A glimpse of Aliyar reservoir from Ghat Road
Lose yourself in Valparai's walks and wildlife
LEAVING behind the scorching heat of the dusty plains of Coimbatore, it was a pleasant climb up to the tea country of Valparai. As our vehicle lumbered up the Ghat Road from Aliyar to Valparai, negotiating a series of 40 sharp, meandering hairpin bends, I could catch glimpses of the waters of the Aliyar mini-hydel dam project from above.
On the way, I sighted several Nilgiri tahr on the Ghat Road. I lingered awhile to click pictures of these mountain goats. I went on a clicking spree as this was my first sighting of mountain goats at such close quarters. The air got nippier as the cab tackled hairpin bends on the winding mountain road leading to this sylvan hideaway.
The change in scenery was palpable, giving way to mist-cloaked valleys and tea gardens carpeting the mountain slopes. At 3,474 ft, Valparai has all the features of a hill station but what makes it distinct is that it is sans busloads of tourists and pestering vendors. Valparai (originally known as Poonachimalai) itself is a sprawling extended tea garden in the lap of the Annamalai range of the Western Ghats which offer untouched beauty and lush greenery. Thankfully, there are no regular tourist spots. But one can visit the tea factory, church, temple and waterfalls or simply enjoy the view of rolling hills, the cool weather, early morning walks and wildlife sightings.
I headed to Sinna Dorai Bungalow, a refurbished colonial heritage bungalow perched atop Iyerpadi hill in Parlai estate surrounded by the tea plantations of Parry Agro. The place offers a stunning view of the Valparai landscape and the rainforests of Vellamalai and Akkamalai in the Annamalai hills. In fact, ‘Sinna Dorai’ (chhota sahib) was the term used for the assistant manager.
Retaining the snugness and grandeur of colonial times, the stately bungalow allows one to experience “the unique pleasure of gracious living in the lap of nature”. Built in the 1930s, colonial elegance pervades this imposing heritage bungalow. Escorting me around, Meenu Nair, the manager, explained the history and nostalgia that is associated with the place. Plush suites with antique furniture, working fireplaces, an antique gramophone record player, an old typewriter, and other bric-a-brac ornament the premises.
Valparai town’s colourful rooftops
One can lounge in the sprawling balcony, reading novels and reliving the lifestyle that the aristocratic planters enjoyed. Or indulge in indoor games like Scrabble or Ludo embedded in little game-tables in the balcony.
Valparai is a sight to behold when the monsoon unleashes its fury from June to October. Reclining in the balcony of Sinna Dorai Bungalow, sipping piping hot filter coffee between nibbles of vada, I soaked in the heavenly aromas of the tea plantation and withdrew my mind from the maddening world. The stunning views of the green canopy, the wilderness and tea plantations leave you feeling heady. I watched the pitter-patter of rain, drenching the pretty landscape with the mist parting occasionally to reveal the undulating carpet of tea plantations in the distance in varying shades of green.
The best way to savour the magic of the monsoons in this glorious outdoors is to go on long, invigorating walks across the sprawling tea plantations with an umbrella and leeches for company. You can unwind and amble around at leisure, or drive up to the sights.
As we rambled around the plantation, we stumbled upon a sparkling waterfall hurtling down rocks, a check dam, and a mountain stream flowing through a property and also gushing streams and rivulets all around. The mélange of activities includes a drive to the sights nearby, walking the nature and birdwatching trails, taking a dip in a rivulet, and picnicking with a hamper by the stream on a private property. In the aftermath of the rains, the various reservoirs and tanks were full to the brim.
After bed tea, I strolled around the place which was aesthetically laid out with flowering shrubs and towering trees. The garden boasts of varieties of bloom, several species of trees, and perennials. I didn’t feel the need for music as the place resonates with birdsong, orchestrated by hundreds of winged creatures especially the mellifluous song of the Malabar Whistling Thrush pervading the air.
After observing the working of the company’s orthodox tea factory, and picnicking by a perennial stream, we visited the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), which has documented the flora and fauna of the area. The NCF also maintains a little patch of forest where I was lucky to have a glimpse of lion-tailed macaques. Valparai is a biodiversity hotspot and numerous endemic and endangered species call this tropical rainforest home.
In the afternoon, I embarked on a trip to Sholayar Dam. The scenic road winding along the backwaters of the dam is fascinating. The ride to Malakkapara is a riot of green. The black-faced langurs greeted us while prancing effortlessly on treetops. Our guide pointed out not only the winged beauties of the area, but also other rare species with detailed information about each. We were hoping to sight the occasional panther known to tread the path. Instead, we sighted Malabar giant squirrels prancing from one tree to another. With an amazing variety of birds and plants, the forests are an ornithologist’s delight.
A highlight of my trip was the prized sighting of the Great Indian Hornbill in the distance. While returning to the bungalow, I sighted a massive gaur grazing casually among the tea bushes, oblivious of the gawking admirers capturing moments for their Instagram. This face-to-face encounter with the gaur at close quarters was the climax of my Valparai sojourn.
Getting there: Valparai to Coimbatore is 112 km.
The nearest airport is Coimbatore.
Accommodation: Tea bungalows, homestays and hotels.