HIDDEN 100 Seventy hair-pin bends and 1,025 steep steps. But the long walk to the Agayagangai waterfalls in Kolli hills is worth it, writes Subha J Rao

The eyes don’t get a minute’s rest during the two-hour drive from Salem to Kolli Hills on the windswept, butter-smooth NH 7. There’s a panoramic view of hillocks, balding hills and green-brown mountains.

We drive past a small town where villagers lounge around tea shops. Armed with enough orange mittai to handle the 70 hair pin bends, we begin our ascent to this hill station (1,195 msl) in the Eastern Ghats. A tar road was laid to Kolli Hills, once ruled by philanthropist king Valvil Ori (2nd Century C.E.), in 1961. And so, the hills are near-pristine. Even on a Saturday morning, there is little traffic.

The clouds make lovely patterns and there’s a nip in the air as we park near the Arapaleeswarar temple, 12 km from Semmedu, the heart of Kolli Hills. A cornucopia of smells hits you — ripe jackfruit, pineapple, herbal soups, masala tea and smoking-hot bajjis. We breakfast on bread-jam and set off for the Agayagangai water falls.

It starts off well enough — the slope looks ridiculously easy. Chirping birds and the all-pervading smell of jackfruit provide company. And then, the descent. A 100 steps later, the legs wobble uncontrollably. I hold on to the railings. The rest breaks get more frequent and we’ve been walking for the better part of an hour, but there’s no sign of the waterfall.

There’s plenty to take in though — a forest in shades of green, looming mountains and the sun peeping through floating clouds. Red-and-black beetles and colourful worms emerge from their hideouts among the rocks. Suddenly, there’s a murmur and I see a sliver of silver through the canopy of a fiery-red gulmohur tree. My pace quickens, but it takes another 30 minutes to hear the rumble of water. The steps end. From here, you have to scramble atop boulders to reach the 150-foot waterfall with a view. It’s surrounded by dark rocks and greenery. The frothy white water breaks the colour scheme. A bird plays peekaboo with the cataract, swooping in and out at a height.

The water gushes down in three streams and spreads a cool mist in the midday heat. A couple of locals strike yogic poses under the water. You have to hold on to a rope and cross the chest-high water to reach the slippery boulders and the bathing ghat. We went in the second week of July. But, from now till January, you’ll see the waterfall in all its splendour.

The trek back to the temple takes longer. The photographer, nimble as a mountain goat, rushes up. I take my time, like some others who’ve come to see the waterfall. Two hours later, I reach terra firma, aching all over and short of breath. And then I see the board at the entrance: Agayagangai: 1,025 steps!

I revive after a bottle of water and some sugary jackfruit. One sip of the herbal soup and the aches and pains seem to vanish. Made of aatukaal kizhangu, shallots, mint, coriander, vallarai and pepper, it is fiery and soothing all at once.

We set out to explore the parts around Semmedu, biting into juicy pineapple sold in front of almost every farm. The cactus by the roadside has sent out a spray of beautiful flowers and farms nearby cultivate maravallikizhangu, a staple, and paddy.

The hills, part of Namakkal district, derive their name from, and are said to be guarded by, Kollipavai, the local deity who resides in the Ettukaiamman temple. Its various caves are said to be great places to meditate in and its herbal gardens a treasure trove of native medicine.

But for me, Kolli Hills will be all about the sharp fragrance of jackfruit and pineapple; a descent so beautiful it leaves you breathless; and deliciously sore calf muscles that are a reminder of a walk to paradise.