A Visit to the Amazing Avalanche in the Nilgiris!
by Sudha Chandrasekaran
(Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India)
Some hasty last minute plans saw us on the road to Avalanche in August a few years ago, when our entire family visited us. We had made all preparations for our visit to Mudumalai Tiger reserve when suddenly the Supreme Court imposed a ban on tourism in core areas of tiger reserves. We cancelled our cottage reservation in Mudumalai. The next available option was a trip to Ooty, as we are residents of Coimbatore for the past two decades. Not wanting to go to the usual sightseeing places in Ooty, we planned on visiting Avalanche, an ecological hot spot in the pristine lake area of South Nilgiris. At a distance of 26 km from Ooty, lies this beautiful village, which was then one of the unexplored places of the Nilgiris “If you are looking to commune with verdant nature, look no further,” said Nitin, our friend.
We learnt that no tourists were allowed to enter the forest area of Avalanche for long and only of late they are being allowed here as part of eco-tourism drive. Blessing our stars for this wonderful opportunity, all excited we set out on our first eco tour to Avalanche at 9 AM from our resort. Avalanche, a part of the Kundah Reserve forest area, is 2036 metres above sea level. Sun played hide and seek and without much of a hassle we hit the road for Emerald Lake en route to Avalanche. We traversed endemic dense sholas and grasslands and forests of eucalyptus, wattle, pine, cypress and acacia. The gorgeous scenery at every turn was an experience of wonder and delight. The scenic path meanders through the emerald camp and provides a magnificent view of the Avalanche valley and the dam. We were surprised to see that only a narrow bridge connects the lakes of Emerald and Avalanche. With paucity of time we had no choice but to rush through Emerald dam, absorb the sights and head towards Avalanche. The road conditions are good till Emerald but the last stretch of eight kilometres before reaching Avalanche is an acid test for people with a weak back!
It turned cloudy again and rains started off with a heavy drizzle! As soon as we entered Avalanche, we parked our car in the parking lot and were transported to yet another four wheel drive (government jeep), which was our eco-tour vehicle. This tour is organized by the natives of that place, known as badugas. We considered ourselves lucky as ours was the tenth jeep in the eco-tour line and only 10 vehicles are allowed per day inside the forest. By restricting the number of tourists and banning the carrying of plastic items, the flora, fauna and wild life of this place is preserved. The first thing that hit us at Avalanche was the palpably pristine fresh air.
After some time, we were in the midst of crisp breeze lent fragrant by the tall and soaring eucalyptus trees and could hear but not see our langur friends and the chirpy birds. From here, the path became very narrow along the edge and gradually mist started enveloping us.
Our first halt was at the small Bhavaniamman temple atop a waterfall. The forest ranger performed a short ritual and we were offered kumkum. Looking around, we felt transfixed as we were bowled over by the scenery surrounding us. But we were totally unprepared for the freezing weather and hence felt a bit uncomfortable standing out in the cold. The wonderful atmosphere that prevailed there compensated for the discomfort which we felt. Then on we entered the Shola forest area, seemingly impenetrable, dense, dark, and dripping with epiphytes- ferns; filled with orchids, mosses and lichens literally falling off the trunks; and all this was interspersed with small waterfalls and pristine mountain streams. We stood mesmerized, viewing our surroundings and captured the essence of the entire atmosphere which lay veiled in a dream-like, surreal splendour. The Shola forest is what we had come for and it did not disappoint us in the least.
An icing on the cake was the presence of the Sun TV crew van parked at an elevation, and the TV crew interviewing a few tourists like us. We were asked to educate the public on preserving the sanctity of the environment by keeping it pollution free by saying a big ‘NO ‘to plastics and avoid littering the place. My husband and daughter spoke and we were all photographed and were beaming in front of the camera, which was telecast the following morning as part of Sun News. It was an unforgettable and proud moment for our entire family!
Avalanche is also the site of the Kundah Power House. The badly maintained Electricity Board buildings at Avalanche Power House do not diminish the beauty of the sylvan surroundings. Our route through the dense Shola forest was behind the EB colony. We huffed and puffed the rest of the way on the steep staircase along the penstock (water pipe), stopping every now and then to take photographs and mainly to catch our breath!
From the top near the valve house we had breathtaking views of the Nilgiri ranges, the lakes and the Kolaribetta peak behind us. Suddenly, we came across huge pugmarks in mud and the guide told us that they were the footprints of a tiger - quite possible given the size! This aroused a lot of interest among the youngsters while it caused anguish among some tourists. Anyhow it was thrilling. We saw a herd of Toda (natives of Nilgiris) feral buffaloes that glared at us, visibly annoyed, as we walked through the large meadows towards the lake. The lakeshore is very broad, varying from steep to gradual gradients. Nonetheless, the water remains crystal clear, perfectly reflecting the azure sky. Closer to the heavens, with no pollution in between, the lake is surrounded by a rolling landscape with blooming flowers like magnolias, orchids and rhododendrons. We witnessed a few tourists engaged in Trout fishing. The dense Shola forests are home to a wide array of birds, wildlife and leopards which are often seen here, as told by our guide! On proceeding a bit further, the pretty Seven Steps waterfall came into view on the opposite bank. It was a sight to behold!
A troop of shiny black Nilgiri Langurs scampered across the grass from one thicket to another and this was the first time we saw them out of their trees. Assorted unidentified birds flitting in and out of the surrounding hedges and trees, regaling us with their sweet sounds and a deer running into the forest some distance away in an idyllic surrounding was a sight straight out of a picture post card! With the sheer cliffs all around, it was as if one were standing in a giant amphitheatre. Behind us was an undulating landscape, hill after hill covered by a seemingly endless sea of grass. Avalanche never fails to transport the soul to a higher plane. The pristine forests, invigorating clean air, crystal clear blue waters, cannot be adequately described but needs to be experienced. There is neither pomp nor frills; it is only the thrills of being in the midst of a jungle, providing you with a truly ‘wild’ experience. Miles and miles of verdant tea estates and vast dense forests, engulf the whole area right until the horizon. It's nature at its best, with sparkling water; and with the earth clad in green robes and the Blue Mountains, almost merging into the sky.
On proceeding a little further, the mesmerizing view of the ethereally beautiful crystal backwaters of Upper Bhavani Lake, unfolded in front of our eyes. There was mist everywhere and we were literally shivering with the cold breeze grazing our bodies and our teeth clattering. But this sight proved to be the highlight of our eco tour. Nilgiri Rhododendrons added flashes of brilliant red to the canvas. The typical clumpy, coarse grass found here is used by the Todas, the natives of this region as thatch. Not wanting to budge from the place and also unable to withstand the chill wind, we hurriedly took a few shots and jumped into our jeep. But the sight is permanently etched in my memory.
Believe me you will never regret making a trip to Avalanche! On our return we bought our fill of tea, aromatic oils, spices, excellent bakery products and homemade chocolates from a curio shop and headed towards the Ooty railway station. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of the train ride by the Nilgiri Mountain Railway sporting the UNESCO-granted World heritage status, we sent our car to Mettupalayam and took the train from Ooty to Mettupalayam. As the twin tracks snake past misty views of tea gardens, quilted carpets of green and disappear around hillsides, we were buffeted by a crisp, snappy breeze impregnated with eucalyptus aroma lent by the soaring eucalyptus that stand all around like mute sentinels. And then the train chugged along through inky black tunnels and while the rhythmic exhaust beat of the loco rings out aloud, screams and catcalls of our fellow passengers filled the air. Emerging abruptly from a dark tunnel, the narrow, metre –gauge train was poised precariously on a slender viaduct spanning a deep gorge. No wonder this ‘toy train’ covering the 46 km journey from Ooty to Mettupalayam at the foot of the Nilgiri hills, has been termed as ‘an engineering marvel’-considering the precarious gradients; the numerous meandering tunnels through rocky hills; the twin tracks clinging perilously to steep hillsides and venturing gracefully across numerous viaducts positioned hundreds of feet above mountain streams and gushing rivers. At Kallar station, a common and welcome sight was that of several troops of monkeys lining the platform, as if to bid us good bye and asking us to visit them again, which we promised to do!*****