Ticket to Munnar feat. Neelakurinji

Ever since a Facebook friend of mine had posted an article on Neelakurinji blooms in Munnar, I was waiting to see it live. I had read articles on the Valley of flowers and the Tulip-gardens of the north, but when I saw that such a phenomenon happens in the south, that too once in 12 years, I jumped from my chair and started planning for the trip.

It was just the month of June and the blooming was expected to be seen between August to October. Though the Kerala tourism boasted of hosting the travelers for the blooming, there were no signs of precise information.
After a long search on the internet, I planned to switch to Airbnb since it would be a better experience having a host who might be interested in traveling too. One of the host Raiyaan, was quick enough to point me towards the Eravikulam National Park website and also suggested some more places that I can include in my itinerary. After a little more research, I planned to visit the Kalaripayattu Show which was the second main destination of my trip. Made my bookings for stay at Raiyaan’s home who agreed to help with getting a scooter as well for the travel. My bus journey bookings were done too for 30th August and 2nd September with a detailed plan for each day.
But the time had different plans. Majority of Kerala was struck by untimely floods towards the end of August which caused a lasting impact on the state. I had to cancel my plans and lost quite a bit of money on the booking. It was almost a month since then and just when was furious about missing out, a tiny window of opportunity opened and I got a weekend’s time to travel to Munnar. Since I already knew what I needed, I did my booking quickly, this time choosing a small hotel in heart of the town and entry to the National Park on Sunday 30th morning.

There was half a day to plan the itinerary and pack my bags. This was one of my first trip where I had no clue of how my days will go and surprisingly  I had made peace with it. The next few hours passed by quickly and I slept peacefully in the last seat of Greenline travels as the bus zoomed towards Munnar.

Day 1

It was 7:30 in the morning when the bus operator asked us to board to another mini-bus. We had stopped at Theni village overlooking the Shola forest. I managed to get a window seat excited about getting to see the beauty of nature from close. After a 10 minutes stop at a small hotel for refreshments, our journey started en route Munnar.

The gigantic mountains were playing peek-a-boo behind the clouds which created an out of the world scene. The long yet mesmerizing journey continued as our bus moved on the thin road carved on the edge of the mountains and we were finally at the border of Kerala. From here the geography changed completely starting with a welcoming tea estate. Next, we passed between the cardamom and spices plantation and then the well-known place called Gap Road. The place earlier was a tourist hotspot which would give a bird’s eye view of the tea estates, but now due to road widening all I could see was the entire area covered in mist and the road in front of me packed with a huge line of vehicles stuck in a roadblock.
The next destination on our way to Munnar was the Lock-Heart. The place had mostly the hills covered with lush green tea plants and small waterfalls trying to make its way between them. This was almost the constant scene on either side till we reached Munnar. I had plans of visiting Lock-Heart again, but the bus operator suggested me to skip as it would end up eating more time.

It was 10:30 AM when I reached Maunnar and the owner at SMM cottage had agreed for an early check-in. He even helped me get a scooter for my travel and I was all set to explore within half an hour.

There are 4 directions which have places to explore. One was towards the Lock-Heart which I decided to skip since most of it I had seen and captured while I was on the bus. The next one which is opposite to Lock-Heart is towards the Eravikulam Park scheduled for my second day at Munnar. I had two more sides to explore and Mattupetty was my first pick.

Riding a two-wheeler on hairpin curves covered with a canopy was a pleasant experience and the cold breeze was giving all the energy I need for the day. The first spot was called the Photo-Point where people stop by to get a picture clicked with tea gardens in the background. I had not had anything for the breakfast and decided to go with Maggie there as it was the craving of the moment.

Since I was not much of a fan of elephant-rides, I decided to skip the Elephant-park which was next. After continuing for about 3 kilometers, I had reached the Mattupetty Dam. Surprisingly there was no security personnel near the dam which would be otherwise. This made it easier to capture good pictures of water gushing out from the dam gate. I had missed this opportunity during my Manali trip.

Mattupetty Dam

Mattupetty was the last spot according to my plan. But I had ample time in hand and decided to continue ahead. The forest was getting more denser now and there was a place where I saw people curiously looking at something. When I stopped by, I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were about 5 elephants which were grazing at about 100 meters away. Our presence seemed to be not disturbing them as they continued doing what they did. There are 3 such places on this route called elephant viewpoints where there are more chances of spotting elephants and other wild animals.

Three more places on the route ahead were echo-point, shooting-spot, and Kundaly lake. These three places have a huge range of mountains in the background with a picturesque view. The Echo-point facilitates boat-rides in the river as well. I covered these places quickly and headed back to the Munnar town.

Sun was behind the dark clouds when I reached back Munnar at 2 and it started to rain while I was having my lunch. I had anticipated this from the forecast but was lucky enough to cover one stretch without any issues. The Kathakali and Kalaripayattu shows were scheduled to start at 5 PM at Punarjani Traditional Village. There were two spots to cover before I reached there. Unfortunately, when I reached the first one i.e. the Pothamedu viewpoint, it rained heavily again. This was the sign to skip the rest of the plan and head straight to Punarjani which was about 7 km towards Chittirapuram. Due to heavy rains, I took about 1.5 hours to reach while taking continuous pit-stops. The route had water flowing on the road in many places and there were signs of mini landslides in the past, giving it an eerie feel. A pair of rain-proof jacket helped me stick to the timeline and I was half an hour early to the show totally in a drenched state.

I was 5 minutes late to the make-up session of Kathakali and couldn’t get a chance to click pictures while artists painted their face with makeup. After lighting the lamp, the Kathakali show started with an initial introduction to the art. An actor in the costume of a lady showed the 9 different expressions also known as Navarasa. We were spellbound to see each of the expression coming to life even without uttering a single word and just following the beats made by Chende (a traditional drum).

And then to put these emotions to life, I was called on the stage as a volunteer. She (this would be apt for the role that he was playing) first says that I look good, but I am skinny. She thinks that I don’t eat much. She serves me food with 4 dishes, makes me eat it till I lick the fingers conveying that it was delicious. Makes me wash my hands and then return. The entire act was done only using signs and expressions. I hesitated initially, but the crowd was cheering me to participate.

Following this was enacting of a story with two female and one male character. Each of the girls would try to make the guy fall in love with them by praising about themselves and the man. Though I couldn’t follow the story completely, I could understand that it was no different from any story that I might have seen or heard. In the end, the man ends up rejecting both of them.

The next being Kalaripayattu was a treat to the eyes. As the experienced performers fought with swords and daggers, we could see the sparks come out every time they attacked each other. They showed various stunts using bamboo-sticks, swords and rings lit with flames. They even asked about 4 volunteers to stand next to each other and could jump over them.

While all this was happening, there was a continuous downpour of rain which made me worried about reaching back to the hotel. However, the weather was calm when I traveled back and it was 8:30 PM when I reached the hotel after dinner. I was continuously praying for the rain to stop and didn’t realize when I fell into deep sleep.

Day 2

Finally, the day for which I have been waiting for months had arrived. I got ready quickly and left for Eravikulam at 7 in the morning. The roads were empty and the mist blocked most of the view. Though the temperature was bone-chilling, it still felt pleasant for a change. When I reached the Eravikulam National park at 7:30, there were about 30 people ready for the Kurinji tour. I had booked my slot of 9 AM, but they allowed me in the immediate batch. Meanwhile, I also saw that there was Kurinji Trails Trek which sounded interesting. My plan was to complete the tour and then come back and participate in the trek.

A mini-van with a capacity of about 20 members left for the Rajamala hills. The journey was short which passed through the tea estates. I got the first glimpse of the Neelakurinji flowers when the bus started to climb the Rajamala hill.

The plants started to increase in numbers as we moved up. We were at a checkpoint after which there was a kilometer long road which led to the topmost accessible point on the hill. To my disappointment, the amount of blooming was not as much as it was shown in the images, however seeing a flower that blooms once in 12 years had made the trip a worth.  I explored the place quickly and captured some good pictures from the top of the hill and headed back to the park entrance in a bus.

The ticket to Neelakurinji trails trek costed me Rs. 750/-. Nikhil, Sulthan, Asha and myself along with our guide Arun started our trek at 9 AM sharp. Arun briefed about the trek that it is an 8 KM long walk that usually takes 2 hours to complete. We would be entering the forest and also pass by a waterfall on our way. He also told that the trails are slippery and filled with Leeches. I was the only one in the team to have a poker face since I wasn’t prepared for both. I mentally prepared myself for the worst.
Our journey’s first 1km stretch was through the tea plantations. Arun was giving us a lot of information about the place. Most of the land in Munnar is taken on lease by the joint venture of Tata and Kannan Devan for a period of 100 years. There are more than 30 estates each with a manager who will be provided with a personal bungalow, vehicle and every facility for a lavish lifestyle. However, the day-wage workers would get meager pays.

As we walked ahead, I saw something crawling over my feet. Leech !! I couldn’t bear the sight of it trying to suck the blood, but I was helpless. More I stopped to remove them, even more would get time to start crawling on. At a point, I chose to ignore while two of them continued to drink blood from between my toe. Our first checkpoint had arrived. We were below the Erachipara falls. Sulathan and Nikhil didn’t waste time in taking a dip in the water while Asha was busy talking to Arun to get information on flora and fauna. I admired her interest in knowing every tiny detail.

 Till we reached the end of the trek which was to the top of Rajamala hill I had visited earlier that day, Arun helped us spot different types of flowers and plants. We even saw a flower(kurinji) that blooms in once in 3 and 7 years. 

We were in half minds to go till top of the hill unless we could get a chance to see the rare Neelagiri Thar. Arun was quick in calling his colleague and helped us see them which were just few meters away. Our trek was finally complete with 5 Leech-bites on my feet. We had seen everything we wanted to take back as a memory from Munnar. It was already 2 PM and I had to rush to the hotel. It was time to bid them farewell.

Though I couldn’t cover any other places after Eravikulam, my SRS bus went through the same route giving me a sneak-peak of what I had missed. I continued to admire the beauty of Munnar sitting at the window seat till the sun went down on the west. I had finally checked-off Neelakurinji from my bucket list.

By Hithesh Bhat

Traveller | Foodie | Geek | Lone explorer | Tech coach | Technophile | Maker | Wall-E in search of EVE