The Road to Chalikudi
(PART III IN A SERIES OF THREE)
The back road from the Valparai plateau to the Kerala plains offers one of the best opportunities to experience a Western Ghats tropical rainforest from the comfort of a vehicle. I’ve been hearing about the road and Athirappilly Falls near Chalikudi for many years. Shekar Dattatri had brought it to my attention when he recalled some of the shoots of nesting Great Pied Hornbills in Chalikudi for the 1988 film Silent Valley. This short trip to the Anaimalais finally offered a small window of opportunity to visit the area. My only regret by the end of it was that driving all the way down and back up on the same day is a poor idea if you want to get out take pictures and explore. Nevertheless our day trip finally gave me a sense of the area and helped fill in some gaps on my sense of the geography of this part of the Western Ghats.
Lenny , John and I set out from Valparai in a light drizzle. The road winds its way through mazes of tea estates, settlements of worker’s colonies interspersed with forest patches. Some of these are the patches where NCF is working on restoration. We drove by a small herd of gaur, not bothering to stop knowing that they are across from our home in Kodai on a daily basis. The road winds by Sholayar dam (both upper and lower sections), which eventually feeds power and water into Kerala. After an hour of tea estates you cross the state boundary and head into the Vazhachal Division forests. The impressive canopy height is immediately apparent and the trees tower over you. Of course, it was wet and there was an evocative monsoon gloom over the forest. It felt very much like the forest that one encounters in Sinharaja in terms of structure, plant composition and climate. The road condition is not great but, on the other hand, you can take normal cars down it with patience. There were only a few other vehicles that we encountered and for the most part we were alone.
After several hours of puttering through fine forest and descending down hairpin bends the Chalikudi river came into sight through the misty foliage. Being in full flow it was a grand sight to behold. Steep granite cliffs rose about the raging water as it cascades in torrents over numerous rapids. We knew we had reached our destination when we encountered parking lots, signboards and restaurants that cater to the many tourists visiting the area from Cochin (only two hours away to the west).
Athirappilly Falls is located at a curve in the river and marks the end of the natural forest and beginning of vast coconut and rubber estates. It is a picturesque waterfalls that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. There has been a proposal to dam it above the falls that has gained some traction in the last few years. The Chalidkudy River is already dammed six times further upstream. Given the history with the Silent Valley proposalss and subsequent anti-dam movement in Kerala it has felt like déjà-vu for many conservationists. My sense was that things have cooled down but the incident has reminded us that the large-dam builders are not an extinct species in southern India!