Sharing an abandoned bungalow with a wild bison for the night was turning out to be a rather workable arrangement. He kept to himself, occupying the room he was used to, and I, something of an uninvited guest, generally stayed in mine, trying not to stir the situation. It was a cold night, but I think we both slept easy in our forest rest house at Vandarvu.
“There’s a ‘fison in there,” Jawahar, my guide, had remarked, waving a torch around. He was something of an add-on himself, having joined me the previous day at Berijam Lake in the middle of my trek at the insistence of a hospitable, yet overly anxious man at the Berijam forest office whom they all called ‘Sir’, and whose luxuriant grey moustache had cringed in anguish upon my insistence in broken Tamil that I would trek alone from Kodaikanal to Top Station, near Munnar, in spite of the recent sighting of a wild elephant in the area who had given birth to a calf, and was likely to charge at anyone in her path.
Turning back wasn’t an option. I had already finished a quarter of the four-day trek after an unusual amount of planning. The original idea had been to trek on the Old Kodaikanal-Munnar Road, part of an old British-built interstate highway. It was the highest motorable road in India south of the Himalayas, but the stretch between Kodi and Munnar is now a reserved forest area and closed to vehicles.
I needed a written trekking permission letter from the Range Officer at Munnar, who readily agreed, provided the District Forest Officer at Kodaikanal too gave me an authorizing letter. Four faxes down, it was becoming clear that the permission was not forthcoming. I could either take another route, or choose to trek through reams of fax.
And thus another route was born. After consulting a few local trekking agents, I decided to trek from Mannavanoor, near Kodaikanal, to Berijam, a high-altitude lake known for its abundant wildlife and sheer size; take the old jungle road up to a point close to the Kerala border, and from there, walk along another route that was still in Tamil Nadu and trek across to the Kerala side from Klaverai village, which was outside any reserved forest. The Kodaikanal DFO was friendly, efficient and keen on promoting nature tourism, and processed my trekking order in under an hour.
The walk to Berijam Lake through an unused forest road lined with pine, wattle and eucalyptus set the mood, and I was feeling invincible by the time I reached the waterfront and the range office at sundown. In the two days I spent at Berijam, ‘Sir’ took something of a liking to me, and, at his insistence, I agreed to walk till the border of the RF area with a guide. We managed to find Jawahar(lal) to accompany me, since he lived in one of the villages near the forest and knew the area well.
There had been a bit of a mix-up with my booking because a local MP had arrived and occupied the room I was supposed to be in, and I ended up bunking with two forest officers, who were a good source of trekking information. The room had a medium wave radio, on which old Tamil songs played through the night. The RJ invited ideas from listeners to beat the heat, to which he received suggestions like, “wet a towel and stay under it.” I was glad I was in the hills. One of my new roommates invited me to join a group he was taking on a day trek, along with Pallanisamy, another forest officer and an old hand. The plan was to trek through the Mathiketan Shola.
Our shola walk traversed a patch of grassland. But the only animal we got to see for a brief flash was a sambar, which disappeared upon hearing the group’s chatter. By this time, a man in our group, having been bitten by a leech, had already become hysterical, cussing disbelievingly in horror. Leech-dominated comments lingered for a bit. It was at this point that Pallanasamy began to let forth his random tidbits of jungle trivia bordering on the bizarre, such as “Leeches’ favourite blood groups are O+ and AB.”
Indian wild bison, or gaur, are a common sight at Berijam Lake. On my arrival at the Berijam Forest rest house, the canteen keeper called me to the backyard and pointed a torch out for me, and there it was, some eight feet away — an unbelievably huge black bovine in white socks, nearly seven feet tall with horns the size of sickles, and munching on our canteen leftovers. It was inexplicably strange how the supposedly dangerous beast looked vulnerable, embarrassed even, caught in the torchlight eating canteen waste.
Having been acquainted with the gentle ways of this potentially moody beast, it was with only the slightest hesitation that two days later I found myself sharing an abandoned forest department rest house with a gaur. He was next door, and used a separate entrance. Over the years of the house’s disuse, plants had grown out of many corners, colonising all the toilets; it didn’t seem that unreasonable that animals should follow suit. Our gaur, having spent the night, probably left very early in the morning. Apart from a Giant Malabar Squirrel that once ran across the trail that afternoon, this would be my last encounter with an unusual wild animal on the trek.
Up to a point, the route from Berijam to Vandarvu followed the old Kodaikanal-Munnar Ghat Road, built by the British in the early 20th century, and now left to the elements, stripped of tar and traffic. The old milestones, however, are still in place, indicating distances to Munnar, Kodaikanal, Madurai and Cochin, as are the bridges that traverse the many gurgling freshwater streams on the way and the old British Highway Department bungalow at Vandarvu.
Most of the hike passes through natural and manmade forests till Vandarvu. The views really begin to open up on the way to Klaverai, a charming little village in the clouds. At Klaverai I parted ways with my companions.
On any given day there are people crossing the state border from Klaverai to Kovilur on foot, as no roads connect the two villages. The initial stretch of the walk was both easy and scenic; with a near panoramic view of the range. The trail meandered through some shaded forest paths and terraced fields, with flowers and butterflies all around; it later ran uphill, where a few original Shola forests, wiped out in all but a few patches, contrasted with the eucalyptus plantations.
I proceeded downhill. The light soon began to cone down from the dense clouds to spotlight the mountainscape. Colourful songbirds appeared from nowhere, unafraid.
At Kovilur, people played card games, some sat on their porches, which along with many of the houses, were mostly built on elevated platforms. I could hear tribal chenda percussion music. The source turned out to be a church, also perched high up on a constructed platform and accessible through a ladder-like staircase.
I was tempted to climb it. But I had a bus to catch to Munnar, as I was constantly reminded by a number of villagers.
“Run,” some of them insisted, but I was in no shape to, with my heavy backpack and four days of walking behind me. I watched the 5pm bus leaving, by now at least 500m away, when a dozen men whistled out to the bus in unison, loud enough to make the driver stop. Hopeful once again, I began to walk as briskly as possible in long strides, tired as I was. The driver, apparently losing patience, began to drive away again, and to my utter amazement, my new comrades once again whistled him to a halt. Now I really had to run, backpack, dangling cameras, utterly breathless and even half wanting to miss the bus and stay here longer. Other travels beckoned on the west coast, and I needed to pass Munnar anyway. But wait, it turned out that this bus was going all the way to Cochin. Should I or shouldn’t I? I decide not to decide. No more planning for now, just enjoy the sunset.
Day 1: Kodaikanal-Mannavanur village by bus, jeep or taxi. Walk from Mannavanur to Berijam Lake.
Day 2: Berijam Lake-Marian Shola-Kathrikai Odai-Vandarvu. Halt at the Forest Department’s rest house at Vandarvu.
Day 3: Vandarvu-Klaverai. Rudimentary but reasonably clean accommodation is available at Klaverai for Rs 40-150 a day.
Day 4: Klaverai-Kovilur, then catch a bus to Munnar. Cross the state border to reach Kovilur village, where buses leave for Munnar and Ernakulam, via Top Station. Alternatively, walk to Top Station and on to Munnar via the Mathupetty Dam.
Where to stay
In Kodaikanal: The Villa Retreat (Rs 990; www.villaretreat.com), Hotel Tamilnadu (Rs 850; www.ttdconline.com) and Kodai Resort Hotel (Rs 1,400; www.kodairesorthotel.com) are good options.
Along the trek: You have to book early to stay at forest rest houses. The rest house at Berijam charges a nominal rate and meals are also available. The ones at Marian Shola, Kathrikai Odai and Vandarvu are generally unoccupied and you can stay for free.
When to go
The pleasant summer makes April-May the best time to do the trek.
Tips for the trekker
There is no electricity between Mannavanoor and Kovilur, so be prepared. Carry a good sleeping bag, waterproof windcheater/poncho, warm clothing, swimming shorts, candles and lighter. A tent is optional, but not necessary. Taking a Tamil speaker along or even learning basic phrases helps a lot. Special permission from the District Forest Officer (04542-241287) is required to do this trek. For more information on the trek check out www.dindigul.nic.in/KodaiTrek.htm.