In spite of its unappetizing name, Rat Tail Falls has the reputation of being one of the best, if not the best, hike in Kodai. But the more I heard about it, the less I could imagine it as particularly enjoyable. So when the opportunity to hike it came up, I jumped at the chance.
First of all, it was a 12 hrs. long. It started at 6:30am and returned to school at 6:30pm. The horror of being on my feet for 12 hrs. straight was slightly mitigated by three hours in a bus coming up the Ghat road. Great. After an exhausting hike, I could spend three hours puking out my guts on the way back to school.
Also, large parts of the trail were known to be leech infested. As 2006 has been a banner year for leeches so far, with leeches found in places they never had been before, a well-known leech stronghold should be, well, thriving. Sigh.
Finally, we would start in Kodai in 50 degree early morning weather. By the late afternoon we would be on the plains with temperatures near 100 degrees. Then, covered in sweat, we would drive back up to Kodai, a cool 60 degrees in the evening.
Oh yes, two hikers had recently died at Rat Tail Falls. They had fallen down the waterfall. Nobody knows if they stumbled or were pushed. Rat Tail is very much in wilderness. The nearest habitation is a good two-hour hike. Who would hear if you screamed?
The appealing features of the Rat Tail hike included some 8000 year old dolmens, some lovely river swimming and Rat Tail Falls itself, a waterfall that plunges near vertically for 975 ft. We would have lunch at the top of Rat Tail, with a view over the edge akin to the view down an elevator shaft. And I have a fear of heights.
Of course I went. Who could miss it?
The night before I had a small talk with my Fear of Heights.
“Fear of Heights?” I said.
“Yes?” said my Fear of Heights.
“Are you going to stay home, or are you coming along?” Immediately I regretted asking the question. I should have started out the conversation on a more assertive tone, telling it to stay home.
“Well, yes, I was thinking about coming along. In fact, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. You see, there will be Middle School students on this hike, immature 8th, 9th and 10th graders. They won’t have any discretion and will do things such as run up to the edge to see the view, push and shove each other on dares, and argue over the camera while standing on the edge. It will be awesome! It’ll be better than sex!”
“Yes, of course,” I sighed. “But please behave yourself. I’m a chaperone and I can’t have an edge of panic in my voice. I also can’t freak out.”
We left it at that.
So I packed a 2-liter water bottle, a compass, camera, extra socks, a swimming suit, a large bag of raisins, bug spray, my coir hat, and a rain poncho and got to the bus at 6:15, enough time to look at the hike list (and realize I knew only three of the seven kids on the hike) and examine the food supplied by the school. The school packs a disgusting breakfast, a disgusting lunch and an edible “tea” for all hikers. As usual, the breakfast was a pair of horrible white-bread and fake-Velveeta-cheese-with-lots-of-mayo sandwich and a local orange that is small, green and looks like a tangerine. Lunch consisted of two more horrible white-bread and fake-Velveeta-cheese-with-lots-of-mayo sandwiches, two pieces of crumb-fried chicken, a juice box of Frooti, a bag of chips and another green orange. Finally, “tea” consisted of a small chocolate bar and a bag of peanuts, which I tossed, being allergic to them. Of all the food, the deep-fried chicken sounds the most appetizing, but it really isn’t.
The fried chicken in this country remains an impenetrable mystery to me. I can never identify any of the parts. In picking through the selections, you cannot find the traditional “wings,” “breasts” or “thighs.” There are simply small oddly-shaped bits. Biting into them, you find they are mostly bone and cartilage. Only if you dig and pick at them around corners and in between the bones you can find bits of meat. This is true of the school’s chicken-based meals, all the local restaurants and our ayah too. Now, these chicken parts remain a mystery to me in spite of making efforts to understand the local chicken and its preparation.
I have been to the local chicken store which features stacks of cages inside and out. You can examine the chickens and choose the one you want. On more than one occasion, I have examined all the chickens in the cages (clucking softly with that inimitable chicken-look of expectation in their eyes) and found that all of them had distinguishable legs, breasts, backs, and wings.
Now, the way Tamil chicken stores work is that you choose the chicken you want then find a sales clerk and indicate the same. The chicken clerk then takes the chicken out of the cage and wrings its neck. That’s it. You pay, you go. However, you can also select from a wide selection of additional options and services, from de-feathering, to chopping the head off, to gutting, and even cutting into parts. Most of these services are free, as the chicken clerk doesn’t have much else to do otherwise, except wait for another customer. We never have had the chicken clerk chop up a chicken. We take them home whole. And certainly at this point they still look like normal chickens (though the warmth of recent life is a little off-putting). But, as we have an ayah, Philomena, it is unthinkable for us to cook it on our own and avoid the mystery of indistinguishable chicken parts. We must hand it over to her, and she must prepare it. This is the rule of the house, and this is where everything goes pear-shaped.
I have tried to spy on Philomena as she prepares her (admittedly delicious) chicken stew, but without learning anything about how she cuts up the bird into those unidentifiable parts. She always seems to have done the work already; or if I ask, will do it later. When I return, it’s already done. I have tried to watch in the school cafeteria kitchen, but with much the same results.
So at this stage I have no empirical evidence, except the end result. The best explanation that I can come up with is that they chop the birds apart in a random manner with a blunt instrument, perhaps a candlestick or a large stick. I base this conclusion on the evidence that every piece of chicken is part-wing-part-thigh, or part-breast-part-thigh, or part-neck-part-back or what have you. I have never, ever, found two that were alike in a distinguishing manner, such as consistently 30% leg and 70% neck. The blunt instrument aspect of this theory has the additional benefit of explaining the ubiquitous bone chips in all the chicken dishes Philomena and the school prepares. I learned very early on to chew carefully, and pick out the shards with my tongue bit by bit.
Sometimes we get chicken curry sandwiches, which are excellent, though again, in spite of the bone chips. On many levels, vegetarianism has made much more sense to me since living in India.
So on the bus and down the road we go, seven students and two chaperones, one of whom (not me) knows the way. Small hikes are indeed the best. It’s much harder to misplace students en route, the line of hikers doesn’t stretch for miles. You can gather around a meal as a single group. The kids tend to be more responsible, not littering as much, treating the adult chaperones as compatriots rather than overseers to be avoided. Also, as this was a fearsome “D” hike (many miles long), we had little or no chance of the whiners coming along—the severely out-of-shape or congenitally slow kids. On shorter hikes, there are always a few who after 100 ft. start to complain that their feet hurt, that they need to stop and rest, that they want to be carried and so on. Some of these kids can turn a two hour hike into a 4 hr. hike. On a long D hike, such kids would not reach the plains until the day after. So they simply can’t come along. But happily, there are very few of these kids. I must say, on average, there is extremely little whining on a given hike. Most of them absolutely love it and only a few are indifferent. On this hike I was really impressed. By the end, I realized two things. First, it was the hardest hike I’ve done yet, and I had not heard a single (even genuine) complaint or whine the entire trip, except about the leeches. And the complaints were appropriately directed at the leeches, not at the chaperones.
The ride down was short and sweet, though considering we were walking down to the plains, not far enough. We traveled through a banana plantation. I had never seen one up close. They are very odd. These were “hill bananas” which produce fruit only about 3 inches long and are extremely sweet. The trees themselves looked all the world like giant house plants. The leaves were a perfect elongated surfboard shape, like a daffodil’s leaves, but 3 ft. wide and 12 ft. long. The trunks looked like geranium stems, but 2 ft. in diameter. The trunks had leaves only at the top, out of which sprouted a funny stem-like thing with bunch of bananas hanging from it, like the pistil in a flower. I felt tiny driving through these giant flowers, wondering if giant hands would reach from the heavens and pluck whole trees, or flick our bus a mile distant, some intruding bug. But none of that happened.
The start of the trail began on a ridge, with a spectacular view of the valley below and the hills ahead. The view was misty blue and quite romantic, but terrible for photos. The first leg of the hike brought us along an old trail that connected villages through saw grass and scrub forest. In places the grass was low and the walking easy. In other sections, the grass grew up to 6 ft. tall and the trail was nearly impossible to find, as was any kind of footing. Even when it was low, just two or three feet high, it was hard to see what you were stepping on. Hikers would stumble and fall, completely out of sight, then call out “stump!” as a warning to everyone behind.
As we descended onto another ridge, the terrain flattened out. As we walked, the vegetation would alternate between small patches of forest and grassland. Some of the patches of trees were scrubby and stunted, but others were genuine small sholas, the ancient forest of the Palni Hills. We would be walking along in full light unable to see our feet for the grass, then pass under some tree branches and enter a twilight-world of forest canopy with no grass to impede our progress, and a minute later emerge back into daylight and tall grass. This was the pattern all the way to the dolmen hill.
Most of our progress was downhill or across hills. To my mind, this is the hardest hiking. It doesn’t make your heart pound, but it makes your knees squeal and thighs complain. As you tire, your thighs shake and threaten to give out completely. As your momentum is downhill, a careless step onto gravel could start a nasty fall. I lost traction perhaps three times on the hike. Thankfully none of them landed me on my ass. The kids weren’t so lucky, though there weren’t any serious injuries. As they began to tire, and the heat increased, they became a bit punchy and would often lose their step.
As we continued down, the day grew warm very fast. I had my sweater off in the first 30 minutes of hiking. The plains are perhaps on average 30 to 40 degrees warmer than Kodai. As you descend, you can really feel the heat gain. Up in Kodai that day, the morning temperature was about 55 degrees. At noon it reached about 65. On our hike at 9am, it was already 70. By noon at Rat Tail Falls we were far enough down that it was close to 80. And on the plains in the late afternoon, it was easily between 90 and 95. And 95% humidity, too.
On one ridge, we came out of the grasslands onto a large stretch of black rock. All of the exposed rock around Kodai is black. It gives some of the valleys a Skull Island feeling as you look up at looming black cliff faces. As a chaperone, I would find myself on edge during these valley hikes, looking up at the dark cliffs, sensing that at any moment Kong would leap from behind a mountain ridge and carry off all the blond female hikers.
As the sand on the beach at Kovalam in Kerala is also black, I figured the rock must be black. But we noticed the freshly exposed parts were light orange in color. Closer inspection revealed that yes indeed, the black was a mold, fungus or lichen of some type. Thinking of the miles of black cliff face, that’s a lot of mold in these hills.
We reached the base of the dolmen hill and started up. Soon we came to a huge rectangular structure, with impeccably built walls and the remains of a roof made from huge, thin slabs of rock, some perhaps 15 ft. by 10 ft. Amazingly, the side walls were in perfect condition. They were straight and perfectly vertical. Beautifully, the house was not built on level, but conformed to the slant of the hillside. This was the first of many 8000 year old dolmens.
One of the rooms remained, and by pushing aside some grass, the kids could fit in. So they did, about six of them at once. The interior room was perhaps 8 ft. long by 4 wide and 3 ft. high. Perhaps a tomb, perhaps something else. Spider webs were everywhere, the kids said.
“Wow, there sure are a lot of spiders in here” one of the kids inside commented.
“Are they brown spiders?” asked the other chaperone, who was outside with me. I immediately thought brown recluse. And tensed to leap to the kids rescue should the answer be yes.
“Yes” called the kids.
“Oh” said the other chaperone, calmly enough to suggest she wasn’t thinking of brown recluses. Then I wondered as it was quite dark inside the dolmen, and I don’t know how they could have seen the color of the spiders.
“Ow. That one bit me.” The voice held no panic.
“Me too,” another stated in a bored tone.
But there was no stampede to get out. Were these kids demented? Where were their natural fears and disgust towards spiders? This was not normal. I looked to the other chaperone, whose judgment I trusted as she had lived and hiked in Kodai for many years. She stared into the distance, taking occasional bites of a cheese sandwich, looking quite unconcerned.
“Look at all the spiders over here” said another kid, as calmly as if he had discovered a pile of pretty rocks. This was really not right. But I held my tongue.
Eventually the kids spilled out of the dolmen, bored with the dark cramped space. As they came out, one by one, I kept thinking of circus clown cars. The dolmen roof did not look so big, and the space inside was deceptively large.
“How many bites did you get?” one student asked another as if they were discussing the number of cheese sandwiches in their bags. I decided then and there to make a point of teaching my children to be deathly afraid of spiders. As we hiked up the rest of the hill, I formulated plans involving a large rubber tarantula, to be placed strategically around the house for greatest shock effect.
We had lunch of top of dolmen hill, in a group of five of them, some 30 ft. by 30 ft. square. The dolmens in this area were all built in sight of other dolmens on other hills. Many theories abound about them; that the English Stonehenge culture of 20,000 yrs. ago is related to this Indian dolmen culture; that the dolmens were signal stations; that they were tombs; that they were built under the direction of space aliens. You name it, we discussed it over crumb fried chunks of unidentifiable chicken and disgusting cheese sandwiches. Even the Frooti drink has an unappealing thickness, as if it’s concentrate. But they’re great for squirting into your water bottle. Heavily diluted Frooti is delicious and refreshing.
After lunch, we began our descent into the Rat Tail Falls river valley. The first step was to get off the dolmen hill on the other side. Unfortunately, that side was rather cliff-like—triple black diamond ski run but covered in black rock and saw grass not snow. The treacherous descent was occasionally livened up by rocks flying by my head, dislodged by the hikers in the rear.
“Sorry!” they would shout.
We came to a corkscrew tree and paused to catch our breath. I tried to take a photo of the tree, but realized I was tilting considerably with the hill. This made the tree look like it was leaning sideways on a relatively level bit of ground. So I tried compensating, but only over-compensated, producing a photo that looked like the tree was leaning out from a cliff. Worried, I looked around, but could not establish a true level. The hills undulated, the hillside was steep, no trees anywhere grew straight up. There was no reference. I realized then that I was already tired. The day had warmed to about 75, very humid, and we had been walking down for 3 ½ hrs. So I guzzled some water flavored slightly with Frooti to avoid dehydration.
We could hear the river burbling long before we reached it. We walked out of the grass and into the shola along the river. Then I heard a screech.
“Leeeeeeeeeeech! Get it off me!!!!” One of the girls behind had picked up a leech. I stopped, waited for her friends to clear the leech, and checked my own shoes. Nothing. The leech had not bitten, and her friends girls were trying to push it off her shoe with a stick. This is impossible, I have learned, Leeches are like little indestructible bits of rubber, one end a mouth, the other end a foot. The foot can stick to any material with a grip of steel. It’s mouth, well, you don’t want to go there.
“You have to pick it off with your fingers” I called up to them.
“Eeeeeeeeew No way!” they called back. Time to be male chaperone to the rescue. I hiked back up to them, pinched the leech with two fingers and flicked it into the woods.
“There. Let’s go.” I didn’t spare the leech’s life out of good will. While very satisfying, killing leeches is nearly impossible without industrial equipment. They’re worse than trying to kill the small ticks back in Connecticut. Smashing them with rocks does nothing. Trying to cut them merely dulls the knife on the rock below. I think the company the developed Kevlar used Indian leech genetics.
We came to the river, and the fun began.
The first job was to get across without getting our feet wet. While very rocky, Indian mountain rivers don’t feature evenly spaced, non-slippery rocks that are easy to hop between. Fifteen minutes later and much wetter, we made it the thirty feet to the other side of the river and continued our hike.
“This section of the hike has leeches” the other chaperone told the group, who ignored her as they were trying to smash the leeches they had picked up with rocks, muttering “it isn’t working” as they tried.
“We have about another hour and a half to Rat Tail Falls, with a few crossings here and there. Move quickly through the woods, and when we reach rocks, then stop and remove the leeches. They usually aren’t on rocks, and if they are, you can see them.”
Sound advice I thought; but sprinting through a forest for 1 ½ hrs. didn’t seem possible. We simply were going to get leeches. And damn. I had forgotten my salt at home. Soaking shoes and socks in salt was a good preventive measure. And applying salt to an attached leech had the tonic effect of persuading the leech to detach before finishing his (or her, I guess) meal. Some said salt would make a leech explode, but this was feverish fantasy, I think. Leeches are indestructible.
But oooooh yes, I did have bug spray: some good old Deep Woods Off. So I spritzed my shoes and the bottom of pants legs and hoped for the best.
Off we went up the trail that followed the river at a good quick pace. A hundred feet in, the hikers in front of me stopped to pick off leeches.
“By standing still on the trail, girls, you’ll pick up more” my advice was not welcome to their ears, and they kept pushing ineffectively at the leech with a stick.
“And you have to pick it off with your fingers.” They ignored me for a while longer.
“Please Mr. Purdy, get it off?” The request had such a genuine tone of distress, I couldn’t refuse. I reached down and picked the leech off.
On we went for a good 1/2hr before we crossed the river again. Here we stopped for a thorough de-leeching while sitting on the rocks—off with shoes, off with socks. Some of the leeches can be tiny, like bits of thick thread. Others are fat and huge and hard to miss. A thorough inspection of my shoes, socks, feet and pants came up with a total of zero leeches. The bug spray was working.
“How many you get?” one hiker asked another.
“Eleven. No twelve” came the reply that was far too calm.
Blood trickled down several kid’s legs.
Several were trying to smash them ineffectively with rocks. One kid didn’t seem to get bitten naturally. He was playing with a leech in his hand, letting it inch across his palm.
Only one hiker had a real problem with the leeches. She could handle the bites, which were entirely painless, and the sight of blood. But when she found one still attached to her ankle, she leaped five feet in the air, threw her camera fifteen feet and screamed at the top of her lungs
“Get it off! Get it off! Get it off!” she really hollered.
I saw the leech tumble from her foot on to the rock.
“It’s off! It’s off! It’s off!” I hollered back.
When she calmed down, we retrieved the camera, smashed pretty thoroughly. Then we caught up with the leech, plump with blood, inching its way along nowhere in particular. Smashing larger leeches with blood is pretty spectacular. The blood goes everywhere and there’s quite a lot of it. I figure they drink between a ½ and a full teaspoon of blood before detaching.
So, with bloody socks, we left the bloody rocks and made our way, finally, to a really lovely water slide and swimming hole.
This is the Indian hills at their best. The river flows over large flat rocks creating water slides. Sections are cool in shade. Other parts are warmed in the sun. The water slides feed into pools where you can swim. In the water slides are depressions that churn up the water, forming natural whirlpool baths. When you’re done swimming, your suit dries on the warm rocks within 15 minutes. And there are no bothersome bugs, just dragonflies by the hundreds flitting about gracefully. So we jumped into the icy water, instantly cooled from our long hike. We swam, and slid, and lounged and felt the fish nibble at our toes wondering if a crab would join the investigation. We watched the dragonflies flit about. We sat in the whirlpools and had no thought of what to do next.
But Rat Tail beckoned. We got back on the trail, which was no longer through damp, leech-infested shola, but dryer grassland and scrub forest. Refreshed from the swim, in no time, it seemed we reached the Falls. They’re impressively deceptive, walking up to them. The world seems relatively normal walking along, with the flat river in between two hillsides. The scene has gone on for many miles. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why it won’t. You don’t even hear the crash of falling water. But as you look ahead, you note it is more open, there’s more light ahead. Then you realize the river seems to end and there is open space beyond it, above the water a hillside so far away it is blue in haze. The perspective takes you by surprise and you’re not sure if your glasses have fogged or not. When you reach the Falls, and stand at the top, behind you is the normal gentle river valley you’ve been walking through. In front of your is open air, a mile down, infinitely up, and several miles ahead to the next hillside. It’s as if some cosmic knife cut the world in two at this point, scooped away the hills in front of the falls, diverting the gently flowing stream directly down. It’s unsettling as you try to take it all in: the view and the steepness of the falls.
So I just stood there, perhaps 30 feet back from the edge, trying to connect my brain with what I was seeing. It finally clicked, and my fear of heights said “Hello!” as I watched the kids run up to the edge, pushing and shoving for a better view down.
The very edge of the Falls has a concrete wall you can walk along, two parts from either side concentrating the flow of water between them. It was put there to defined the falls into a better rat tail shape when the water levels are low. From either bank you can walk along the wall and get near the center of the Falls. Don’t look at the wall too carefully, or you’ll note how badly it’s made, leaks and chunks missing everywhere.
Just below this wall, on one side, is a large flat rock about 5ft wide. You can jump down (oh my heart), and then stand on the edge of it to truly look directly straight down about a 1 mile. I chose to get flat on my stomach and creep out to the edge. Sure enough, you can see a tiny little river at the bottom continuing placidly through the forest. Turn your head to one side, and you can watch the water in freefall, mostly silent. The noise of the crashing below really doesn’t rise up. The only noise is the water pushing around the stone walls, and some smaller falls just upstream, and they’re not very loud.
The kids don’t seem to fear the heights as much as me. They spread their lunches out on the wall and take in the view. It’s not a more distant view than other places in the hills. It’s not even among the best views. But you do get to look directly down, which isn’t very common.
On a clear day Rat Tail Falls is visible from a great distance. It’s on a cliff face that juts right out of the plains. As you drive up the Ghat road, it appears across the valley as a long thin white strip of cascading water on a background of black rock—hence the name (for those of you back home who have never seen a rat, especially the giant Indian kind, they have very long white tails, longer than their whole body, which is considerably long. I’ve trapped three in my kitchen so far, and the rest of the family runs across my roof at night). Even from the relative safety of the Ghat road, Rat Tail Falls looks terrifying. No sloping hillside for the water to slide down: it comes off the top and freefalls for that full 1.5 kilometers before it hits the plains, reforms as a stream and continues in a much less spectacular way to a local reservoir.
The other chaperone comes up from behind as I’m taking all this in and barks in my ear:
“You know a few weeks ago two hikers died falling off here.” So startled I nearly leap off the wall.
“Oh yeah?” I reply with a touch of dread in my voice, half wanting the story, half not.
“Yes, they found the bodies at the bottom, in a river pool. Nobody knew they were missing. Someone just saw them through binoculars from the top, If you get closer to the edge I can show you.”
“Thanks, but I’m happy right here.”
The idea of free-falling for a mile made my stomach churn. Then I remembered 9-11, and the people who jumped from the Twin Towers to their deaths in the plaza below. I had to go and sit down.
I watched the kids eating their lunches, talking, having fun, taking pictures and hanging out. None of them were in the same mental space. I wasn’t even sure what mental space I was in. I very much tried to block memories of 9-11 but still the came in bits and pieces. The horror, the fear, the unimaginable choices of dying by burning or dying by jumping. Falling into thoughts much, much too serious for the hike, I was again surprised by the other chaperone:
“Look! I found it struggling in the stream!” She was holding a huge dragonfly, perhaps five inches long with double wingspan to match. Its huge bulbous eyes were bright blue, reflecting the sunlight off them as if they were funhouse mirrors. I stared in wonder.
The dragonfly was obviously hurt. One wingtip was torn. There was a black patch at the base of another wing. It was dying. We put it on a stick just in case it would recover.
“Oh, and you should look at the Hindu Shrine up stream a bit. There’s also a small falls that you can stand under.”
“Thanks” I said, and went on a new expedition. None of the kids were interested. They were having too much fun gossiping in the shade. The sun had come out in full force, unusual for this time of year, when the afternoons tended to bring about rain.
I walked up stream, my feet in the lovely cool water, hopping between rocks. I noted the huge odd tree first before seeing the shrine around it. It seemed to have the largest branch I’d ever seen, but no trunk. There was also a huge odd, intertwining, trellis-like growth on the side of the tree opposite the large branch. The tree was covered with cankers, burls, and other odd swirls of wood and twisted branches. It was certainly the most unusual tree I’d seen in a long while. It’s oddness certainly made it holy.
Looking more close it dawned on me. The horizontal branch had been the trunk and the odd growth opposite was the root system. The tree had fallen sideways many, many years ago (perhaps 50 or a 100—hard to say how fast things grow around here), but survived. The uncovered roots had simply developed bark and continued growing like branches. The shrine was located on the other side of the tree, and featured a multi-colored statue of some goddess, and signs of recent pujas (ceremonies).
What an awesome tree it was. Parts of the shrine were woven into the air-hardened root system. Branches that at first I thought were parts of other trees I traced back to the sideways behemoth. The more I explored, the more I found to the tree, the more history it seemed to reveal, people doing things here and there that the tree had seemed to grow over in time. The tree seemed like a city in miniature.
My oddly disorienting visit under the leaves, roots and branches of the tree was cut short by a shout. It was time to go.
So we packed up and headed out, up a slight rise before we started traversing the cliff face next to the Falls. We were no longer in shola, but moving through grasslands mixed with occasional trees. The sun had come out in full force, no clouds in sight. We became very hot very quickly. The battery on my camera died, too hot I figured. We tramped along on the dry rocky path, passing two Muslim crypts built under flowering trees.
Around a bend, after a good 30 minutes of hiking, we came to a spectacular view of the Falls. We could see where we stood. We could see just how vertical, if not undercut, the cliff face was. We tooks photos and kept going, too hot and tired to contemplate it much.
The heat rose, the ground turned rockier. Prickly pear cactuses dotted the trail. The dry soil was orange in color and dry as dust. I soaked my handkerchief in water and put it over my neck for relief. Then I realized we had time warped into Arizona. Sedona was just up a little way farther, I was quite sure. If I had a thermometer, it would have said 300 degrees. Well, maybe I exaggerate, but it sure felt hot.
The dry trail was mostly loose dirt. Kids stumbled and slid repeatedly. I looked at my arms and noted a bad heat rash. I was well on my way to drinking 2 liters of water since the start of the hike, most of it during this part of the hike. With no shade and a tropical sun beating down, it was tough.
Finally we came to the bottom of the hillside, and the dead-flat plains stretched before us, along with the shade of plantation trees. We first passed through a mango grove, though thankfully all the mangos were green and small, otherwise I’d have to fight to keep the kids from stealing them. Not so thankfully, the mango trees were short and offered no shade. We walked past them, rather than under.
Soon, though, we came into a huge coconut plantation. The coconut trees soared fifty feet up, and made a perfect canopy. We were walking in twilight in the early afternoon. A huge sigh of relief came from everyone, glad to escape the baking sun.
The coconuts were truly farmed, all the ground underneath set up with berms for flooding irrigation from huge tanks, open wells 30 ft. by 30 ft. square. At the edge, we could look down 50 ft. to the water below where turtles and fish sported.
The plantations also were home to the workers. We passed grass huts every 100 ft. or so, with goats and dogs and people all living together.
Occasionally we would hear a loud “THUMP” as a coconut fell from above. Thinking about it, being struck on the head by a green coconut would probably prove fatal. They are hard and weigh several pounds. And they were all above us.
The twilight coconut world went on for a few miles, then turned to rice and sugarcane fields. We were back in the sun, but not far from our bus that waited by the reservoir at the edge of the plantation.
What a relief to reach the bus. Nine very sweaty, very hot, mildly dehydrated hikers climbed on and collapsed. Now there was only the ride home.
Buses in India are, well, not quite the same as in the states. First, they drive with the door open. This allows greater cooling wind in the vehicle. And of course the students sit on the bus steps to get the full effect of the cooling wind. As it was close to 100 degrees and sunny, I saw their logic.
We zoomed along, every window open, wind blasting, feeling a bit refreshed. Then the driver turned on his stereo system, and blasted, top possible volume, some Tamil movie music. This stuff is hard to describe. It has a very strong beat, catchy pop tune, and that constricted Indian female singer’s voice that sounds more like someone tuning a fiddle too tight.
“Boombachaka boombachaka eeeaaaaaeeeeaaaaaeeeeee boombachaka boombachaka eeesssseooyiiaaaaa.” We drove along, bopping to the beat, through villages stuffed with people, past bullock carts and fields, nearly missing oncoming trucks. I had one of those moments when I just feel “Yes, this is very much India. This is not like home. This is marvelous” and don’t think much further about it.
We stop at an intersection and get out to buy drinks. I buy a tender coconut for 10 rupees. This is in part because I like them, and in part because I love to watch them open the coconuts. The man takes a coconut from a pile with one hand, then chops the end off with an arawal in the other hand, nearly missing his fingers, it seems with each chop. He then inserts a straw and hands it over.
Arawals are heavy long knives with a hook at one end. They use them for cutting everything in India from trees to sugar cane. I have one and like it very much. But I don’t swing it near my fingers.
Coconut juice is kind of bland, but it has the reputation of being perfect for re-hydration. There’s just the right balance of everything you need, from electrolytes to vitamins, so I’m told. Perhaps because I had heard this, or perhaps because it’s true, the coconut really hit the spot. I didn’t even feel tired when I got back to Kodai, I even went to a friend’s house to watch The Big Lebowski. I will continue my tender coconut research.
The drive up the Ghat road was typical. It took us 2 ½ hrs, and the temperature dropped 50 to 55 degrees. It had been raining in Kodai, so it was especially cool when we got back at 6:30 pm, bundled in sweaters.