It’s been a while since I did a solo trip and am not exaggerating by saying I have forgotten how to travel solo, especially after the pandemic. I did few trips with my family, but traveling solo calls for a different mindset and breaking the shackles. My best solo trips in the past happened with least planning and facing impromptu challenges head on, and that was the plan. Reminiscing about my early days, I decided to do a solo trip a little distant from my hometown, Bangalore. A destination in the plains of South India was ruled out as summer had already set in and it will be blistering. So hill station it is but there aren’t any left that I have never been to. One thing I had clarity on was, this trip is going to be a train journey, something I haven’t done in years. A return confirmed reservation with Indian Railway at short (rather very short) notice was unheard of, not long ago. Fortunately or unfortunately, the pandemic has changed the dynamics in the solo traveler’s favor
After scanning options with limited train routes currently plying, I zeroed in on Kodaikanal, a popular hill station in Tamil Nadu. A solo trip is also a budget trip, and that is how I wanted this trip to be. So no luxury (even though I could well afford it). The plan was to spend money where it really matters and cut-down where unnecessary, finding alternate and economical ways.
A picture taken with Analog Camera during my first visit to Kodaikanal 15 years ago, nostalgia. Wanted to revisit one day.
Wondering why Kodaikanal, almost 500 kms. away from Bangalore and not any place nearby? It was 15 years since my last trip to Kodaikanal and I had decided at that time itself that I would revisit, someday. This seemed like the perfect time! I love being thrown challenges and this trip was no different. Nearest the train can take me to Kodaikanal is Kodai Road station which is 80 kms. away. The taxi option was exorbitant at Rs. 2,000 one way, so ruled out. I discovered bike rental service at Kodai Road with many positive experiences from the travelers. The website looked professional and had all the information needed. It was a pocket-friendly option that gave me freedom to explore off beat destinations in and around Kodaikanal on my own, something I always love to do. I hate touristy places. It was like "just what the doctor ordered."
Train tickets booked, the next was to book the bike. I selected the bike, entered my driver's license details, etc. and went to checkout, boom! I couldn't reach the payment page no matter how much I tried. Being a techie myself, I tried deviations, but a firm NO. I tried to call them, no response. This situation reminded me of Murphy's Law! Eventually, I discovered that they are out of business. Well, then why the hell is the website functioning? I found another renter (though unorganized) and contacted him to be informed that bike rental in Kodaikanal is history now. Taxi operators of Kodaikanal are bleeding for business due to pandemic and bike rental services are further denting their business. Hence taxi mafia started harassing renters, severely damaging bikes as well. Welcome to the world of SOLO traveling!
The frequency of public transport (buses) is low and could easily eat up half my day. So what next? Where there is a will, there is a way. I reached out to a travel group I'm part of and a good Samaritan came to my rescue. He advised me to get down at Dindigul instead of Kodai Road as it being a bigger city had more frequency of buses. This was the best way to reach Kodaikanal. He also introduced me to his family friend Franklin in Kodaikanal who entertains tourists, to take me around in his car for a reasonable price.
Eventually, overcoming these hurdles, I reached Dindigul at 6 am. The bus stand had signboards only in Tamil, which I didn't understand. Moreover, the people there do not speak any other language. For a while, it seemed like I am in no man's land. Thankfully, the inquiry clerk and few others understood my predicament and directed me to the right bus and instructed the driver to assist me. I have been traveling to South India for 15 years and it is one of my favorite places to visit in Tamil Nadu, one of the reasons being the people are so nice and helpful. I reached Kodaikanal after a 3-hour bus journey through one of the toughest winding roads on the mountains stretching almost 50 kms. This bus trip cost me Rs. 81 against Rs. 2,000 for the taxi ride.
Franklin picked me up at the bus stop and my journey began. I decided to stay in a hostel, something I had not done in a while and it was an amazing experience. I met many solo and group travelers and we had lot of stories to share with each other. Franklin figured that I am not interested in covering touristy places barring a couple of them rather, wanted to explore villages and interior beauty of the place. The moment we passed through a dense pine forest, my fading memory of Kodaikanal was rekindled. Last time, due to many tourists, stoppage on the road was not allowed. This time, that was not the case and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to spend some time getting good clicks.
Calmness and serenity of the pine forest is mesmerizing and you don't want move away from here.
We passed through Rose Garden and Palani Hill view, which were flooded with tourists, so we just breezed through. Most tourists generally return from here but we continued further. After about 18 kilometers from Kodaikanal my visual senses awakened as I faintly spotted a lush green valley. I requested my guide to stop but he had a better spot in mind. We stopped at Sai Baba Temple on the highway and I got a 180-degree view of a beautiful and lush green valley. Here, the historical and picturesque village of Poombarai is located at an elevation of 6,300 feet. The priest of temple obliged for me to go down from the temple to capture the stunning view without trees obstructing my camera. Learn more about things that you must not miss while visiting Kodaikanal.
Poombarai village is nestled between misty hills and surrounded by lush green landscape and step farming fields
After shooting a part of the video, Franklin took me to a vantage point to capture this stunning village. We retreated a bit and stopped at "Hotel Bala". I thought it was a good pit stop for some piping hot tea in the chilly weather. Hotel Bala is situated at a point from where you start to descend for the village providing the perfect elevation to see the valley. Franklin and I took a stroll to the rear side for the magical view, perfect for a video. Better still, I got to shoot from the terrace of the hotel since it belonged to his brother, Bala. I doubt I would have ever got such an elevation to capture this stunning video, if not for Franklin and his 'contacts'. Poombarai village is one of the stunning places for photographers in Kodaikanal.
Driving through the village of Poombarai offered a glimpse of the activities of local people. I was pleasantly surprised to know that the locals do farming without pesticides and the produce is 100% organic. Franklin bought lot of local produce for his home like garlic, peas, etc. I got to taste the peas and believe me, I had never tasted such sweet peas in my life. We paid a visit to the 3,000-year-old Kuzhanthai Velappar Temple dedicated to Lord Murugan.
It is believed that a Tamil Siddhar by name Bhogar has built this temple between 550 and 300 BC
We were just half-way down and still had to drive further interior to another village, Mannavanur. Franklin, by now figured my style and realized that reaching destinations will take longer thanks to me stopping numerous times to capture the scenic view as they come by. He was a pleasant guy and was rather excited because it was the first time a GoPro was mounted on his car. My excitement was quite visible as we passed through the rolling hills and lush green cascade of farming fields. A blend of clear blue sky and shining sun added glory to my pictures and videos, which I absolutely love. This place is also famous for adventure lovers who trek in search of hidden waterfalls.
Overnight showers and a shining sun help the cascading fields glow green
Mannavanur is a small farming village at 6,000 feet with a population of a little over 1,000. The locals mostly do terrace farming. The lush green cascaded terraces where they grow garlic, cabbage, carrots, peas, etc., all 100% organic, is a spectacular sight. The drive that passes through dense pine forest is mesmerizing with some parts so dense that even sunlight cannot penetrate.
A stunning drive for the road trip and offbeat destination lovers
An hour after a stop-start journey through picturesque landscape and narrow roads through the pine forest, we reached the end point, Mannavanur Lake. The lake is home to many species of birds that are usually seen in plenty at dawn and before sunset. There were no tourists apart from me so, I relaxed, rejuvenated and then indulged in some stunning photography. There is a sheep farm nearby and you might sometimes see a flock of sheep grazing around.
Mannavanur Lake is situated amid captivating meadows surrounded by majestic hills
It was an eventful day and I was exhausted. We had a 2-hour to drive back to my hostel and my idea was to have an early dinner and crash. But a spectacular surprise was awaiting me, something you can't even dream of.
My hostel is a big bungalow, converted. It is located atop a hill and is constructed with slopes and two sides facing small forestland. My room was at the back towards the slope facing a big backyard full of grass and trees. It was 6 pm and I was on a phone call when I noticed an animal's head popping out from the bushes across the boundary wall of my hostel. Initially, I thought it's a cow that is grazing and suddenly I realized it is a BISON. I was just 6 feet away from an 8 feet compound wall that was separating us. I know Bison is a dangerous animal and I need to be careful, it kills more human beings each year than by Elephants and Cat family combined. I was the only person in the backyard at that time so there was no intimidation to the animal and hence, it is very unlikely to attack. I raced to my room to grab my camera and headed straight to the wall, confident that it was my protective shield . It was a male and he was cool and allowed me to take as many pictures as I wanted. Suddenly, my camera battery died and I went to my room to replace it. When I returned, the big guy was right near the compound wall of my hostel. What if he jumps over? Well, I was not a threat to him so he has no reason to attack. But I told myself to be cautious, anyway. My only escape in case he attacks is taking a flight of 15 stairs up at the front desk. I was also aware that Bison can run at 60 KMPH and I was no match to that!
Guess what? He did jump the wall in a fraction of a second while I was still taking a video. I panicked and rushed towards the stairs scratching my foot and the camera slipped out of my hand onto the grass. The Bison was cool; he jumped the wall to graze in our backyard, as the thick grass was inviting. My presence did not bother him at all. I breathed a sigh of relief and quickly grabbed my camera (luckily, no damage) and started taking the videos again. I turned around and what do I see? One more head popping out from those bushes, the female. I knew exactly where she is heading and kept my distance. The dog at our hostel started barking continuously and rushed downstairs to own his territory, but he was no match for these giants. We looked at each other, I wanted to say, dude, let them enjoy their meal and leave, DO NOT provoke. But it was his territory and his pride was at stake, so he tried intimidating them with zero luck... With the parents in our backyard, the baby also appeared from the bushes and came near the wall to jump and join them. The dog sensed the opportunity and rushed to the wall to prevent the cub from jumping over but he could delay the inevitable just for a minute. It was amazing to see how these huge creatures easily jumped over the high wall. I could capture the entire Bison family at a distance of 4-6 feet. We spent 20 minutes together, I gave them their space and they allowed me to shoot them as much as I wished before hostel staff came rushing to shoo them away and the dog felt victorious.
An all-alone encounter with Bison family in Kodaikanal
The Bison story is over but I learnt two new things that day. Bison always roam around as a family so if you sight one then there are others in the vicinity. Bison have killed 12 tourists in Kodaikanal in the recent past. This is inevitable when we encroach land meant for wildlife.
Day 1 in Kodai was very eventful and I finally retired exhausted but satisfied and in anticipation of day 2 which is another story, altogether.
Stunning view of cloud cover from Vattakanal viewpoint
A rare sight of Flying Squirrels in the forests of Kodaikanal