One day the past week, a friend of mine materialized before my home on his motor bike. He revved up the beast to invite my attention."How about climbing some 3,500 feet above the sea level?" he cried through enveloping smoke. I was basking in the afternoon dreariness sitting by the window. I was like "where are the hills around us?" I knew none except some overly numb tourist spots. Most of these have long been built over. He offered a pillion ride to and fro, what he described an uplifting place. "This place will lift up your mood". Depressed to marrow, only a gladiator's arm could lift up my mood. We kept to the roadmap on GPS, which beeped as often as we detoured. With wind in the hair, talking aloud through the bulwark of the masks, we ran along streets after streets from my native Pinarayi to Palakkayam Thattu - 56 km north of Thalassery, in Kannur district.
I might sound cocky when I say how claustrophobic I get in the plains where I live—by the way, I live a mile away from a river though. Gentrifying houses, amid clumps of tall trees, make one pine for a glade—at least the size of a football ground. If anything, trees and houses out there vie for sunlight. So much for frying concrete jungles, it is dreary, humid and oppressive; and vision never travels beyond walls of vegetation and two-storey houses. This is what you feel if you are living as I do in an interior Kerala village and you have no open areas around. If you live on a knoll or a promontory with lit-windows showcasing diaphanous clouds, you don't understand the angst I share.
It wasn't as bumpy a ride as I feared it would become. The smooth tarmac curved and straightened by turns past streets along the places like Anjarakandy, Chalode, and Sreekandapuram before we reached Naduvil. It was about 3.35 p.m and the sun was still a glistening steel plate. Pillion-riding astride, as well as keeping up my end of conversation that was going on, was overly taxing. I chided myself for jumping at his call; I should have known better. My friend, animated as he was, was ready for riding to the end of the world. A couple of times, we asked people for direction. GPS guidance for two-wheelers had more short-cut options than those for four-wheelers. A narrow village road could cut short distance but inevitably a potholed lane waited for us. At one junction, a man wearing umpteen silver rings on his fingers told us "Follow my car." He was in an antiquated Maruti 800 which quickly covered vast swathes of road. We kept the car at a distance and finally he pulled over and said "Take that turn and climb the hill path, you are there". Now, it was a bumpy climb ahead. The motorbike grunted on the broken road all along, before we reached Mandalam. The place was bare. There was only a taxi stand and a parking lot. A teashop on the shoulder of the road added to the gloom.
One of the taxi drivers flagged us down and said, "You can't take the bike up the hill and road is broken, you had better hire a jeep". The going-rate for jeep was two hundred for one person. Just a couple of kilometers of the climb meant a big hole in the pockets. We were not in for a splurge and decided to think through it, over tea. The teashop man whispered to us that there was a better road four kilometers away at Pulikurumba; it meant a swerving down the same road we had taken. The taxi-drivers, despite idling away even at the peak hours, looked dismayed at our decision to return. In less than ten minutes we were now on a sharp climb, amid some bikers. Jeeps were ferrying up and down sightseers. At a hairpin junction on the way up, sightseers were negotiating with taxi drivers.
The air was full of prickly points of cold. Allergic to elements, I doubled over with bouts of sneezing and felt awful about my decision to travel. One should in advance of any trip know about the weather. The sky was brilliant and bluish except in places where there were smithereens of aluminum flakes. The winding hill path twisted up giving views of verdant plantation and thickets below. The road was eaten away by the drilling monsoon rains months before. There was just a ridge of mud in the middle with ruts running down the hill. Although car drivers had hard time, many of them managed to go up, and those on motor bikes were better off. I had good mind to return every time I went breathless. Those returning from the hill station said "It is worth the try". Past a bend, we were atop the hill and there was a shack on the edge of the road. Suddenly, it was a festival ground with ice creams, kids rollicking with mirth and people queuing up at the entrance for tickets. Many stood along the edge of the road posing for photos. Below the veneer of bluish smog, there were hills the size of ice-cream cones; luminous clouds were hanging low over them. The misty expanse below was an ocean without ripples, enveloping on all sides. Paying entrance fee, we began climbing the hill trail; all the way up people were taking photos.
Palakkayam Thattu, despite sun, hills and valleys, has never come under plough; however, outlying areas, a part of which today is a parking lot for tourists, were arable land once—mostly paddy. You might well be wondering how people got it leveled for paddy. Early settlers tried to harness nature but failed due to driving monsoons and bone-chilling cold and they left the place for plains. The entire area remained unapproachable for long until tourism flourished. There has been no stopping since, as sight-seers across Kerala and Karnataka flock to the place in their hundreds.
Atop a hill to the left, close on the shoulder with views of expanse below, there's a huge photo frame called Kannur eye; it looked exactly like a kindergarten slate. People stood on the concrete frame, wowing to click. To the right on the way up, there's a zip way; and the guys running it offered a better view of the horizon. The ten acres of land, looking bulbous from below but a plateau at the top, has been opened for tourism five years before. As part of augmenting views, the authorities have planted some 60,000 egg-size lights on the reclining area. The bulbs, encased in white pods, resembled some kind of buds in the meadow. At 7 p.m every day, the bulbs will come to life, making the area a sort of glow-worm valley.
On the plateau there were shacks offering snack and tea—fresh paripu vada and kaya appam; something of a heaven-sent after a difficult climb. You wouldn't think about the origin of the food and the quality, all you want is to relax. Sipping tea, I watched with dismay the variety of clouds on the horizon. Never before had I seen anything half as beautiful on a brilliant sky. The horizon was streaked with clouds of all kinds: huge cauliflower clouds with screaming colours, grayish bouquets with hesitant brush strokes, elephantine clouds with misty fumes and there was regular puffy clouds floating about like cotton.
Far away to the west, past a streak of blue there was semblance of a river, like a ribbon of smoke— it was becoming darker just as the sun became a bindi-size spot. Somebody said it was Valapatanam River—yes, it was. The river was level with the hill top; but then that's how river would appear from distance. Further afield, there was the hint of the Arabian Sea, like a dream. All the while, I was clicking away photos. Suddenly it dawned on me to stop the frenzy. The pixilated version, seen through the phone camera, was lifeless. I kept the camera in my pocket and began taking in the sky and bulbous hills, and curtains of colours on the horizon. It became mediation.
We climbed further up the hill to a pathway. The pathway was hedged by canes and there were park benches—mostly loveseats. People were reveling in the luxury of cool air. The view from atop the hill towards the entrance resembled the bow of a plunging ship. As I turned around, every side there was either a bow or a stern. There was no gang way. The area was like an assemblage of many ships anchored in the high seas. The feel it offered was of freedom—reminding me of TS Eliot's maxim in the Wasteland, "In the mountains, there you feel free". I felt guilty of not having travelled to this precious place earlier; it is just one hour from Kannur bus stand.