Weekend vacation: In search of the ‘big five’
Bengaluru was just about recovering from a stifling summer. There had been a dribble of rain, but the city was already pockmarked with puddles. People took to social media to express their love for the rains—photographs of windowpanes dripping with water, with lyrical quotes to match. There’s no fun, however, in splashing one’s way through traffic. So it took me no time at all to convince a friend about a quick weekend getaway to a place that promises an almost ludicrous dose of green—an ideal way to celebrate the showers.
The following weekend, we hopped into an overnight bus to Pollachi and then hired a cab for the last leg of the journey. And when we reached the famously dizzying 40 hairpin bends from Aliyar (22km from Pollachi) to Valparai early morning, the beauty of the place hit us.
Valparai lies 3,500ft above sea level, in Tamil Nadu’s Annamalai Hills, 100km from Coimbatore. So sharp are the turns that you are bound to sit up and look outside at the carpet of green that flanks the road. The mind registers no other colour.
In 1864, the town switched from coffee plantations to the mossy clumps of tea bushes that now carpet the area as far as the eye can see. We chose Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow, an erstwhile plantation pad that embraces its history with aplomb, as our accommodation.
The 1940s bungalow, with high ceilings, an airy porch, vintage furniture and British remnants in aesthetics, helped us slip into a planter’s life immediately. Plonked in the middle of 1,770 acres of neatly cultivated tea estate, it was a whole new experience to see where our morning cuppa comes from.
Relieved to get away from the city, we downed what felt like a few gallons of home-grown organic tea over the next few hours and set off for a short drive, hoping for a serendipitous brush with wildlife. Once we saw how thickly forests surround the town, we realized an animal sighting might not be that difficult after all.
We were in the land of the Nilgiri Tahrs, wild ungulates that are endemic to this region. We spotted four of them, effortlessly balanced on high cliffs. It must have been our lucky day—a Great Hornbill glided over our heads to perch on a tree, and a gang of lion-tailed macaques scampered to the edge of the road as our vehicle passed. It is not every day that these three species reveal themselves so effortlessly. If only we could now spot a herd of elephants and a leopard, we would be able to boast of sighting Valparai’s version of the “Big Five”.
Given that we are in the middle of the monsoon season, however, we were soon greeted by plump drops of rain that quickly transformed into what looked like a sheet of white.
We returned to our bungalow and, curled up in easy chairs with a book each and a steady supply of hot tea, devoted the rest of the day to unplugging from the trappings of city life: no Wi-Fi, no TV.
Later that evening, we had just about slumped into bed when there was a frantic knock on the door. We opened it, only to find a breathless guard pointing towards the window. With noses pressed against the glass, we took a few seconds to spot the large grey visitor ambling through the plantation around the bungalow. Four! We slept well.
The next day offered us patches of clear sky, just enough to enable us to walk around and inspect the tea factory within the estate. Over the constant whirring of sifting machines, we heard murmurs that a leopard had picked up a goat in the village nearby. While the workers looked despondent, we took heart from the fact that the last of our Big Five was lurking somewhere close. If only weekends were longer!
But we had the 40 hairpin bends to cross before lunch if we were to reach Bengaluru on time.
Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The writer tweets at @supsonthemove.