Anyone who knows me knows the depth of my attachment to a good cup of tea, preferably administered several times a day. One of the things I wanted to do while in Kerala was visit a tea plantation, especially since we’d had to cancel our trip to Kausani that would have included a tour of one.
We usually steer clear of package tours. We like to have the freedom to wander and take photos, usually for much longer than the time allotted on a tour, and because we love the serendipitous things that happen when we wander on our own. However, Beena recommended a two-day package from Tourist Desk in Cochin that included both a stop at an elephant training camp and a tour of a tea plantation near Munnar. Dan and I are pretty strongly motivated by baby elephants, as well as by tea. We went against our usual inclinations and booked the tour for the middle of our week in Kerala. It seemed like an efficient way to make this side trip.
Munnar is a hill station in the Western Ghats, the inland mountain range that runs down most of the western coast of India, passing through the eastern part of the state of Kerala. Because it’s at a higher elevation than the tropical coast, tea, cardamom, and other temperate climate crops grow well here. This range is home to thousands of species of flowering plants, as well as hundreds of species of birds, amphibians and mammals, and is considered a biodiversity hotspot.
Our tour got off to a rocky beginning when the driver refused to come down the small side street to Beena’s driveway, and made us walk, with our luggage, to the main road. We were the first pickup, and we made two more stops in Ernakulam, the portion of Kochi that is on the inland side of the harbor, to pick up another couple and a solo traveler. From there, we got onto the highway to Kodanad, and discovered that our driver had two modes of driving, full-on acceleration and hard braking, which he employed alternately.
After about an hour of driving, our first stop was at the Kodanad Elephant Camp, or more precisely at the roadside snack bar just outside it. We were whisked off the minivan in a manner that could most politely be called brusque, and allowed about five minutes to get a cup of chai before being herded back into the van. None of us were too happy about this, since we were all ready for a bit of breakfast. After a lengthier stop to see the elephants being bathed in the river, it was back in the van and on to the next stop.
This was the Cheeyappara Waterfalls, which were a mere trickle at this time of year. We had about 10 minutes to look around—to be fair this was sufficient to see this sight—then the driver came around saying “Finished? Finished” and we were hustled back onto the van.
We continued on in this manner, making a couple more brief stops, including at another roadside restaurant. At this point we unanimously overrode the driver and insisted on getting some food in addition to just using the rest rooms. Our fellow travelers were pleasant companions, and we had a nice, though brief, breakfast before getting back in the van. By roughly midday, we arrived at our hotel, where we dropped our bags in our rooms and had a thoroughly mediocre lunch. This is notable because it’s just about the only bad meal we had in the entire trip, including the ones we had on trains and in airports.
Next up was the visit to the tea plantation and museum in Munnar proper. I was still looking forward to this, and was hoping it would rescue the day from being a near-total loss. On the way up to Munnar, the latch that held Dan’s seat upright broke, which put it into permanent state of recline. He tried a few other free seats, but there were a number of others that were broken, and he wasn’t able to find a working pair so that we could sit together.
When we got to the tea plantations at last, it was truly a lovely sight. The road wound through misty rolling hills covered with neatly manicured tea gardens. The tea plant is a species of camellia (c. sinensis) that will grow into a small tree if left to its own devices. When cultivated, it is pruned to about waist height, which makes for easier harvesting. The plants we saw were very dense, with flat tops that almost looked like tables. We pulled off the road to get out and take a closer look.
The tour materials had led us to believe that we would be able to hike through some of the tea plantations, but that was not the case. Once again, we had about 10 minutes in what was essentially a roadside turnout, and then we were piled back into the van and taken to the Kanan Devan Tea Museum.
The term museum could only be applied in the loosest possible way to this place. We were shoehorned through a very cramped production area while a man shouted an oversimplified summary of the process to the crowd. At the end of this, we were led into a cramped, hot auditorium where a “documentary” about the history of the plantation was being shown. This consisted of a lot of propaganda about how the large tea corporation had gone to great lengths to improve the lives of its workers. Dan utterly ran out of patience at this point and walked out to get some air. I sat through the rest of the film, and proceeded on to the “tea tasting” with tiny paper cups of flavorless tea. I met back up with Dan, who at this point was ready to pack it in on this tour.
The museum was our last stop for the day, so we all got back in the van and returned to the inn. We had some free time before dinner would be served, so the five of us decided to take a walk that ended up being one of the nicest parts of the day. We just followed the road the inn was on, a quiet country lane that ran along a ridge between two valleys. This gave us views of some terraced tea gardens and spice plantations on the slopes, made even lovelier by the late afternoon light.
The inn did have a nice veranda that looked out over a steep drop into the valley below. We sat for a while until dinner was ready, enjoying the view. While we relaxed, an incredibly large black bumblebee started visiting the flowering vines that were trailing down the hillside. The body of this bee must have been about the size of a half dollar, and you could hear it buzzing from a long way off. Dan spent some time chasing it with a long lens, and managed to get some good photos. We finished the day with a dinner that was quite a bit better than the lunch had been, then a quiet evening in our room.
By the next day, we had decided that we were not up for another day of bad driving and forced-march tour stops. We hired a car to take us back to Fort Cochin, and were back at Beena’s by early afternoon. She was very apologetic about the tour, and commented that she had thought it rude that the driver had not picked us up at the door as they normally do. She knew the owners of the tour company, and since she probably sends a lot of people their way I’m pretty confident that she passed on our frustration.
So this package tour was a bust for us, and sadly confirmed our prejudices against them. We were happy to be back in Fort Cochin, though, and went right back to chilling out and drinking lime sodas.