What a thrill it is to breathe in pure mountain air and imagine a panther eager to have you for lunch.
Does the road wind uphill all the way? Yes, it does, but we aren't saddened by it as the poet was, but delighted, with the view getting better at every bend. We are on a ribbon-smooth highway snaking up to a quaintly named hill station off the regular tourist beat, Valparai, which, we are told, means “The Tail of the Mountain”. The locals are very proud of the bends of which there are 40, with markers showing how many we still have to cover, and parking bays where we stop for photo-ops.
At an altitude of 3,500 ft the view offers no towering cliffs or plunging abysses. The landscape is serenely beautiful, with lush green hills and the late afternoon sun throwing benign shadows over the Aliyar Lake, a deep blue expanse with a dam to one side. Just breathing in the mountain air is pure exhilaration.
Valparai is not a town in the conventional sense but an agglomerate of tea estates spread over the hills for miles around. The one where we had our homestay covered several hundred acres, with just three bungalows of which we had one to ourselves. Not luxurious but homely and comfortable, it was appointed in a style reminiscent of the Raj, with spacious rooms, solid wooden furniture, thickly-padded sofas, a display of dainty china cups and crockery, and a long open verandah offering pleasing vistas. To round off the old-world ambience, there was a swing in the garden, flowerbeds and a lawn, and servants' quarters.
On arrival we were sternly instructed: All doors and windows should be shut at sunset and remain so through the night to pre-empt visits from bears and panthers! This was unwelcome news to put it mildly. While driving up, a monkey had snatched a sandwich from my hand when we stopped for a photo-op, and the previous day a herd of elephants had blocked traffic on the highway for hours, so for the moment we'd had enough of wildlife.
As a precaution the garden lights were kept burning through the night, but still, the thought that you could wake up suddenly and see a panther looking in through the window-pane and salivating over its next meal was not a pleasant one.
Our major-domo and man for all seasons was a true-blue Tamilian with a six-syllable name testifying to his pedigree but, he indicated, we could use the first two. So he was Raja, as indispensable to us as Jeeves was to Bertie. He had been running the place single-handed for 30 years, supervising the cleaning, calling in the dhobi, summoning the electrician or plumber when needed, and cooking scrumptious meals of our choice at a trot, literally. He never walked but ran.
Since Raja spoke only Tamil, communication could be difficult, sometimes hilarious, but he knew a few English words and phrases and, regressing to our school days, we found ourselves playing dumb charades. Armed with the menu card he would say, “Dinner?”, and we would point out what we wanted. Then he would point to the clock and we would indicate what time it should be served.
Valparai is a place of ineffable silences. Our nearest neighbour was a 10-minute walk away, and though there was a bustling tea factory on the estate and housing for more than 3,000 workers, they were unobtrusively tucked away somewhere in the folds of the gently rolling hills. All around us were slopes thickly carpeted with lush, green tea plants in orderly rows, punctuated with tall silver oak trees and meandering pathways. Bluish-grey peaks rose along the skyline, a prospect to delight the souls of city lubbers. The town centre and bazaar were several kilometres away, our cell phones didn't connect, and newspapers were not available. If you wanted to be far from the madding crowd this was the place.
A long drive
We had just a day for sight-seeing, so we chose the scenic drive leading up to the Balaji Temple at the highest point. Distances were long as we drove past several estates interspersed with wooded areas. The larger ones like the Peria Karamalai to which we were headed are self-contained townships, with schools and hospitals providing elementary care.
A security guard stopped us at the gate demanding Rs.50 to let the car through. Such a con should not have surprised us since, in these remote parts, exercising any right commands a premium. At village post offices a commission must be paid on stamps and forms, otherwise they become “unavailable”, and if you change a 100-rupee note you get Rs. 90. New currency notes are also saleable commodities.
After much argument, our driver phoned our hostess who gave the guard a dressing-down, and we got in without more ado. The temple was small, beautiful and spotlessly clean. The priest was young and educated, and happy to see us. It could get lonely up here. He was from Chennai and went home twice a month to be with family. A couple came in, the only other worshippers, and the quietness of the place was balm to the soul.
On the way back we stopped for a picture of the sunset and encountered an unexpected roadblock. An elephant had left its “calling card” very recently by the look of it, and our driver felt the animal must be close by. We waited with the engine running, hoping Jumbo would poke its head out of the tree cover or, better still, cross the road; but it didn't oblige.
By now it was way past our curfew hour, and we still had 20 km to go. We had in mind the hair-raising story of the huge bear that had blocked the road one evening, forcing a passing car to stop. He had then sauntered up to it and, rearing up on his hind legs, had enfolded it in a hideous embrace, rocking it playfully back and forth while the hapless occupants sat inside in petrified silence. After a few minutes, tiring of his new toy, he had loped off into the forest. And so, as darkness enfolded us like a shroud, we hurried homewards on a wild ride through the woods, beating the panthers and bears to it.