We would like to say that Koyambedu at predawn, pre-adventure, is inspiring. However, our story begins in a slushy bus terminus alive with the scent of rotting vegetables. We scramble into the bus to Chidambaram, settling on seats shiny with grunge. The mission is to reconnect with Pichavaram, the subject of the first piece in MetroPlus’s popular Road Less Travelled Column, which ran for over four years starting November 2003.
Following RLT tradition, we’re buffeted by wind, burnt by the sun and drenched with rain over the course of the journey. Emerging at crowded Chidambaram — looking vaguely Rastafarian with hair matted with rural grime — we swat amorous flies, elbow away friendly moustachioed men and teeter through suspiciously smelly slush, muttering darkly about Nature being overrated.
But, the journey’s just beginning. For some reason people always seem to enjoy tales of reporters put through trials of fire. Admittedly, it’s inexplicably satisfying to read about writers balancing on stinky fish carts, climbing sweltering rocks and crawling through spooky caves (all genuine MetroPlus RLT experiences) over a cup of comfortable coffee at home. It’s less fun when you’re acquiring a glorious Bob Marley hairdo miles away from your (sniff) hair stylist, (sob) shopping mall and (sigh) coffee bar.
Fortunately the waiters at ‘Vandayar High Class Vegetarian’ restaurant are friendly, despite our clearly irrational demands for a menu. (“Meals, madam, meals. Only meals.”) About six of them wait on us, giggling manically as they advise us on the best way to reach Pichavaram, about 16 km away.
Outside, the sun seems brighter and happier than usual as we clamber into an auto and zip towards the mangroves. Moving deeper into the villages, the auto weaves between goats sprawled across the road like languid Roman emperors, and the breeze gets cooler as the sky gets darker. It speeds unsteadily through emerald fields, tiny huts and flashy statues. Along buildings painted in a tasteful blend of neon green and violent orange. Very Manish Arora. Little seems to have changed since Shalini Umachandran explored Pichavaram five years ago for RLT. The road still boasts potholes, gaudy fertilizer adverts and statues of politicians painted in gold. The TTDC complex, which was under construction when the first RLT was written, is now ready. But it’s still rather basic. There is however a watchtower with a surprisingly sophisticated telescope through which we’re shown the glittering Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram, almost 10 km away as the crow flies.
TTDC’s gushing website states Pichavaram offers “abundant scope for water sports such as parasailing, rowing and canoeing.” In reality, there’s still only one thing to do here. Take a boat into the mangrove forest.
Located in the Vellar-Coleroon estuarine complex, which is the northernmost part of the Cauvery delta, the brooding mangroves form lush forests that spring out of the water. Covering over 400 hectares, these hearteningly healthy trees, with their glossy green leaves, support a bustling community of varied wildlife: birds, insects and animals.
The row boat glides through intriguingly intricate passages of hanging roots carved out by the boatmen. It’s suitably mysterious: an enchanted wood. Sleek crabs scamper past, majestic falcons strut about, elegant kingfishers preen. In the background there’s the constant hum and flutter of insects and birds. It’s magical and yet strangely eerie: Like a huge multipurpose movie set, perfect for “Narnia” as well as “Omen”.
According to boatman Rajendran, hundreds of tourists wind through these waterways during the tourist season, which coincides with school holidays. Fortunately for us, there are no squealing children around. We’re alone. Like valiant explorers.
The azure sky’s perfect, especially once with our feet trailing in the cool water. Schools of tiny fish get competitive and race our boat, showing off their acrobatic jumps in quick flashes of silver. Besides being undeniably decorative, these mangroves absorb excess nitrates and phosphates thus preventing water contamination. They also act as a buffer, minimising damage from raging cyclones. Best of all, they’re not yet a popular destination, making Pichavaram one of the few places you can hear nothing but Nature breathing.
Though, if you’re staying overnight Nature tends to turn into the class bully. Our chaotically coloured room, with damp spots on the roof, flourishing ant community and cheery lizards, can only be accessed through damp fields rife with cows. Since there’s no phone, we’re advised to “open door and shout loudly” if we want anything. By 5 p.m. our boat ride’s done. “What else is there to do?” we ask. “Nothing.”
So we climb the watchtower and watch the sky slowly turn a brilliant orange and the sun sink in a burst of gorgeous hues. In minutes the sky begins to glitter with stars. Suddenly we see a fiery shooting star streaming ceremoniously across the sky. Minutes later the electricity fails, and we’re soon back in our tiny room, gingerly crouched on the bed in pitch darkness, hoping the giant spiders don’t find us. Beyond the window, alive with scurrying ants, the mangroves glimmer mysteriously in the moonlight.
Pichavaram’s not changed an iota in five years. Which is frustrating. But also fabulous.
SHONALI MUTHALALY/ PRIYADARSHINI PAITANDY