We hit the road from Mallika at 7:00AM, 14 hours late from our initial plans, and 2 hrs late from our last formulated plan over a conference call the previous evening. With our bags and supplies tied behind the pack-horse (Manoj's Pulsar) and Rohit and me acting as the mahouts of the BULL, we rolled out of the big gates of Mallika.
The air was still damp from the showers previous night and the feel of the damp air on face when we hit the wide stretch of National Highway 47 made sure the sleepless previous night showed no signs on me, rather it just made my heart leap in the anticipated excitement which was supposed to happen in the due course of the journey. We had plans of catching up an early breakfast, but then trusting Central Kerala on a Sunday to open a restaurant was plain foolish. People professing all religions, Hindu, Christianity or Islam takes their Sunday sabbatical very serious in my part of the world and we should have known better. Nevertheless, we found a way side eatery at Chalakudi and after a good warm coffee and some grub, the road to Athirapalli saw us taking the turn by 8:30AM.
All three of us making the trip, were mates for almost 6 long years of studying law in Cochin and rode together over the hills and to the beach, but never did we ever make it to the Athirapalli during college. It took us 6 months after college, on a rainy night with nothing else to do, to make our first visit there. But then it was almost midnight by the time we covered the 60 odd kilo meters to Athirapalli and were not given access to the waterfalls. The short drive was memorable, because we bumped into herds of deer and sambhar throughout the short drive and we kept repeating it every time I got home from Hyderabad.
This time, it was different. We were actually making the journey during day and the road seemed so very different. With the deers being spotted regularly in the headlight of the car, I thought, the whole road was through the jungle. But, daylight proved otherwise, it was rubber and pepper which adorned the road and not jungle. The deers and the sambhars we saw at night during our previous rides, were leisurely grazing on the human inhabited areas and not really the jungle. The rubber gave way to the wild trees and bamboos and the road started winding around the jungle river, all the way to the water-falls.
The water fall was filled with the usual tourist, the happy families and the cries of youngsters playing in the water, happy jovial sounds, but proved too loud for our tastes and we decided to climb down to the bottom of the falls for the other view and maybe a little more less noise of humans and more of the water. The climb down was tedious, steep and by the time we got to the base, all three seemed almost dead, struggling for breath. The 15 months after college has taken a toll, with sprouting pot bellies highlighted in sweat, we didn't have anything left in us to jump into the water, but rather sit on the rock and just watch the splendor of nature in its abundance. If the climb down was tedious, the climb up was even more challenging, with rusted muscles forced to do some work, we made it to the top and all three collapsed on a bamboo bench at the refreshment stall on top. After emptying gallons of water, we made it back to our bikes and felt all relieved when we found the supplies and clothes tied securely behind the pack horse. But then, if we didn't miss anything, then the story seemed imperfect and I realized I left my camera at the refreshment stall. 3 Hours into the journey and I lost my camera already. Manoj gathered up all the remaining molecules of energy left in him and made the run down to the refreshment stall to find the camera happily lying on the bamboo bench we were sitting on minutes back.
The bikes were rolling again on the road entwined with the river and we made it to Vazhachal, the Kerala Forest Check Post in no time. The road was a gradual climb all this while and BULL was doing good mostly. An elaborate checking of our bikes and bags later, with a thumbs up the Forest Guard opened the gate for us to get into the reserved forest. There were not many who were keen to travel the road up front and amidst some stares, we drove of into the jungle. I over heard a person making a comment seeing the BULLs registration plates and seeing our bags tied smartly behind the pack-horse, "guess they are from Ladakh, look at the number plates..it says LD" and the reply to it was "it could be London as well, the bikes and bags together reads, these guys are international bikers." I hid the smile at the ignorance of my countrymen and pretended as though our BULL was actually from Ladakh or London and never told them the truth that, LD on a number plate of a vehicle in India means, Lakshadweep and not Ladakh nor London.
The road and the terrain changed drastically after the check post, the climb was steeper, curves more sharp, pot holes plenty and the signs of human cultivation vanished into huge trees and thick under bush. When the BULL showed signs of aging while climbing one particular steep stretch, both me and Rohit, the inexperienced mahouts thought it was a common thing for old BULLs. The BULL lost power every time the throttle was turned, but the sound it made just doubled and there was a delay in the whole process. From the time, the throttle was turned and actually the bike surged forward, there was a 2-4 second delay, but we were fools not to have identified the early symptoms and continued on with the sharp curves and climbing steep roads on the first gear making an enormous sound.
Up ahead in the distance, I found a clearing and told Rohit to stop there for a cigarette and once we came closer, the clearing turned to be a watering hole for the wild animals and then nothing could stop me from almost rubbing my face on the mud, trying to identify the animals which made use of the water hole. I did identify hooves, paws and also the big foot prints left by elephants. Elephant dung was rich there and the whole place reeked of animal smell. All three of us knew, if we camped here for the night, we would stand to witness abundant wildlife. But then, our journey had just started and there were so many more water holes to pass through and notorious places to see before we camped.
Climbing up, Rohit realized the BULL had trouble with the gears as well, when 'neutral gear' appeared out of no where when he tried slow on a sharp curve, by shifting gears and the BULL just made a free roll for a few seconds, before he eventually manged to get the vehicle on to that elusive second gear.
Though the smell of wildlife was the one dominant thing throughout the road, except monkeys and some stray fox and rabbits we never saw anything else. The sound of the BULL must have scared the animals I guess and they must have run for dear life and one such animal, a huge antelope jumped right in front of Manoj's bike and thanks to disc brakes, he avoided collision and the animal jumped again to the other side and vanished. That got our senses alert and eyes all focused again. We were slowly getting a grip of the road and was forgetting everything else except taking the curves and avoiding potholes. The antelope, injected a sense of caution not just for the road, but also about the wild life lurking nearby hidden in the thick green.
The next stop was near an abandoned tree house, with signs of elephant attacks on the trunk of the tree and the tree house missing many a plank from the floor. I thought of first climbing the tree and getting a picture from inside the tree house, but common sense prevailed and Rohit forbid me from trying to make the climb.
The best part of this road was we were almost alone all the time and then there seemed to be so many off roads from the main stretch. One particular stretch which had an old sign board, with rust eating away all the name of the destination and leaving only the distance legible seemed inviting for us to follow. The tar had gone with years of rain and the jungle seemed to pour in from both sides of the road. Monkeys didn't like the intruders into their home and the chaos they created jumping from a tree to another was a spectacular sight. The trail led us to a huge locked gate stating 'trespassers will be prosecuted', but what exactly the gate kept away, eluded us. There were dark clouds on the horizon and we didn't have to think twice to return back to the main road when the first lightening struck. Leaving our mission to find out the secret behind the locked gates we slowly made our way to the Sholayar dam.
The view was splendid from the top, with lush green everywhere and huge reservoir behind the shutters, the road was now along the bed of the reservoir. Time was just 3PM and it was dark already, with head lights turned on, we navigated through the treacherous stones adorning the small road and made it up to Malakkapara. This is one famous place, the last settlement in Kerala on this road and a place notorious for frequent leopard attacks on humans. Boy, we were damn hungry, except for water and an occasional smoke nothing else had made its way down into our tummies since morning and we decided to get some grub before continuing on with our journey from Malakkapara. The rain seemed inevitable, and we got into our rain gears and bought a huge plastic bag to cover our bags and supplies behind the pack-horse. Everything secured from the rain and stomachs full we drove again before being asked to open our bags for inspection by the Forest Officials at Malakkapara. It must have been my anarchist beard, which made made them ask us to open our bags and I made a note to shave the beard first thing after reaching Valparai.
The signboard read Valparai 12KM and Korangu Mallai 7KM (Monkey Hills, that is what the literal translation reads), the time read close to 5PM and the rain had not yet started, so we took the right instead of the left to Valparai and set out to find out, what did Korangu Mallai hold. There were very few houses en-route and the few people living there were staring at us, the time we passed them. The road turned narrower and made it to the other bank of the Sholayar reservoir, we could see the road we traveled in the afternoon, across the reservoir on the other side, but this road was more ancient and seemed sparingly used in the past one decade maybe. After spending more than an hour sitting on the high banks of the reservoir, we started our way back to the road, which takes us to Valparai.
The wild huge trees and thick under bush gave way to lush green carpets of tea as we got closer to Valparai. It had turned really dark and getting to see the virgin tea plantations near Valparai was a sight to be cherished. The first night, exploring the virgin, her many secrets and narrow valleys and hills made me feel like a newly wed groom, exploring his bride.