'Yellappetty,' which translates to 'last village' in Tamil, marks the boundary between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the rolling mountain ranges of Western Ghats. Cloaked in mist and soft lights, Yellappetty lies to the east of Munnar, away from the crowd and fanfare. The hills are home to breathtaking sunrises – ones that will be etched in eyes and hearts like the memory of a loving glance.
The Yellappetty hills are on the way to the famed Top Station in Munnar – the highest point in Munnar, on the Munnar-Kodaikkanal route. The 35 kilometers to the hills can be covered in an hour-long drive, winding across tea plantations and past the Kundala and Mattuppetti dams.
The township is a slice of the classic hill station imagery. Men clad in chequered dhoties, sweaters and monkey caps go about their business as the day unfolds; movie posters announce films long gone from multiplexes; the cattle roam the streets and the tiny homes with red-tiled roofs look just as you remember it from childhood trips to south Indian hill stations.
One of the busiest shops in the vicinity is the tea shop run by Swami Annan. The steam from the boiling water makes pattern in the air as glasses of tea are handed out to visitors all through the day. Swami Annan reels out the names of the many kinds of tea on offer – sugarless tea, tea with less water, tea with more tea powder, strong tea, medium tea, light tea – but never misses a beat making them to order. Regulars make several trips to the shop through the day, dissecting the political moves of Trump and updating each other on local news, while washing down 'uzhunnu vada,' 'mulaku bajji,' and 'pazham pori' with generous helpings of tea.
The 'village' of Elleppetty is largely made of the long stretches of small shacks where the plantation employees live. Most families are fourth-generation settlers on the hills. Having married between themselves, the younger generations are left with no other place to call home. All that lies beyond the borders of the plantation are referred to as 'veliyooryu' – 'outside world' – the troubles and blessings of which have no bearing on their lives. The monthly visit to Munnar to buy provisions is more or less the only trip to the ‘outside world’ for most families.
Fifty-year-old Mayilamma, a class 5 drop out, holds a record of sorts for having the highest educational qualification among the women of her age group. She looks forward to the trips to Munnar and is aware of the floods that submerged the lower lands of the outside world last year. 'Veliyoorile enna naddanalum enkalukku thontharavu varathu,' (we are not affected by the happenings of the outside world) - she reiterates the faith they hold on to.
The camping site at Yellappetty can be reached by trekking up the eastern side of the hills. The mountain side is cut into steps for planting tea; trekkers can wade through vast expanses of the green plantation at some places where the leaves are ripe for plucking and through bare patches where the rolling hills are awaiting the next crop. There is a signpost where the Devikulam Forest Division begins and the road forks into a plantation on one side and forest on the other. The trek through the forest begins from there.
Sambar deer and the smaller spotted deer are commonly sighted in these forests. Jacob, a fifty-year-old travel guide who has been leading trekkers up the forest path for many years now, would tell you that the region has never been a haunt of elephants. “There are no plamyra palms (pana), no bamboo and no streams here” – he offers by way of explanation for the apparent disinterest shown by elephants. He has heard stories of leopard sightings during his childhood, but has never seen one himself in all these years.
Though the path to the camp site lies in Kerala, the tent – pitched on a hilltop – lies within the geographical limits of Tamil Nadu. Past a stadium made out of rocks piled one on top the other and a barricade fashioned out of logs tied together, one can get to the three ‘glass houses’ standing on the hill top. The triangular houses with their glass covered exterior are owned by Senthil, a resident of the Yellappetty village.
The tent continues to hold sway over tourists despite the availability of the better equipped glass houses. Dubai-based Manu and Baiju, for instance, say that they waited for a whole year to align their holiday with the availability of the camping tent. Shilbi, who came all the way from South Korea, says that the trek and the camping were every bit worth the effort. Saying that she was glad she didn’t stay back with her boyfriend at the Santhigiri Ashram in Thiruvananthapuram, she minces no words to praise the beauty of Yellappetty and Munnar.
Awash with rain, Yellappetty turns even more charming. The soft early rays of the sun lend everything on the hill a shimmer on such mornings. Campers who stay up to watch the sun rise over the hills often break into a song, yet others prefer to take in the glory of sight in silence. And the last village casts its spell on each one of them.