About 60 kilometres off Thiruvananthapuram, the splendid Ponmudi peak is a conservationist’s delight as well as a picnicker’s favourite. We hop on ordinary transport buses to reach the valley and explore the equally fascinating stopovers on the way.
We take a detour in history before submitting to the breathtaking beauty of Ponmudi.
Stopover in history
About 18 kilometres into the road trip, the bus stops at Nedumangad town, a medieval centre of power. We are transported back through four centuries when we enter the Koyikkal Palace. The traditional Nalukettu belonged to Umayamma Rani, who ruled the erstwhile Venad princely state as Regent.
The palace is a time capsule. The kitchen still features the everyday equipment from the Regent’s period. History comes alive in the artifacts of a folklore museum set up in the palace. They include Nanthuni, the string instrument that enthralled the royal residents, and Chandravalayam, a rare drum used to accompany the ballad of Rama. Also on display are anklets, attires made of bark, the Gajalakshmi lamp and palm inscriptions.
The Numismatics Museum showcases coins from around the world, from a coin that dates from the time of the Christ to a gold coin used in Travancore in the 16th century. The invaluable collection narrates the chronology of Kerala’s currencies such as Ottapputhan, Irattapputhan, Kochipputhan, Kaliyugarajan, Panam and Rashi.
Brush with the beasts
We proceed to the memories of another lord, the lord of the jungle. About 30 kilometres off the palace starts the jungle where the mighty Kolakolli once trumpeted away to glory. The rogue tusker who terrorised the fringe areas of the forest died in captivity in 2006. After death, the former terror has assumed an aura of divinity. People living in the settlements within the forest pray to the fallen beast to protect them from elephant raids.
Turn right from Vithura and you reach Peppara dam after 10 kilometres. The wildlife sanctuary with a circumference 52 kilometres is the catchment area of the Karamana River, a lifeline to the capital city of Kerala. The river frolics here in its youthful energy.
The Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary bordered by Athirumala, Arumukham Kunnu, Kottur and Paruthippalli is a treasure trove of biodiversity. If you are adventurous you can venture into the deep forest. The dam and its surroundings offer the settings for a one-day picnic. Tigers, bears, gaurs and elephants abound in this forest.
The wildlife sanctuary has meadows and eucalyptus growth apart from dense foliage. With so many streams and waterfalls, including the Vazhvanthol falls, the forest is a photographer’s delight. For wildlife photographers, a visit to Peppara is like a pilgrimage. Tigers sunbathing after a dip in the stream and bears climbing trees to scout for honey are normal sights here. But we have to leave this paradise for another one. Day is too short.
House of butterflies
Kallar is the next destination on the way to Ponmudi. This is the valley of the mountain we seek. We have to cross the river. The crystal clear water reveals even the smallest of the rolling stones beneath it. The stones chiseled by time are protected by wildlife law.
The Meenmutti waterfall is just 3 kilometres away. One of the most beautiful waterfalls in Kerala, Meenmutti attracts everyone from the fearless traveler to the curious child. Kallar stays with you up to Meenmutti, where it transforms into the Vamanapuram River and flows towards Thiruvananthapuram.
The travel from Kallar to Meenmutti takes you on a narrow forest path imprinted with elephant tracks. Huge trees on either side bear the mark of angry tusks. “All this happens at night. Elephants are seldom seen in the daytime except for rainy seasons,” said Soman, a volunteer with the Kallar Forest Protection Committee. Soman and his comrades are warning visitors not to venture into the water. They have seen so many being washed away in the treacherous waters. “The forest will not betray you, if you are conscious of it,” Soman said.
Kallar is Mother Nature’s own garden. Wild flowers and butterflies make it a perennial tropical paradise. Nature lovers call this place the garden of butterflies. Rare varieties of butterflies and birds are found here, drawing in environmentalists and photographers. We saw a kite gliding along with its talons around a prey.
Meenmutti is closer if you just cross Kallar. Fish galore in the ponds formed beneath the waterfall. The forest has become greener after a shower. The forest will give way to shadows once the sun retreats. “The wild animals take over this place after that. We should move fast,” Soman said. We left the woods for the hill.
Valley of joy
After an outpost of civilization at a small crossroads at Kallar, forest takes over again. A mountain road that winds along the forest takes you to Ponmudi. There are 22 hairpin bends on the road. We traverse through rainforests, shola forests and tea estates to reach the valley. The Western Ghats ridges arise like a child’s drawing on the horizon.
Two hairpin bends into the journey, we begin to shiver in the chill. The scene of the ridges becomes closer. Then the fog descends on us, as unexpectedly as a herd of white elephants. The beasts often block your way, and view, on this road. But they are a view unto themselves. Elephants and gaurs usually graze along the road in the evenings. You may also encounter a bear or two.
Atop Ponmudi, we feel like astronauts on another planet. The sunset atop this mountain, like its sunrise, is an out-of-the-world experience on the days when the thick fog allows you the visual feast. The sun showers the peak in a golden hue as a parting gift. The sky turns a spectacular red as the celestial journey proceeds.
Darkness descends sooner on Ponmudi hills due to the fog. On a moonlit night, rolling hills assume shapes. This is the hour of the wilderness. Elephants and gaur proceed to the streams while the carnivores look for dinner. The forest keeps awake while its music – an unending whistle of the woods – turns into a lullaby.
Ponmudi’s sunrises are spectacular too. Sometimes the sun will not appear until noon. The wild beauty of Ponmudi is guarded by gentle volunteers. Idukki native Jisha joins Prabhu and Suresh of Ponmudi in keeping the tourist spot clean and sane. The Ponmudi Forest Protection Committee staff starts their day early. “This is no longer a youngsters’ joint. More and more families come here nowadays. A majority of them are from north India,” Jisha said.
We proceed to the meadows, shivering to the born. Ponmudi is a back-to-basics trip. Only accommodation available are a government guest house and another one run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation. Construction is not allowed on the hill as this area is strategically important to the Indian Air Force.
The countless streams flowing through the ridges present a picture-postcard view. Sithatheertham is one of these streams. The name suggests a mythological connection. Rama, Sita and Lakshmana stayed here during their exile. The stream was named after Sita, who bathed in it, the lore goes. Sita is also believed to have imprinted her foot on a rock nearby.
Adventurers can trek to the adjacent hills. You can also trek to the Echo Point, waterfalls and the foggy valleys. The weather here is unpredictable. Rain and fog fights sunshine for supremacy but no one manages to dominate for long. This surprise changes in weather add to the charm of Ponmudi.
The mountain is magical in its ability to keep you going. You can walk along it for hours and still want more. But we have to get down to the valley before the darkness descends again to avoid a brush with the beasts. We leave without a farewell and with a heart ache.
18 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram, 300 metres from Nedumangad KSRTC bus stand. Entry to museum from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone: 0472 2812136
50 kilometres from Thiruvananthapuram. Turn right from Vithura Junction and proceed on the PWD Road. Visitors have restrictions inside the wildlife sanctuary. Phone: 0472 2892344
You can go to Meenmutti from Kallar from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. under the guidance of the Kallar Forest Protection Committee staff. Mornings are more suitable. You have to pay a fee to enter the forest. Vehicles will go up for one kilometer and you have to walk the remaining 2 kilometres. Physically disabled and sick are advised to avoid a visit to here.
The hill station is 62 kilometres away from Thiruvananthapuram. If you are coming through Kulathooppuzha, turn left from Chullimanoor. There are day-buses from Thiruvananthapuram Central, Nedumangad and Vithura bus stations. Nearest railway station and airport at Thiruvananthapuram. For details, 0471 2321132 and 0472 2890230.