The Hills are Alive: Top 10 escapes of the Western Ghats

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From waterfalls, peaks, wildlife parks to plantation escapes, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY choose their Top 10 spots in India’s Western Ghats across five states

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UNESCO recently recognized the Western Ghats as a World Heritage Site due to its great biological diversity and exceptional natural beauty. Running parallel to India’s western coast 30-50 km inland, the Ghats are spread over 1,40,000 sq km in a 1,600 km long chain of mountains interrupted only by the 30 km wide Palghat Gap. 39 sites across Kerala (20), Karnataka (10), Tamil Nadu (5) and Maharashtra (4) covering 7,953 sq km have been chosen in seven wildlife sub-clusters – Periyar, Anamalai, Agasthyamalai, Nilgiri, Talacauvery, Kudremukh and Sahyadri. Here’s a selection of waterfalls, wildlife parks and exotic hill escapes…

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Dudhsagar
The milky waters of the Khandepar River, a tributary of the Mandovi, plummet 310 m from a lofty ridge bisected by a railway track and a fairytale bridge. Straddling the Goa-Karnataka border deep within Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary (Mollem National Park), Dudhsagar (Ocean of Milk) is India’s fifth highest waterfall. The Vasco-Madgao-Londa railway line runs right near the falls, accessible from Castle Rock (near Tinai Ghat in Karnataka) or Collem (6 km off Mollem, 57 km from Panaji). The 12 km trek from Collem follows the railway track but the cross-country dirt track ride cuts across streams. Local bikes charge Rs.300/head for a return trip in monsoon (Jul-Sep), while jeeps ply in November. Stay at Dudhsagar Resort near Mollem checkpost.

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Amboli Ghat
In the dense mist, crystal water gurgles from Shiva’s ancient cave shrine of Hiranyakeshi, a source of the Krishna River. Perched at 690 m in the Sahyadris off the Konkan coast, this eco hotspot turns magical in the monsoon with seasonal waterfalls and incredibly high rainfall. Teeming with over 300 species of rare plants like basket karvi or aakara (Marathi for eleven) which flowers once in 11 years, Amboli became a British outpost on the road from Vengurla port to Belgaum for garrisons in Central and South India. It is believed that a dhangar (shepherd) who guided the British along the treacherous pass was killed after revealing his secret. Today, he is worshipped as the village guardian at a small shrine on Amboli Road near Sawantwadi (28 km). Stay at Whistling Woods Amboli with naturalist and reptile expert Hemant Ogale for a rewarding experience.

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Baba Budan Giri
The highest mountain range between Himalayas and Nilgiris, Baba Budan Giri is the birthplace of coffee in India. Worshipped by Hindus as Chandradrona Parvatha, where Dattatreya, Sage Atri and Anusuyya performed penance in a cave, it is also revered by Muslims as the grave of a mystic and his disciples. In 17 century Baba Budan went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was captivated by the tantalizing aroma of coffee in Yemen. As the story goes, in 1670 he smuggled seven coffee seeds in his robes and planted them in this corner of Karnataka. From here the coffee plant, a closely guarded Arab secret, spread across India. Trace the journey from berry to cup at Chikmagalur’s Coffee Museum, climb Karnataka’s highest peak Mullayyanagiri (6,314 ft) or trek from Baba Budan Giri to Kemmannagundi via Galikere. Stay amidst nature at plantation estates like Nature Nirvana, Hunkal Woods and Villa Urvinkhan.

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Coorg
With one of the country’s best-maintained national parks at Nagarahole, the highest density of devarakadus (sacred groves) in the world and the source of South India’s holiest river Cauvery, Coorg is indeed special. It is the largest producer of coffee and honey in India, besides spices like cardamom and pepper. Scenic plantations, charming estate bungalows, and riverside resorts coupled with irresistible Kodava hospitality and cuisine make it a favoured holiday spot. Trek through wild tracts in Pushpagiri, Brahmagiri and Talacauvery wildlife sanctuaries, scale Coorg’s tallest peak Thadiyendamol, visit waterfalls like Irpu, Abbey, Chelavara and Mallali or go white water rafting with Southern River Adventures on the Upper Barapole River. For other adventure sports, contact Crimson Eye and Jungle Mount Adventures.

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Wayanad
Tilt the Rainmaker and its cascading seeds emit the sound of water. Swing the Binsi, a reed instrument for a whistling note. These astonishing bamboo products from Uravu near Kalpetta capture the tribal legacy of Wayanad. Trek past the Stone Age engravings of Edakkal Caves to the top of Ambukuthy Range, watch dholes chasing deer at Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary or search for the Wayanad Laughing Thrush at Muthanga. Scale Banasura Hill overlooking India’s largest earth dam from Banasura Island Retreat or Silver Woods. Spot gaur in the hikes around Fringe Ford, a wild 500-acre plantation at Makkimala or DTPC’s Tea County near Mananthavady. Climb Chembra Peak (2100m) and get pampered at Sunrise Valley and Meenmutty Heights while exploring waterfalls like Meenmutty and Soochipara.

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Nilgiris
Home of ancient hill tribes, the Nilgiris (Blue Mountains) transformed into the summer retreat of the British in South India by 1827. The 46 km ride from Mettupalayam to Ooty in the heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway presents stunning views. Studded with churches, lakes, botanical gardens, tea estates and viewpoints, Ooty’s elite clubs laid down the rules of snooker. Climb Dodda Betta (8650 ft) or drive from Ooty to the stunning lakes of Emerald, Avalanche, Upper Bhavani, Parson’s Valley and Porthimund into Mukurthi National Park. Explore the joys of farm life at Destiny Farm and Acres Wild, an organic cheese-making farm. Wallwood Garden, Kluney Manor, Regency Villas and Savoy (Ooty), La Maison and Sunshine Bungalow (Kotagiri), boutique luxury stays at O’land Estate and De Rock (Coonoor) and bungalows run by Serendipity and Glendale are ideal colonial-style getaways. For wild honey, beeswax balms, Kurumba paintings, Toda shawls and agro products hop over to Green Shop (www.lastforest.in).

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Athirapally
Famous as the locale where Aishwarya Rai cavorted under a 42m high waterfall in Guru and Ravana, Athirapally’s adjoining Vazhachal Forest is the second most bio-diverse area in Kerala. As the only place in the Western Ghats where four endangered hornbill species can be seen, the International Bird Association declared it an Important Bird Area. The forest harbours the Lion-tailed macaque, Malabar squirrel, Malabar Giant turtle and Cochin Forest Cane turtle, among other endangered species while the Chalakudy River supports an enviable count of 104 species of fish. Besides Charpa (3 km) and Vazhachal Falls (5 km), drop by at the Forest Information Centre, museum and showcase of rare medicinal plants. Stay at Rainforest Athirapally where each room offers an undisputed view of the 220m wide cascade and visit a tribal settlement at Pokalappara for wildlife sighting and tapioca-fish meals smoked in bamboo.

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Silent Valley National Park
One of the best-preserved tropical evergreen rainforests in the world, the 90 sq km park forms the core of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Named after the absence of cicadas, Silent Valley’s geographic isolation allowed it to evolve into an ecological island. Topping the list of 960 flora is the giant tree fern Dinosaur pulpan dubbed as a ’50 million-year-old living fossil’. The park’s flagship species, the lion tailed macaque lives in the towering Culinea trees. After a long crusade against a hydroelectric project, the fragile zone was declared a National Park in 1985. Mukkali, the park’s entrance, is unique as all three species of Crow butterflies can be found here – common crow, double branded crow and brown king crow. A 23 km jeep ride takes visitors up to Sairandhri where a 30 m high tower offers panoramic views. A 1½ km walk leads to a rusty steel bridge on the Kuntipuzha River. Stay at the Mukkali Forest Rest House or thatched tribal huts at Malleeshwaram Jungle Lodge, named after the peak that dominates the park.

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Nelliyampathy
The majesty of Nelliyampathy Hills (3,500 ft) slowly unfolds along the mountain road from Nemmara, winding past 10 hairpin bends towards Kaikatty. It was the Maharaja of Cochin who leased vast tracts of dense jungle to the British for tea cultivation. Soon Nelliyampathy oranges were being exported to Buckingham Palace. Today, the derelict Victoria Church stands on a lonely cliff surrounded by forests and tea estates. A short walk from AV Thomas tea factory is Kesavanpara, a rocky escarpment overlooking Poothundy Dam. But the ultimate adventure is the 18 km jeep ride from Pulayampara to Manpara (Deer Rock). If you survive the bone-breaking drive over boulders, visit Suicide Point near Seethargundu, Katlapara Waterfalls, Karapara Dam and Karassuri viewpoint. Stay at Ciscilia Heritage and Whistling Thrush Bungalow while chasing butterflies and endemic birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher, Broad-tailed Grassbird and Nilgiri Pipit.

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Parambikulam
The 450-year-old Kannimara Teak, believed to be the largest in Asia, rises up 48.5 m. With a girth of 6.57 m, it takes five men to encircle the giant. Not all of the park’s treasures are easy to see – the tiny Parambikulam Frog, the endemic fish Garra surendranathanii to the saprophytic plant Haplothismia exanulata. Wrapped around three dams that create a 20.6 sq km reservoir with Karimala Peak (1439 m) as the park’s highest point, Parambikulam is a scenic park. Eco-tourism packages range from jeep safaris, bamboo rafting, birdwatching and guided walks to overnight camping inside the forest. Trekkers will enjoy the Kariyanshola Trail while the Cochin Forest Tramway Trek showcases relics of the British timber trade. Stay in treetop huts overlooking the reservoir, Swiss-style tents or a bamboo hut on Vettikunnu Island, accessible only by boat.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the August 2012 issue of JetWings magazine. 

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