Matthew King emerging on the southern escarpment near Secret Shola after several days of plantation trekking and getting lost in Mathikettan Shola. Taken on 35mm Kodachrome slide film in May 1990.
Matthew King emerging on the southern escarpment near Secret Shola after several days of plantation trekking and getting lost in Mathikettan Shola. Taken on 35mm Kodachrome slide film in May 1990. Photo: Ian Lockwood

A Secret in the Hills

One of the most commonly-used Tamil translations of kodai- kanal is ‘dense thicket’; it is hardly surprising that there are many distinguished sholas within the Palani Hills. These stunted montane evergreen forest patches were an integral part of the upper plateau ecology when the modern settlement of Kodaikanal was established in 1845. 

Originally sholas grew in protected valleys and pockets, conspicuously distinct from the surrounding downs of montane grasslands. Contrary to some thinking (which assumed that this strange landscape was the product of haphazard fires and grazing), the shola-grasslands mosaic is now recognized as a unique vegetation type associated with the upper hills of the southern Western Ghats (Sukumar et al). Today plantations of Australian and Mexican tree species and the gardens, homes and sprawl of Kodai have swallowed up these biodiversity-rich habitats. While few montane grasslands survive in the Palanis, the sholas have fared better. 

Sholas in the Kodai vicinity have been named for important places, people and animals. Bear and Tiger Shola commemorate a time of large mega fauna in the upper hills. Blackburne Shola is named after an early British visitor (and collector of Madurai); and Bombay Shola is named for the army regiment of an officer who camped there. Kukkal Shola is better known as Leech Shola, as its damp interior is home to large numbers of these parasites with a penchant for human blood.

Many of you readers will be familiar with these forests from your journeys up the ghat and the daily walks that make for a healthy Kodai stay. However, I would imagine that very few of you have heard of a certain Secret Shola. 

The place is still not on any maps and, in fact, I named the Secret Shola to convey how remote and special this place is. I stumbled upon this particular shola serendipitously, during a trek of epic proportions with my Loch End (part of the Kodaikanal International School campus) buddy Matthew King. In the summer of 1990 we were back in Kodai to visit family and friends after two years of undergraduate education in the American Midwest. We were relishing Kodai, its climate, south Indian food and friends, but mostly we wanted to get out and hike in the distant hills. Our goal was to hike from the Berijam fire tower to Vandaravu, following as much of the southern escarpment as possible. While studying at KIS we had followed part of this trail on the legendary 80-mile-hike. 

On this expedition we wanted to spend more time on the cliffs looking for Nilgiri tahr and other wildlife. Taking the bus out of town we started at the fire tower with bright blue skies, decent views of the plains, and a clear path. After several hours we were far from the roadhead and ran into dense strands of wattle that had taken over the grassy cliff edge. On an impulsive decision we entered an adjoining shola without understanding the sheer scale of its borders. We soon got thoroughly lost in a dark, moss-covered maze of old growth trees. This was before the age of GPS and there were no markers to locate ourselves on the photocopied Survey of India topo sheets that we had brought with us. 

We explored animal paths, valleys, and ridges but only got more disoriented. When a large cat growled at us from a thicket we knew that it was time to retreat (to this day I can’t tell you if it was a tiger or a leopard but it was an unmistakable roar). Then a bull gaur startled us when we nearly ran into it—luckily it was as spooked as we were. 

Eventually we left the shola edge and emerged into an open meadow. Upon closer investigation, we learnt that we were only a few hundred meters from where we had started. And days later, we learnt that we had been in Mathikettan Shola, appropriately known and translated as ‘place where you lose your mind’.

It was an age when logging was still being actively conducted, and after a night spent in an abandoned forestry hut, we hiked deeper into the Palani Hills wilderness. We were convinced that we were on our way to the fabled cliffs. They loomed large in our imagination but we slogged through kilometers of plantation, a veritable green desert of near-lifeless monoculture. The skies opened up and we got thoroughly soaked. Matthew  was reluctant to follow my lead after the previous debacle and cursed my sense of direction. But with few other options I navigated southwards towards what I assumed would be the escarpment edge. 

Several hours passed and we needed to find a campsite for the night. 

Coming around a bend on an overgrown logging road I heard the sounds of a mixed species flock of birds. There were black (wedge-tailed) bulbuls and endemic Palani Hills laughing thrushes. A black and orange flycatcher flittered in a thicket of raspberry bushes. Up ahead, a canopy of gnarled trees fell away from a line of eucalyptus trees. We had finally reached an edge of the escarpment. 

Out of view, the Palani Hills plunged in a near-1,500 meter vertical drop of rugged granite cliffs and grassy slopes to the scrub forests and plains near Theni and Bodinayakanur. We couldn’t see the cliffs because of the dense but compact shola that blocked our view. 

The shola seemed inviting but there was no obvious entrance. We looked for and soon discovered a secretive, narrow path that led over the edge to a wooded ledge. 

Inside we found ourselves in an amphitheater of ancient shola trees that later dropped steeply through thick forest. Our eyes had to adjust to the dark, diffused light filtering through the canopy. The air was heavy with the scent of decomposing leaf litter—a different and wonderful sort of sensory experience than is experienced under plantations. Numerous vines, some as thick as large pythons, roped themselves intimately around dwarf trees, mature in age but stunted by the windy edge. A carpet of Calanthe orchids and nettle covered the ground. In the cavity of the bowl-shaped area a small spring with muddy edges was clearly popular with hoofed animals. It felt like they had been here only moments ago.  

We lingered long enough to feel the spirit of the shola, and then scrambled out to look for our cliffs. Sure enough, 10 minutes away, the plantation came to an end and a grassy escarpment jutted out to a kilometer-long premonitory with uninterrupted views of the plains. We found a grassy knob on the edge for our tent. 

In the evening the lights of the plains were reflected in a star-filled night. We feasted on Maggi noodles spiked with masala swordfish. At dawn we were treated to spectacular views of the rain-washed plains. Hiking out along the edge of the plateau I realized that on this expedition, we had only scraped the surface. It would take many more years and visits to get a better sense of this rugged, isolated edge of the Palani Hills. 

During the last 30 years the vegetation on the escarpment edges of the Palani Hills (and whole upper plateau) has changed profoundly as non-native species from timber plantations have invaded grasslands and spilt over the edges into ideal Nilgiri tahr and pipit habitat (see this paper by M Arasumani et al). The issue is complicated and some plantations have become nurseries for sholas (see this Frontline article on the Plantation Paradox; see Pippa Mukherjee’s piece this issue; and the second part of our interview with WWF CFO Nik Sekhran, which addresses the same issue). 

Kodaikanal has been declared as a national park and that includes the cliff area discussed here. On the surface that is a good thing but it is difficult, if not impossible, to get into the area to assess the status of surviving shola/grasslands habitats, as noted in this paper. The school and other trekkers with good intentions are prevented from trekking in much of the upper Palani Hills. Satellite imagery tells us a story of change that has happened in our relatively short lifespans. 

Bob & Tanya with the  Vaccinium leschenaultia tree at Secret Shola. They had seen the 6×6 black & white picture that I had exhibited and were curious about “Secret Shola.” It was only after I finally got the chance to take them to the location in the remote Palani Hills that they were able to identify the species. Color digital July 2011.
Photo: Ian Lockwood

Ten years ago, on a visit to the area with the late pioneers of restoration in the Palanis, Bob Stewart and Tanya Balcar, I had the opportunity to take them to Secret Shola – a place they had missed in their many years of wandering and studying in the Palani Hills. They were famously hard to impress but Secret Shola moved them. Fittingly, they discovered that one of the trees in the amphitheater was a superb specimen of Vaccinium leschenaultia, an uncommon species that is often associated with the edges of sholas. 

Bob and Tanya reminded us that the last patches of montane grasslands and adjoining sholas needed the attention and active protection of future generations. It’s a challenge that still needs to be addressed. (For more about current efforts to conserve the sholas in Kodai and the Western Ghats, please read our interviews with Suprabha Seshan and S Ramasubramanian, the new Chief Conservator of Forests posted in Dindigul.)


To read more about Secret Shola today, please see Pavitra Sagar’s ‘The Fear and Fascination of Madhikettan Shola’.

Ian Lockwood

Ian Lockwood is an educator, photographer, and environmentalist with a passionate interest in the natural history, geography and cultures of South Asia. He is the author of Gems of the Western Ghats. More of his work can be seen on HighRangePhotography.com. He lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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