilderness and you don’t even know where you parked it.
After about 10 miles, I saw the bike standing in the same place where I left it the previous evening. Got down, put the wheel back and started back to a long drive back to Udumalpet.
On the way I went to upper Aliyar, which feeds the Kadambarai power plant, the only power plant inside a tunnel in India. Upper Aliyar is in ecological fragile place and the entry was restricted. I could somehow convince the forest security to let me pass through but getting into the plant was difficult. It was a Sunday so none of the senior managers were available in the plant. I convinced the security to put me through to someone incharge and through intercom I could talk to a senior manager who after some persuasion allowed me a small tour with an escort.
In 1992 JK and I with some friends trekked through Parambikulam – Aliyar range for four days determined to see tiger in natural habitat. Anaimali tiger reserve was part of the range. It was one of the best experience to trek through shola forests. We could not see a tiger (the closest we came to spotting one was when we saw a half eaten small bison and the pug marks of the killer). But we saw malabar flying squirrel and lion tailed macaques. The LTM are shy animals and live in this high range of mountains and an endangered species. We also had lot of leech attacks during the trail and the only remedy was to apply untreated salt over them. The expert guide who led us though the hike brought us to Valapari town from where we took a bus. The guide casually told us that he would trek back to Anaimalai sanctuary and without us he would cover the distance in one fourth of the time. That was one of the best treks of our lives.
I kept telling Renuka, that Valparai is more beautiful and we should visit the place but never got around to make it. One of the main reason is of course you don’t get to see ads for stay in Valparai nor ads of holiday resorts. I learnt only home-stays are available and they are not great. After some research we found out that tea estates offer some premium accommodation and JK manage to get a stay for us.
This week we drove from Coimbatore and after passing through 4 laning nightmare between Coimbatore and Pollachi we arrived at the foothills of Valparai and found that magic is still intact. We skipped the Aliyar dam at the foot hills and started the climb. The early showers of Valparai had already set in and it was a pleasant drive up the mountains. We saw a bunch of Nigiri Tahr grazing by the side of road after crossing the first hairpin bend.
EID Parry one of the largest industrial houses in India magnate about 23,000 hectares of Tea Estate near Attakatti where we stopped for a tea break. I told Mr. Raja who runs a homestay, that for the first time I am seeing a place unchanged in India even after 25 years. He replied that most of the lands are owned by big tea companies and it’s not possible to buy a small piece of land like you can do in Ooty or Kodaikanal. So there is scope of uncontrolled development. From the tea shop, there was a beautiful view of valley below and a cricket pitch laid out amidst the tea garden. The green top must be really inviting the pace bowlers.
We proceeded towards the tea estate where we were booked and after crossing Valparai town (just about a kilometre in length) Google Map asked us to get into a tea estate. I was bit hesitant but there was no one around to ask and we drove through the estate which was not meant for car. Only the estate manager’s 4 wheel drive could have made it through the small patch of road which was filled with pot holes and stones. As I feared the car got struck and we were stranded for a while. The phone line was dead so we could not call anyone for help. After a while, I gave one mighty push at the accelerator and the car passed the bump and soon Google informed us that we had arrived and we could see only trees and tea garden around us. I saw a road above and somehow coaxed the car to get there and after a bit of search saw the tea estate bang on the main road. The receptionist casually told us there was a mistake with the map. I asked him why did they not correct it and why did they not tell us beforehand not to take the Google Map road but could not get a reply.
The estate was beautiful and the wooden chalet excellent. We were given company by different bird species the best of them is the Malabar Whistling Thrush. They kept whistling throughout the day and night.
You can listen to the whistling sound here:
The next day I first drove to Niradi dam which was close to the estate. After the forest check post, the road down was really bad but it was compensated by nature with beautiful scenery all around and the slight drizzle added to the beauty. There were hardly any visitor at the dam and we could soak in the beauty.
I drove to Nallamudi view point from there as the forest officials warned me that my small car can’t make it to chinna kallar dam as the road was very bad. Again the drive was fantastic through different tea estates. On the way I met an official from TanTea, a Government of Tamil Nadu tea unit and he confirmed that most of the land and the tea estates are indeed owned by the Government and given to the estate management on long term lease with many conditions. Only recently they have allowed to the estates to build hospitality suites and even the free hold land is not free in the true sense as the government and forest department put severe restrictions on what can be built. That’s the reason one hardly sees any big hotels on the way and the place still retains all the beauty. When I complained about poor cell phone reception, he said that’s understandable as the forest department feels that too many towers would scare the birds away.
I proceeded to Sholiyar dam with a hope to spot the place where I kept my bike overnight 28 years ago. During the 30 kilometres drive, we passed only one big village, urlikal and I was sure it was close to this village. Only a few more houses have come up in all these years and there were only miles of tea estates and some canteens run by the managements offering variety of tea and the lemon tea was simply delicious.
I could not spot the bike place but the dam looked the same after all these years. I kept wondering how I managed to drive a 50CC mouse on these steep roads without a worry almost 30 years back without a map and a smart phone to guide me.
River flowing into the dam and the Sholiyar dam.
Next day we started early to visit upper Aliyar dam the kadambarai powerhouse, but to my dismay found that the approach road to the dam has been cut off by the security. The guard told us that the entry is now severely restricted and unless we have permission from the higher ups, there was no way he would let us have a glimpse of the dam or power plant or the treetop house.
The last place of out visit was a complete disaster. The Aliyar dam was built after independence and opened by the then Prime Minister of India Mr. Nehru and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Mr. Kamaraj. It is a huge dam at the foothills of Valparai mountains. Few years back the government decided to build a park there and forgot that the park needed maintenance. It now look like huge garbage dump. You can climb up and walk on the massive passage on the dam wall and look at the water and stranded boats below. Most of the boats bought for the rides in the waters are in disrepair and just abandoned there.
Douglas Chadwick, in his book, Fate of the Elephants opined that salvation for the endangered pachyderms lie in India. He commented that Indians, in spite of the pressures to increase the cultivation into forest lands face more destruction from the elephants every day as the elephants casually destroy the crop farmed over six months of hard work in just few hours. This was written in 1993 when poaching was at it’s peak in India.
Today most of the wild animals at least in the south are well protected and the locals I met complained that after the old tiger sanctuary was converted into a national sanctuary, the forest department have taken over the management of the entire place. They have stopped all development activities and they are restricting access to people who do the maintenance of the dams in these ecologically fragile places. One of the maintenance crew member I met at Neradi dam, showed me a bridge built by the British in 1946. He wondered how it was OK for these people to develop these place destroying forests for tea gardens and now they send huge teams who have cameras fitted with 3 feet lenses and photograph even if a small tree is cut to we don’t care about development.
It’s indeed difficult to take a stand on either side between the villagers (after all Valparai has a population of 75000 people) and forests and sanctuary officials. Every year, Valparai will be in the national news because of Human – Elephant Conflict and the people there take it in their stride. As of today, Valparai remains the only place in India where the beauty is preserved and I urge the readers to make a trip to see it for themselves.
The city itself is easy to reach, you can fly into Coimbatore or take a train. From there you can take a bus to Valparai and the near by place by Tamil Nadu Government bus service which has the best public transport in India. Just to reiterate my point, I saw more buses in Valparai and the surrounding places in two days than during our bike ride across Maharashtra and Karnataka couple of months back.
I am sure, the last unspoilt hill station and the surrounding shola forests could offer you the best holiday experience in India. Take a look.