Valparai, Top Slip, Ooty & Coonoor - Write-up by Dr Shalini Selvarajan.
When we take a trip, sometimes, we can’t wait to get back home, and other times, the places and the people make it Feel Like Home. This journey was the latter, and how!
The Chennai Trekking Club (CTC) is a group of active, vibrant, socially and environmentally conscious people living life on the road less taken and loving it! When you sign up to their mailing list, you get a constantly updated list of their events that you can choose from.
When I saw the mail from Dinesh Kumar, it had all the right words –Photography, wildlife and mountains! However I was anxious about two things : My fitness levels and the company.CTC treks are usual divided into ‘Easy’, ‘Moderate’ and ‘Difficult’ and the first trek I’d done with CTC was an “easy”2 hour trek up the hills near the Chennai airport and it left me gasping and with a solid fitness reality check! (Lol)
However, when I spoke to Dinesh, he reassured me about it being fine for beginners and was so enthusiastic and warm. I was instantly comfortable and confirmed my joining. Also, including our reclining comfy van transport, all tasty meals & snacks, very comfortable accommodation and forest and trek/toy train/forest vehicle permissions was remarkable! Hats off to the organisers for doing such a great job!
22/01/16: Go time! - Leaving Chennai in a cosy van
I joined up with a smaller group at Dinesh’s house in Pallikaranai, some sandwiches and jolly introductions later we kept picking up people along the way and took off from Chennaiat around 9:30 PM.All my initial anxious pre-conceptions about the group dynamics and being an awkward noob trekker without company vanished when I discovered that this was such a diverse group of people across all ages, professions, who without forming cliques - were friendly, helpful and adventurous! The perfect recipe for my first trek! Post dinner and some entertaining koothu dancing(!) , everyone reclined and made wiggle room and it was light’s out!
23/01/16: DAM, that’s good – Aliyar Dam &Valparai
The van slowly came alive in the morning, everyone waking up and tucking into snacks passed (grabbed!) around and we kept driving through green fields and bustling villages finally reaching the famous Aliyar River Dam right at the foothills of Valparai in the Anamalai hills of the Western Ghats.
The bus stopped here, and people who had already travelled this route previously jumped out gleefully carrying bags with clothes. I was confused, but not for long. This was my introduction to the reality that, with this group, anytime there’s a water body around – as long as it’s safe& we have the time - we’re all going to be jumping in!!!
Lots of professional and amateur photographers got to hone their skills on this trip with all the lovely scenery and photo ops around us so much of the time!
A small walk down the main road opened out into this gorgeous stretch of the Aliyar River and its check dam.Fun fact: Check dams essentially counteract erosion and settle sediment/pollutant simply by reducing water flow velocity! So half of them jumped in and lounged & splashed around while the other half took amazing pictures! To make things better, it was a gorgeous day as wellJ
After everyone had changed up, we set off all fresh and ready up the 40 hairpin bends to Valparai.A few adventurous and experienced bikers joined us at various points along our way as well! This route really needs a special mention. Gorgeous views of the Upper Aliyar river surrounded by mountains on all sides revealing new angles of beauty every turn we took!
At one of the hairpin bends, a few NilgiriTahr were sitting looking serene amidst people clicking photos and traffic honking at them!
We stopped at plenty of non-touristy view points throughout Valparai and drank in the gorgeous views (and chai!)
We drove through a reserve forest and then walked a little distance further to a lovely serene clearing (among warning signs of crocodiles!) where we stopped for pictures and deep breaths of fresh air and then back on our way!
We finally reached Valparai later in the evening, nestled among all these lovely tea estates and winding ghat roads, the town itself was bustling and lit up with homestays, shops and unfortunately garbage strewn on the roads and drains. We unloaded all our bags and all of us, boys and girls settled into our respective rooms with instructions to meet for dinner.
After a delicious dinner, the infamous ‘introductory session’ began. This was where we all saw such different and inspiring sides to the people we’d been travelling with so far. Talented sportspeople struggling against all odds. Computer techies who wanted to be farmers. Enterpreneurs forging their own paths. Doctors who were coffee bean conoisseurs. Physics majors working in IT. Reptile rescuer and conservationist from Singapore. Aeronautical engineers who ran marathons to cope with life’s stresses. The one thing we all had in common was that we all definitely wanted to travel more and challenge the conventional drain of the work culture by making memories outside of our comfort zones!This was a very fun session with a lot of teasing and laughter that went on late into the night! Soon after, instructions –and lights out!
24/01/16 : Valparai-Koozhangal-Top Slip
We all woke up, hurriedly scarfed down breakfast and left. A little later, we stopped to take pictures and unwind at a sparkling green tea plantation with the Koozhangal river coursing through it before we were on our way again!
Again we drove through plenty of gorgeous green fields and quaint villages. After a delicious lunch we were on our way again!
We finally arrived (luckily before 4:00! They don’t allow vehicles after that!) at the toll gate telling us we were entering the Anamalai Tiger Reserve,
The drive to Top Slip was again absolutely breathtaking and the cold was setting in. (Fun fact: The name ‘Top Slip’ was derived from the old practice sliding timber logs down the hills from here!) It was so lovely to see the reserve forest in all its unspoilt natural beauty with the sunlight filtering through the bamboo trees.
Finally we reached the top – Top Slip! We walked to the huge dorm room with bunk beds that had enough space for all of us (and perfect for card games!). Nearly immediately after, we all boarded a forest transport van to go on a safari through the reserve forests. We were told not to talk loudly and to keep a careful watch for wild animals.
We saw a few wild bison and deer on the way and disembarked at the Kozhikamudi Elephant Camp where there were several Kumki elephants were being fed as we walked in. ‘Kumki’isTamilfor captive, trainedIndian elephantsand they are used mainly for training other newly captured wild elephants and chasing away other wild elephants that stray into villages. On speaking to some of the workers there, although they were well fed, exercised & treated luxuriously, their original purpose decades ago, was to help with lumber transport, and that being obsolete now, it seems like the whole purpose of the ‘Kumki’ elephant should be a grey area on our collective conscience. (Any further information on this would be most welcome!)
We then headed back to our dormitory, stuffed our faces with dinner at the campus kitchen and a few card games later (knowing it would be an early morning trek the next day!) - It was light’s out!
25/01/2016 : Top slip trek-Coimbatore-Kothagiri-Ooty
5 AM. Tubelights switched on blinding our eyes! It’s time for the trek through the reserve forest! Dinesh being an excellent team leader, managed to somehow get our motley crew to wake up, listen to him and keep our scheduled time as well as be part of the ‘gang’! Respect ‘Ji’ :D
We’re joined by two experienced forest guards and on our way. This was the only time our rowdy group was ever silent! We walked quietly and humbly among the majestic thick forests drenched in dew and sunlight, without a whiff of smoke or plastic bag in sight and occasionally hearing the chittering of animals and birds chiding us for our intrusion! It was marvelous!
We were hot on the trail of an elephant, through crushed bamboo trees and fresh dung, but unfortunately couldn’t catch up to it! I was so glad the trek wasn’t strenuous, not too much uphill climbing and we stopped for timely breaks during which our forest guards told us thrilling stories of their close encounters with tigers and elephants!
Once the trek was done we hurriedly jumped back into van, it was already time to leave! Time was flying! By this time, we all had nicknames for each other and the air was thick with camaraderie and joking! We played plenty of card games in the van as well using a towel as our (albeit highly unstable!) table.
We stopped by the river banks in Anamalai and all jumped in. This was as close to a bath as most of us were going to get, with our next stop being Ooty (freezing weather and baths just don’t go together!) It was lovely to float along the riverbanks without another soul in sight. The last time I’d done this was on a picnic as a child!
We were off on our way again, after the trek most of ending up catching up on our beauty sleep in the van. We stopped at Coimbatore for lunch and finished it up with some tasty nungu and padhanee!
A very special mentionto the perfect snacks, frequent timely van/loo breaks and the astounding appetites of the entire team! :P Leg stretching and yakking over tea (my favourite chai!), coffee, vada, biscuits, cake, icecream, nungu (just discovered!), bananas, samosas and chips apart from our sumptuous (vegetarian & non vegetarian!) breakfasts, lunch & dinner meals were an integral part of our trip bonding and memories!
After stopping for tea at a very misty Kothagiri, we reached freezing Ooty at night. On the way we watched another unrealistic but amusing Tamil movie called ‘RajiniMurugan’ (I now use the colloquial terms from that movie quite happily!)We were in for such a treat! The homestay we were staying at was absolutely luxurious – 2 floors complete with a fireplace and sit out with place for a bonfire and swing sit out around it!
The fire got started and so did the dancing! We were teasingly warned that if we didn’t dance we would have to undergo the dreaded ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’!!!!!
I loved the novelty of eating ‘ellaisappadu’ (Dinner on a banana leaf!) around a toasty bonfire under a gorgeous starry sky complete with a full moon! Later there were intense and hilarious card game sessions going on and most of us only slept at 2:00 AM! Bluff and Ace being the most popular, I’m sure we woke up half of Ooty with our raucous shrieks and laughter!
26/01/2016 –Republic Day at Ooty and Coonoor
Before anything else – a big round of applause to the group of guys who volunteered to wake up super early and wait in a freezing cold line to make sure we all get tickets on the famous ‘toy train’ that goes between Ooty and Coonoor!!
The rest of us sluggishly woke up all comfy and started the day with a surprisingly good breakfast combo of parathas and bananas(!) and headed to the train station where our tickets to the toy train were handed to us (by the team who had sacrificed their comfy sleeping time!) The ride was replete with sweeping panaromas of tea and coffee estates, mountains, pine trees and quaint colonial stations and tunnels that we stopped at. Time flew by like the gorgeous views and we disembarked at Coonoor and a few (Many!) selfies and photos later got back into our Van and on our way to Kundha falls!
We stopped in between at Chamraj Tea Centre for some steamy piping hot lemon tea while the bikers who had come all decked out in their badass gear, passed it around to the rest of us who used them as props for photo-ops! Thank you for letting us borrows your coolness I say!
Next stop – Kundha falls. This time we all jumped out with our changing bags, no doubts! It was a little way downhill from the main road and surprisingly, very few people know about this lovely waterfall which was pristine and not a soul in sight! Felt like we were alone in the forest.
I was really nervous about how cold the water would be, but once I got in, it was sheer bliss. Knowing this was our last day – I smiled, shrugged off all thoughts of responsibilities and dreariness of the daily routine grind that I had to get back to; and with gleeful abandon, splashed about in that freezing clear water without a care in the worldJ
At one point, even though it was a little scary - one of the guys helped me to walk through the waterfall into the little alcove right behind it where we could see the world through a sheet of pounding water. It was so magical! The waterfalls will always be one of my favorite memories etched in my mind from this trip. PC# Anand We changed up at one of the locals houses at the top of the hill, thulped a solid lunch at Coonoor, got our Varki and homemade chocolates from Satheesh (Thank you!) and it was time to get back on the hairpin bends – downhill, this time, heading back to namma Chennai. Amongst card games and antakshary sessions a bus full of singing and laughter slowly started getting quieter as people started getting dropped off along the way and in no time, we were all back home with our heads, still in the clouds.
I have this habit of rewinding time in my head when I’m returning from anywhere and being grateful for everything, the little things and the big things. I was so glad we were all returning safe and sound with no mishaps in any form. From the wonderful memories of the mountains and forests that left me in awe as well as the lovely warm people I’ve met – the combination I’m sure gave us all so much perspective on the way we should live our own lives.
So, on the way downhill, as the roads were endlessly winding and the van swaying gently, I took some time out to just stick my head out the window and breathe in that fresh cold air one last time and whisper goodbye to those gorgeous mountain tops and forests that had been so good to us. I told them we’d be back soon, and I’m sure we will!
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.” – Bilbo Baggins (The Lord of the Rings)