“Poor man’s Ooty”, smirks my IT neighbour, when I tell him where I’m going for the weekend.
Six hours later, it’s our turn to smirk, as we take a cab out of Salem station, and head for the Servarayan hills in the Eastern Ghats, in the lush bosom of which lies the little town of Yercaud.
“Forty three hairpins, saar”, our garrulous driver insists, as we make our way up the convoluted hill road that leads to Yercaud. That’s a typically Tamilian cheeky overstatement, the official count is twenty two. The twists and turns do seem endless, all the same. And one doesn’t feel like complaining a bit. The air gets fresher and the hills get greener with every bend in the road.
People debate about whether Yercaud qualifies as a real hill-station or not, on par with Ooty and Kodaikanal. Who cares? Let the hordes descend on Ooty, thank you very much. Yercaud isn’t as hyped up as the Queen of the Nilgiris, for which one is grateful. There’s still an air of innocence at Yercaud and there’s still a feeling of warmth in the local populace, because of its down-market image.
The best thing about Yercaud is – it’s not a ‘happening’ place. No casinos, or dance bars, or rave parties, and no boozed up fast-track types trying to ‘unwind’, and, for that matter, not too many locals either.
If you’re the upwardly mobile, rambunctious type and if your idea of relaxation is to keep the neighbours awake through the night, then please give Yercaud a miss. This place is for the generously built, softly rounded, easy-going type who abhors loud sounds, and doesn’t mind a good walk once in a while.
The name Yercaud is an Anglo-version of Yeri kaadu – literally, lake in the forest. Sometime in 1820, the British brought coffee to this quiet little hamlet in the clouds and set up plantations that still produce the strong coffee for which Yercaud is famous. Make it a point to pick up a kilo or two, if your palate can appreciate the difference between cyber-café instant swill and the real thing.
Christian missionaries followed the British officers up the hills and set up schools and churches. Thus like Ooty, Yercaud has its share of Ye Olde English institutions and some quaint nineteenth century place-names.
The climate at Yercaud is moderate the year round. The Servarayan hills are gentler than the Nilgiris, and the weather is just as mild. Usually light woolens are more than enough. If you like Bollywood-style misty and mysterious climes, visit Yercaud in the winter. Or, like me, you prefer a clear view of your surroundings, go there in the summer.
There’s the usual list of must-see places, five of which one would recommend:
It is, after all, Yercaud’s raison-d’etre. So your visit is called for. It’s actually quite nice, this lake. Plenty of greenery around and a friendly place to go boating in. It’s quite deep and gymnastics in the boat are strictly avoidable. Grim stories abound about its dark waters, but as long as you’re careful, relax, sit still and listen to your boatman, you’ll do just fine. Avoid the paddling boats, since they’re not exactly state-of-the-art. Try the oar-boats instead. They’re not state-of-the-art either, but they come with a boatman inside. The amiable boatman is aghast when I compare it to Ooty’s lake. A pungent string of strong adjectives follows. One is forced to agree, partly because the boatman may tip me over into the lake, and partly because he happens to be right.
The Botanical Garden
Set up by the Botanical Survey of India, some twenty years ago, this well-maintained outpost of the Plant Kingdom boasts of two rare plant families – the orchids and the insectivores. The botanists there tell us they rear about a hundred different orchid species in their orchidarium. The botanical garden deserves your unhurried attention for its orchids alone.
As an added bonus, you’ll find insect-eating plants that you’ve only read about in your schooldays, notably the Nepenthes species, or pitcher plants. If you’re lucky, as I was, you might even spot a pitcher plant enjoying a little ‘snack’.
This is not a place to rush through, each plant species deserves a second look, and constant exhortations from your bus driver can be readily avoided by not taking the tourist bus in the first place.
Don’t expect to see piles of pakodas here, the name is mispronounced by the locals. The correct name is Pagoda Point, but you can’t see pagodas either. This place affords a spectacular view of the valley below. The village of Kakambadi beckons to us from the bottom of the valley, and one is seriously tempted to yield. Lucky people, one feels, far away from BPO’s and call-cabs.
Enjoy roasted corn on the cob and opt for the ‘American’ corn, it’s juicier. And after you so enjoy, please be nice to Yercaud and use the litter-bins, not the valley below. One feels obliged to add this message, for Yercaud’s sake.
One could not obtain a suitable explanation for the name, not many ladies here and there’s more than one seat. The guidebooks promise a breathtaking view, but this place is bit of a let-down. One’s breath isn’t taken away. But worth your visit, all the same. The view is quite good, on a clear day. The city of steel, Salem, can be seen spread out across the plains below. The correct time to enjoy this spot is at dusk, when you can see the lights of Salem coming on, one by one. Besides, the dusk covers up the bits and pieces of garbage lying around. What a pity, we Indians will be Indians.
Home of the patron-god of these hills, this temple is actually a cave, located near Yercaud’s highest point, at about 5000 feet. People say Tipu Sultan hid from the British here. The locals believe it extends all the way to the Cauvery river, 400 km away. One wouldn’t advise you to find out if this is true.
This is one place for which you’ll need a vehicle and a local guide. We weren’t allowed to enter the cave, and considering the state it was in, we weren’t too keen anyway. But look it up and pay your respects to Servarayan from a distance.
The truth about Yerikaadu
There are several other ‘places of interest’, as the guidebook calls them. Visit them at your choice. One doesn’t actively encourage you to do so, for a simple reason. The truth about Yercaud is, you cannot enjoy it from inside a tourist bus. You walk. Just don your walking shoes, and walk. Walk down Vanniar Teak Forest, trek up the wooded lanes, stroll around the Botanical Garden, amble down to the lake, walk up to Montfort School on a Sunday and see their little zoo.
Trust your legs, chuck out your guidebook, and discover the real Yerikaadu. Nice friendly people, wild flowers, untamed yet gentle hills that don’t tire you out, and unspoilt air that you’d yearn to take back with you in a bottle. Go find out.
Try and avoid the guided tours. They’ll take you right into herbal shops that offer ‘guaranteed’ herbal oils and concoctions, at prices that will make you wheeze.
And please remember the Rhesus factor – Yercaud’s monkeys. I do mean watch out. The time to be careful is in the morning, when they come out to forage. Keep your hotel windows firmly shut. Very firmly shut. They know how to open windows latches! Do not leave anything on the window sill, edible or otherwise. Be warned, gentle traveler. After all, you’re the intruder, not they.
Where to stay
Thanks to its ‘poor Ooty’ tag, Yercaud has some good hotels, offered at reasonable prices, even during season. Ask around about their service however. We stayed at a well-known, cliff-side resort on the first day of our visit, and vacated on the second. The next one we stayed at was far better. Some caution is advised, therefore, like for any other hill-station.
Road: It’s about 220 km from Bangalore. Take NH-7, aka Bangalore-Hosur road. Start real early, if you want to retain your sanity. Once upon a time, Hosur Road was a tree-lined sylvan escape by itself. Now it’s a terrifying nightmare. The road clears up after Murthy’s Kingdom at Hebbagodi (Infosys HQ) and one can finally hit top gear. Drive straight down NH-7 after Hosur and proceed to Salem. At Salem, ask for and take the road that leads up to Yercaud. You’ll need strong shoulders and, preferably, power-steering in your car. The bends in the hill road are really bent.
Air: Nearest airports are Trichy (170 km) and Coimbatore (190 km), from where you’ll get buses and trains to Yercaud.
Rail: Nearest railhead is Salem, 40 km away in the plains below. Trains aplenty from Bangalore, Chennai, Trichy and Coimbatore. Don’t forget to ask your hotel for a car to receive you at Salem station.
Best time: Usually the year ‘round. Avoid mid-May, if you need an escape from the rest of humanity. That’s when the summer festival is on, and Yercaud gets crowded during that time.
Hot tip: Visit during June to November, or so. You might have Yercaud all to yourself.
The bottom-line: Go to Yercaud, come back home, grin ruefully at your IT-rich neighbour, agree with him – and keep the ‘poor man’s Ooty’ myth alive.
Yerikadu and Servarayan will thank you for it.