On the morning we left Madurai for Munnar, Dan and I packed and hopped into a tuk-tuk for the bus station. We got good seats, right up the front, and just as well because it was a pretty gruelling journey. The wide plains ended and we began a long ascent into the mountains, The huge bus was slow, but the driver was pushy, and other traffic cleared the way for us. The air got cleaner and the scenery got greener. We drove alongside the Eravikulam National Park, one of the first areas in Kerala to become environmentally protected. It was cool and quiet, but we couldn’t quite enjoy it yet because it seemed as though the bus would topple over the cliff face at any moment. When we stopped for a few minutes I threw bits of digestive biscuit out the window for two stray dogs.
I was following our progress on Google Maps, and when it seemed we were finally getting close to our destination, the bus made an unexpected right hand turn, taking a detour through the villages and adding an hour and a half to the trip. To make matters worse, our driver and ticket seller began having a very heated argument. The bus driver was livid, shouting about something we could only guess at, while the ticket seller laughed condescendingly and occasionally yelled back. It was surreal watching such a charged discussion without the faintest idea what it was about.
At long last, as the sun was disappearing over the hills, we got to Munnar. The tea plantations were beautiful and the tracks through them made patterns like an eggshell. When we got off the bus we were immediately accosted by people making offers of accommodation and transport, but we needed a walk so we brushed them off and went for a stroll. We decided that we were happy to fork out a bit more for a nice place in Munnar, because we were both sick and I knew there would be some pretty special views available. We approached one hotel and were shown a room overlooking a pretty garden, but I wasn’t taken by it. I looked up hotels in the upper limit of our price range and found one which seemed to impress every reviewer with its views. Don’t worry about the average service and food, they said, it’s worth a stay just for the view. I didn’t need any more convincing.
Our tuk-tuk driver had other ideas, though. He reminded us a few times that our chosen hotel was very expensive, and wondered if we might not be happier at this guest house he’d just pulled up out the front of? It took a little while but we convinced him to continue on, and the little engine strained as we crossed a bridge over a wide river to a more remote part of town. Our hotel, it turned out, at 5300 feet, was the highest in Kerala and as a consequence it was difficult to persuade drivers to attempt the last steep, rocky kilometre of the journey up there (in fact we ended up walking it every time).
Our tuk-tuk driver did agree to take out luggage up, though, and as we reached the top we gasped at the incredible view. A young guy working there showed us to a room with one of the most impressive vistas I’d ever seen from a hotel. It was ₹4000 per night (about $40AUD each) but it was worth every bit. Our building was perched on the edge of a cliff that dropped away into a deep valley before the mountains rose again. Each mountain was a layer, and they got increasingly more faded as they disappeared into the distance. Dan likened it to the draw distance in a video game. Sometimes the mist was so thick that we couldn’t see very far at all.
Unfortunately, the fog never entirely lifted, but we had enough clarity to be constantly wowed anway. We indulged in long, hot showers and had dinner in the restaurant, which was empty and for some reason blaring trance music. The food was indeed very average. I slept well that night.
The next day we set up camp on the balcony of our room and pretty much stayed there all day. It was hot and sunny, and I sizzled myself without realising. We sent some emails, I wrote, Dan worked on his speech for Chennai and I edited it for him. The internet was dodgy (as was the electricity) but I managed a chat with Rob, who was mid-way through the book “True Hallucinations” and finding it really interesting. As the sun began to set I was struck with guilt for not having done anything all day. Dan and I decided to walk into the city centre for dinner (no small feat, it was one and a half hours walk away).
As soon as we set off down the mountain, we spotted them… Fireflies! All around us the tiny insects lit up the night. It was magical. The long walk meandered down a windy road through tea plantations and a village. I couldn’t wait to do the walk in daylight too. From a designated viewpoint we gazed out over the valley’s twinkling lights. Loud music reached us from all the way down there. The restaurant I’d picked out on TripAdvisor (Rapsy) was busy when we arrived. We were seated in a booth opposite an Indian couple on holidays too, who were very friendly. Dan had a quick chat with an Israeli couple behind us, too. I was disappointed by the food, a tomato dish without much flavour and something else I don’t even remember now. The rose tea and fresh juices were nice, though.
We walked part of the way home but Dan was feeling weird so we paid for a tuk-tuk most of the way. We watching an episode of Stranger Things and I was asleep very shortly afterwards.
The next morning I was in need of adventure, but Dan was still unwell and decided on another day recuperating. I got the daypack together, lathered myself in sunscreen and set off down the mountain again. It was much busier now. I saw a group of tourists going for a hike, locals delivering food and tourists, tuk-tuk driver cleaning their vehicles and a woman walking a cow. I paused at the viewpoint to take in the endless, rolling hills. It was truly peaceful. I loved walking alone. Walking speed is such a good pace to take in the world.
I crossed the bridge over the river and passed the entrance to the annual Munnar Flower Festival. I came to a collection of closely planted eucalyptus trees, which made a shady forest where people were walking and sitting. I found out later that the native Australian trees had been smuggled over to India in seed form, travelling in the stocking of the wife of the owner of one of the region’s major tea companies. Because of all the oil in them, eucalypts make good wood for fuel and allowed the locals to leave their native trees alone. It felt like a little patch of home.
I kept going through Munnar’s centre and further north along a winding dirt road until I reached the Tea Museum. It was really hot and I was exhausted after my three-hour walk, and I was glad to be indoors. I paid my ₹120 and walked into the small converted house which by almost any measure could not have been realistically called a museum. One thing Dan and I were getting used to on our travels around India was perpetual disappointment in whatever landmark we visited. It never bothered us too much, because the real sights were all around us all the time. We hadn’t come to India to see the world’s greatest temples or museums. But it did provoke an eye roll and a sigh when I walked seven and a half kilometres for a couple of rooms with faded, unlabelled photographs and an overpriced gift shop.
The museum’s only redeeming feature was a movie room, which played an informative documentary about how the tea industry arrived in Munnar (short version, the English). The narrative seemed to paint the colonial settlers in a suspiciously favourable light – heroes who brought fair working conditions and free healthcare to the hills. It was all a bit propaganda-esque and conveniently skimmed over things like rates of pay. After the doco we were shown one of the old tea factory machines in action. I watched the green leaves go through three lots of chopping, then into in a dryer, then a vibrating net that separated the brown leftovers into six or so different sizes.
I bought some locally made strawberry jam at the gift shop and walked back into town. I stopped at a tea shop there, hoping the tea would be less expensive there than at the museum. I bought some loose-leaf rose tea and some dark chocolate. Then I found a little eatery and devoured a decent dhal makhani. I walked for a while longer but it was nearly 4pm and Dan was expecting me back, so I got a tuk-tuk back up into the mountains and did the steep climb on foot. It was a treat to return to the room with a view.
Dan had spent the day doing work, and although we had every intention of going out again to see a martial arts demonstration at the Flower Show, I was too tired to move so we stayed in and watched Netflix instead.
Our friend Sunni had arrived in Munnar overnight, so the next day we walked down the mountain and met her at the flower festival. She’d been in Kodaikanal, India’s famed ‘shroom city which apparently reached fiendishly cold temperatures at night. The three of us wandered through the mostly empty festival, which boasted plenty of flowers but only two or three different varieties. Dan and I got ice blocks and curly potatoes and fries. A group of young Indian guys approached us for selfies, but they had a really serious camera and it soon turned into a full-blown photo shoot.
Sunni’s newest travel companion, another Dan (this one from England) met us outside the flower show and the four of us went walking through the eucalypt plantation. We came across a fallen tree that somebody had levered in such a way that it bounced, like a theme park ride. You could sit on the tree while somebody pushed down at the loose end. A gorgeous little girl and about three others climbed on and we watched her squeal with delight as she was bounced into the air and felt that brief moment of disappeared gravity. Afterwards, Dan and I had a competition to see who could stand the longest. It was great fun.
We walked into the town centre to a restaurant that English Dan had visited and enjoyed, called Saravana Bhavan. It was awesome. Danny and I ordered the “special thali” which included rice and about ten different accompanying curries and chutneys, all of which were delicious. When we ordered tea, one of the waiters poured it for us, extending his arms and pouring the liquid from a great height, creating a perfect single stream from one cup to the other.
We ate until it hurt, then got a tuk-tuk out of the city to a performance space called Punarjani Traditional Village to see a martial arts demonstration. We went for an hour-long walk along the main road, which snaked through dense rainforest, to kill time before the show. I realised it would probably be the last time we saw Sunni, who would soon head north. I felt a pang of sadness. She was a really fun girl and had been a great companion to explore India with.
The martial arts demonstration was awesome. Boys aged from about 12 to 25 showed off what they could do. Kalarapayatta is a martial art form from Kerala which involves pretty much every weapon as well as hand-to-hand combat. We watching the performers act out choreographed spars with swords, shields, knives and long poles. There was an incredible yoga demonstration and to top it off, jumps through three rings of fire. We were suitably impressed, and took photos with our new favourite Munnar celebrities once the show ended. Then it was farewell to our friends and back up the mountain for our final night in our castle among the clouds.