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A colonial past

Last updated: 29 October, 2011
Stuart Forster 17:11 IST

Summer Retreat

Munnar in Kerala has long been a popular travel destination within India. Gradually though, the town, which nestles in the verdant Kanan Devan Hills at an altitude of 1,520 metres above sea level, is winning international renown.

Of course, Indian newly weds have long been heading up to Munnar, to enjoy a quiet time of togetherness at the outset of married life.

The temperate climate and undulating countryside is regarded as the perfect setting for romantic walks through tea plantations, and the cool evening air provides the perfect excuse to snuggle together and share warmth.

Over recent years, foreign tourists have been learning of its attractions too, and increasingly, are drawn to Munnar to enjoy the walking and to take opportunities to experience a luxury break.

It is interesting that Munnar is being “rediscovered” by Western tourists given that the town, as we know it today, was founded in the 19th century by Scottish tea planters. The planters, of course, managed the hard work of clearing the forest and planting tea bushes on the nutrient-rich virgin land. It used to be said that the greenery of the Western Ghats and the region’s temperate climate reminded the British planters of their distant homeland. In time, Munnar became a summer retreat; a hill-station that officials and their families would visit to escape the soaring summer temperatures.

It’s possible to learn about the challenges that faced those pioneering planters and their teams in the Tata Tea Museum, located in the Nallathanni Tea Estate. The museum is open to visitors seven days a week and provides some fascinating insights into the history of tea production in the Kanan Devan Hills. Planting on the Western Ghats was back- breaking work. The artefacts displayed include old photographs and parts from machines that once worked in tea factories.

At this time of year the morning air around Munnar remains cool until the sun is well over the horizon. As the dew evaporates, the country air smells fresh. Around the tea plantations the delicious aroma of light, fresh tea tantalises the nose of visitors. The beautiful, lush scenery and sense of being out in nature is an invitation that walkers should not pass up.

No matter whether you’re a holidaymaker from Birmingham or a weekender from Bangalore, one of the best experiences possible around Munnar is taking a guided trek. Don’t forget to pack a pullover; the Idukki District can be chilly early on and it is worth being prepared, as, despite the seductive landscapes, the weather can quickly turn nasty up on the high ground.
A number of companies offer guided trekking around Munnar. Many advertise on the internet and it might be worth visiting others when you get into town, to see what they have to offer.

Experienced trekkers — people who have headed along the trails of the Himalayas — might find that the use of the term ‘trekking’ is a little generous. Some of the so-called treks cover just a few kilometres and last no more than a couple of hours so walking or rambling might be a more appropriate term. The guides, though, are first class. The best of the local guides are knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna and have a wealth of information that they are more than happy to share.

“It was great when our guide told us that Munnar got its name because it is located at the point the Kundala, Muthirappuzha and Nallathanni rivers come together, and in Malayam munu means ‘three’ and aaru translates as ‘river’,” says tourist Barry Vincent.

The guides tailor their treks to the fitness levels and interests of their clients, so city dwellers and office workers need not worry too much. The hills around Munnar are steep and undulating in places and good footwear is worthwhile. The local tea pluckers, though, work on the hillsides and seem forever surefooted, despite the huge, leaf-filled baskets on their backs. Carrying a small day throughout the walk, holding just a picnic and a bottle of water, seems easy in comparison, even at an altitude of 2,400 mts, in the Kolukumulai Estate, which is India’s highest tea plantation.

It is easy to spend three or four days based in Munnar as it offers access to the spectacular Eravikulam National Park, which is just 15 km distant, and one of the best places to see the endangered Nilgiri tahr (Nilgiritragus hylocrius). The tahr has even been spotted on the slopes of Anamundi, the 2,695 mt-high mountain, which dominates the landscape of this region. Mattupatty Lake is also a popular day trip. Photo Point is the most popular place to pause and photograph Muttupatty’s expansive waters.

After an exhilarating day of sightseeing and walking in the fresh air of the Kanan Devan Hills, most people have no problem in dropping off to sleep. Given the sense of well-being that a break in Munnar can engender, it seems somehow surprising that it has taken so long for the world to wake up to the attractions of this corner of Western Ghats.

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