Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Kodaikanal trip with Tamil Nadu tourism

It was April, the time of the year when most Indian states begin their own regional years. Tamil New Year fell on a Monday ensuing a long weekend for us. Chennai was getting hotter by day. Naturally, we were looking for a cool hilltop getaway. Our search ended at Kodaikanal, a 2000 feet hill station around 550 Km away from Chennai. We booked a 3-day package with Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation or TTDC. I earlier vacationed with other state tourism corporations like APTDC (Andhra Pradesh), OTDC (Orissa), WBTDC (West Bengal) etc. My experience with them was satisfactory. Hence, we hoped that TTDC wouldn't disappoint us either.
It didn't begin well on Friday, though. We were to start from the tourism office at Triplicane at 7.30 PM. I booked a cab with NTL. However, it didn't arrive. I had to then call-up another private cab operator in Chennai, Fast Track. Huge Friday evening traffic delayed us further. It was already past 7.30 PM. My wife made frantic calls to the tourism office requesting them to hold the bus for sometime. Finally we did make it, somehow.

As the bus made a move, the guide greeted us and explained the itinerary for the next two days, first in Tamil and next, thankfully in English. We made a stop at Chromepet for dinner. People from suburban areas were returning home to celebrate the first day of the New Year with their friends and families. The roads and even the highways were jam-packed with crowd and cars. We moved on at a snail’s pace. The queues at toll plazas were humongous.

View from Coaker's walk

It was an overnight journey. The bus made toilet stops couple of times on the way. We travelled through Trichy, Dindigul and reached Batalagundu early morning, where we freshened up. It was to be another two and half hours to Kodaikanal. The Palani hills were already visible in front of us.

Soon we started trekking up the hills. The bus had a trying time maneuvering the twisted bends. The guide pointed us towards the ‘yellow river’ (Manjalar) dam visible on the down left. The hilly road with thick green vegetation all around gave impression of a deep forest. Only small patches of the sunlight were able to pierce through the thick cover. Eucalyptus and Pine trees dotted the surrounding hills.

We reached Kodaikanal around 9.30 AM. Kodaikanal, though primarily known as a tourist hill resort, also boasts off an international school, a golf course and a hundred years old solar observatory. Many famous food and retail brands have presence here. The amoeba shaped Kodaikanal Lake and the adjoining Bryant Park are the main attractions of the place.

We were lodged in the Tamil Nadu hotel located in a quiet and peaceful locality. The hotel has been built on a large area. Apart from the usual deluxe and AC rooms it has cottages built at different levels of the hill flank. The gardens and parks are well maintained.

The morning was all to us. He had breakfast with Idli and Uthhapam in the restaurant and retired to our second floor room. We took a quick nap. We could not catch much of sleep in the bus the previous night. The temperature, 20° C or so, was a delight. We took a refreshing bath and ventured out to explore the surrounding area on our own. We returned to the hotel at noon for a typical Tamil lunch, after which we were to go for sightseeing.

Carrot seller at Pine Forest
We made our first stop at the pine forest, a favorite for shooting song and dance sequences for Indian movies. The guide informed us that the pine leaves were used for making currencies. Few makeshift shops at the entrance sell fresh carrots and raw mangoes to the visitors. We hurried back to the bus as it started drizzling.

Our next stop was at Moir Point, a beautiful viewpoint looking over series of cliffs. Surprisingly, visitors need to buy five rupees tickets to take in the natural beauty. From here runs a shorter pathway through the forest to Munnar in Kerala.

We drove next to Pillar rocks. These are huge masses of charnockite and granite rocks about 500 feet high shaped as huge pillars. Some endangered species of birds like crested serpent eagle, honey buzzard nest in the cliffs and crevices of Pillar rocks. However, we were not lucky enough to spot any of them except a few red whiskered bulbuls.

We next had a short drive along the Kodaikanal golf course and reached a place called green valley a.k.a. suicide point. We walked through a small alley surrounded by numerous shops to reach the dead end. Well, it could have been the ‘dead end’ has there not been an iron fence. The hill sharply descended to the green valley ahead. Somebody might have fallen to his or her death in the past, hence the name ‘suicide point’.  
Tamil Nadu tourism logo at Tamil Nadu hotel

The tourism bus then took us to a ‘government approved’ shopping complex. The guide advised us to only buy from these cooperative shops, as they were the only ones selling genuine products! People bought home made chocolates, ayurvedic oils and spices in handsome quantities even though prices were artificially high.

In India, whichever tourist places you go – be it a natural attraction or a man made one – it would be dotted with innumerable shops selling souvenirs, foods and so on. And the tourists themselves are as interested to see the place as to shop, if not more, effectively turning the attractions into noisy market places. You cannot just quietly enjoy the beauty of the place. You enjoy a leisurely boat ride at Dal Lake and soon a person row to your boat to vend saffron. You go to any beaches, and soon an enterprising fellow with a camera hanging from his neck would come to take your group photo. Religious folks visiting the famous Indian temples are well aware of the menace of the Pandas (temple guide). The story is same everywhere and Kodaikanal is no exception. You probably need to go on a trek to the high Himalayas to really enjoy the beauty of nature.

The night was cool and comfortable. However, the vegetarian Tamil platter for dinner was not very palatable. We were to vacate the room next morning after breakfast. We had a packed schedule for the next day.

After having, well, the same breakfast as the previous day, we vacated the room and loaded our luggage into the bus. Our first sight was Coaker’s walk – a strip of fenced footpath along the edge of the hill. If you ignore the crowd and the cacophony, this is a nice half a kilometer or so walkway overlooking the city below and a series of hills in the distance. There are telescopes installed at couple of places where the visitors can pay a small fee and peep through the eyepiece to have closer looks at the distant landmarks like a church or a mosque. At night the illuminated city appears as a jewel box from this vantage point.

Across the road is Bryant Park, our next stop. This is a beautiful park nestled within a valley surrounded by tall eucalyptus and pine trees. Wavering lanes through numerous flower plants lead you to the center of the park where lies an open ground and a rectangular pond with a fountain system.   An Ashoka Stambha (Pillar of Ashoka) stands tall at the center of the ground.  A greenhouse at one side boasts many rare flowering plants and cactuses.

Outside the Park lies the Kodaikanal Lake. Tamil Nadu Tourism’s jetty is just a few steps away. One can have a horse ride or cycle along the sides of the lake. However, the cyclist has to paddle through the same road shared by pedestrians and cars. I doubt how much fun the rides would be. The series of shops and the teeming crowd, though a good recipe for commerce, spoil the beauty of this serene locale.

We jostled through the small gate at the jetty. There are two and four seats paddle boats, which the riders maneuver themselves and boats rowed by a boatman. Unfortunately there is no orderly manner to get into the boats and we better not talk about safety measures like life jackets etc.  We somehow managed to jump into one after waiting for ten minutes or so. The boat ride on the lake is pleasant, only if you shut off ice cream vendor’s screams from the edge of the water.

We had to walk a kilometer or so to get into the bus. It started drizzling, which soon gave way to downpour. We were partially drenched by the time we boarded the bus. We went back to the Tamil Nadu hotel for lunch. And there were no surprises – same platter for lunch  - rice, sambar, rasam, one mixed vegetable dish, papad and rice kheer!  We were supposed to start our descent after lunch. However, the bus developed some snag. We were delayed by two hours. When we started from the hotel, it was already 4.30 PM. On the way back we briefly stopped at the Silver Cascade waterfall. We missed one of the sights – the dam; when we reached there it was already dark.

Due to the delay, our plan was somewhat jeopardized. We stopped at Batalagundu for evening tea and then at Dindigul for dinner (instead of at Trichy). The roads were not that crowded for the return journey. We reached Chennai at around 4 AM in the morning. 
Kodaikanal lake


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