Tea plantation road at sunset in Valparai, Anamalai Hills, Tamil Nadu, India

In the shadow of elephants in Valparai

Humans struggle to live alongside elephants, gaur (sometimes also called Indian bison), leopards and macaques in the Anamalai hills around Valparai, as tea and coffee plantations slowly replace the area’s ancient rainforests.

After a very interesting few days of temple-viewing in Madurai and Thanjavur (Tanjore), we drove for six hours up into the Anamalai Hills of India’s Western Ghat mountains to the tiny little plantation town of Valparai. A part of us expected that this would be just like Coonoor, Coorg and the other places we’ve been in the Western Ghats. But another part of us knew that Valparai and its surrounding hills are at the forefront of a struggle. Here, man and animal try to live alongside, as their habitat shrinks while ours expands. And we knew that this would be a very different experience.

Also read: 5 awesome mountain holiday destinations in India

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Wild elephants try to cross a busy road (Courtesy: Nature Conservation Foundation)

Living with wild animals

Most of our drive from Thanjavur was through the plains. The last hour or so, though, was through the hills of the Anamalai Tiger Reserve, and that set the tone for the rest of our visit. For the next three days, we kept our eyes peeled for glimpses of unfamiliar animals and birds. Of course, the fact that we were guests of the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) also might have had something to do with it. NCF, among other things, is working to reduce the conflict between humans and animals in the Western Ghats. Project leaders Divya Mudappa and TR ‘Sridhar’ Shankar Raman have lived in Valparai for close to two decades, trying to restore fragments of degraded rainforest, studying how the breaking up of habitats affects wildlife, working to safeguard endangered species, and keeping elephants and gaur from hurting people—and vice versa.

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A herd of wild elephants in a tea plantation (Courtesy: Nature Conservation Foundation)
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Elephants and humans don’t usually get along this well (Courtesy: Nature Conservation Foundation)

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We got to the NCF guesthouse in Iyerpadi, a few kilometres outside Valparai, early that evening. The guesthouse and basecamp were in Parry Agro Industries’ tea plantation, and after unpacking, we headed down the path to the basecamp to say hello to the team. Among the jovial scientists, researchers and students we met over welcome cups of hot tea were M Ananda Kumar and Ganesh Raghunathan, the two men who have been instrumental in setting up an early warning system to help locals steer clear of elephants when they get too close.

Watch this brilliant video on the work Anand and Ganesh are doing.

Dinner that evening was hosted at Sridhar and Divya’s charming home in Valparai, with the NCF’s regional office next door, and their landlord—an avid motorcycle collector with a mint-condition vintage Norton Dominator in his garage—at the end of the street. Over dinner, the two regaled us with stories of their encounters with the area’s wildlife. The highlight was Sridhar’s account of a leopard that was sitting on the roof of their living room one morning!

On the way back to the guesthouse, we spotted a porcupine, with its long striped quills, scuttling away between the tea bushes next to the road, but couldn’t get a picture (though we did figure out what tea bushes look like from the point of view of a porcupine). That night, as instructed, we didn’t go out, for fear of encountering the big male gaur that liked to hang out outside the guesthouse, or a stray elephant. I woke up sweating in the middle of the night to the sound of snuffling and dry leaves crackling outside my window, but that was probably just a wild boar.

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A leopard hangs out (Courtesy: Nature Conservation Foundation)

Of rainforests and silver-haired monkeys

The next morning, we headed out to take a look at NCF’s EcoQuest Nature Discovery Center, a cottage on the main road just outside the estate that they’ve converted into an information center on Indian wildlife and its habitats. The center’s exquisite hand-painted murals and carefully curated displays were incredibly interesting. We spent at least an hour wandering though the little rooms, each dedicated to a different subject. Finally, we even ended up buying their ‘Indigenous Birds of India’ tee shirts, too.

We then headed to the rainforest nursery where NCF grows saplings of indigenous rainforest trees. The saplings are transplanted to patches of degraded forests in an effort to rebuild the area’s habitats. They also help form corridors for wildlife to move between larger patches of rainforest. After years of trial and error and thousands of saplings, Sridhar and Divya have figured things out. They know which trees to grow, how long they take until they can be transplanted, and where to transplant them to. As we drove to and from the nursery, Sridhar proudly pointed out patches of forests they have restored to their natural state over the years. But he also talked about how much more work there was to be done.

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The view from the NCF basecamp
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A game of hill cricket interrupted
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This is Iyerpadi
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The EcoQuest center
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One of the many displays in EcoQuest
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This is probably what tea bushes look like to a porcupine
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Blankets being aired outside a neighbor’s house
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NCF’s rainforest nursery
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Sridhar and Divya in their natural habitat, and as camera-shy as the wildlife they fight to protect
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A Nilgiri langur on the lookout
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A bonnet macaque up to monkey business among the pepper vines
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A forest shrine in the mist
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A pond heron on the hunt

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All the tramping about that morning had made us hungry. So we headed to NCF’s go-to eatery, the very basic but extremely good Mary Matha Mess. On the way, we saw a troop of endangered lion-tailed macaques along the main road, trying to raid a house a little further down the valley. We were a little confused, at first, because of how similar they look to Nilgiri langurs. It turns out the macaques are smaller and have a larger mane than the langurs. Besides watching the macaques, we also said hello to the NCF staffer tasked with warning passing cars of the monkeys’ presence to try and avoid accidents.  After a few minutes of admiring these small but majestic-looking monkeys, we listened to our stomachs and headed in direction Mary Matha Mess.

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A large lion-tailed macaque surveys its troop

Our long lunch was a traditional meal of rice, vegetables, sambar, rasam and curds served on a fresh banana leaf and accompanied by a masala omelette—one that we tucked into with such gusto that we had to stagger back to our car in the end. After lunch came our customary nap, of course, and after another round of evening tea with the NCF group, we took a long walk through the plantation to try and make up for the amount we ate at lunch. We failed.

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The plantation road past the guesthouse and basecamp
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Plantation symmetry

Dinner that night was another cosy affair at Divya’s and Sridhar’s home, with more food, drink and pleasant conversation. We couldn’t do justice to the food because of the day’s lunch, though, and promised we would finish the leftovers the next day. Later that night, just before turning in, I set up my camera outside the guesthouse to try and capture the stars in the crystal-clear night sky. To my amazement, the photographs showed even more stars than I could see by just looking up! Imagine how many more must be out there…

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The night sky outside our guesthouse, with Orion (and the Orion nebula) towards the top, and the bright star Sirius near the bottom

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We miss a hornbill, see some gaur, and have a great last dinner

The next day was our last in Valparai, and we started it by trying to spot the endangered great hornbill. We drove to a spot where these big birds are known to nest. We crept about the forest for a while until Sridhar spotted a nest. Interestingly, hornbills nest in the hollows of trees, and females seal themselves inside. They only leave a small opening through which they are fed by the males. So while we found the nest, the most we saw was the bright orange tip of the female’s beak.

We stayed well away from the nest and kept as quiet as we could while we waited for the male to show up, but no luck. We didn’t dare stay longer than half an hour for fear that it was our presence that was keeping him away. So we walked back through the forest, spotting a Malabar giant squirrel here, a crested serpent eagle there, but no great hornbill.

During our walk, Divya received a call. An elephant had hurt a  local woman. It seems she had been walking through a plantation with some colleagues when they surprised a herd of elephants coming the other way. She was hurt when one of the elephants pushed her out of the way with its trunk. We were all concerned, but it turned out she was alright. She had been injured more by the fall than by the elephant’s actions. That’s an important distinction for the NCF, I suppose, in their efforts to keep public opinion on the elephants’ side.

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The orange beak of the female great hornbill peeks out of the nest
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This is what the rest of her would have looked like (Courtesy: Nature Conservation Foundation)
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Fungus on the forest floor
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Coffee berries ripe for the picking
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A curious Malabar giant squirrel right above us
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A red-whiskered bulbul with it’s jaunty crest
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Mountain layers

That evening, our last in Valparai, we were in for a treat: dinner had been organized for us at Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow, a plantation estate house converted into luxurious homestay. Twenty minutes into our drive through the estate, we spotted a large herd of female gaur and calves at the bottom of the valley. We were very excited, because the most we had seen so far was three or four at a time. After a few minutes of frantic photography in the failing light, we moved on.

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Some members of the herd of gaur, with their fashionable white stockings. We counted at least 30 in all.

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Half an hour of driving through vast old plantations brought us to our destination. Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow is a lovely old colonial-style house on top of a hill, with a great view of the surrounding hills. We found out that it has six rooms, two in the main estate house and four in cottages. We hadn’t seen anything besides modest guesthouses and lodges until then, so we were impressed. This definitely seemed like the place to stay in Valparai—if you can get reservations. We were also told that elephants regularly roam the plantation near the estate house at night. We believed this even more when we saw a security guard patrolling the grounds with a torch after it got dark.

But elephants were soon forgotten when we sat down to the large spread of home-style food laid out especially for us in their conference room. In true home-style tradition, it was far too much. Just sampling everything left us so stuffed that we wouldn’t have noticed if an elephant had sat down to dinner with us.  Sinna Dorai’s, with its colonial charm, cosy rooms, traditional food and friendly staff would definitely be a great place from which to explore Valparai.

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Just case you didn’t know
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The warmly-lit front of the estate house
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A bench with a view

That night, I was woken up again by crackling leaves—and munching sounds!—outside the window. I firmly believe that it was something big, maybe an elephant, but a gaur at the very least. I don’t think I’ll ever know. Maybe I need to go back and find out.

IQ’s top tips for Valparai

  • The closest airport to Valparai is Coimbatore, which has direct flights connecting to lots of cities in South India. The taxi from Coimbatore to Valparai will cost you around Rs. 3,000.
  • On the drive up to Valparai, look out for the Nilgiri Tahr (a kind of mountain goat) that like to clamber around the sheer stony hills. There’s even a dedicated viewpoint.
  • The road up to Valparai has 40 hairpin bends. If you’re prone to motion sickness, avoid eating before driving up or down.
  • The area is much less touristy than hill stations like Ooty, so expect basic facilities and fewer things to do.
  • The town itself doesn’t have many above-average accommodation options. If you like luxury, your best bet is to stay at Sinna Dorai’s Bungalow.
  • Remember that wild animals always have the right of way. DO NOT try to feed them, get their attention or provoke them. You could end up hurting them or yourself.
  • The more quiet you are, the better your chances of seeing wildlife.
  • Wild elephants and gaur are notoriously bad-tempered. If you encounter any, get away as fast as you can.

Veggie tip

A local favourite is ‘barota’, which is what they malabar parota, and is usually served with chutney or potato curry. Even otherwise, vegetarian food is easy to come by.

Also read: 5 awesome mountain holiday destinations in India

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