On a bend in the road, just before the hairpin drop into the Koottickal Valley, we stop to admire the view. Aside from the pink tip of a church tower poking through the trees, all we can see is lush, tropical greenery: betel nut, coconut and banana palms; forests of rubber creeping out of the valley and up the slopes of the Peermade Hills.
Whisps of cloud hang in the folds of the distant Vagamon Mountains. Two gaudy butterflies dance past. I can hear the whoop-whoop of a crow pheasant. After the steamy heat of Kerala’s crowded plains, it feels amazingly fresh.
The Koottickal Valley is at the heart of Kerala’s rubber belt. In the foothills of the Western Ghats (the vast mountainous ridge down the spine of south India), the belt is a wide band of plantations; not just rubber but food – vanilla, pepper, pineapples and tapioca – and teak. It’s an area often overlooked by tourists. On the well-trodden “KK” Road, which heads uphill from Kumarakom Backwaters on the coastal backwaters to Kumily, the gateway to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, they often just pass through, sometimes by the coachload. I have done it myself but I’ve since found a dozen good reasons to stick around.
One is the weather. Rubber thrives in mid-range temperatures: cooler than the plains but warmer and drier than the high-range tea plantations. Another is the beauty of the green hills, steep gradients, white morning mists rising from river valleys. I like the ordinary, everyday towns (Pala, Kanjirapally, Mundakayam) and the madly ornate Catholic churches with their icing-sugar bell towers.
Thanks to a growing number of rubber-belt guesthouses, I’ve also developed a taste for plantation life: best summed up by sultry evenings spent chewing the fat on the verandah of a vintage bungalow. This is the life that was pioneered by British planters a century or so ago.
In the Koottickal Valley, my husband and I stay with fourth-generation Keralan planter George Abraham Pottamkulam and his wife, Anju, daughter Rose and baby Aby. Their house on the 20-hectare Evergreen Estate, which peeps at the Urumbi Hills through slender rubber trees, is a flat-roofed, modern bungalow – all cubes, curves, louvred windows and a Miami-style carport – built by Pottamkulam’s father in 1955.
As we sip cold Kingfisher beer on his shady verandah, he tells of the colonial farmers and missionaries (the Bakers, Vincents, and Murphys) who helped establish Kerala’s first rubber estates; about the Syrian Christian families (the Kurians, Pottamkulams, Kottukapallys) who now own most of them; and about his grandfather, who once bought a Studebaker with leopard-skin seats (“real leopard skin – can you believe it?”).
A lot of what you see in a Kerala Homestay like here is standard Keralan fare: flat-roofed, concrete houses painted in vivid shades of candy and citrus, creaking rust-bucket buses, crowds of schoolchildren in uniform, lines of washing strung across front doors and roadside advertisements for silks, cement and – this being the new India – hedge funds. However, some attractions are far from typical.
On a guided plantation tour, we hike along red-earth paths through industrial-size forests of rubber, where each tall, spindly tree is skirted with a polythene tutu to protect the latex, which drips into a cup strapped to the trunk. Get up before dawn and you can see the “tappers”, torches strapped to their heads, carefully cutting thin strips of bark to release the milky fluid. If you’re really keen you can visit a rubber factory (ah, the sweet smell of coagulating latex and formic acid).
At Bharananganam – a name that encapsulates the timbre of the local Malayalam language – you can visit the tomb of St Alphonsa, India’s first and only female saint, canonised in 2008. Join the crowds of silent pilgrims and pick up a kitsch light-up Alphonsa figurine from a convent-run kiosk of church souvenirs.
With Pottamkulam, we visit the final resting place of John Joseph “JJ” Murphy, who founded India’s first commercial rubber plantation in 1902. He is buried near Koottickal in an overgrown, middle-of-nowhere cemetery, close to the hilltop plantation he used to own. “We’ve a lot to thank him for,” Pottamkulam says as he stands over the Irishman’s grave. Murphy died in 1957 but his portrait hangs above the bar of the once very British Mundakayam Club, where a new generation of planters sips pegs of whisky under ceiling fans. It’s another of Pottamkulam’s recommendations. The club was founded in 1912 and preparations for its centenary celebrations are under way.
For me, though, the joy lies in the simple pleasures of staying at a family-run plantation guesthouse (“the testimony to glorious yesteryears,” Pottamkulam says). And the food is good: Keralan-style, Syrian Christian meatball curries, rice-flour chappatis, appams (rice flour and toddy pancakes), coconutty fish curries with tapioca. We are even treated to a nazarani sadhya feast – 30 tiny spicy dishes served on a banana leaf.
I do love the region’s lush landscapes and tourist-free towns (nobody tries to sell you anything, not even a tuk-tuk ride) but I would travel a long way for one of Anju Abraham’s banana-flower patties.