Part 1: Tea and Snakes
The little hill station of Ponmudi is around 57 km from Trivandrum city, which means I’ve inevitably found myself running along its misty, grassy slopes on many a Christmas or Onam vacation as a kid and as an adult.
I was seven when my parents took me there for the first time.
Achan and Amma, both botanists and frequent visitors to wooded places, excitedly told me that we could expect to see some leopards and snakes. Of course, they later realised what a big mistake it was to say this to a 2nd standard kid with a heightened sense of self-preservation.
We set off on the Yezdi, Gingi sandwiched between Achan and Amma, and me perched on the petrol tank.
Ponmudi has 22 spectacular hairpin bends, and because of the miniature nature of the hills there – compared to Ooty or Kodaikanal – these bends are sharp, steep and in rapid succession.
After quite a few bends, the Yezdi decided to stand up for its rights and refused to climb further uphill, bearing the four of us.
This was the first sign.
Gingi and Amma got off the bike started cutting across the tea gardens and climbing up while Achan rode around the hairpin bend with me to meet them after each turn. After what may have been two or three hours, the Yezdi cooperating once in a while, we managed to reach the KTDC guest house and checked in.
While the others were settling in, I excitedly went out to the balcony to look at the misty hills. After spending some time being very impressed with the Western Ghats, I chumma glanced over the railing of the balcony to see the most giant snake I’ve seen in my life (outside of Trivandrum zoo).
It was writhing around in the overgrown garden below. Then it darted like lightning into the vegetation and disappeared.
It’s not like I haven’t seen free, uncaged snakes before. I lived slightly removed from the cityish parts of Trivandrum, along with a healthy population of keelbacks (neerkoli), kraits (sankhu annan), and rat snakes (chera chettan). But this one, with shiny metallic black skin, was longer and bigger than any rat snake I’d ever seen.
This was the second sign.
Part 2: A series of questionable decisions
The grassy summit of Ponmudi is the final destination for most people travelling there unless you’re that motivational poster person who thinks the journey or the company matters more and don’t particularly care about reaching anywhere.
It’s about three kilometres from the guest house.
After temporarily making me calm down from the snake episode, everyone was ready to head there. Now that I had seen a snake, I accepted my fate of being eaten by a leopard and joined them.
We left the Yezdi at the guest house and hopped on one of the jeeps that ferried tourists back and forth from the hilltop.
The summit of Ponmudi is beautiful. It’s covered in grass of the silky variety, the wind is phenomenal enough to blow kids over the edge, and the mist hugs everything.
It’s an open space where leopards couldn’t hide according to 7 y.o. me. And it was surrounded by many more open, grassy hills. The densely wooded sholas where leopards can hide are pretty far away.
So I momentarily forgot about animal attacks and partook in the family excitement about how wonderful nature is.
Everyone was so enamoured that someone, most probably Achan, decided that we’ll walk back to the guest house instead of taking the jeep. After all, it was under 3 kilometres. So we hung back and watched the last ride leave and disappear into the mist along with the other tourists.
We continued exploring the summit, meticulously studying the grass and whatnot. It was also starting to get foggier. This was probably the third sign that all of us conveniently ignored. ‘More mist, more beauty’ was in fact one of our family mottos.
Then Amma, Gingi, and I sat on a rock to pose for a photo, and a bolt of lightning struck right next to us.
Did I mention that we were at the end of the retreating North-East monsoon? The main South-West monsoon season in June is one devoid of fireworks. It rains. And it rains some more. The North-East monsoon, on the other hand, is way more dramatic. The skies turn black in the afternoon. There’s <insert Thunder by Imagine Dragons>.
So yes, lightning struck and we scrambled for our lives. The scrambling finally brought us to the road that led to the guest house. Now there was this small wooded stretch we needed to pass before the road opened to the hill on one side and the precipice on the other.
As soon as I saw the trees, I was convinced that I was going to die, I started screaming ‘puli, puli’ (leopard, leopard), and my legs stopped working. Now my parents had to carry their delusional screaming child on their shoulders apart from navigating the mist and lightning.
But let’s all agree, they pretty much brought it upon themselves. Snakes and leopards, it seems.
Part 3: Mo mist, Mo problems – A Michael Bay Production
Once we were past the wooded area, my legs started working again. But now, there was another problem. All the mist and fog that had travelled downhill earlier was rushing up again, reducing visibility to almost none.
So there’s this other thing about Ponmudi – when visibility drops there, it falls to a point where you’ll be able to see a hypothetical truck in front of you only when you’re hypothetically under it.
But all the vehicles had left. It was unlikely that anyone was going to climb uphill in this weather. There was more chance of us being unable to tell where the road was ending horizontally, and the precipice was beginning vertically. So we stuck to the middle of the road.
Since we were mostly running in circles, it was also difficult to tell how much distance we had covered. We knew that there were two transformers on the way back, and once we passed them, we’ll be closer to the guest house. But with zero visibility, how could we be sure if we had already passed them by?
And then one of the transformers exploded right in front of us, illuminating the entire place in flying sparks cutting through the mist. Well, that was one way to be sure.
The four of us scattered in different directions, then we regrouped and ran for our lives without looking back. We eventually reached the guest house, alive and with limbs intact. The guy at the reception greeted us saying that they were about to send a search party for us, once the weather was a bit better.
Sure, man. Sure.
I’m not sure if we fell in love with Ponmudi despite exploding transformers and imaginary leopards or because of them. The trajectory of many of my childhood trips started with me hating a place and ended with me considering moving there with our fridge. I still consider moving to Ponmudi with my fridge sometimes.