Getting High with the Duster: Driving to the highest tea estate in the world

The plantations are orderly as far as the eye can see
The plantations are orderly as far as the eye can see

Scaling the highest tea plantation in the world

Driving up the rutted path, the front wheels hit a patch of slush and lost traction. The steering wheel went light and it felt like the Renault Duster lost forward momentum for a millisecond, but the rear wheels engaged and clawed at the mud to push the car further up the path. Phew. Thank heavens for all-wheel drive! Getting this Renault Duster stuck in the middle of a tea estate that I was trespassing through would not be fun. Well, I wasn’t technically trespassing. There was a village at the end of the trail and the villagers do use this path to commute up and down, so it should have been open to the public. However, I had no intention of explaining to the estate owners why I needed to bring a JCB in to their estate to extricate a stricken SUV.

Words by Aatish Mishra

The highest tea estate has a certain draw to it

The highest anything-in-the-world (not Snoop Dogg, though) has a certain draw to it. The last few stories in this ‘Getting High’ series have all been in the loftiest portions of the Himalayas. These places are inhospitable and inaccessible – more often than not, they require a combination of an immense amount of human will coupled with capable tools to get there. This time around, we had something slightly more tame to deal with. The highest tea gardens in the world are, contrary to what I assumed, not in the Himalayas, or even the Himalayan foothills. Turns out, they are much closer to home – on the Kerala and Tamil Nadu border. Nevertheless, we were sorted on both counts. The human will was there, shutterbug Rohit and I were adamant on making it to the highest tea estate in the world. The tools were there too, the Renault Duster AWD is a mighty capable machine. The combination is a formidable one, but underestimating what lay ahead would be foolhardy. This was going to be a proper test of man and machine.

The Kolukkumalai tea estate is perched at a height of 8100 feet above sea level

And we started this drive at sea level. We picked up the Renault Duster in the coastal city of Kochi, and made our way inland. Kochi is a quaint little city with an elaborate network of backwaters that constantly remind you of your proximity to the ocean. The air is heavy with salt and it feels like your typical coastal town. Extricate yourself from the chaos and head inland, and you’re met with a sight familiar to anyone who has travelled along the west coast of India. Only with more lungis. Coconut trees and paddy fields line the sides of the roads and the roads themselves are rather well paved but tend to be crowded.

Out on the open road, the Renault Duster is a great SUV to drive. With the drive mode selector set in Auto, the Renault Duster remains a front-wheel drive car until it detects a loss of traction, upon which it sends drive to the rear wheels. These tarmac stretches were barely scratching at the surface of the Duster’s ability. What did come to the fore was the solid ride quality – this AWD variant outshines its 2WD variant (which was rather good to begin with) because of the new independent suspension set up in the rear. Ride quality is better over rough roads and body control is better as well.

“You’ve got busses absolutely sending it down these roads, approaching hairpins at terrifying pace, their drivers yanking at the steering wheels with all their might”

Hill manners of the Renault Duster AWD

Slowly, but surely the topography that we were driving through changes. The plains disappear and you enter the rolling hills of the western ghat. The roads starts winding more, and you start smiling more because by SUV standards, the Renault Duster is actually quite dynamic. The hydraulic steering has a good feel to it, and you can throw the Renault Duster in to bends much faster than you would expect. Don’t try it in Kerala, though. You’ve got busses absolutely sending it down these roads, approaching hairpins at terrifying pace, their drivers yanking at the steering wheels with all their might. You’ve really got to have your wits about you when you’re driving around in Kerala. The Renault Duster AWD has a 1.5-litre turbo-diesel motor doing duty under the hood and it is a capable motor. Get into the boost zone and it has solid punch and that really helps in the hills. You can get stuck behind slow-moving traffic for a long, long time if you don’t have the shove to make quick overtakes. The Duster most certainly does.

“It’s almost like someone took a photograph of the scenery and dialled up the saturation levels to the maximum”

A sea change

Soon enough, after you pass the town of Adimali, you begin to climb the really steep slopes. Within minutes, you can feel the temperatures drop. No longer is the air muggy, but instead fresher than ever with a slight nip in it. And sure enough, within minutes of leaving Adimali, the first tea gardens come in to view. They’re quite a sight to behold: neatly pruned bushes flowing atop the mountains for as far as the eye can see. They are the perfect antithesis to the absolute chaos of the forests that preceded it. The bushes themselves are the brightest, most picture-perfect green and that day, the sky was cooperating and had painted itself a stunning blue as well. It’s almost like someone took a photograph of the scenery and dialled up the saturation levels to the maximum.

The sight at Top Station

At Munnar, we had a decision to make. Drive to Kolukkumalai that day itself or drive up to a place called Top Station which is supposed to have an epic view of the plantations first. To Top Station it was, but not before we explored some tea gardens along the way. Which brings me to the start of this story. We were driving down this trail in the middle of a plantation when we chanced upon this patch of slush but the Duster’s AWD got us through without a hiccough. Even though the Duster has a 4WD lock function, which sends equal torque to all wheels at speeds under 60kmph, the electronics on the SUV are rather sorted and manage the torque well when left to their own devices. The fact that the AWD Duster has an additional 5mm of ground clearance (at 210mm) just adds to its off-road credibility. We would have to properly recce trails of this kind before we drove other two-wheel drive SUVs in to them. However, with the Duster you have the liberty to put the SUV in first and then figure everything else out. More often than not, you won’t have any sort of crisis to deal with.

We camped out at Top Station at a place called Hotel Periyar

Which is the only real place to stay up here – one that is run by Sreejith P S, a friend of evo India‘s. They set up a tent for us right at the view point and what an epic place it was. Top Station was once quite significant to the tea business up here in the hills. These hills were extremely inaccessible back in the day, and this point was the topmost railway station of India’s first monorail. Tea used to be brought from Munnar by train to Top Station, where it would be put on a ropeway and transported 5km downhill to Kottagudi in Tamil Nadu. The place also has a spectacular view – one that we woke up to – of the Kolukkumalai tea estates.

Driving to the Kolokkumalai tea estate

Then there was the final challenge. That of the Kolukkumalai estate itself. The road heading up to the estate is rutted and rocky, and nothing but a 4WD vehicle can scale it. It is narrow in parts, and speckled with hairpins. The climb is steep, the estate is after all at 8000 feet, but slowly and surely the Duster scaled it. The all-wheel drive was called upon in more cases than one, but make it to the top we did.

The Kolukkumalai estate was established in the 1930s by the British

The estate still uses the original equipment to process the tea. After being handpicked, then dried, withered and fermented before it is graded and packaged. The estate itself lies on the Tamil Nadu and Kerala border, which means while some of the land lies in the Idduki district of Kerala, the rest of it lies in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu. The tea grown here is supposed to be rather unique, as the high altitude is supposed to affect the way it tastes. From the little tea that I brought home with me, I can attest to it having a certain lightness to it.

Sipping hot tea at 8000 feet

Sitting there in that sea of green at 8000 feet, with the clouds beneath me, the blue sky above me and a fresh cuppa of chai to warm my soul, I realised why the Duster was the turning point for Renault’s fortunes in India. It is a capable tourer, comfortable enough to do crazy distances on the road and keep you and your kids comfortable. But it can also let its hair down and head out in to the unknown without a second thought. This rugged duality really gives the Renault Duster its character, and really makes it an affable SUV – one that grows on you and makes you love it with its simplicity. Good on you, Duster!

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