Sunday, January 5, 2014

Mystic Munnar



The words “Munnar” were on the planning board for quiet some months and we (self and wifey) had not made any progress after the name.  Vinayaga Chaturthy weekend sounded a nice opportunity to do a trip, as KL monsoon had just receded and TN plains would be a better place to do a day trip.  

All set, we started preparations before a month.  Plan was to have two days driving up and down and two days of stay at Munnar and if energy levels permit, have the reserve day spent at Chinnnar WLS. 

We spent two weeks researching on the resorts in and around Munnar.  Criteria was very clear – away from hustle bustle of town, not more than two-storey’s, should not be a typical hotel, should offer decent food.  Tripadvisor was the best bet and we read out reviews of close to 20-30 resorts and some analytics helped us zero in on “Bracknell Forest”.  Couple of reviews from foreign nationals, especially Europeans of the property gave us good confidence.  We called up the desk and no wonder the staff was very professional in handling the queries and booking was done a week in advance and a mail confirmation from them sealed the deal. 

Next step was get hold of latest road conditions to Munnar and as usual I referred to the trusted  TeamBHP to get the right set of info .  Spoke to few people who had done the route a week earlier and based on all inputs, it was decided to reach Munnar via Trichy, Dindigul, Theni, Bodi, Devikulam – Munnar.  Return was planned via the Udumalpet side to have a feel of the other side of the Western Ghats and also if we could spot some wildlife when passing through the Chinnar WLS.

One quick search on the net helped us with a list of spots and Tripadvisor, some blogs helped prioritizing.

Figgy (Let me call my Blue Oval Figo this way in this blog) had just completed her 10k service and was in good condition to take up the ordeal.

Day -1

Day started with Figgy getting cranked at 4 AM.  The distance was 550 kms and I had estimated a running time of 12 hours considering a ghat section of close to 60kms to do and an hour of buffer time. Reached Villupuram by 6:30AM and had our coffee and as planned we reached Trichy by 9 AM to have breakfast at our favorite hotel Ajanta near the Railway Junction.  Navigating Trichy to catch the Dindigul highway was not that difficult.  The four lane highway between Trichy and Dindigul was looking so deserted and I felt pity on the infra firm managing this highway with so sparse traffic meaning meager toll collections.  Found it difficult to drive on a highway where one could spot a vehicle a km, felt too sleepy.  Just halfway through the travel and this sounded not good.  Getting on to the two lane after Dindigul gave some respite.  Two lane highways are more fun to drive as the opposite traffic and the morons on the road keep you busy always with their driving antiques.

Planned route:

Chennai - Theni - Bodi - Bodi mettu - Devikulam - Munnar (570km)

Empty dumpty NH45B towards Dindigul


NH 183 near Batlagundu


Took the Dindigul bypass to hit the NH7 and with some guidance from locals we could catch the road to Batlagundu.  The road from Dindigul to Theni is being widened and thankfully in the final stages,  letting us have a smooth ride.  We  reached Theni by 12:30 PM thought of postponing the lunch we had planned at Theni. 


After crossing Theni I could spot a TNSTC bus to Munnar from Theni before us and started following the bus to take the right road to Bodi.  Once we reached the Bodi diversion which is a right turn from the Cumbum highway, to my surprise the bus took the road towards Cumbum.  Bit confused, I decided to take the planned route to Bodi.  Kept telling my wifey that the bus not taking its original route sounds bit fishy.  Went some 2kms further towards Bodi but something kept telling me that the bus not taking it original course – need to be checked.  Spotted a truck fellow and checked with him on the road conditions on the Bodi highway.  To my horror, came the news that  Bodi – Munnar highway has been closed and our bellowed NHAI did not even bother to keep a board at the junction where vehicles going to Munnar take the diversion.  Had it not been for this nagging doubt, I could have done another 50kms and found a nice board apologizing for all inconvenience caused and requesting me politely to get lost.  Gosh!

Just outside Uthamapalayam

Lush green Cumbum valley

Hmmm.. I was not very sure of the topography of this area and decided to reach Cumbum and decide upon things.  Reached Cumbum by about 2 PM and some quick search lead us to a very good eatery “Bodi Hotel – Estd 1947”.  Food was simple and good.  After a hearty meal, checked out with the hotel proprietor on routes to Munnar.  My initial assumption was that, one had to take the Cumbum-Kumily route which easily adds 3hrs to my estimated travel time.  His suggestion instead was to take the Cumbum mettu – Nedgumkandam – Devikulam route to reach Munnar.  Names sounded new, noted them all, thanked him for the excellent the food/ route advice.  Figgy got ready to take us through this unknown - to be known route.

Route became:

Chennai - Theni - Cumbum - Cumbum Mettu - Devikulam - Munnar (615km)


Couple of Kms outside the Cumbum town, we approached the foot hill of W.Ghats and there comes the announcement of the first hair pins of the 18 which one need to negotiate to reach Cumbum Mettu.  Interestingly, each hair pin had been given a name of a flower by State Highways department.  18 of those pins came in quick succession – very narrow and sharp.  

View from Cumbum mettu side of the valley
Vanchi Poo Hair Pin Bend 5/18

This was the first time I was driving on a proper ghat road and bingo – I was loving negotiating the pins as if this was my Nth time doing them.  Having passed the test with flying colors – courtesy every reliable Figgy, now task was to reach Munnar before sunset.  The route was just a narrow road hitting small villages often, finally hit the Devikulam road.  Now started the brilliant carpet of tea plantations – sight which would keep us company for next 4 days.  




Tata Tea plantations you see them everywhere ...


Tea carpet on the hills on either side of the road


Misty - Mystic -Munnar






Reached Munnar town by 6 PM and called up the desk of Bracknell forest.  The staff asked me to take the branch road from the Kochi highway and drive for 7 kms sharp.  It was getting dark and the route was kind of plantations + forests and hair pins.  7th km we spotted the resort and checked in.

It was 6:30 PM and it had been 14 hours and 30 mins I had pressed on the gas pedal for the day.  And now I felt as fresh to do the journey back !  Call it the magic of Munnar, was it the pleasure of gobbling up those numerous hair pins which gave energy...not sure though.

Bracknell proved to be very good property tucked amongst the tea and cardamom plantations facing a steep valley (which I realized on the second day when some mist had cleared in front of my room).  Restaurant had a request that, they will make food on order (20 mins lead time) and serve it hot only!  Way to go.  We enjoyed every other meal for the next two days and staff were very courteous and helping.

Image courtesy : Tripadvisor.in

Spoke to the manager (Anees)  for charting out the two day plan in Munnar and he was very helping and provided with a detailed map of Munnar and helped me space my spots for the two days based on the locations.  For next two days Anees was my man Friday as I would call him to either find a place to eat or a suggestion of route and never did he felt oh man.


Road leading to the resort




Day one (at Munnar) plan was to cover the spots on the Munnar – Top station road:

-          Madupetti dam
-          Live stock board 
-          Kundala Dam
-          Top station view point

Plan for Day two:

-          Eravikulam National Park
-          Tata Tea museum

Had planned a lazy itinerary and I am not a hard core tourist.

Day 2:

 Having checked in post sunset, we were in for a pleasant surprise when we sat for tea in the sit out in the morning.  Mist covered forest welcomed us, just mesmerizing atmosphere to start the day.  Had our breakfast and hit the road for the day. One good thing about Munnar is that the chillness is not the kind of biting one you see at Ooty/ Kodai.  Realized on the second day that, such weather made tea plantations the life line of this soil.


View from the sit out of the room

 First we reached the Madupetty dam, the road crosses over the dam structure.  Thanks to heavy monsoon rains which had receded just a week  ago, all water bodies across Munnar were brimming with water and Madupetty was no different.  We chose the speed boat ride and wifey was too keen to try this out.  With the life jackets on we had a 15 min ride across the backwaters of the dam.  The dam abuts the Govt run live stock board compound  and we could see flock of cattle grazing on the high grounds.  If one is lucky, even elephants can be spotted grazing.  Entry to the live stock board compound has been restricted now and general public is not allowed.

Madupatty tea factory run by KDHP

Madupatty Dam


KL Live Stock Board grazing grounds





Next spot was the Kundala dam which at the outset looked bit rusty.  Built during the Travancore Kingdom rule, it’s Asia’s  first arch dam and on offer are some heavy mechanicals of yesterday’s left to rust.

Kundala Arch Dam



Tata group run school 






Next on the agenda was the top station.  Some quick history here..

“Top Station was a trans-shipment point for delivery of tea from Munnar to Bodi. Top Station derived its name from its being the uppermost located railway station on the Kundala Valley Railway, built in 1902 between Munnar, Kundalai and this hilltop location. A monorail goods carriage system was soon installed along this cart route. In 1908 the monorail was replaced by a 24 inch gauge railway. Middle Station is 12 kilometers (7.5 mi) west from Top Station on the way from Lower Station Munnar. Some remains of Kundala Valley Railway can be seen at the Munnar Tea Museum.

Tea chests arriving at Top Station from the Kundalai Valley were transported by a ropeway from Top Station 5 km down hill to the south to Kottagudi, Tamil Nadu. The tea was then shipped 15 km by cart to Bodinayakkanur, then by rail to other places in India and ship to England. Remains of the ropeway station at Top Station are still visible. Elevation at top of Bodi ropeway was 1,911 meters (6,270 ft)” - Wiki

All this gone, we have just the words Top station left.  

Currently there is a view point owned by a private individual from where magnificent views of  Theni  valley can be seen provided weather is on your side.  From the entry point to view point, it takes a good trek of 15 mins and to our disappointment, whole valley was covered with mist with no signs of any improvement.  We decided to return and head back to the town for lunch.  Other thing to mention here is that, top station is located in TN state and can be approached only from the KL side.


Intha kosu tholla Top Station-layum

Top Station - Entry details


So far so good, touch wood – no says fate.  After finishing the top station visit, we were driving down the ghats towards Munnar town.  Roads are pretty well laid in this section and you don’t expect anything wrong and this is what happened “At one of the sharp curves, out of the blue I see one Etios live before me coming in opposite direction.  Just matter of seconds and some timely efforts a head on collision was avoided.  I hear a huge thud.  Just manage to avoid hitting the rocks and park the car.  We both are frozen and I ran down catch the moron.”

Impact:   Right fender is damaged, RH head lamps stand bruised.  Saving grace was that, head on collision was avoided and vehicle though hit was in running condition.  Figgy felt bad, 10K kms of dream run and now a broken cheek and bruised eyes.  Consoled my wifey and Figgy and drove down with rains pouring.  Looks like nature heard the cries of the blue oval.
Day was down to the dust and we just decided to call it a day.


Day 3:

Ervikulam National Park – Wildlife – Nilgiri Thar


"Eravikulam National Park is 97 sq. km. in extent, situated along the crest of the Western Ghats in the High Ranges of Idukki district of Kerala state, India.  The Park holds the largest viable population of the endangered (IUCN) Nilgiri Tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius). -  NP Park Site."


Did some Googling of the two spots for the day.  As per Tripadvisor reviews, Ervikulam draws big crowd and waiting period for the shuttle buses which take you to the peak is a pain.  We made it to the NP by 10:30 AM and due to rains, crowd looked manageable.  The infra at the NP is commendable.  Proper car parking with guards, sheltered queue stands, eatery were a nice to have.  Thumbs up again to KL tourism here – have experienced many of their better managed facilities earlier. 


ENP shuttle bus which ply inside the NP



The Nilgiri Thar - National Animal of TN State
Private vehicles are not allowed inside the park, ENP run vans ferry people to the top of the peak which is a 20 min journey.  From the point where van drops, further walking track of 2 kms is available and here is where the Nilgiri Thars come down in droves.  Weather had played a spoilsport and it started raining heavily as we entered the NP.  Due to continuous rains, we could not spot any Thar for first one hour.  When we were just about to leave, came down one lone Thar.  Braving the drizzle hitting my camera lens, took some shots of the mountain climber.

Tea Museum 

By the time we reached Munnar town, rains had ceased and after lunch, we headed for the Tata Tea museum.  This is an old factory of the TATA's which has been converted to a tea museum.


Tea Museum - KDHDP

This is a must visit for any curious tourist to Munnar.  History of Munnar is very closely linked to Tea plantations here and you are shown a good 40 min documentary on the development of Munnar tea plantations.  One also comes to know of how the show is run by the society of workers under the umbrella - KDHP (Kannan Devan Hill Plantations).  KHDP handles the production part and marketing - retailing of tea is done by the TATA's.  

During the tour, KDHP official takes the crowd through the manufacturing process of tea from the plucked leaves stage and also explains the nuances of tea – white tea, CTC , orthodox tea and what not.  It is very interesting to know that tea belongs to the tree family and is pruned to keep it at a height suitable for plucking the leaves.  Tea grows well in a climate which is neither too hot or not too cold and requires some amount of shade as well.  

There is a small setup in the museum which churns out the tea powder from the leaves.  The entire process is for the eyes to see - interesting indeed.  


Plucked Tea Leaves


Tea leaves undergoing the cutting process


Tea power of various grades sorted in a hopper based on size of granules

Also on display are photographs depicting the various phases of development the plantations underwent and equipment's used by the Tea industry in various stages. 


Kundala Valley Light Railway



Exhibits at the Museum




 With minds full, it was time to have our hands full.  We headed to the KDHP outlet to complete some customary purchase of tea for friends back home.  Overall a nice and unique experience.

Day almost came to a close and we headed back to the resort to prepare for the next day’s journey back to Chennai.


Day 4:

Time to start for Namma Chennai.  We started by 8 AM for the 12 hour journey to Chennai.  We chose to return via the Udumalpet route so that we can get a feel of the Chinnar WLS.  Elephant spotting can happen in Chinnar, we were not lucky that day though.  Chinnar portion towards Udumali is very dry and falls under the rain shadow region. 



Chinnar - only Sanctuary in a rain shadow region in KL


Bidding good bye to God's own country



Return route was through Chinnar – Udumalai – Dharapuram – Karur – Kulithalai – Thurayur – Perambalur  - Villupuram – Chennai.


Return Route:

Munnar - Udumalai - Karur - Perambalur - Tambaram (569 kms)


Travelogue comes to and end ...pl wake up :).  Lets thank Figgy with a photo shoot:



And not to forget wifey for all pics..










13 comments:

  1. Very nice .. well articulated .!!

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  2. Great Subbu. I've seen many people go for tours like these and simply share pics in FB / picassa and then forget - no one really gets to "feel" them truly. This is really awesome way of sharing your experience, truly bringing glimpses through your lenses nay eyes....

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  3. Excellent one Subbu . We call the bodi hotel as "bodiyar kadai" and i along with my bro used to collect pennies to have food in my childhood.

    And couldn't control my laugh seeing the pic of Kosu, my colleague who had a road trip with his Royal enfield had clicked the same.Looks like it is one of the attraction ........:-)

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  5. Thanks for writing such a beautiful and detailed post on Munnar. This hill station is marked by vast expanses of tea plantations, colonial bungalows, rivulets, waterfalls and cool weather. For tourist and travellers accommodation, check out these Munnar Hotels offering great services.

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