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A quick holiday fix

Cottage with a view

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OFF THE GRID: (Clockwise from above) The sign to Karuna farm;it is surrounded by forests on all sides and each cottage offers splendid views of hills and valleys

It started off as a quick holiday fix to remedy the disappointment of our cancelled Himalayan journey. But it turned to be a discovery of the joys of living off the grid.
We were in a hurry - both to escape a Goan summer and beat a Kerala monsoon. While Fort Cochin offered no respite from the muggy weather, it did present a choice of comfortable home stays. The first step was hiring a 350 Enfield via a travel blog.
We chalked out our route to Kochi through Kodaikanal using Google Earth. The Salem-Ernakulam route seemed the shortest (301 km) over 5 hours 49 minutes. We took 10 hours, excluding an overnight haul at Palani. In the vicinity of Lakshmi Narayana Perumal temple, one finds decent hotels and dormitories.

While ascending the Palani hills we gazed over the valleys. Coconut trees gave way to magnolias, rhododendrons, acacia and eucalyptus. Morning traffic was minimal, yet at every curve my husband Guido honked to warn oncoming drivers. The first rule about driving in India is there are no rules. So while large traffic signs warn drivers against overtaking at hairpin bends, risk takers were aplenty.

Our destination was Karuna Farm, Kodaikanal. Isolated in Multund at 1, 800 metres above sea level, we heard about it by word of mouth and its architect Nevil Moncher, a Parsi from Mumbai, prefers it that way. Follow the road from Shenbaganur bus stop towards Kodaikanal Christian School, turn right, pass small farms and you enter a eucalyptus forest with 45 metre tall trees. The path is treacherous and rugged. Most guests opt for the jeep from Kodai Pastry Palace to Karuna. We, meanwhile, bounced our way to a dead end. The only indication that signalled our arrival was a crooked sign on a metal shed saying Karuna.

The farm is a microcosm of clean energy, self sufficiency and sustainable living. Solar and hydro-electricity power the lights and two streams supply water. Organically grown vegetables, coffee and trees abundant with avocado, pear, peach and banana line the paths. The necessities of life are but an arm's length away. Nevil found the 20-acre property in 1987 and it remains a work in progress. With flowing white hair and beard, Nevil enjoys talking about his search for Karuna, building new homes with mud and cob (a building material similar to adobe), recounting his hippie days in Goa, London and Canada.

There are ten simple cottages, priced between Rs 350 to Rs 950. There are more sumptuous privately-owned cottages also for rent. Each cottage offers splendid views of the surrounding hills and valleys. It's little wonder that guests sometimes stay for months. Each morning we'd sit in our easy chairs as if poised on the edge of the world and watch the sun rise with bird song. At 8. 30 am fresh milk from the cows on the farm would arrive at our doorstep and we would make coffee in the kitchenette and walk to the community kitchen for pancakes.

Our walk was really a trek. We climbed steep slopes, threaded carefully along narrow paths, clambered up a low wall and crossed over a stream to arrive for breakfast with racing hearts and aching thighs. A yoga shala constructed of straw, mud, wood and glass offers yoga, meditative art and holistic workshops.

We also dropped in on Alex Leeor, a biotecture consultant from Brighton who is building India's first 'Earthship' near Kodaikanal. An Earthship is a biohome of sustainable, green architecture. It's a lowcarbon footprint dream home with a grey water treatment system and a food producing planter system (looks like an indoor garden); a traditional tile roof with an adjustable skylight offers climate control. Alex has added a luxurious touch - a jacuzzi. Creature comforts, I realised, don't need to be compromised in ecological living.

Earthships heat and cool themselves, are self powered, harvest their own water and deal with their own waste. Using free energy from the sun and free materials from waste, they are built using earth rammed tyre walls that help store heat.
Saturday night was pot luck and bhajan night. Guests and residents gathered on the open-air terrace for a feast of pasta, salads, curries, rice and desserts. Dindigul, the town below, powered by electricity, reflected back a twinkly image of the sky.

The next morning we drove to Fort Cochin via Kodaikanal Ghat road to Periyakulam, Theni and Munnar. Ten hours later we arrived with numb derriers and sore knees. But our return to Goa was comfortable on the Ernakulam-Pune Express. Perfect timing. The monsoon had just hit the Kerala coast.

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