A travel moment in Kerala

For many years now my passion has been riding my old BMW motorcycle around the Indian subcontinent. It has also been my way of escaping the English winter and keeping my aging bones supple!

In south India, in the hills of Kerala, lie the tea gardens of Munnar and a little known short cut up through the western ghats to that gem of a hill station, Kodaikanal, on the eastern flank of these hills in Tamil Nadu. It's a very old road which has fallen in to total neglect, more of a tortuous gulley really, climbing and winding to about seven thousand feet and then plateauing out before reaching the outskirts of Kodi at Suicide Point. I've made this run several times and know it's a rough but scenic ride. There is no one for fifty miles, no habitation, probably no mobile signal, and no recourse to any help if one did break down or fall off which is quite a possibility on some of its tight hairpin bends, either slimy with red mud or loose with weather shattered rock. The tarmac went with Partition and so did the planters who used this road to get to the club or on to Madurai.

On one occasion I had set off from Munnar rather too late in the afternoon. I made Top Station by tea time and from here the going assumes the arduous. By six o'clock I had climbed the ghat section and made an old forest watch tower which commands the whole of Kerala below. The sunset was spectacular but of course signalled darkness which rapidly follows in the tropics. Although now level, the road snakes through grassland and pine forest, rutted by forestry vehicles, wet and marshy. On your own it's a little eary and a long long walk if I had had a puncture or the engine gave out with wet electrics. As I puttered on these thoughts were on my mind as there in the headlights were two Indian Gaur. They're a kind of bison...huge, probably harmless but nevertheless wild. The terrain here is not unlike England with its pine trees and sedge grass ...it would be easy to be nonchalent, after all it's not the jungle, could be Hindhead common! Wrong! I just caught a leopard in my spotlight slipping away in to the long grass, that fleeting view unique for me but singularly worrying. I was now definitely concerned. Leopard are pretty high up the food chain and I had an unqualified dislike for wild dogs which I suspected might live up in these parts...they pack up and attack anything. I had heard that even tigers were frightened of them;but of course this was not tigger country. I had probably about ten more miles to go and all the time I was thinking what would my tactics be if the worst happened. Do I walk it? Set fire to my tyres like you do in Saudi? Just blare the horn until the battery ran flat...all sorts of crazy ideas. I hadn't made any definitive plan when the yellow glow of kerosine lamps signalled people and shelter. It was the forest check post a few miles out of Kodi. I was happy to pull in and regain some verve and with luck over a cup of tea. The forest guard was almost dumbstruck at my late and unscheduled incursion and it turned out surprised that I had been able to get on this 'road' in the first place at Top Station. Barrier, what barrier? Anyway he was friendly enough and spoke reasonable English. When I mentioned the Gaur and the Leopard he warmed to my obvious excitement. I asked about the wild dogs and he affirmed they were 'nasty buggers'. I then posed the big one. 'Sir', they always like that, 'are there any tigers in the ghats and particularly around here...I know they're in Rajasthan and Mudumulai further north?'

With that wonderful turn of the head which you never know if it's affirmation or negation the forest officer replied succinctly in just three words, 'Tigers are available'.

That was my moment!!

M Reynolds

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