(Thenmala, Palaruvi, Sundarapandiapuram)
Travelling, often puts things in perspective. It allows one to realize that there are far bigger things in life than our everyday problems. So what if the WiFi is slow or your quirky neighbour has again dumped waste on the wayside. Travelling allows you to see that the world is not always about you or your neighbour. We had been travelling quite a lot and the thing we love most about travel is that exciting break from the routine. Almost an year has gone by since our last trip to Srilanka and that is far too long to put away our travel bags. Some injudicious engagements I had taken upon myself, tied us down and now all I could think of was a weekend getaway. Hence I considered options that were within driving range without much concern for the destination.And that’s how Sundar, a young entrepreneur, a keen golfer and a good friend, came to my mind. I was aware of his ongoing resort project at Thenmala tucked in the tapering slopes of the Western Ghats close to the Shendurney Wild Life Sanctuary. Having known the person, his tastes, his love for the environment and ecology, I could well imagine the priorities he might have set for his dream project. And we were not disappointed either.
Thenmala which is just two hours’ drive from Trivandrum, is almost our backyard but the entire topography changes once we get ahead of Palode. We are almost into the forest mode with thick vegetation all around and occasional dense forests. There was hardly any traffic and that makes driving enjoyable for someone on a laid back pleasure trip. With no signboards of the Resort on the way and not even a visible one on the beautiful architectural building housing the front office and the restaurant, guests will find it difficult to locate ‘Thenmala Ecoresort’,in spite of its proximity to the Kollam-Tenkasi Highway. The Resort is in the final stages of completion and we are told that all the promotions including signboards, website, brochures etc. will be made available only after the official opening and until then it is just word of mouth,which appears good enough. Though it is not yet officially inaugurated we were surprised to find most of the things in place, well-appointed cottages for families, dormitories for groups, amphitheater for cultural programs, poolside venue for campfire, a craggy tree house, a challenging walking trail and even a few cages and coops housing rabbits, turkeys and geese. Peacocks and monkeys casually saunter in from the nearby forest to entertain the guests. External mud coating on the cottages, dried grass on the rooftops and captive solar panels validate the emphasis on eco-preservation. The view of the enchanting hills from the cottages are breathtaking with the enveloping mist, more so when it is drizzling.
Shendurney is an ideal destination for those who are passionate about trekking. There are different options such as a soft trek along the reservoir bank, full day trekking for about 18 kms accompanied by forest guards and the independent route taking the rough road to Rosemala, a valley that unfolds like rose petals. Though we decided on Rosemala with its beautiful rocky forest road, the lumbar strain was too much to ignore forcing us to abandon it half way for the easier option of Palaruvi, which is only 16 kms from Thenmala. To control the crowd Forest Department is not allowing private vehicles beyond a point. Tourists in small groups are then taken in minibuses operated by Thenmala Forest Development Agency. As soon as you alight from the bus you get a glimpse of the milky stream cascading down at a distance, but to reach the stream one has to trek further through the slippery rocks and the tiled steps beyond. But once you reach the kalmandam, a raised platform almost in line with the hilltop where the falls take its origin, the view is stunning. The surrounding mist clad blue hills and the green valleys make a dazzling backdrop to the muffled roar and the gush of foam, making it a picture perfect combination for a video shoot. Many bathe downstream trusting in the medicinal properties of the water that has taken its course through the labyrinthine root systems of the herbs of Aryankavu forests. There are remnants of old glory strewn around like a dilapidated stable with individual stalls for keeping horses dating back to late 1800s, evidence enough to prove that this could have been a resting place for the Travancore royalty en route to their holiday home at Courtallam.
By then,Gandhi Lal of Thenmala Ecoresort took over as our driver cum guide and we were more than glad to let him take on a dual role, as we did not want to waste time asking for directions at every junction as some of these remote places are still not mapped on Google. Palaruvi to Sundarapandiapuram is about 40 kilometres but it takes more than an hour as the roads get narrower once we deviate from the highway. Ever since I saw a travelogue on this pastoral village of vast sunflower fields it was in my bucket list of must-see places. Unfortunately, the harvesting season was just over and there was only a tiny bit of private patch left. Seeds are sown towards the end of June and in about 100 days the flowers are in full bloom ripe enough to be harvested. Sunflower seeds are primarily used for making edible oil, though its health benefits when taken whole are well known. Many nutrients are packed in to this tiny seed making it one of the healthiest foods in the world, often prescribed as an immune booster and natural anti-oxidant. The farmers of Sundarapandiapuram have taken to sunflower cultivation only a decade ago though most of them continue with the traditional crops of rice, onions, coriander, maize etc. as well.
On our way to the sunflower fields,,Gandhilal stopped our car by a huge unimpressive rock in the middle of a wide expanse of paddy fields and water bodies and we were wondering whether to get off or not. But when he told us about the filmy history of the place we thought it worthwhile to climb and see what was up there. Tamil films like Anniyan, Roja, Mudhalvan and Malayalam films such as Soothradharan and Kalabham were shot here among many others. The song sequence of “randakka, randakka” was entirely filmed on this rock and the fields nearby. On some of the big boulders faces of Rajnikant, Kamal Haasan and MGR were painted and we could see a few youngsters taking selfies with their faded heroes in the background. More than the rock art, it was the unending fields guarded by rotating windmills and an array of hillocks on one side and the water bodies with migratory flocks of pelicans, flamingos and cranes on the other that arrest your attention.
Good food knows no borders. Our friend back in the city had reminded us about the string of wayside eateries at Shenkottai famous for their chicken and quail dishes, popularly known as border chicken named so because truck drivers took a break at the toll gate of yesteryears at the border between Tamilnadu and Kerala. Being a Sunday all these food joints were open during lunchtime and were crowded too. It was around two in the afternoon that we reached Shenkottai and were ravenous after the five-hour drive. We settled for Rahmath the most popular Parotta Stall which is a landmark in the culinary landscape of the junction. There is a saying in Shenkottai that no matter what time of the day it is you cannot avoid this place even if you try. Conversations take a back seat here, all are busy gobbling down the soft chicken legs, the spicy biriyani or the fluffy parottas. There is hardly any time for niceties; you share the table with strangers, eat, dump the plantain leaf in which you have eaten in the bin and quickly make way for the dozens waiting for a seat. Like the sunflower fields and the Courtallam falls,Border Chicken too is an enticing tourist attraction here.
Back at the Resort our host had already made arrangements for an evening boating in the Thenmala reservoir followed by the Musical Fountain and the light and sound show. The Musical Fountain was a bit of a disaster as the elegantly dancing fountains were totally out of sync with the blaring popular film songs. The light and sound show was educative about the locally endemic species of the flora and fauna of Shendurney Wild Life Sanctuary, a unique eco-system with a nomenclature,Freshwater Myristica Swamp Forest.
The thing to remember about a weekend getaway is that most of the fun is inexploring a new place and selecting trails of your taste, away from the distractions and challenges of everyday life. It doesn’t always have to involve an expensive, luxurious stay or a tailormade weekend. Just focus on your fascinations and then plan around whenever a break is possible. You can make memories and romance almost anywhere you go.