Munnar was on my list from the moment I planned to visit India. Along with seeing the famous Kerala Backwaters, visiting the tea plantations in Munnar was an absolute must for me.
Heading to Munnar after visiting Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, I took a bus and then another bus (having one of those oh-crap-the-bus-has-dropped-me-off-in-the-middle-of-nowhere moments en route), after trying and failing to flag a Tuk Tuk down to the equivalent cost of the bus journey (about £1).
I spent two days hiking in the hills in Munnar with Paul, a Parisian I shared a raft with in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. We ditched the tour guides, abandoned the map, and relied mostly on our initiative and pure luck when we decided to explore this part of India.
Our first port of call was taking a bus to Top Station, where there are apparently panoramic views of the tea plantations across the hills. We waited patiently at the bus stop but were told the next bus wasn’t for an hour. In India you are never too sure whether to believe what you are told, but nevertheless we abandoned the bus station and took an overcrowded jeep to the top of the hill (which cost about the same as the bus anyway).
The panoramic views weren’t quite what we expected, since we had decided to visit when it was extremely cloudy. Instead we we met with a few mischievous monkeys (above) and a white, foggy abyss.
We waited for a few minutes, willing the fog to disappear. There were quite a few tourists taking photos of the non-existent view anyway. After a little while we gave up on taking a decent photo and began the descent through the tea plantations.
Technically you shouldn’t cross through most of the tea plantations without a guide, since they are privately owned. However we saw a few other groups of locals who were walking through them and were met with smiles. We stuck to the paths, made sure to leave no trace of our visit, and kept checking our offline map to make sure we were keeping to the path.
Eventually we reached an area where the views were just stunning. The hills seemed to ascend to a lookout point where we could see through the fog across the valley. We spotted waterfalls and houses in the distance, all surrounded by beautiful forest and endless tea plantations. We stopped for a while to admire the views and rested in the glimpses of sunlight as they broke through the clouds.
We crossed the treeline into the bush, which was still well-graded so we knew we were on the right path. Crossing through the forest, we spotted a number of different fruits growing: passionfruit, jackfruit, lemons, limes, and coffee beans. Small rivers ran alongside us ad the path wound down through the trees.
Out of nowhere, in the midst of the forest, we saw a building which looked like it had been abandoned whilst being built. Behind it, bizarrely, was a home-made coffee plantation.
Who would have thought that out here, in the middle of nowhere, there would be people farming the land in such a way? We were certainly slightly surprised, and assumed it was also abandoned until we saw two locals working on it!
We reached a tiny village – if you could call it a village – it was a cluster of small houses with one tea stall. Wasked a local if there was a bus to Munnar from here (or anywhere for that matter). After an answer which at first left us feeling hopeful and then very confused, we began walking towards Munnar, and caught the bus en route.
That bus dropped us off in a random town in the middle of nowhere, but a town which was at lest bigger than the village before. We asked at the office when the next bus to Munnar was – it wasn’t until 8pm, which then became 8:30pm, 9:00pm, 9:45pm…
While we waited we had dinner in a nearby restaurant, eating with our hands from banana leaves. We walked through a bustling night market, where all sorts of produce was for sale, and waited for the bus to eventually arrive.
We got back to Munnar at around 1am, exhausted but accomplished.
On our second day, we were blessed with clear blue skies and the heat of the sun! Although it was still warm when it was foggy, there’s something about feeling the rays of sunshine on your skin that brings you instant joy.
We decided to venture further. We stocked up on samosas, curry and roti in Munnar before we left, planning to have a picnic en route.
Again, we started in the tea plantations, following the paths as they crossed back and forth across the hills. The hike was leisurely until we reached a swampy area where about a billion leeches decided to crawl through the holes in my converse… after some vigorous shaking I was leech-free and we carried on our way.
We ate with our hands, as we had learnt to do since coming to India. The view of the sea of tea plantations was just spectacular – and it’s surprising how good cold curry is; I recommend trying it sometime!
We carried on along the path which began to descend into the trees. Quietly, quietly, just in case there were any wild animals around. We’d both read our guidebook which warned of wild animals being present in the plantations, well, in the forests in particular, so we knew to be wary. We strolled along leisurely, the path sloping down into the trees…
Paul raised his hand to signal me to stop, and stay quiet. At first I didn’t know what was going on. He beckoned me over to see what he was looking at. I don’t know how he spotted it, but there in front of us was a beautiful, huge gaur (an Indian bison).
It had noticed us and was ever so still (it took me a while to even spot it at first!) But about 10 metres in front of me, there it was, its big, watchful eyes staring back at us, its huge horns concealed by the side of the trees. We slowly started to back away; the gaur didn’t seem startled or frightened, but we weren’t going to take ant risks. We turned back on ourselves.
Feeling a little disappointed to have to retrace our steps, we had a look on offline maps for an alternative route and carried on. Singing as we walked, half in French, half in English, we eventually stumbled upon a small village. By this point I was quite relieved; we had been walking for hours and I was wondering if we had somehow gotten lost.
Heading into the village there was not another tourist in sight. We spotted a Tuk Tuk and asked how much a ride back to the city would be. The driver’s children ran over to us – I felt we were celebrities – and so I spoke to them, asked them about their lives, complimented their beautiful dresses, whilst they nattered partly in Hindi/Tamil, partly in English, whilst they played with my hair and held my hands.
The driver had invited us to his house for a cup of tea. We accepted the offer, hugely grateful for a hot cuppa after a long day walking.
The driver showed us around his house. He told us about himself; he had had an arranged marriage when he was younger but wanted to marry his childhood sweetheart who, to his parents’ disappointment, was of a different cast. He left his family, moved to Munnar with his sweetheart, and lived quite happily in his house in this tiny village.
His wife looked after the children during the day if they were not at school. She then worked in the nearby tea factory through the night. She must be exhausted, I thought.
The first room was a bedroom, dominated by a double bed, with a couple of other mattresses stored at the side for the children to sleep on. The second room was a small kitchen with a number of ragged carpets on the concrete floor. I couldn’t help but notice that although it was small, the place was spotlessly clean.
Outside, there was a garden where a few hens were strolling about. We crossed a plank of wood to the other side of a small river where the driver showed us an elephant’s footprint. He explained that his children were not allowed out of the house after 7pm because elephants were known to roam the gardens. Last night, he explained, an elephant had come by at around 4am, and the footprint we were looking at was evidence of it!
He drove us back to town in his Tuk Tuk, stopping to take some more final photographs of the tea plantations, and we wished him well when he left. I wonder how he is now.
Quickly readjusting to the fast-paced atmosphere of Munnar, we walked through the town and debated having dinner or exploring further. We climbed a small hill, eager to catch the sunset from above the city, and sat in the long grass dotted with other Indians, as we watched the sun disappear over the hills in the distance.
What an incredible couple of days we had.
This truly was one of the highlights of my time in India (if not in all my travels, actually), so do make sure to include it on your Kerala Itinerary.
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