AT CHINNAMANUR, 115 km south of Madurai, my driver Mahesh (who’d bragged that he knew this region like his backyard) confessed that he hadn’t heard of Meghamalai. A wizened shopkeeper pointed us to a turnoff. The newly asphalted road cut through hectares of scrubs where builders had erected acquisitive signboards. Emerald mountains we’d barely seen from the highway loomed ahead.
Tamil for ‘cloud mountain’, Meghamalai is an isolated hill station in the southern Western Ghats. In the 1930s, the British planted tea here. The only way to get to the ‘High Wavys’ — as James Henry nelson described these hills in The Madura Country — is by a tortuous private road. There are no restaurants or fuel stops along the 39-km stretch from Chinnamanur. The two decent but expensive accommodations are owned by Wood Briar Estates. Only the most desperate tourists visit Meghamalai, as a side-trip from Thekkady in Kerala.
Our hardy Indica wobbled, negotiating the switchbacks. Coal-black nilgiri langurs whooped from treetops. Past the Manalar reservoir, we saw steaming pagodas of elephant dung and heard the ominous crack of twigs from the dark jungle.
Crawling through sheets of rain, the car squeezed past cattle we could barely see. In the clearing mist, a board announced: ‘High Wavy Hills, 4,500 feet’. At the Cloud Mountain Bungalow, a colonial cottage overlooking the picturesque Vennirar reservoir, we were welcomed with steaming cups of tea and crisp potato bajjis. There were citrus trees in the garden, and trophies on the walls.
A siren from the tea factory announced the end of day. We drove to a cliff-edge to enjoy a view of the Kambam Valley. Early next morning, accompanied by a forest watcher, we took a leech-infested trail through the high altitude rainforests of the Western Ghats, to Vattappara — a clearing adjoining Meghamalai’s border with the Periyar Tiger reserve in neighbouring Kerala.
I noted that the guestbook entries mentioned Lion-Tailed Macaques and nilgiri Tahr. researchers have recorded the critically endangered Malabar Civet and the rare Salim Ali’s Fruit Bat at the High Wavys.
Except for occasional foreigners, wildlife researchers are the only visitors to Meghamalai. “Who else would come here?” the estate’s group manager asked me. “With nine months of rain, we don’t get enough time to repair the private road.”
TRIFLES Chinna Suruli, also known as Cloudland Falls is situated 54 km from Theni and originates in Meghamalai. Nearest airport: Madurai, Tamil Nadu Nearest station: Dindigul
For rs 6,000 a night, the bungalow was luxurious: a fireplace, bookshelves packed with English country magazines, and a large-hearted cook who treated me to dinner topped with fresh orange pudding. The bed was the softest I’d slept in. They even treated Mahesh like a king.
Heartfelt hospitality is a rare and precious thing one often encounters in the remotest places. I hope they never repair the road to Meghamalai.