I’m sitting on the porch of a small but elegant bungalow here at Sinna Dorai’s lodgings within the Palarai Estate in South west India. Building here was initially the idea of a Dr Macpherson (Inspector General of Hospitals) and commissioned by The Right Honourable Lord Harris, Governor of the Madras Presidency, in 1858.
Construction of the bungalows did not commence until 1929, and they are believed to be first European residence in the district. Each simply styled room has a brass plaque on the door denoting the names of various explorers and researchers who had a small part to play in the valleys and ranges. Marsh, Fraser, Brock, Tyler, Sullivan, and our room after a Major Wells. The lodgings sit atop a lush hillside surrounded in every direction by tea plantations which span much, much further than the eye can see. The smell of these tea plants are as ever present as they are invigorating.
As I write this, the sounds of a distant cricket match, traditional Indian music, the guttural hoot of the black monkey and the laughter of playing children seem to rise from the valley on the gentle mist. Between the hours of 7am and 5pm, these pleasant sounds are punctuated every hour (on the hour) by a siren call from the biggest building in the valley – the organic tea factory – which beckons workers to and from their allocated shifts. After a day or two another constant sound, the beeping of car horns, becomes so much part of the natural way of things, that you no longer seem to notice.
Our friend Pathy (an Indian born Australian resident) habitually approaches corners with a toot toot, even on the most isolated stretches of road. Another cherished sound I woke to this morning was the melody of a Carol King song in my head, reminding me of how much I miss my beautiful wife and son and my dogs, who right now are so far away.
The estate is nestled beside a state forest which in itself covers over 3,500 hectares and is home to a multitude of wildlife. The vegetation here is full and rich in both native and introduced species, ranging from silver oak and lantana to eucalyptus. There is a feeling of natural cohabitation between the people, the animals and the plant life. Each seems to have its own healthy respect for each other. I am told that India is currently the only country which is in a state of afforestation. This statistic, despite the enormous population, is one which the whole country is rightfully very proud of.
Our bungalow overlooks a majestic valley towards the Anamalai Ranges (Elephant Hills) and is the perfect place this evening for sipping brandy and reminiscing over the events of the last few days that brought me here …
After a brief stopover in Singapore and a well needed re-caffeination at Toby’s Estate coffee roasters, we boarded a late flight out of Changi and landed in the south western hub of Coimbatore in the middle of the night. Emerging with the rest of the bleary eyed passengers and welcomed by the familiar face of Pathy Kasiviswanathan at the terminal gate, we then took a quick drive to his uncle’s house in Valparai. My first impressions of Indian traffic were soon to change dramatically, after the quiet and empty midnight dash through town.
Keen to get to the coffee plantation, we rose early and after a traditional Indian breakfast of Dosa, Dahl, rice cakes and spicy chutney, we sped off towards Anamalai. Within half an hour my first impression of Indian traffic had changed forever. But, I took my foot off the passenger’s brake pedal and just let it happen. A quick stop at the drying yard, countless common monkeys, an extraordinarily long blue painted rock wall, the region’s second largest dam and precisely 40 hairpin turns later, we reached the halfway point of the drive. It was here I tasted my first real Indian tea. Lime tea. Surprisingly, the colour of a light golden sunset with a ripe apricot flavour and enhanced by sweet natural raw sugar. Amazing!
Our main reason to travel here was to visit a valued supplier. The Thalanar Estate coffee plantation has been supplying Peak Coffee with direct trade, farm gate, ethically managed coffee beans for over four years. Our trip was planned some months ago and has proven to both strengthen our relationship and to better educate ourselves on the coffee farming practices which are essential for us to consistently improve our product and service. Our host, Uncle Ravi, inherited the property from his father who, 65 years ago, bought just over 600 acres for approx $100 each. He grew up on the farm. He built the roads which lead us there. He has spent over 40 years working with the land and the farmers to continue the growth of the business which his father managed before him. This is truly a family business. Ravi and his brother own neighbouring properties. They help to bring internal immigrants to the farm from otherwise impoverished regions throughout the country. The farmers are provided with accommodations, food, schooling, a crèche, clothing, a community and a place to belong.
Ravi believes he is one with these hills. He prefers the isolation of his plantation rather than the bustle of Valparai, the busy city below. He talks to the animals, and they listen. When he returns from his visits to the city, he prefers to do so at a particular time of day. Not so that he’ll beat the traffic or get better driving conditions, but because there is a bison which waits for him at the gate each time he returns. He wants to say hello to the beast and make sure it heads off to graze in safety.
In just two days, without going anywhere near a zoo or nature reserve, I have seen an incredible array of wildlife. Common monkeys, majestic elephants, peacocks (the national bird which, if poached, can earn the hunter severe gaol time), mongoose, magnificent bison, black monkeys and indigenous dogs. Wild boar, lion tailed monkeys, squirrels, barking deer, the blue mountain goat (Nilgirithar) which until recently had been close to extinction. The black coral snake (Katirian) which I nearly stepped on and later found out “when bitten by this snake, Mr Steven Sir, you begin to count the minutes between life and death”. Countless birds, including sparrows, robins, a sole Indian Spotted Eagle riding a thermal whilst we ate breakfast, Red Whiskered Bul Buls curled into a small white ball sleeping in a fig tree and my favourite so far, the beautiful and elusive Malabar Whistling Thrush.
I was fortunate enough to chance a rare sighting (but not fast enough with a camera) of two of these dazzling birds with their black heads and electric blue breast, as I was crossing a small stream near the base of a waterfall whilst on our daily walk through the coffee plantation (I’ll get to the Elephant Hills later). Creatures as yet unseen were the native tiger, leopard, panther, black bear and sloth bear. However, having heard the story from our cook Manikam and the injuries to his back, sustained over 30 years ago from a sloth bear’s two inch claws, I am happy to leave this particular creature unseen. We were told that these fearless animals will charge even the big cats with ferocious intent, sending them scurrying to safety. All of these last animals are very elusive, but there are always signs of their presence in the form of droppings, sounds in the night and in one case, a hole in the ground.
Murugan, our host at the tea plantation, pointed out a large divot in the soil between a row of tea plants (approximately 1.5 m deep x 2 m across) when we were on a walk and told us that the previous week there had been a calf killed by a leopard in broad daylight in front of some tea farmers. The leopard became spooked by the cries of the humans and bolted. So, the farmers buried the calf as a sign of respect, only to find that the cat had returned during the night to exhume and reclaim its prey. Among other things, Murugan is also a husband and father of three, an avid bird watcher, an expert bonfire maker, has the eyes of a hawk, is as gentle as valley mist, possesses the patience of a spider, can hear a twig break from 1,000 valleys away, has India’s most contagious smile, is as calm as a mountain and is a veritable, inexhaustible and ever-reliable encyclopaedia on all things Tamil Nadu. Thinking back now, I can’t believe I missed it. How could I have been so blind to the obvious? Murugan is superman. But just a little better looking.
There is a certain type of peace which has come over me since arriving in Coimbatore. A strange feeling of belonging here. I feel safe. I feel at ease. I feel part of the family. I’ve had a cheeky childish grin on my face since the moment I stepped foot from the plane, and I feel that the local people have picked up on that and seem to mirror my smile in return.
Realising all too well that I am the only westerner in sight, let alone the only one over 6 ft tall, I can do nothing less than stand out in the crowd. I don’t feel unwelcome, nor a spectacle, more so comfortably out of the ordinary and as a result, a sense of calm follows me.
One afternoon, a walk around Palachi town started with a customary pre-lunch snack and compulsory Kingfisher beer (or two) at Uncle Ravi’s motel (one of three properties I know he owns, but I’m sure there are more) before wandering down the hill for a stroll. Market traders, selling everything from dried fish to toothpaste and everything in between, stop mid conversation and watch us pass. Pathy and his family are well known here, and I am offered inquisitive glances from the stall holders, excited pointed giggles from the children (the beautiful children) and a hair cut and shave from the town’s famous barber. We are by no means the first westerners to visit here and will surely not be the last, but their interest in us is noticeable.
To say that this country is beautiful does it no justice at all. Relaxed seems too stressful a word. In my mind I have moved here already, with my family, and am living in blissful ignorance of how I grew up (no offence mum(s) and dad). I wonder, could I do without the luxuries of home? My creature comforts seem so irrelevant. There is no WiFi in these mountains. No Facebook or Instagram. At one extreme there is the elevated trickle of a mountain stream, the stuff of perfection, Lord Shiva and meditation. At the other end there is the reality of a bustling social network of intensely paced, ground level, incense filled, over populated, but never accidental, organised chaos. The continual beep of car horns does not come from anger and road rage, but from politeness. Here I am, OK I see you, I’m just behind you, got it, now to the right, I’ll move over, I’m overtaking, OK, thank you, you’re welcome, take care.
Where does satisfaction lie, if not here amongst people who care so deeply for their land, the animals that they share it with and their family? I was so pleased to discover that the sight of elephants is just as awe inspiring and touching for the locals as it is for a lanky tourist with camera in hand. No one cared who was standing beside them watching these majestic animals graze lazily along their track. Aside from the initial excited gasps from some children, no one one pointed as they threw dust upon their backs. No one shouted for others to come and watch. No one rushed away in fear. Respect for the elephants was our common ground. We all stood together in silence following their movements until they had slowly and deliberately disappeared into the rain forrest. They lumbered away with half full stomachs, complete trust and absolute awareness of our presence, crackling branches beneath their enormous feet, tearing at trees for another mouthful with the rumbling of their bellies echoing across the gap between us. My chance sighting may have been a once in a lifetime event, but even though the opportunity to see elephants again is much more likely for the locals, they treated the event as though this time was their first or last.
Children’s faces, so wide eyed and curious, follow me wherever I go. Young men gathered together, sitting on their motorbikes, turn their heads and share a glance with me as we drive past. Older men and women stop and hold their hands together in a gesture of welcome as we walk by, smiling only when the wave is returned. Their facial expressions shifting from boredom to a happy curiosity with the subconscious raising of their hands.
India is a truly magical country, and I feel blessed to have had the chance to visit. Against all my initial expectations of a hot, dry, overpopulated place, the south is such a surprise. Lush, calm and full of life in all of it’s varying forms. Poverty and wealth live side by side, but not in opposition. Much like their religion, the Indian people don’t even think about karma; it just happens. This is a place where I am sure to return.
Come try the Thalanar Esate coffee. at Peak Coffee, Jambali Road Port Macquarie.
Trip diary by Steven Foye. Roaster, barista coffee lover.
This article was from issue 116 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus.