Long weekends are little oases for all our city-dwelling minds. Nothing can pique the interest of the wilderness enthusiast in me more than the travel planner’s call to inform that we’ll be driving to our sojourn at Cherambadi because it’s not easily accessible by either air or rail transport. His post-script is even more riveting. We’re taking a longer route because crossing the elephant territory at night—to get to our vacation spot falling in the shadows of The Blue Mountains aka Nilgiris—can be a bit too adventurous.
Without waiting for the destination to surprise me, my co-traveller briefs me in on the Wentworth Estate. Dates as old as 1859 (when the land was acquired for growing tea) and 1930 (when the bungalows were built) pop-up in the discussion as the city lights fade out and a reddish moon joins our road trip.
The tea trail
Crossing the Kerala border from Wayanad, we enter the 3,300-acre plantation located on the fringes of Tamil Nadu’s border in the wee hours. Soon we veer off the highway and the rough road up the hill, on which rests the Cherambadi bungalow, shakes us up from our sleepiness. Caretaker Fernando—a perfect go-to man for colonial stories from his 43 years of service at the estate—is waiting for us as our car makes the gravel murmur.
Unlike any hotel, this heritage property only offers three bedrooms, which means you’re definitely getting some personal attention. The abode maintains certain traditional architectural characteristics like airy rooms (where going from the sleeping chamber to the attached bathroom is quite a walk) fitted with elegant fireplaces and woodwork, but has been sparsely refurbished; sometimes at the cost of looking rather unsophisticated.
I step outside with a cuppa, hoping to catch a glimpse of the first light from the courtyard hugged by tea shrubs, which has a vantage point over the green hillscape. The sun is sleepy behind a shroud of clouds and mist, but the village is awake with a morning share of hazy songs from worker settlements and a multitude of bird calls.
At Cherambadi, you’ll always be in doubt about what’s better—the view or the plantation hospitality. From the Vice President of Tea plantations, Anil George Joseph, personally coming over to invite me for a tea tasting session to the bungalow’s attentive butler serving the best local cuisine dishes (including vella pongal and ragi kali), the people here are bound to make you feel like the visiting nephew of an officer stationed in the estate.
As we visit the Wentworth tea factory, Anil is keen on walking us through the sustainability practices and community development initiatives taken up by the brand. “Our approach is holistic, whether it is farming, manufacturing, or tourism. Besides soil and water management, we have teams that ensure the conservation of shola forests and swamps located within and on the boundaries of the property,” says Anil, who is proud about certifications from international organisations like The Netherlands-based Rainforest Alliance.
His team is equally enthusiastic in leading us around the establishment, helping us understand the processes like moisture reduction and fermentation which are used in creating various quality products like white and orthodox teas.
Finally, we’re guided into the room where light played off an array of bowls holding various brews. Beverage expert P Salman explains to us the yardsticks used in judging the quality including infusion, but first, we need to learn how to slurp in and roll the liquid on the palate to extract the whole taste! I’m completely taken by surprise at the varying flavours and almost fall in love with a variant which has gooseberry flavour with a sweet aftertaste!
Regular evening tales over tea at the property are too intense to be overlooked. I figure this out as senior official Sanjay Upman tells me about the local ritual at an annual festival which involves people walking over a fire! “Wayanad has been getting crowded over the years. Here on the opposite slopes of the same mountains, we have a whole destination for heritage travel right here in Cherambadi,” says Sanjay, as we head to a spot said to be the favourite of a particular British official and his memsahib.
The tribal villages in the region with paniya settlers are also ridden with stories. Our conversations reveal tales of government negligence and attempts at cultural appropriation by settlers and traders from elsewhere over the years. The accounts don’t stop even as we prepare our campfire for the night. Two officers who join us for a bonfire and barbeque inform us that two elephants are on their rounds of the villages downhill.
On a morning walk the next day, I realise that the presence of fauna in the region is pretty strong. A local manager (who is overseeing fresh tea plucking in the early morning) helps me identify the excrements of a porcupine, burrows made by black bears and to my surprise, the paw marks of a leopard in a sandy patch. I can’t help but shudder at the thought of being watched by the wildlife!
Less beaten path
An overcast sky doesn’t hold back our exploration to Golesland bungalow. Tucked away deeper into the eponymously named division, the two-bedroom house is set in the shade of rosewood trees, perfect for a book ‘n’ hammock sorta day. Sanjay informs me that Golesland is a favourite among bird watchers and wilderness enthusiasts, as the swamps in the valley are frequented by wild animals.
We keep our eye out for any sign of beasts, however, our encounter happens when we least expect it; on our way to check out a rare Blakes Hydram (a hydraulic ram pump that functions without fuel, electricity or muscle power). As we walk along the stream—which used to power the now-defunct machine—our enthusiastic friend who had gone ahead with the guide returns with double the speed after encountering a herd of elephants in a nearby bamboo grove. We retrace our path so as not to disturb the gentle giants and hike the short trail overlooking the spring colours of the forests bordering the plantation to a viewpoint.
Mist thwarts our plan to enjoy the vista, but Plan C is a dip in a tributary of Chaliyar; so nobody is complaining. Upon returning to the bungalow, with muscles aching from the swim, I settle down into a traditional armchair on the perpetually windy verandah and open my copy of Willian Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali; a perfect companion for sinking into the half-colonial ethos of the space.
Sipping on tea everywhere you go is a part of the travel experience. Located on the Gudalloor-Ooty road, the plantation has kiosks which offer varieties of the beverage. Remember to stop by and try one of the export quality teas which offer vibrant flavours than the CTC (crush/tear/curl) variant which is commonly used in India for its strength. The local origin speciality leaves Single Estate Tea – Lockhart, Pattumalay, and Lockhart Frost Tea, Hybrid Tea (Black and Green) are must tries. Health conscious connoisseurs should definitely get their hands on Harrisons Yoga Green/White Tea.
Wild and free
Set in the proximity of protected forests like Bandipur and Mudumalai, this sprawling tea garden is situated amidst one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots recognized by UNESCO. Besides regular sightings of elephant herds and a multitude of birds, a longer stay in the locale might get you closer to leopards and even endangered species like Lion Tailed Macague and Nilgiri Tahr. Boasting nearly 3,300 species of flowering plants, the property is bound to keep orchid enthusiasts engaged with eight endemic varieties.
Heritage bungalows from `6,000 onwards.