Coming from Balaji temple, our next stop was the Nirar dams enroute the Vellamalai tunnel. The route was mostly through tea estates and then in between a stretch of dense forests.
Our guide was explaining how the tea estate people lived and stayed here in this terrain. The various estates provide accomodation to them by building quarters in the estates intersparsed amongst the tea plantations or the massive woods. He also explained that each house in these quarters would have very minimal space consisting of a living room and a kitchen both together should be 10X10 space. Then there are the bathrooms mostly common for a settlement or in some cases they are left to open space. All I could do at that moment was to pity at their plight. But, the promising part was that most of these worker's kids study down in the plains in some college and come up during the festive seasons. These workers have only two major expenses from their monthly salaries it seems, one their kid's studies and two paying off the debts they get to survive the month.
Looking at the dense forests and being a snake lover couldn't stop myself from asking the question "There must be a huge number of snakes both venomous and non venomous, How do these people work in these tea estates without precaution?" The answer was more fascinating-"They spray chemicals on the estates to avoid the reptilian fellas from entering". I was wondering how come the chemicals can make these crawling serpents not venture into the estates, but then had to accept as he knew more than me. He then explained about few king cobras venturing into the tea estates and if even one worker spots a serpent, everyone would come out and wait till it's captured and left out safely at some other location. I was wondering about how unsafe can a life be immaterial where they're and what time of the day it is. But they have all adapted and accepted the way of life in the forest. On the way we went through the Vellamalai tunnel, which is a tunnel for over 12kms dug under the mountains to take the water from the dams across the other areas in western ghats. It's really a man made marvel. Definitely the engineers at that time have thought lots about good water management and exploited the resources effectively and optimally.
As these thoughts went on, we reached the next spot, the upper Nirar dam or the Chinakallar dam. This is one of the dams in the string of dams between Tamilnadu and Kerala sharing waters and generating power. The water originates from within kerala runs in tamilnadu gets stored in this dam and the water stored is used for power generation and supply to the people nearby, while the excess is let out and gets stored in the subsequent dams and finally let out into kerala as well for their use. On the way there are so many other smaller and bigger dams to store. The upper Nirar dam wasn't huge but quite big. There was not much of water stored at this point but the guide informed that's so because it was let out to the lower nirar dam recently. He also pointed out some area where the water level stood during monsoons. We saw the levels on the mountains from the colors of grass, oh man this must be easily 120-150ft from the floor of the forests. That means the roads would have got submerged. This was scary. It might look little exaggerating but then for the records Chinakallar is the second wettest after Cherrapunji in India.
As we discussed further i took quite a few snaps around the dam which i was not supposed to as these dams are not for public entry. But, i couldn't control myself with camera in hands and a stunning scenery right in front of you. Then we roamed around the dam area and saw some of the massive time tested trees standing tall easily upto 80ft from the ground. Finally took some more snaps and moved to our next location which was Lawson's falls and the rope bridge. As we went to the spot we had to walk down a few steps and then there was a small wooden bridge under which a stream was running. It was really a nice place to be at peace. We crossed it with a thought that no trace of a falls nearby as it only had a small settlement with a post office. Our guide silently informed we need to walk almost 2 kms and we need forest gaurd's permission to go in. As we spoke to the forest ranger, he declined nonchalantly without even looking at us and then our guide tried his luck with some of his influence which probably should have irritated the forest ranger. He started to say that he is doing his duty, and as a uniformed staff if he tells we should understand and move on etc. I didn't want a scene there and hence suggested to move on to the next place. I could see that there were couple of vehicles standing and the ranger himself said about a group gone in with minister's seceratary's recoomendation for doing some survey?!?!? but still pushed on to the next location. Our guide was little upset that he could not show his influence and also informed me that they charge 15rs entry ticket and let people in, but we cheered him up by saying that's ok and went ahead to the Lower Nirar dam.
As we went to the lower Nirar dam, it was huge and mammoth. Tucked between 2 heavily forested mountains this was standing majestically with white water gushing out of two of the sluices. As we walked past the dam gates, along the walkway the sight was stunning. We could see the path of the water flow into the dam, with the background of the grass hills. Spent some time on the dam watching these awesome sights and took a few snaps around here with the family. Then walked down the steps along the front side of the dam and went near the tunnel under the dam. Took a close up shot of the gushing water and could not enter into the tunnel as it was locked. As we were coming up we saw a guy in uniform talking to my mom n sister. I was little worried that i had my cameras in the hands and had no chance of hiding it. My sister was waving at me behind that guy, and i assumed she was asking me to hide the camera. I was little worried as i came up, saw he was indeed one of the PWD staff who is posted at the dam. I could hear him mentioning to my mom that he went for lunch and people started getting in the dam area etc etc. I tried to hide my camera in vain and as i neared them thankfully some other guy had went down the steps and entered into forest and this fellow was shouting at that other guy to come back. He was saying the water is 90ft deep even now dont take it lightly and he started explaining the facts about the dam. I was happy and carefully listened to him as it was indeed interesting. He said 'as agreed' they released waters to Kerala 35 cusecs and as it reaches the Sholayar dam in Kerala side. As it reaches it would be 100 cusecs as other streams and tributaries bring in the remaining waters. Finally, he never asked about my camera and i happily waved him goodbye n thanking him for the facts about the dam we left to the next spot.
Our next final stop before breaking for lunch was called "koozangal river"(Pebble river). The reason for the name being the river had brought down along with its water so many pebbles of different sizes and shapes lying all over the river bed. We spent some time there and that's when my camera also lost its batteries. My niece had a good time in the water for some time and then we rushed back to our cottage for lunch. Our cook had made nice chappathis and rice with rasam which we all ate heartily as we were all hungry to the core. Post lunch we started again towards the "Nallamudi Pooncholai viewpoint". I loaded my cameras with next set of batteries.
This is a viewpoint that's in a estate called Nallamudi pooncholai and hence the name. We traveled through awesome tea country for 10-12kms before we reached a check post entry where we had to take ticket for entering into the estate. The ticket was charged at 15 per head. The ranger seemed to be a good friend of the guide and hence he was mentioning about the Elephant herd which had stay put for almost a week few days before. Also, he suggested us to come early. We were little excited as well as little scared. As we walked through the tea shrubs, we were told that these tea plants were over 75years old. With every 100yr cycle these plantations would be replanted with new tea plants. Looking around the view was completely out of the world and serene. One side all you see is green plantations with the backdrop of high misty mountains. On other side a huge valley whose other side there were huge peaks faintly visible as if the whole setting was painted. I took so many pictures of this area. As we went to the viewpoint we could see lotsa traces for Elephant visit. The electric fence was taken out completely by these pachyderms and could see so many fresh elephant wastes. Was little scared if they would be around hiding somewhere. The view from the viewpoint was spectacular. We were overlooking Kerala side of the western ghats(backside of Munnar to be specific) and the famous Anaimudi peak (highest in south india) was standing tall on the other side of the valley. We could clearly see a falls down the valley and we were told if need be we can camp and cook on the rocks right under the falls and stay there for couple of nights. But we need to trek for hours to get there it seems. There were some tribal settlements deep inside the forest in the valley. These people still prefer to stay in the middle of the forests in the valley in their own world. It takes two hours for them to come to the valparai town without any proper roads through the dense forests.
All during these sight seeing our hopes of finding any wild animals were never satisfied. Me having created huge hype that its easy to spot wildlife in valprai had made my family specifically my niece expect more. They were kinda let down and were ready to accept the fact that they would not be able to see any wild animals. So, when my guide who spoke about panthers all through the day, and mention about a place where generally heard of bison visits, i thought its another way of cheering us up. He agreed to take us to that place. The best thing about these guides who come for wildlife trips are that they always throw the disclaimer that it's based on your luck to spot animals. Our guide was no different, he said "we being residents see them all the time but when people come to see them they never show up". Anyways we decided to try our luck in the spot where herd of bison were supposed to visit. It was already getting dark and hence i thought it's going to be another flop show with no animals showing up.
As we serpented down the estate routes at one specific spot, our guide mentioned that he saw a panther cub the previous day as he came from plains up the hill. I was thinking why specifically this spot, he could have said this at any place during the whole day. After few minutes, he said this the spot and keep looking. It was a regular road with forest on one side and tea estates on the other. I was highly skeptical, but suddenly i found dark black objects down the green plantations and i was really excited and shouted "Bisons...bisons....there...there". The driver immediately stoped and i got down in a flash with my cameras totally ignoring the fact that i was wearing a bright red t-shirt. There was a herd of Gaurs with their typical crown like horns and white sock layer on their legs. There was a cute calf in the safety of the bigger ones. As i was taking pictures, another passerby stopped his moped and started clicking too. I wanted to prove that i would have the better photos and started crouching and entered the tea estates without catching the attention of the Gaurs. My guide suggested to crouch otherwise they're sure to chase us since the calf was around too. As i did so, i went little closer and didn't have the guts to go any further, clicked couple of snaps more. Suddenly i realized the passer by was standing next to me. This bugger never crouched and the biggest Gaur turned and looked at us in an offensive pose. It was the nastiest look i have ever got. Trust me that look said it all, it was like 'don't mess around with my herd'. Our guide was hushing at us 'come up come up'.
That cold stare added with our guide's frantic call made us crouch once again and rush to the road back. Upon seeing us backing off, the Gaur changed it's offensive pose and turned and started grazing again. We gave a huge sigh of relief not before my mom and dad gave their piece of mind to me.
My niece was thrilled and excited but much lesser than she was when she watched the ducks swimming in the stream. I was like 'oh my God'! Watching the wild gaurs in close quarters, increased our curiosity levels further and we told our guide that we wanted to see the panther at least from distance somehow. He as usual told its pure luck, as panthers are very elusive animals but with the recent spurt of their population they are roaming freely aroudn Valparai. He said lets go through the route where there is a possibility but we weren't the lucky ones this time. It had become totally dar and we had to come back to our cottage and retire for the day. We finished our dinner and started talking about the things we saw and plans for the next day...
After dinner my sister went out and entered the next door which had the kitchen and dining room where the cook stayed for getting milk for my niece. The Cook was reacting with so much of tension asking her not to get out and especially with kids in the night. She was pushed back to our room and then he brought milk and said never should ladies and kids venture out after dark as they form the easy prey for panthers. My sister was visibly shaken and we all set out to hit the sack for the night.
--To be continued--
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