Words: Sheena Dabholkar
Photographs: Aparna Nori
GREAT FROM: Kochi, Bangalore, Madurai
GREAT FOR: Being nestled in the lap of nature
There’s evidence that being in nature is good for your brain – just looking at the colour green can be restorative. There’s no shortage of brain food in Valparai, home to tea plantations in all directions as far as the eye can see. The journey to the top is famous for its 40 hairpin bends, but the rewards begin even before the dizzying drive ends. Elephants. These hills, the Anamalais, are named after them.
Check into any of the Briar Tea Bungalows: three charming colonial houses on three separate properties, built out of stone with bay windows and wraparound verandahs. The porches are the real delight, with planter’s chairs and white wicker furniture in which to curl up and read or listen to the cheery tunes of that Malabar whistling thrush who never seems to have a bad day.
For over a century, Valparai has been home to many major tea plantations, thousands upon thousands of acres of perfectly-manicured rows of tea with silver oak sprinkled in between. Though not endemic, the black pepper vine-wrapped trunks filter the sunlight and help break the wind.
Coffee can be found here, too, and was, in fact, the first crop to be grown by planters who arrived in Valparai in the mid 1800s. Legend has it that British planters fired gold coins by cannon into the densely-forested hills so the locals would clear them. Tea became the crop of choice only a century later.
If you’re interested in finding out what happens with all that tea, you can tour the Monica Tea Factory to learn about CTC – the process through which fragrant leaves are turned into the black tea used in boiled milky chai. The heady, sweet smell of tea lingers as you watch the leaves loaded onto a conveyor belt, dried, mulched, fermented and separated by quality, from round pellets to fine dust, before being packed into sacks for export.
When you’re done with tea, and, when the rain clears, set off in your vehicle or borrow a bicycle (free) from the bungalow to discover Valparai’s rare, incredible wildlife, which includes the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Malabar giant squirrel and the playful Nilgiri langur or the rare lion-tailed macaques, and the Indian gaur with its bulging muscles.
As sunset approaches, make your way to the Sholayar backwaters, eight kilometres away from the property, for an evening stroll along a shimmering lake, and watch as the skies turn dramatically from grey to gold and pink.
Mornings are not to be wasted in Valparai either. Drive over to Puthutotam, the oldest bungalow in town, which marks the starting point for a plantation walk with the resident naturalist. It’s an energising if muddy way to start the day, and keen birdwatchers won’t be disappointed. You might chance upon a peacock and peahen engaged in a ritual mating dance, a common flameback woodpecker flitting about, or a serpent eagle perched high in a eucalyptus tree.
Return in time for a lavish breakfast of pillow-soft idlis, paper-thin dosas or lacy appams with chickpea curry. If you’re rained in, look for the carrom counters in Pringles cans around the bungalow and play a round or two, or play a game of chess. Or simply snuggle up in one of the bay windows, warm beverage in hand, and look out at the swathe of green. It’s as good for you as meditation and you can’t argue with science.