Wildlife among tea garden of Eden
A tea picker uses a pair of shears to speed up leaf plucking.

Big "game" is becoming increasingly hard to see in the wild in India but one of the places where it can be seen up close almost daily is in the Annamalai Mountains in southern India.

Elephants and gaur - huge black wild cattle - still own the Annamalais along with tigers, leopards, sambar deer, barking deer, wild boar, lion tailed macaques, giant squirrels, sloth bears and a host of other animals and birds including porcupines, great hornbills, grey jungle fowl, eagles, large owls, woodpeckers and whistling thrushes.

There are a few tigers, rarely seen, but one killed a gaur there just recently. Tigers are the only predators big enough to tackle a fully grown gaur.

The Annamalais - meaning elephant hill - form an emerald island rising sharply out of the hot plains of Tamil Nadu, near Coimbatore.

When temperatures on the plains are climbing towards 40C, it is in the mid-20Cs on the plateau. We wore shorts and short-sleeved shirts day and night. There are no mosquitoes.

That other notable pest, the mobile phone is also rarely heard there because most can't get reception.

The surroundings are breathtakingly beautiful. We stayed in a restored planter's bungalow in the middle of an organic tea plantation.

The bungalow and plantation are owned by Parry Agro Industries, an arm of the Murugappa Group, a Chennai-based multinational with a wide range of industrial interests.

The bungalow has been renovated over the past year as a luxury home-stay resort under the guidance of Parry Agro's chairman, M.M. Venkatachalam, and vice-president, Udaykumar Samuel, and now called Sinna Dorai's Bungalow.

Meaning home of the young white sahib, Sinna Dorai was the title once given to an assistant plantation manager.

The bungalow is being managed by a former plantation manager, Suresh, and his wife, Sujatha. They are training plantation workers as bungalow staff and hope to open for paying guests later this year.

Sinna Dorai's bungalow was built in 1937. Udaykumar rounded up all the old broken and discarded fine wood furniture from various bungalows and storerooms and had it restored.

"We wanted to return the buildings as close as possible to the way they were when the British planters lived here, but with a modern kitchen, bathrooms and equipment," Udaykumar says.

There are two suites within the main stone bungalow, two more in a restored stone cottage which once served as an office of the first plantation manager in the district, another two in a restored stone cottage and a convention centre in the restored former stone garage.

All suites and rooms have spacious and elegant modern bathrooms as well as fireplaces.

The dining room is a spacious and airy half-glassed veranda overlooking an English garden with towering hills and tea gardens.

To sit on the big open section of the veranda taking morning and afternoon tea with the Malabar whistling thrushes and magpie robins singing in the garden is a sheer delight.

Meal times are flexible to suit the guests and the food is a mixture of south Indian dishes such as idlis, idiappam (curiously called stringhoppers), dosas, puttu, appam and chapattis, Western-style food and fresh tropical fruit.

Because of the presence of elephants and gaur, Suresh advises guests not to go walking without a guide. He provides guides and the best time to walk is early morning and dusk.

Every morning in early April we walked from 7-8 and saw barking deer and gaur as close up as only 50m away.

Gaur with calves, like elephants, can be unpredictable and dangerous and there are occasional deaths caused by these magnificent animals.

For birdwatchers the place is a treasure trove. Seeing a great hornbill, 1.5m long with a one-metre wingspan and its huge brilliant gold beak and casque, sail by, as we did several times, is spectacular.

We also saw many eagles, large owls and woodpeckers, as well as macaques, langurs, giant squirrels and wild boar.

We didn't see elephants but they visited plantations creating a bit of havoc while we were there. They are very playful, the locals say.

"Walls don't bother them - they just walk through them - and they demolish electric fences by ripping a branch off a tree and knocking the fence down," Sujatha told us.

Leopards are usually seen at night. We didn't see one but others sighted several while we were there. A late-night drive around the plantations will almost guarantee a sighting.

This is perfect country for growing tea and the British began clearing the mountains and planting in the 1890s. When the British first arrived it was rugged country seething with tigers and other animals and covered with jungle thick with massive trees of teak, rosewood and mahogany.

Within 50 years the plantations were established and the planters had built big, high-ceilinged, comfortable bungalows with broad verandas.

Suresh will arrange tours of the plantations and tea factories where guests can see the processes involved in making orthodox leaf tea and the new crush, tear and curl process for making tea dust.

The tip from the experts, for lovers of fine tea, is to use leaf tea, brewed in a teapot for three minutes. Use milk sparingly, if you have to, but don't use sugar.

The Annamalais Mountains rise to more than 1400m above sea level but the plantations and the bungalows are about 900m.

The plantations total more than 30,000ha. The hills are steep but because the tea bushes are trimmed to 1.5m one can see for long distances.

It is not surprising that the plantations were called tea gardens. Many of the roads are lined with trimmed hedges and grass verges which have the appearance of a neatly kept garden.

Australian silky oaks are used to provide the dappled shade the tea bushes need.

They take nothing from the soil that affects the tea bushes and provide compost from their branches which are trimmed regularly.

Australians will also be struck by the great number of eucalypts growing in groves and in the forests and the red bottlebrush in the house gardens.

These trees were taken to the India by Australian missionaries in the 1850s. They have since become so much a part of the Nilgiri ranges in southern India that eucalypts are called Nilgiri throughout India.

Valparai, the small town near where we stayed is about three hours drive from Coimbatore which can be reached easily by plane from Bangalore and other major cities.

• Those interested in staying at Sinna Dorai's can email Suresh at srikritu@yahoo.com or sureshsujatha10@gmail.com or phone Sinna Dorai's on +91 94430 77516.

• Prices are yet to be settled but initially at least Australian visitors are likely to find them quite reasonable, possibly as little as $1000 for a suite for a five-day visit. Suresh can arrange transport from the Coimbatore airport for those needing it.

Gavan Bromilow is a Walkley Award-winning journalist who worked as an Australian diplomat in India between 1986 and 1996 and is currently a consultant to an agricultural research institute in Maharashtra. He stayed at the restored planter's bungalow as a guest of the management.

The West Australian

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