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On the Escape Route

Why bother with Kodaikanal, asks SOMA BASU



A SERENE AMBIENCE The Berijam Lake PHOTO: SOMA BASU

While returning from Konalar, the Kodaikanal DFO convinces me that Berijam qualifies for an RLT, though he maintains that it is still a `restricted place' and you need his permission. It is rich in flora and fauna and has a few firsts to its credit.

I set off on this 25-km stretch from Kodai town via Moier Point and Silent Valley — both offering grand views of the Palani range. The weather is pleasant and the drive takes a little over an hour to cover the distance given the narrow hill road. Berijam is unique in that it's a conjunction of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems — the shola forests where the trees are evergreen, the main forests and the marshy swamps.

The Forest Department has set up South India's first field-oriented eco-education centre here as well as an exclusive medicinal plants demo garden spread over a hectare. The Department has also created a model swamp area to educate the public.

Natural charm

The 3-km long Berijam lake is pollution-free and adds to the natural charm of the place. Unlike the Kodai lake, which has become a typical tourist spot, here people are allowed to take only a `nature walk'.

The view of Berijam from the hills is picture perfect — the green hills sloping down to a clear blue lake on one side and the swamps on the other. In the middle is a 100-year-old double-storeyed brick building, which is partly damaged and blackened over the years. On the walls is written in bright yellow "Britisher's Transit Camp." Even this dilapidated building stands out in the sylvan setting.

It is said that on the 230-odd km route from Kodaikanal to Kochi, which the Britishers named the Escape Route, a transit camp was built every 15 km for the soldiers to rest. While a majority of these buildings has either perished or been razed to the ground, the one at Berijam still stands as a reminder of those days.

Mentally eliminate the crowd and Berijam appears frozen in time. However, when I enter, I am greeted with the wails of a woman. It turns out that she chose to walk close to the lake in slippers and a leech got stuck between her big and second toes. The forest guard and other keepers rush to her rescue and warn others to wear proper footwear. As her cries fade, an eerie silence envelops the area. So does a swirling mist lending an ethereal feel.

Spotting animals

The Berijam lake is rich in phytoplanktons and zooplanktons, and a rare species of free floating insectivorous plant called utricularia australis is said to be found here. Various mammals, amphibians, birds and reptiles can be seen here. The jungle cat, wild dog and boar, bison, panther, mouse deer, barking deer, nilgiri langur and sambhar can be spotted during the wee hours and after sunset. This is also the time when entry to the area is banned. Visitors are allowed only between 9.30 a.m. and 4 p.m.

With strict `no littering and no noise' instructions, a trip to Berijam is like paying obeisance to Nature.

Private taxis are available from Kodai town to Berijam charging anywhere between Rs.700 and Rs.1,200 for a day.

It is better to obtain permission from the DFO, Kodaikanal, the previous day, because there is a restriction on the number of people allowed each day. There is a forest guest house in Berijam, but not open to all.

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