I have been slipping into a rut of late—as a victim of routine and the mundane. Moreover, the wedding of my older daughter, a gruelling ordeal that modern weddings are bound to be these days, had my life on the leash! I badly needed a break.
My son-in-law, who was excited to kick-start a family, broached the idea. He suggested we go on a jaunt to unwind. We chose Valparai, a quaintly scenic place on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. My wife and I had visited the place as medical students. As part of an ‘all-boys’ trip after my medical course, I had passed by the place once more on the way to a magical place, the Grass Hills, close to Valparai.
We reserved our accommodation in two chalets- wooden structures, like a glorified cabin constructed on Swiss design within the precincts of a tea bungalow. That is where we intended to spend a day. We left from Kochi at 8 am, though our original plan was to hit road by 6 am to escape the traffic density that could swell by noon on major roads.
We breakfasted lightly on dosa at Chalakudy, a town between Kochi and Trissur and set ourselves on the road to Valparai that passed by Athirapally, Kerala’s largest waterfalls. The falls on that day looked significantly emaciated possibly because of the harsh summer that already had Kerala scorched by March 23.
The road gave us some breathtaking views of the Chalakudy River, which flowed beside thick oil palm plantation that stood on one side of the road. The temptation to wet our feet in the river had to be given up due to persistent warnings of wild animals, especially elephants crossing and instructions against parking on the road.
The palm plantations behind us, the road proceeded to wind through thick forests of the Western Ghats on either side, which consisted predominantly of thick bamboo grass, the staple diet of wild elephants.
Frequent signages displaying pictures and warning of wild animals, and elephant dung of varying degrees of freshness on the road, added to the excitement of the trip. Shreds of bamboo grass dragged onto the road at regular intervals bore tell-tale evidence of elephant activity on the road we sped on. What if an elephant decided to block the road and stall our onward journey?
My mind raced back to those younger days, when I had travelled on the same road. I was too carefree and naive back then to bother about elephant dung or menacing pugmarks of other wild mammals. The only animals that watched us speed by presently were grimacing monkeys.
Turning off the air conditioner and the music playing inside the car, we lowered the windshields on the sides to listen to the sound of the forest. Broken yet persistent sounds of crickets deep inside the forests, the hoots and shrill birdsong in various pitches resembled an orchestra practice before a grand musical at nature’s amphitheatre.
The road that wound and writhed through the Western Ghats had reasonably dense traffic. I thought the numerous two-wheelers that sped by, most of them without helmets, were living dangerously. Routine formalities at Check posts on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border had us break journey for brief spells, which we utilized to hydrate and snack ourselves.
Soon the forests gave way to more scenic and reassuring coffee and tea plantations. Driving further, we passed by the picturesque Sholayar Dam, Asia’s second deepest dam, where we stopped to take pictures.
We then drove into the sleepy Valparai town dotted with shanty settlements of tea estate workers, luxuriant quarters of estate managers and shops selling spices, tea, coffee, and perishables like various meat and fish.
Lovely tea estates seemed to weave a green halo around the otherwise nondescript town. Wrong directions from the Google-powered GPS on my daughter’s phone had us take a nail-biting and rickety ride right through a tea estate to the bungalow. That nearly non-existent dusty ‘road’ we gathered could be the one used by the tea factory to transport tea pickers. To our luck, no vehicle decided to share that road with us that day!
After tucking into a homely, fresh and warm lunch at the bungalow’s dining room, we occupied our chalets. To sip tea on their balcony, especially in the morning listening to the singing birds fluttering against the sun, squirrels scurrying about with mongooses and distant verdant tea estates draped by brilliant blue sky had us unwind nestled in nature’s arms.
Lack of modern-day ‘amenities’ like the internet (and WhatsApp) only took us closer to nature. Regrettably, it was all too short and we had to leave the bungalow for the city taking back only bits and pieces of our memories of fresh air and greenery.