18 April 2013

Munnar: Tea plantations and escaping wild elephants

After a few weeks as a beach bum, I felt like exploring something different. Always a huge fan of tea, I wanted to see a real life tea plantation. And the good news? It was only a really bumpy six-hour bus trip from Alappuzha. The hill station and surroundings of Munnar is so beautiful it's hard to fathom.
After a while in India, travel that seemed very long in the beginning, seemed shorter and shorter the more we got around. We left magnificent Alappuzha at five in the morning, and went to what seemed like an entirely different country. Just to be clear, Munnar is still in Kerala. At times I was convinced the bus would drive off the road and crash those many hundred metres down.(Munnar is 2,7 km at its highest). We broke down twice, and the road was so narrow, that it certainly wasn't made for buses to pass in opposite directions. But somehow we managed that too. As we were getting closer to our adventure in Munnar, the temperature dropped radically and the air got fresh, crisp and green.
Munnar Town Centre

Indians waiting in line to buy alcohol from a local shop
The town centre itself is not more than your typical Indian town. There is a variety of guest houses to choose from, and like always we turned up with no bookings. It had always turned out fine every other place we had been. Unfortunately we realized on arrival that it was Diwali(a five day family celebration known as the festival of lights), and the prices and availability was therefore accordingly. We stayed two nights in an expensive, small and really cold room that seemed to be the only available fairly within our budget. The last day we spent in a great little place, with hot running water and warm, clean blankets(you learn to appreciate the small things).

Breathtaking views of the Western Ghats

The second day we hired an auto rickshaw to take us around. It took about seven hours there and back. At some point we just barely crossed the borders to Tamil Nadu, an entirely different state. At the Top Station the auto rickshaw couldn't take us any longer, and a ten-minute walk took us to the View Point. We were a bit annoyed by the "Indian price" and the "Foreigner price" to get in to certain places. So, instead of paying twice as much as an Indian, 30 rupees(50 cent!), we decided to sneak in by ducking under a tarp that worked as a hinder. We were nearly caught, a guard yelled after us, but like the rebels we had become, we kept on walking. A slightly steep hill took us down, about hundred metres from the ticket booth on the top. The View Point was nearly mythical. Clouds were lingering over the mountain peaks and valleys, creating an ambience like no other.

Angry elephant
Munnar is more than stunning nature and plantations(if that's not enough for you). There are also wild elephants, panthers and tigers lurking in the deep, dark woods. We found out the hard way. On the way back our driver(who spoke English pretty well), stopped because of commotion on the road. Several vehicles had stopped. What were they looking at? What seemed to be a family of wild elephants. We found that we couldn't get good enough photos from the side of the road we had parked, and decided to get closer. At the closest we stood about thirty meters away. The closer and closer we got, we could feel the tension. After three minutes, one of the elephants started walking closer towards us. All of a sudden the walking had turned into running and she was chasing us like prey. I've always thought that once in a threatening situation, I would always look out for my friends first. But we all ran, in different directions. The police eventually showed up and told us to back off and not disturb the native animals, but also because an angry elephant will trample you to death. It was careless, but too exciting to miss out on.

Before we headed back to the town center, we stopped by a beautiful lake close by. We saw
wild monkeys, sat by the water and had ice cream from an ice cream truck, while watching Indians take gloomy family portraits. But the day wasn't over yet.
Green and luscious as far as the eye can see
In a last effort to soak up as much of Munnar as we possibly could, we decided to have a stroll in a tea plantation, and headed up a hillside leading to a couple of luxury resorts. We probably wasn't supposed to but the plantation was completely empty except us. There were four of us who went into the plantation, two of us took the easy way back, the two others, a Canadian and I, chose to take a shortcut through the dry riverbed by the bottom of the plantation.
Where we started out, the rocks were small and easy to climb. So we continued. Climbing and jumping from rock to rock. We had no idea what time it was, but we knew we were competing against the sunset. If we couldn't reach the bridge ahead and get back on to a road, we would be lost and forced to find a big rock to shield us from the cold night and probably some kind of living creatures. It was going well for what felt like a long time, until it just didn't anymore. The boulders had turned into small mountains, and so slippery that they were insurmountable. Judging by the skies that were turning darker and darker, we didn't have much time. After admitting defeat to the rocks, we had two options. To climb up the woods to our right, or attempt to reach the road on our left. The road seemed awfully far up, so we tried the woods. Unfortunately the wall that we had to climb to get up there, was all very slippery clay, and the branches from the trees that hung down broke as we tried to climb on them. So our only option was the road. As it was getting darker and darker we could now only see the street lights and hear the cars from up far. We had about five minutes left to climb before it would be too late. Finally, with a little bit of team effort, we led each other up the steep hill feeling our way through the terrain. Darkness hit Munnar for the night just as we reached the top. We were able to get a ride with an auto-rickshaw and made it back in time for a warm shower and a shockingly bad Indian meal at a local restaurant.
The day after I had to say goodbye to people I had grown close to as they were heading to Varkala Beach, another gem of a beach in Kerala, while the rest of us were taking our adventure on to Hampi, a place that was yet again so different that it felt like crossing the borders to a whole other country.

1 comment:

  1. Exciting story, Ingeborg! Being trampled by elephants does sound like a major thing to avoid. The greenery looks fantastic. The differences in place and people seem huge. The personal details make the story very entertaining. More please.