There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 29 February 2016

Across the Palakkad Gap and up to Munnar: Part 6 of India's Deep South

For all its charm, we were happy to leave Ooty. Our imperialist forebears might have appreciated the cool and even, apparently, the drizzle but we had arrived straight from a British winter and craved warmth - and I would not be too upset if I never saw drizzle again.
Ready to leave Ooty on a chilly morning

We left a chilly Ooty at 8 o’clock, retraced our steps through Wellington and forty minutes later reached Coonoor, also a hill station but 400m lower and noticeably warmer.

Wellington, Nilgiri Hills
Driving down from the misty heights of the Nilgiri Hills we reached Mettupalayam, the terminus of the Blue Train and gateway to the Tamil Nadu plain.
The misty Nilgiri Hills
Unlike Ooty, the plain is unequivocally hot, and I have no doubt the incomprehensibly overdressed apparatchiks of the raj, cooled only by the efforts of an underappreciated punkah wallah, must have suffered indeed. Speeding across the plain in an air conditioned car made it easy for us, though perhaps not for the toiling agricultural workers we passed.
Agricultural workers in the Tamil Nadu plain
Unlike the hill stations and the rather neater towns of Kerala, the Tamil towns and cities of the plain are endearingly scruffy. India is densely populated and sprinkled with huge conurbations unknown to most in the outside world. With 2 million inhabitants, Coimbatore is the second biggest city in Tamil Nadu (after the better known Chennai, formerly Madras). Once called the Manchester of Southern India as both were centres of the cotton industry, it has now diversified into IT and manufacturing, in particular being well known for making half of India's pumps and motors. Despite its 2000 year history there is little in Coimbatore to detain the tourist, apart from traffic jams that delay everybody indiscriminately, and we passed through as quickly as we could.

Unfortunately not all Coimbatore’s citizens are participating in its impressive growth. Begging, even in opulent surroundings, is still begging.

Beggar, Coimbatore
Coimbatore stands at the eastern end of the Palakkad gap in the Western Ghats, and once through the city we turned south west towards the next section of that mountain chain.
A long day's drive from Ooty to Munar
A couple of hours later, still on the plain, we stopped for lunch at the much smaller town of Udumalaipettai. Again we relied on Thomas’ ability to choose a good local restaurant, and again he picked a winner. Although relatively up-market (it had air-conditioning) this was not tourist food dumbed down for perceived western tastes; this was local food for local people – and at local prices. Lunch for three and a bottle of water cost under £3, a fraction of the price for two in a tourist restaurant - not that Udumalaipettai had such a thing. There was one drawback, only tourist restaurants have drinks licences but the food was worth sacrificing a beer.

Like most small restaurants it specialised in ‘meals’, which can be ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’ and are served on a banana leaf. Thomas had a 'non-veg meal', which meant unlimited rice - and we were always amazed at Thomas' ability to absorb rice - a selection of vegetable curries and pots of spicy chicken and mutton gravy, no actual meat was included (this is normal in Tamil Nadu but it is different in Kerala). They also offered an √° la carte menu, from which I chose pepper chicken, which was excellent, while Lynne had vegetable biryani, a touch dull, she said, but greatly improved by a splash of Thomas’ chicken gravy. They offered forks and spoons, but everybody else was eating with their fingers, so we did to.

One non-veg meal and one pepper chicken, Udumalaipettai (Lynne's finished the biryani)

From Udumalaipettai the road started to rise gently through the Indira Ghandi National Park. Entering the park we registered and received an instruction sheet. ‘Do not park and get out of your car’ it said, though we passed a group of pilgrims walking the other way. In the intense heat they had spread out into groups of three or four across a couple of miles of road. Apparently nobody was worrying about them being attacked - maybe tigers are repelled by the odour of sanctity.

Indira Ghandi National Park - with no pilgrims (perhaps the tigers did eat them)
 The route became more scenic as we climbed into the Anaimalai Hills.

Anaimalai Hills

Somewhere along the road the Indira Ghandi National Park turned into the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and we left Tamil Nadu and entered Kerala.

Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary

Eventually we emerged into the Kannon Devan Hills, which Include Anamudi, at 2,695m (8,842ft) the highest peak in sub-continental India. The Jacaranda were spectacular….

Jacaranda, Kannon Devan Hills
…but this was largely a land of tea plantations….

Tea plantation, Kannon Devan Hills
…sometimes stretching into the far distance.

Tea plantations Kannon Devan Hills
The hill station of Munnar is the centre of the Kannon Devan Hills tea industry. At 1700m (5700ft) it is over 500m lower than Ooty and has a warmer and, in my opinion, pleasanter climate. We arrived late afternoon on Monday but although these photographs of the town were taken on Wednesday morning, they fit the narrative better here. We took no pictures in the town on Tuesday as all the businesses were on strike and there was nothing to see.

The town sits among the hills at a point where several rivers meet - the name is believed to mean 'three rivers'.

A footbridge over one of Munnar's rivers
 Like most Indian towns there is a shrine in the main street…

Hindi shrine, Munnar
 …but this being Kerala, there is a strong Christian presence. And being India there are plenty of tuk-tuks, too.

Churches and tuk-tuks, Munnar
Thomas had never been here before and found our hotel using the sat nav on his smart phone. I am always amazed by the way India flip-flops from the third to the first world and back again. Comfortable and modern, the hotel stood on a hillside out the town. The view from our balcony could have been magnificent had it not been so hazy.

View from our balcony, Munnar

The location meant we had little option but to eat in the hotel. Lynne had chicken korma and I opted for a fish fillet and there was salad, rice and chapattis to share. It was fine, if not overly exciting and there was only water to drink. We were in a very new hotel and Kerala has introduced a form of rolling prohibition.  [We later learned we had misunderstood the prohibition. It is spirits that have been banned, with most of the old state drink shops now closed and the rest closing soon. Spirits will still be available in five star hotels - apparently it is all right to drink if you are rich (how does this make sense?). Beer remains widely available and smart new ‘Beer and Wine Shops’ are opening throughout the state - not that Indians drink much wine. That said, this hotel was indeed dry, and it was not the only dry hotel we were to encounter in Kerala.]

The view from our balcony at night, Munnar
We retreated to our balcony, to sit in the balmy night air, take in the view - good even in the dark –  and a glass or two from our dwindling supply of Dubai Airport duty free booze.

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