Kalakkad Mundanthurai is the southern most tiger reserve of India, shortly known as KMTR. Normal access to the reserve is through Ambasamudram, in Thirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, the eastern side of Western Ghats. There are pockets of tea plantations within the reserve viz. Manjolai, Nalumukku, Oothu etc. I had explored these place during March 2009 and could reach up to Upper Kodayar reservoir along the road from Ambasamudram (For that travelogue click here)
Though the track extended beyond the reservoir, couldn't explore further as there was a gate with three locks, across the dam, blocking the passage. A TNEB employee who was guiding us then, revealed that the track beyond the gate lead to Muthukuli, the core of KMTR, to which permission is strictly denied. Muthukuli, being the western side of KMTR, is more close to my home town Trivandrum, but access to the place, as I knew, was only through the east, via Ambasamudram.
In July 2010, Sunil, Dinesh and I had a two day trip to Kanyakumari, with our families. As it was a leisure trip, we avoided the regular NH 47 and opted SH 45 of Tamil Nadu, which went along the foot hills of Western Ghats and ended up at Aaralvaimozhi, just 30 kms from Kanyakumari. I had 'Kalikesham', a small waterfall, in my mind, which was a mere 11 km deviation from SH 45. Convinced Dinesh, a DFO with the Forest Dept., that it wouldn't consume much time, and took a left turn at Thadikarankonam, to reach Keeripara, which is 9 km from SH 45. As Dinesh had intimated Forest Dept. officials about the journey, we had Murukan and Subbalekshmi, dept. staff, waiting for us at Keeripara. They took us to Kalikesham river, just four kms from Keeripara, where the road ended by the river side.
A chat with Murukan revealed that 4WD jeeps and heavier vehicles can cross the river flow, to get on to the track on the other side, which leads to Balamore Estate, a spice plantation. He continued that the estate authorities will not allow vehicles to enter the estate, with out permission from forest dept. and hence vehicles seldom cross the river. Why should it be so and what would happen to the track, once it crossed Balamore estate? Murukan, the poor chap, unaware of my intentions, opened up that its KMTR beyond the estate and 14 km up the slippery forest track, from the estate limit is 'Muthukuli' !!.
I had what I wanted and Murukan was in trouble. He opted defense and found it hard to convince us that the track beyond the estate is blocked by a gate and its key is under the custody of Kulasekharam Range officer, which shall be handed over only on direction from DFO Kanyakumari and so on. Of course that would take time, but Murukan can take us to Balamore at least. He conceded and we had two 4WD jeeps from Keeripara, on which we crossed Kalikesham river and drove up to 'Kaduva Pori', the eastern end of Balamore estate.
The track to Balamore is about 8 km long from Kalikesham and winds through thick woods, along the side of Kalikesham river.
Just on crossing the river, Kalikesham Falls can be spotted below the track, to its right.
Our chauffeur, Vincent, was born and brought up at Keeripara and he was well versed with the geography of the place. At a turning he stopped the vehicle, by a boulder, which had burrows drilled into it. It was not burrows but marks of elephant attacks, to taste the salt content, the boulders had, and the place was meaningfully named 'Aana Kuthi Modangu'.
At the estate entrance, Subbalekshmi got out of the vehicle, and we were allowed in.
An abandoned tea factory by the way side indicated the past glory of the property.
The mountain folds of Maramalai, spread opposite to ours, is famous for its clove plantations. Finally after an hours drive, we reached 'Kaduva Pori', which means 'Tiger Trap'. Many good old ones would have lost their lives here. While Vincent was turning the vehicle, for our return, I was watching the track, which went further winding up, inviting.
Thus, for the second time, Muthukuli is just out of our cup. Returned to Kalikesham by 3 PM, had a late lunch at a remote joint there, and continued with our trip to Kanyakumari.
Before the third journey to KMTR, did a lot of home work. Though a bit risky, decided to take our family along with. Made use of all available contacts and Thiruvananthapuram DFO, Mr. Pradeep Kumar, was of real help. He had direct contacts with Kanyakumari DFO and KMTR DFO and he introduced us to them, over telephone. Decided Vincent to be our chauffeur and Murukan to be our guide, and obtained permissions accordingly.
Thus by 6.30 AM on 10 - 09 - 2010, Sunil, Renchi, Sreedevi, I and our kids, were off in our Alto, for Keeripara. Reached Keeripara by 9 AM to find Murukan, Vincent and Jayasekhar, the forest official in charge of the place, waiting for us. On producing the permission letter, Jayasekhar handed over the keys to Murukan, and we boarded Vincent's 4WD by 9.15 AM. Crossed Kalikesham river, went through Balamore estate, exited at Kaduva Pori, and we were in KMTR.
Woods slowly transformed to grass lands, with altitude, and pockets of canopies appeared occasionally. Pechipara reservoir, in the valley, went on shrinking, as we climbed.
Vincent drove towards the gate alone and we followed the track walking. Thick greenery is peace and flowing water is hope - what I expect in all my journeys and what I achieve most often.
The track we were to follow, went along the hillside, to the top of the adjacent mount.
Kids ran along the track to reach the gate earlier. Murukan had by then opened the gate and got the vehicle through.
Continued to the hill top amidst the drizzle, and had another stop.
Had a wide angle view from the hilltop and could trace the winding path, we had already covered.
The climb was almost over and the descent to Muthukuli sector started. Unfortunately mist spread by then, limiting our view. It was interesting to hear that the Maharaja of Travancore had a palace at Muthukuli, which has now ruined to pebbles. Even the British had interest in this place, for gaming purposes. They even used to play football at this altitude, it seems. Vincent pointed to a plane meadow atop the hill, naming it 'Panthadikalam' - the football court.
The light greenery of the meadows slowly thickened to dark woods of KMTR core. The drizzling persisted, reducing the chances of wildlife sightings.
Sighting Bisons run along the track, Vincent stopped the vehicle. I got out and walked cautiously to the next bend, expecting them there, but in vain. From that point onwards, I opted to travel by the top of the vehicle, to have a majestic view of the woods. The ride wasn't that smooth, as I was seated on the spare Tyre, with both hands engaged in handling a handy-cam and a still camera. Low lying branches and thorny bamboo stems added to the woe.
Spotted a patch of water storage, at a distance, to realize that we were at the extreme end of Upper Kodayar reservoir.
Onward journey was along side the reservoir, with canopies and water columns alternating.
The jeep went over many bridge like structures, constructed to block water leakage from the reservoir.
Atop one such structure, Vincent stopped the vehicle abruptly, indicating a trouble. Got out to find the left front wheel flat. He had a lone spare Tyre and he got armed with the jack, for the replacement. That was a cause of worry, as we have to travel all the way back, with out another spare. Beauty of the nature around washed away all the ill thoughts in seconds, and I roamed around clicking, while the kids were busy with the Tyre change.
Got it right and, drove up to Upper Kodayar dam, and parked the vehicle by the dam side, in front of the gate with three locks, which I had mentioned in the very beginning. Thus I have reached up to this gate, from both sides; from the eastern side earlier, and now from the western side of KMTR. And, if not for these locked gates, slippery tracks of KMTR, and stringent restrictions imposed by the forest dept., this would have been the shortest path to Ambasamudram and Thirunelveli, from Trivandrum. But let it not be so.
As we were roaming around, a forest patrol jeep appeared from the eastern side, all of a sudden, and armed personnels surrounded us, threatening an arrest, for illegally trespassing the protected area. They even ignored the presence of a forest dept. staff with us. The issue was that the KMTR DFO had failed to transmit the information about our visit, through the Muthukuli side, to the field staff of KMTR. The place was out of cellular coverage, and there was no scope of contacting the senior officials. Some how I managed to explain the whole story, to their head, a Range Officer. He was thankfully patient to listen, and the permission letter, we had carried along, brought them back to earth, to let us go free. Still I felt the discomfort in them and decided to clear off the place soon, to avoid further hassles.
By around 3 PM, stopped the vehicle near a huge plane rock, to have our lunch, which was just bread and biscuits. Crossed Muthukuli and it started raining. Drove cautiously and deviated from Kaduva Pori, for Kilaviyaar falls, a small descent of Kilaviyaar rivulet, which flows into Pechipara reservoir.
Spend there a while, fighting leaches and reached back Keeripara by 6.30 PM.
This wasn't the end of the trip, but start of another, for we were heading to 'Maramalai', straight away, of which details will be shared in the next post.
Few days later, I had a sad message from Vincent. It was that the KMTR authorities had dug a trench across the Jeep track, we had traversed. Thus we remain the last vehicle riders to KMTR, through the west of Western Ghats.
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