Of fireflies, tuskers & leeches in Tamil Nadu’s Elephant Valley . . . . By Venkatachari Jagannathan
It was pitch dark at nine. The mountains, valley and the trees that were visible during the day had turned invisible. Sitting outside our cottage in the Elephant Valley resort we were just chatting about the chances of sighting an elephant or bison during our stay when suddenly the trees and other places lit up as if by tiny bulbs.
When the lights started to move, it struck us that we were watching the dazzling and mesmerising flight of hundreds of fireflies. The small fireflies not only made our day but the entire trip, one that began on a note of adventure. The reason? Five-house Ganeshpuram may not sound like an exotic hill resort destination. But names can certainly be deceptive, because now the village had expanded to 60 houses from the original five.
On that assurance, we took a car to our unconventional hill resort, the Elephant Valley in Ganeshpuram, while the famed Kodaikanal was just 19 km away. Elephant Valley is located on an old elephant migration route next to the border of the national forest which extends into the wildlife sanctuaries of Kerala. The resort is located at an altitude of around 1,300 metres.
We — self, wife and daughter — were at Innambur village near Kumbakonam to attend the family temple’s festival. The Elephant Valley officials had made several calls to reach the resort before six in the evening. The long car ride from Innambur to Kodaikanal was smooth. The hired car driver Muthukumar handled the Kodai hill roads deftly and on reaching the Perumal Malai forest check-post we had to take the road branching out to the temple town Palani. The ride was rough and rocky — the road was laid 15 years ago and was not maintained. While climbing up a steep stretch, for inexplicable reasons, the vehicle refused to go forward and instead slid backwards. Muthukumar deftly steered the vehicle to the left where the road hugged the mountain and stopped the car applying the hand brake. The engine was kept running with the headlights on. To the right side of the road was a plantation but at a depth of 5-10 ft. From that spot, the Elephant Valley resort was more than a couple of kilometres away.
Walking up and down to it was impossible as it was dark and the visibility was almost nil. The time was around 9.30 p.m. Immediately after receiving our SOS, Suresh Charoth, General Manager of the 20 cottage Elephant Valley, and four others came down to the spot in a car and sent us to the resort in that vehicle. Luckily our car restarted after switching it off for awhile, and followed us. We thanked God when Charoth told us that the spot where we were stranded used to be frequented by elephants at night and a single elephant had paid a visit to the resort the previous night. Be that as it may, we hit the sack after having a nice dinner starting with soup.
The chirping birds woke us up early next morning. Sipping the morning coffee – the organic coffee bean was grown, roasted and ground at the resort itself – we enjoyed the mountains, trees and the valley. Near our cottage we also saw two huge foot- prints of an elephant that had visited the resort the previous night. After breakfast we decided to trek within the resort with Madasamy as our guide.
He showed us not only coffee, pepper, avocada, sweet lime, Thai chilli plants, trees and creepers but also the tree trunks that were chipped away by elephants and the mud marks made by them at a considerable height on tall trees. Our trek included crossing a stream on a rope bridge, praying at a forest temple and climbing up a tree house belonging to the resort.
It was Madasamy who spotted two leeches happily sucking my blood between two toes though I didn’t feel anything. “Slippers are better than shoes as one can spot the leeches that latch on to the legs while walking over mulchy leaves,” Madasamy said, while sprinkling a large dose of table salt on the leeches.
In the evening, it was again show time – and this time the Elephant Valley’s organic vegetable farm.
“Ours is a certified organic farm. We grow veggies and herbs – cabbage, radish, chow-chow, lemon grass, thyme and more. Fruit trees like fig, avocado, sweet lime, and citron abound. Even the coffee and pepper are grown organically,” Charoth said. Protecting the four-acre vegetable farm from elephants, bisons and peacocks is a challenge. “While it may sound interesting for the guests to hear about elephant and bison raids on our farm, it involves great expenditure for us,” he said.
The next day morning we decided to go to Poombarai village above Kodaikanal where there is a small but beautiful Kuzhanthai Vellappar (Hindu God Lord Murugan) Temple. It is said the main idol was consecrated by ancient siddhar/saint Bhogar. From there we went to the scenic Mannavanur, around 35 kilometres from Kodaikanal, where the Central Sheep and Wool Research Institute’s (CSWRI) southern centre is located. The centre rears and breeds only sheep. Till two years ago, it also bred and reared giant-sized rabbits of the white and black varieties. There are around 100 giant-sized white and black rabbits at the centre. The rabbit’s forefathers were from the undivided Soviet Russia. Each Soviet Chinchilli rabbit would grow up to weigh around five kg. The centre is attracting tourists in small numbers who come to see the sheep and the rabbits.
Alas, it was then time to pack up and head home. It had been an extremely rejuvenating experience.