Lates 80s and early 90s - An old Road Transport Corp. (RTC) bus which had the board ‘Bonacaud’ passed through our school bus-stop every morning during school days. It was always packed to brim and the bus had unique sounding horn. The place had remained mystic over years, until a heavy rainy morning in June 2010, when we drove into Bonacaud for the first time. There, Bonacaud lay ahead of us, covered in mist, rain, forest, ruined plantations, dilapidated structures, abandoned homes and few people. As we made the first stop near the tea-shop where the settlement began, an RTC bus came in. The bus had 2 passengers, far cry from the packed scenes many years back. I asked myself whether this was the Bonacaud I had in mind and soon my question was answered as we talked to few people around and one person in particular gave us a run through the history. And that laid the foundation for the numerous trips over 4 years, discovering & learning.
Spread over 2500 acres of hills, valleys, forest and waterfalls, Bonacaud or Bonaccord (as used by British) was once a magnificent tea estate started by British more than 135 years back, right below the Agasthya mountain ranges in Trivandrum, on the majestic Western Ghats. At present, it is a far cry from the glory days prior to 1991 when troubles started in the estate, thanks to a large part by the neo-economic policies by the Govt. From then onwards, the estate has been on a downward slide and the current picture presents a contrasting scenario – of the forest & nature reclaiming the cleared land, providing the emerald landscape and the life of the remaining settled workers (mostly from Tamilnadu who had settled long back) who hope for a better tomorrow. Few people know about the existence of this spot and perhaps, that might be the reason why the place still remains virgin. The estate is currently being held by a North Indian group.
The world that lay ahead
Bonacaud is nearly 40km from Trivandrum, taking a deviation from the Trivandrum - Ponmudi road at Theviyode Jn. From Theviode Jn. it is only 13 Kms, but the road is narrow and winding, offering beautiful views of the Agasthya mountain ranges. There is a ‘Jersey Farm’ – a dairy run by the Government which is just at the end of the road before the start of the long winding road. You got to declare yourselves at the Forest Checkpost before entering the hill road. Unlike the Ponmudi road which is pretty good, the Bonacaud road is relatively battered and possibility of wild life (elephants etc.) sighting is high too. The State Road Transport Corporation runs bus trips at 2-3 hours gap from Nedumangad (Presently, an RTC bus goes to Bonacaud from Trivandrum Central depot at 5.30Am). On the road up, there is a watch tower from where once can have a clear view (on mist free days) of the Peppara Dam and its catchment area which is to the right and as you turn your vision to left, you can see the green mountain ranges and the factory and buildings dotting the Bonacaud estate and the winding roads snaking further up to the Top Station (again, if its free from mist).
However, the pristine beauty one was driving through for so long turns into beauty of ruins as you near the estate area. Acres of ruined tea shrubs covered by undergrowth and huge barren trees dot the final run into the estate. Broken walls, semi-collapsed ‘layams’ or dwelling units for plantation workers, a single tea-shop etc. welcomes you. The constant rain and mist makes the place evergreen with the mosses everywhere – on the walls, on the tarmac, on the trees.. A public TV stand which is broken sans the TV stands as a monument to the once lively evenings when the workers would be gathering to watch TV.
A single ‘hotel’/ provisional store caters to the need of the remaining workers. The owner is a simple man whom I had befriended during our visits. He recognized us after some effort and we asked him if there are visitors to the area. He told that during favorable climatic conditions, some groups would come to trek to Pandipath (further up the Top Station), but they never bother to stop over the estate area or talk to the people there. During first visit we had explored around the factory and immediate estate areas which were riddled with ruined settlements, partially broken homes and lives, staring eyes, friendly eyes and people who were happy that we were willing to listen to their stories – stories of a glorious past. The factory was closed and there had been no activity for more than 5 years. But currently, there are some activities, thanks to the Government intervention and some change in management. Now, tea is being plucked and transported to a tea factory near Ponmudi 3-4 time a week.
The Bonafalls, a spectacular large waterfall is nearly 5 km from the Bonacaud tea factory. Vehicles can be taken further 2 kms from the factory to a Forest Checkpoint and Bungalow and the remaining 3 kms has to be trekked through a heavy forest. The permit for the trek has to be taken from the first Forest check post before reaching the estate. However, the permission for the Bonafalls trek has been cancelled for over 2 years now as the elephants in the area are reported to be highly violent against humans. Starting from the watchtower mentioned earlier, the sound of the waterfall is audible till you reach the factory.
At close quarter, the place may lie in tatters, but the real beauty lies in the distant past, which is shrouded in mystery just like the cover of mist. As a novice in my first ‘trip’, I was struck by the beauty of the ruins. On the second ‘trip’, we were privy to some of the past lore. That was when the ‘trip’ turned into a ‘journey’. The journey started taking us through history, culture, life, co-existence of humans & animals, where humans are often in subordinate role..It was on the concluding part of one such journey that a person told us about a Bungalow, which the settlers believed was haunted. As he spoke about the past, he raised and pointed his finger to a huge pine tree higher up in the mountain – “behind the tree is the Bungalow” – he said. Mist was descending down covering our vision of the pine tree.
On the return trip, we discussed the possibility of making a trip to the Bungalow..Opinion was divided – It was risky to go up the mountain on a narrow path (motorable by a Jeep/ SUV) since elephants were a possibility, refusal by some of the locals when we had asked them if they would guide us to Bungalow etc etc.. But still, something was pulling us, pulling us to explore further up the estate area and find out the Bungalow. We planned many times, but the trip didn’t materialize..
Then, one Friday morning in September 2011:
A conversation between four nuts – (07:00 Am) “Where to?” – “no idea”, “somewhere?” – “nowhere”, “nowhere?” – “hmmmm..maybe somewhere”, “where?” – “pack up, we are heading somewhere and maybe we can decide on the way” (07:02 Am). “oh no, not again” (07:04 Am) – lamented my better-half as once again, the four nuts were ‘in search of solitude’ (how come 4 can have solitude together is an interesting area of research which we are attempting to explore more), trying to catch-up with the carefree spirit of +2 days after 15 years. The “where to’ was answered as we decided to drive to Bonacaud in search of the Bungalow.
Soon, the drive to Bonacaud was on and we had the customary stop at the hotel near the factory. We asked a person if he could guide us to the Bungalow. He was hesitant and laid out reasons, but we told him that we would make up for his day and after long cajoling he agreed to guide us. The sky was turning dark from the mountain side with the mist accompanying it, sun was still shining down in the valley on the other side, making the grey skies atop the mountain more sinister. We asked about the condition of the road and were told that the soil roads were redone recently, but still bumpy and rocky. The trip so far had made us damn hungry and the food packets were cleaned off accompanied by the black tea and omelette ordered from the shop.
The trip ahead took us through some spectacular drives, through the middle of enormous loneliness of the tea plantation, settlements (partially abandoned) in between and the sight of the catchment area of Peppara Dam at some curves. We felt as if it was a different world, often the roads lined with mystic red flowers falling down from particular type of huge tree. Only sounds were that of the car and the chirping crickets and the occasional wind. The lights were magical, one moment we were under spotlight, next moment, the mountain behind us was in spotlight. In next corner, we faced the dark grey sky which opened up pretty soon. The next few kilometers was under the violent pounding of rain and we were wondering of anyone would be up there in such a place. At the next corner, we were surprised to find a crèche, we stopped there in awe thinking of how one could be placing a crèche at this point and suddenly, two ladies and kid came out to the balcony looking at us. That image still refuses to leave our mind – 3 souls in the midst of all this loneliness..
Panoramic view.. hides the real life picture
He saw through many decades, accompanied by hardships and neglect, mind & body hardened by the struggles. now his eyes brood with contempt..even our lens didn't have the courage to look into his eyes directly
The factory building
The lines of hardships written in face
To be continued