Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Perfect Climb: Munnar’s Tea Plantations

Mettupalayam – Munnar - Kochi

Somewhere around Ooty it felt as though a switch had been flicked. Suddenly people became much friendlier again and we were paying local(ish) prices again. We had more interactions with locals and met many friendly Indian tourists, including one who called his German speaking wife so she could have a chat with Freddie and ended up inviting us to stay with them. Unfortunately their house was in the opposite direction of where we were going, so we had to forego the invitation, but it was a nice gesture we appreciated all the same. ||

One night we were having some grub in the small town of Mettupalayam when three children joined our table for a chat. They spoke good English and were interested in talking to foreigners, and when they left each of them took turns giving us a cheek-squeeze. Confused, we asked the restaurant manager what this meant. “You do this when you like something very much, or when you think something is beautiful”, the manager smiled. And we thought they were being cheeky!

Guy was still suffering from nausea. A little bored lying in bed he spotted a cute little monkey on the nearby roof top. He threw the rest of his banana to the little fella as he watched him gladly devour the remains. The next morning as we were getting ready to have breakfast in our room we could see the silhouttes of several monkeys walking in front of our window. Pushing back the curtains revealed the little fella was back with some buddies - some big buddies. They were sitting right in front of our window glaring at us and taking turns jumping on our two inch window sill and trying to open the window. The window had no locking mechanism, so they were able to pull it open, but luckily bars prevented them from coming in. Now we know why almost every hotel we have stayed in has bars on the windows and that little cute monkeys cannot be trusted.

Once Guy had recovered from his illness, we turned our bicycles south once more for a tiring day on a busy road going through the city of Coimbatore and into the next town, Pollachi. In Pollachi we ended up in an awesome hotel with a fancy restaurant, for less than £10. We have found the quality of hotels in India amazingly good so far. Our budget is generous enough not to force us to stay in rock bottom places, and outside of tourist areas we can really afford some quite nice places. We always have an en-suite bathroom, cable TV, fan, and often there is room service. On arrival, there is always someone there to help us with our bags, which is a luxury we appreciate after having carried all our bags up countless flights of stairs in Turkey and Iran. The first thing we do is to ask for a bucket of hot water to have a shower, and then we order tea and some snacks, if there is room service. A cycle tourer said to us before we arrived in India that it actually feels like you’re on holiday, and we must admit that is how it feels at times.

Our only gripe with Indian hotels is that they never have internet access. Apparently there is a security concern since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, and even in internet cafes we are sometimes not allowed to use our laptops, and we often have to give our passport details before we are allowed to log on. We had imagined India to be much more connected, being such an IT leader.

Cycling through busy town Farm workers

We had been planning to cycle up to Munnar, another hill station, before returning to the coast. It was a detour and another 1500m climb. We were feeling low on energy and we knew that the coast was only a day’s ride away. As we got to the turnoff we stood there in the midday heat and contemplated our options. We had all the excuses in the world to not push on to the hills again but deep down we both knew what we should do, so we grudgingly took the hill route, confident in the fact that almost always hard work translates to greater rewards.

As we left the crowded urban area behind we felt we had taken a wrong turn and ended up in Europe. We were cycling across a flat plateau of agricultural land and in the distances swung giant wind turbines. The weather was overcast and windy and there were few people in sight.

Soon we started climbing and entered the Chinnar Wildlife Reserve. We had a deja vu moment when we passed another boom gate with a “tiger reserve” sign, this time quite unexpected. This national park was much less visited than Mudumalai, and there was almost no traffic on the small road. This made wildlife spotting even better, and when we turned a corner, we heard something stomping into the forest. A wild elephant had just crossed the road and was startled by our arrival. A little further down into the shrub it settled and pulled some branches down to munch on whilst keeping a very watchful eye one us. It was amazing to be so close to such a huge beast in its wild habitat.

Chinnar Wildlife Reserve

Shortly after this encounter, Guy stopped again when we heard some rustling in the long grass near the road. “Let’s go, it might be a tiger”, Freddie pleaded. Staring expectantly at the grass, Guy was quite excited by what might be hiding in there. There was definitely something there as the four foot high grass was splitting when the mysterious animal moved about. Suddenly the animal moved towards a clearing and stuck its head out, glaring directly into Guy’s eyes. There was no mistaking the distinctive features of - The Common Chicken.

Humbled by our encounter we pushed on. The landscape was very dramatic with dense and lush vegetation and steep craggy peaks. We were climbing up the side of a valley carved out by the river snaking its way through, periodically flowing into large lakes or cascading down rock faces as powerful waterfalls. We could go 5-10 minutes without a vehicle passing us and were enjoying the peace and quiet. On the way, we spotted a wild boar foraging in the undergrowth, some endangered giant grizzled squirrels in the tree tops, and a couple of curious kingfishers with their red heads and green and blue feathers.

We had planned to spend the night at Marayoor, not far from the bottom of the climb up to Munnar. However, Marayoor was much further than we had expected, and we ended up climbing 700m – almost half the climb to Munnar. We were pretty tired when we arrived in Marayoor, and as we stopped to admire the view a couple of young guys and an older man welcomed us to the town, offering us some fruit. They were taking pictures of us, and we were taking pictures of them. One of the things we love about India is that the people seem to be just as fascinated by us as we are by them.

Cycling up to Marayoor   Old man in Marayoor

The following day we climbed up to Munnar, via a pass at 1,880m altitude. Soon after we left Marayoor, and just as we thought the scenery couldn’t get any better the tea plantations started. They were perfectly green, almost fluorescent and formed a patchwork carpet over the surrounding hills and mountains, sometimes clinging to impossibly steep slopes. To add to the magical setting, there were many waterfalls and small rivers, and the views were different after every twist and turn of the road. The movie directors in Bollywood had obviously taken a liking to the scenery as well and were filming a movie in this setting. 

Guy in tea plantations

We stopped at a small chai shop for a tea and omelette to strengthen ourselves before the last push, climbing up into the clouds again. Every few hundred metres we stopped to take pictures, and as we were so distracted, the climb seemed to pass pretty quickly, but some of us had a helping hand.

Chai stall   Tea estate

After lunch with the sun directly above us, the gradient steepened quite sharply and we began to work hard. Just as we felt The Burn kick in, a fleeting gift was presented to Freddie in the form of a one way ticket to the top. A truck had overtaken at a speed only slightly faster than us. On the back corner, only three feet away from Freddie’s nose was a perfectly grippable handle. It was too good to pass on. Within an instant she had docked onto the mother ship and was being propelled up the hill whilst Guy looked on in disbelief, smitten that he had not been quick enough. Soon Freddie and her host had disappeared around the corner leaving Guy in their wake.

When her arm got tired, she let go. As soon as the truck driver noticed this, he stopped the truck, stuck his head out the window and said “Help you! Help you!”, motioning for Freddie to hold onto the back of the truck again. It was a sweet gesture, especially as Freddie was worried about annoying the driver by adding her extra weight to the already struggling truck!

Tea plantations on way to Munnar

The climb up to Munnar was one of our favourite climbs of the whole trip, and we are so glad we made it up there – we really would have regretted it if we had opted out and gone straight to the coast. Out of all the mountainous cycling we have done in India, the stretch between Udumalaipettai and Munnar is the one we would most recommend to other cyclists, as the road is quiet, the scenery amazing and the gradient challenging but never horrendous.

Freddie enjoying the cycling   Tea plantation patchwork

Arriving in Munnar, we struggled to find a hotel for the first time on our trip. Everything was booked up! It was a national holiday in India, and there were also many foreign tourists in the town. We eventually found an ok guest house and a nice restaurant. At the restaurant, the waiters all gathered around the bikes to examine them, a group of boys tried our bells and gave us the thumbs up through the window, and other Indians quizzed us about our route and tried to work out how the front panniers were attached. Travelling on a strange looking bicycle is definitely an easy way to get in touch with the locals!

The following day, we had a lovely big downhill for the first 50km and stayed in a very fancy hotel (the cheap ones were booked up) before we made our way back to the coast and to Kochi the following day. We were looking forward to being back on the coast for some easier riding, and also to explore the much talked about Kerala Backwaters, a “top 10 thing to do before you die” according to our guide book. We shall see…

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tea, tea, glorious tea. Just can't have enough of it................off to have a 'cuppa' right now!! Punky. And the high country looks just fantastic!!!

Anonymous said...

i just came across your blog! This is exactly what I plan to do when I leave university in July ... keep going!

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