Hidden Trails Chennai

Drive along Nemmeli-Thiruporur Road to visit Chennai’s own Great Salt Lake

The Nemmeli-Thiruporur Road connects ECR and OMR and goes across The Great Salt Lake, where you might chance upon some inactive salterns

As I balance myself on one leg to avoid dung at the sidewalk of Nemmeli-Thiruporur Road, two motorcycles zip past, at nearly 90 kilometres per hour. I flap my hands and yelp.

The cows on the field look up at this strange crane-like human being with mild derision, and go back to lazily chewing their cud. Occasional speeding vehicles apart, Nemmeli-Thiruporur Road is a painting of idyll.

If you want to escape the bustle of the city, ECR is the best option to head out on a long drive. Past Muttukadu, it is separated from its sister highway, OMR, by a water body, ‘The Great Salt Lake’.

Named so because of its nature, the lake is a result of seawater from Bay of Bengal cutting in at Muttukadu, flowing South and getting trapped in this lake. As water from this lake evaporates, it leaves behind arid stretches of land with salt deposits.

To cross over to OMR from ECR and vice versa, over the Great Salt Lake, you can use the preferred Kelambakkam-Kovalam Road. For this column however, we head further down South to the more desolate Nemmeli-Thiruporur Road.

To take this lane, we make a right from ECR at Nemmeli — a slope leads us to the pastoral entrance of the bridge. After the winter monsoons, the area is green enough for herds to graze.

Herders Gajalakshmi, Srinivasa and Shigamani are here with their cows. “We come every morning at nine, from Porur,” says Gajalakshmi. “Other people drop off their cows with us and we get them to graze here. About 13 of these cows are under my care,” she says, pointing to the cows, who are right now in the middle of what looks like a shiatsu massage by cranes.

Getting salty

In February, The Great Salt Lake is not brimming the way it does during the monsoon months of August or November, however it has considerably more water than it will in the coming months. The lake looks like a salt pan — shallow in parts, leaving parallel lines of dry land between azure waters as if divided into square pieces.

The last time I was in this area, in August, we chanced upon a 15-feet-high dune of salt near Kelambakkam. That is incidentally, where the former government-run and now defunct Covelong Salt Factory is located. The building is almost in ruins, and production there stopped nearly a decade ago.

Today, as we make our way to Thiruporur, not far from the bridge, we discover the Sapan salt factory, whose compound walls are plastered with posters of their iodised salt. “There were many salt factories in this area,” says cyclist Ramanujar Moulana, who first told me about the Covelong Salt Factory when we were discussing his book on biking trails in OMR and ECR.

According to a guard at the Sapan Salt Factory, this branch is responsible only for the cleaning and packaging of salt, which makes its way from Thoothukudi. The district known for its salt-production makes Tamil Nadu second only to Gujarat in this business. However, the factory staff reveals that the quantity of salt coming to Chennai has decreased over the past couple of years. According to media reports, even in Thoothukudi, salt from Gujarat was imported last year. An effect perhaps of the 2018 Cyclone Gaja.

As we head back to the city, our veteran cab driver, Joseph recalls a time when even in Chennai’s ECR stretch, there were active salt pans. “I would make trips here often, any time something new opened up, like MGM Dizzee World. Ten years ago, I would see people working on salterns in the Kelambakkam-Kovalam stretch.” Active or not, the drive sure is pleasant, with coconut trees looking from beyond the grassland and a row of tall white buildings from beyond the lake.

In this column, we document the city’s lesser known oases for you to explore

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 7:04:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/hidden-trails-drive-on-by-ecr-omr-to-see-inactive-salterns-at-nemmeli-chennai/article30782134.ece

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