Tea and wild elephants, Munnar and Chinnar, India
The local bus from Kochi was awesome as usual. Love local Indian buses. We were on this particular one for five hours and watched the city of Kochi whizz by, before climbing into the hills of the Western Ghats. Higher and higher meant cooler and cooler, a welcome change from sweaty, humid Kochi. The roads wound up and up till we reached the bright green hillsides of the tea plantation capital of Munnar, 1600m above sea level. We found a room at a quiet cottage outside the main town, in the middle of tea plantation. Lovely location and only 30 rupees in a tuk-tuk from the town. Big double bed and Evan on a mattress on floor.
For somewhere on the tourist radar, Munnar isn’t touristy at all. It’s a quiet, normal local town where the locals don’t seem to notice the tourists. People work in the tea industry here, and have since the 19th century when the first tea plantations were started. People go about their business in the main town and ignore us. Tuk-tuk fares are the same for tourists as for locals. Weird. So it’s not just Kochi then! We spent four days here but we could have stayed for longer. The climate is not dissimilar to that of Britain really. Damp and sometimes cold, with rain and mist rolling in with no warning. It was a lovely change, but a nightmare for drying the laundry. We still had wet washing when we reached Alleppey. The boys said they missed home for the first time – and I think that was down to the weather reminding them of the sunny south coast of England! We did lots of sitting around, did some schoolwork, learned about tea, and played lots of games of Uno with the other backpackers. Sam taught the lady who makes the breakfast how to play chess. I’m not sure she got it really. But then she does have a dog with pierced ears.
There were three highlights of Munnar for me. The first was meeting a family of tea-picking ladies while on our tuk-tuk tour of the area. We stopped to take photos of a particularly picturesque hillside and were invited to drink tea with them. The boys had a go with their tea chopping gadgets and they poured us a cup of tea from their tea flask. Forty women from the same family work together for 200 rupees each a day (£2) but they could still spare some tea. Mind you, working with your family clearly isn’t all a bed if roses. There was lots of shouting and arguing and one woman was in tears. Family, eh? The second was Saravana Bhavan, a local cafe for local people, where we ate local food with our hands off banana leaves. Loved that. The mad, toothless waiter was fab with the boys and we ate there so often that all of the waiters gave us a wave as we walked in. And the third wasn’t Munnar at all but two days spent stalking wild elephants, Indian bison and sambar deer at Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary.
A two and a half hour terrifying rollercoaster local bus ride got us to Chinnar. The scenery was fantastic but didn’t make up for the fact that I genuinely thought we were going to die on several occasions. No vehicle should be able to take blind corners at that speed on a more-or-less single track, potholed road on the edge of a cliff. Especially not several tonnes of old Indian bus packed full of people. I may have let a bit of wee out a few times. Most of the locals slept through the journey.
We spent two days hiking through jungle, along rivers and up hills, spotting wild elephants, gaur (Indian bison) and sambar deer. Amazing! Our guide, Ranger Binu, could spot an elephant or a bison from miles away. This wasn’t an elephant safari though. We were stalking animals on foot, not from the safety of a jeep, and Binu and his ranger helper were visibly jumpy at times. They whispered to each other in Hindi and pointed at bison footprints, elephant poo and flattened patches of grass. All conversation was whispered and we were often told to be quiet, a difficult task for excited eight and ten year old boys. The fact that we often just glimpsed the backside of a bison through the trees while listening to it’s heavy breathing just added to the romance and peril of stalking our own wild animals. So exciting! We reached another river and Binu made tea over a fire and we ate chapatis and curry outside our secluded little wooden hut miles from the nearest road and hours from the nearest town. OK so this bit isn’t quite as romantic as it seems. The hut was a damp, smelly, rodent infested shed. We ate dinner sitting on the floor in the dark surrounded by ants and moths. Binu left as it got dark, warning us not to leave the balcony under any circumstances, as he strung up barbed wire around the hut to deter the marauding elephants. We had to barricade the bathroom door to stop the rats getting in. There was only one very smelly bed so Dez had to sleep on a damp mattress on the floor. There was no way I was sleeping with the rats! Neither Dez nor I got a wink of sleep. We lay awake in the pitch black, listening to the rats fighting in the bathroom and the torrential rain outside. The boys slept like babies.
But this is what adventures are made of, right? And the next morning the rain had gone and the previously gentle river had been transformed into a raging torrent. Birds sang, tea was drunk, barbed wire was removed and we spent the morning, binoculars in hand, stalking more wild animals. Perfect! Just in time for another terrifying bus ride back to Munnar.