It is the end of April. Although intermittent rains bring some respite from the summer heat in Bangalore, the heart longs for the solitude and bliss of the hills. Especially the Nilgiris, for I haven’t been there in 4 years. Thus, when the chance of spending a weekend in the lower reaches of the Nilgiris presents itself, I do not waste a moment. This bungalow, approaching it’s 100th birthday, is the oldest of the Murugappa group’s lovingly restored colonial heritage stays. It dates back to a time when tea first came to these hills, and in it’s heydays, housed the deputy manager of the estate.
Bangalore to Sinnadorai’s bungalow, Mangorange
We start off on the right note. An early morning drive from Bangalore eschewing the traffic laden Mysore highway in favor of the Kanakapura highway means peaceful driving, as also an absence of good eateries. The recent rains have turned the foliage green. The fiery red gulmohar and the yellow golden shower tree add refreshing pops of color throughout the highway.
Bandipur is greener and far more denser. Post Bandipur, we drive onwards, on roads canopied by thick, dense bamboo groves. Closer to the exit at Bandipur and near Theppekadu, we see a fork. The left turn means climbing up 36 nerve wracking hairpins towards Ooty. Our destination lies in the other direction, so we turn right towards Gudalur. The town of Gudalur is it’s usual touristy self, becoming a pitstop for state transport buses and an antidote for stomachs revolting from the curves of the forest road.
Post Gudalur, and a few kilometers of uphill tarmac, the forest bushes give way to tea estates. Entire hills full of them. Villages with lovely names appear – Nadugani, Devala and finally Pandalur. Personally, we can’t shake off the feeling that these villages are still colonies of tea growers. Small enough that everybody still knows everybody else.
Just after Pandalur, on the left of the highway, lies the Carolyn tea factory. Even from outside, the smell of freshly crushed tea leaves hangs thick in the air. Just after the factory, we leave the highway and take the road on the right, towards the estate bungalow situated on top of a hill. We pass by a small playground where kids are making the most of their summer vacations. Tea estate factory worker’s accommodations, provision stores and acres of tea estate follow before we hit the final curves leading to the bungalow.
Sinnadorai’s bungalow, Mangorange
After the long drive, our host Mudassir is quick to brief us about the estate. This estate was claimed from forest land and the original inhabitants still drop by. Especially elephants, the occasional leopard and sometimes, even a wild dog pack. Taking an unaccompanied walk in the estate during twilight hours therefore, is dissuaded.
We dig into the hearty aloo-subzi and the delectable chicken curry that the cooks have prepared. In the evenings, sipping a tea on our own verandah overlooking the lawns and the estate, promises immense flaunt value in this age of instagram, but we choose to glance through the books and magazine instead.
The bungalow and it’s rooms have been tastefully restored. The flooring is still made of red oxide tiles. Old books on the history of the nilgiris, including memoirs and detailed records of the erstwhile colonial managers of the estate dot the reading room. The mantle displays a vintage radio that amid other features, has stations named Burma and Ceylon. Mudassir tells us that even the (massive) sofas in the living room have been lovingly restored and re-upholstered and true to her word, they do retain the charm. Every room seems to be done up with heavy teak furniture.
Not long after, we take a walk around. Frangipani and a few other flowers dot the paths outside the bungalow. The lush greenery of the tea bushes is mesmerizing and at dawn and dusk, they are colored a yellowish green. You have to hand it over to the colonial owners. They had a knack of choosing the right places.
As it grows darker, the sirens warn off all the tea leaf pickers. It grows darker still. Before long, a guest points out fireflies in the trees. I muster my thoughts but I can barely remember the last time I’ve seen a firefly.
Scouting for gold in abandoned gold mines
The late 19th century witnessed a gold rush in most parts of Wayanad and in some of the hills near us. Fascinating accounts of the period found a mention in some of the bungalow’s books and if you be interested, in this blog post.
So on the second day, we decide to scout for gold in an abandoned gold mine, a few miles from the bungalow. Past Pandalur, we climb the escarpment of another hilly tea estate. After a few minutes, we stare at a pitch black opening carved into the hillside, which is one of the numerous entrances to the labyrinth carved centuries ago into the hill. We walk inside and come across what seems to be a dead end.
Unbelievably, Chandran, our guide from the bungalow, says we have to go down what looks like a rabbit hole. I balk. There is no turning back now, so crawl we do. Inside, it is pitch dark but a few degrees cooler than the afternoon sun. In spite of that, we sweat, mostly from the exertion and a little from the anxious thoughts swirling around in our brains. A whoosh around my head makes me realize there are bats, but our torches ward them off.
Chandran, leads us deeper in to the mine and warns us to look out for sharp, low hanging rocks above that can, in his words, ‘split your head with just one bump‘. Point taken, I walk with one hand groping the roof while the other looks for purchase on the walls, as the floor is slippery. At one point, we have to crawl on all fours to descend deeper in to the mine. This is no place for the claustrophobic.
What if we don’t remember our way back ? What if we some part of the cave collapses and we are trapped inside ? Chandran pooh-poohs the idea and walks ahead with just his slippers on. It is just another day at the office for him.
At one point, he points to a section where water dripping from the roof has accumulated. My torchlight bounces off the roof of the cave. The reflected light deludes me into believing that the water runs deep. In reality, it is scarcely a feet in depth. But the water feels refreshing though, small victory to savor after our unsuccessful little gold mine expedition.
We hasten back and it feels blessed to be back in sunlight. The things we take for granted, I tell myself ! Chandran hands me a makeshift towel made out of wild fronds, to wipe down the mud on my clothes.
Golden hour that evening at the Sinnadorai’s bungalow, we are standing just outside the gates of the bungalow. The sun and the numerous silver oak trees cast long shadows across the tea bushes. The tea leaves flutter in the gentle breeze while bird songs ring out one last time that day. For a moment, it seems as if everything is all right with this world.
The Stay: All details about the stay, meals, tariff and activities in and around the Sinnadorai’s bungalow in the Nilgiris are here. You can’t book the stay from any other online travel aggregator. They own 3 properties in different locations, I have also written about their Sakleshpur estate here. Room fares start from 6000 per night, full board.
The food is strictly south Indian fare, so folks expecting other cuisines may be disappointed. But the property and the hosts more than make up for it. There are 3 rooms in the bungalow. Try asking if the rooms facing the driveway are available when you make the booking. Our preference would have been the first room as you enter the bungalow’s gates.
How to reach there: Mangorange, Pandalur is an 8 hour leisurely drive from Bangalore. You could shorten the journey by booking a cab from Coimbatore as well. Google maps could point you in the wrong direction, so it is preferable to use the first map linked in the post above.
Do: You can explore the neighboring tea estates of Devala, Pandalur or even take a long detour to Devarshola. There is a fantastic view point named ‘Needle Rock’ on the Gudalur-Ooty road. Beware though, elephants have been known to inhabit the area and when we were there, the path to the viewpoint was cordoned off. In Gudalur, do not forget to shop for spices, dry fruits, oils and essences from Indian Spices and Dry Fruits.