Table of contents for The magic of Valparai
Valparai is synonymous with TEA. Green tea hillocks stretch as far as the eye can see in all directions. It is indeed a feast for the eyes.
In the late 1890′s, armies of workers were brought in from the plains and thriving new estates were established on the Valparai plateau.
The English planter G. A. Carver Marsh was responsible for developing Valparai as a tea growing region. In commemoration, a statue of Mr Marsh stands like a silent sentinel by the roadside at the Kavarkal Estate along the Aliyar – Valparai highway.
The estates brought prosperity for the new settlers but ‘development’ also meant massive deforestation of once pristine forests with the attendant depletion of indigenous fauna and flora. In those days of abundant natural wealth, this was not a matter of concern.
In recent times, the Nature Conservation Foundation - an NGO, has engaged the estates in a successful conservation programme to maintain wildlife corridors and regenerate the forest. Consequently, you never quite know who you might meet in and around those Valparai tea gardens!
Lion Tailed Macaques (Macaca silenus) are classified as highly endangered species though seen in fairly good numbers in the Anamalais, and may their tribe ever increase.
The NCF has employed full time Monkey Watchers – yes you heard right, Monkey Watchers – to follow the little rascals and ensure that they do not get run over by speeding vehicles. NCF and the Forest Department have jointly put up rope bridges on tall trees spanning the main road but the monkeys do not want to use them.
Wildlife kills by speeding vehicles is an acute problem in Valparai where the main highway cuts right through the animal corridor. While we were out walking, we too had to keep a watchful eye out for F1 racers at every blind corner, so imagine the plight of the hapless animals. Apart from the monkeys, I saw bison and deer dashing across the road several times during the day. I wonder why no one has thought of putting simple speed breakers on this road, surely the most effective solution?
Valparai LTMs regularly raid estate kitchen ardens and even the workers kitchens if left open. Estate quarters with a patch of forest nearby are a good place to find them, especially at lunch time!
The Western Ghats has several species of wild balsams. Impatiens maculata Wight is one of the rarer balsams but locally abundant at the damp edges of swamps in lower altitude tea estates. You will see these in Munnar as well but rarely in the Nilgiris which are at a considerably higher altitude. The Nilgiris have their own endemic balsam species .. but that is for a separate story.
The ground where both these balsams grow is guaranteed leech terrain …. tread warily at your own risk. How do I know? Personal experience.
Valparai (Anamalai) tea is not considered to be in the same league as that of Assam or Darjeeling, nor of the southern stars – Korakundah and Kollukumalai. The tea grown here is for the most part tea bag filler and volume end quality. We are no tea experts. This little tid bit of information was given to us by the Manager of a local tea estate. He ought to know!
The Grass Hills rise to 2350m. They can be seen from most parts of Valparai. These are shola – grassland mountains typical of the higher altitudes of the south Western Ghats. A jeep road leads from the tea estate into the grasslands of the Grass Hills. This is a restricted area. Permission to visit may be obtained from the Forest Office at Attakatti. The Grass Hills range join the High Ranges of Kerala, home to Anai Mudi – the highest peak in India south of the Himalayas.
On one of our visits, we bumped into the Akkamalai Chief Estate Manager, a jolly chap originally from UP, who had spent many years in Assam. He and his family were basking in the peace of Valparai after so many years in turbulent Assam! He was kind enough to take us to a beautiful spot from where we got a magnificent view of the High Ranges of Kerala. As I mentioned in the previous post, Munnar is a mere 30km away …. as the crow flies. We spend at least a half day here on each of our Valparai retreats.
Managers and higher level male staff at the tea estates here wear shorts or ‘half-pants’ to distinguish themselves from the workers. I wonder if this is the case in the northern tea estates as well?
Ladies do the cutting and sorting. Most of the tea at Valparai is cut, not plucked – it is volume end produce as I mentioned earlier. The men do the harder manual labour. Estate workers are provided accommodation in quarters within the estate. They are not rich but they are not poor either and make every effort to educate their children in the best schools they can afford. Valparai has a surprisingly large number of schools compared to its population.
The younger generation is no longer interested in estate work and many leave Valparai for the cities where they can get white collar jobs. As a result, there is now an acute shortage of labour in the estates and many have brought in workers from as far as Orissa, Bihar and Nepal. Most do not last too long here as they are unable to get used to the incessant damp and rain of the protracted monsoon months.
To be continued ………