Valparai: Waterfalls, wilderness and solace

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This story was first published by Yahoo! India Travel | Traveler on Mon 20 Oct, 2014 10:43 AM IST

The link no longer works as Yahoo! just demolished their India travel section, taking away all the stories with it.

Notes from an 80-km journey from the roaring Athirappilly waterfalls in Kerala to the forest-fringed tea plantations of Valparai in Tamil Nadu

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Yahoo Lifestyle/Yahoo India Travel/ Ramya Sriram – Athirappilly Falls stages a rainbow

We kept our eyes peeled for leeches on the ground as we made our way to the waterfall. The stone steps, flanked by ferns, glistened with rain. We were visiting Athirappilly waterfalls in Kerala, which provided a grand beginning to our 80-km journey to Valparai in Tamil Nadu. We had chosen to take the famously scenic route through the thick Vazhachal forest in the Western Ghats.

The path to the waterfall was lined at frequent intervals with notice boards that reminded us that the forest and its resources were precious and vulnerable. Baby monkeys used the boards to perform gymnastics, while older ones looked unblinkingly at passers-by, possibly in hope of being fed.

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The Athirappilly Falls in full flow

The 80-foot waterfall is formed by the Chalakudy River, which seemed surprisingly tame, but cascaded over the edge of the mountain furiously into a turqoise pool below. The pool was surrounded by what looked like impenetrable deep green forest. To my delight, a lovely rainbow played towards the bottom of the waterfall, with the foam blurring its colours slightly.

A small signboard pointed the way to the bottom of the waterfall – Way to Full View. The steps were ignored in some places, where visitors preferred to take the steeper and muddy “short-cut”. We reached the bottom of the waterfall, and the little girl in front of me squealed, “Wow!” I echoed her. We were looking up at enormous columns of water that crashed on the rocks below dramatically, birthing a spray of cool water over us. I remembered a TV ad I’d once seen that likened streams and waterfalls to the veins of mother earth, with blood surging through them. I understood the analogy then!

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Curtains of water at Athirappilly Falls

I noticed that the way was completely clean and free of plastic, despite the numerous tourists there. A group of men sang a lilting Malalayam folk song as they descended the path, their voices mingling with the trill of cicadas.

Our next stop was at the Vazhachal waterfall, which ran over a gentler slope as compared to Athirappilly but was twice as loud. From a distance, it sounded like TV static noise, getting louder as we moved closer; then it was deafening. The Vazhachal forest is home to all the four species of hornbills (I didn’t spot any though). The route through the forest was quiet and deserted, except for the gurgling of the Chalakudy River, which travelled with us alongside. The forest was freshly washed by rain and everything from the ground to the treetops seemed to scream with life

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Vazhachal Falls – less spectacular than Athirappilly but louder

As we approached Malakkapara, a mist descended on us, an almost-opaque white screen that I’ve seen so often in the Ghats. It cleared within minutes, like a curtain raiser for the next scene – a completely different landscape of tea gardens caressing the clouds. I always look at tea plantations with a mixture of delight (how pretty they look!) and sadness (if unpruned, the tea “shrub” grows into a magnificent tree) and guilt (I’m a tea-lover). On the way, we encountered the Upper Sholayar Dam, the second deepest in Asia, which provides water and electricity to neighbouring areas.

Our destination, Sinna Dorai’s bungalow, situated in Upper Paralai tea estate of Parry Agro, took some time to locate. Two charming women welcomed us with a drink that was sweet and fresh – iced tea. I noticed wooden benches outside the cottages where I could already picture my mother meditating early in the morning. It was so quiet that any conversation seemed disturbing and out of place.

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A peacock scans the valley in a Valparai tea plantation

The rooms were done up in teak, cane and jute, maintaining a tone of natural warmth. Food was hot and steaming – dal, roti, rice, sambar and rasam, all home-cooked – and served by smiling staff. The coconut soufflé was a perfect end to the meal, and was followed by an hour of me battling existential questions – what was I doing living in a crowded, polluted city? I vowed, like every time I visit the Western Ghats, that I would move out and settle down in the hills.

In the evening, Murugan, our local guide, took us for a short walk around the Parry Agro estate on the road, which he said was “shared by elephants and bison”. Visitors are usually not allowed to roam around on their own “for their own safety as well as for safety of the animals.” I suspected the animals possibly needed more protection from humans than vice versa. As we walk, we hear bird calls – a magpie robin, Murugan tells us, the crooning of a spotted dove, and a loud, clear call of a peacock, which was so close that I jumped. It stood silhouetted against the twilight sky, before it spread its brown wings and swooped over the valley and disappeared into a tree. “Did you know peacocks could fly that far?” my mum asked in a hushed whisper. Murugan, amused by our wonder, said, “Wait till you hear the Malabar Whistling Thrush hold katcheris in the mornings.”

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A walk through Upper Paralai Estate

The Upper Paralai Estate is about 225 hectares in area and is exclusively dedicated to growing organic tea: “No chemicals, only neem cake and vermi-compost.” Silver oak trees, which help bind the soil, are planted in between the tea. “It is a light tree and falls easily,” Murugan said, upon which we backed away from the tree a little. “But it acts as good manure.” The tea is sold in five flavours – strawberry, peach, black currant, lemon mint and green apple. The 700 workers there are all provided with accommodation within the estate. Most of them send their children to the local school and college. Some of the other estates in Valparai belong to Tata, PKT, Jayashree Industries, NEPC and Woodbriar. Murugan stopped to pluck a fern leaf. He stamped it on his hand and sheepishly told us that it leaves a silver-white “tattoo” on the skin.

The bungalow boasts of a quaint library, well stocked with books, two Murphy radio sets and an ancient typewriter. An enormous log register from 1952 sits on the table, which has the names of the tea estate workers, the amount of work done per day and the corresponding pay. A cosy sitting room, complete with fireplace, includes a record player. The decor and serveware is exquisite – if you like a piece, you could request them to source it for you. Murugan tells us that the bungalow got its name from the local salutation for ‘Assistant Manager’. Back in the room, I read a letter from the current Sinnai Dorai himself, who made it quite clear that we behave ourselves, respect the environment, and not try any funny business with the animals.

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A pretty clock in the library at Sinna Durai’s Bungalow in Valparai

We climbed up the steep slope to our cottage again, when he turned around suddenly and wildly gestured to me with a finger on his lips. He quietly parted the leaves of a bush and –OMG! I found myself staring straight at a leopard. Thankfully, it was a good distance away, but surely it was making eye contact with me? I was too nervous to move or reach for the camera. The staring match continued – I couldn’t tell who was more startled. Throughout, Murugan asked me to stay completely quiet and still. The leopard, bored of these seemingly inanimate creatures, turned around and bounded off into the trees. I was shivering with excitement – this was my first big cat sighting in the wild!

Over breakfast, the staff told us that wild animal sightings are extremely common in the area. Encounters are an everyday affair. “Elephants are fine as long as you get out of their path,” we are told. “If you confront it or poke a camera in its face, it may attack.” Though both tigers and leopards are found in the area, leopard attacks are more common. After a pause, Murugan added, “We are trespassing on their property, you know.”

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Our cottage at Sinna Durai’s Bungalow

Sinna Dorai’s bungalow, like most mountain getaways, offers tranquility and a chance to bond with nature. But more than that, it offers a way of living. I was impressed by the way its inhabitants and tea estate workers co-existed with the wilderness around them. It looked like a value system was firmly in place, respected and obeyed. For those who can adjust to being treated at par with their wild fellow-creatures and can appreciate and follow the code of conduct, this is the place. Just twenty-four hours in Valparai made me feel like I was moulting, shedding off a layer of the old and growing new skin. With its commitment to responsible travel, cool air and homely warmth, a visit to this bungalow can be described as nothing short of healing.

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