At Mattumala, K. Pradeep finds himself stared at by a bunch of curious Nilgiri Tahrs

There are two ways of reaching Mattumala. Trek the rough, rocky paths, full ten kilometres; or hire one of those trusted jeeps for a vertical climb over hillocks and muddy paths strewn with boulders the size of football. The drive can turn you inside out. It goes past deserted labour lines of estate workers, a bungalow that is fast going to seed, past patches of tea plantations, sometimes intertwined with thick foliage.

These estates, now forlorn, are now being reclaimed by the forest department after their lease period has long lapsed. The forest land had been given on lease for the period 1863-1962. The leased areas were declared reserve forest by the then Cochin government through notifications.

This, then, is the history in short of Nelliyampathy range of which Mattumala is a part. According to officials, lease agreements were violated and even transferred to other persons. The forest department has now initiated steps to recover forest land converted into estates in Nelliyampathy, which they say is an ecologically fragile forest area lying adjacent to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve.

“The land was given only to cultivate coffee and cardamom, but is now used for cultivating crops such as rubber. Most of these estates that have abandoned plantation have been promoting tourism. Some of the labour lines were even converted into resorts,” informs P. Dhanesh Kumar who, as DFO (Nenmara), did a yeoman’s job in this regard.

The Nelliyampathy hills originally belonged to the Vengunad Kovilakam of Kollengode. This principality leased out this virgin forest area to the British Government of the Madras Presidency sometime in the 19th century.

Some tracts of the hills were leased out in 1889 to two Britons, Arthur Hall and W.R.M. McKenzie, who initially opened up the land for commercial cultivation. Later they sold the leasehold right to a tea company and then sold in different portions to various parties. By the 1890s, there were over a hundred European planters in the district, mostly from the coffee districts of Mysore. But by the 1930s, there were no more than half a dozen left, and most of the coffee they had planted lay abandoned.

Old timers and some of the forest guards who have been here for more than two decades remember Nelliyampathy as rich in wildlife. Elephants were seen frequently and many an unsuspecting estate labourer confronted these animals on those heavy, misty evenings round the corner of the narrow, winding roads. Bison, the Nilgiri tahr and the lion-tailed macaque are some of the other animals still seen here.

Nelliyampathy is no longer a planter’s haven. Except for a couple of estates most of the others have shut down. Now the forest department is engaged in a campaign to protect the hills, the wildlife, and the flora and fauna. They have managed to wrest control of vast tracts of land and to check tourism.

On the drive to Mattumala you can vestiges of plantation life. Today Mattumala is the only adventure spot open to tourists. And this with strict restrictions imposed by the forest department. Other similar spots, like Mampara and Govinda, favourites of the adventurous, have now been shut to visitors.

Once atop Mattumala, the aches and pains of the treacherous drive are forgotten. The green shola forests surround you. The Parambikulam Dam can be seen at a distance. Tahrs frolicking on the grasslands peer at the jeep curiously and beat a quick retreat. From a safe height they keep staring at you. Mattumala is the perfect picnic venue. Divakaran, the forest guard, who knows these places like the back of his hand, says that these hill ranges have the only orange farms of Kerala. “The forests also have some of the most rare and unique herbal plants. And so needs more protection.” But signs of irresponsible tourism are obvious.

Bottles, plastic and rubbish are strewn all over, even though Mattumala is supposed to be a restricted tourist spot: it hardly finds mention in any of the tourist pamphlets that promote Nelliyampathy. The drive back to Nenmara is scenic. The ghat road, the hairpin bends, and the splendid views of the vast stretches of Palakkad district, extensive paddy fields, the Palakkad Gap, a geographical phenomenon in the Western Ghats – they make the drive pleasurable. Once you have negotiated the hair-pin bends, the quiet, ribbon-like road that cuts through paddy fields and the Pothundy Dam, which will definitely prompt a stopover.