There is something quintessentially romantic about that name, The Western Ghats. So, it is with both excitement and anticipation that we set off for our next destination, a small home stay called Banyan Tree, nestled in the foothills of the Western Ghats, near a town called Pollachi.
It is a long drive; we spend some 5 hours in the car. But, the time passes quickly as there is so much to see (and Rajesh keeps up a pretty constant stream of commentary, facts and theories to keep us, and him, entertained).
There is a huge fort atop a granite outcrop. A story about a female leader who held off an invading force was told to us, but the essence of the story was lost to me in a welter of long names and details. Nevertheless, the fort is very impressive.
We pass through village after village full of people going about their daily life. In one we stop so that Raj can have a reviving cup of tea, which gives us a chance to stretch our legs. The bicycle sellers are also having a cup of tea, and a chat, and seeing me taking a picture of their wares ask that I take a picture of them too. They then question Raj about who and what we are – they did not know about Australia, only America!
It seems that in almost every village we pass through there is some kind of celebration going on. It might be for Onam, a 10 day festival that is related to the harvest. Or it might be a wedding, or a new house opening, or whatever else there is to be celebrated. Whatever the reason, it is always loud, cheerful and brightly coloured.
We move into a more fertile agricultural area, and start to see water in the canals and waterways at last. There are rice fields, coconut palms, and various vegetables being grown. Mounds of coconuts are everywhere, and they use every part of the coconut, including the husk, to make rope and coir mats.
But we also notice how much more rubbish litters every village, the waterways and the sides of roads. There is plastic and general refuse everywhere. Outside some of the bars we also see plastic cups added to the heap. Everything just gets thrown onto the ground – which seems to be in complete contrast to their fastidious sweeping up of dirt, leaves and flower petals around their homes, shops and stalls.
We stop at one bridge to watch the people gathered below. This causes great excitement and much waving. Next thing we know the young boys have run up the hill to meet us and are clamouring to have their photo taken. It proves very difficult to get a shot in focus as they push, shove and wave their arms in sheer exuberance. It is like standing in the middle of a throng of puppies. We eventually break free, after much hand shaking.
We reach our home stay in time for a late lunch, and are so glad we did as it is delicious (as are all the meals we have there). We then settle onto our verandah to admire the view of the ghats, and the surrounding countryside, before going for a late afternoon stroll with our host, Prabu. Prabu is the 7th generation on this farm, which consists of 4,500 acres. Huge, but it is divided amongst 9 families, all descendants from the original patriarch. The farm is acually run by several managers, but Prabu is very much Lord of the Manor.
The home stay takes its name from the massive old banyan tree standing guard at the entrance to the property, which is way off the beaten track, abutting the Western Ghats. Between it and the mountains is a small wildlife sanctuary, and elephants are a big problem for the farm as they wander in and uproot the coconut palms. In the evening and early morning we hear what we think are gunshots but are in fact firecrackers to scare off the elephants. There are also many leopards in the forest, as well as wild boar, so we think that walking around the property at night is probably not a good idea.
The room is simple but clean and comfortable, and apart from the shriek of the peacocks it is very tranquil. Next day, after a delicious Indian breakfast, we head off in the car with Rajesh to explore the nearby town of Pollachi. It is a market town, so we spend time wandering around the market.
After a local coffee, where I watch a man make a vegetable fritter thing that looks very delicious, we head off in the car for Aliyar Dam, which Rajesh says has beautiful gardens and is a very popular local tourist spot.
Well, he got the last part right – it is a very popular spot, but the gardens are dry and overgrown with weeds. We hike up to the top of the dam wall to admire the view, and again the dryness in Tamil Nadu is evident in the depleted level of the dam. Once again we are asked to pose for photos. We are starting to feel like rock stars!
A quiet afternoon spent on our verandah before we clamber into Prabu’s very ancient jeep for a spin around the property, accompanied on foot by the 11 year old mongrel Pepper (the younger one, No Name, gave up quite early in the drive). We pass by coconut trees, coco bean trees, mango trees, betel nut trees, drumstick trees and a wide range of vegetables. All the time with that beautiful mountain range standing silent witness.
Dinner that night is not quite as successful as the previous night as Prabu has decided to contribute two of his favourite dishes to the evening meal – an Indian version of shephard’s pie and some sort of pasta and vegetable bake. His Anglo-Indian boarding school background is very evident in these dishes! Fortunately Jayanthi, his lovely wife, has made us drumstick soup (drumstick being a long thin vegetable that grows on trees) and a chicken curry (or, chicken gravy as she calls it). Both of which are yummy. Prabu’ s contributions get pushed around the plate a bit before we cry off being full (however, we do find some room for the Indian dessert).
It has been a peaceful and interesting interlude.