In the era of high-tech travel, the urge to book a luxury vehicle and head to the hills is high. But to enjoy a pleasant trip to Malakkappara in Kerala's Thrissur district, you don't need an SUV or even the comforts of an air-conditioned vehicle. All you need is to board the good, old Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus.
Come in a bit early at the Chalakudy bus stand, and you are assured of the sought-after window seat.
The time is 7:50 am, and driver Bennet of Thrissur hits the ignition and the KSRTC bus comes to life with a spurt. Conductor Anil blows the whistle, and the KSRTC bus slowly makes its way out of the stand. The bus knows its destination all too well. A journey of 90km past the waterfalls, forest and green meadows and tea estates. And as they say, it is not so much about the destination, but the journey that matters. A trip to Malakkappara proves that old saying right.
The wild green
The KSRTC Fast Passenger bus is probably one of the most apt vehicles to undertake the journey that includes climbing the hills, and making way through the forested regions where many a wild animals inhabit. The sturdy KSRTC bus is the only one that can stand up to a wild jumbo that might fancy coming on to the tarred roads.
From the KSRTC stand the bus then heads to the private bus stand where it would be filled almost to the full capacity. Not just visitors to Malakkappara, people to get down on the way and KSEB staff are all daily passengers of this bus. The daily travellers exchange pleasantries and catch up on the news around, leaving the travellers to gaze out of the window as the bus moves out of the town.
And the first sight to greet you as the bus leaves behind the hustle and bustle of the town is the Thumboormuzhi butterfly park. The driver would probably slow down the bus a bit to let you have one good glimpse of the park before stepping on the accelerator. A little farther away on either side of the road are the oil palm trees of the plantation corporation.
Clusters of trees with thick dark green leaves that don't even let the sunlight pass through.
The next big stop is the renowned Athirappilly waterfalls. On the way to the waterfall, you would see the gushing waters of River Chaliyar.
The clock would have struck 9am as you go past the mighty falls. The bus again slows down a bit along the view point so that the passengers can take in the beauty of the cascading water.
Several heads are sure to stretch out of the windows to get a better view. If you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the giant squirrels jumping from one tree to the other.
Some of the travellers might even get off at Athirappilly, finding new destinations in their travel plans. The bus, however, would continue its journey up the hill.
The next up is the Charpa waterfalls. Though the photographer got off the bus and ran ahead to get a candid photo of the bus crossing the waterfall, he missed it. The conductor assured him that the crew would make up for that on the return journey.
The red-and-yellow bus continued to whiz past all the greenery.
The forest surrounding Chalakudy has a special status too. It is the lone riparian forest in Kerala, i.e, a forest along the banks of the river. Therefore, the authorities have put in place strict rules to protect the area. The private vehicles are allowed to cross the check post only after checking. Plastic, liquor or anything man-made that could pollute this land are a strict no-no.
A large variety of fish, some of them rare, thrive in the Chalakudy River. The tribal people in the region survive the rainy season by fishing for these and selling them at the Vana Shree unit. Chami is one such person, who sold a fish so huge that a person cannot lift it on his own. People can buy fish from the forest department's initiative, Vana Shree, by taking special token from the check post. People buy as many as 10kg to 15kg of fish from the unit.
The jumbo path
The green stretch from Vazhachal to Vachumaram is also the route taken by elephants crossing over to Pooyamkutty forest from Parambikulam region. Therefore, the vehicles are required to go within a certain speed limit. The drivers have to be extra cautious as elephants or other wild animals might stray on to the roads. Only if you agree to all these rules that the forest department would allow you to proceed past the check post. However, these checks are not applicable to the KSRTC bus as it makes the trek almost every day. The bus went past the check post and entered the forest region.
The sound of the bus engine was muffled in the cacophony of chirping birds and cries of various animals.
The cool breeze of the forest would rejuvenate your body and soul.
The passengers were warned by the driver that a jumbo might cross the path. Instead it was the shrieks of a troop of monkeys, swinging on the trees, that set of the alarm bells among a bunch of passengers.
The bus stopped near to the Peringalkuthu dam and the passengers got off for some light refreshments. It is a small junction of three-four small shops. Better to pick something from here as you would not find anything else until you reach Malakkappara. If you are lucky, a stray deer might come out of the woods to greet you. Probably due to the extent of the man's intrusion into the animal kingdom, some of these deers don't appear to be scared of humans. If it happens to be your day, you might even manage to get a selfie with one.
The journey so far was through the road between bamboo forests and the bushy shrubs. Now on, the road is flanked by huge trees and creepers. Watch carefully and you might get to see the several wonders of the forest.
Twisted roads, uprooted trees
As you go deeper into the forest through the winding roads, it gets darker. Some parts of the hills were badly hit during the August floods of 2018 and are slowly coming back to its earlier form.
The KSRTC bus makes its way cautiously as the road gets more narrow. Uprooted trees tend to block the way but seasoned KSRTC drivers know how to get past them. However, if big trees fall across the path, there’s no way the bus can make its journey forward.
Then the forest personnel have to arrive to chop the tree and remove it for the bus to continue its journey.
The worst-case scenario would be if the uprooted tree blocks the road as the bus makes its return journey during the evening.
The bus drivers lament that they are given worn-out bus to make the treacherous trip. If the bus breaks down in these forest paths, then the crew have to wait for the mechanic to come from Chalakudy. That too if the crew were able to make the phone calls for even the mobile network is not assured in the woods.
After Pokalpara, Vachumaram and the colony, the bus moves past a pond which is frequented by thirsty elephants. And then the green meadows.
Earlier tribal people resided near to this land, but they moved to different locations after the floods.
The Sholayar Power House and Ambalapara are up next. As bus had left behind most of the things that connect man to civilisation, the passengers too get to experience the forest atmosphere without any distractions.
Next up is the catchment area of the Sholayar dam. The faraway black boulders may appear as elephants to some. The giant squirrel you first saw in Athirappilly might show its face here again.
Dark, deep woods
After Perumbara, the meadows give way to the dark interiors of the woods. Heavy rain lashed down on the hills, awakening the passengers day-dreaming by the window.
The bus switched on its yellow round lights and slowly made way through the now-slippery roads. After Roppamattam, another check post would raise its bar for the bus. Then it’s the never-ending stretch of tea estates all around. You have reached Malakkappara. It was 12 noon by then.
This is the last stop for you in Kerala. Cross the next check post and you would be in Tamil Nadu. A board up ahead gives the distance in kilometres to Pollachi, Ooty and Valparai.
The bus would resume its journey to the town by 12:20pm.
Those who want to explore the land a bit can gave this bus a miss and take the white KSRTC bus that would leave at 5pm.
There is a small kiosk that offers piping tea for those want to revive themselves after the nearly 5-hour bus journey. You can also taste the local meals at Krishnan chettan's eatery.
What you need to know
1. Ensure that the fuel tank of the vehicle is full as there are no petrol stations after Chalakudy.
2. Do not throw plastic waste inside the forest. Strict checking at check post.
3. Do not throw food to monkeys who might across your way.
4. Do not cross the safety line, while visiting the waterfalls. Follow the guide's instructions carefully.
5. Drive slowly inside the forest and be alert.
From Chalakudy to Malakkappara – 7:50am, 12:20pm, 3pm, 5pm
From Malakkappara to Chalakudy – 6am, 7am, 12pm and 5pm.
For more information, contact KSRTC Chalakudy: 0480-2701638