Travel enthusiasts in and around Kerala are more than familiar with the misty green hills of Munnar. The furthest their quest for unmarred nature spots takes them is to Devikulam, Peerumedu, or Meesapulimala.
However, if you want to leave behind the hilly meadows and encounter high-rise mountains with their summits sunk in clouds, head to Kolukkumalai from Munnar and you cross the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border en route.
The breathtaking drive
As you leave town via the Devikulam route, towards Suryanelli, the view transcends to colourful houses peppered on vast tea plantations. The further you go, the distant mountains start coming in the view, offering picture-perfect stopovers.
One thing to keep in mind on this route is to not rely solely on Google Maps or other apps for navigation. Multiple off-road routes will prop up which may not be suitable for all kinds of vehicles and may even be dangerous during the rains. Stop and ask around. Suryanelli being the base camp for many treks is known to locals and you will be guided well. Again, navigation apps will be confusing as there are multiple cuts to turn towards Suryanelli. Ask around for the shortest one.
You may encounter road and traffic blocks on the way to Suryanelli owing to the road construction, mist, and break-away clouds. It is advisable to drive during the day and reach Suryanelli before 2 pm.
Do not worry about missing out on the initial, adventurous off-road drive as that is inevitable after Suryanelli. You will have to park your vehicle there and hire jeeps that will take you up the steep, rocky paths cut in the hills till the top camp. Be wary of these private jeep services and agree upon a price in advance lest they should charge you more on the pretext of taxes and the like. Sadly, the fare is a bit on the higher end – more than Rs 3,000 for a two-way drive of 10 km – but these jeeps are your only option.
Although, once you embark upon this final lap of the drive, expense would be the last thing on your mind. Let your experienced driver take you higher on the dangerously breathtaking route as you leave the meadows down below.
The ride is not for the faint-hearted or even the faint-'backed.' Yes, the extremely bumpy 10-km path is enough to worsen your back ailments, if you have any.
If the rains cooperate, you may even pass by the seasonal waterfalls of varied heights on the way. 'Seasonal' is actually an understatement given that some of them will disappear the next morning itself once it stops raining!
The higher you go, the more unbelievable the view becomes. Once on top, the steep, rocky mountains, with lush pastures at their base will get embedded in your mind. The chilly winds will make it hard to believe that you were in warm plains a few hours ago.
Although you can rent out rooms at the top, the best way to experience Kolukkumalai is to camp near the tea estate. Make prior bookings to avoid any last-minute omission. Depending on the season, it is fairly easy and affordable to spend the night in tents here. Sleeping bags will also be provided. Apart from these basic amenities, a dinner and breakfast meal are also included in the package.
Toilet facilities are also fairly hygienic but be sure to carry your own toiletries.
The showstopper of the trip would await you the next morning. There is a reason why sunrises over the mountains make for the most common and celebrated sceneries. That reason comes alive at Kolukkumalai. With one of the most glorious sunrises you will ever witness in the Western Ghats, you will be thanking yourself for taking this adventurous trip. If weather allows, you can see the sun floating on a bed of clouds. And even without its cloud mattress, the lazy, bright sun will take your breath away.
World's highest tea estate
Another highlight of the visit is, of course, that world's highest tea estate is in Kolukkumalai. A kilometre of downhill walk through the plantations will take you to the old-style organic tea factory which has been practising the orthodox tea-making process since the colonial era, when it was established in 1919.
It may be the scenic, secluded location or its conventional ways, but the factory will undoubtedly take you back in time. If not for the few men speaking on their smartphones, it will be really difficult to place this spot in the 21st century.
Take a tour of the factory with its rugged wooden stairs and creaky doors, as your guide explains enthusiastically all that goes into picking, processing, and grading Kolukkumalai tea.
The factory visit would obviously be incomplete without a steaming cup of lemon tea that they make with their highest grade tea leaves categorised as BoP (Broken Orange Pekoe). With just the right start to the day, you can set out on a few nearby treks or head back to Suryanelli to reach Munnar before noon.
Things to carry
At least two warm clothes – a light sweater and a jacket.
Sturdy shoes that can also withstand moisture and rain.
A torch for the camp
Bottled water and enough snacks (There are no shops at the top)
Visit: www.kolukkumalai.com for booking enquiries and tour details