Cycling the ‘escape road’ from Munnar to Kodaikanal.
It all started after seeing a faded old sign pointing to ‘Munnar Ropeway Station’. Half covered in vegetation on an old stonewall, it roused our curiosity and we wanted to find out what the ropeway station was/is and whether it was something we could visit or possible ride on. Later in the day while in our small room we searched the internet for any reference to it and discovered much more about Munnar’s History. Tea was the reason Munnar exists and it was big business back in the days of the Raj, transporting the finished product to market was of prime concern to estate owners. Because Munnar did not have a railway link, another more ingenious method was required to avoid the slow, winding and dangerous roadway. The ropeway station was the start point for an overhead cableway that carried tea chests down 2000 meters from the mountain to the nearest railway station. Clever stuff.
It was during this reading of Munnar’s history that we first read about the ‘escape road’, and old road that connects Munnar to another British hill station called Kodaikanal. As the crow flies, the two are relatively close to each other (~70km apart) yet the existing road (and the one still used by traffic today) is 180km. Not only is it much further, but it drops from Munnar’s altitude of 1450 m to sea level and back up to Kodaikanal’s altitude of 2100 meters – clearly this was time consuming and tiring. After Japans bombing of Madras (Chennai) panic spread through India that Japan may actually try to invade. The powers that be decided that to be able to move troops and supplies between the two hill stations was very important, and in 1942 set out to build a road between the two called the ‘escape route’. It was built and continued to be used after the war, although disputes about who was responsible for its maintenance (it crosses between two of India’s states, Tamil Nadu to the east and Kerala to the west) meant it slipped into disrepair and was closed from the public in 1990. At first we had no intention to try and cycle this closed route, we just found its history interesting, but the longer we were in Munnar the more promising the prospect sounded. We searched and found an old US map drawn in the 1950s that had the route marked out, we compared this to google maps and found we could trace parts of it quite clearly still on the landscape. It also passed villages to begin with before passing through a newly formed national park before crossing over towards land which looked fairly well cultivated. It certainly looked possible so we started to make enquiries.
Our first serious stop (after speaking to a number of people who said it was impossible) was a trekking guide at the KDTC – Kerala Department of Tourism who was exceptionally helpful. He told us that theoretically is was possible, the road route is still there but it is in very bad condition and is very overgrown following years of neglect. In the past it has been occasionally followed by people trekking but not for some time, and as far as he knew not by people cycling. He gave us more detail on the path condition and said that with hard work we could do it, but don’t expect to be able to cycle much. This was great news that really whetted our appetite for a slice of adventure… however then came the crunch. The middle section, just 15km, is either a proposed national park, or an actual national park (we couldn’t ever figure this out) that requires a permit. He then continued to say there was next to no chance of obtaining a permit from the Kerala side, let along the Tamil Nadu side as for some reason that we again didn’t understand they had not been issued to foreigners for years. The reason he gave was just that it was a national park, not that there was any dangerous element to the crossing. Mmm… We were given the details for the chief wildlife warden at the forestry commission and told to speak to him – that it might just be possible to obtain a permit, with extra explicit instructions not to get turned away or denied by the receptionist.
We traipsed two kilometers to the squat building that was the forestry office and battled the receptionist to actually meet Mr wildlife warden. Repeatedly she refused our requests especially when we asked her approximately what it referred to. She re-iterated that it would be impossible to have permission to cross without getting higher authority yet we were steadfast in insisting that we spoke to the man himself. Following a variety of excuses ranging from he was in a meeting to he was out she eventually showed us into his office.
Explaining our hastily prepared cover story about trying to retrace the steps of a grandfather that had been involved in the building of the road we received a warm welcome. However, once again it was pressed upon us that permission to cross the park would not be possible – but the reasons given posed more questions than they answered. When asked what the danger is, and discussing our experience in hiking, navigation and preparedness he told us that it was not the park that was the hazard, but the two villages we proposed to pass through on the way there. In his words the villages were populated with ‘illiterate peasant Tamil Maoists’ that would surround us, rob us and beat us for being there… he continued to refer to them as simple illiterate Tamils, almost coming off his tongue with venom. He stated there had been continued issues with these villagers and that government officials had been attacked and chased out, as a result there is no government representation there and he said our safety would be at risk. He then continued to say they were drug smugglers, drug producers, poachers and generally wild and bad people. Permission for us would have to come from the head of the forestry commission in the state capitol that was likely to be refused but would take a month minimum. Basically, should anything happen to us he didn’t want anything to do with it so said no way Jose. Of course on the way out the female receptionist flashed us a big ‘told you so’ look, her face festooned with a mustache so thick it would make a WW2 fighter pilot jealous.
On face value this looked bad, but talking between ourselves it was actually quite good. If you spend a bit of time in countries like India you quickly realise there are prejudices that are re-hashed constantly – farmers are looked down upon by educated people, people in Kerala don’t particularly like people from Tamil Nadu and the Government of India collectively labels anyone a Maoist who has some kind of disagreement with policies or how they are being treated. In effect, we left with the strong feeling that everything he had just told us was bullshit and he just didn’t want to issue us a permit because a. it involved work for him and an element of responsibility and b. the concept of wanting to do anything that doesn’t involve a driver and car is alien to most people. We didn’t doubt that there had been a falling out with the government but suspected that with the formation/planned formation of the national park, the government had been restricting the activities of people that have previously lived there for a long time and presumably use the land/forest as a resource. National Park formation is contentious, especially when it doesn’t take into account people whose livelihoods are suddenly impacted by the changes in rules and laws – there are many cases where traditional villages have felt national park creation impacts their lives in a negative way. We had already been just 15km away from the village that was apparently a no go zone, we had met the same ‘illiterate Tamil Maoists’ and had felt no animosity whatsoever. We were by no means confident of our amateur assessment, but from the lack of villager danger warnings from the KTDC office and the fact there were homestays for Indian tourists in the village we highly doubted it. As a bonus, we now knew that with no government representation there would be no national park office to prevent us passing through the park. If we could make it through Kottakamboor then we could pass through the park and our chances of success would be high.
The next morning we packed and sat down at the stall of our favourite chai wallah deciding what to do – yet another piece of information had made us hesitant about attempting the crossing, which again we couldn’t verify with certainty, but implied that being caught without a permit carries a 15 day prison sentence. Indian’s have a real penchant for rumour mongering (just two weeks ago someone shouted ‘the brakes have failed!’ on the Darjeeling mountain railway causing half a carriage of people to jump off when no such thing had happened!? One person died and two were badly injured) and trying to disseminate fact from fiction is always very difficult. We hatched a plan that would enable us to take it step by step and enquire as we went. By getting out of the big town and asking people as we went we would have opinions of people outside of the government and overall a much more honest and realistic assessment of the potential problems we would come across. The first step would be to ‘Top Station’, this highest point on the old ropeway and a currently popular tourist viewpoint that marked the end of the road well travelled. There are a number of small restaurants, homestays and a small hotel where the opinion was there was absolutely no danger to us from the villages we needed to pass through. From here a tarmacked section of the escape road snaked downslope through a national park and a series of villages that would end at danger Maoist village.
The journey to top station was much more pleasant by bicycle than by scooter (which we had hired two days before). The meandering path through the tea plantations was quiet after leaving Munnar and the sections of thick forest helped shade us from the sun. We passed numerous huge bees nests up in the trees, two large dams with lakes and were able to sit and watch groups of the rare Nilgiri Languor monkeys playing in trees. The road was great quality, and away from Munnar itself, very quiet. We took our time enjoying the amazing scenery. Our plan was to have dinner at top station but the small collection of basic food huts had closed by the time we got there or were not offering anything substantial – this cost us one of the evening meals we were carrying.
The road from the high point quickly descended into the next valley towards the village of Vattavada. The quality was immediately worse and the light was starting to soften as we made it to a national park checkpoint. In order for us to get to the first village we had to pass through a small section of Pambadum Shola National Park, the problem was that it was 17.05 and the park gates closed to all non motorised transport at 17.00! Initially the guards refused to let us through, the parks animals are more active at dusk making it more dangerous to cross, however the distance was not great and the road through the park was downhill all the way. After a few minutes of persuasion we were able to convince them that we were not intending to stay in the park and we would easily pass through before dusk really set in, this was good as we would have had otherwise wait until 9am the next morning to pass.
The downhill blast through the park was absolutely stunning, if not a little nerve racking! Initially we were passing through a forest of huge tall trees, their thick trunks soaring up either side of us creating ominous shadows and hidden areas on the barren forest floor. We were unsure whether to cycle as quickly as possible to outrun any stalking wildlife or a little slower while making lots of noise to foreworn and not fright any waiting/passing animals. After a 300 meter descent we were at the bottom of the valley where the forest made way to rolling, green tall grasses and sporadic trees surrounded by hills, a landscape that looked exactly how you would imagine an Indian wildlife park. The regular elephant and wildlife warnings were a little unnerving but we made it through the park quickly and with no close encounters…
The inhabitants of the first village we arrived at seemed surprised to see us, we were greeted warmly and received a fair bit of attention as we enquired at a lodge about the cost of a room. The owner let our white skin cloud his judgment and the rates he quoted far surpassed the goods on offer, a bare room with a mattress covered in nothing but the plastic sheet it had must have originally come with. The view was nice but he wouldn’t budge from the price that was three times what we usually pay for such a room. We continued further with the intention of looking for somewhere else or finding a place to pitch our tent but it was getting dark and the land beside the road was steep. We didn’t find anywhere else so had to find somewhere to camp, although this was proving difficult. Finding a steep track leading up into the forest Sheena waited with the bikes while Sam hiked up to find possible sites…. The first clearing out of view initially looked good until torchlight showed it had been heavily used as a toilet, and the second further up the hill seemed to have a suspiciously bent looking sapling that may have been a hunters trap. We were becoming quite desperate as darkness surrounded us when Sam found a small empty abandoned hut surrounded by thick bushes. It had a good quality corrugated metal roof and mud walls so would protect us from any animals, we could store everything inside and pitch our tent lining to keep bugs and other creatures away so decided that this would be as good a place as any (the unfamiliarity of the Indian countryside and the attention we get if seen means we are quite hesitant about camping in India).
We lugged everything up the hill and into the narrow small doorway in order to prepare our home for the night, apart from old animal dung there was no sign of recent life so we felt confident we wouldn’t be disturbed. While moving the bikes inside Sheena shouted at me to stop… taking up at least a third of one side of the single room was a huge spiders web, sat in the middle of the web was a spider the size of an outstretched hand with eyes that seemed to glow from our lights. Shit, what were we going to do now? We had no idea if it was dangerous or not, its size suggested it was – the thought crossed our mind that we should probably kill it but it was in an awkward position (in the middle of its web which was a meter away from the wall, the angle of the web meant that we would have to step into it to get close to the spider) and we were not convinced we could kill it without first disturbing it and creating more problems. We thought of ramming a bike into him, but what if we missed or didn’t quite kill it… we were not so sure we would win a fight with this spider. It seemed to be quite happy sat in the middle of its web so we decided to occupy the other half of the room, name it (Bob) and keep a close eye on it while we went about our own business and leaving Bob to his own devices. We nervously set ourselves up and cooked our dinner (instant noodle blocks with veg) while taking it in turns to have regular Bob checks to make sure he kept to his side of the room. We then blocked the door and feel into a deep sleep wondering whether we would make it across the park tomorrow safely.
A gallery that can be clicked on and cycled through…..