That first evening, we sat on some rocks by a river which had been reduced to a trickle and watched the fireflies light up the gloaming. Shortly, the stars descended. It was difficult to say where the stars ended and the fireflies began.
A plan was hatched: this is what we were going to do for the rest of our lives. Ah, well, at least till the end of the trip. But we never saw the fireflies again. In the forested hills of Palani, close to the land’s heartbeat, there was much to do, and we never made it back to the river at dusk. No regrets, though.
In the morning we had been an universe away, flying into Madurai, where tarred roads turn to treacle and women wear flowers in their hair. Early in the flight, as the plane banked to the right, leaving the Bay of Bengal behind, the shoreline swept into view. Somewhere in the world, life is always a beach. But I prefer the cold embrace of the mountains. It was Valentine’s Day, a wounding detail.
The land was pierced with colourful buses. At some point, we left the blistering plains behind and submitted to the moist embrace of the Western Ghats. After a final, bumpy section, arrival at the Elephant Valley Eco Farm Hotel was sudden. We reached the designated village, turned into a small gate between the temple and the village shop and immediately ground to a halt. Beyond the reception the vista opened up magically, revealing a sprawling coffee estate, discreetly scattered accommodation, the land rolling gently towards a river and majestic hills looming on the horizon. They fired the boiler for us urban wusses. I showered the day’s grime away in a bathroom with a red oxide floor. It triggered a warm memory: the house I grew up in had just such a floor.
We had the best rooms on offer, inside a restored Kerala house which had been transported here in pieces and reconstructed. It’s the centrepiece of the property, although a variety of accommodation is on offer, including tents, bungalows and even a treehouse (currently undergoing maintenance). The property was dreamed up by Dimitri Klein, the maverick hotelier who created the Dune Eco Village near Pondicherry. An abandoned coffee plantation, Klein took it over to use the land for a seed-saving bank for heritage seeds. The hotel came up in the process. The coffee bushes too were switched to arabica (that’s the variety with the flavour). To this day, the estate produces its own single-bean coffee. It has a distinctive taste and may not be what you’re used to, but it grew on us.
The property has an unabashed non-resort vibe about it. This is very much a working coffee estate, if modestly sized by coffee estate standards. It’s comfortable but unmanicured. Elephants migrate across it and have been known to come till the dining area. The furniture is all weathered wood. It feels completely cut off from the world, even though Kodi isn’t too far. These days, you can’t put a price on such isolation. There was no cell phone coverage inside my room, an absolute blessing. An ancient metal stove served as the fireplace although we never felt the need to fire it.
It felt exactly like staying over at a friend’s house. Except, this friend has a 100-acre coffee estate. A country squire, obviously. The meals were thoughtful, superlative, and healthy.
The evening was filled with bird call. That night, we drank deep of starlight and, ahem, other stuff. We wrapped ourselves in silence. The forest was still. Something that went bump in the rafters—nothing more lethal than a squirrel, probably—ferreted away the ragi biscuits that had been handed out to us with so much love at Madurai airport on aforementioned romantic occasion. The most menacing thing we encountered on the entire trip were the hotel’s resident geese, who honked us away every time we approached their lair or watering hole.
Wild boars rooting in the bushes woke me up with their racket. The morning had arrived wrapped in mist, like countless childhood mornings. This trip was proving to be one helluva memory trigger. Humans have engaged with mountains across millennia in one simple way. We walk them. There’s nothing more to it. Or less. And Puneet and I were going to do the same. Our heavily tattooed guide, Ajith, hailed from the village itself. The village had once been called Five Houses, for reasons quite obvious, but no longer true. The hamlet was subsequently rechristened Ganeshpuram when they built a Ganesha temple here.
Almost immediately on setting out, we spotted a flying fox and some monkeys, and admired a red sandalwood tree. The walk, moderate to hard, took us over sheer rock faces—where we found a snakeskin flapping gently in the wind—and through cool groves onto a hilltop plateau, where a solitary tree stood among the rushes. Hence the name of this invigorating trek: ‘Single Tree’. My simian colleague needed no encouragement and mounted it effortlessly. What a pleasure it would have been to do this walk with tree man Pradip Krishen, who once walked me through the Central Delhi ridge.
The brush was dry, the falling leaves several delicious shades of rust. On the plateau we lay down in the grass, and quietly contemplated the view. It reminded me of childhood treks in the Dumka ranges of Jharkhand, and college-break holidays with my friend Kabir in his family cottage in Mussoorie overlooking the cemetery, where the retainer rustled up amazing dal-roti-sabzi.
Ajith rewarded our efforts with an orange each. It wasn’t too sweet and even had a slight hint of bitterness, just like I like my life. Walk, eat, rest, repeat. This timeless formula is not to be toyed with. The aroma of jungle jasmine accompanied us on our way down. Joy was a quiet background hum. Note to those who will follow in the steps of these pioneers: Don’t spurn the offer of a weathered walking stick that the guide will provide. It’s pretty handy on the narrow paths through the brush.
The simplicity of this walking holiday was rejuvenating. We emerged out of the groves at the Five House Waterfall, the water emptying into impenetrable pools far below. At the waterfall we washed our feet and crossed over, our stomachs groaning with hunger. Then we followed the river back to the coffee estate, where a sumptuous meal awaited us. What our eye saw on that trek and what the mind remembers, no camera can replicate. There were dragonflies of a beauty I’ve never encountered before. Squirrels chased each other. That night inexplicable drumbeats and fireworks kept us wondering. We learnt later they were to chase wild elephants away.
Next morning, a more interesting walk had been planned, one that isn’t usually on offer. One had to first ensure that there were no elephants or bison on the route. It was reassuring to see Kammachi, our guide for the day, break lantana branches with his bare hands as he cleared a path on a route not often taken. Shortly we were on the hilltop, where prehistoric dolmens awaited us. This is an old land, peopled since millennia.
We were sated. But we did nip into Kodi town one afternoon. It was a Sunday and all the school students had commandeered the cafés for lunch. We managed a table somehow. Then we embarked on the time-honoured tradition of the tourist points tour. Suicide Point has been euphemistically renamed Green Valley View now. The stunner was the Two Pillars view. Kodi also boasts fine churches and waterfalls with names like Silver Cascade. And then it was time to go. Shortly after our teary farewell, the car was stopped in its tracks by the presence on the road of a lone bison (those are the ones to watch out for). Then the bison moved, we moved, and our lives moved on. The woods were lovely, dark and deep, but I had Insta stories to do.
There are two routes to Elephant Valley. One is via Batlagundu, and the other via Palani. Palani hills is a half an hour drive from Kodaikanal. There are multiple flights from Delhi to Madurai, which is the nearest airport to Kodaikanal (120kms/3hrs). Kodai Road is the nearest railhead that links Kodaikanal to cities like Madurai and Trichy. One can also avail bus services. There are many state run as well as private buses from various parts of the state.
Where to stay
Dune Elephant Valley has 20 eco-friendly bungalows created using local materials. Each cottage has a private garden that overlooks the Gangvaar River and the nearby coffee plantation. The property has four adventure houses (from `3,950), four deluxe houses (from `6,200), six serene houses (from `4,950) and Tectona rooms (from Rs 7,200). Located amidst the lush green landscape, the Valley Restaurant serves a fusion of Indian and Continental cuisine. (+91- 4132650200, +91-9159550341; dunewellnessgroup.com)
What to see& do
>Visit the Elephant Valley Vegetable Garden where more than 25 varieties of vegetables are cultivated; pick out some fresh produce for lunch or dinner. >Take a tour of the surrounding coffee plantations. You can also purchase a pack of freshly roasted coffee (from Rs 290) that is processed and packed at the plantation.