In the Lap of Nature, God’s Own Country: Windermere, Munnar

In all these years of being an NRK (Non-resident Keralite) and visiting many times a year, we had never been to Munnar. Munnar is a little hill town, 5000 ft above sea level in the district of Idukki, on the Eastern border of Kerala. The family of an old college friend owns and runs a resort on their Estate in Munnar. She was kind enough to offer us the best rooms (an apartment actually) with a beautiful view of the rolling hills and thick forest cover! 


As we ascended the hills we began our tryst with nature. It had rained heavily the previous week and the mountain streams and tiny rivulets were flowing rapidly. Some of these rivulets they said reached the Periyar, one of the largest perennial rivers in Kerala. Unlike Gujarat where most rivers run dry during the year, most rivers in Kerala are perennial. God’s Own Country as they say!


At a slightly higher range began the tea gardens on the rolling hills. Kanan Devan Tea is the most famous tea with sprawling tea estates in the region. The Kanan Devan Hill Plantations Ltd Co succeeded Tata Tea in 2005, when Tata transferred all rights in the plantations to this unique Employee owned Company where the majority of shares are owned by the employees. 

 

Windermere Estate: 

My friend’s husband a surgeon by profession acquired this property in 1987. Over the last decade various facilities were built up in the Estate. We were amazed to hear that no official architect was hired and yet the layouts of the estate and each residence facility is so well thought out. The surgeon and his son visualized a personal experience for the visitors and designed the estate and private rooms and cottages, retaining its pristine beauty. His son being an engineer helped, as he drew up the required professional/ engineering drawings. The Estate is maintained as a unique private experience without the usual trimmings of a Five Star, though facilities are near equivalent. They also did not look out for the mass tourists and till recently visitors heard of it by word of mouth only! Now it appears certain exclusive or rare boutique tourist sites list the property. We met a young English couple at the Estate who said that while looking for a secluded quiet place they came across this one on such a site and made an online booking.  

How did this Estate get this quaint name? The original occupant of this property Mr. I.C. Chacko of the Indian Civil Services was entertaining some of his British colleagues on the estate when one of them remarked that the estate reminded him of the hills around the Lake District of Windermere in England! And the name stuck!

 http://www.windermeremunna.com/backstory.php


At the center of the estate is the View Point, a large black rock about two floors high, from which you can get a 360 degree view of Munnar. The staff were all praise for the doctor and his son for their efforts to preserve the natural beauty of the estate. They cited the fact that they had not dismantled and sold out this huge large black rock on the estate which could have fetched them a huge sum and provided more space to set up more cottages.

Panoramic View of Munnar from the view point, Windermere Estate 

Cluster of Residence and Rooms at Windermere Estate

The layout of the Estate is very pleasing. A huge Christmas Tree stands in the middle of the estate. The gardens are laid out with nature’s bounty, all colours and variety of flowers were in bloom. 

A large Christmas Tree in the center of the Estate

 

 




The Tea Shack


The Kerala cuisine served in the Dining Hall is mouth watering. For a Keralite like me, this was a treat. You have a choice of Continental food for the non-NRKs as well!! The Dining Hall is cozy, inside and a lovely facility to sit outside when it rains cats and dogs, which is most of the time! What amazed me was the drop in temperature during these downpours, not something I expected in Kerala! A small intimate swimming pool welcomes those who can withstand the freezing water! The English visitors were found braving it in the pool and sun tanning themselves besides the pool!


Sunrise over the estate


Sunrise and sunset over the estate had its own charm. One morning we were up and about on the big boulder view point all set to watch the sunrise and of course the mist and clouds played spoil sport. My luck with sunrises is not the greatest! The next morning I was able to capture the rising sun over the hills. In the evening the play of the setting sun and the clouds created changing shapes in the sky. Once it clearly looked like a rabbit, but by the time I got to it, this is what I got. Use your imagination!!

 The Cardamom Estate in the Reserve Forest: 

Windermere Estate is private held lands with a cardamom estate in the forest as cardamom grows in the shade while tea gardens require full exposure to the sun. The old trees are being protected and considered the assets of the Forest Department. We ventured into the cardamom estate with the help of a botanical guide named Ansal. When he heard that we were Economists he confessed to have studied Economics in college of which he only remembered “diminishing marginal utility” and that there was some “equilibrium”!! He was absolutely well versed with the botanical names of all the plants in the forest and pointed out each one to us. How did he learn all this? From curiosity, some books and from visitors who were NOT Economists!! 



The cardamom bushes grow under the shade of very large trees in the dense forest. The cardamom fruit grows at the bottom of the plant. Ansal explained to us that it rejuvenated itself like the banana tree wherein new shoots automatically sprout near the trunk of the original plant. Cardamom is a rhizome so replanting is generally with one the tender shoots along with part of the root that is cut from the older plant and replanted fresh. The old plants fall over time and the younger shoots take root and grow. The plants are pollinated through the bees. Bees were buzzing around and there were bee hives high up in the trees. The honey we got in the dining hall had a distinct flavour. I had learnt that the honey gets the flavour of the plant and flowers from which the bees sucked nectar.   

Can you identify the bee hive!!



Cardamom grows at the bottom of the plant


Cardamom Worker on the hill planting new 
and trimming the old plants 

                                                                                                                                                                 

Old cardamom plants being cleared in the neighbouring estate for replanting of new saplings

Some of the trees that Ansal identified for us were the wild Cinnamon tree. The bark of this tree had the aroma of cinnamon, but was only used in medicinal preparations mainly in Ayurvedic medicine. We saw a tree commonly called the strangler, which was a parasite that grew on trees top down and basically strangled the original tree and took its place!! 

Strangler Tree


Wild Cinnamon Tree


Our guide Ansal identified physically and through sounds heard in the forest, various insects, birds and animals. A fascinating cricket like insect was called ‘chivid’ or ‘chinvanda’ in Malayalam. They begin their cries when they expect rain. They also twitter loudly as any danger appears, for instance us walking along. The insects in the trees near you set up a loud twitter, as one moves along they stop and the insects in the next set of trees start up the twitter and so on as we walked down the narrow path.

 There was a whistling sound that Ansal alerted us to. This was the Blue Malabar Whistling Trush. All through our walk in the woods we could hear the whistling of the Malabar Thrush. We saw the bird in the trees, but were unable to get a picture as it flitted from one tree to another as it noted our movements. There was a beautiful embroidered photo framed of the Malabar Whistling Trush in the Widermere Estate premises.

The ground around one of the bushes of cardamom was dug up. Antal pointed out that this was the work of the wild boar that lived in the forest. Unfortunately we did not meet up with him!

Area around the cardamom bush dug up by wild boar

Pine of a Porcupine 

The next exciting thing Ansal picked up from the path was a sharp pine like thing. It turned out to be the pine from a porcupine which also lived in this forest. While we found more than one such pines in different locations, we again did not meet up with the owner!

Lockhart Tea Factory and Tea Plantations:  

The next day we visited the Lockhart Tea Factory and Tea Plantation. Lockhart tea goes by the brand name of Harrison Malayalam. 


The Lockhart Tea Factory allowed guests to enter the factory and watch the fascinating process of sorting tea leaves, crushing, removal of extra fibre and stems, oxidation and drying. Many of these processes were repeated a number of times. We learnt that there are two methods used in tea processing the CTC and Orthodox. 

Crush, tear, curl (CTC) is a method of processing black tea in which the leaves are passed through a series of cylindrical rollers with hundreds of sharp teeth that crush, tear, and curl the tea into small, hard pellets. https://en.wikipedia.org

The Orthodox method is used to make green and white tea and uses the traditional method. It contains more oxidants and is considered more healthy drink. Green is made from the leaf of the plant alone. White tea is rare as it is wholly hand processed, beginning with handing plucking the buds on the top of the plant. CTC tea is the general black tea we drink, and dust tea is the worst, more brownish with both the fibre and stem crushed into it.

We entered the factory with protective covers on our shoes. Photography was not allowed within the factory. Our guide informed us that 80 percent of the tea produced is CTC black tea the most popularly consumed tea. Green and white tea was produced in the factory only one day a week, that was Monday. So what we witnessed was the process of making CTC black tea. The tea leaves were not plucked in the Lockhart tea estates. In fact plant cutting scissors were used to cut the top of the plant. The whole of it was dried and crushed. Machines that detected colour was used to separate the fibre and stems from the crushed tea leaves. 



We next proceeded to see the tea plantation estate of Lockhart. Rolling hills of tea plantations were spread all over Munar. Tea plants once planted remain there for one or two decades with only trimming once in a few years. So the trunk of the tea bushes are extremely thick and sturdy. I could photograph some exposed tea trunks.

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Eravikulam National Park and Mattupetty Dam

The most exciting trip was to the Eravikulam National Park which is the home of the Nilgiri Tahr, a mountain goat. The Park had been closed for three months earlier to allow for the breeding season of the Tahr. I am always skeptical about sighting any animals at all in the National Parks. But I was proved wrong, perhaps as we were very close to the breeding season. There were Tahrs galore and amazingly even coming down to the area where the buses were disgorging hordes of tourists in what was apparently the holiday season. 

We made a reservation in advance through our enthusiastic Taxi driver Sunder. Apparently the Taxi Association had a special quota for visitors to the Park. So with minimum waiting period we were able to obtain the tickets and board the bus to the Park. Private cars were allowed upto a point after which buses took visitors to a point high up in the mountain and then there was a two kilometer walk to the top of the peak where chances of meeting up with Tahr was greater! 



After we had our fill of the friendly mountain goat Tahr we visited the Mattupetty Dam. The flood gates of the dam was open and we saw this wonderful sight of the water forcefully streaming out downstream! And there was this wonderful surprise treat waiting for us!!


Sunder, our enterprising driver and guide said that a little further up from the dam there was a elephant crossing, grasslands and their water hole. We just might see some elephants if we were lucky. Few days ago two elephants were sighted! Of course, the Doubting Thomas in me thought, “Oh, Okay, this is another of those tall tales!”, We did see signs that said SLOW, Elephant Crossing!! But never expected to see  what was in store for us! Five wild elephants and a Baby Elephant!!  So watch!





As they smell danger they herd together around the Baby elephant


And so ended our tryst with nature! We were overwhelmed by the natural surrounding, the insects, birds, cardamom and tea estates, the gentle mountain deer Tahr and the gentle elephants. We were on a hill watching the elephants on the grassland below, but I got the feeling that these ‘mountain’ elephants were smaller in  size compared to the Kesavans of Guruvayur Temple and those seen walking placidly on the plains. And so back in the simmering heat of Ahmedabad, just looking through these photos and writing this blog has helped cooling off!!! Thank you Munnar, Windermere and Nature’s bounty that is India! 





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