No matter where I am, it’s the landscapes that capture my attention. Natural or man-made, I’m drawn to them instinctively and the lure was brilliantly rewarded during a recent trip to Southern India.
I was completely entranced by the beauty and diversity of the landscapes in India’s deep south, travelling through the verdant Malabar coffee growing region, the hill stations of the mountainous Western Ghats, to the tropical palm-lined backwaters and coast of Kerala. While the food, history and culture were fascinating and quite absorbing, the landscapes and their wildlife were really impressive – at times dramatic, at others serene, and sometimes just breathtaking.
Arabica and Robusta coffee plants swathe the fertile slopes of the Coorg area in Karnataka though India has 13 unique varieties of coffee and about 4% of world production. This is the home of Monsoon Malabar, one of the world’s most loved coffee beans and a favourite of mine. The coffee is shade-grown beneath a living tiered canopy, along with pepper, cardamom and vanilla, and is home to an abundance of birdlife – a natural enemy of pests. Many of the canopy trees are leguminous, so enrich the soil as well as reducing erosion on the slopes.
This plantation is at Madikeri in a tropical highland climate at an elevation of 1170m with an annual average rainfall of 3566 mm. Staying on a plantation in February meant we were immersed in the flurry of seasonal activity, with coffee-picking in progress and the beans dried and processed. The workers live permanently, it seems, in an on-site enclave – really a small village – with their families. The children attend school with the encouragement of the usually well-educated plantation owners.
The daily roles are played out to a jungle-like backdrop with the most appealing textural qualities and layers. It is a leafy landscape with a Kipling-like unstructured character, bathed in mystical light and lively pungent aromas. Add to this exotic mix the occasional frighteningly loud cannon blast to warn off wayward wild elephants and you have a stimulating sensory experience – even for India! Well worth 7 nights in the hardest bed imaginable.
The elephants do graze on coffee beans, which pass through them quickly and are being experimentally extracted from the elephant droppings – cleaned (!), processed and taste tested – in a similar fashion to the infamous ‘civet coffee’ of Bali. In both cases I think it’s marketing in action rather than a better product.
In contrast to the coffee growing region, Coonoor in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu is a more open landscape of clipped tea bushes blanketing undulating slopes, with panoramic views to the plains below. And a truly comfy bed! A sense of calm and order descends while looking out across this sea of neat greenness.
Nilgiri tea is the go here, clipped or picked by hand from the Camellia sinensis plants – an arduous job done here and in other tea-growing areas by women on paltry wages. There was a landmark victory in 2015 by women workers at Munnar who took on the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations for better wages and conditions, and won.
Coonoor is 1850m up, with a sub-tropical highland climate. Its annual average rainfall is 1335mm – quite a bit drier than the coffee region. The tea camellia is grown on open slopes, often quite steep, which are nestled between mountain escarpments. Grevillea robusta are planted throughout the camellia. This exotic tree has been chosen for its compatibility (it not being competitive for water and soil nutrients), and its ability to cast moderate shade.
The estates have been here since the 1800s, and there is a sense of establishment, that this has been an organised industry for a long time. On one long walk through endless rows of tea we came upon a substantially built old schoolhouse, seemingly a long way from anywhere, but it was for the children of the tea workers, and very much in use.
The rolling hills surrounding Munnar in the Idduki district of Kerala are also blanketed in tea bushes. However, it was a cardamom plantation that stole my heart. Perhaps it was the ‘first-time’ excitement of staying at a spice plantation, or maybe the enchantment of walking amongst the rows of cardamom – their soft leaves brushing bare shoulders in the heat; but this place was special.
Teak, jack fruit and fig trees remain amongst the planted cardamom, creating a densely vegetal panorama on steep terrain. There is a tropical atmosphere, a leafy wildness. Spiciness hangs in the air. At this Munnar plantation 1600m up, the cardamom survives most of the year on the 2,470mm annual rainfall except in the hot, dry months leading up to monsoon when they irrigate.
Nagarhole National Park has a rich forest cover, hills and streams that support a healthy predator to prey ratio. That means plenty of food for the tigers that live in this park – part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve at 960m above sea level. The food and accommodation were excellent as well, but that’s another story.
The vegetation is mainly either moist or dry deciduous forest – with teak, rosewood, sandalwood, and crocodile bark tree to name a few. The leafless tree silhouettes are such a contrast to the green leafiness of the coffee, cardamom and tea areas, that I enjoyed the stark haunting quality and the muted tones. The dry brittle leaves and twigs on the ground crunched and snapped as animals moved (let alone a full-grown tiger sneaking through), the sounds were cornflake crisp in the air. The camouflage of the spotted dear, sambar and other wildlife amongst the dry scrub was astonishing.
The tropical Malabar Coast of Kerala meets the Arabian Sea, making for spectacular sunsets over the water. The cantilevered fishing nets of Cochin have lined the shore for hundreds of years. Their picturesque teak and bamboo frames up to 10m high with the draping nets, coupled with those stunning sunsets make them a photographers’ paradise. Despite their attraction, the daily seafood catch is dwindling and rising maintenance costs and lack of insurance means many owners can’t afford their upkeep – so fewer nets are operating each year.
All along the Malabar Coast, locals flock to the beaches to take in the sunset. It’s as if it’s an event, not just a beauty to behold.
A network of natural and manmade canals and five lakes make up the backwaters of Kerala. Fed by 38 rivers, this labyrinth has a unique ecosystem with a barrier keeping the sea water from mixing deep into the backwaters thereby keeping the water fresh.
Used by locals for transportation, fishing and agriculture, by tourists to cruise on houseboats called kettuvallams. There is an extensive system of paddy fields by the canals, on reclaimed land, and also crops of yam, bananas and cassava. The food is spicy, and the people are wonderfully friendly – but this is true everywhere in the South, and probably all over India.
And then the sunset on the backwaters.
Nature is the ultimate designer, and I, in common with so many others, draw on it for inspiration.
The landforms and water courses, what grows and lives there, their changing qualities with the sun low in the sky. It all gives a sense of the place and its people.
[Photos by Tony Maher and Louise McDaid]