TRAVEL: THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS/PYKARA LAKE, THE NILGIRIS


THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS

Magical monsoon at Pykara Lake

    The Nilgiris are struggling to cope with a severe water shortage, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the blue-green expanse of water that makes up the Pykara Lake, 25 km northwest of Ooty. The lake looks unfathomably deep
(in actual fact, it is 170 feet at its deepest point), a teal-blue expanse, lazy ripples disturbing the smooth surface here and there. Straight ahead, frail wisps of cloud try to make a fragile crown around the Mukurthi peak which dominates the skyline. The silver oaks and eucalyptus trees shimmer in the muted light. And then, like a scene out of the latter part of Lagaan, the clouds gather and darken, and the heavens open up. The rain comes down like sharp sheaves of glass-coloured grain which the
lake gathers happily unto her vast bosom.
I inhale the aroma of my cinnamon-spiked coffee and give thanks that I am here,
now, at this point in time.
As a du jour resident of the hills, one tends to give the popular tourist destinations in the deposed Queen of the Nilgiris, Ooty, a miss. A big miss in the two seasons, summer and autumn, because that is when just about every budget tourist from the plains land up here, balaclava cap in hand. Ooty then, is defined by the heavily and inescapably polluted air, the roads pitted with ruts and vehicular snarls the likes of which takes one unpleasantly back to the plains; the crowds add their not-inconsiderable mite to the chaos. The simple and sad fact is that Ooty went under a decade ago, became totally incapable of coping with the influx and the detritus of the influx. The intervening years have all been downhill, if you will pardon the pun.
However, the last few days have been a re-discovery of these parts for me. And while I am not likely to do a volte face on the hill station’s less-than-edifying situation, there are places hereabouts which still make one draw one’s breath sharply, places which widen the eyes with pleasure. Pykara tops that list.
This lovely lake is hedged by the region’s equally lovely if unbridled gallery forests, the sholas, that pack the gently sloping inclines. The sholas boast of thick and sparse vegetation, tall and short trees, plants galore, all jostling for space on uneven ground. To two sides of the water body stretch grasslands, meadow after meadow. Wildlife roams these parts in plenty and there are frequent sightings of the Nilgiri tahr, sambar, barking deer, the Nilgiri marten and otter, jackal and the like.


Those who come down to Pykara Lake early enough have spotted bison and deer coming up to the shores to drink from the lake’s placid waters, some distance away from the darter birds and cormorants who also come down for the same purposes. Birdlife is also
to be found in plenty, hill birds like the laughing and whistling thrushes, woodcock, wild pigeon and black eagle.
I am told Himalayan butterfly species
like the Blue Admiral, Indian Red Admiral, Indian Fritillary, Indian Cabbage White, Hedge Blue are all to be seen. What I know about these flitting beauties can be put on
the back of a postage stamp but I have seen  quite a few dramatically coloured butterflies in the thinner parts of the shola on earlier trips. The lake is full of rainbow trout but fishing is forbidden for tourists.
The river has a dam and power plant which makes its modest offerings to the State grid. Now full with rainwater, the Pykara Reservoir makes for a pleasing sight, indeed. The Pykara Falls are situated about 6 km into the interior from the bridge on the main road. They are not falls so much as a series of cascades, of 55 and 61 metres, respectively. Again, come the monsoons, as indeed they have come now, and the falls are a treat to trek to. The Ooty Gymkhana Club, the Government Sheep Farm and the controversy-ridden Hindustan Photo Films Company are all in the vicinity but hidden from view, thanks be. The view from the lake is perhaps the area’s last bastion of unspoiled beauty: just hillocks, vales, the majestic Mukurthi peak, the gallery forests, all wreathed most of the time in thin, very white mist.
Trekking routes branch out but the picturesque paths, with trees drooping branches protectively above them, are soggy and slippery in the rains and definitely out of bounds for amateurs. Then again, when the weather clears up, a walk on the Wenlock Downs is another must, in corollary to a visit to Pykara Lake. The Downs, which used to be a grand spread of 20,000 acres, are a wide expanse of grassy knolls and dips en route to Pykara. They are a hugely popular picnic spot as also movie shooting locale, in  particular  a couple of areas situated approximately six and nine miles out of Ooty on the Pykara main road, and hence, rather disengeniously enough called the Sixth Mile and Ninth Mile.
A ramble on the Downs is instant upliftment for the spirit. Take along an expert as I invariably do, and you will come across bushes of holly, wild tea and balsam, cross a thicket of perfectly aligned pine, ford thin and feebly gurgling streams, enter a deeply wooded grove where the sunlight filters through in dappled fashion, only to emerge from the dense canopy into the white light of a rain-soaked Nilgiris day.  
The Pykara is the largest river in the Nilgiris and considered a sacred spot by the reclusive Todas, the indigenous tribals of the area. The river rises at Mukurthi peak, passes through intensely hilly tract, cleaves forest land, offers its waters to wildlife and generally keeps a low profile. A look at any tract on the ‘Neilgherrys’ by worthy officers of the Raj will reveal just how much they valued the river. “As good a trout stream as any in the North Highlands,” remarks one ICS officer from the old days.


Now most of the lake is within a reserved forest and off-limits to visitors. Also, I need to confess that the best views are from the restricted side, meant only for Services officers. However, there is a boat house and restaurant maintained at Pykara Dam by the TTDC, as also a forest rest house which provides accommodation for those who would stay overnight. I would suggest you stay in Ooty and make the trip out to the lake. The tourist seasons are summer and autumn as mentioned earlier but remember you read it here first: Pykara is simply unforgettable in the monsoon.

factfile
Getting there: The Pykara Lake is 25 km from Ooty in east-central Tamil Nadu. The nearest
airport is Coimbatore and the nearest railhead
is Mettupalayam, from where one can even take the Nilgiri mountain train to Ooty. Log on to www.ttdconline.com for more information.


http://newindianexpress.com/lifestyle/travel/article67268.ece

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