A trip to the forest is an enriching experience any time. When the vehicle chosen for the purpose is a KSRTC bus, the voyage becomes even more special. One reason being the nostalgia of Keralites for the ‘Anavandi’ – elephant ride – as the government bus of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation is termed fondly.
Road or no road, dirt road or mountain path – nothing is insurmountable for the KSRTC. A trip in such a bus through the forest with the shutter opened even in the rain will stay with us forever. One can distinctly hear the sounds of the forest, wind, brooks, rain drops, birds and crickets. Even a lone tusker who strays to the road from the thick forest flanking it would not dare to meddle with a KSRTC bus.
Our trip starts from the KSRTC depot at Munnar in Idukki district. There is a heavy downpour as well as mist. The temperature has fallen significantly. Driver Baburaj starts the bus 10 minutes before schedule. As the depot is outside the Munnar town, few passengers board buses from there. The bus waits at the Munnar town for about 10 minutes, from where the seats get filled.
The ticket fare from Munnar to Udumalpet is Rs 89 for a three-and-a-half hour trip. Baburaj tells us about the various attractions of Munnar and local legends. Conductor James, meanwhile, fills in the gaps.
Baburaj started driving KSRTC buses 11 years ago. Before coming to Munnar, he was attached to the Kattappana depot and had sought a transfer to Munnar. Baburaj explains the reason. “I came here on a request transfer as I have no wish to leave the high range. Driving along routes where you can breathe the cleanest air is a blessing,” he says.
Open the shutters of the bus and one realises that there are two colours for Munnar – the green of the hills and the white of the mist. The bus winds its way up the Kanan Devan Hills and James points at a grassland along the road and says, “This spot had made it to the Oscars – it was one of the locations of the award-winning 'Life of Pi'.” Now, several cows are grazing there.
As the window shutter is open, the persistent rain drenches you; but it offers a different thrill altogether. The cold too bites on your face. The bus reaches Eravikulam National Park. Many passengers get down; others take their seats. Noticing the camera, Asokan, who is bound for Marayur, asks suspiciously, “Are you somebody from the cinema field; looking for a location?” When the reply is that the trip is meant to explore the area, he warms up and starts retelling local lore. “The 86 km-trip from Munnar to Udamalpet in Tamil Nadu is truly special – it covers four different geographical regions. But, I will not explain more – you can experience it yourself,” Asokan winds up.
The green expanse of tea gardens
The first 35 km of the travel is through tea estates on the hillsides with their all-encompassing green. Jacaranda and gulmohar trees line the roadsides. Jacaranda was brought to Munnar during the British rule and the trees bloom during March-April months displaying their blue finery. However, during the monsoon, the trees are devoid of blossoms and stand mutely dripping rainwater, gently swaying in the wind.
Another sight along this stretch is that of women labourers plucking leaves for the tea plants. The women protect themselves from the weather by covering themselves with plastic sheets. Several yellow vehicles ply along the paths, taking the plucked leaves to the tea factories.
The KSRTC makes its way royally up a steep hill. Driver Baburaj slows down a bit and points at a peak. “This is Anamudi, the highest peak (2,695 m) in south India. Until now, the bus was going uphill, but from here it is downhill all the way,” he says. He explains another significance of this place, “The Pambar River originates from Anamudi. It is one among the three east-flowing rivers of Kerala. Starting here, the Pambar flows along Chinnar and finally empties itself into Amaravati Dam in Tamil Nadu.” The dam is in Coimbatore district, 25 km south of Udumalpet. There are more peculiarities to the area, reveals Baburaj. “The Anamudi valley is the origin of both east as well as west-flowing rivers. As a result, the waters from here flow west to merge with the Arabian Sea and to the east to the Indian Ocean,” he informs.
The bus swiftly and smoothly heads down the inclines. Soon, the Vagavarai estate and factory come into view among the tea gardens. Kasturiamma, a woman passenger who sells vegetables in Munnar, asks, “Can you guess how this place got its name?” When the reply is in the negative, she herself provides the answer. “Varai translates as hill in Tamil. Vaga is the local word for Gulmohar tree. In other words, Vagavarai is ‘Gulmohar hill’. It also explains how Varayadu – Nilgiri Tahr – seen in Munnar came to be called so. Though it has no vara – stripes in Malayalam – it is truly the adu, meaning goat, of the hills.
After passing Vagavari and Thalayar, the bus arrives at Lakkam waterfalls, which tumbles down the rocks and spreads a spray of water all around. Several travellers crowd the area, waiting for a shower under the cool waters.
The lure of sandalwood
Rain weakens while approaching Marayur, leaving behind tea gardens and gulmohar trees. The bus enters the sandalwood reserve of Marayur and James shares his knowledge. “Among the thick growth of trees on both sides of the road, look for the ones with black wood and tiny leaves – it is sandalwood. The forest department has marked each tree with a specific number. Also, watch the area around for wild animals,” he says. Marayur is 42 km from Munnar.
Immediately, everyone in the bus rushes to the windows on the left. A bison has appeared there close to the road. Hearing the sound of the bus, it vanishes among the trees. But a little further, luck smiles on the passengers. A big herd of bison are seen near the bus. There are also deer, peacocks, rabbits, wild squirrels, monkeys and wild boars in plenty among the sandalwood trees.
After covering a stretch of the sandalwood forest, the bus reaches Marayur town. There is a 10-minute halt here and the driver and conductor head to Raju’s shop. It is a tea shop, bakery, fruit stall and stationery shop, all combined. Everyone orders a cup of strong, hot black tea. It will help tackle the cold weather. Most of the shops near Marayur bus stand are fruit stalls.
The road stretching from Marayur bifurcates to Chinnar and Kanthallur. While Chinnar is straight ahead, just 9 km, the road to Kanthallur (14 km) is to the right. The KSRTC bus moves straight.
Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary
The bus enters the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, 18 km north of Marayur. A trip through the forest follows. The Pambar River rushes in all its fury through the woods. The river plunges at a point which is the Thoovanam Waterfalls. An abundant rainfall has replenished the waterfall and its roar can be heard from afar. Every passenger in the bus has eyes focused on the greenery of the forest. They are eager to point out the wild residents of the Chinnar sanctuary. “If you are lucky, a wild elephant or leopard may appear,” says Thanka Lakshmi Akka. Others like Sebastian, Senthil and Kumar join her in being guides. A big bird flies close to the ground. “It is a peahen,” says another helpful local person.
Haunt of wild elephants
Halfway along the road through the forest, the bus makes a stop at a check-post of the Kerala Forest Department, where an entry has to be made in the register. A troupe of monkeys jumps on top of the bus and engages in frolic. But when the bus starts moving again, the monkeys return to the tree branches, without making any fuss. Right ahead is the check-post of Tamil Nadu forest department. Passing the check-post, the bus crosses a bridge, which marks the border between the two states. The Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary also ends there and the Anamalai Tiger Reserve area starts. It is in the Pollcahi district of Tamil Nadu.
Rain is conspicuous by its absence after leaving Chinnar. “This area experiences little rainfall as there are no big trees as in Chinnar. Only thorny shrubs and small trees with tiny leaves are present here. It can be termed a dry forest,” the other passengers explain the geography. A team of wild boars wanders along the tiny trees near the road unconcerned about the approaching bus. They are afraid neither of the vehicles nor people. “On most days, you can see wild elephants on the road. They pass by and even cross the road without harming anybody. We simply have to stop the vehicle, sit quietly and allow them to pass,” says a passenger. But after 6 pm, two-wheelers are not allowed on this route as it is too dangerous, he adds. Soon the bus reached another check-post which is the boundary of the tiger reserve. One is tempted to look at the skies for rain clouds. However, there is no trace of them. You cannot expect even a drizzle in this area.
After the check-post, the bus approaches the Amaravati Dam. Its reservoir, fed by the copious waters of the Pambar River, is full. Amaravati crocodile farm near the dam is another attraction.
Thanka Lakshmi Akka takes on the role of the guide. She is upbeat after the bus reaches her native place and is more enthusiastic in pointing out the various peculiarities of Tamil Nadu. The roads are lined with tamarind trees, there are farms growing corn, banana and coconut. The weather is in stark contrast to the start of the bus journey when heavy rains were experienced and forests flanked both sides of the road.
All Tamil Nadu villages have many things in common – dry weather, tamarind trees, bullock carts and palm leaf-roofed tea shops. But driver Baburaj is happy. The wide roads allow him to leave the brake pedal alone and control the bus with only the accelerator. A slightly warm wind blows all around the place. Akka continues her description. “This place is called Manapetti and Udumalpetta is 10 km ahead. Next stop is Kuruchikotta. If you travel left from there you can reach Valparai and Palani is to the right.” But the bus does not take any turn; it goes straight via Pallapalayam and Bodipetti to Udumalpetta town. It is now dusk. A striking sight here is the wide expanse of windmills, a magical frame seen in a few Priyadarshan movies. The colours of the twilight have set in and the windmills seem to be rotating reluctantly. At the bus stand, numerous carriers of the Tamil Nadu government wait for the passengers and the lone white KSRTC bus enters majestically, bringing the trip to a grand finale.
Other fantastic KSRTC rides through forest
One can travel from Sulthan Bathery to Gundlupet via Muthanga. The trip covers the forest paths of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, which is adjacent to the Bandipur and Muthumala tiger reserves. The area has a good population of tiger, leopard, deer and other animals. Hundreds of travellers are attracted to this place every day. Taking a KSRTC bus from Sulthan Bathery to Gundlupet, one can enjoy the sights of the forest without getting down at Muthanga. However, one should remember that the forest path is closed for vehicles from 9.30 pm to 6 am. During this time, only Kerala and Karnataka buses with special pass are allowed.
Take a KSRTC bus from Mananthavady to Kutta, a small village near Gonikoppal in the Karnataka state. The ride is through the Tholpetti forest. This is an alternative route to Mysuru and Bengaluru. There are few vehicles compared to the Muthanga route and no night-time travel ban is in place. After the Muthanga-Bandipur forest path is closed at night, KSRTC buses to Mysuru travel via Tholpetti. Kutta is 28 km from Mananthavady.
Gavi became the most famous KSRTC route a few years ago after the release of the Malayalam film 'Ordinary'. Travellers are attracted by the greenery and thick mist en route. As private vehicles need special permission to travel along the road, KSRTC buses are the easiest option to experience Gavi, a village in Pathanamthitta district., There are two buses from Pathanamthitta and Kumali, conducting two trips every day. The trip starting early morning is more rewarding to enjoy the wild.
A KSRTC service starts from Chalakudy and takes the Thumboormuzhi–Athirappilli– Vazhachal–Sholayar route to the small hill station of Malakkappara on the fringes of Thrissur district. It is 86 km from Chalakudy and is near the Tamil Nadu border. The road after Vazhachal is dense forest teeming with wildlife. Elephants regularly stray on to the road and travel in small vehicles is dangerous. KSRTC buses ply only up to Malakkappara, but private carriers are available from there to Valparai.
Bavali is a village in Mysore districts and is situated 16 km from Mananthavady on the Kerala-Karnataka border. While it is forest on three sides of the village, the Bavali river flows along the other. The area across the bridge over the river is Karnataka territory. The abundance of wildlife is evident here and one can spot several species even during daytime. Traffic along the Mananthavady– Bavali– Mysore route is also banned during night to allow free passage for wild animals.