Stuck somewhere within the monotony of our lives, we always seek for an escape from the regular course of our lives, the demanding nature of our professional pursuits, the hustle and bustle of the urban areas we live in. And nothing is more enthralling than traveling, exploring and letting oneself loose in the lap of nature.
Without an iota of doubt, Bangalore is blessed with a wide range of weekend getaway options. One hardly indulges in pondering, as the mainstream places would surface to make its claim. Being an avid traveler, my travel diaries have consisted of many places but this instance my travel appetite sought for a virgin destination. After some contemplation, I zeroed down on Kookal, a small valley near Kodaikanal. Intrigued by its description from one of my friends, nature lover himself and above all has been a travel companion to me in a lot of journeys, I finally decided to explore the place. Kookal is a small Panchayat village of terrace farmers at the far western end of the Palani Hills at a distance of 40 kilometers from Kodaikanal.
With an indulgence to explore the beautiful valley of Kookal we commenced our journey from Bangalore, we boarded the overnight bus that runs from Bangalore – Kodaikanal. Most of the buses one would avail ensure arrival at Kodaikanal by early morning. That gives you the window to catch the early morning bus from Kodaikanal to Kookal at 8 am. Over the course of a day, there are 3 buses which run from Kodaikanal to Kookal and vice-versa. Traveling to Kookal via bus would be a pocket-friendly option as the cabs can be a bit exorbitant.
The journey from Kodaikanal to Kookal is an enchanting one, with the mist falling upon the shoals a sight for sore eyes. Sholas are a local name for patches of stunted tropical montane forest found in valleys amid rolling grassland in the higher montane regions of South India. These patches of shola forest are found mainly in the valleys and are usually separated from one another by undulating montane grassland. On the way to Kookal, one would come across the dense stretch of pine forest, a few villages practicing terrace farming on the sloppy terrains, swamps and mesmerizing lakes with the picturesque landscapes.
Right before approaching the Kookal Lake that is located right at the center of the valley one would come across a few home stays. The options for accommodation in Kookal are very limited with hardly 3 to 4 home stays and it doesn’t have any resort or hotel. If one intends to go for camping, better carry all the amenities from the nearest town or city. In our case, we took a cab from Kodaikanal and took a drop in front of our homestay in Kookal since we weren’t aware of the bus timings from Kodaikanal to Kookal at that juncture. But in both options of commute, you can take a drop near the homestays. The landscapes from the homestays are breathtaking, as the homestays are aligned along the hilly slopes that descend to the lake which houses a wide range of biodiversities. A portion of the lake, which caters to the interaction of different species of wild animals and predators, is outlawed for traverse by the forest department on safety grounds, no matter how badly we wished to explore that.
On our arrival at the home stay, we received a warm welcome from the care taker and the room was reasonable and hygienic. To be honest, we didn’t really care much about the room; rather smitten by the splendor of nature that allured our eyes throughout the stay. Unlike the great Himalayas the Palni hills, that houses the Kookal village and most of the Nilgiris, don’t have the elevation to captivate one with its colossal presence. But they still manage to create a mesmerizing impression with the ethereal mist swaddling the valley and with the soothing weather at its capricious best. We could witness multiple landforms on earth like grassland, swamp, and lake interacting closely with a landscape that stands beyond description. The landscapes on display further enticed us to step out of our homestay for a trek across the valley. The weather was at its very best; we could feel the gentle breeze spattering the tiny droplets of the drizzle, which can perhaps nullify any exhaustion one can experience.
I would take this opportunity to introduce one of the intriguing facets of this valley, the Psilocybin mushrooms colloquially known as magic mushrooms or shrooms, which reportedly grow only in the Kodaikanal range of Palni hills in India.
These mushrooms are used mainly as an entheogen and recreational drug whose effects can include euphoria, altered thinking processes, closed and open eye visuals, synaesthesia, an altered sense of time and spiritual experiences. While trekking along the village we came across a few locals, who were trying to sell those to us. Having beforehand knowledge about the shrooms we considered their intake after some contemplation only for the sake of recreational experience, ensuring right guidance in terms of dosage and manners of consumptions from the locals. We consumed the shrooms in one of the traditional ways i.e. with honey. Though there can be multiple ways of consumption like with any preferred edible spread or with an omelet. But in all the cases one shouldn’t wash the mushrooms after plucking and they shouldn’t be cooked. They should be chopped and garnished over any edible substance complementing it. On washing or cooking, they are believed to lose their potency. Post consumption we didn’t experience the after effects straight away as it takes 45min – 60 min for psilocybin to be ingested, it is broken down to produce psilocin, which is responsible for the psychedelic effects.
As we trekked to one of the hilltops of Kookal passing through the scenic village, the pristine landscapes and the marvels of the nature around were more captivating. The sun rays were seeking a passage through the mist that veiled a lake with a majestic backdrop of petite montane hills; beguiled to witness the vivid colors of the objects around and in awe of the tranquility that surrounded us we experienced a sudden rush of euphoria.
Strolling past the village we decided to trek to one of the hilltops to get a better view of the entire village. Though the unconventional route taken for the trek was a bit taxing but we were spell bound to see the landscapes and carried on. Mesmerized to see the cloud play in action, the exhaustion from the trek was slain by the cool breeze blowing across the crest of the hill, we found ourselves surrounded by a stretch of ageratum flowers all across the upper terrain. Though the mist had shrouded a portion of the landscape but as it cleared we got a clear view of all the hills aligned along the valley and the entire Kookal village.
We cherished the view for the next couple of hours until we decided to trek down to the village by taking the conventional route. It was a pleasant trek downhill as we came across the locals practicing terrace farming on the slopes of the hills. They were mostly growing cabbages, cauliflowers, and carrots.
We also happened to stop by in one of the tea shops in the village, where some eyeballs got rolling with a curiosity glued to them; conceivably because they hardly come across any non natives. Thankfully we found a young boy at the shop who could speak some broken English. He helped us with the route and we had some nice tea with a picture perfect view. We headed back to our homestay before it was dark and spent the evening leisurely recollecting the fond memories from an eventful day.
The next morning around 7 am we hear someone knocking at our door, on opening the door the caretaker pointed out at a deer and a fawn drinking water from the lake, with all excitement I woke up my other friends and we headed towards the extreme end of the front yard to get a better view. Moments later we witnessed one of the cruelest acts of predation. The deer and its fawn were attacked by some wild dogs; the wild dogs usually hunt in packs. Though the deer was quick enough to respond and run for its life but the fawn couldn’t escape its hapless fate as they caught hold of it. They tore it apart in minutes; we saw four wild dogs feasting on their prey, later joined by a few more. From a certain perspective, some may find it disturbing to witness, but I believe seeing one of the realms of wildlife from such proximity is a treasured experience. As per our itinerary we were supposed to head for Mannavanur by afternoon.
Mannavanur is a small farming village, which is 15 km from Kookal. The entire village is adorned by the lake, surrounded by hills from all sides and a wooden bridge with a picturesque backdrop that facilitates the passage over a swamp. Though the lake has become a touristy destination off late, but on the other side of the lake, one can find a secluded peaceful montane forest stretch which grows thicker as you delve further.
We felt invigorated with the plethora of landscapes on display and trekked towards the stretch of forest cover by the lake. We cherished the trek thoroughly as the weather couldn’t have been any better and to complement that we had some fresh carrots, grown on the slopes of Mannavanur to devour. They were being sold by the locals at a reasonable price and tasted incredible, perhaps the sweetest & juiciest carrots we ever had. It was overcast with the mist playing over the small hilly terrains.
We decided to spend some time in the woods exploring the lush green foliage and came across a thick layer of mosses in certain regions which were clammy. It seemed as if a green carpet has been laid out in the middle of the forest. We also came across some uncanny spiders which adapted themselves to the environment and devised forest survival skills by spinning symmetrical cobwebs across the barks of two trees to predate, giving them a larger reach. Trekking through the areas, where the shoals meet the swamps in Nilgiris is a serene experience and we decided to camp near a nice scenic spot in the middle of the forest to experience the tranquility of nature.
As the evening approached we trekked back to our cab waiting by the lake and explored the market of Mannavanur which comprises of hardly 10-12 shops and bought some snacks and headed back to our homestay in Kookal. By the time we reached our home stay it got dark, after relaxing for a while we brought in the barbecue plan into action. The homestay had all the arrangements for the same. The care taker helped us to set it up and then the evening unraveled into a blissful night. Later in the night, we were lucky to witness one more marvels of the universe, as the skies cleared all the stars in the sky illuminated the valley making it one of the most pleasant sights one can witness. We stargazed for close to thirty minutes before the clouds intruded again but nevertheless there was a feeling of contentment as the fickle weather back there isn’t very friendly and we were lucky to have witnessed that. There were moments throughout the day where we wanted the time to stand still to savor the beauty of nature but at best we could only seize the moments we were experiencing and cherish them forever.
The following evening we were heading back to Bangalore, which gave us a window till late afternoon to explore the valley better. So after some early morning breakfast at the home stay, we went for a hike across the valley towards the forest check post to explore some more landscapes and it was a pleasant hike. From what we experienced over the weekend was a nothing less than bliss to our souls. If one seeks for seclusion and introspection for a peace of mind, this place is an ideal one. While going back we took a bus to Kodaikanal, it takes a hour and a half to reach Kodaikanal from Kookal, so if one catches the 4 pm bus he can easily reach Kodaikanal on time to avail the buses which mostly depart after 6’30 pm. Since we reached early we took a stroll in the markets of Kodaikanal. One might want to consider buying some homemade chocolates, herbal products, and herbal oils from the stores. The homemade chocolates are delicious and they come in different variants, fillings, and flavors. And if you wish to please your taste buds with some nice south Indian food, Astoria a vegetarian restaurant can offer you some nice staple south Indian delicacies. With a desire to revisit this stretch of Nilgiris again, we boarded the bus from Kodaikanal to Bangalore, reaching home the subsequent morning and bringing an end to our weekend getaway that was nothing less than a rejuvenating experience.