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Old 22nd May 2018, 18:07   #1
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Default Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

When:

Friday 18 May - Monday 21 May.

Who:
  • swissknife (Polo GT TSI)
  • varunanb (BMW 5GT)
  • hserus (Scorpio S10)
  • Karthik_Chandra (Ecosport)

Where:
  • Valparai
  • Athirapally Falls
  • Top Slip + Elephant Camp
  • Parambikulam Tiger Reserve


Day one:

We started bright (well, dark) and early, reaching the Chengalpet Toll on NH45 (the GST Road) at 5:30 AM on Friday morning. Which meant leaving home by 4:30 or so, depending on how soon various family members managed to wake up and get ready.

This was so that we could cross the Valparai ghat road in broad daylight (which didn't quite happen, but more later).

After a leisurely breakfast at Hotel Vasantha Bhavan at Tindivanam, we proceeded via Salem and Tirupur to Pollachi. The last part of the journey through the plains was a smooth two lane road with extremely thick truck traffic.

The journey was sort of interrupted for me by my Scorpio being kissed by a truck that I tried to overtake on a two lane part of the road, which would have worked but for a tractor unexpectedly coming into the opposite lane from a side road.

Getting back to my side of the road in a hurry, I discovered to my cost that the Scorpio isn't quite as agile as my other ride, a Ford Fiesta. But thank God, a lot sturdier than the Ford. End result - a scraped ORVM skull cap, and a long scratch that covered the bonnet, front fender, front door, missed the rear door but continued onto the rear of the car, leading to a bashed in left side tail assembly glass. All of which my favorite FNG Speed Motors estimates at 15K worth of work, ouch. The car remained in running condition and I decided to continue the trip and get it fixed back in Chennai.

After a lunch in a small restaurant on the way to Pollachi, we stopped to stock up on chips and snacks before we began the climb up SH 78 (aka the Valparai Ghat Road, all 40 hairpins of it - 64 km long and 1,193 m uphill).

Figuring we had plenty of time, we took a longish stop at the Monkey Falls - where a monkey decided that he loved blue cars. First Karthik's Ecosport, whose antenna he chewed at to decide whether it tasted good .. it didn't, so he moved on to my car and started jumping up and down on the roof, to the fury of my son who considers the car his personal property and not to be jumped upon by any monkeys. Unfortunately, the monkey just couldn't understand Tamil, but he did move on to investigate the contents of the saddle packs on a nearby motorcycle.

Big mistake - all traffic was stopped just a bit ahead, and forced to park on the Ghat slopes, because a tree had fallen on the road. Two hours passed before the Forest Department people could saw the tree trunk and clear the road.

By this time the sun had set and the last half of the climb was completed in pitch darkness. And in my case, it was completed s-l-o-w-l-y, crawling along in first and second gear behind a Tata 1613 truck that hogged the middle of the road, only giving space to descending vehicles. Luckily the chap turned off onto a side road, so I could pick up the pace a little.

Finding our destination the Sirukundra Bungalow, was a bit of a challenge, because nobody at all told us that the place had zero cell coverage except for BSNL (a fact that was to plague us throughout the trip, we were all on Airtel or Vodafone). Goodbye, Google Maps. And thank God @varunanb had been there before and knew the road.

After a false start or two, we did find the place and checked in just in time for a massive dinner, which was a set menu buffet with any specific dishes you needed having to to be pre-ordered, rather than any sort of a la carte like in a regular restaurant.

Four wooden cabins in a row, that the resort called "Chalets" (something that would probably amuse a Swiss national if he were to turn up) were our home for the next two nights. Comfortable enough, and with glorious views of a tea estate outside. The entire trip featured us being woken up by nature's alarm clock, the "dawn chorus" of bird song. Woken up very early each day I might add, the birds were all at it by 4:30 AM regardless of whether you'd all spent the entire previous day on the road and wanted to sleep a bit more.


The next day:

The next morning, after breakfast, we set off to the Athirapally falls. Leisurely breakfast, so we set off at nearly 9 AM and dawdled at the Sholayar Dam to buy pure honey - yes! no dilution with jaggery syrup! at Rs.450 a bottle, and get a couple of our kids stung by the bees that were flying around from the honeycombs piled high on the honey sellers' bikes, and quite understandably irate at all their hard work being bottled and sold to people. Thank god for Calidryl lotion, so all itches were soothed and we carried on.

The road to Athirapally started off a smooth two lane past tea estates, and went on to suddenly turn into a minefield, with generally unmarked hairpin bends and huge potholes waiting for you just past blind corners. Traveling in a convoy was a huge help under such conditions.

In any case, we arrived - mostly with some delays spent waiting for me to catch up (I tend to get extra sedate when driving on ghat roads, sorry) and a long queue at the forest checkpost.

By the time we reached, we had less than twenty minutes of bathing in the river and photographing the dam before it was time for us to head back.

Heading back was accomplished in pitch darkness, made even darker by the fact that the drive was through dense forests with trees that cut off what little light was left. Given my eyesight my driving got even more sedate - following people's tail lamps and having my path lit up for me further by Karthik's rather bright Aux lights, which, because of my eyesight did give me a bad headache, but never mind .. better that than a much worse ache taking a spill down the sheer drop to my left. Anyway we returned to Sirukundra Bungalow by 8:30 PM, having started around 4:45.

One more dinner and a leisurely nights's rest later, we went off to Top Slip. A glorious drive down the Valparai ghat road, which remained mostly empty for large parts of our journey.

A few kilometres before Pollachi, we turned off to take the road towards Top Slip, and stopped to buy chips and snacks (our only lunch, we feared - only dinner was available at the Top Slip forest officers canteen), when we chanced upon an old man selling Nungu and Padhaneer, that is Ice Apple / Tadgola, and fresh Neera, served in cups made from the Nungu leaf. Absolutely fresh and delicious, and the man's rustic deep south TN (Tirunelveli District, my hometown) accent added an extra warm touch to our conversation with him.

The Top Slip checkpost reached, we stopped for some sliced green mango and pineapple sprinkled liberally with chilli powder, and used the restroom at the checkpost, which for some strange reason had a couple of artificial ponds with purple lotuses growing in them. Very pretty indeed, prettiest public toilet we'd ever used in our lives, I guess. Glory be, the restroom was quite clean.

The climb up was a reminder of just how ghat roads in India can be, after the gloriously smooth Valparai climb. Minefield of a road, but a short and fun climb with unevenly graded hairpins and loads of potholes interspersed with stretches of kutcha road.

Once we reached, we checked in at the Forest Office, and got our room keys.

Karthik got Chital House, which was up a beautiful green grass covered mound.

I was in the Delux (!) Treetop (!) - essentially a house with a bamboo roof and walls, built between three or four tree trunks, and up a flight of regular stairs.

Varunan got the Bamboo Cottage just below us.

Andy / Swissknife got the Pillar Top house a bit down the road.

We hurried to catch the elephant rides but disaster! The last ride was apparently at 2:30 and had already been fully booked - a bitter disappointment to the kids, and to at least one other man who was having a loud argument with the elephant caretakers that he'd been told the last ride was at 3 PM. The next ride was only at 10 the next morning.

Anyway we went off to put our luggage in the rooms, those of us who were hungry ate some biscuits / chips / snacks, and we all then met up at the Forest Office reception, from where an old Swaraj Mazda van, complete with an old tour guide wearing a huge Veerappan style moustache, picked us up to drive us 8 km on a single track ghat track (two wheel ruts on a grass path) to the Elephant Camp, where working elephants for the nearby Teak plantations, and orphaned / very old elephants, were fed and cared for. This was a one way path with the return along a different path.

On the way, we discovered that while in theory, only Forest Office vans and jeeps were allowed on that track, any government official or anybody else with enough political / government pull, could just climb that track with his personal car. In our case, some genius in an old Tata indigo was driving back in the wrong direction, coming down the uphill path and just about managed to squeeze his car into the mud and grass on the side of the track to allow the van we were in to literally scrape past. I think he'd hopefully have regretted not waiting for the Forest Office van ride after that experience.

We had a fun time at the camp, watching animals being fed, taking selfies with one or two of the tame elephants with an elephant herder beside it all the time asking it to behave itself and for the most part trying not to notice the heavy iron chains on each beast's forefoot, with which they were leashed to wooden posts driven on the ground when they were to be penned up and fed.

I additionally had some more fun making friends with the local dogs that were in the Tribal village around the elephant pens, where the tribesmen were traditional mahouts / elephant handlers.

We came back downhill, with our moustached guide shooting a video with Karthik's phone and keeping up a running commentary all the while on things like -

1. You can see 250+ kilometers of forest from this place - all the way to that distant range of hills you see on the horizon.

2. Here on your left you can see the plains surrounding these hills. See how tiny the houses in the various towns look.

3. Various Tamil movies that had elephant scenes were shot using the elephants and mahouts from this camp (he reeled off a list that included MGR's Malai Kallan, with the last one being Kumki in 2012).

Two cars - including an ancient Santro Xing driven all the way up from Chennai - were in our way on the ride downhill, and managed to park themselves on the left of the road, with one set of tyres inches from the sheer drop, so that we could go past.

We returned to a basic but tasty meal of Chapatis with Chicken Korma and Vegetable Korma, and the canteen people were able to produce some Dosas, Rice and Rasam for those who wanted it.

We went right back to our cottages as at least two of us (Swissknife / Andy and I) wanted an early start back to Chennai. Varunanb and Karthik_Chandra wanted to stay on and visit Parambikulam the next morning, which would mean they would only start their journey back around noon, for a 10+ hour drive to Chennai. Andy's son and I had calls in the evening so we regretfully declined the opportunity to visit Parambikulam and planned an early 7 AM start - the earliest that the uphill checkpost gate would open to let people out.

In my family's case they couldn't get out of the place soon enough.

The first sign we had that we were not alone in our room was a plastic bag with biscuit packets and a pack of soan papdi that I'd left on a chair - it had its bottom chewed to bits and the food inside half eaten up by something .. can't decide whether it was roaches or a small rat. I didn't see or hear any rat all night, so it must have been roaches.

Our room had a Bamboo roof and walls, which along with the tree trunk was a bit of a bad choice because the room had its fair share and more of beetles (or was it roaches?) and ants on the floor, and the bed had a joint family of bedbugs sharing the bedding with us. A thick chappal dealt with those roaches that I could see, and the ants were swept out by a grumbling caretaker. Mostly swept out with a cursory few strokes with a broom that he took away with him.

Worse, the power shut off at around 10 PM and was not restored all night so that we needed flashlights to even use the bathroom.

I guess the other cottages had their own quota of the local insect population as well.

All this was made up for by the view outside our rooms - especially outside Karthik's room on the grassy mound, where, waiting outside for an hour for dinner to be cooked, and stepping out early in the morning, we found herds of bison, deer, wild boar and peacocks.

Lots and lots of black monkeys as well as the regular gray ones, all of them having fun chasing each other, trying to filch food from the tourists and playing jumping games with the vehicles in the parking lot.


The final day:

Andy and I set off early in the morning and had breakfast at Hotel Gowri Kkrishna (two Ks for Numerology reasons? Two Ks because the hotel owner is an Ekta Kapoor serial fan?) in Pollachi. The breakfast was delicious, like every other meal we've had on this trip. Soft water rather than the hard and salty water we get in Chennai makes for amazingly fluffy idlis, dosas and rice, and delicious sambar / gravies.

Andy / Swissknife's son had an early evening meeting and a much faster car in the GT TSI than my Scorpio, so by mutual agreement he zoomed ahead while I poked along back to Chennai at a steady 100. We both took the long route back home (via Karur, Alwarkurichi and Trichy) thanks to Google Maps, which refused to show us the much shorter route - and indeed, there was a longish traffic jam on the turnoff that'd take us to Tirupur and Salem.

I and my family stopped at around 12:30 PM for a long and leisurely lunch at Hotel Annapurna (attached to a residential hotel called Sona Mina) next to the Samayapuram Toll just outside Trichy, where I also picked up some of the coffee powder they sell at Rs.250 per half kilo, direct from their estates in Chickmagalur.

At about the same time, Andy and his family were having a quick lunch near the Sengurichi Toll in Ulundurpet, ~ 113 km ahead of us. End result, he managed to avoid the early evening non stop traffic jam that is the last 60-80 km of the journey down the GST road, while I drove right into the peak of this jam and finally reached home at around 7:15 PM, a full 12 hours after I started.

Varunan and Karthik continued to Parambikulam for a morning safari, where they had fun but unfortunately didn't see any tigers, and started downhill after that, reaching Pollachi at noon. Varunan continued on to visit family at Coimbatore so that Karthik ended up driving all the way back to Chennai on his own, reaching around midnight.

All's well that ends well - and we had a fun few days with lots of photographs and some videos to show for it. I will post a few here, and I am sure Varunan, Karthik and most of all Andy, will do the same. Andy is by the way, by over a decade, the most experienced driver of us all and the most prepared too.

Laptop to download his dashcam SD card so that footage would all be preserved? check.

A SLR to take the best pics while I was managing with a phone camera? check.

Just the right angle to approach a pothole on the ghat roads so he'd get his low slung GT TSI to sail through it and provide the rest of us an easy path forward? check. Watching that man drive is a rewarding education in itself.

Last edited by Rehaan : 24th May 2018 at 16:32. Reason: Adding a bit of formatting for readability :)
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Old 22nd May 2018, 18:15   #2
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

Some pictures on the uphill climb and at the Sirukundra Bungalow.

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Last edited by Rehaan : 24th May 2018 at 16:35. Reason: Inserting pics into post
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Old 22nd May 2018, 18:19   #3
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

En route to Athirapally and at the falls.

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Last edited by Rehaan : 24th May 2018 at 16:36. Reason: Inserting pics into post
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Old 22nd May 2018, 18:25   #4
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

And some pictures from our stay at Top Slip

Very few from me, Andy will surely have lots more to upload.

I will get some videos uploaded onto YouTube and share them on the thread.

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Last edited by Rehaan : 24th May 2018 at 16:36. Reason: Inserting pics into post
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Old 22nd May 2018, 19:03   #5
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

Mesmerizing. Felt happy on reading. Feeling relieved.

Not able to thank you for this post wonder why.
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Old 22nd May 2018, 19:15   #6
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

Quote:
Originally Posted by sri2012 View Post
Mesmerizing. Felt happy on reading. Feeling relieved.

Not able to thank you for this post wonder why.
Donít worry about thanking sri2012. Join us for the next trip.

Was a wonderful trip and in the process crossed the 20 and 21k kms of the GT ownership in 11 months.the odo is now at 73k kms and still is an awesome car with a great engine.

The weather was awesome and there were predictions of rains. Luckily they moved to the plains and we had a great time. This is our third time in Valparai and has become a lot crowded compared to our first trip there.

Topslip needs to be experienced and the best is to stay either in topslip or at parambikulam. Woke up in the morning to find 2 bisons close to my car. Good they were not interested in it. Else could be looking at a bill much bigger than hserusís scorpio.
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Old 22nd May 2018, 19:29   #7
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

Quote:
Originally Posted by varunanb View Post
Woke up in the morning to find 2 bisons close to my car. Good they were not interested in it. Else could be looking at a bill much bigger than hserus’s scorpio.
My Scorpio and Andy’s GT TSI were parked right next to you . If the Bisons had been car enthusiasts we’d still be walking home from there ..

Also a Forest Office staffer we talked to recommended the Ambuli Lodge as a good place to stay - closer to all the animals but very basic, and bring your own food supplies that you will need to cook there! Two forest guides will accompany you and be careful not to go out at night, it’s got animals right outside.

Anyway some videos.

Top Slip Elephant Camp - ride downhill.



Dawn chorus - birds outside the Sirukundra chalet in Valparai


Last edited by hserus : 22nd May 2018 at 19:31.
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Old 22nd May 2018, 19:50   #8
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

And a few more courtesy my wife who was riding shotgun for this trip.
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Old 22nd May 2018, 21:19   #9
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

Thanks for documenting the trip.

I would post pictures in a few days.
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Old 22nd May 2018, 21:40   #10
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

Awesome travelogue and clear pictures, I hope your scorpio is fine now, and thank god it was a minor one.

I suppose the Valparai and malakappara check post guys won't allow any vehicles after 6PM.

Valparai - Chalakudy is one of the best ghat roads and the reserved forest stretch is awesome especially during monsoon time. I used to go there every monsoon in my bullet. Now with this write up, you have kindled the wanderer in me, will plan a trip soon
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Old 23rd May 2018, 00:08   #11
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Default re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

Guess you guys had fun. It was a great read, I felt nostalgic.

I had been to Valparai three times and it has never been enough.

I do understand the tiring return from Athirappally. When I drove down the route during monsoon I had to turn the head lights on throughout and that was mid day. Surprised, you guys managed it during night. May be better as a convoy else it is quite eerie.

May is probably the driest, the dams should have been low. Was it raining recently, the Athirappally seems to have a decent flow.

The road side stalls at Parambikulam forest office serve a unique dish, Kuyil meen kuzhambu i.e. Kuyil fish curry.
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Old 23rd May 2018, 09:10   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cmani0000 View Post
I suppose the Valparai and malakappara check post guys won't allow any vehicles after 6PM.

Valparai - Chalakudy is one of the best ghat roads and the reserved forest stretch is awesome especially during monsoon time. I used to go there every monsoon in my bullet. Now with this write up, you have kindled the wanderer in me, will plan a trip soon
They won't allow vehicles inside after 6 PM. But even if you leave by 5 you have about two hours of driving through the forest in pitch darkness ahead of you before you reach Valparai.

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Originally Posted by Thermodynamics View Post
I do understand the tiring return from Athirappally. When I drove down the route during monsoon I had to turn the head lights on throughout and that was mid day. Surprised, you guys managed it during night. May be better as a convoy else it is quite eerie.

May is probably the driest, the dams should have been low. Was it raining recently, the Athirappally seems to have a decent flow.

The road side stalls at Parambikulam forest office serve a unique dish, Kuyil meen kuzhambu i.e. Kuyil fish curry.
Yeah - the trees cut off whatever sunlight is available on large stretches of the Athirapally road. My Scorpio had automatic headlights and they kept switching on even during the onward journey through the forest.

The monsoon is expected in Kerala by the 25th - that is, in a couple of days now - so it has actually been raining up in the hills especially at night. The catchment area for Athirapally was reasonably full. Sholayar Dam on the other hand was dry as a bone, surprising.

Convoy driving was a major help during the return journey and is highly recommended as you ARE driving through a forest, so the later at night it is, the more the risk of at least small animals straying onto the road, never mind Panthers and Bears which can also be found there.

I really regret missing Parambikulam and even more regret missing the fish kozhambu, but I had to return to Chennai by evening for a call, the folks that visited there only returned past midnight.

ps: Thanks, the Scorpio is in good hands with a trusted mechanic.

Last edited by hserus : 23rd May 2018 at 09:13.
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Old 23rd May 2018, 14:40   #13
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Default Re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

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Friday 18 May - Monday 21 May.
Thanks for the writeup hserus.

Regarding uphill climb for the extended period, how was the response of facelift version of Scorpio ?

I have heard that it performs better in rugged roads than on well paved due to its wide wheel based and 4x4 and much better balanced weight.
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Old 23rd May 2018, 14:45   #14
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Default Re: Chennai BHPians Drive & Meet - To the hills!

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Thanks for the writeup hserus.

Regarding uphill climb for the extended period, how was the response of facelift version of Scorpio ?

I have heard that it performs better in rugged roads than on well paved due to its wide wheel based and 4x4 and much better balanced weight.
It is very good on rugged roads due to high GC and good suspension. The fat tyres also mean you have some safety margin even if you have to hug the side of the road to make way for another vehicle.

My S10 isnít a 4wd and it managed very well, in fact the Valparai road seems to be motorable even by Honda Activas with three overweight people riding, as we saw when we passed one on a hairpin with its engine screaming in first gear.
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Old 23rd May 2018, 15:58   #15
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It is very good on rugged roads due to high GC and good suspension. The fat tyres also mean you have some safety margin even if you have to hug the side of the road to make way for another vehicle.
I test drove S11 4x4 and was very impressed with its butch, ruffian look, height. Body roll is still there, but road presence is second to none.

The sales person told me that if I go for better seats and captain seats for middle row, I should be able to cope with body roll.

Hairpin bends are notorious to make people sick especially second and final row (corner ones) and not able to convince people at my home to consider this as our highway / vacation ride.

How did you manage to mitigate it ?
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