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My recent trip to the Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India

Author: Garvind
Date of Trip: January 2008

We just spent 4 days in Avalanche which is a reserve forest (Kundah RF) area at 2036 m AMSL, about 30km from Ooty. We were picked up from Coimbatore Airport by our friendly taxi driver Jagadeesan – (we have used his taxi before and recommend him highly for his safe driving and thorough knowledge of the entire Coimbatore Erode Nilgiri Palani Top Slip region). In fact, thanks to Jagadeesan who hails from Nilgiri Distt, we first discovered Avalanche in Jan 2007.

Our route took us via Karamadai then to Geddai, Manjur, Yedakadu finally reaching Avalanche Forest Rest House. The jungle route between Geddai and Manjur is full of hairpin bends and very scenic. We were thrilled to spot the iridescent Malabar banded peacock butterflies on the way. By the time we reached Avalanche it was around 6.30pm just in time for the fading sun, quite spectacular at these altitudes. The first thing that hits you at Avalanche is the palpably pristine fresh air. That night the minimum temperature was -4C, anticipated and welcome compared to grotty Mumbai!!

The next morning we went up to the terrace of the Rest House to watch the sunrise over the mountains behind. In front was the emerald colored Avalanche lake and shola mosaic grassland covered hills across. A family of Nilgiri black langurs occupied the trees of the resthouse. Such beautiful, gentle, shy creatures. They were busy eating leaves and never came near us for tidbits unlike their Matheran cousins!

We spotted a herd of feral Toda buffalos on the meadows across, so we quickly ran there to get some photos. After a sumptuous hot breakfast, we were taken by Jagadeesans brother Ramesh who works for the Avalanche Power House , to the Avalanche Valve House. This is about 300m higher (2347m) at a 70 degree gradient! Our route was initially through the dense shola forest behind the EB colony. The jungle was dripping with epiphytes – ferns, orchids, mosses, lichens literally falling off the trunks and branches. Pristine mountain streams were everywhere, and at parts the shola was dense, dark and seemingly impenetrable (had Ramesh not been there). The shola forest is what we had really come for and we were not disappointed.

After about 2/3 the way up, we emerged at a patch of grassland from where we had a stunning view of Avalanche and Emerald lakes. We huffed and puffed the rest of the way on the steep staircase along the penstock, stopping every now and then to take photographs (actually to catch our breath). The cold temperature combined with strong sun shine – high altitude / low latitude, ensured we never felt tired, however we did get sunburnt. Lesson No.1 – always wear a hat. From the top near the valve house we had breathtaking views of the Nilgiri ranges, the lakes, Kolaribetta peak behind us, and a herd of Nilgiri tahr high up on the rocks behind the valve house.

A recent landslide had destroyed the road leading to the valve house, and we were thrilled to see huge pugmarks in the mud which Ramesh assured us were of a tiger – quite possible given the size. Elephant pug marks were also to be found. Lots of little white and pink wild daisies (?) were growing everywhere including on the broken road and alongside the penstock. We could have sat there enjoying the views forever, but after a couple of hours we descended, discovering some more new ferns and orchids in the shola forests.

By this time it was around 4pm, and we decided to drive to the Upper Bhavani reservoir about 30km away. The very bad road passes the deep Thai Shola valley, Lakkidi peak and a small Bhavaniamman koil. This time we did not see the civet cats, Nilgiri martens, wolves and elephants we saw the year ago, but we were privileged to see a nilgiri pipit, herd of bisons and scores of sambar and barking deer, all coming down to the lakes around sunset.

We also drove further to Bangi Thappal which is within Mukurthi National Park, and on the flip side of the Silent Valley in Kerala. One can also walk to the Sispara Pass, with a permit from the Forest Dept. Splendid views of typical Nilgiri grassland shola mosaic peppered with blood red nilgiri rhododendron trees just coming into bloom, and clouds literally hanging in the valleys. The N. rhododendrons are called Pongal pooh (flower) because they bloom around Pongal time which is this week.

On our drive back we stopped many deer in their tracks with our headlights. Nights here are crystal clear and you can enjoy the Milky Way in its full glory, except that it is also freezing cold!

The next morning, after enjoying our langur friends antics, we decided to take the trail into the huge shola behind our Resthouse. The caretaker gave us an approximate idea of the route. At the beginning of the trail were many pretty high altitude wildflowers, bright yellow, orange, blue; we have taken photos for identification. Part of the way was through plantation forests of eucalyptus, wattle and other Australian species, some shrubs were so overgrown that we had to literally cut our way through. Finally we entered the shola – dense, dark and dripping with epiphytes of all sorts, interspersed with small waterfalls and pristine streams. We could hear but not see our langurs. One area was chock full of ground orchids that had seeded. After quite some time we emerged into a eucalyptus forest, and some welcome sunlight! From here, the path became very narrow along the edge, though it was not that steep, and the air had a refreshing aroma of eucalyptus. By this time according to our handy GPS we had climbed around 350m and ended up in a place with fantastic views of Kolaribetta, one of the higher Nilgiri mountains. We decided to relax at this spot and enjoy the views. There were a few bushes of beautiful violet Nilgiri Strobilanthes (Karvy – Kurinji pooh) in bloom nearby along with the very tall eucalyptus trees. Words cannot describe the peace and the pristine fresh clean air. If there is paradise on earth, this is truly it. And may it remain so always. After a very long while, we decided to return rather than proceed further on the trail which was getting narrower than ever.

After boring the caretaker with our experience, we set off for the meadows along the Avalanche lakeside. These grasslands are surrounded by pine and eucalyptus plantation forests with high mountains in the background and turquoise lake in the front. It looks like a picture postcard from Switzerland! We attempted walking along the lakeshore, but found it not very practicable, so ended up walking from meadow through pine forest through meadow, along the road, along the lake, until we reached the EB colony around 4 km away.

We saw lots of pretty little bright orange and grey birds in the hedges, like little minivets, and could hear the Nilgiri laughing thrush’s unique sounds. Ramesh’ wife had a tasty and most welcome tiffin laid out for us which we enjoyed with gusto. Jagadeesan insisted on another drive on the U/Bhavani Road as he was desperate to spot some more wildlife. This time we just went up to Lakidi along the lake and sure enough there was no dearth of sambar and barking deer.

The next day was 1st Jan. In the morning we walked along the scenic Swiss style gushing mountain stream with conifers on the banks, near the trout hatchery set up by the British in 1860. The forest dept also maintains a small orchidarium hosting several endemic species. Around mid morning we were surprised to observe truckloads of people with chickens, liquor bottles and bands proceeding towards the U. Bhavani reserve forest. Our caretaker told us they were local Badagas whose custom was to picnic all day at the Bhavaniamman temple there. He said the Forest Dept deployed extra guards to prevent fires and unruliness, and also to clear the mess. The wild animals undoubtedly flee to the contiguous but restricted Silent Valley in Kerala for some ‘silence’.

The next day, we stopped by the bridge which divides the Avalanche and Emerald lakes, this is a very scenic spot and can be seen clearly on Google Earth. After this we left for Ooty, immediately regretting our decision and wishing we had spent all the time at Avalanche instead. Having said that, I have to compliment the Tamil Nadu Tourism department for cleaning up the Ooty Lake (compared to Jan07), and the Pykara Lake. The toilets at the Botanical Gardens were also spotlessly clean. Dodabetta Peak at 2637m always offers spectacular 360 degree views. We enjoyed a hot and tasty ‘sundal’ snack here from a roadside vendor. There are major road works in progress on the Ooty Pykara road which should be finished by April 08.

Although it was dusty and disappointing, we stopped by and entered a patch of shola forest on the way and spent more than one fascinating hour there discovering newer epiphytes. About half a km further down from the famous 9th mile shooting meadow, we cut through the forest and had a huge, vast expanse of meadow all to ourselves with fantastic views of Mukurthy Peak and the surrounding ranges.

We spent quite some time here in absolute solitude, just enjoying the tranquility of it all. Another nice spot was about a km after the touristy “pine forest”, you can cut through the mixed plantation woods and reach the shores of the Kamaraj Sagar lake, very pleasant indeed. Pykara Lake in the off season is also worth spending a day, the boatmen told us that bisons and deer come to the shores early and later in the day. Jagadeesan came to take us back to Coimbatore airport, he insisted on taking the Kotagiri Mettupalaym route, thank God he did, the road was good and clear without much traffic, the misty views of tea gardens were heavenly, a slight sleet impregnated the air with eucalyptus aroma. At a lower altitude half way down, we were privileged to see a giant malabar squirrel (Ratufa indica malabaricum) leaping from tree to tree in the evergreen forest. This was most welcome as we were disappointed at not having spotted the resident Malabar squirrel at the Avalanche Forest Resthouse. A strange though welcome occurrence was of several troops of monkeys lining the road, almost as if to bid us good bye, even though hardly any traffic goes by that route. Almost as if to say, come back again soon.

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