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A Travel Blog from India: April 2012

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Valparai - Unexplored wonder!

There are some dates in the calendar which help you plan in advance and Good Friday weekend is one of them. It is a holiday for the company and opportunity to explore for us. This time we went to verdant Valparai and came back refreshed. A place so soothing, it will make you go back again.

As we plan for this weekend, we rule out Wild life sanctuaries. With wild fires in Nagarahole and Bandipur and safaris not being operational, it makes no sense. The next option is to head hills again.

We feel only Ooty and Kodai in South India can be considered as hill stations where the weather is really cool even during sweltering summers. The other places like Munnar, Yercaud, Coorg or Chikkamagalur may not be as cool as Ooty/Kodai but definitely better than Bangalore. Having been to all these places, it had to be a new place this time.

When we were looking for options, the name of Valparai suddenly cross our mind. We had read about it. It is still small and not commercialised, green and soothing to eyes and body! It is closer to Coimbatore which was a plus point. Poorna's cousin stays in Coimbatore. We can now plan to visit him and proceed to Valparai.

Some teaser pictures to confirm my statement above!!

Backwaters of Sholayar dam
We start looking for stay options in Valparai. We find there are not many good places to stay in Valparai like Munnar. There are only two properties - Waterfalls Estate and Stanmore estate by Woodbriar group. We call them up and find that there is no room. We call Woodbriar group for Stanmore. "Sorry sir, it is running full" comes the reply.

We again call Waterfalls and ask the manager to suggest if there are any other good places for stay in Valparai. Rasha, the lady manager of Waterfalls then suggest "Sinnadorai Bungalow" and give the number of its Manager - Ms Sujatha. What is all this "Sinnadorai - Periyadorai" stuff ??? The name of the place sounded odd and we keep our fingers crossed. However, with no choice, we call Sujatha and luckily, she says that they have two rooms available. We ask her if they have a website and she says yes and provide the link. We log into the website and pleasantly surprised at the elegant British planter's bungalow perched on a hill. It is managed by Parry group. We call Sujatha and ask her to block two rooms as we are five.

A week before the D-day, three drop out and we are the only two left. We call up Sujatha and release one of the rooms.

Since my cousin stays in Coimbatore, we plan to travel on Thursday evening and stay with him. That way we could beat the weekend rush on NH 7 on Friday morning. We decide to stick to the regular route as i will be driving at night. 

We leave office at 4 PM, get on to Hosur road elevated highway at Madivala at 4.30. We reach Hosur in half hour - thanks to elevated highway. We slow down a bit in Hosur manoeuvring the traffic. As we come out of Hosur, it is a pleasure again but slow down once again on Krishnagiri ghat section as they are widening the road making it six lane. Ghats done, we cruise and cross Toppur. we are surprised to see where all the road humps have vanished. We reach Salem bye pass at 7 PM and take the loop to hit NH to Erode.

Salem - Erode is a breeze and we cruise to Avinashi comfortably. Now the hassles start with two lane roads, diversions and monster state transport buses honking and driving recklessly. To be fair, the roads are quite wide and condition is good and we continue to drive comfortably and reach outskirts of Coimbatore at 9.45 PM. With a stop for ten minutes to pick up the soft drinks from the ice box after crossing Salem.

We enter Coimbatore and reach my cousins place. We are meeting after a year and the guy is a jovial bloke and has kept all the stuff ready....you know what!!! We have good time and hit the bed past midnight after savouring excellent pulao prepared by his wife.

We get up leisurely and the breakfast venue is a foregone conclusion. It had to be "Annapurna". We get ready and head to the restaurant which is very close to my cousin's place. The place is full and looks like a dining hall of a kalyana mantapam!! We get a table quickly and sumptuous breakfast of Pongal, vada, Idli and Dosa should hold us in good stead till we reach Valparai.

We bid good bye to my cousin Prashanth and his wife Poornima and head towards Pollachi. A nice 45 minutes drive and we are in town. We find no signage for valparai and we ask locals who seems to be clueless. We waste 20 minutes figuring out the road and finally an old man on the bike seeing us going in circles offers to be the pilot and ask us to follow him. We do and finally hit the highway.

Pollachi to Aliyar dam should be one of the picturesque drives after rains. As we reach Aliyar dam, we could see holiday picnic crowd. The dam itself is small and has nicely laid out garden and children play area. We drive past the dam and stop at the entrance of Anaimalai tiger reserve. We notice some steps leading to the water of the lake and we step out. We see huge expanse of water and lovely birds.

First glimpse of lake formed by Backwaters of Aliyar dam

We are now to start our climb to Valparai. It is exciting as we relax in our seats and start the climb slowly savouring the beauty of Anaimalai range. Summer has dried out all the water falls - there are numerous ones. This place after rains must be one of the most beautiful drives in the country similar to our own Charmadi ghat. The road has been relaid recently and is in excellent condition. The hairpin bends are not a steep as in Kalhatty ghat to Ooty. We stop at various spots to get down and enjoy the sights. The sights of backwaters of Aliyar dam from Loam's Point - named in the honour of Capt Loam who surveyed this road in 18th century - at 9th hairpin bend is just mind blowing.

Let the pictures tell the story now.

We cross the steeper part of the ghat in a relaxed manner. The sights are awesome and we make an immediate decision to come again in monsoons when you can see those lovely waterfalls with names given by British like Monkey falls. As we drive, we see the beautiful greenscapes welcoming us. We are now in fabulous tea country. It is green, green and only green everywhere. Occasionally disturbed by the purple of blooming Jacaranda trees. These sights are soothing to the strained eyes which has got used to white and grey in Bangalore. The greenery accompanies us all the way till we reach Sinnadorai’s Bungalow.

As i said in the beginning, Valparai is not in the same league of Ooty and Kodai. We could feel it having come from Red Hills few weeks back. Still the air is cool and fresh. The signage to the Bungalow is well marked and at Rotti Kadai we turn left and go off the highway. For the next four KMs it is only climb through green vistas of tea gardens. A single lane road with few hair pin bends takes us to the Bungalow.

It is “Wow” feeling as we park my Scorpio. This is a beautifully restored 1931 British bungalow. The interest and dedication of people who were involved in restoration can be seen in the minute details of the bungalow. Situated on a cliff in Parlai estate belonging to EID Parry group, the bungalow has lovely living room, library room and dining area. It is cooler here because of its height. The wooden roof has been restored and retained which adds to the old world charm. There are two rooms inside the main building and four rooms in two different units. All rooms are very spacious, simple and elegant. Each one comes with fire place as well. The bungalow reminded me of my association with planters while serving Assam in eighties as well our stay in elegant Burra Saheb’s bungalow near Jorhat during our trip to the area in 2009. Planters have carried on the legacy of the British and even today the refinement and elegance can be seen in these places and Sinadorai’s Bungalow is one of them.

The website - http://www.sinnadorai.com/

Let me now take you around the Sinna Dorai bungalow....

The valley view from the bench
Sujatha meets us and after a typical planter’s welcome drink of Ice tea, we are given options to choose the room as a group who had booked four rooms had cancelled their booking!! We go around and zero in on the room with best views in the bungalow. We are the only ones in the bungalow for the next two days!! We ask her what does " Sinnadorai's bungalow" means. She says Managers in British days were called "Periya Dorai" or "Bada Saheb" and Assistant Managers were called "Sinna Dorai" or "Chota Saheb"!! So this bungalow belonged to a Assistant Manager of the estate and hence the name "Sinna Dorai's Bungalow"!

We freshen up and get ready for lunch. The table is nicely laid out and the cutlery is all bone china. The food served is simple and excellent. Murugan, the man Friday of the bungalow is a third generation worker in the estate and is proud to be part of the estate. He along with few ladies and excellent cook – Ashirvatham – support Sujatha who is the manager of the place.

Poorna start chatting with Murugan and question him on different places to explore from the list i have already made. Unfortunately, safaris and trekking inside the forest is banned due to forest fire – we had confirmed this before our departure as we wanted to try elephant safari etc – which left us in going for walks in the estate, see some places around. Murugan ask us whether we are game for night safari in our Scorpio – a drive through the remote parts of estates – which will give us opportunity to see elephants, leopards and Indian Guar. We naturally jump at the idea and confirm that we can do it after dinner.

We rest for some time and get ready for evening tea and hike in the estate. Murugan ask our preference – coffee or tea. It has to be tea, naturally. The tea comes in a typical planter style in a kettle and bone china cups and saucers. It is a premixed tea and possibly one of the best tea we have ever had – Poorna is a bit of connoisseur of tea and coffee. After a cuppa, we ask Murugan to get another and after getting satiated, we follow Murugan.

It is an easy hike of three KMs which takes us to the edge of the state. At the edge of the estate starts the shola forest extending for miles. Murugan says that if we are lucky we can sight Elephants, Guar and leopard. We are all excited as we follow him. We spot many birds and suddenly Murugan stops and ask us to look at a distance. Lo and behold!! A herd of Indian Gaur in the middle of the garden!! Brinda gets busy to click and I focus my binos on them. There must at least be 20 of them. Within minutes all of them vanish into the jungle....not before we capture them in the camera.

We continue our hike.

We come to a Y junction of two dirt tracks and Murugan again gestures us to look left. A lone Guar is walking up and away from us!! He does not turn back and we are desperate to capture the face. For a few seconds he turns back and possibly looks at us and he is captured in the camera!!.

The sky is overcast and it is getting darker and we also experience few drops of rain. The scenes of clouds hugging the mountains are a memorable sight. In between the sun is playing hide and seek. We walk back hoping that we don’t get drenched in the rain. We are more worried about camera. As we reach the bungalow, we experience the first rain of the season. It is not heavy but enough to drench the parched lands. The smell of soaked earth by first rains is something to cherish for. That too in a place which is devoid of pollution.

We ask Murugan if we can get a cup of tea and he obliges with the best cuppa. Reaching our room, we enjoy the valley freshly drenched by mango showers and wait for the sun play hide and seek again before vanishing behind clouds and set in the horizon. Everything looks fresh and everything looks green here!!

Rains make the evening very pleasant. It is a perfect setting for a lovely evening - Cool breeze from the mountain, fresh earthy smell, quietude all around but for odd sound of Cicada and flickering lights at a distance in the valley.

As the night sets in, we notice the fireflies near the trees. Trees almost look like a decorated Christmas tree. I had seen lovely pictures of these fireflies taken by Lalu. I ask Murugan about this phenomenon. He says that the numbers are small now and will increase after couple of rains. Brinda tries to capture in the camera but is not successful as numbers are small.

We ask Murugan to lay dinner by 9.30 PM and be ready for night safari drive at 10.30. As usual, the dinner is excellent and the desert of Coffee souffle is the clincher! I take out the Scorpio and Murugan sits next to me with his powerful torch as i start driving. We drive around quite a bit but are not so lucky. We don’t spot any elephants or leopards. As we turn and start driving back, Brinda ask me to stop and ask me to go back a little. She has spotted something. I stop and we all get down and Murugan flashes his powerful torch. We see glowing eyes in the darkness at a distance but fail to capture in the camera. It is a herd of Indian Gaur again!! We return to bungalow around midnight and Murugan takes us to a tree near bungalow and opens his torch to show the birds!!

A nice drive, great sights and beautiful bungalow………we go to bed cherishing these memories only to wake up to explore more the next day!

Sleeping late in the midnight means no chance of getting up very early. Since there is no sun rise to be seen here, there is no need to get up at 5.30 either. But the best time to do some bird watching is early in the morning. When I open my eyes in the morning, it is 6.30. I come out of the room and stand in front of the valley and is mesmerised by the scene of clouds floating low in the valley. Or is it mist?

I normally can't sleep once I get up in the morning. I freshen up fast, take the camera, binos and step out to savour the morning. It is mildly chill and pleasurable as I set out on the roads to see if I can capture any birds. The rays of early morning sun were caressing the leaves of tea plants tenderly.

I am able to spot some birds and captured it in the camera. (I am posting all birds together at the end). When I return, Brinda is up and we move to the patio of the bungalow to sip the lovely tea of Sinna Dorai Bungalow. We are not disappointed as Murugan brings us the best tea again served in china. We discuss the plan for the day with Murugan and decide to visit Lower Nerar dam and Sholayar dam after breakfast.

We get ready and hog an excellent breakfast of Pongal, Ediappam, and Omelette along with fruits. Murugan joins us as we leave to Nerar dam and then to Sholayar. We come down the hills and hit the highway and move towards Valparai. As we hit highway, I notice two men having a placard “ Wild animals, drive slow”. I ask Murugan what it is. Murugan says that they are members of a Nature Conservation Foundation, the Mysore based award winning and pioneering NGO working in wild life conservation and keep a watch of endangered Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM) which move in the area and if they spot any on the road, cautions motorists to slow down. He chats up with them to check if they sighted any LTM in the morning. They answer in negative. Murugan who knows them well, request them to give him a call if they spot any LTMs. We too are excited as these endangered animals generally don’t come down and live in the tall trees of forests in Western Ghats. We had in fact noticed a notice board on LTMs when we stopped at Sharavathi valley view point during our trip to Goa earlier this year.

We reach Valparai town which is a single street town and move towards Lower Nerar dam. The drive to Nerar should rank as one of the prettiest. The previous day’s showers have brought down the mercury levels and the road virtually goes through series of verdant tea gardens. We go down the hills to the dam site. This is again a small dam but surrounded by forests. The setting is lovely and we spend few minutes and start driving back.

Few kilometres of driving and I notice a large space at a curve and sights from there look nice. I ask Murugan whether we can stop here, get down and take a look around. By all means, replies Murugan. I park the Scorpio and what we see now is just spellbinding. Two local boys come to us and I chat up them asking if their holidays have started and what do they play etc. The boys say that the view from another point is stunning. I ask them the distance to it and they say it is ten minutes walk and we follow the boys. They are correct. You can see it in the pictures below. The views are just stunning.

Nerar dam done, we are now on the way to Sholayar dam. Road condition is fantastic. Again the terrain is so picturesque that we stop at couple of places to capture it on the camera. Few KMs of driving, we notice red coloured dried beds . Murugan says they are backwaters of Sholayar dam but have dried up due to lack of rain. We continue driving. Sholayar must be having one of longest backwaters. Finally we reach a place where there is water and click some nice pictures of the place. This drive should be most beautiful after the rains.

Else, we could have left early in the morning and visited it. But now it is too late as it will be dark to go and come back. This road has high concentration of elephants and two day back a woman was killed by an elephant. We return back with sunken hearts. We miss an excellent chance. I call up my friend HV Kumar and he also confirms that Athirapally is closer from Sholayar and we should have done that. He also confirms that the road from Sholayar to Athirapally is very picturesque and goes through dense forests. Possibly next time we should do this.

I stop in Valparai for drawing cash from ATM – there are SBI, Indian Bank and Union Bank ATMs – and start driving back. Few KMs from the town we see the volunteer displaying the placard “Wild animals, Drive Slow” and asking us to get down. We get excited and Murugan talks to them and confirms that a group of Lion Tailed Macaque have come down!! What luck!! We park the car on the side and Brinda gets ready to click and I focus through my binos.

Here is a group of ten LTMs hanging around a jack fruit tree – LTMs love jack fruits. Brinda goes on clicking spree. These are lovely animals and are not harmful. Couple of other cars also stop by. The volunteers are guiding us and asking us not to feed them. Satiated, we move towards the car.

Since the LTMs cross over the road, NCF has built monkey bridges to help them cross the road. There have been many accidents on this road involving LTMs and it is for this reason Nature Conservation Foundation has appointed two volunteers to caution motorists of presence of these animals.

We reach bungalow around 3 PM and looking forward to the lunch. We are hungry and not disappointed at all. Excellent south Indian vegetarian lunch. While coming into the bungalow, I notice Grassland hills basking in afternoon sun and shadow play looks interesting. While having lunch, i ask Brinda whether she is game to take a walk in the estate to capture Grassland hills in late afternoon sunlight. She is game and I ask Murugan if he can accompany us which he obliges.

We return back to the room, pick up the camera and follow Murugan. It is a short walk from the bungalow unlike the previous day hike. He takes us to a vantage point where we can see the beauty of Grassland hills in the afternoon sun. Here is what we saw……

We come back and rest for a while before Murugan tells us that evening tea is ready. We take a walk on the roads after sipping lovely tea and return back to the room. The evening is spent quietly with books and beer.....

An excellent dinner topped up by coconut souffle completes the day.

We get up leisurely and are again treated to excellent tea by Murugan. We pack up things and have breakfast and bid good bye to Sujatha, Murugan, Ashirvatham et all. We thank them for giving us one of the memorable "Sinna Dorai experience". A real experience of enjoying a "Planter's life". The tariff in Sinna Dorai is Rs 6.5 K per night per room including all meals. It is a value for money without any doubt. I recommend "Sullivan" room - the room where we stayed - which has excellent valley views.

Here are some pics of birds in and around the bungalow. Murugan was telling that he has also seen Hornbills but we were unlucky and could not sight any.

Driving down and reaching Pollachi is a breeze. As i reach Pollachi, i call up H V Kumar to confirm the route via Palladam to reach Avinashi there by avoiding Coimbatore. He confirms that is the best option. The boy filling diesel in the petrol bunk also confirms that the complete stretch has been relaid two months back and is excellent. How true it turns out to be as we have a peaceful drive - except for diversion in Mangalam where they are building a railway bridge - to reach Avinashi. From Avinashi, it is the good old road and we reach Salem by 3 PM. We stop at Salem for lunch in Sharavana Bhavan and are back in Bangalore by 6.30 PM.

The route for return journey

Valparai - Pollachi - Palladam - Avinashi - Salem - Krishnagiri - Hosur - Bangalore

Afterword - Valparai is an unexplored and unspoilt beauty. Hope it remains so for some time. But i am doubtful. The opportunities here is huge unlike at other places. This place is more like Chikkamagalur or Coorg or Malnad - hills, waterfalls, wild life, treks etc.... Valparai can also be a gateway to explore Parambikulam as well. Of course a great place for drives.

We had a wonderful experience in Sinna Dorai Bungalow. If you want to have a typical "Planter's bungalow experience" in all its glory, this is the place. We will definitely return after monsoons.

Travel Tips

Getting there

  • Valparai is at a distance of 100 KMs from Coimbatore which is a major city in the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Coimbatore is well connected by Train and Air to all major cities in India
  • By Road - If you are planning your trip from anywhere in South India, driving down in your own vehicle is the best option as it will give you flexibility to move around the place. 
    • 8 hours of drive from Bangalore. Road condition is excellent.
    • 8 hours from Chennai
    • 5 hours from Kochi
  • By Train - Coimbatore is well connected to other cities in the country and the hire a cab from Coimbatore to Valparai.
  • By Bus - There are no direct buses to Valparai. It is recommended to take bus to Pollachi either from Chennai, Bangalore and then change over to buses to Valparai. If coming from Kochi, one can look for buses to Pollachi which pass through Valparai. 

Stay options

Apart from Sinnadorai, there are only two other decent places to stay

a) Waterfalls Bungalow Waterfall Bungalow

b) Stanmore Bungalow Stanmore Bungalow

Travel Tips

a) Anytime is good time for Valparai. If you want to see waterfalls then rainy season is the best. The best time will be between Oct - Feb.

b) Jungle safaris and treks are possible in Anaimalai Wild life sanctuary. Safaris and treks will not be permitted in summer due to forest fires. Check for latest details from forest office in Pollachi.

Anaimalai Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National_Park in Wikipedia

Tamil Nadu Forest Department Website

c) Good shoe, good binoculars and camera is a must.

d) Go for drives amidst the tea plantations. It is a treat to eyes.

e) Plan a trip to Athirapally falls in Kerala which is a two hour drive from Valparai. The drive to Athirapally is supposed to be very scenic.

Route map

Google map to Athirapally falls

The falls

Athirappilly in Wikipedia

f) If you have time stretch and visit Parambikulam Wild life sanctuary in Kerala and go for Tramway trek on the British built unused tracks of the tram which were used to haul timer from the Forest of the region during British times.

Parambikulam Wild Life Sanctuary

g) Always be accompanied by someone who is aware of the area while going on treks or walks.

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