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Yercaud: Holiday unusual

Nothing to do? The holiday C.K. MEENA is about to describe should be taken annually ... and off-season.

It was a clear day at the Lake...

THE problem with most tourists is that they are always looking for something to do. A holiday, to them, is like an expedition. They arm themselves with maps and brochures, survey the geography, imbibe the history, and return with a suitcase full of souvenirs and undeveloped film rolls. Then there are the adventure tourists who're always climbing rocks, rafting rivers, and trekking like there's no tomorrow. Little wonder, then, that if you recommend Yercaud to a vacationer, he'll reply: "Oh, but there's nothing to do, there."

Nothing to do. Isn't that the point? If you're looking for the biggest, the tallest, the greatest, the oldest, don't go to Yercaud. If you're looking for a tourist spot that's hot and happening, if you're seeking an unspoilt verdant paradise, if you want (oh, Heaven help us) an educational experience, stop reading. The holiday I'm about to describe should be taken annually, off-season, with large doses of sloth and solitude.

Try going to Yercaud in winter. This recommendation would not go down well with most tourists who throng to the hills in summer and the plains in winter. They are the sort who will never eat ice-cream in cold weather. Who will never ever violate that cardinal sin in the holy book of tourism: travelling without "advance booking". Reservations must be made for stay as well as for travel, up and down.

When we drove to Yercaud, therefore, last winter, without a road map, and without booking a thing, it was with a feeling that we had flouted many an unwritten regulation. When we hit Salem we asked sundry helpful citizens "Yercaud yengay?" and simply followed the hand signs till we reached the road that led up to the ghats. Making our way up the gently ascending road that cut its way through the forest, we saw hordes of greedy monkeys waiting for freebies. Around nearly every bend was a parked motorbike and a young couple seated on a ledge, lost to the world. With good omens such as these, what could go wrong? We entered Yercaud and stopped at the main junction, which was devoid of hustle and bustle. All pairs of eyes (about 28 of them) were on us as we bought glasses of milky, over-sweet tea from a vendor, and as the chill breeze crossed the lake to fan our faces, it dawned on us that we were probably the only strangers in town! Finding a hotel took roughly half an hour, since it involved knocking two out of three choices off the list. One hotel was under renovation, while another, overlooking a cliff, had prices that were equally steep. Both places appeared totally deserted.

Back to the lake we went, and into the government-owned Hotel Tamil Nadu. No cars were parked outside, and all was quiet within. Perfect. So was the off-season tariff: Rs. 300 for a double room and Rs. 500 for "deluxe, with TV". The rooms were clean and basic. Those who expect room heating, plush carpets, bathtub, and a complimentary fruit basket have no business coming to this hotel. Here, you get open shelves instead of a wardrobe, white plastic chairs, and a bathroom with a tiny cake of medicinal soap besides a wash-basin the size of a large saucer. Our room had a balcony that gave us a tree-kissed view of the lake.

All this loose talk about lakes must have you wondering: Is it anything like Ooty Lake? Remember, Yercaud plays handmaiden to Queen Ooty, and its "Big Lake" is no match for its famous counterpart. There is a walled-off "Little Lake" as well, in the market, next to Montfort School (where Nagesh Kukunoor shot his film "Rockford" set in a boys' boarding school). If Ooty has the Botanical Gardens, Yercaud has a humble Rose Garden. For a two-rupee fee, you can get a long-distance view of a fenced-in patch of rose shrubs, and then wander around the rose-less expanse of the garden. There is a modest grove of pine and citrus — but this is no time for a botany lesson. The botanically inclined could take a stiff walk up to the Horticultural Research Station. The man in charge took the entrance fee from us, waved a hand vaguely to his left and said in Tamil, "There are the fly-catching plants." He waved to the right and said, "There are the plants for sale." And then he left us strictly alone. Under "Endangered Species" was a Pitcher Plant that we managed to take pictures of through the iron bars of its cage. We wandered amid orchids, ferns, and succulents, crawled halfway into a small cave, and took in the view from atop large rocks. I idly wondered where the Kurinchi was: on the ghat road we had spotted a sign that announced: "Yercaud — land of the Kurinchi flower". Since we didn't get to see any, I hereby confer on Yercaud a new title: "land of the poinsettia". So many of its small houses have gardens aflame with scarlet bracts.

This destination has little to offer the inveterate sightseer. There is a rough map on the wall of the hotel's reception area that indicates Ladies Seat, Gents Seat, Kiliyur Waterfall, Cauvery Peak, and so on, and you could dutifully cover a certain number of spots per day. A more adventurous method would be to simply explore each road radiating from the main junction or branching off into narrow arteries, and you'll be bound to hit the same spots, more or less.

... while mist covered the Loop Road.

We found that the Seats (both Ladies and Gents) were vantage points. Cauvery Peak sounded exciting. Was it a peak from where you could see the Cauvery river? With this in mind we negotiated the pothole-ridden Loop Road, driving past endless coffee plantations. A sudden shroud of mist slipped onto the hill slopes, and the landscape turned into a dream. So what if Cauvery Peak turned out to be just the name of a private plantation? Mist has this quality of turning the mundane into the magical. The waterfall proved elusive. The road stopped beside a well and a log blocked the way. On the wall of the well was a yellow arrow and "To Waterfall". A sign also announced in stern block capitals: "No alo car & byk", so we hoofed it. We took a narrow trail downhill, hoping to hear at least a faint murmur of water in the all-pervading stillness. No luck, but the trek through the secluded woods was worth it.

Along one of the public parks was a road we hadn't taken. An arrow indicating Pagoda Point tempted us, and we followed directions until we ended up on a plateau of sorts strewn with dozens of Tamil Nadu Housing Board dwellings. Not a single house was occupied, and many of the glass panes were broken. The road led past this disastrous project to a dead end, where stood a small temple on a cliff. We bought corn-on-the-cob from a forlorn seller of "American popcorn" and settled down on one of the cement benches. The view was spectacular although a blue haze obscured the distant hills. On a clear day you can see Mettur dam, said a lone bystander. We didn't bother to ask why Pagoda Point was so named; three stacks of stones piled in the rough shape of pagodas gave us an indication.

During our four-day stay the weather kept displaying slight nuances. The sun would take an ad hoc decision to work full time, or part time, or to take the day off entirely. But whether it was sunny, cloudy or misty, whether it was windy or still, it would be crisply chill during the day and so cold at night that we would have to worm our way under the blankets of the beds that were "made up" western-style. The warm water served in the hotel restaurant was a real comfort. We had all our meals there for lack of choice but we weren't complaining. The food was basic but tasty, and the cold gave us enormous appetites.

Yercaud isn't shopper's heaven. If you wanted to encourage the local economy, you could buy coffee, pepper, honey or cinnamon. Or else you could visit the family-run perfumeries for a range of not just perfumes but health and beauty-care products made with natural ingredients. Do not be alarmed by bottles named "Black Panther Oil" and "White Panther Oil": no animals were shot in the making of these medicinal balms.

Yercaud doesn't exactly have a swinging nightlife; public parks close at 5 p.m. and boating on the lake by 6 p.m.

After our evening walk we would ensconce our well-wrapped bodies in chairs on the balcony and look out over the serene lake. After dinner, we'd be back to more of the same. The watchman of the boathouse would burn eucalyptus twigs to keep off the cold, and the mist would turn the streetlights into yellow fuzz. Only a dog's faint bark or the occasional musical air-horn of a lorry at the junction would break the tranquillity.

Just ourselves, and the stars for company.

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