Visiting the cascading beauty of Vazhvanthol near Thiruvananthapuram

bonacaud waterfalls
Photos: Josewin Paulson

When the world was created, the god assembled the river sirens to assign them to various locations on earth. The most beautiful sirens were also the most pricey. They refused anything but the best. They stood aside until there were no routes left that did not involved the summits and depths of mountains. They became the waterfalls.

It is not difficult to see why someone thought of the telling folk tale when you are faced with the Vazhvanthol waterfall in Kerala. We take you on a trip to the cascading waterfall.

The bus to Bonacaud left the Thambanoor bus station in Thiruvananthapuram at 5 am. The sights of nature changed dramatically as we passed Nedumangad on the route. The contours of the Western Ghats emerged in the east. The early morning mist chilled the air.

An hour and a half into the journey, the bus reached Vithura, where I waited for Rajan, a local who promised to accompany me to Vazhvanthol.

We proceeded to Bonacaud past the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram (IISER) and the Vithura Jersey cow farm. We stopped at a forest department check post at Kanithadam. The road forks to Bonacaud and Vazhvanthol. The road to the left will lead you to the Bonacaud tea estate and to the Agasthyarkoodam bioreserve. Towards the right is the Vazhvanthol waterfall. We have to wait until 9 am for the forest road to the waterfall to open.

We decide to take a detour to Bonacaud. Any visitor has to seek the forest officials' permission to enter the tea estate in the middle of the forest. The department records the names and addresses of all visitors. The precautions are an apparent attempt to keep a tab on Maoist insurgents who try to sneak in and out of the state through the forest path.

The road to Bonacaud is through the Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary. The tall trees and the thick canopy block the slanting morning light. A cacophony of birds and crickets dominates the air.

The Bonacaud hill borders Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The forest has grown beyond the Peppara reservoir to the Agasthyarkoodam hill. The other side of the hill is Papanasam, Thenkasi and Kuttralam in Tamil Nadu.

The trees seem to pierce the sky. The greenery is soothing to the eyes. Giant creepers are festooned on trees like pythons. These creepers, called pullanji, used to be a vital source of drinking water for tribesmen traversing the forest. They could cut open the still fresh creepers and find as much water as they need. The creepers have another significant use in the forest.

When pursued by an elephant all you have to do is to find a tree with a lot of pullanji hung over it. These trees are so strong that even an elephant cannot uproot them, said Mohan, a friend of Rajan.

We were lost in the charm of the forest when we spotted the Peppara dam at a distance. We also spotted the bus from Bonacaud returning to Thiruvananthapuram. The paradise suddenly vanished as trees gave way to tea bushes. We have reached the fringe of the Bonacaud tea estate. We could see the peaks of the Agasthyarkoodam range.

The tea estate was set up by the British. It later went to the Mahaveer Plantations. The tea estate was eventually put under lock and key, depriving hundreds of labourers their livelihood. Many of them eke out a living by rearing cattle.

We reached the Bonacaud post office, near the old building that once housed the tea factory. The estate staff club has turned into a homoeo dispensary. Several houses and a path that leads up to a school complete the 'Bonacaud City.'

A road that goes around the factory leads up to the Agasthyarkoodam hill, which is open to visitors only during the Makaravilakku and Shivarathri festivals.

We walked up the road to the school. After the school, we walked past a church, a temple and a ration shop. We were treated to breathtaking scenery from the valley. We trekked more than 2 kilometres to the highest place at Bonacaud. In front of us rose the 25GB Bungalow, termed the most haunted place in Kerala.

We threw open the rusted iron gates and waited for the ghosts to make an appearance. We were disappointed. The bungalow was built for top officers of the estate to stay. The granite building built like an English mansion is crumbling. The bathroom is fitted with bathtubs and the halls have fireplaces. The largest attraction, however, is the view of the reservoir.

Back at the check post, Mallan Kankani was waiting for us. He will be our guide in the trip to the Vazhvanthol waterfall. He works for the Chathankod eco development committee which organises guided trips to the waterfall in association with the forest department. The entry fee is Rs 1,000 for a group of 10. You have to avail of the package to go to the waterfall.

The Vazhvanthol waterfall is in the valley of Bonacaud. You have to walk for 4 kilometres from the check point to reach the waterfall. The forests are elephant territory. The waterfall is a bit weak in the summer but it is the only time it becomes accessible. The waterfall will be dangerous during the monsoon months. The rocky road to the waterfall will be slippery and infested with leeches. The waterfall turns out of bounds for visitors during the monsoon months.

You can take your vehicle for a kilometre after the check post. We park our vehicle after passing the tribal settlements of Chathankod, Chembankala and Valiyakala.

The forest trek was easy in the beginning. We walked up a path flanked by eucalyptus and manjiyam trees on one side and bamboo on the other. The Vazhvanthod stream was flowing gently beyond the bamboo thicket. We spotted elephant droppings on the way and crushed vegetation. Mallan Kankani said that a herd of elephants had visited the area to drink water.

After about 2 kilometres, the path became narrower. In fact, there was no path at all. We climbed over rocks and mud on what seemed to be a narrow clearing in the forest. We came across a couple of caves on the way. One of them had two holes on its wall. The marks left behind by an elephant’s tusks, Mallan Kankani explained.

We were nearing the waterfall, judging by the increasing sound of water. But we were mistaken. A bit ahead on the road, we took a turn towards the stream. We spotted the Vazhvanthol waterfall that cascaded in three levels but we had to trek more to reach it. The sound we heard was of another waterfall.

We looked for a path to proceed but only an expert eye could find one. We took a break to drink water and munch on the snacks we had packed. We were at a rock face that stood like a border wall to the Vazhvanthod waterfall. The water that fell from the rock cascades down on another rock. We could take a dip in the shallow pool created by the waterfall. The break was refreshing.

We resumed the trek. We struggled to find the path but the roots of the trees acted as steps on the steep climb. You have to be extra careful on the fallen leaves. A slip would cost you dearly. After an exhaustive climb we reach the waterfall. The eternal waterfall has carved a deep tank on the rock bed. It is not advisable to go near it. The pool has been the venue of fatal accidents in the past.

The best time to visit the Vazhvanthol waterfall is between the monsoons. The waterfall is no less enticing in summer though.

The Vazhvanthol waterfall is 52 kilometres away from the Thiruvananthapuram city centre. From Vithura, you have to travel 19 kilometres to reach Bonacaud. You will reach the Kanithadam check post after 10 kilometres from Vithura. From there, it is only 6 kilometres to the waterfall. The last 3 kilometres are out of bounds for vehicles. Visitors are allowed inside the forest from 9 am to 2 pm. Even in the peak rainy season, entry is barred.

You can board a KSRTC bus from Thiruvananthapuram to go up to Bonacaud and Vazhvanthol. You will have to obtain permission from the forest department to drive private vehicles inside the forest area.

A bus leaves the Thambanoor bus stand for Bonacaud at 5 am daily. Buses leave from East Fort at 8:30 am, 2:40 pm and 4:10 pm, while return trips from Bonacaud start at 6 am, 7:45 am, 11:30 am and 1:40 pm.

Make sure that you carry enough refreshments and drinking water. There are no shops at Kanithadam or Bonacaud. Always bear in mind that you are entering an ecologically sensitive area.