South India Road Trip – Mountains, Spices & Tea

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The Idukki district in Kerala can be described in three words: mountains, tea and spices. The verdant Western Ghat Mountains are home to everything you’ve ever seen in a spice shop.

The Idukki district in Kerala can be described in three words: mountains, tea and spices. The verdant Western Ghat Mountains are home to everything you’ve ever seen in a spice shop. Pepper, “the king of spices”, cardamom, “the queen of spices”, ginger, cloves, turmeric, cinnamon, tamarind, nutmeg and much more. Tea is the lifeblood of the economy, and immaculately maintained plantations stretch as far as the eye can see.

On a motorbike, you can smell everything, and each spice plantation that passes gives off a unique aromatic sensory experience. Add great roads and awe-inspiring scenery and attract friendly and educated people interested in discussing all kinds of topics.

Kerala has been a communist state since 1970, with the country’s most active political population. Under the “Hammer and Sickle” flags is a progressive state, the first in India to openly welcome the transgender community.

We stop at Thadiyampadu, near the take-off point for a trek up to Palkulamedu mountain. According to the Kerala Trekking Club, this peak is far from tourist routes and all we need is water and “sturdy walking sandals”.

The narrow road to the trailhead is lined with cashews. Parking next to a stable, a farmer sticks his head out to say “hello”. We leave bikes and equipment in the watchful care of four cows, following a path above the tree line. Endless views of the shola (meadow forests) and mountains are the reward.

The winding road to Munnar, the capital of the tea district, is dotted with lakes and rivers. Private tea estates limit route options to national roads and none of the tempting trails that lead through private estates.

A quiet homestay on the outskirts of Munnar is home for three nights. While walking in the city we see tourists for the first time, nearby tea plantations and national parks attract a lot. The tourist office warns that independent hiking is prohibited; a guide and entrance fees are required. We were shown disappointing tourist “programs” and we were unhappy.

My traveling companion Astried’s birthday was celebrated with an adventure in the hills of Kannan Devan. Passing the highest tea plantations in the country, we reach the “Top Station”, a historic tram that takes tea down the mountain to the head end below.

We found the trailhead – minus the checkpoint – and descended into the lush forest. A lone rooster guarded the trail but did not charge any fees. Two hours later, we were back, sipping chai and munching on fresh oranges. Astried was angry with dishonest tourist officials, but happy to walk without a guide.

Eravikullam National Park prohibits hiking near Anamudi Mountain, which rises to 2.69, India’s highest peak south of the Himalayas. We passed the busy entrance and spotted a road with no “No Entry” sign. A little further on, a young man appears, telling us that it is private property.

“Very sorry sir,” I said. “There was no sign.”

“It’s because the elephants came by last night and knocked him over,” he laughed.

We learned that the 1,500 hectare plantation has 24 ISO certified tea varieties harvested every three weeks. Goodbye, we went down to Munnar.

Perfect weather the next morning made for a brilliant descent of the mountains. The checkpoint entering Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary had more monkeys than people. They strolled through the gate, hoping for scraps of food, and jumped on the hoods of the cars. Elephant droppings were strewn along the road, highlighting the “Attention: elephant crossing” signs.

While stopping for “meals” at the Meghna Hotel in Manupatti village, we asked them if they saw a lot of foreigners.

“They drive by sometimes,” he said, “but you are the first to stop and the first strangers on motorcycles I have ever seen.”

At a winery stand in the small village of Puruvur, Astried drew attention. They had never seen a blonde woman, let alone on a motorcycle. A group of women gathered, and an old woman sat next to Astried, tenderly holding his hand. She told stories like we understood and clearly didn’t want us to go. Getting on the bikes, she walked up to Astried with a tear in her eye and kissed her, telling him what could only have been “beware”.

We cruised straight and flat roads to the Aliyar Dam and started climbing into the Nilgiri Mountains on another exhilarating numbered hairpin highway. The Anamalai region – “Elephant Hill” – is home to elephants, tigers, panthers, Indian bison, langurs, deer, gaurs, sloths and more. Tea plantations and dense forests drown the green hills as we reach the town of Valparai for the night. Our incredible journey continues …

For 28 days and over 2,600 kilometers, Tim and his companion explored rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala (in 2017). Few foreigners ply the back roads of South India and they’ve certainly attracted a lot of attention, from cellar glances to schoolchildren cheering and even newspaper coverage. Read more of the series at piquenewsmagazine.com and timmorch.com.


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