Tag Archives: Nilgiri Tahr

As the Neelakurinji blossoms, the Nilgiris spectacles

Heard of the blue hills? Does the name ‘Nilgiris’ strike any bell? For those who know less, it is a part of the Western Ghats, a UNESCO World heritage site in the southern peninsula of India. The ‘Neel-giris’ literally translates to ‘Blue-Hills’ because these hills get their colour from a particular phenomenon. A particular species of the Strobilanthes kunthiana flowers, locally called the Neela-Kurinji bloom once in twelve years. When in full bloom, the entire hill range looks blue, thus giving the hills their name. The last mass-flowering of the neelakurinji flowers happened in 2018 and I left no leaf unturned to witness this spectacle. There were a couple of hotspots identified by the Kerala forest department where arrangements were made to allow visitors to see the flowers.
My friends and I decided to visit the Eravikulam National park, located close to Munnar. This stretch of the hills was where most of the blossoms were supposed to happen. After finalizing the visit dates in Sept’18, the Delhi friends had booked their flight tickets to fly down and the remaining of us booked our bus tickets from Bangalore to Munnar. I had got all the necessary entry permits from the forest authorities and booked accommodation in Munnar for all of us. All this was done months in advance to have a confirmed entry anticipating the tourist influx for such a spectacle, if we waited until later. We were all set and waiting for the travel to finally happen.

Come July’18, the rain gods had wreaked havoc in the western Ghats. The entire stretch of western Ghats in Karnataka and Kerala had been damaged by the heaviest rains in eight decades. The damage done was massive to geography, property and life along these areas. In the event of things, damage was done even to the neelakurinji plants and the blossoms were feared to be washed out. Once the rain gods had calmed down and the ground situation of floods seemed to have receded, we waited to see if there was any luck in waiting until September. We were in constant touch with a few locals who gave us the updates on the status of the blue hills. Come September and we decided to go ahead with our original plan. We all had finally arrived at Munnar and were heading towards Eravikulam National Park.

Once there, Yes, there were enough plants destroyed. The stronger few, had managed to bear flowers. We walked along the laden path, feeling grateful for at least so many of the plants had survived. Since these plants blossom only once every 12 years, it means that their reproduction cycle is longer than usual. This also means that, most of the Neelakurinji vegetation is lost in the 2018 monsoon and the next flowering cycle of the year 2030 may not happen at a mass-scale as it is usually supposed to happen at all!! Anyway, we enjoyed whatever we were witnessing.

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The Neelakurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

Also, Neelakurinji is only a sub-species of the larger group of flowers called the Kurinji. The Kurinji flowers come in several colors- white, peach, purple, etc. Here is a collection of the Kurinji flowers from Eravikulam National park that we saw during our visit.

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The various Kurinji flowers at Eravikulam National park

So that said, I was back in my hometown the following week and visited our piece of farmland to check on its status after the monsoon. It used to be a spice plantation that remained unmaintained for a long time before we, siblings ventured into developing it. our farm is a short walk away from the main road. When we arrived there and decided to walk, the entire path was filled with what seemed like some weed that had overgrown during the monsoon. We used a machete to make way for ourselves to walk further. Just a few steps into the area, we were surrounded with pink/ maroon flowers all around us. ‘These weeds had flowered expansively’, we wondered. We took a lot of photos, made way for ourselves, finished our work and returned home. When we discussed about the weeds with the elders in the family, we were surprised to hear that these plants also belonged to the Kurinji family.

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The Kurinji flowers from our farm in Kodagu

Further, an important month in the Kodava and the Tamil calendar is the month of Kakkada or Aadi. In Kodagu, on the 18th day of this month a special dish is prepared using a locally available herb. Its juice is believed to contain 18 medicinal values. It leaves a very deep blue/violet pigment when cooked and consumed only on this day. And what is this plant called? Don’t even guess… Locally called ‘Maddh thoppu’ or ‘Aadi soppu’, it is also a variety of Kurunji.
So, Kodagu primarily has three types of Kurinji; the flowering weed(Maley Kurinji(as in hill), Etth Kurinji(as in cattle) and Maddh Kurinji(as in medicine).
A little bit of googling allowed me learn that there are many sub-species of the Kurinji and each have their own flowering cycles. While some bloom annually, some bloom once in six years and some take a couple of decades. Neelakurinji was just one among them.

Lesson learnt: How often do we tend to ignore the little things from our own backyard? We think these are too trivial to spend time and look for things elsewhere. It is often that people associate that better things come only when money is spent and distances are travelled, but the truth may be that it is something that we have been conveniently ignoring in our own vicinity.
What is your take on this thought?

Explore the Best of Valparai on a Weekend

My friends and I had heard sufficiently about the rich wildlife of the region surrounding Pollachi, its beautiful sceneries and perfectly trimmed tea estates. Valparai is a lesser known hill station in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary (earlier known as Annamalai Wildlife Sanctuary). Kollywood stars and burnt out urbanites frequent this place to de-stress themselves and savor a slice of nature. Here, as one ambles past mud walled, thatched roof dwellings, granaries of farmers and tea estates fringed plateau, don’t be surprised if you happen to hear someone screaming ‘start camera’, ‘action’. This is a hot spot for movie makers with over 1500 movies and commercials having been shot here. And we too got lucky when we happened to visit the sets and share our homestay with the crew of the movie- ‘Madras cafe’ during this trip of ours.

A weekend itinerary was primarily planned by one of my friends and a few must-see items were pushed into the plan by me. Since this place falls on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, we decided to make it a three states’ drive including Karnataka. Accordingly, five of us started from Bangalore on a Friday night. Since it is also a bio-diversity hotspot, I had listed 5 animals on my ‘to-spot’ list while at Valparai. Valparai is the end destination after driving through 32 hairpin bends. Being a hill station, Valparai weather is specifically delightful with a cool climate throughout the year. It is usually the road leading to Valparai that is enjoyable with scenic vistas and photo-points. I had enlisted them with day 1 in the Tamil Nadu side of the sanctuary and then spending the second day on the Kerala side of the forested land.

Itinerary:

Day 0: Leave from Bangalore by night (Own car)
Day 1: Reach Pollachi before sunrise. Backwaters of the Aliyar dam, monkey falls, Loam’s viewpoint, Carver Marsh viewpoint, Congreve falls, Vinayagar temple, Birla falls, Balaji temple, Iraichalparai falls, Nallamudi Pooncholai viewpoint, ChinnarKallar hanging bridge trek, Sholaiyar backwaters (night stay at a homestay in Chalakudy)
Day 2: Athirapally falls, Vazachal falls and return to Bengaluru via Ooty.

The details:

Part 1: Tamil Nadu

During the night journey, I had dozed away on the rear seat of the car. When I opened my eyes to the misty morning dawn, our car was greeted by beautiful countryside with tree-lined roads, emerald fields of paddy, whispering palms and coconut plantations in the backdrop of the towering Western Ghats. We had reached Pollachi in Tamil Nadu. We waited near Aliyar park until 06.00.a.m. for the forest check post to open.

a. We registered our entry into the wildlife sanctuary there and proceeded on our journey. Our drive further towards Valparai, was an ascent along the winding road by the backwaters of the Aliyar irrigation dam.

View of the Aliyar backwaters

b. Four kilometers further from the forest check post, we reached the monkey falls. The waterfall is aptly named due to the many troublesome monkeys here. One even entered our car and happily carried away a bag full of fruits from the rear seat. Our drive continued…

c. Just as we approached the 9th curve (the Loam’s viewpoint), we were greeted by this gentleman who was calmly grazing on the edge of the steep rocks.
We scored off the first member on our list of top 5 wildlife to see- ‘The Nilgiri Tahr’.

Nilgiri Tahr – Photo credits: Samson Joseph

d. Continuing our drive, we stopped at Carver Marsh viewpoint adjoining the Kavarkal estate. On a clear day, we were told that one can see the Sholayar reservoir (2nd deepest dam in Asia) from there.

e. We then cruised past the Tiger valley from where we caught a good view of the upper Aliyar reservoir.

At the entrance to Sholayar / Kallyar estates

f. We covered Congreve falls (located in the Nadumalai estate), Vinayagar temple (Jayashree estate) & Birla falls along the way up. We got good view of the Manopally forest and the grass hills of the sanctuary.

g. Ox-bow lakes situated inside the protected area is supposedly the highlight of this region for those who can manage to get permission from the forest authorities. We failed at it since we didn’t have insufficient information on the channels for the permits.

h. We visited the Balaji temple and the nearby Iraichalparai falls along way.

Just along our way, it was time to score off no.2: groups of ‘Lion tailed Macaque’ were walking all over the road and around. Even before we realized, we had reached the hilltop.

Lion Tailed Macaque- Valparai

i. We stopped by and trekked through the tea estates to reach the ‘Seen god shrine’ at the Nallamudi Pooncholai viewpoint. An old man, who claims to have seen god, blessed us with some prayers and turned out to be an encyclopedia of knowledge about the local culture and history. He explained to us about the various tribal settlements in these hills… pointing out at colonies, he would tell- Kadars, Muthuvars and Malai Malasars. They are estimated to have 190 households in 8 settlements in the sanctuary.

While we walked towards our car, the women picking tea shoots warned us not to proceed further. She pointed at a herd of 8-9 elephants feasting around at a distance, thus scoring off no.3 on my list.

j. We then drove to ChinnarKallar for the hanging bridge trek. In spite of driving all the way, we refrained from shelling out 250 Rs. per head just for the entry which sounded to us more like a bribe at the forest check post. This place is among the highest rainfall receiving areas in India. No doubt that the Valparai weather is pleasant all through the year and is an upcoming weekend destination among the urban crowd of the nearby metro cities.

We put our car in reverse and just then… no.4: The giant flying squirrel (a young one and wasn’t flying though) crossed our road. We were excited…!!

k. After covering places in the Tamil Nadu part of the sanctuary, we headed towards the Kerala border. We saw a calm stretch of the Koolangal river and decided to spend some time there. We could not compel ourselves from not taking a sip of its crystal-clear waters.

And right there. we saw this little creature on no.5: ‘The common map butterfly

The Common map butterfly

Part 2: Kerala

We registered at the border check post and prepared to enter the Kerala land. Thick rainforests on both sides accompanied us all the way till our destination. We happened to drive through what I think is one of the dangerous roads I have been through. With the Sholaiyar backwaters on one side and a valley on the other side, only one vehicle can pass at a time. Beautiful views for most of the stretch kept us in an awe. Tunnels have been bored through the mountains to supply water to Parambikulam reserve from the Nirar dam.

We reached Athirapally reserve just after sunset. We got a quick glance of the beautiful waters cascading down to join the Chalakudy river. It was soon dark, and we checked into Maria cottage (a local homestay) where we were made us feel at home and served some sumptuous Mallu food.

Next morning, we walked past the palm plantations to reach the Chalakudy river to freshen up. This place is frequented by elephants at all times, but we did not care. We enjoyed the clear but rapids of the water there. We took a refreshing dip before returning to our homestay. We checked out of the place after having a good filling Malayalee breakfast.

Post this, we went back to the Athirapally waterfalls. We walked down to the base of the waterfalls and spent good time there. We had to then continue our drive, as our target was to reach Bangalore by night. After a quick stop at the Vazachal waterfalls (it is more like water flowing down a steep rock than a waterfall), we decided to say goodbye to Kerala.

Athirapally waterfalls

Part 3: Karnataka

The original plan was to drive through the route covering Ooty-Bandipur-Mysore to reach Bangalore. But, since we were behind schedule, we could not reach Bandipur before the forest gates closed (the forest gates are open only between 06.00a.m. to 06.p.m.). So, we decided to drive back through the curvy stretch of Pollachi road again.

We further drove through Udumalpet which happens to be one of the windiest places in Southern India. Thousands of windmills dot the stretch on either side which is a sight to behold. It was dark in no time and we had to zip ASAP to reach our offices on the following morning.

Thus, ended our 50 hours’ drive, covering 1000 kms across 3 states!