Road-Tripping Through Misty Trails in South India

Discover the Western Ghats along NH209 through Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

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A trip to Valparai is best enjoyed by staying at a bungalow in one of the many picturesque tea gardens in the area. Photo: Aditi Das Patnaik/Flickr/Getty Images

The Western Ghats chip and chop the southern states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, punctuating the journey with evergreen forests, dense mists, tea plantations, and waterfalls. Driving through them, one realises it’s not the destination that’s important but the journey. The jungles change colours, and dry deciduous canopies are transformed into tropical forests. Biodiversity hotspots along the way are the habitat of endangered species like the lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri tahr, and the elusive leopard.

Angle at the Mahseer

The call of the wild cannot go unheeded. There’s nothing to do but pack the camera and binoculars, bundle up the raingear, and hit the road. It’s best to leave Bengaluru early in the morning, when the roads are empty, using the NICE Bangalore-Mysore Expressway to exit the city. Turn on to NH209, along which the mist and dust unveil a montage of dusty hamlets. Flocks of water birds and waders wait at the Mavathur lakes just 5 km before Kanakpura and this should be the first halt for all birders. Take a moment to breathe in the fresh air and rest the senses from the noise and pollution of the city. Continue on NH209 and take a 35-km detour from Kanakpura town to spend some time by the banks of the River Cauvery (Kaveri). There are two wildlife sanctuaries adjoining each other here—Muthathi and Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary. Muthathi rewards visitors with sightings of a variety of wildlife, including elephants and the grizzled giant squirrel, which is endemic to these forests. As the terrain turns a bit rugged, it is possible to encounter a jackal darting into the woods.

Try angling at the fishing camp on the banks of the Cauvery at Bheemeshwari, located about 6 km from Muthathi. This is the abode of the prized mahseer, the tiger in the world of freshwater fish, which can weigh over 45 kg. Local gillies assist newbies as they tell entertaining stories about anglers. Those who are not into angling can go for a hike or a coracle ride. Bheemeshwari is an ideal place for a day trip, but there is accommodation for those who want to linger longer.

Before leaving, spend some time exploring the Cauvery, which presents herself in gorges and waterfalls. The trails to two points of interest—Sangama and Mekedatu—are well marked. The former is the confluence of the Arkavathi and Cauvery rivers. The latter is a narrow gorge whose local name, loosely translated means “a goat’s leap”—legend has it that locals once saw a courageous goat jump over the river gorge to escape a tiger that was chasing it.

Tea plantation Western Ghats

Large swathes of the Western Ghats are covered with tea plantations. Only the bud, second, and third leaves are plucked. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

The Habitat of an Erstwhile Brigand

Return to NH209, and move on to the Biligiri Ranga Hills (B.R. Hills) turning south from Malavalli. This is the heart of the territory once dominated by the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. Small dusty hamlets with tea shops pepper the journey and the locals willingly share stories from the brigand’s times over cups of tea. Mists drape the trees and rocks, and small streams and waterfalls seem to follow the traveller. It takes more than a couple of hours to travel the 110-km hilly road. For refreshments, halt at small towns like Malavalli, Kollegal and Yelandur that dot the highway. A short distance before Kollegal, there’s a gas station and an ATM. Drive to the Biligiri Ranga Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary through a beautiful stretch of forest, with the whistling schoolboy or Malabar whistling thrush keeping up a chorus. Make a trip to the ancient Ranganatha Swamy Temple. There are only a few accommodation options in this tiger reserve and the Jungle Lodges camp at Kyathadevara Gudi (or K. Gudi) is among the better ones. Drive up the hills, passing coffee plantations and go to Hornamatti Rock, which is almost on a cliff. It is an exhilarating feeling, standing there as the mist rolls in, taking in the view of the vast valley painted in myriad shades of blue and green. Legend has it that the rock has been standing at the spot for ages, and did not budge even when kings tried to move it using elephants.

Borders Blur

From B.R. Hills, the journey continues across state borders through one seamless stretch overlooking dams and valleys. The 120-km drive on NH209 to the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve goes via Yelandur and Sathyamangalam, entering Tamil Nadu en route. Along the road there are forest check posts and small tea stalls located at vantage points. The road undulates through 21 hairpin bends before Coimbatore.

Onwards to Kerala

Though there are several detours competing for attention, continue along NH209 for another 44 km till Pollachi. From there, travel 35 km along SH21, on which bikers are not allowed since it passes through an elephant corridor. Stop at Top Slip, which is the headquarters for all tourism activities in the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park and do a short hike to Karian Shola. Drive 30 km along Parambikulam Road to continue this journey and into the wild. Don’t miss the opportunity to hike on the Salim Ali trail in Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary.

See God at Valparai

Lion-tailed macaque Western Ghats

The lion-tailed macaque is indigenous to the Western Ghats. It has distensible cheeks, often used to store fruits and berries for eating later. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

There are multiple routes to get to Valparai from Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary. One option is to travel 83 km along Parambikulam Road and SH78, along the banks of the Aliyar Canal. Another route is the 70 km drive from Top Slip to Valparai. The third, more traditional route from Pollachi to Valparai is equally panoramic and slightly shorter. The 65-km road goes through 40 hairpin bends, with a constant view of roaring waterfalls and the reservoir below. Nilgiri tahr regularly visit the intersections of the hairpin bends.

The route is beautiful, but the destination is breathtaking. Rippling tea plantations and dense vegetation present a fabric of green. Local attractions include Monkey Falls, Sholaiyar, Nirar, and Aliyar Dams. Visitors may also encounter Velu, an old man who claims he saw God in a nondescript park that now bears the name “Seen God”. Valparai is home to species such as the lion-tailed macaque, which can be seen in the plantations, and the great Indian hornbill. There are a few homestays but the luxurious tea bungalows are a better option.

Waterfall Views

The journey continues through forests along the Annamalai Road and SH21 to Vazhachal and the famous Athirappilly Falls.The tropical evergreen forests here are laden in mist. Ferns and orchids, with droplets of water dripping from them, are everywhere, and waterfalls beckon at every turn. Linger here before returning to civilisation. Kochi is 70-km away, and can be reached via the Athirappilly Road and NH47.

Appeared in the March 2013 issue as “Trailed by Mists”.

The Route

Bengaluru–Kanakpura (62 km)–Bheemeshwari (45 km)–Malavalli (40 km)–B.R. Hills (90 km)–Sathyamangalam (90 km)–Coimbatore (85 km)–Pollachi (40 km)–Parambikulam (30 km)–Valparai (90 km)–Vazachal (68 km)–Kochi (80 km).

Duration: 5-8 days.


Bheemeshwari Adventure and Nature Camp on the Cauvery River has kayaking, coracle rides, and a ropeway bridge. There is accommodation in log huts and cottages (080-40554055;; doubles from ₹1,700 including meals and activities).

K. Gudi Wilderness Camp is located at an altitude of 5,000 ft, in the middle of dense forest (080-40554055;; doubles ₹4,000 including meals, jungle safari, nature walk, forest entry fees).

Waterfall Ropeway Bungalow in Valparai, is a 125-year-old house in a tea garden. It is surrounded by waterfalls and wildlife that includes elephants, wild boar and deer. (9443337022;; doubles ₹1,800).

Coimbatore has a variety of accommodation options.




  • Lakshmi Sharath is a travel writer and blogger from Bangalore who quit her corporate career in media to travel. Her passion is all about exploring the nooks and corners of the world and telling stories.


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