Wayanad – The Great Escape (2010, 2020)

Wayanad –  The Great Escape (2010, 2020)

We chose Annapara Homestay again, for our second visit to Wayanad after a decade. If anything, this resort has gotten even better over the decade. A new family wing, a clear blue wading pool slung over by a fecund fig tree, several hammocks placed strategically, a machan to watch sunset from and a paved road almost upto the property add to its serene allure.

Deafening, soulful silence reigns, occasionally interrupted  by the chirpy chatter of exotic birds; stimulating scent of cardamom, pepper, vanilla and nutmeg in various stages of ripening hangs heavy in the air; shafts of sunlight filter through the mist to spotlight a coffee bush ablush with ripe red berries;  lofty trees stretch their crowns skyward, their trunks entwined with vines and laden with pepper; your powerful SUV heaves and sputters on a winding hill-road so badly potholed that it would deter all but the most persistent and discerning traveller wanting to escape the tumult that our cities and towns have become.

We are on our way to Annapara – meaning elephant rock – hidden away on a hilltop amidst lush jungle in Wayanad in Kerala. Yet to be discovered by the tourist hordes that descend in droves on nearby Kumarakom in the same state, Wayanad has mercifully escaped the depredations of tourist overkill.  Surprisingly, all the three towns in Wayanad – Sultan Batheri, Vythiri and Kalpeta have excellent road connectivity to Bangalore, Coimbatore and  Kozhikode. And from any of these three towns, you can take off to one of the many secluded and solitary hideaways that dot this landscape.

We happened to choose Annapara Homestay near Kalpeta and I am glad we did, because being in Annapara is like retreating into the womb – secure, nourishing and peaceful.  That the road to the spot is only partially paved adds to Annapara’s allure precisely because it is not easily accessible. Once you’re there, you will think twice about going down to even nearby Kalpeta not just because of the bone-dislocating drive you have to negotiate, but because you have finally arrived where you always wanted to go – a haven of tranquility in the wilderness. Nothing comes between you and Mother Nature, not even electricity. Of course a feeble and silent generator produces just enough electron to illuminate your way to the toilet in your suite, but leaves the other light effects to the myriad stars that crowd the firmament.  Annapara’s appeal lies in its unfussy and minimalist décor that does not compromise on comforts.

The drive from Bangalore takes you through Maddur, famous for its signature vadas, quaint Mysore with its old world charm and parts of Bandipur Game Sanctuary known for its many wild elephant herds and an occasional tiger. Dense bamboo bushes dot the roadsides, forming a ribbed canopy overhead and creating latticework patterns of light and shade. There is promise of sighting game, even if only the almost ubiquitous deer or a Nilgai, but we don’t linger. We reach Annapara by lunch time and head for its al fresco dining facility with a 360 degree view of the surrounding valley. After a delicious and homely lunch, we stretch out on easy chairs under a benevolent sun.

Etchings in Edakkal Caves

The next day we head to our very own private waterfall and swimming pool, tucked away behind dense undergrowth and reached after an hour’s trek through tea plantations. It is so private and secluded that it doesn’t even have a name. You don’t hear the waterfall until you’re actually upon it and of course, you’d never know it is there unless friendly Shibu accompanies you.  It is a benign waterfall, one that does not wash your hair away as most do,  but is forceful enough to make your body ache disappear. We swim in a puddle, slip on smooth rock and survive the fall!

Salim Zafar, the dapper owner of the resort offers to send us trekking to Chembara Peak beckoning to you from the chinks in the foliage. It is a vigorous six hour trek each way, the last mile absolutely vertical and only for the hardy.  Two of us being on the wrong side of fifty, we give it a miss and choose to lounge around to do some bird-spotting.  Salim generously lends his binoculars and we head for the jungle. We follow the call of whistling schoolboy, a species of thrush that populates the tall branches of the trees. But it remains elusive. But we do spot woodpeckers, barbets, bulbuls, drongos and the ever-chatty babblers that always fly in groups of seven or eight.  If you can’t place any of the birds you spot, you can always refer to Salim Ali, placed so thoughtfully by Salim Zafar, in the gazebo’s mini library.

We decide to do a jungle trek the next day. Sodden foliage sinks underfoot while gnarled tree-trunks, sporting wild orchids form festoons overhead. The canopy above is so dense you can hardly see the sun. Crickets chatter and langurs swing from branches, screeching and scratching.  Anthills taller than humans stand sentinel along the narrow path furrowed by human feet. We reach a cardamom plantation and the owner invites us into his jungle home where he has an ingenious furnace that dries the aromatic produce.  It is hard work, shovelling logs into the furnace and drying cardamom in trays, fetching it to the market for auction, but no, he is not complaining. He likes it up there where he has brown pandas and jungle cats for visitors. He offers to ride us back to Annapara in his ramshackle gypsy and we accept his offer with alacrity. We have a very bumpy ride through a very scenic route in a jalopy very redolent of cardamom.

We wrap up our memorable trip to Wayanad with a visit to Edakkal caves famous for their rock etchings made by primitive men and women.  Climbing vertical Chembara Peak would have been child’s play compared to this most arduous trek up steep incline strewn with the most  jagged of rocks.  One has to watch every step, but that was the least of our worries. This being a Sunday, the place was packed with local visitors including a huge contingent of kids in school uniform and there was risk of stampede. It is a wonder that we did reach the cave without a major accident. But we were disappointed to find that there was no board, no information on the etchings nor a guide to unlock the wonders of the cave. Worse, none of the fellow visitors seemed to have any interest in the etchings except to get them as a backdrop to their own pictures. Thus we watched hundreds of flash bulbs pop and people posing and smiling with nary a glance at the wonderful messages carved by our pre-historic ancestors!

(Published in The Tribune on April 4, 2010)

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