By Chris McBeath

When the mythology of Northern India’s sensorial overload becomes reality, head for the southwestern hills of the Western Ghats. Hiking this extraordinary mountain range, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reveals a very different India — one where there’s time to absorb a gentler authenticity and a rural hospitality.

As one of the world’s “hottest hot spots” for biodiversity, The Ghats is home to more than 7,000 species of flowering plants, as well as hundreds of different birds, mammals and amphibians. Perhaps this is why the Ghats are also known as Sahyadri, Benevolent Mountains.

Historical Kochi

Before striding out and up, chances are that Kochi (or Cochin as everyone calls it) will be your starting point, an historical hybrid of cultures because of its access to the Arabian Sea. The sea-faring Portuguese and Dutch have certainly left their mark both in the food, and with a number of old, now decaying colonial buildings and palaces. Catholic churches abound through the region, and it was the Portuguese settlers from Macau in the 16th century who introduced to the iconic Chinese fishing nets that line Kochi’s shores. The rambling city also has the country’s oldest synagogue, built in 1268.

A highlight of any visit to Kochi must be a Kathakali performance, an OTT stylized musical of sorts (percussion only) where actors express emotions through extraordinary facial expressions and equally expressive make up and costumes.

Onward and Upward

Most hikes originate out of Munnar, a hill station town at some 1,600m/5,200ft above sea level, also known as the Tea City of India.  The region contains the highest peaks in Southern India – Anamudi (a protected reserve not open to the public), and Meesapulimala (2,630m/8,628ft) so if hiking is in your DNA, this will probably be your destination. The climb involves a couple of nights under canvas (which can get surprisingly cold at night) but this rewarding trek is achievable for those with decent fitness and a modicum of determination.  So I was comforted to learn my trekking companions were all 60-somethings. But more fool me.

There were ‘the Technos’, a couple decked out with wearable wizardry to measure altitude, steps, miles, kilometres, heart rate, sugar levels and blood pressure – all important considerations considering our age-group. The grey-haired half-marathoners were built like graceful whippets and climbed the ever-ascending trails with enviable ease.  The New Zealand retirees were hiking their way around the world and after 40 years as an Emergency room nurse, her relentless stride was long and purposeful. Mr. Yorkshire was raised in the Swales and Dales, and the Alps had obviously shaped the calf muscles of the Swiss participants. I was a shadow of their vitality.

Tea-trekking

Acclimatization starts with meandering through the region’s plantations – vast tea-scapes that wallpaper the undulating hills into mottled patterns through which wild elephant roam and tea-pickers peck their way through bushels of tender, young shoots.  Estate workers are a co-operative where jobs are familial affairs from one generation to the next.  Earnings average US.10c/day but with housing, education and welfare all part of an estate’s operation, many family members never leave what is considered their birthright and time honoured tradition. They are as rooted to the land as the tea bushes they tend.

Mountain Anomalies

From here, you can climb even higher across valleys of grasslands and through forests of nutmeg, tamarind and unwieldy thickets of greenery where coffee estates once held sway.  At remote villages, the offers of hot tea are generous and often served in porcelain china so even in the mountains,

Such are India’s incongruities. In Yellapetty, a blue-painted, Christian church blasts out pre-recorded messages of faith on every hour from 5 am to 9 pm.  4-year-olds sing “Alabama with a Banjo on my Knee” in perfect English.  Cornflakes are served with warm milk. White bread is baked with too much sugar, and bedside switches often turn on hot water in the bathroom and invariably, nothing at all.

If time permits, make your way to Thekkady. Besides rising at dawn to scout for dholes (wild dogs), gaur – the world’s largest bovine (the huge black males push 2m tall), and giant squirrels at Periyar National Park, Thekkady is the only venue to see a Kalaripayattu demonstration. Regarded as the oldest and most scientific of all martial arts in the world, the masters and students perform in a sunken pit and, armed and dangerous, they virtually fly through the air as if in scenes from the film: Crouching Tigers, Hidden Dragons. Only these antic don’t involve any special effects.

But isn’t that India?  The illusion of special effects earthed in the reality of spectacular color, tradition, flavors and hospitality? Only in Southern India, they’re packaged within some very benevolent mountains.