Neelakurinji- A 12 year wait.
Every 12 years the humble Neelakurinji decides to bloom all over the hills of Munnar, painting the velvety green hills a shade of magical lavender. I was waiting eagerly for almost 2 years counting down to Neelakurinji season, which finally announced itself by end of July in 2018.
The ‘strobilanthes kunthiana’or Neelakurinji is a delicate lavender flower, that blooms on a hardy plant. On its own, or even together on its plant, it is nothing special to look at, but when it blooms all over the hills, it is a sight to behold- which is what I was preparing for.
Excitedly I waited, I called hotels multiple times to check the progress of the bloom, to go at just the right time to see it in full bloom. I didn’t want anything to go wrong, and it was something I was sure I would see if I planned it right.
But then, as luck would have it, the devastating floods occurred, that ravaged Kerala, destroying the homes of hundreds of thousands, and rendering them homeless overnight. I had to cancel my bookings for Munnar, and wait the rains out.
The heavy rains had destroyed the bloom, and most of the flowers rotted away.
Crestfallen, I waited till the rains cleared, and then made calls again to the hotels to get updates on whether the flowers were still in bloom. They said most of the flowers had been destroyed, but there were still a few, and it was still worth coming for.
I packed my bags and headed for Munnar, hoping to catch a glimpse of the flowers.
Eravikulam National Park
The national park is one of the two main places to view the bloom, and is the most popular spot for tourists to visit, as it is only 8km from Munnar town. In anticipation of the large numbers of tourists who were to visit Munnar, the government had repaired roads, and increased the number of buses into the national park.
How to get to Eravikulam National Park
Private vehicles are not allowed inside the national park. After purchasing tickets ( you can book online but you need to collect it from the counter at the entrance of the National Park), you have to wait in a long line for your turn to take the bus into the National Park. I waited for almost 2 hours! To think this was the wait time after so many people cancelled their trips to Munnar due to the floods!
The drive to the national park in the bus is around 10-15 minutes through the gorgeous tea plantations.
Once I arrived, I walked all the way up to the top of the hill, each turn I took to go further up, hoping that the bloom would be better on top. The bloom along the way to the hill was mostly destroyed, and was worse than the picture painted by the people at the hotels I called. I guess they themselves hadn’t been, and was just informing me from hearsay. Even at the top of the hill, there were just a few clusters of the flower- nothing to write home about.
Access to the national park
It is possible to hike further inside the national park if you pay more at the counter, but you need to book ahead of time, as the slots were filled when I enquired. Also, the people at the counter said that the condition further inside was similar to what we will see here, so I didn’t go.
My other option was to go to Kolukkumalai, which is a mountain a part of Tamil Nadu, but accessible only from Kerala. The nearest town is Suryanelli, near which I stayed overnight, to take the early morning jeep safari to Kolukkumalai.
The jeep was arranged by the hotel I stayed at in Chinnakanal, a small family run hotel. I must have paid Rs.2000 for the jeep. Around 5AM the jeep picked us up from the hotel to start the ascent to Kolukkumalai. The drive to Kolukkumalai is through the world’s highest organic tea plantation (8000ft). It was dark, so I couldn’t see anything during the ride up, but the roads were EXTREMELY bumpy, and the driver was driving extremely fast to get to the checkpoint before the cutoff. (Only a certain number of keeps are allowed in every morning, so all jeeps race up the mountain to make sure they get in. But the road through the plantation are the ROCKIEST I have been on, and we were falling off our seats during the drive. (I am not kidding) Holding onto the handles on the jeep weren’t helping much, because the ride was that bumpy.
Why is the road inside the plantation unmaintained
We asked the driver why the road is not maintained- apparently the road is part of the tea estate, but the public have access because it is the only route to get to Kolukkumalai, which is government property. But the owners of the tea estate don’t want the public to use their road, and so they won’t repair it, nor will they allow the government to maintain it. They let the road worsen over time, hoping lesser people make the journey up- quite an ingenious plan I say! (roll eyes)
We got to the peak just before sunrise, and were lucky to witness a magnificent sunrise surrounded by the peaks of Kolukkumalai, and Kodaikanal in the distance. And then the search for the elusive Neelakurinji began, and when I found it, I was yet again, sorely disappointed-just a few bushes with the flowers still intact, the rest were drooping, and brown.
Did anyone see the Neelakurinji in full bloom in 2018?
Not many people got to witness the magnificence of the Neelakurinji bloom that year-just a very lucky few who would have made it there just in time, before the rains ravaged the beauty that it might have been.
Was my trip a complete waste?
I didn’t go back completely disheartened, I did get to witness a stunning sunrise, and the lush green carpet of tea plantations along the side of Kolukkumalai. But I vowed to be back, 12 years on, for the next round of Neelakurinji blooms.
Will the Neelakurinji bloom again?
I read an article in the Hindu newspaper recently, dated 2019, about the fires in Rajamalai, in Eravikulam national park, that could have potentially destroyed the seeds of the neelakurinji.
About 1000 hectares of grassland were affected in the wildfires which are said to have been arson with the intention of destroying the endemic neelakurinji. The article says the deed was committed with the motive of removing the land from the protection of the sanctuary, so as to privatise it.
I really do hope that the Neelakurinji hasn’t been destroyed, and the land remains within the sanctuary.
I guess only time will tell.
But 10 years later, in 2030, if the Neelakurinji does bloom to swathe the green hills of Munnar in a sheet of lavender, I will be there!
If you visited the Neelakurinji bloom in all its glory in 2018, do let me know in the comments below, and share a few pictures too, so I can see it!
The article is linked below, if you want to have a read.