Valparai Series – Part 2

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.

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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.

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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.

Here they are cheekily trooping down a lane leading to the main road.
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They should really be called Lion Maned monkeys, don’t you think?
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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?

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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!

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Tree Daisies (Montanoa grandiflora) are fragrant wildflowers seen in abundance at forest edges in tea estates.
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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.
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Impatiens elegans is also rare but locally abundant.
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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!

Akka Malai [Big Sister Mountain] is the highest tea factory in Valparai, at 1620m above mean sea level.
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Akka Malai is bordered by very dense shola forest at the base of the Grass Hills
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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.

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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.
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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?

At a tea estate, there are bound to be tea ladies ….
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On our most recent visit in December, we met this family on the bus. When we all got off at Akkamalai, they very kindly invited us to their quarters for a cup of fresh estate tea.
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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.

Every morning as we left on our rounds, we would pass these children on their way to school! The boys school is near the bus stand.
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To be continued ………

26 Comments

  • Abheeruchi says:

    Hi Gita,

    Good to see continuation of Valparai. Pictures are again very nice. My son really liked Monkey pics as he is sitting next to me :)

    Keep writing,keep travelling.

    • Gita AM says:

      Thanks Abheeruchi and sorry for the late response. Im glad your son enjoyed the pics, those monkeys are indeed very cute.

      I was in Delhi last week where I was shocked to find those same Lion monkeys at the zoo there. Wonder how the poor things cope with the Delhi summer heat.

  • deepak says:

    Shades of green, Outstanding pictures, specially monkeys….

  • SilentSoul says:

    Gitaji very good post with equally fab photos. specially the tea garden factory photo was suberb.

    • Gita AM says:

      Thank you Silent Soul. That particular location where the tea factory is, is my favourite place in Valparai, it is so incredibly scenic.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    The pics are out of the world. I am green with envy, in real color sense. :-)

    With so much beauty all around, how come this place is not on the popular tourist map like Munnar or Ooty. Or do folks do a day, few-hours tour, visit a tea factory and return. Thank you Gita for taking us around.

    • Gita AM says:

      Thanks Nandan.

      Yes, the greenery in these parts is something else.

      Valparai is not geared for tourism like Munnar and Ooty. There is just one mainstream hotel, everything else is home stay / lodging or a few high end tea bungalows. Those who want the extra facilities available at Ooty etc. may not be particularly happy with Valparai.

      I am not aware of any of the Valparai tea factories offering tours of their facilities as a regular feature, though no one would refuse to show interested visitors around, they are simply too kind and hospitable to outsiders.

      People from Pollachi go there as a day trip, from Coimbatore as an overnight stay, from BLR and Chennai as a long weekend visit. A few like us come from much further afield for an extended stay.

  • Vipin says:

    Wow, Gita Ji…lovely narrative and outstanding captures! This place has been added in my ‘dying to visit’ wish list after this visual and literary treat…kudos!

    Have been to some tea estates in Jorhat and Palampur, but these tea estates with such wonderful surroundings look awesome…thanks for sharing all this with us!

    • Gita AM says:

      Thank you Vipin.

      I have not been to Jorhat so cant compare. What I observed was that the tea gardens in Palampur are spread out on a level plane and the tea bushes are kept shorter in height than the taller, sloping tea plantations of south India.

      Hope you can make it there sometime.

  • Postcard perfect.
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    very nice post…a treat for eyes…
    by the way, which camera did you use to shoot.

    • Gita AM says:

      Thanks Amitava.

      The images are from several visits so the cameras will have been mostly P&S – Sony, Canon, Kodak – the noisiest images, and a few landscapes from the last trip with NEX5, albeit used strictly in P&S mode. Wildlife pics are mostly super zoom P&S.

  • Ritesh Gupta says:

    hello Geeta ji…

    Very Nice post…but your clicks are very great & beautiful….

    In your this log everthing is new for me….i.e. Valparai, Lion Tailed Monkey, Some Flower…

    I think, kerala is very beautiful…..Thanks

  • Wow – its getting even better.

    • Gita AM says:

      Thank you Sushant.

      Almost all the wildlife was shot with P&S but I will compile some of the EXIF data and post it for you later.

      I have not intentionally used any specific settings other than iAuto & P modes, I have no knowledge or particular interest in all these finer points of photography!!!

  • Please Gita Ji ! Can you share EXIF data of your portraits of monkey and other animals? Please !!!

    • Gita AM says:

      I just tried to copy the EXIF from my viewer software but it does not allow copying. Will get it for you from Flickr later.

      • Gita AM says:

        Okay, for the monkey in the collage of the first part of this series, the settings are
        1/250 /5 ISO 640 105.8 mm
        that was with the SONY HX100V a high zoom P&S

        If you want any more, let me know.

  • ashok sharma says:

    good post,great pics.

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    As we have come to expect from you, Gita, an excellent travelogue. The pics and text are truly superb. It is heartwarming to see the children of tea workers going to schools and dreaming of a better life. The solution for the labour shortage in tea estates is to pay better wages and upgrade the technology so as to create highly skilled jobs in this sector.

    I agree with your observation that the lion tailed macaques look lion-maned too. Maybe it is best if they were called lion macaques instead of LTM or LMM or LMTM! The info about the monkey watchers was interesting. Do these macaques interact with humans or do they keep their distance?

    If one has to nitpick, it has to be about the garish yellow captions for the pix and some lines in bold font for no apparent reason.

    • Gita AM says:

      Thank you DL Narayan.

      Yes, we too enjoyed meeting those children every morning and we met the school boys too at the other side of the town. Also interacted with some college going kids who certainly had higher aspirations.

      I am sure that the estates catering to the high quality and exported teas must be implementing your solution.

      About the LTM’s, these Valparai chaps are certainly not shy. They boldly enter kitchens in estate quarters looking for fruits and veggies, and for that matter, they did not stir when we passed them daily. I was about to pet one of the cuter fellows when he emitted a distinctly lion like snarl reminding me that they are indeed wild animals!

      Noted about the captions. Please bear with the next chapter which has already been filed. I will remember to change the colour in subsequent posts …….. to fluorescent PINK …… (That is meant to be taken with a heavy dose of humour)

  • Saheli says:

    Hi nice travel guide to Valparai . I am traveller and is planning to visit Valparai soon, can u pls shr the list of accommodation with dere contact details.Its little urgent.
    Regards,
    Saheli

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