Monday, 30 January 2012

Fresh air, hot chocolate & trekking in Kodaikanal

Our last day in Madurai began with a fabulous breakfast of fresh dosas and boori served up on a banana leaf with the ubiquitous samber (a kind of orange vegetable curry sauce which they serve with seemingly everything in southern India) and the obligatory sugarey chai in a local eatery. We hopped in a rickshaw for the 4km to the bus station and boarded a local bus to take us high up inside the western ghats to the hill station of Kodaikanal. The journey would have been pleasant had not the bus driver sounded his ear-splitting horn every single time any traffic appeared - be it pedestrian, motorcycle, car or cow. This seems to be the style of driving in India, which is OK when you have a rather inoffensive beeper, but not when it is the deep bass of a very loud horn through the open air of a windowless bus. Our ears did not grow accustomed to the constant cacophony and it was a very uncomfortable ride out for the first couple of hours whilst we continuously passed traffic. Unbelievably, some of our fellow passengers actually slept through it. At various points on this journey I have not ceased to be amazed (and jealous) of Indian people's miraculous ability to sleep under all conditions! 
Enjoying 'hair dryer hot chocolate'! 
The bus typically took several hours longer than we had predicted but as we ascended higher and higher, seeing the land roll away and the landscape opening into panoramic vistas, we did not regret our choice to move out of town. As dark began to fall we wound our way higher through the hills and the scenes started to change - men wore ear muffs and blankets wrapped around their shoulders in addition to cotton dhotis, their breath misting the air. Small, slumbering children boarding the bus in the arms of their mothers had tiny little woolen balaclavas on their heads. We disembarked in the dark chilly night and found a damp dingy room in the incongruously-named Strawberry Park hotel. After donning literally all of the warm clothes we owned, we filled up on Tibetan food in a tiny little jewel of a restaurant - 'Tibetan Bros' - then rounded it off with a home made hot chocolate made in Indian style - by melting slabs of chocolate into a cup with an old retro hairdryer!
The view from our window - peeking out above the clouds
Sitting outside our room with a view
Having found ourselves a room with a view to rival any other, we moved the next morning to the local youth hostel where our cottage window literally peeked out over clouds. As I sat drenched in sunlight on our little patio, overlooking the azure mountain range I realised that this was probably what Wordsworth called 'the Sublime'. We had decided to do some trekking with a beautifully chiselled, handsome local guide by the name of Babu (which means 'little boy' in Hindi), to take us out for the day. Babu had assured us that we would be going "off the beaten track", but we didn't bargain for having to not only scale an extremely high vertical cliff face but also trek through solar forest undergrowth, cutting through twigs and thorns and spend a disproportionate amount of time sliding up or down incredibly slippy rocks, incurring impressive battle scars along the way. Although the going was tough, it was incredibly rewarding and Babu's knowledge of the land and the flora and fauna reminded me of the indigenous people of Australia, so intimate was it. During the walk he pointed out rhodedendhrons, wild orange flowers and a plant that only flowers once every 50 years!We cooled down by sliding down a natural waterslide created by rocks leading down to a waterfall and ate freshly plucked passion fruits from the husk along the way.  
Natural waterslide! 
As sun was setting we climbed up to Dolphin's nose rock - a flat rock which projects out over a 6,600ft drop. Although my body was shaking with vertigo I conquered my fear and climbed onto the top, trying not to look down into the gaping chasm which surrounded me. As I looked across into the landscape I was overcome with emotion and tears came to my eyes. Later on I learned that, below that exact spot there is an ancient sacred site. Babu and I stayed in step through the dark dusky lanes back to the village and the scent of lemons from the trees was overwhelming. Afterwards we found ourselves back at Tibetan Bros restaurant and in there was the attractive Israeli man who had been rooming next to us in the hostel. I knew he had been struck down with bronchitis for a week and had heard him coughing and hacking through the night. He happened to overhear me say in the restaurant that I "would give anything for a single malt right now". "Anything?" he asked, smiling wryly at me and looking into my eyes in the mirror opposite. Although I found him attractive, I knew that he was at death's door and I offered him reiki in return for a wee dram - I knew he had been ill and wanted to help. Later that night we did the deal - I got a class of Johnny Walker black label and he, my healing hands.  The next morning I asked him how he felt? "Better, different," he smiled. 

Eating fresh passion fruits  
Off the beaten track trekking gang
We liked Babu (and the trekking) so much that we decided walk to our next destination - Munnar - over 50km away across the mountains. And so we set off for a three day hike with a merry band including Easter and Louis, our new friends from the youth hostel,  and a troupe of travelling Israelis who were relaxing in India after the completion of their mandatory military service. The views were absolutely stunning, we stopped off at waterfalls to swim and refreshed along the way with more freshly-picked fruits. On the first day, after many kilometres of walking we reached the end of the first trek trail and were taken by rickshaw to the city for the night as sun set through the coconut trees. Having eaten our fill (more dosas and samber served on banana leaves) Liz and I managed a cheeky invite to Babu's hotel room to share a couple of beers, which thankfully lulled us to sleep through the heat, noise and the mosquitos of the dusty city night.  We slept in the clothes we had trekked in as we had not been able to carry pyjamas or packs.  

The view from the mountains
We were up bright and early to take a local bus out of the city, breakfast in a village (yes, you've guessed it - more samber) and spend the day ascending. There is something pretty galvanising about staring up at the summit of a mountain you're about to climb, so the English folks amongst us set off in earnest up the S-shaped mountain path, sweating in the sun. Meanwhile, our Israeli counterparts, intent on going as "shanti shanti" as possible, langoured behind. The day was pleasantly punctuated by another swim in a refreshingly freezing waterfall, Munnar limes and lunch in a village half way up to the top. We sat in front of a tiny local school and ate our home made cashew rice out of a banana leaf, flavoured with lime pickle and rounding off with bananas and chocolate as the local kids giggled and played in the background. 
Babu's trekking map

Post trek chilling at the Munnar top station 
Tropical fauna at the top station
When reached the summit and were pleased to find our bed for the night, in Munnar's cosy top station, where we were fed incredibly well (tomato rice, popadoms and yes - you've guessed it - more samber!!!) One of the Israeli girls began our meal with a traditional kiddush, ritually breaking bread and passing it around to all of our plates, performing a blessing as we ushered in the Sabbath day. The night took a turn for the raucous when, cuddled in blankets, we sat and drank cheap rum by the campfire, singing English and Israeli songs. After all that fresh air I slept incredibly well in the little stone cottage and was only awoken by the chickens and the kitchen staff commencing their work at about 05.30. 
We trekked across these mountains
Our bed for the night in Munnar top station
On the last day of our trek we walked out bright and early to the look out, to witness the distance we had climbed.  As we stood we could hear monkeys chattering from the forest. We took a jeep back the final few km and Liz and I were allowed to ride 'up top' on the roof for the first few mountainous bends, affording us a perfect view of the velvety green tea plantations of Munnar. 
Riding up top on the jeep
Munnar tea plantations


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