As our vehicle plodded up the ghat road from Aliyar to Valparai, negotiating a series of 40 sharp, meandering hairpin bends, I could catch glimpses of the picturesque waters of the Aliyar mini-hydel project from the very top. En route I tarried awhile to click pictures of the several Nilgiri tahr on the ghat road. There’s nothing to beat one’s first sighting of the mountain goats at such close quarters and I went on a clicking spree.
When we reached the 32nd hairpin bend of the road leading to Upper Parlai in the Anamalai hills, we passed by the statue of Carver Marsh, a pioneering English planter. Congreve and Marsh, two British planters, landed in the Anamalai range in 1857 and made an attempt to start a coffee plantation. After experimenting with growing cardamom, coffee and cinchona, and rubber, the British planters realised tea was ideal to the altitude and cool weather.
The tea country of Valparai bore semblance to a giant green carpet unrolled by its owners. What makes Valparai distinctive is that it offers all the delights of a hill station minus the busloads of yowling day-trippers. Valparai itself is a sprawling, extended tea garden in the lap of the Anamalai range of the Western Ghats which offer untouched beauty and lush greenery as far as the eye can see. The nippy environs are a welcome relief from the humid plains of Coimbatore. There are no regular tourist spots. But one can visit a tea factory, a church, temple, waterfalls or simply enjoy the views of the thick rolling hills, the perfect cool weather, the early morning walks and the wildlife sightings.
I headed to Sinna Dorai Bungalow, the erstwhile assistant manager’s bungalow. In fact, ‘Sinna Dorai’ (chota saab) was the term used for the Assistant Manager. The bungalow is a refurbished colonial heritage building perched atop the Iyerpadi hill in the Parlai estate surrounded by tea plantations belonging to Parry Agro and commanding a breathtaking view of the Valparai landscape and the rainforests of Vellamalai and Akkamalai in the Anamalai hills.
Steeped in history and nostalgia
Built in the 1930s, the decor of the house is retained with period furniture and other bric-a-brac. Escorting us around the bungalow, the manager Meenu Nair explained the history and nostalgia that is associated with this place. The high ceilings, expansive balconies and the bay windows framing perfect views all add to the harmony. A colonial elegance permeates this imposing heritage bungalow – plush suites with antique furniture, working fireplaces, an antique gramophone record player, an old typewriter and other bric-a-brac. I flipped through some tea factory wage register, ancient farming periodicals, coffee table books in a smaller morning room which opens onto the balcony. Entering the sprawling balcony, I chanced upon two trophies of gaur heads on the walls.
Retaining the luxury and grandeur of colonial times, the stately bungalow allows one to savour ‘the unique pleasure of gracious living in the lap of nature’. One can lounge in the lovely balcony in the evenings sipping perfectly brewed tea, reading novels and relive the lifestyle that the aristocratic planters enjoyed. The balcony has small game-tables with indoor games like scrabble or Ludo embedded in them. The dining room is an extension of the balcony. One wall is all windows, framing the Anamalai hills, quite the perfect way to eat a meal. We were pampered with superlative food churned out by the dedicated staff.
Early next morning, I woke up to a chorus of birdsong, especially of the Malabar Whistling Thrush or the ‘whistling schoolboy’. A ramble around the building yields its own pleasures. After a bed tea, I stepped out into the flower-decked garden for a breath of fresh air. The garden boasts a variety of blooms, several species of trees and perennials. Wandering, I stopped under a leafy arbour to listen to the raucous birdsong. I also sighted a Malabar squirrel hopping from one tree to another. After the morning walk, I sat on a bench at the edge of the garden soaking in the picture postcard views while sipping piping hot coffee.
After observing the workings of the company’s tea factory and picnicking by a perennial stream in the estate, we dropped in at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), which has documented the flora and fauna of the area. NCF also maintains a little patch of forest where I caught a glimpse of lion-tailed macaques.
Valparai shares its boundaries with the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Eravikulam National Park and Vazhachal forest division. A biodiversity hotspot, a lot of endemic and endangered species find their home in this tropical rainforest. With a huge and amazing variety of birds and plants, the forest is an ornithologist’s delight. Valparai is the only hill station in the world which has 12 dams and hydroelectric power stations.
In the afternoon we embarked on a trip to Sholayar Dam. The scenic road winding along the backwaters of the Sholayar Dam is enthralling. The ride to Malakkapara appears as a riot of green. The black-faced langurs greeted us with their loud swishing while prancing effortlessly on treetops. Our guide pointed out not only the winged beauties of the area, but also other rare species with detailed explanation of each.
The highlight of my trip was a fleeting glimpse of the Great Indian Hornbill in the distance. While returning to the bungalow, we also sighted a massive gaur grazing casually among the tea bushes, oblivious to the gawking admirers capturing born free moments.
This face-to-face encounter with the gaur at close quarters was a fitting finale to my Valparai sojourn.
All photographs by Susheela Nair.
Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment, and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals and guide books, brochures and coffee table books.