Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hiking in Kodaikanal, India

We should have known to book ahead during the holiday season. Instead, I found myself running from hotel to hotel in Kodaikanal, India, looking for a hotel that had hot water. Hot water isn’t usually a big deal for us, but Leslie wasn’t feeling well, and had actually been diagnosed with strep throat. She was staying in the hotel, down in bed while I ran all over the mountain town trying to find somewhere for us to stay.

Eventually, I found Yagappa Resort, which was on the high-end of the area and had hot-water through Christmas. We booked, and spent the next few days hanging around the hotel, hoping Leslie would recover.
We didn’t do much, but did try some “specialty” Kodaikanal chocolate, which wasn’t too good and became regulars at a shop on the corner, run by a woman named Kala.
Tea in India is a regular occurrence, and usually served out of stalls on the side of the road. A burner is constantly going with a large pot of warm milk. The warm milk is mixed with tea and a large helping of sugar. It’s poured back and forth between a small paper cup and a metal cup a few times to mix it and is then served. On one of the many stops by Kala’s we learned that her brother ran hiking trips around the area. We told Dos we didn’t want to go trekking once, twice and another time on Christmas.
The day after Christmas we tried to track him down, with no luck. Instead, I found myself drinking tea at Kala’s while waiting “just five minutes.”
After about fifteen minutes I headed back to the hotel to pack, as it was our last day in Kodaikanal. I started thinking that we’d head to the internet cafe, find a route and head into the woods on our own.
The phone rang, which had become a regular happening. We have never been in a hotel that called us as much as this one. They called to tell us they were starting breakfast service. They called to ask if our hot water was still working. More than once, they called and said something in such a thick accent that I couldn’t understand. This time, our guide was at the desk.
We finished packing in a hurry and went to meet Dos. Dos was Kala’s brother. Their family had been in Kodaikanal for at least three generations. He was a very small man, standing about five feet tall. He had a slim look about him that could only come from spending the majority of your life tromping around the mountains. He walked with a slight limp, but was surefooted and could have left the rest of us in the dust without half trying.
Our small group had grown a bit as an American ex-patriot family living in Singapore joined us. David, Joy and a seventh-grader named Ian joined us on what was going to be a half-day hike.
The six of us headed out over the cattle-guard that kept the free-ranging cows out of the hotel parking lot and across the street. The value of Dos as a guide became immediately apparent as he led us down a small path that we had walked past a dozen times without noticing. Turns out, that little path was the beginning of a wonderful hike.
Two seconds later we were walking a small dirt path in the Western Ghats that had been used for millenia by the locals. Coaker’s Walk, a common walking path was only ten feet away and swamped with Indian tourists, but the six of us had the path all to ourselves. If we hadn’t known about Coaker’s Walk from two days before I would have though there was nobody but us around.
To our left, a massive valley spread out. Dos began pointing out the different fruit and vegetable farms that would bring their foods to market. He then reached out and grabbed a plant that looked like a weed. Crushing it in his hands released the unmistakable smell of lemongrass. The stuff grows wild all over the mountain. On top of that, he also reached out and plucked eucalyptus and “lemon”. The “lemon” didn’t smell like lemon. Ian thought it was actually another spice commonly used around here… kefir lime.
We stopped at the first “view point,” and one of the best views of fog I’d seen in a long time. It was gray, misty and everywhere. It was disappointing until Dos pointed out a rustling in the trees.
I don’t know how the rest of us missed it, but standing there grazing was a massive bison. At first, I stood back, trying to use the zoom lens to get a good picture, but Ian used the “manual zoom” lens and just moved up close to the beast.
It must have weighed at least 800 pounds and had no fear of humans. Two massive horns curved over the top of its head, almost touching in the middle. Dos told us that it was older, based on both the size and the fact that it was moving relatively slowly.
Dos pointed out a better way to get pictures and soon, Ian and I were backtracking to get closer to the beast. “You can get close,” said Dos, as we moved closer. “It not dangerous, you fine,” he said, as we got closer. We got some good pics and were probably about ten feet away when the demeanor of the bison changed.
It looked up, directly at us and snorted. It then started shaking its head back and forth in a way that said, “Hey, you! I’ve got some big freakin’ horns here!”
“Don’t get close to bison!” said Dos. At this point we beat a hasty retreat and shared a laugh, leaving the bison to it’s meal.
We moved along the path, and found another wonderful view point. Looking out, we saw a huge wall of gray. The next viewpoint saw the angle change and saw more of the valley open out below us, but again the entire valley was filled with mist.
Dos did a good job of keeping us entertained with the local flora as he crawled off the path and came back with a couple four-leafed clovers. All the clover here is four-leafed.
We saw a nice little waterfall and continued on our way to find some rock formations jutting out into the valley below.
The first looked a bit like a bottle-nosed dolphin, and we both went climbing out onto the “nose”. The “nose” was about three feet wide and stuck out about ten feet into the abyss. The mothers would not have approved.
Dos then took us down another little path, to another rock formation. Again, this one jutted out into the abyss. This one had two pillars. The first pillar was easy to get onto, but descended at a sharp angle before a foot-wide gap separating it from the next pillar. There was a ledge about ten feet below. If you fell and got lucky you’d land on the ledge and maybe break a bone or two. The fog kept us from seeing the bottom of the fall if you missed the ledge. Suffice to say that if you fell that way it would be unlikely that your body would be found any time soon.
Naturally, Ian and I braved the pillar-jump. Honestly, it wasn’t too hard, but the added risk factor made it nerve-wracking. After we made it back Leslie realized how cool the picture out there would be, so the two of us jumped back onto the furthest pillar and Joy took a couple snaps.
We waited for awhile, hoping the fog would clear and got a glimpse of what the view would have been like, but unfortunately, we never got a clear view of the mountain.
Dos did a good job of getting us to the viewpoint, we just didn’t get the right weather.
Still, I’ve never had such fun going to a view of pure gray.
We made the hike back and parted ways with our new friends as it was time for us to go get on a night bus and leave the mountainous Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Next stop, Mysore.

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