For most Keralite road-trippers, Athirappilly and Vazhachal somehow mark the fag end of their exhilarating ride through dense woods and green mellow lawns. But those who have ridden beyond know what the most beautiful high-range ride in south India feels like. So get rid of all your doubts and ascend the winding roads beyond Vazhachal. An amazingly cool place with stunning scenery awaits you. Let's call it Valparai.
Off we go
The journey begins from Chalakudy, the nearest town from Athirappilly. End of May is the best time to make a trip up Valparai. You'd get to watch nature rejuvenating itself, growing tender green coat all over the brownish patches. The city slowly transforms into a village by the time you reach Elanjipra and then it progresses to a forest as you cross Orappana and Dream World water-theme park.
You'll notice the winds getting cooler, with the serpentine roads. Since it’s the season following the monsoon break, Athirappilly waterfalls will be swollen. Lend your eyes to the refreshing sight of the massive waterfalls from the road-side viewpoint and continue your ride.
Monkeys, giant squirrels and horn-bills would all be celebrating the cool weather, eating fresh saps, tender leaves and raw berries. Crickets and frogs would be at their full vigor, rustling and croaking aloud. Charpa falls, which is situated between Athirappilly and Vazhachal, is no more that dry, thin stream of water rumbling down the rocks. Instead, a fat, deafening Charpa will welcome you.
Gear up your bikes once you cross the Vazhachal forest check-post – you are quarter past your way, left right in the middle of forest. The road narrows down ahead, hiding acute ditches and fierce abysses in the sideways.
Through the woods
Strange calls of forest birds and trumpets may distract you, along with the typical darkness of monsoon under the green umbrellas trees spread. In less than 20 kilometers, you'll see a township, with small stationery stores and home-based garages. Yes, you are near Poringalkuthu dam reservoir. Stop here and take in the beauty of the flooded water body from a view point.
A frail drizzle may freeze your limbs and you'd want a hot beverage badly. Never hesitate to get your cup of cardamom flavored native tea from a local tea stall. The hills of Western Ghats would smile at you from behind the pale monsoon mist covering them.
Moving ahead through the dense forest conquering roads going high and low, splashing through the gentle springs crossing your way and smiling at the growling langurs on trees, the meandering road will take you through the birder of Mukumpuzha tribal colony. Here, you get to see delicate palm-leaf housings on rocks beside water bodies. Getting closer, you can see the residents fetching water or cooking their food on a hearth prepared on the bare rock.
The forest slowly gives way to tea plantations and the aroma of fresh tea leaves rules the air. The vast tea estates and the colonial bungalows in between detach you from the roads you've covered so far. Asbestos-roofed settlements and village institutions take over your sidelines. Village schools, dispensaries and people wearing mufflers and head-wears give you the perfect feel of life in the high-range.
Slowly, you reach the second reservoir on your way – the mighty Sholayar dam. Home to some indigenous animal and plant species, Sholayar forest range will give you some unforgettable travel experiences. Apart from the umpteen photographic frames and scenic beauty, Sholayar forests may give you a close glimpse into the wildlife, depending how lucky or unlucky you are to encounter wild boars, herds of deer and elephants. Pied horn-bills may fly over your heads and gray horn-bills would 'laugh' at you. You might also, if lucky enough, spot the great Indian horn-bills too.
Across the border
As your way transforms from forest to tea plantations again, you'll notice a slight change in the language of name boards and hoardings; yes, you are crossing the Tamil Nadu border shortly.
Once you ride past the heavenly Malakkappara tea estates, which resemble the valleys of Munnar, Valparai town is just two hours away. But when you reach the heavenly destination after the long adventurous ride, the one and only feeling that overpowers your mind would be hunger, and hunger alone. Relish a good Tamil-styled biriyani or a conventional Kerala-Tamil Nadu fusion meal from one of the restaurants in town. Waste no time, a cozy celestial valley of Koolangal river awaits you less than two kilometers away.
The air is cool and the water, chilled in Koolangal river valley. You have a beautiful river-cliff to sit and enjoy the panoramic beauty of nature. Listen carefully to hear the calls of Malabar whistling thrushes and run your eyes around to get sightings of wild gaurs and lion tailed macaques. You may also visit the Indira Gandhi Wild Life Sanctuary here to get closer glimpses of native flora and fauna.
Down to Valparai
After this comes the time to descent the hill. The Puthuthottam-Pollachi route is the best option to return from Valparai, with around 41 hairpin curves on way, each presenting fresh panoramas and distinct aromas.
No, Valparai doesn't have those well-marked, tourist-friendly destinations for sight-seeing. You are completely on your own to explore the hills, trek up the forests or wander around like a native. There are a number of resorts and home-stays offering enough detachment from the world outside. There are places where you could stay, dine and cherish nature in a valet-friendly way. But if you choose to return on the same day, remember to leave the forest before it's too dark. Your way down the hill, through Puthuthottam and Iyer-padi is going to be really hard, meandering and narrow – another endless ride through tea plantations, glancing at the 'tea horizons' where estates meet the misty mountains and the cloudy sky beyond.
Don’t forget to capture the visuals of estate laborers plucking mature tea leaves, wearing their conventional attire and the back-basket balanced on their head. You may get blinding rains on your way or misleading mist that freezes your limbs. Pause and have as much of hot beverages every time you see a stall; for, you are entering another side of the same forest and you may not find a single human being for the next three or four hours.
The Tennis Court Bungalow and the little waterfalls on the sideways make you feel like you are lost in a dream. Aliyar Dam, a reservoir-cum-power project offers you a great view from its top. Twilight would craft rainbows with water droplets in the sky. An evening in a forest is indeed a precious experience. Each hair-pin curve would open new worlds in fornt of you: if one gives half a kilometer's ride through a valley of purple bougainvillea, the next offers a clean road through yellowish grasslands. A slow ride through a coffee plantation wet after rain refreshes your soul like nothing before.
Darkness falls gradually and nocturnal creatures start conquering the way. Owls peep at you and porcupines rush out from the road. Sambar deers and boars seem stranded on roadsides. You'll need to ride really careful, as the slippery road with streams cutting it is the most likely zone of accidents. Elephants and bisons may sometimes block your road.
You'd pass several tea plantations and waterfalls again: Mystic falls, government teak plantations, Valparai, and Mokey falls, being some of them. It'd be really dark when you land back on the plain. Tamil townships would welcome you with subtle rush and the typical loud tape-records. Yes, you are at Pollachi. Covering the traffic of rush hour, you may get on to the national high-way 52 within an hour, and there climaxes one of the most beautiful and adventurous high-range rides you could ever experience in south India.