For a place as pretty and intrepid as Nelliyampathy, the local history is equally charming. A quaint virgin hill station, located in Palghat district of Kerala, Nelliyampathy gets its name from Nelli (gooseberry) trees that is found at its foothills and the entire range is abundant with lush green forests which are teeming with wildlife and many important plants. The misty hills are patched with tea gardens, coffee estates, orange plantations and cardamom gardens scent its air. Wild elephants, giant squirrels, deer, bison, butterflies and many variety of birds call the range home and because of its 467 meters above sea level altitude, Nelliyampathy enjoys a misty cool (often rain washed) clime. It is a perfect getaway spot from those who want a break from Kerala’s typical tropical mugginess and doubles up as a relatively less crowded summer destination. Nelliyampathy hills or Nellies had originally belonged to Vengunad Kovilakam of Kollengode, a small principality of Malabar and it was they, who had leased the virgin forested tracts to the British.
Thus, the wild Nellies got domesticated by the planters who started cultivating coffee in the virgin land where earlier only the Malabari indigenous people had roamed free. Eventually, along with coffee, tea gardens started covering the face of the rolling hillocks of Nelliyampathy hills and soon spice gardens and fruit orchards planters also joined the bandwagon. Although, the credit for Nelliyampathy’s plantation history is given to the British, pages from the early planters’ diaries claim that the hills had been home to others before their arrival; people who had cohabited with the wandering tribal communities of the region and that coffee had already been planted on the slopes before the land had been opened up to them. Today, the lovely green land is jointly shared by the Kerala Forest Department and the Poabs India Company. Together, they take care of the heritage plantations and the lush green forests of the hills and it is indeed a beautifully preserved natural site.
My memories of Nelliyampathy is sadly a bit vague and all I remember now is being beautifully overwhelmed by its lush greenery. I had visited there on a day trip from Palghat and it had been a long, winding uphill drive. A bad lunch en route had made me sick and by the time, the jump off base town of Nenmara had arrived, I had been weak from excessive vomiting. The drive, however had been jaw dropping beautiful and twisting ribbons of silvery of road, red roofed houses and tranquil rustic hamlets had accompanied all the way. All possible shades of green had seemed to cram themselves in the landscape outside my window and the parrot-wing hued paddy fields and emerald forests had contrasted sharply against the smoky blueness of the Western Ghats. The cloud caressed peaks of Nelliyampathy hills had been visible from the foothill town of Nenmara and from there, it had one nauseating twisting drive. More than 10 hairpin bends had weaved in and out of the mist wreathed hills and I had disgustingly thrown up all the way to Pothundy Dam.
The naughty hills had seemed to enjoy playing with my spinning head and swirling mists had occasionally revealed the verdant paddy fields of Palghat. Cool, dense green tunnels of rainforest had soon taken over the road and I had glimpsed upon the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu through the wide jawed Palghat Gap. The weather too had turned considerably cooler as we had neared the summit and gushing waterfalls had sprayed refreshing mist on my passing face. I had started feeling better as we had neared the top and the hills too had gotten more dramatic with each turn. They had rotated from being densely tropical, rolling alpine with patches of shola forests to stony, grey and bare with neon green grassy clumps dangling from their rock face like fluorescent ribbons. Flowers too had grown in violent spurts and wild scents had filled the air. It had been a cool, wet fragrance of green sap, wild things of the forests and moisture laden clouds.
Soon, little tea gardens and orchards had started appearing on the way and the lush forests had given way to fruit orchards, organic farms and flower filled hothouses. Tea stalls and small shops had dotted the road and tea garden workers had rested with their wicker baskets of produce. The road which had gotten considerable busier at the top had been lined with flower sellers and butterfly shaped orchids, baby blue hydrangeas and ruby anthurium had been sold in thick bunches. Cooler climate vegetables like mountain squash, wild mushrooms, leeks and strawberries were also on sale and people had queued up for local delicacy of tea chicken. It had been a bit crowded at the top and the base for Maampara had been a chaotic traffic mess. Because of short span of time on my hands, I had given most of the much raved viewpoints and “must visit spots” amiss and had happily driven around the waterfalls and English cottage dotted tea gardens.
The slow drive amidst the fragrant plantations had been very soothing and it had been the perfect way to end my Nelliyampathy day. We had left the Nellies for the rice fields of Palghat soon and a violent thunderstorm had chased us downhill. Blinding rain and hairpin bends had been a scary combination and I had reached Palghat exhausted, road weary and still sick. Despite the nagging aches and sores, my heart had burst with contentment and my dreams that night had been riddled with blue green forests, scented plantations and gorgeous beauty of Nelliyampathy hills.
TRAVEL TIP – To reach Nelliyampathy, one has to take the road starting from Nenmara which is the base of the hill on which Nelliampathy sits. Coimbatore is the nearest airport and it is 101 km from Nelliampathy and 55 km from Palakkad which is connected to all major cities in south India, including Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. The nearest railhead is at Palakkad and from here one can hire a taxi or jeep to Nelliampathy. The nearest KSRTC bus stand is at Palakkad and the National highway NH7 and NH47 from Bangalore via Hosur, then via the Coimbatore bypass onto Palakkad leads to Nenmara. The best time to visit is from September to January and monsoons bring very heavy rainfalls from June to September. Post monsoons and post winters usher in the flowering season in the hills and the waterfalls are their prettiest during the rains.
The Nelliyampathy range has 3 distinctive landscapes – the plantation part with orange farms, tea and coffee plantations and spice gardens, the rocks and hill-tops which are trekker’s delights and the densely forested regions, which has some very rare varieties of fauna and flora. The Pothundy Reservoir enroute is a great place for a picnic, fishing and boat rides and the area is famous for animal and bird watching. Look out for the Malabar Hornbill and the chubby Malabar Squirrel and the famous Parambikulam Reserve is not too far either.
On the way up, those interested in bio farming can take a close look at the privately managed farms and also vast expanses of tea estates managed by different plantation companies. The hills of Nelliyampathy are also well known for its orange cultivation. Privately owned hotels and resorts are scattered on hills of Nelliyampathy. The bio-farms located here are a major landmark as one proceeds up before reaching the topmost point at Palagapandi estate. The estate has a quaint British era bungalow, which is now a privately owned resort. Not far away from Palagapandy is Seetharkundu where one can have a fantastic views of the valley and a gorgeous 100 m high waterfall. From Palagapandy, one can trek or go by jeep to reach Mampara; another breathtaking vantage point at Nelliyampathy.
The area in and around Palagapandy estate has tea, cardamom and coffee plantations with adjoining hills and wildlife like Indian gaur, elephants, leopards, giant squirrel etc are rampant there. It is also a paradise for birdwatchers. Other attractions of Nelliyampathy are Kesavan Para, the Victoria Church and the Sitargundu Viewpoint. The myth goes that Sita came this way, probably on her return from the Lanka sojourn, sat by a deep well that seemed carved out of the side of the Western Ghats, and rested awhile. There is a small Devi temple atop an adjacent hill, Kollengode down below. You can shop for bottles of the very sweet locally made fruit squash along with coffee, tea, guava preserve and plant cuttings (the hydrangeas are especially fine specimen) at Nelliyampathy.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE