It was another free weekend and a glance at the calendar reminded me that the school holidays is going to be over in a few days. We were yet to go on the family trip we had planned for the holidays. This time we decided we will stick to someplace which is easily driveable from my home near Trivandrum city.
I quickly checked the weather prediction on Accuweather iPhone app (it is pretty accurate when it comes Kerala climate) and it turned out it is going to be a pretty sunny weekend. So the obvious choice was to explore western ghats in Trivandrum on the way to Ponmudi. Our candidate places included Thenmala wildlife sanctuary, Peppara Wildlife sanctuary, Neyyar wildlife sanctuary, Konni forest areas.
We finally decided to go on a two day trip with first day spent on driving through interesting places around Vithura (Peppara Dam) and Palode (Botanical garden) and then next day spent somewhere near Kallar river with the family (Dukes Forest Lodge) and finally end the trip on a high note by visiting the Ponmudi mountain. This was the best time to visit Kallar river in upstream since water was less and even small children could enjoy the water stream (my son is 3 years old).
My "Multi-terrain SUV" – Maruti Esteem
There was another motivation for the road trip. My "SUV", Esteem had just undergone a major service at 70,000 and I had recently replaced the stock tyres with Michelin XM1+ tyres. I had also replaced the stock rim with alloy wheels and was itching to take Esteem on an off-road trip.
Maruti esteem had been a pretty reliable vehicle all these years. I had taken it to places where driving it without a rock hitting its bottom was extremely challenging! Yet it never failed me anywhere. In terms of comfort, esteem is pretty good when you go on long drives due to its low level seating.
Trip Plan – Peppara, Botanical Garden, Dukes Forest Lodge and Ponmudi
The following map shows our trip route (note that the driving directions in the map is not 100% accurate and the location of Dukes Forest Lodge is about 2KM from location D. Click on the map to view directions on Google maps). The idea was to start early morning on Saturday and after visiting Peppara and Botanical garden, stay at Dukes Forest Lodge for the night. Then on Sunday leave for Ponmudi at 4PM and then return from Ponmudi to at 7PM.
The map locations and their distances from home (Vattiyoorkavu) are given below. Add 8 Kilometers if you are travelling from Trivandrum city.
|From||To||Trip Distance||Total Distance||Time Taken|
|(A) Vattiyoorkavu (Home)||Peppara Dam||45KM||45KM||2.5 hours|
|(B) Peppara Dam||Palode Botanical Garden||28KM||73KM||2 hours (Lunch)|
|(C) Palode Botanical Garden||Dukes Forest Lodge||24KM||97KM||1 hour|
|(D) Dukes Forest Lodge||Ponmudi||19KM||116KM||1 hour (Day 2)|
|(E) Ponmudi||Vattiyoorkavu||52KM||168KM||2 hours (Day 2)|
Peppara Dam Visit (Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary)
On Saturday we started from home around 8am after a quick coffee. It seemed as if my esteem car was brimming with happiness ready to hit some rough road! Since I stay on the eastern side of Trivandrum city, I could completely bypass the town to head to our first pit stop at Vithura. You get first glimpse of majestic western ghats just before reaching Vithura. We reached Vithura at around 9:25 (30KM from home) and looked for a place for breakfast. We found a decent looking hotel named Rohini international located about 100m away from Vithura Junction towards Ponmudi road. But when we reached there they had only chapathi for breakfast. We returned back to Vithura and had breakfast at a small hotel near Vithura junction. The waiter gave a lot of Dosas and Idlis, but the food was bad. When you are in a local hotel, specifically mention how many Idlis/Dosas you need, never say you need a plate of those!
We again hit the Ponmudi road and after driving about 1KM from Vithura, we took a turn to the right to head towards Peppara dam. We rarely came across vehicles on this road. The road was in very poor condition, perfectly "suitable" for my "SUV" and tests my driving skills as a small slip means that my car is stuck on a rock!. Once we reached the forest areas things started getting interesting. Forest department had large areas of Acacia plantations and in many areas the wood harvest was over. This gave us a very good view of the western ghats and valleys ahead. You can clearly see the mountain ranges behind Neyyar wildlife sanctuary and Peppara wild life sanctuary. The elevation of the route seems to fluctuate between 100m and 200m till Peppara dam.
The above photo is taken about 8KM from Vithura Junction towards Peppara dam. We reached Peppara dam at 10:40am covering 45KM from Vattiyoorkavu.
Peppara dam is located around 55KM from Trivandrum city and is constructed over Karamana river. It was built to meet the water requirements of Trivandrum city till 2025 and is the lifeline of the city.
Aruvikkara dam was constructed across Karamana river to meet the drinking water requirements of Trivandrum city. It is located around 17KM from city centre. However it is a small dam and hold up to 4 days of water required for the city. Hence in 1983, Peppara dam was constructed on the upper reaches of Karamana river to act as a water bank for Aruvikkara dam.
Currently Aruvikkara dam supplies about 220 million litres of water and the city needs over 250 million litres of water. A new water supply scheme under JBIC (Japan Bank for International Cooperation) will increase the supply capacity of Aruvikkara dam by another 75 million litres per day. There are also other small projects to increase the total supply capacity of Aruvikkara dam to around 400 million litres per day. In order to have reserve water for 200 days, the Peppara dam would need to store 80 million cubic meters of water.
The current maximum water capacity of Peppara dam is around 40 million cubic meters and it can be increased to 70 million cubic meters if the reservoir level is increased to 110 meters from the current maximum of 104 meters. This is possible as the dam was designed with this height in mind. However it would submerge about 265 hectares of forest land. The Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary was notified assuming the submerging of this extra land. However now environmentalists are fighting against increasing of the dam level. If the reasonable demand of increasing the dam level is not met, Trivandrum city is heading for a severe water crisis in the coming years.
Interestingly KSEB (Kerala State Electricity Board) operates a 3MW mini hydroelectric power station located here.
Peppara Dam Map (via Google)
The above map indicates submerged areas when there is plenty of water. If you look closely you can see the dam on the lower left of the map. The road actually goes over the dam into the forest, but you need to park your vehicle outside the dam premises.
Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary
Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary consists of the Peppara dam and its surrounding areas. The sanctuary was created after the commissioning of the Peppara dam. The total area of the reserve is about 53 square kilometres (with about 10% of it submerged by Peppara dam). The sanctuary is home to a rich set of flora and fauna. The abundance of butterflies and birds was striking when I went there. There are many tribal settlements (Kani tribe) within the sanctuary.
Peppara Wildlife Sanctuary has a healthy population of elephant, wild dog, gaur, sambar, Lion tailed macaque, wild boar, Malabar squirrel and tiger. A substantial population of snakes including king cobra and python are in the sanctuary. The sanctuary is also well known for the abundance of bird species and butterflies. The forests here are located at elevation varying from 100m to 1500m and the forest types here include – tropical evergreen, semi evergreen and moist mixed deciduous.
At Peppara Dam
There is a check post at the Peppara dam entrance and you need to park your vehicles outside. The dam is a 100m walk from the entrance. At the entrance you need to write your name and address and then sign it during entry and exit. The watchman at the entrance mentioned that there is no entry fee and after glancing at my car said he requires "help" and I did "help" him. He also asked how many us are in the group, I said 4. He said that is bad since if we were a team of 5 or more, he needed only the name of the group leader. He explained that this strange rule was put in after someone drowned in the lake. Apparently the guy who drowned had entered only his name even though he was part of a group.
After the main entrance, there is a canteen located on the right side of the road. You can get light refreshments here. As you walk towards the dam, you will find KWA (Kerala Water Authority) guest house on the left side. This restricted place offers breath taking views of the lake and the forest. This guest house can be clearly seen from the other side of the dam.
As walk down the road you will suddenly see the dam located below you on the left side. Clearly the dam could have been constructed at a much higher height, but probably the height was decided based on the impact on the surrounding forest. You need to walk down stairs to reach the dam top entrance. Just before the dam top entrance, you can take a left and then walk down the path to reach the foot of the dam.
The sun was getting brighter and hotter and we were the only visitors at the dam! We walked over the dam and the other side of the forest part of the wildlife sanctuary extending to Neyyar wildlife sanctuary and Agasthyakoodam biological park. You need permission from forest department to enter the forest areas after the dam. You can walk about 100m to the left to reach the lakeside. Being alone at the lakeside is an experience worth every kilometre of the the pot hole ridden road we had driven through! :-). If you are adventurous, you can walk towards a semi-island structure which projects into the lake (which I think would be submerged when the water is high).
Being near the forests here is an exciting. You see butterflies and birds all around and the calm waters of the dam will fill you with inner peace! There is gentle breeze and the bamboo forest nearby tricks you with its sound that someone is moving around inside the forest.
We spotted a wide variety of butterflies including yellow group butterflies. The color of our slippers confused some of the butterflies.
We spent about half an hour here. I don’t recommend entering the water since the mud here can be dangerous. It is a marsh area and you can get stuck if you are alone!
We returned from the dam and on the way back we saw groups of youngsters wandering over the dam. At the parking area we met an old family who came all the way from Shanghumugham to visit Peppara Dam. The woman was already complaining how dangerous and boring the lonely drive was! The old man seemed embarrassed by the outbursts of his wife and was asking her to be calm and their teenage son appeared completely confused.
While returning back from Peppara Dam, we saw a road going to the right which looked well paved. The Google maps showed that it would lead us back to the main road, so I took a right turn. But after about 500m, the road just evaporated! So we had to turn back and take the usual route back to Vithura-Ponmudi road.
Trip to Palode Botanical Garden (TBGRI)
Our next destination was Palode botanical garden located about 18KM from Vithura. After the bad experience in the morning we decided to try a hotel around Palode for lunch. We found a good hotel just before reaching Palode junction on the right side. Hotel Maharani had good parking lot and the food was cheap and good. The owner and his staff was very friendly and they seem to be thriving on repeat business as the hotel was fully occupied. The building itself is a roadside shack, but food is tasty and the service good, so who cares?
We had Kerala meals with Fish fry and the total bill for 2 of us was Rs. 130 (the nasty breakfast at Vithura had cost us Rs.120). The guy serving us offered free rice with pappadam for children. The owner struck up a conversation asking where we were headed, I was like "err, hmm, well, we are headed to Palode!". He muttered "ok, so you are headed to Thenmala" and went on with his business.
There is also a plant nursery near the hotel. But if you are buying anything prepare for some hard bargaining, otherwise they may take you for a ride.
We then headed to Palode Botanical garden (known as Tropical Botanic Garden & Research Institute -TBGRI) located on the way to Thenmala. From the main road you can see the large entrance gate on the right. We parked the car in front of the gate and enquired with the security guard. He took my address and asked me to sign in a register and then asked me to get an entrance pass from the building just behind him. I went there and the lady there gave an application form to fill which asked everything that I had filled in the security register including name, address etc. etc. The lady then typed everything in a computer and it generated a pass with receipt for the entrance fee. There is also a parking fee. The pass reminded me that if I do anything nasty inside I would be liable and would probably be prosecuted. Indians love red tape!!
I came out and then decided to take the car inside since I had paid parking fee. The security guy exclaimed why I am wasting money since the parking is located barely 10 metres from the entrance and it had no roof. I could have left the car outside!
Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden & Research Institute (TBGRI)
Tropical Botanic Garden & Research Institute usually known as TBGRI is an autonomous botanical research institute under Government of Kerala. It was established under the scientific and charitable societies registration act of 1955. The research institute is spread over an area of 300 acres and is located about 40KM from Trivandrum city centre. The land was originally degraded forest and cassava cultivation.
The primary mission of TBGRI is to conserve, preserve, study and utilize plant wealth of Kerala. Other major activities include managing a botanical garden (including medicinal plants), botanical research and study, help botanical teaching and create public understanding of plant wealth and plant research.
The garden itself seemed well managed, however no help (a guide or written material) was provided to us when we went there. TBGRI website has a map of the area, but even with a microscope, I couldn’t read anything.
As you can see from the following board, the garden has over 3000 plant species and pretty good collections of orchids, palms and bamboos.
Inside Palode Botanical Garden (TBGRI)
We initially went to the left side of the garden which had a large number of bamboo trees and it was very calm place since we were the only visitors at the area. You can go uphill from here, but it is difficult for children. Yet we carried on to the top of the area and then came down on the other side walking to the right. This area houses the main buildings of the garden. All the flowering plants are located around this area. The presence of all this flora ensures that there is large population of butterflies and insects around this area. You can spend hours watching all the flora and fauna around here.
On the southern side of the garden you will find a decent collection of orchids (orchidarium) and Giant Water Lilly. The Chittar stream (a tributary of Karamana river) passes through the garden behind the Orchidarium. A new garden is being constructed near the Chittar stream and it may be open to public soon. There is also a lake nearby. There are plenty of birds, butterflies and other insects inside the garden.
The other major attractions here include the pitcher plant and a wood fossil which is millions of years old!! The fossil shown below is believed to be 20 million years old and is excavated from south Arcot district of Tamil Nadu (now protected area known as Thiruvakkarai fossil forest in Villupuram district).
All the time my wife was wondering why there are no guides around this place. I told her that perhaps no one is visiting this place and that is why there are no guides here. We met the lady at the entrance who issued the pass along the way and she guided us towards some of the attractions. Then she saw the camera in hand and said it is banned. She was wondering why none of the security guards are actively harassing us! She also said we need to get out of the place before 4:15. I packed my camera and we decided to visit the in-house canteen for a quick tea. By the time we reached they were going to close the shop, but the cook was considerate enough to prepare some tea made from excellent cow milk. Anyone who is drinking Milma milk for years will get a surprise whenever they drink pure milk, it suddenly feels heavenly!
I have some suggestions for people running the Botanical garden (I know it is a Kerala government institution and perhaps I have high expectations),
- The name plates on the plants are too small to read. Also some kind of suggested route map with arrows also would be helpful.
- It would very helpful if they added Malayalam common name along with the scientific name of the plant.
- It would also be very helpful for the visitors if they give some kind of visitor guide (they could charge a fee for it) detailing all the plants and their locations. This is more practical than having a full time guide.
By the time we left Palode Botanical Garden it was 4:30pm. Now we needed to hurry to reach Dukes Forest Lodge before nightfall (I wanted to see the beauty of the route) and it was our final destination for the day.
Dukes Forest Lodge Resort
Dukes Forest Lodge is a luxury resort tucked away in a rubber estate located around 6KM from Vithura towards Ponmudi. From Anappara Junction, you need to take a left to reach the estate entrance located on the left. The resort is ideal choice if you are looking for some quiet time with books, family or nature.
We reached Dukes Forest Lodge at around 6pm and was welcomed by the manager of the resort. Our house keeper for the day (Mr. Vahid who is actually the supervisor, but was working as staff member since there were only a few guests at the resort) introduced himself and offered us welcome drink (coffee or pineapple juice). We went with pineapple juice. After a quick introduction to resort and check-in formalities (collected full room rent as advance) we we taken to our Pool villa.
Mr. Vahid was the most charming host I have met in my tours. He interacted a lot with us and kept us entertained throughout our stay.
Most of the accommodation options at Duked Forest Lodge are Pool Villas which has a private pool with cold water Jacuzzi at the basement. The bed was so big that I had to shout to talk to someone on the other side! The villas are constructed on a slope and your room is actually located on the first floor. The ground floor contains only the private pool with beds nearby to relax. Our villa was closest to the main building and it offered excellent view of the Kallar river located about 50 meters in front and the forest beyond it. However it is not possible to walk directly to the Kallar from the villas, you need to go through the main resort building area.
The resort actually caters to the German tourists which was very evident from the books available in the library. Since the peak season was just over (which for some strange reason didn’t reflect on the tariff they charged), the service offered to us was not good. There was a wide screen TV in the room, but the cable subscription (Tata sky) had expired, which probably they would recharge only during the next season. Since there was a shortage of staff, we also didn’t get any room service. And lastly there was no power backup at our room. But the location and our exclusive access to the resort made us forget all these problems and the food was good.
After a quick bath we headed back to the large swimming pool located in front of the main building which housed a restaurant and an indoor game area. We had the entire pool for ourselves and we spent couple of hours in the pool. After a tasty dinner we headed back to our room and slept like babies!
I woke up early morning and sneaked out of the room for a bit of photography. There weren’t anyone in the nearby villas and the forest was very calm except for the song of the birds. The early sunlight fell on the shallow Kallar river and the whole place seemed like a mythical paradise. I was so absorbed with everything around that I forgot about photography.
Went back to the room and made a quick tea with the kettle provided (the kettle basket came with biscuits, tea bags and sugar sachets). They had a mini fridge with a bottle of water and soft drinks in it. The resort doesn’t provide any alcohol.
After a delicious and heavy breakfast (poori, bread, omelette and tea) we headed to the Kallar river. Usually Kallar is not safe for children since it had strong water current. But it was peak of the summer and the water level was at its lowest. It had enough water to be a pleasant stream for us to indulge in! The other side of the river is thick forest and had very tall trees which offered protection from sun.
The resort had constructed steps which leads visitors to the river from the swimming pool. We returned around 12pm and while walking up my daughter who was in front suddenly turned around and signaled us to stop. Without making any sound I walked up to her and she showed by a fairly big snake lying on the middle of a step. The head of the snake was not visible and it appeared as if the head was stuck in the side wall of the step. It looked as if it is a rat snake which is harmless, but I wasn’t sure. So I called up the supervisor and he and the other staff confirmed it is a rat snake. Interestingly the lady who came in the end (assistant cook) exclaimed,
For locals, for a reptile to be worthy of a snake, it has to have venom
After a delicious and heavy lunch which included a mouth watering but scary(!) special dessert called "Dukes special" (made of fruits, coconut and cocoa sauce) we decided to try the Jacuzzi pool.
The Jacuzzi is the major attraction since there are very few resorts in Trivandrum with a private Jacuzzi. The has a depth of around 4 feet and can easily accommodate a family! There is a circular stair from the Jacuzzi area to the villa. If you go with small children beware of this stair as it is open from the spacious balcony.
Other activities that is possible at Dukes Forest Lodge included forest walk, estate walk and most importantly just sitting at the first floor balcony overlooking the Kallar river and contemplating on meaning of life. There are also plenty of indoor games for families like chess, carroms etc.
All good things must come to an end and we checked out at 4:10PM. Our next destination was Ponmudi hill station. The idea was to walk among the mist and the clouds and return back home by night.
Trip to Ponmudi
From Dukes Forest Lodge, Ponmudi is at a distance of 19KM. On the way we came across Meenmutty falls entrance (to reach the falls you need to walk a couple of kilometers). The drive up the mountain to Ponmudi is exhilarating. There are 22 hairpin bends along the way and the road is good but narrow. While going up you need to be careful and should use your horn as I have seen hordes of reckless bachelors speeding downhill.
The road to Ponmudi goes through forest areas and you climb up the mountain through the right side. Towards the top, you will see the Ponmudi and the KTDC resort cottages on the left.
On the way up you will come across the entrance to KTDC Orchid restaurant on the left. The local police station, post office and the government guest house is located in the same area. KSRTC buses also start from here.
Government guest house offers the best view of the hills and it is cheap (less than Rs.500). However there is some red tape to be untangled since you need to do the booking from secretariat building in the city! Also for that price don’t expect any stellar service. This place also has a decent children’s park and a stone work probably made by Kanayi Kunjiraman. You can walk up to the terrace of the building near government guest house and if there is no mist, it offers excellent view of the valleys, forest and the mountains ahead.
The hotel Orchid charges international prices for anything they sell, yet the service is bad. We had asked for tea and we got coffee. The KTDC golden peak resort is located nearby but it has another entrance which is a few meters up hill after the forest check post. Again international pricing, but no room service!
After leaving Orchid and then crossing the KTDC Golden Peak resort entrance, we came across the check post which is now manned by VSS (Vana Samrakshana Samithi). We reached here around 5:15pm. The entry time is written as 8am-5pm, thankfully they allow entry after 5pm also (probably since it is good money). They charge Rs.20 per person for entrance and Rs.20 for the car. I have no clue why they charge the money as they provide absolutely no facility at the top of the mountain.
Gradually VSS (Vana Samrakshana Samithi – Forest protection council) units are becoming government bureaucracy, increasingly hostile to tourists. For example, when we went to Braemore estate, we were harassed by the VSS unit located at Mankayam. We told them that we were not going to Mankayam eco-tourism facility, but just passing through to the Braemore estate. But the forest staff there was adamant and we had to cough up Rs. 50 without receipt. I doubt whether the check post itself is legal on this road.
Another problem is that whenever you visit some forest areas, forest department will force an unqualified "guide" to accompany you. This is supposedly to support the local population and to protect forest areas, however is a big hassle when the guide decides what you should see and do! For example, try visiting the Thattekkadu bird sanctuary, last time I got a jobless boat driver (due to the Thattekkadu boat tragedy) as the bird watching guide. I am ready to pay double to get rid of such guides!
Horrible incidents such as the one in Thenmala, though isolated, clearly raises questions about local participation in forest protection. Interestingly there was hardly any local news coverage of the above incident. When people who are not qualified/trained and has no accountability are given power, they will do anything!
You need drive more than a Kilometre to reach the Ponmudi upper sanatorium. You can see the wireless station on the right of the road. You cannot drive all the way up to Sanatorium as they have put a roadblock 300 metres before the end of the road. Being a Sunday it was very crowded and we had to park our car far away from the main road side parking area.
This place is a very open space surrounded by mini hills and you could see people all round. The mist was gathering strength and it was getting difficult to see the valley. People just chilled out in open spaces enjoying the mist and the cool breeze. There was not a single peak nearby which was not occupied by tourists! Some groups were playing cricket on the top!
We walked around for an hour or so and then decided to head back home. It felt as if we were on the road for a month. Usually whenever a trip is over, children were sad and this time they had company in their sadness
- Accuweather Weather Forecasting (Pretty Accurate)
- Michelin XM1+ tyres (Excellent for Maruti Esteem)
- Peppara Dam on Google Maps
- Tropical Botanic Garden & Research Institute Palode (TBGRI)
- Pitcher plant
- Dukes Forest Lodge
- Rat Snake
- KTDC golden peak resort
- Thattekkadu boat tragedy
- Tourist Abuse at Thenmala
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May 29, 2012 | Posted in Travel Reviews 5 Comments » | By Jayson Joseph