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Monday, August 29, 2016

My favorite 10 hill destinations with hair pin bends

One of the main reasons I love driving to a hill station is because of hair pin bends. Sharp turns and narrow roads test a driver’s skills and they are more fun to drive than driving in a straight line. In this post, I am listing 10 hill stations I enjoy visiting, largely because of the hairpin bends leading to these hills or the fun-to-drive-aspect.

1 Kolli Hills, Near Salem: With over 72 hair pin pends, Kolli malai or Kolli hills near Namakkal, Salem in Tamil Nadu is a fun to drive destination often missed by mainstream tourists. Kolli hills is not one of the most popular in the region but I like going there for the waterfalls, jackfruits and the hair pin bends.

2 Agumbe, Karnataka: Agumbe near Shivamogga in Karnataka is one of the finest spots in Western ghats to explore fauna and flora. The evergreen forests are full of life and action post monsoon and few photography groups organize guided excursions into Agumbe. Sunset view from Agumbe is widely popular and has been featured in many Kannada movies. The ghat road that connects Agumbe to coastal Karnataka has 14 sharp hair pin bends- no big buses are allowed on these roads. Kundadri hills, about 10 kms from Agumbe offers scenic vistas. Many scenes of Malgudi Days serial is shot in this region.

3 Valparai: Valparai is about 120 kms from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu and is known for its scenic tea estates. Valparai is any day less crowded than Ooty, Kodaikanal and other popular hill stations. A stay in one of the tea estate bungalows will give you much better experience than any other hotels/home stays. Driving to Valparai involves 40 hair pin bends, while getting to enjoy scenic views of Aiyanar dam below. Places of interest around Valparai include Monkey falls, Velankannai church, Nallamudi view point, Nirar Dam and numerous other viewpoints, waterfalls and rivers. Few tea factories are also open to visitors. The popular Athirapally waterfalls in Kerala border is couple of hours of drive from Valparai

4. Drive between Madikeri and Sullya: Once a driver’s nightmare due to its poor conditions, now this road is pure bliss to drive, thanks to well paved wide roads that connect the two cities now. Drove there this June and enjoyed it thoroughly.

5 Mullayyanagiri, Chikmagalur: Mullayyanagiri is Karnataka’s highest viewpoint and the road that takes to you there is very narrow for the last few kms. It takes good amount of courage to drive a car till the parking lot of Mullayanagiri. Have driven till there some 5-6 times now, latest was in a Maruti Suzuki Ertiga, whenever I am in the region I make it a point to divert to Chikmagalur and drive up till Mullayyanagiri. Manikyadhara falls, Baba Budangiri are few other nearby attractions one should visit.

6 Yercaud: Yercaud near Salem is called Poor Man’s Ooty. It has all the typical attractions a hill station can offer- view points, lake, boating, temples and much more. Wide range of hotels and resorts to suit every budget are also available

7. Yelagiri: Yelagiri near Vellore is an ideal trekking destination- nice place to relax for a day or two in a peaceful environment.

8. McLeodgunj, Himachal Pradesh: Himachal Pradesh, while extremely scenic demands lots of patience and courage on the road- due to poorly maintained roads in most places, Formula one defying Himachal Pradesh Road transport buses and at times dangerously steep curves or sharp turns. Few years ago we drove to McLeodGunj in a Maruti Suzuki Swift Dzire and was bowled by the beauty of the place. Once inside the town, it takes all the skill in the book to negotiate your car on the narrow roads and heavy traffic. Most hotels will have limited to no parking and one will have to park on the edge of a cliff- slightest mistake can send the car down the valley.

9. Horsley Hills: Another lesser popular hill but totally worth a visit. Horsley hills is just about 200 kms from Bengaluru, 300 from Chennai, located off Palmaner in Chennai-Chittoor-Bengaluru highway. Horsley hills is a small place, with a small zoo, viewpoints, a pond, and some adventure activities on offer. Accommodation options though limited, are available in Horsley hills.

10. Wayanad via Bandipur forest: Wayanad is another destination I can head to any day without much of a thought. The drive there, through Bandipur from Mysore/BLR takes us through the Bandipur-Nagarahole reserve forest range. With lots of turns, with occasional animal sighting and more. Post monsoon, between September to January is usually the best time to enjoy a drive here. After Feb summer begins to kick in and trees usually dry up.

So what’s your favourite 10? Stay tuned for another post full of favourite 10 very soon on this blog. Meanwhile watch a video below for some clues.[Click here to view on youtube]

Friday, August 26, 2016

The popular Athirapally waterfalls, Kerala

Athirapally, located in Kerala- Tamil Nadu border (about 200kms from Coimbatore) was on my wishlist for long time. Athirapally is often quoted as India’s Niagra. Mid August I finally drove there. The falls is majestic but felt it was not at its best. This post shares photos of Athirapally falls, details on how to reach there and related information.

We watched the falls from 3 different spots. I think below one, visible from the main road without having to buy any tickets, is the best of them.



The other view is from the Chalakudy river bed, where in drops about 24 meters off a cliff. This is the ticketed area and barricades are in place to prevent people from going too close. This spot gives great vistas of the valley and the river and also gives an opportunity to get into river water a bit- for those keen on getting wet. Life guard was on duty, which is good thing, but he was an old man, blowing whistle and asking people to go back.

Best time is when none of the rocks are visible in above picture and water overflows all of them.Looks like August is not the best time to visit. May be September end or October. This implies Athirapally warrants another visit in future. (Or may be the year when rainfall is said to be above average?)

Upstream river is pretty calm and doesn't give any hint of the sudden drop ahead.

Third spot is from the bottom of the falls, opened to public only when river is not overflowing. Expect to see lots of people balancing themselves on small rocks and trying for a perfect selfie

Congress leader Digvijay Singh and his platoon visited the falls on the day of our visit. His vehicles got priority parking right next to entry gate. We lesser fortunate folks had to walk a km from parking spot.

How to reach Athirapally waterfalls?
Because Athirapally is in Kerala and Cochin is the nearest airport, most tourists reach Cochin and then reach Athirapally by road. That would be convenient if you would like to explore few other places in and around Kochi as well – such as houseboats in Alleppy, Kochi city, Kumarakon etc.

Alternate route will be from Valparai. I took a train to Coimbatore, rented a car from Kovai, drove to Valparai, spent a night and then drove further to Athirappally via Sholeyar dam. Athirapally is about 80 kms from Valparai. The drive is great, passing through tea mountains of Valparai and dense evergreen forest of western ghats. Road condition is good. With occasional rains, cool breeze and views, I enjoyed the drive.

Stay options:
There are several home stays around Athirapally should you wish to stay closer. Might be more convenient to do a day trip from bigger cities. Decide based on your preference/convenience.
Food:
A few road side hotels and shops are available near Athirapally. If you are not comfortable with them, then pack your food.

Below: Another waterfalls few kms before Athirapally (while driving from Valparai)

Overall, the Athirapally falls is no doubt great, but I feel Hogenakkal on Karnataka Tamil Nadu border can give you better experience all through the year. 
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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tipu Sultan's Manjarabad Fort, NH48, Sakaleshpura

Manjrabad fort is located near Sakaleshpura on Bengaluru-Mangaluru highway. In my life I have traveled hundreds of times on this route- mostly in night bus and thus had missed this fort all the time. In June this year, during a road trip towards Subramanya, we managed to stop by at this port during the return journey. Thanks to Dhiru Guri of Team G Square Cube for alerting me on the possibility of visiting Manjrabad fort.

Manjarabad is an 18th century fort while looks like a star from the top- not a large campus, just good enough to house a few barracks for soldiers and ammunition storage. Gives good view of surrounding areas and probably served as early warning system for any unwanted enemy movements. Entrance is well fortified with sharp turns, to deter being attacked by charged elephants.
 A step well exists in the centre of the fort. Many storage areas are also found. However no big structures exist- doesn't look like anyone of importance stayed here.
Manjarabad was build by Tipu Sultan with help of French Engineers, so as to secure his kingdom from Hyderabad Nizams and Maratha rulers who were aligned to British.Wikipedia has full history if you are interested.

Locating the fort on the highway is tricky, as the Manjarabad fort is not visible in plain view while driving on the highway. Below board exists by the roadside, but you are likely to miss it unless you keep a sharp look out.
 Easiest way would be to remember the below turn, or rely on Google maps.
There is no entry fee and there aren't much facilities around the fort either. Few shops sell food n water by the highway. One needs to walk a few hundred steps to reach the fort entrance.
Similar: Khaba fort, Jaisalmer * Dutch Fort, Kalpakkam * Khangra fort, Himachal Pradesh * Madhugiri fort near Tumkur  *

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Valparai & Athirapalli fals: Weekend RoadTrip from Coimbatore

I had first visited Valparai way back in 2011- with friends. While the trip was great, I had missed two things- One- visiting Athirapally waterfalls and second driving on the curvy roads of Valparai. Thus I was contemplating a second visit to Valparai and fulfilled it this Aug 13-15 weekend.
Thankfully Myles is offering cars for rental from Coimbatore, so I could take a train to Coimbatore and from there pickup the car and drive to Valparai. (Myles Mangaluru location seems to have been closed now) This way instead of driving all night from Chennai and spending a lot on toll and fuel, I could sleep well on the train and start fresh in the morning. While my onward ticket was RAC, return ticket was RLWL (Remote location waitlist, when I booked it 4 months ago on April 17th, for a journey on Aug 15th. Just about a week before travel it shifted to RAC and just a day before travel it even got confirmed, to my relief.

Reached Coimbatore on time, Myles fellows offered a delivery/collection at the railway station for Rs 350 extra, but I wanted to visit their garage, so took Ola and reached there in Rs 190. But the Coimbatore unit of Myles seems to be managed by a local family and was a different experience. Instead of marking existing damages on a sheet I was told to take photos of damage. Eventually I drove out, picked up friends from Railway station and we were on our way to Valparai.

On the way I realized that vehicle documents are not available inside the car-when called I was told "no problem, carry on, no one will ask", but I was skeptical- asked them to email me a copy of documents. After couple of follow-ups, got the document mailed by evening, which I got printed at Valparai. Thankfully no one asked for it, throughout the trip.

We stopped at this Ashram- Vethathri Maharishi Research Foundation on the way, after paying Rs 50 per head entry fee.  
I was interested in checking if their campus has anything interesting worth photographing but the staff who escorted us ate our brains trying to convince me to sign up for their residential spiritual programs. The campus was decently maintained and located below the hill, was calm and beautiful. Apparently next day was the Maharishi's birthday. We were shown a spot where he used to work and sleep, a small museum is also open to visitors after 10.30 but we weren't keen to wait. Campus has restroom facilities and is located opposite the entry to Aliyar Dam, so is probably worth a quick stop.

After spending a few moments we continued. At the forest check post paid Rs 20 per head fee and proceeded. A few viewpoints give good view of the Aliyar dam below.

Monkey falls was the first stop, already overcrowded with tourists. After a photo moved on- there were many smaller falls all along for quick stop. 

Of course monkey menace is prominent in the area, few surrounded our car in an attempt to infiltrate and find some food.

And this person was selling honey directly from the bee nest- sort of live counter...
Stopped at waterfall estate for tea and the bajjis they were cooking were getting sold superfast. Eventually we reached the statue of C A Caver Marsh. He is believed to have introduced tea in the area and revive the economy of the region.
At an intersection took left and we reached Velankani shrine, next to which was a small stream. Few photos were clicked here while battling light rains.




Reached our accommodation next- River View Homestay for quick fresh up before proceeding to see rest of the places in Valparai. Valparai is full of view-points, rivers, dams and tea estates. On the second half, our first destination was Nallamudi view point. I had seen it on my last visit but wanted to take my friends there. But the road shown by Google maps proved to be too harsh for our Toyota Etios, so after some considerations aborted Nallamudi falls, decided to head to Nirar Dam. The roads were pathetic for most part. Looks like only main roads in Valparai are well maintained (one that connects Pollachi to Cochin) and rest of the roads are left unattended for years. Nirar Dam again was second visit for me, nothing great but without too many things to explore, it will qualify for top 10 places to visit in Valparai I guess.
Shrivatsa spotted this mongoose near Nirar Dam and alerted me. It stayed in this position for long time with its eyes open
Next we drove to upper Nirar dam, reportedly because the sign board said there is a waterfalls and few local kids confirmed the same. However after reaching the Upper Nirar dam we were told that reaching the falls can be done only with help from forest department- who operate a jeep in the area and we need to wait till the jeep arrives. Few villagers reside here and road was no longer paved. It was 6 PM and we didn’t feel like waiting for the department jeep. For me drive was the primary purpose, so destinations didn't matter. Our visit didn’t go waste because I could click this beautiful photograph of stairs with 100s of steps.

Few years ago, Valparai didn’t have many accommodation options or restaurants. Krishna Lodge was the only option or one had to book in few expensive tea bungalows or do day visit from Coimbatore. This time, we could see at least two dozen hotels/homestays around Valparai town. There are more around Sholayar dam. In the evening, we went to Saravana Lodge in the Valparai town for dinner. The name Saravana is usually associated with high quality veg only food. But this Saravana Lodge in Valparai is NOT pure vegetarian and obviously not part of popular Saravana Bhavan group. There was hardly any pure vegetarian restaurants in Valparai, thus we managed with tender coconut, fruits and snacks for the night.

Day 2 we headed to Athirapally, with a quick stop at Sholayar dam. One of the tyres had low pressure but no shops were open at 7 AM, so decided to press on. A road site eatery served good idlies and I also feasted on jackfruit. Drive to Athirapally from Valparai took about 60 kms and couple of hours. The roads are a bit narrow but extremely fun to drive. Middle of monsoon season, occasional rains, road side waterfalls make it lot more enjoyable. Kerala police check post gives a slip with a timing. One should cross the check post on the other side within 2 hours. This is to ensure that people don’t stop for too long inside the reserve forest area.
Athirapalli falls is covered in a separate post here. We reached there by 10.30 but instead of parking at first slot that was available, I drove further horeping to park closer, only to lose 30 minutes in an attempt to find parking spot. After exploring it we took same way back managed to reach Coimbatore by about 8 PM, marking end of Valparai-Athirapalli visit.