The rest of ‘God’s Own Country’ thinks Wayanad is another planet, making each visit to the nature-blessed land an unforgettable experience
REACHING VYTHIRI village in Wayanad is tough. The nearest airport is more than three hours by road, a hairpin-fashioned stretch, which would rattle even an Alonso or a Vettel. But once you have arrived and felt its rolling hills, towering peaks, scary jungles, placid lakes and the kiss of the butterflies, leaving isn’t easy either. My journey started from Delhi, took me to Bangalore and a smooth Bombardier ride later, into Kozhikode (formerly Calicut, the land of the Zamorins). The car drive from Kozhikode International Airport is an edge-of-the-seat affair from the moment you reach Adivaram, the starting point of a treacherous track that hides nine hairpin curves. If your driver and you are patient, in that order, the road with a valley-hill combination is like a Rio De Janeiro-Petropolis drive, without having to go to Brazil.
Climb every mountain
Vythiri in Malayalam means a junction. It is indeed one, as the village situated in the centre of the Wayanad district of Kerala acts as a pass to Ooty in neighbouring Tamil Nadu (107 km), Mysore in Karnataka (143 km) and Kozhikode (60 km), the central point for Malabar. If Vythiri were a city, it would have a sister-city status with the nearby Coorg, another coffee-growing region. “Wayanad produces roughly 80% of Kerala’s coffee,” explains hospitality baron NK Mohammed, who is giving shape to the district’s first five-star resort in Vythiri village, which boasts of a 1,500-seat auditorium. “Wayanad needs all the infrastructure it can get,” says Mohammed, a civil engineer known for the Malappuram-based Kadavu resort, Malabar’s first luxury accommodation he built two decades ago.
Situated at the foot of the fabled Western Ghats, a Unesco World Heritage Site, Wayanad boasts of a biodiversity that influences the first impressions of a visitor. While the rest of Kerala sweats it out in over 30 degrees Celsius during February-May, sweaters are in demand in Wayanad. With two protected forests—Muthanga and Tholpetty—under its belt, Wayanad is an ideal destination for safaris. With a high tribal population, mostly on the fringe of the forests, Wayanad’s socio-cultural milieu is another attraction, besides its giant peaks, ideal for trekking. The Chembra Peak, which is visible from every pool-attached cottage of Mohammed’s Vythiri village resort, is my first destination the next morning. The tallest in Wayanad at 6,900 ft, it is only 23 km from Vythiri, criss-crossing a route laden with coffee, tea and pepper plantations. A steep climb to the summit accompanied by guides from the forest department can be accomplished in four hours, but I am happy to settle for half the distance to see a lake formed there in ‘the shape of a heart’, as Sting would have sung. Below the lake, near the rock-filled trekking route, stands a single tree like a frozen frame from a Michael Haneke film.
Elephants & butterflies
There are nearly a thousand elephants in the wild of Wayanad. So spotting one is easy during the early morning or evening safari. A car ride through the region’s signature mist took me from Vythiri to Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary, about 70 km away on Kerala’s border with Karnataka. A lone tusker was in sight as soon as the safari began. There were more, closer to the streams, as we trundled ahead. After the elephants, the bonus comes in the form of a jungle fowl, serpent eagle and the elegant crimson red wild flower, christened the ‘flame of the forest’.
The original flame of Wayanad, however, is the butterfly that flutters around you wherever you go, playing a perfect teaser. Nearly 20 km further, in the sprawling isle-splattered Kuruvadweep, accessible only by a bamboo raft, the butterflies swarm you in a surreal scene often repeated in Wayanad. It is no wonder the butterflies are everywhere in Wayanad, which has 325 butterfly species endemic to the region. “The unique biodiversity of the Western Ghats is the foundation for the butterflies in Wayanad,” says Jayan Cherian, who directed Papilio Buddha, a film set in the tribal villages of Wayanad. “During the butterfly parade season in January-February, it is beautiful to witness the movement of thousands of butterflies,” adds Cherian, who chose the name of an endangered butterfly for his film title.
The 900-acre Kuruvadweep is cut into islets by a zig-zagging tributary of the Kabani river, which visitors have to negotiate to move from one islet to the other. As you step on to the land from the knee-deep cold water, welcoming you is an entire army of trees, forming a complete selection of the Wayanad flora, flanked by a thick bamboo vegetation on the banks. If wading into the water is bliss, walking with trees and butterflies in tow is even better, especially when an eerie silence, created by the absence of any visitors, is your companion.
Vythiri & the beanstalk
If the red laterite stone is a recurring theme across the district, forming an essential element of the local architecture, so are the green patches on its hill slopes infusing a plantation of tea and coffee on hill slopes, inspiring an eclectic landscape. In the early months of every year, plantation workers and owners nervously wait for the coffee to bloom, setting a celebratory stage for the red beans to emerge. As you step out into the streets lined by plantations, pepper stalks creeping on to trees also become a familiar sight. It is, however, the lifeless bamboo clumps—the abode of many bird species—scattered across the Wayanad forests that symbolise the worth of wildlife. Wayanad also offers answers to questions of prehistoric life in the stone paintings inside the Edakkal caves, 30 km from Vythiri. I missed the caves, which, though, present me an excuse to return.
By Faizal Khan
Faizal Khan is a freelancer