Lying about 90 km East of Kochi, high up in the Ghat mountains is Munnar. A small, busy and somewhat shabby town in the Indian style. The town itself is pretty unremarkable, but it makes a wonderful base to explore the surrounding countryside. Our driver, Sanji and his little Tata car took us on a swerving; twisting; overtaking-tuk-tuks-on-blind-corners ride to explore the surrounding area. In the Ghats the temperature is much cooler than the stifling heat of Kochi, the air is fresher and the humidity has dropped to manageable levels. It's a climate perfect for tea. So much so that the steep hillsides are densely carpeted with a tight weave of emerald green. Every available space is given over to tea; precipitous slopes, craggy out crops and road side verges. Tea is king.
From a distance it looks dense enough and thick enough to walk on. Up closer, very narrow paths can be just about made out, these paths pass through the carpet like a badly made spiders web or the pattern made by mud cracking in the sun. Clouds sweep through this scene, caught up in the high peaks or rolling through the valleys below. The constantly changing light patterns created by the clouds create changes in the light quality, giving the tea a continuously shifting pattern of every imaginable green hue.
I try to photograph the scene, but it's proving elusive, the image that your brain assembles from the constant stream of data collected through your eyes easily out performs the single exposure from my camera. I step back and stare at the unfolding scene before me; I have never seen such a diversely beautiful monoculture of green. Every imaginable shade forms, then reforms somewhere else before me. A chromatic dance performed for my retina's conical receptors and it's utterly beguiling.
At times like this I really can forgive India anything; the litter strewn everywhere; the driving etiquette – that's best described as bizarre, and that endless head nodding! Here there is an entrancing beauty set in a unique landscape..
Sanji tells us that the best view is from Top Station, around twenty kilometres further on. This was the place where once the tea began its journey from the plantations to the docks on India's south west coast. An aerial rope way carried the tea down into the valley before the current road was built.
Top Station is busy. It's an Indian holiday on the day we arrives and the place is packed with, mostly, Indian tourists. Top station is a long narrow ridge offering spectacular views of the surrounding Ghats, or it would do if it weren't for the rows of shacks selling everything the modern tourist could wish for, bangles, soft drinks, roasted corn on the cob, ice cream, tee shirts and plastic reproductions of the holiest of Hindu Gods. Not for the pragmatic Indians the squeamishness of Islam, where a plastic Mohammed could cause a major diplomatic incident. One can't help but admire the idea of Indian Hinduism, not only a belief system but also a marketable resource.
I stuff my plastic Ganish into my bag as we walk to the end of the shacks. The end of the ridge is barred by a large green mesh screen and a ticket booth. To pass further we have to pay 50 rupees each plus and additional 10 rupees for my camera. It would have been cheaper had we not been foreigners. The steps leading down from the ticket booth takes you, via a sweeping arc over to your right, to the viewing point. It's a steep walk of about 400 metres. I'm wondering if this was going to be worth the £1 entrance fee that we paid, when we arrive at the end of the path. The view is nothing short of spectacular! Everything that the scenery provided on the drive here was now multiplied by a factor of ten. The panorama is vast, it dwarfs everything that we've seen so far.
My further attempts to photograph the scene are interrupted by an Indian family on holiday from Mysore who want us in their holiday photographs. We exchange pleasantries and email address, in the modern tradition, before it's time to move on. It's back to our hotel for the night, it's a little way outside Munnar and we're promised the drive is every bit as spectacular as the ride here.
Kerala, this part of it at least is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. A unique landscape of steep, perilously steep, precipitous mountains. Normally such mountains have a harsh, almost threatening feel to them, as though they are entirely indifferent to human life. Not here. The verdant carpet softens them, lending them a friendly, almost comforting feel. A romantic notion no doubt which is, at least partially, created by the knowledge that this natural beauty is the starting point for our national cup of daily comfort.