Words: ANJUMAN DEODHAR
Photographs: VINOBHA NATHAN
GREAT FROM: Bangalore, Chennai, Kochi
GREAT FOR: The unseen side of Kodaikanal
A narrow path meanders off into the forest. The air hangs heavy with moisture. Birds call all around, but they’re impossible to spot. The floor is thickly carpeted with leaves. Deep in the bosom of Palani Hills, an invitation to linger is particularly hard to refuse. And when you tune in to the conversations of the forest, the fact that you’re less than 20km short of Kodaikanal is quickly forgotten.
But a hike to Palayar Parai isn’t one you should attempt unaccompanied. Many little trails branch off into the thicket, and, although you might love it for a while, getting lost here might not be such a good idea. Which is where Ganesh, a guide from Thapovan, the property you’ll be based at, comes in. Although his English is rudimentary, his knowledge of the place is top-notch. He’ll take you to little shrines nestled under frangipani trees, identify the myriad medicinal plants growing wild here and lead you through meadows of lemongrass. But he’s got one gem that easily outshines all the others: under a nondescript ASI board that offers no information except for the protected status of the site, he’ll point to a pile of rocks that are supposedly the ruins of a settlement of dwarves that resided here just 700 years ago. Neither Palayar Parai nor Vallankulam – the tribal village a little distance away – find a mention on Google Maps, or anywhere else on the internet, though. So you just have to take his word for it. But it makes for a hell of a story, as long as you don’t discount the effect of the psilocybin mushrooms that abound in the area.
After this, you’re sure to be tempted to go on the other hike on Ganesh’s itinerary. But be warned, it’s much, much tougher and longer than the first one. This one starts from Vattakanal – a village that was discovered, and promptly appropriated by Israelis some years ago – and goes down to Kumbarakai Falls, through a village called Vellagavi. The section from Vellagavi to Kumbarakai passes through a reserve forest, and permission needs to be secured beforehand from the Divisional Forest Officer in Kodaikanal. The other one, from Vattakanal to Vellagavi, is free. You could also start at Kumbarakai Falls and do it the other way round, and permits can be obtained at the office there. But either way, your legs are going to start complaining vociferously about halfway through, a pain made much worse by the sight of Ganesh skipping along nonchalantly in his tattered plastic slippers. A smarter plan would be sticking to the section from Vattakanal to Vellagavi, which is a lot more picturesque, but remember that you’re going to be climbing upward on your way back. If you leave Vattakanal by 8am, you can take a break for lunch at Vellagavi and be back before sundown. Vellagavi is surprisingly clean, but otherwise unremarkable, except for the feisty mules and the no-footwear rule within the village premises.
For the less masochistic, a guided tour of the Caroselle cheese factory is a more sedate, yet equally satisfying option. So, this time around, give the touristy bits of Kodaikanal a miss, and instead, discover the quiet side of Palani Hills.
The late monsoon weather and the hills bursting with life are absolutely perfect to make this trip to Vazhaigiri NOW. Find out how with LPMI’s October 2017 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.