The drive to Munnar from Fort Cochin was lengthy, partly because I really wanted to see Athirappily waterfalls, which meant a hefty diversion. I met my driver at 6.30am outside Delight Homestay, standing proudly in front of his vintage Ambassador Grand. Cars don't sound more colonial than that.
Because we left early, we beat most of the Ernakulum traffic. The drive was really nice. The early morning orange sun rose above the fish farms and Chinese fishing nets and once we headed inland, my driver Miles - a good name for a taxi driver I thought - acted as tour guide. We passed pineapple and cashew nut trees as well as valleys of rubber plantations. Miles explained that they extract 'milk' from the rubber tree using a tap and then heat it to turn it to rubber. We drove through a beautiful valley that reminded me of the Lake District but with palm trees instead of pine trees. I saw monkeys squabbling in the road and Miles pointed out the biggest red squirrel I have ever seen, jumping from branch to branch in the trees above.
Athirappily waterfalls don't feature in my Lonely Planet but I found photos of them online when researching this trip and really wanted to visit. It took two hours to get there and after paying the 100 rupees entrance fee (plus 20 rupees camera fee of course) I was walking down a rocky path, towards the thunderous sound of crashing water.
I've seen some nice waterfalls before but this topped the lot. It was a shelf 50 meters high that in wet season would be a cascade of water, but now was split in to three waterfalls side by side, each impressive in its own right. I stood at the top and watched the water fall over the edge, then took a long path down to the bottom and stood in the spray. It was a nice way to cool down. A number of locals wanted their photo taken with me, so I got extra wet posing with them. I dried off almost instantly as I headed towards a viewing platform constructed in the river. It was quite a puzzle trying to work out how to reach the platform, jumping from rock to rock, but I saw blue lizards and bright green dragonflies and eventually reached the platform. The view was fantastic. It turned out it wasn't a viewing platform at all though, but a stage that was being constructed for a scene in a Hindi movie.
I was looking forward to see Athirappily but I didn't expect it to be quite so fantastic. Less enjoyable was the climb back up to the top though!
The drive from Athirappily to Munnar lasted about five hours and was fantastic, more like a paid excursion. We drove through valleys and climbed cliff paths. At one point I saw a wild elephant. We stopped at a small restaurant about halfway and I ordered my usual 'travel day' staple of fried rice, as well as a speciality of these parts, dosa - a large savoury crepe that is crispy, so a mix between a pancake and a poppadom. It was only a small restaurant and amusingly the toilets had a sign ‘Vomiting in washbasin not allowed’. Not what you want to read when you’ve just eaten somewhere!
The higher we climbed, the better the views became. The bumpy road snaked up the side of mountains and my ears popped on three separate occasions. Munnar is 1700 meters above sea-level, almost twice the height of Scafell Pike, UK’s highest point. I must admit, the last half hour was a challenge - I had to concentrate on my breathing!
I’m staying at a brilliant hotel called Shamrock. It's located about 3km out of the main town, up a steep, bumpy path, near places like Windermere Hotel and the rather ominous Drizzly Valley Hotel. My room is huge. It has a sort of reception room to walk in to, with a desk, table and wardrobe, then a corridor leading to my bedroom. It’s a nice bedroom with a large balcony and a fantastic view of the mountains. The windowless rooms of Delhi and Agra are now a dim and distant memory! The time was 4pm but I felt tired (I only had four hours sleep last night) and also my stomach was doing cartwheels. I slept for a couple of hours and even lying on the bed I felt like I was still swerving and dipping on that mountain path.
Straight away, I love Munnar. It has lots of high peaks, one of which I’m trekking up tomorrow. Almost all of the slopes are taken up by tea plantations, that look like a green mosaic. We passed a beautiful tree with vivid purple leaves and Miles told me it was a jacaranda tree. In every hedgerow or bush are bright purple, red or yellow flowers. A fellow backpacker summed it up perfectly at breakfast when he said Munnar is like “a garden in the sky”.
I will stay here for at least three days, perhaps four. I’ve got a room with a view, the food is good (of course!) and there seems to be lots to do. Even if I decide to chill a bit, I've got a balcony and room service. The temperature is also noticeably cooler, which is a relief after the sweltering heat in Fort Cochin.
Second day in Munnar I woke early for breakfast and met my walking guide at reception at 8am for a hike.
It reminded of many walks I've been on before... no sedate, gentle start, instead a hard relentlessly uphill half hour slog before it began to level out a bit. The initial bits were through really lovely tea plantations. Once it leveled out, there were large rocks to sit on that gave fantastic views back over the valley towards my hotel. The valley was covered in a patchwork quilt of tea-plants and all around misty mountain tops faded in to the distance.
The walk was an almost exact replica in length and height to 'Cat Bells', one of my favourites from the Lake District in England. It was a gently undulating ridgewalk of sorts, climbing over a succession of slightly higher peaks until we reached the top, which was flat and rocky. The views were great and the stiff breeze was the perfect antidote to the heat (although considerably cooler than Fort Cochin, it's still about 85 degrees here during the day). The walk back down was through a forest, past coffee, lemon, eucalyptus and cinnamon trees. I saw another one of those giant squirrels, as well as a big lizard that looked prehistoric with a head-dress. Soon we came out in to rice terraces and meandered our way through the valleys.
My guide was a 22 year old called Parily. He told me interesting information about the tea plants. Each stem has three leaves. The middle one is more of a spear-like bud and is used for white tea, the most expensive, the medium sized leaf is for green tea and the largest of the three leaves is for black tea. The vast majority of Munnar's population is employed in the tea industry, either picking, processing or packing. Tea-pickers work from 8am to 6pm each day, with an hour lunch at the hottest time of the day and two coffee breaks ("coffee?" I said!). They get Sunday off and only work on Saturday mornings, which meant that by the time I encountered my first tea-pickers they were in a festive mood as they had nearly finished for the day. Further down the valley I met a group of old ladies, who were weighing the large bags of leaves they had collected.
It was a brilliant walk and just about the perfect length in the heat. To hire the guide cost 1200 rupees. I got back to my hotel at 2pm. I sprawled across my bed, ordered a lassi and a Sprite from room service, and readied myself for my second walk of the day which started at 4pm.
This time a very politely spoken guy called Tony was my guide, taking me down to the tea plantations at the bottom of the valley. He started by taking me through a wooded area where he pointed out various plants to me. There were some fantastically vivid colours on show, including angels trumpets (white flowers that looked like trumpets), morning glory (vivid purple flowers), flame plants (as its name suggest, fiery red bushes) and my favourite, landanas, which were brightly coloured speckled flowers. We descended in to the valley, wandered around the tea plantation for a while and then set about the hard slog back up to the top.
I enjoyed chatting with Tony. He told me that he used to work in a customer complaints centre for a mobile phone company and often worked 16 hour days, sometimes without a break if they were busy. He got paid only 1000 rupees a month (£10) but got accommodation and a free phone. He was a university student so he was then able to get a job at Shamrock hotel, where he earns 10,000 rupees a month (but no free phone!), which means he can save up. He was 31 years old and said that this year he will probably marry, his parents were currently trying to find him a suitable match.
After a while I asked him if he could stop calling me 'sir' and call me James instead. He seemed a bit taken aback and said "okay sir, sorry sir"! He then explained that he called me sir because I am ten years older than him. It's one of the many things I love about Asia, how they respect their elders.
I must admit, after two fairly lengthy walks, my feet were quite tired by the end of the day. I had a shower and ordered room service. Aloo Mutter (potatoes in peas) and a spicy chicken dish. I had room for more so ordered 'homemade plum cake' with a cup of tea. I finally realised what it is about chai I love so much here... it tastes like tea from a flask! As I ate this feast I watched football from back home on TV. It's the first TV I've watched all trip.
I absolutely love my room. There are large windows at the foot of my bed and the view is fantastic, right out over the valley. Since no-one is overlooking me, I don't close the curtains at night, which means come next morning, I'm wide awake when my alarm goes at 7.45am. Natural daylight has an invigorating effect on me! I've definitely had the best nights sleep in this leg of the trip.
The day after I hired a rickshaw driver to take me to some of Munnars most famous sights. We wound our way through the valleys and then climbed higher and higher until we reached 'Top Station' which was neither at the top of anything or a station. At the ticket office there was a sign which read 'Indians 25 rupees, tourists 50 rupees' so I joked "one Indian please". He laughed but didn't fall for it. Sadly the views at the viewpoint were obscured by heavy mist. It was interesting though, because the viewpoint was between two valleys, so the mist rolled in over us dramatically.
I was told that the mist could clear by midday, so I found a quiet spot down a small path, and completed a crossword. By the time I returned to the viewing deck, there were faint outlines of mountains but the view was still impaired. There were also lots of people in a very confined space and it was a bit of a circus with a large group of very boisterous young guys, so I gave up waiting for the mist to lift and headed back to my rickshaw driver.
Although 'Top Station' disappointed, the rest of the day was excellent. We stopped at Kundala Dam and Mattupetty Lake, which again looked just like somewhere in the Lake District. My favourite stop was Echo Point, a green lake which snaked its way through a succession of valleys. I stood at the edge and wondered what to shout. There were lots of other people around and the acoustics seemed to suit very high-pitched or sharp noises, so I shouted "EVIE!", the name of my niece, and the Munnar valleys shouted back "EVIE VIE vie vie". The best part of the day though was just driving around, snaking up and down the valleys and seeing the carpet of green tea-plants covering every available surface. I'd ask my driver to stop whenever I saw a fantastic sight (which was often), so I could jump out and take a photo. At one point I noticed a sign which said 'elephant crossing'. It's easy to forget how many wild elephants live in these forests.
Moving from state to state is making for a fantastic trip but it's difficult to keep up with the languages. Hindi is the main language of Rajasthan but a different language is spoken in Kerala and Tamil is now the language of Munnar. Nama-ska-rum means 'hello' and thank you is now 'nandri'. People are exceptionally friendly in India and I've had so many smiles and hello's today. I love seeing their face light up when I say hello back to them in Tamil. They definitely appreciate the effort, even if sometimes they do laugh at my pronunciation.
I'm leaving Munnar tomorrow morning, to go to Kumily and Periyar National Park, where there is all kinds of exotic wildlife. There are two options to get there. The easy option is by car, which will cost 2500 rupees (25 quid). It's a four hour drive, so it seems a reasonable price considering the driver has to drive there and back. The advantage of this is that I can leave when I want and get door-to-door service - always preferable when I've got all of my luggage in tow. Option 2 is going by bus. It leaves at 6.20am which would mean a 5.30am alarm call. That in itself isn't a problem (I've had a number of similar alarm calls this trip) but I never like the idea of taking a cramped public bus with all of my stuff. But if I'm being honest, the main reason I'm favouring the taxi option isn't comfort or convenience, it's that I can dictate when we stop - for example if I want to take a photograph or, more likely, if I'm feeling car-sick!
Today I set my alarm for 8am and after a quick breakfast of toast and coffee, I was on my way to Kumily. The views were sensational as we meandered through the Western Ghats, past a seemingly never-ending succession of green valleys covered in tea-plants. We passed a beautiful lake and drove through small villages with colourful bunting hung up across the street, past countless spice gardens and a forested area that had the loudest insect noises I've ever heard. It was like electricity.
As expected, about halfway through I was feeling a bit car-sick due to all of the winding, dipping, bumpy mountain roads, so I called for a tactical chai stop. It cost 30 pence for two cups, one for me and one for my driver.
We arrived in Kumily just after midday and after a road-side conference with six rickshaw drivers, we found my hotel, Green View Home Stay. My room is clean, spacious, painted lime green and like every 'double room' so far on this trip, has two single beds pushed together. I have my own balcony but it has a warning: "beware of monkeys"!
Half-day options in the park are limited, especially for single travelers, so I settled on a boat-trip. It cost 225 rupees plus 450 to enter the park. As recommended by the helpful chap in the tourist information shop, I got there nice and early to secure a good seat on the top of the boat. While I waited, I chatted with a group of friendly young Indian men and at one point became aware of movement to my left and saw a monkey sitting there, a tiny baby clinging to it.
The boat was a double-decker and I had a plum seat on the top deck at the front. I was sat next to a friendly guy who said he remembered me from the day before. "I saw you at Echo Point, applying suntan lotion". It sounded extremely plausible. The boat began chugging slowly along the water, heavily forested woods spilling down in the river. We saw bison grazing in some planes, samba deer splashing around in the shallow water and in the distance a herd of about ten elephants. Over 1000 live in the park, as well as about 50 tigers which gave the sanctuary its name. The chances of seeing them, or indeed the leopards, are very slim, but we saw all kinds of exotic birds and even three baby otters.
Tomorrow I go on a full-day hike around the park, so hopefully I will get to see more wildlife from close-up. I've been warned not to wear anything red or white as animals can see it more clearly!!
Then the day will be quite a long travel day, down to Varkala. I will need to get a public bus to Kottayam (4 hours), a ferry to Alleppey (2.5 hours) and then either a bus or a train to Varkala (2 or 4 hours). With an early start I'm hopeful I can be in Varkala by a respectable hour.
I haven't got time to proof-read this - need to eat!