South India Road Trip – Mountains, Spices and Tea
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
The Idukki District of Kerala could be described in three words: mountains, spices and tea. The verdant Western Ghat mountains are home to an incredible range of flora and fauna. Everything you ever saw in a spice shop comes from this region, from pepper “the King of Spice” and cardamom “the Queen of Spice”, to ginger, clove, turmeric, cinnamon, tamarind, nutmeg and more. And then there is tea, the lifeblood of the economy. Immaculately manicured plantations extend as far as the eye can see.
One of the great joys of motorcycling is that you are part of the surroundings. You can smell everything and each spice plantation we pass emits a wonderful aroma creating an amazing sensory experience. Great roads and impressive scenery are complimented by the friendly people we meet at every stop. Educated and genuinely interested in talking to us, we field questions of all sorts covering every topic.
Why are the people so friendly and well educated in Kerala? It could be the result of the strong influence of the communist party that has been a major component of the ruling coalition since the late 1970s. The state has the most active political population in the country and the 'Hammer and Sickle' flag flies everywhere. It is also progressive, the first state to openly accommodate the transgender community.
We stop for the night in Thadiyampadu as it is close to the takeoff point for a hike up Palkulamedu mountain. This peak is far from the tourist routes and, according to the Kerala Trekking Club, all we need is water and “sturdy walking sandals.”
The narrow road that leads to the trailhead is lined with cashew plantations. We park next to a cow shed and a farmer emerges to say hello. There aren't many people out here and certainly no foreigners, so we leave our belongings strapped to the bikes while we hike. The track is easy to follow and we ascend above the tree line to spectacular views of the shola, grassland forests, and mountains of the Idukki District. Back at the bikes, the farmer was still there – probably watching our gear for us.
Views from Palkulamedu
Idukki District, Kerala
The twisting highway to Munnar was punctuated with lakes and rivers. Roads and tracks lead off in every direction to plantations of all sorts. There are too many to even contemplate exploring, but we do our best to make sure we do not travel a direct route. This is the centre of the tea district and the plantations are extensive. They are also private, which limits riding options to main roads and none of the tempting tracks that lead through the estates.
Idukki District, Kerala
A quiet lodging on the outskirts of Munnar is home for three nights. We walk about town and encounter our first tourist groups. They flock to the region to visit tea estates and the national parks nearby. At the tourist office, we ask about local hikes. Independent hiking is strictly off limits we are told; a guide and entrance fee is required. We were shown the “programs” offered and left the office disgruntled.
The next morning, we decided to celebrate Astried's birthday with an adventure into the Kannan Devan Hills. The road passes the highest tea plantations in the country and is littered with viewpoints. “Top Station” was once a historic shipping point for tea that went down a ropeway to the railway below. It was cool and a thick fog rolled in obscuring the panorama.
Leaving our helmets with a fruit vendor, we located the trailhead and noted the absence of a checkpoint. Astried voiced her anger at the dishonesty of the tourist officials. Descending into the lush forest, a lone rooster guarded the trail but demanded no fee. Two hours later, we were back at the fruit vendor sipping hot chai and munching fresh oranges. Astried was elated to have walked independently.
near Mid Station, Kerala
Next day, we decided to avoid the tourists at Eravikullam National Park, especially as it was forbidden to hike near Anamudi mountain. At 2695m, it is the highest peak in India south of the Himalayas. The park entrance was crowded and we continued on, spotting a rare road without a “No Trespassing” sign that lead into a tea plantation. We drove in to check it out and a young man appeared, informing us it was private property. When I told him there was no sign, his response made us howl with laughter.
“That's because the elephants came through last night and knocked it down,” he said.
We had a nice chat with him, learning the plantation was 1500 hectares, had 24 varieties of tea which was picked every three weeks, and was ISO certified. Thanking him for the lesson, we returned to Munnar for the final night.
The weather was perfect leaving town the next morning, making for a spectacular ride through the mountains. The checkpoint at the entrance to Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary had more monkeys then people. They loitered at the gate, hoping for food scraps and leaped onto the hood of almost every car that stopped. Elephant dung was scattered along the road lending credence to the “Caution Elephant Crossing” signs that were everywhere.
Stopping for “meals” in the village of Manupatti, we asked the owner if he saw many foreigners.
“They sometimes pass through in cars,” he said, “but you are the first who have ever stopped and the first foreigners on motorcycles I have ever seen.”
At a chai stall in the rural village of Puruvur, Astried attracted a lot of attention. They had never seen a blond woman, let alone one riding a motorcycle. A cluster of women gathered round and one old woman sat close to Astried holding her hand tenderly. She told stories as though we understood and clearly did not want us to leave. After two chai, we climbed aboard the bikes. The old woman hobbled over to Astried with a tear in her eye and gave her a kiss, saying what could have only been “take care”.
We sailed along flat, straight roads to Aliyar Dam and started climbing into the Nilgiri Mountains on another exhilarating numbered hairpin highway. Once again, the lack of traffic allowed us to push the bikes into the turns.
Overlooking Aliyar Dam
Nilgiri Hills, Kerala
The Anamalai, or “Elephant Hill” region is home to elephant, tiger, panther, Indian bison, langur, deer, gaur, sloth and more. This is one of the richest regions in terms of plant and wildlife. More endless tea plantations spread out across the hills as we reach the town of Valparai for the night. We have come to refer to it as the “tea mafia” as they control vast amounts of land in and around this extensive national park system.
There is an abundance of Catholic churches in Kerala and a chance meeting with a pastor at our guesthouse helped understand this. It is believed that St. Thomas reached Kerala, explaining the proportionally largest Christian population in the country. Thankfully, his daughter appeared and we managed to dodge a sermon, escaping to our room overlooking a tea plantation.