The Romance of Kannan Devan Hills in Kerala
While India may trail China and Great Britain when it comes to a deep history of tea, there is hardly a nation, today, that romanticizes the brew and regales in its daily consumption as India does. A cup of simmering tea presides proudly amidst most social and business gatherings in the country.
For a nation of tea lovers, any expanse of tea estates—spread out on rolling green hills—would be a welcome destination. What makes Kannan Devan Hills in Kerala that much more attractive is the fact that it is not just any old expanse of tea growing hills. Rather, it is a veritable gold mine for any consummate tourist: it is pristinely picturesque, offers rich sightings of wildlife, and is a birdwatchers paradise. With a dash of the Raj era, there is a bit of history; there are lakes, secluded natural pools and waterfalls, and then there is the uniquely romantic character of the weather – now sunny?now cloudy?now drizzling.
The experience of a piping hot cup of freshly brewed cardamom tea, enjoyed in the midst of a slight drizzle on a lazy overcast early morning, from the front yard of a Raj era bungalow set amidst a landscape of rolling green hills? this is what epitomizes the Kannan Devan Hills experience.
The century-old Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company (KDHP)—a conglomeration of scattered tea estates spanning an area of 55,000 square hectares—is South India's largest tea company. The bungalows associated with the estate are reminiscent of its colonial past. Once home to the British sahibs and their leisurely lifestyle characterized by hunting, angling, and tennis and golf games, these bungalows provide classy accommodation with personal butlers, cooks, housekeepers, exquisite gardens, and recreation areas—all vintage style. It appears that these estates have turned out to be a popular honeymooners' destination in the recent times.
Though, there is a reason why this piece of paradise, set in the rolling mountains of the Western Ghats, in the high ranges of Kerala's Idukki district, is yet largely undiscovered. KDHP only recently (in 2005) threw open its doors to tourists. So, when an opportunity came by, I jumped at the prospect of vacationing here.
My journey began with a short flight to Cochin and then a drive of nearly 140 kms to Yallapaty. Thanks to the suspense inducing punctuality of low-priced airways, I was running six hours behind schedule. I was supposed to have enjoyed the drive during the daylight, but ended up driving into the area in the dead of night. When I finally reached the estate property a few hours before dawn, I settled down in a palatial bungalow—the "standard" accommodation in the estates.
Next morning revealed the view of the soothing green plantations. Abbas, my host at the Tea Sanctuary, greeted me. Originally a fellow Bangalorean, Abbas narrated my itinerary for the next three days. Invigorated by fresh hot tea, we were soon off to our first destination: Kundaly Golf Club.
The weather was picture perfect? until we approached the golf course, which is when the southeastern monsoon broke down suddenly and heavily upon us. I was glued to the windshield in an attempt to take in as much of the scenic beauty of the surroundings as I possibly could. The drive by itself was rather bumpy and it was hard to find a stretch of 50 meters without a pothole. In the end, though, it was well worth it—as it led us to a gorgeous 9-hole golf course. The grass was not exactly manicured but was a good location for a movie shoot. And as the heavens would have it, that is exactly what we stumbled upon, a film shooting in progress. I had the rare opportunity to watch a heroine swaying to a tune amidst the downpour – a sight that people would have killed to witness in bigger cities.
With nothing much to do in the rain, we drove towards Chokkanad, our next stopover for the evening, which was located in yet another beautiful vista. With my luggage stashed in my room, I hurried outside to do some bird-watching. It was a perfect evening, with a mild breeze, blue skies, and evening light; making it one of the most remarkable settings to sight birds. I could identify 15 species of birds in about an hour before the sun finally set on the horizon.
I returned to the bungalow, where the butler had a hot platter of pakoras with tea (of course!) waiting for me. Needless to say, this was a perfect place to apply brakes to a fast-paced life, and reconnect with a loved one.
Early next morning, I took a walk with the hope that I would witness a beautiful sunrise. I wasn't lucky as a thick cloud cover had moved briskly over the area. We set out in a Mahindra jeep towards Eravikulam National Park, a safe heaven for the endangered Nilgiri tahr (wild goat). We were greeted by a solitary tahr overlooking the vast stretches of the Western Ghats.
While driving up to the park, one gets a distant peak at the Anamudi ("elephant head") mountain. The rock formations on the face of the mountain resemble an elephant head along with a trunk and the distinct ears. The Anamudi is also the tallest peak south of the Deccan Plateau.
At an hour's driving distance from Anamudi, we arrived at Gravel Banks. A pile of dung indicated the presence of elephants nearby. A quiet river was meandering across the wilderness and the chuckling sound of a giant Malabar squirrel with a burgundy coat and a long, bushy tail caught my attention. A suspension bridge built in 1902 ran over the river. I immediately fell in love with the tranquil wilderness of the place. This was definitely a great spot for wildlife sighting, angling, trekking, and picnicking. I left the place reluctantly (having hoped to see elephants) and moved on to my next destination, Rajamali.
It seemed like every place I went felt better than the last! Coming through Rajamali, I was lucky to sight the famous tahrs, nimble-footed mountain goats, right on the main road. It is remarkable that the species under threat of extinction has made a comeback, thanks to the earnest efforts of the wildlife personnel and the officials of the tea estate. I was told that every new employee has to undertake a five-day trek along these hills to understand the area and its fauna. I silently envied the employees of this gorgeous place, and wished I had the privilege to live and work in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots in South India.
My thoughts were interrupted by a sudden change in weather when a downpour seemed imminent. We dashed off to the High Range Club, a place of quite some character and history, as I soon discovered. This century-old club, whose wooden walls are lined with stuffed heads of Nilgiri tahr, deer, and wild boars, had until recently observed a strict European dress code. The bar lounge, I gathered, has maintained the same colonial decor for over a hundred years. Another tradition is the hanging of hats on the walls by all those who have been a part of the club for over 30 years. In all, I was quite pleased to spend some time indoors in this striking place.
Early next day, Somanna, a KDHP employee of several years, drove me off for over an hour to arrive at a place which I thought was another tailor made natural spot for romance: a natural pool with fresh water trickling down the mountains. The experience was magical and in some ways dramatic. The well secluded spring is accessible only by the guests of KDHP. The spot is also ideal for bird-watching and has a wonderful spring water pool – a luxury that no five-star hotel can provide. Time flew past as I marveled at the wealth of outdoor opportunities that are available in and around the area.
Somanna surprised me by saying that there was more to the place than meets the eye! He led me to a secret retreat uphill. A steep walk led us to a point where we could witness the waterfalls dropping from a height of nearly 300 ft at the backdrop of the panoramic view of the magnificent hills. After a breathless walk, the only word that I could let out was a big "wow!" My sightseeing at the KDHP came to end with this climatic experience.
I reflected on my visit and was surprised at how many things I had managed to do in a short span and how refreshed I felt. The estate is a retreat for nature lovers, romantic couples, golf enthusiasts, trekkers, serious anglers, poets, writers, film makers, and so forth. It truly is a sanctuary harboring a multitude of nature's bounty.
By D. K. Bhaskar
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