The popular image of Kerala is of a lush coastal region whose swaying palm trees, lazy backwaters and golden sands bake in the sultry climate of a tropical paradise. This is an accurate enough image in many respects but one which ignores another-and quite different-Kerala: the Kerala of the hills and High Ranges; the Kerala that possesses some of India's most beautiful scenery and has a cool, bracing climate far removed from the coast's humidity. This Kerala starts at Ponmudi, a mere 60 kilometers (38 miles) from Trivandrum.
Ponmudi is a tiny hill station, set at an altitude of 325 meters (1,066 feet) amongst forest-covered hills. The two-hour drive from Trivandrum takes you along a winding road, past small villages, through the Golden Valley and up into another world. As you climb, the hairpin bends provide ever-changing aspects of the hills, every curve in the road revealing an even more breathtaking view. Either you are gifted with the sight of a lovely green valley-almost certainly mist-filled if you are early-or a glimpse of pristine natural beauty through dark teak trees or, in equally impressive contrast, the precise neatness of a tea estate. A halt anywhere along the way will enable you to take a closer look at the region's abundant flora, particularly the wild loveliness of orchids growing in casual abandon. Ponmudi is neat and contained in its smallness-perfect for a short respite from the heat of the lower altitudes or for long hikes into the beautiful surrounding hills. Set like a tiny jewel in a magical greenness, it is only one among a handful of such hill stations in the High Ranges.
Munnar, 137 kilometers (85 miles) east of Cochin, is the largest of the hill stations and, at 1,524 meters (5,000 feet), Kerala's highest town. Munnar is different, still preserving a way of life that has almost vanished elsewhere, the life of the tea planter. Their spacious sprawling bungalows conform to everyone's preconceptions of a planter's home. Central to the planter's existence is the club and here Munnar does not disappoint. The High Range Club is the hub of Munnar's social life, a comfortable building with all the traditional hallmarks of club life: billiard tables, a library and, of course, a Men Only bar. Although only members can stay here, visitors are welcome and can relax or enjoy a meal in the old-world atmosphere of the dining room.
Life in Munnar revolves around tea: much of India's tea is grown on the surrounding hills and the air is permeated with its aroma. Visitors are soon aware of the impact this delicate leaf has had on the region. Where a century or so ago there was nothing but forested hills, there are now tea estates. As they are all owned by the Tata Industrial group, visit their central office to obtain permission to look around an estate and observe how tea is processed.
The world of tea estates seems to blend well with the magnificence of nature, for although it is easy to recognize the impact of tea on the High Ranges, much of the region's natural beauty remains untouched. A short drive to Kundale, one of the largest estates, takes you through some of the finest local scenery. At the Eravikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, hundreds of sure-footed Nilgiri tahr roam contentedly, grazing on rolling hills whose greenness stretches away across the valleys to merge into the misty blues of the distance. Just beyond this sanctuary is the Rajmalai Park and the mist-wrapped heights of South India's highest peak, Anaimudi (2,695 meters, or 8,840 feet).
Periyar Tiger Reserve and Wildlife Sanctuary
Between Trivandrum and Munnar is Thekkady, the home of one of India's oldest and best-known wildlife sanctuaries. The former princely state of Travancore began to develop the area as a sanctuary in 1934, using the artificial lake that had been formed by flooding in 1895 as its center. By 1950 the sanctuary had reached its present size of 780 square kilometers (300 square miles) and was named the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary is in fact closer to Madurai in Tamil Nadu, 145 kilometers (90 miles) to the east via and extremely attractive road, and Cochin, 192 kilometers (120 miles) to the west.
The vast calmness of the lake and the stark, skeletal remains of the trees that protrude from its waters give the area a primeval look. This impression is heightened by the mists that swirl ethereally over the water in the early morning. The wildlife remains largely undisturbed by visitors who must observe it from special boats which glide across the surface of the lake. Although the stars of the sanctuary are the families of wild elephants that often gather near the water's edge, other inhabitants include bears, sambhar, bison and spotted deer, as well as many screeching monkeys. The sanctuary was one of the first to come under the central government's successful Project Tiger. The birdlife is rich and varied and Periyar attracts dedicated bird-watching enthusiasts.
The Maharaja of Travancore's summer palace, set in the lake on a small promontory which can be reached only by boat, is now a hotel. Run by Kerala Tourism, it is a good enough reason for visiting the sanctuary.