An encounter with elephants in near-deserted Munnar

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Travelling is a challenging affair in these times of the pandemic. When strict lockdown rules were in place, even visiting the nearby shop was considered a major outing. However, with the easing of travel restrictions, Kochi-based journalist Adarsh Antony Joseph set out for pristine Munnar on his bike, following all COVID-19 protocols. Here is his account of the journey:

I woke up to a cool morning in Kochi, thanks to the previous day’s rains. After the pandemic struck, my only outings were the occasional trips to my native place and so I was looking forward to the ride to Munnar. Leaving nothing to chance, I carried three pairs of masks, sanitizer and some food.

Even during the early hours, Kochi had come alive with people engaged in their morning walk, cycling and also some backpackers on bikes. However, there was a difference. Masks, eyeglasses, gloves and other safety precautions were in place.

The ride to Kothamangalam was uneventful, except for some potholes on the road bypassing the town, which made me recall the road campaign on ‘Manorama News’ highlighting bad stretches.

Before Adimali, a heavy shower greeted me. I parked and waited for the rain to subside but as there was no sign of that happening, continued my trip after keeping my mobile safely. At Adimali, I had a cup of tea and considered a detour to Pooppara, but dropped the idea.

Munnar would be the first destination and there would be no change, I decided. Apart from experiencing a rain-drenched Munnar, I wished to learn at first hand the miseries faced by the once-thriving tourism sector in the area.

Heavenly Munnar

The winding hill road to Munnar was mostly deserted. At some places, rain welcomed me and at others, mist. Tiny waterfalls on the roadside also were a feast for the eyes. Soon, the picturesque hill station spread before me. However, with a mask, I could not enjoy the cool weather as much as I had during my earlier trips.

For the first time, I saw the Munnar town with thin crowds. Moreover, with everybody’s faces hidden by masks, I did not feel any emotion. It was sad. Even the football ground in Munnar was virtually abandoned.

Heading to a tea-shop, I ordered a cup. The man there offered me a special tea with cardamom flavour. The tea was superb! The tea-shop owner warned me about the cold weather and while riding through Munnar town, I would experience that soon.

Tea gardens dominate the scenery in Munnar while taking some pictures of the surroundings, an elderly local man approached me for a snap. I didn’t disappoint him. My plan was to watch some workers engaged in their regular activity in the gardens – which had its own beauty - and start the return journey. However, a meeting with three youths at a restaurant where I had food changed everything. They told me that we're heading to Vattavada.

I too felt that it was a good idea. Moreover, even though I had visited Munnar several times, many other locations around it were yet to be experienced.

To Vattavada

After Munnar, the road became even more interesting. There were stunning hills all around and there deep valleys on one side of the path. Shacks of tea estate workers could be seen on the slopes at some spots and I was reminded of the Pettimudy disaster that claimed the lives of several residents of such dwellings.

The road led to Tamil Nadu, but there were two dams in between. The first was the Mattupetty dam but I had only a distant view of it as my destination was Vattavada. I also passed Echo Point, a spot blessed by wild greenery. Riding along the forest road, I saw two baby elephants in a flash. However, I couldn’t capture them on my camera and missed a good picture. Even then, this loss was compensated handsomely later.

There were some closed shops at Echo Point and a couple of open tea-shops. In fact, this was the situation everywhere on the road ahead.

I soon reached the Top Station. A friend had told me that it was always crowded, but I found nobody there. To me, it was a hilltop where a strong breeze kept blowing without a break. Here too, barely a couple of stalls were open and the people there pleaded with me to buy something. There was despair in their eyes. The pandemic has affected so many lives, I thought. I had no need for anything but didn’t wish to disappoint those desperate people and ordered a cup of tea. The woman at the stall spoke Tamil and she gave me the cup with as much gratitude as warmth. The currency note I offered for the tea too was accepted with much relief. She also ensured that everyone around, including some kids, wore a mask.

Ahead on the track lay the check-post of the Forest Department. There, I again met the youths who were heading to Vattavada. After registering details at the check-post, we were warned by the official there not to stop anywhere for five km. It was thick forest ahead, he said.

The entry to the jungle was indeed grand. It was virtually raining cats and dogs. Moreover, all the trees flanking the road were as tall as the sky, I felt. Reducing the speed of the bike, I took time to soak in the scenery. Nature had truly turned romantic here. The purpose of my journey was already served.

I arrived in Vattavada with much enthusiasm, but the place disappointed me in no time. There were thick crowds everywhere and much hustle and bustle. Wishing to seek the comfort of the forest again, I started my return trip immediately.

The elephant herd

Initially, my mind was blank. I recalled the warning of the Forest official not to stop. Wild animals could venture on to the forest path anytime and our lives could be in danger. The authorities have installed closed-circuit television cameras too, all along the forest road.

I fondly remembered the green hills and valleys seen early during the trip. My only disappointment was missing a snap of the baby elephants, I thought.

But there was a big surprise ahead. In heavy rain, I passed the spot where I had noticed the baby elephants earlier in the day. There was a small crowd ahead. I had an impulse to ride past the people, but the curiosity of a journalist made me ask a man what the affair was all about. “Take a look around,” he replied.

When I stared ahead, instead of the two elephants that I had seen in the morning, there were eight of those wild animals there. A once-in-a-life opportunity to shoot those wild elephants presented itself before me. Ignoring the heavy rain, I captured the scene on my camera to my heart’s content.

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