Grass, grass everywhere
Dewdrops do a slippery dance on tender red-green leaves and a flock of birds rush out in search of their first meal of the day - vignettes that make travelling on the treacherous hairpin bends of Valparai bearable. What keeps the excitement alive is the thought of finally catching a glimpse of the Grass Hills, a swathe of grassland in the Western Ghats.For decades, this area has fascinated people. Filmmakers have captured it on celluloid for posterity (Remember the breathtaking scenery in the song, Puthum Puthu Bhoomi from Maniratnam's Thiruda Thiruda?). But, now, the area is closed to tourists. Only conservationists and genuine nature lovers are given access to this terrain. We get special permission and by late afternoon, board a four-wheel drive that cruises inside the canopied forest at snail's pace. There is an apology of a road, comprising red earth beaten into submission by the few vehicles that pass through the area, pebbles and broken rocks. The lack of speed works in our favour. The photographer clicks away at every turn and I sit back and take in the sights of a forest that houses a wealth of wildlife. The vehicle suddenly stops. A fallen tree with leeches crawling all over creates an interesting diversion. The forest staff works to remove the obstacle, plucks the leeches off their legs with practised ease and we are off again.
The majestic mountain
The vehicle slows down to allow our guide from the Forest Department to point out a huge gash in the trunk of a tree. "A tiger's claws at work," he says, and we hastily roll up the windows.Halfway through the 90-minute journey, I catch a peek of the majestic mountain range through a parting in the forest. From there, the journey is relatively more comfortable. We pass by acres of tall grass, herds of sambar deer and our destination, the Konalar hut, is a speck in the horizon. However prepared you are, your eyes widen in amazement at the first sight of the green spectacle. The range seems to change form every minute and a warm afternoon sun bathes the entire valley in a green-gold glow. Regulars carry back memories of a carpet of fresh green grass and the dreamy layer of dew that settles over the slopes at night. In the evenings, the wind howls through the mountain faces and crevices, and sweeps over the grassy slopes. The intermittent patches of the native shola forest on the hillside have been shaped to resemble a mango, trishul and the map of India, and are eye-catching. The vehicle stops a short distance away from the Konalar hut, built in the 1920s for English officers of the Konalar Fishing Association who came there to fish for trout. This is leech territory, close as it is to the Konalar river. We make a dash along with our belongings for the hut, pausing a little to take in the sight of the verdant valley. The only leech-free spot here is the nondescript bamboo bridge over the river, called so because it winds its way through a twisted canal. The water gurgles merrily by and the forest watcher points to the frisky fish in the still clear waters. Once at the hut, solar lights take over. It prides itself on being minimalist - all it has are a couple of chairs, a table, some cots, lots of sleeping bags and candles. The hut, ensconced in the mountain range, provides a visual treat. The two mulberry bushes bursting with wine-red berries add to the excitement. At night, the insects put on an orchestra. A wild boar decides to gatecrash and all in all it is an exciting night.A trekking trail starts right behind the hut, and takes us through rough grass and ready-to-bloom Neelakurinji bushes. As we walk at the crack of dawn, four shadows on an unending grassy carpet, little else matters but the absolute stillness. We sight a herd of sambar deer and catch a glimpse of the shy Nilgiri tahr grazing in the heights above. Rising mist envelopes the valley and the hills play peek-a-boo. Where to stayThere is no proper accommodation at Grass Hills. You could trek from Akkamalai gate to Konalar, a distance of 8-9 km. You need written permission from the Forest Department to enter the area and stay overnight at the Konalar hut. For details, contact Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden, Panagal Building, 1, Jeenis Road, Saidapet, Chennai - 600015.SUBHA J. RAO