Soma Basu returns to Kurangani, the site of the last Road Less Travelled article

All through my journey, I am on rewind mode. And, more anxious than I was on my maiden visit to Kurangani in Theni district, almost two years ago.

Back then, I had mixed emotions, conscious as I was that this was the last destination I was visiting for the ‘Road Less Travelled’ column, which was winding up after a run of more than four years.

I brimmed with confidence then that my last chosen destination would not let me down and that I would make the most of the available trekking. I was also excited about the location -- at an altitude of 6,500 feet on the southern flank of the Western Ghats. Also, I was two years younger and a few inches slimmer perhaps.

This time, though, I am wondering more than hoping. Would Kurangani be as green and quaint as it was earlier? Had the ills of modernisation affected the area? Would the incessant rain allow me to repeat the trek to Top Station? Would I meet K. Piniappan, Director of the UNDP-supported Endogenous Spice Tourism project, who was not only a mine of information but also a perfect guide for the trek?

Grappling with these thoughts, I didn’t quite realise how quickly I had traversed the 120-odd km from Madurai on a rainy morning. The 16-km uphill drive from Bodinayakanur to Kurangani is definitely harder this time, given the time of the year. It has been pouring heavily and there had been landslips with boulders lying scattered on stretches of the badly pot-holed road. But he driver expertly manoeuvres the vehicle.

One beautiful sight which I miss this time is the acres of tall arecanut palms with their silvery barks glistening in the sunlight. It lent a certain charm to the landscape; but it is not the season now. However, because of the rains, the surroundings appear greener and fresher.

We reach the road ending abruptly in Kurangani village. At first glance it looks the same — a handful of tea kiosks, grocery shops, kuccha-pucca houses and the mist-covered peak of a verdant hill peeping out the same way. Yet, something is different. First, Piniappan’s neatly maintained makeshift office is missing — last time it occupied a prominent space with big hoardings. In its place is a Tourist Home being built by the State.

The peace and quiet are gone, because of the construction going on. Also with the introduction of bus routes, the place has become more crowded. On my last visit, there was hardly anyone around, but this time they are all over the place, clad in woollens. The few buildings — such as the post office, police station, primary school, the village panchayat office — all sport a layer of black green moss. I curse my luck. With Piniappan missing and the skies opening up mercilessly, I have no option but to run for cover. But since I am not the type who gives up easily, lady luck comes to my rescue. A small room I enter by the roadside to shelter from the rain turns out to be the office for a new project called “GREEN” (General Revolution for Environmental Education), headquartered in Chinnamanur, training the local Paliyar and Mudhuvar tribes to make and market local handicraft items made of a special grass found in the region.

The young man sitting inside receives me happily and much to my surprise, when I introduce myself, takes out a file with a clipping of my article on Kurangani!

Impressed, I sit down with him for a chat; he informs me that Piniappan is now involved with the new project.He also suggests that if I have the time, I should at least walk up to the first landmark on the trekking route, the Sambar Falls — a mini waterfall, about two km away.

I agree and while away the time sipping chai and glancing through brochures. An hour later, the big lashing raindrops turned into a mild drizzle and we set out with umbrellas. I notice that the tottering wooden bridge, which separates Kurangani village and the forests, is the same. I also notice a gushing stream which was not there last time.

“It’s from the waterfall. Last time when you came it was dry but it has been raining heavily over the past few days,” the young man informs me. But half a km on, I realise it is not possible to walk further. The path is strewn with slippery pebbles, puddles of water and slush. However, the enchanting spice gallery on either side thankfully remains. We find shelter in a nearby hut and wait for the rain to stop, which takes a good 90 minutes. I return to the car totally drenched; with the trek aborted, I leave with memories from my earlier trip.