The Toyota Hilux gets the Fortuner's 2.8-litre turbo diesel powertrain, which is paired to either a six-speed manual, or a six-speed torque converter automatic transmission
The Toyota Hilux gets the Fortuner's 2.8-litre turbo diesel powertrain, which is paired to either a six-speed manual, or a six-speed torque converter automatic transmissionShot by Rohit G Mane for evo India

High tea | Driving the Toyota Hilux to Kolukkumalai trail

How far, how high and how long will you go in the quest for that perfect cup of tea?

The mountains are synonymous with the Himalayas. The tallest, highest, craggiest, hardest, steepest, the most terrifyingly oh-my-dear-god-save-me experiences; think of the adjective and your brain braces for altitude sickness, pops two Disprins, and rushes to the Himalayas. You want to break your car? Head to the Himalayas! You want to break your body? You’re already in the Himalayas so that’s two brain-fry experiences for the price of one. And then you retreat to Kerala for desperately needed R&R.

Except, Kerala can be much more than the offsite for your Rest and Recuperation department. To the west you have beaches and backwaters, the therapeutic views compelling the sun to pump its brakes and linger over the spectacle for a minute longer, photobombing thousands of selfies and Reels, before then sighing over the horizon.

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To the east you have, erm, traffic. Good thing I’m in the Hilux. Like Moses parted the Red Sea, my red Toyota is carving the sea of traffic that god, in a frenzy of misplaced generosity, bequeathed to his own country. Even the Formula 1 World Champions who retire to race Kerala’s State Transport buses are pulling over. The Hilux has won wars. Conquered the Sahara. Tamed the Outback. Kept the ’Stans on the boil. And the towering blocks of history, heritage and provenance are forever piled high in its cavernous pickup bay. Top it up with three Dakar trophies, three FIA Cross Country World Cups, and the inaugural FIA Rally Raid crown and you can see why the Hilux needs rear leaf springs. The weight of history does not come lightly. And to pull it all, you need torque. Diesel torque. No electric car ever won a war. Or the Dakar.

We’re not attempting anything remotely as dramatic. Our plan is to have a cup of tea this evening. That’s it. End of story. And equipping ourselves with a Hilux, with a support crew decked out in gear purchased from the Extreme Outdoors section of Decathlon is akin to taking a Bofors gun to a knife fight. Or maybe not. Our cup of tea has been brewed from leaves picked at the world’s highest tea estate; rolled, tossed, crushed, oxidised, dried and sorted at the world’s highest tea factory; everything located at the end of a track that gives Ladakh a run for its prayer flags.

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Kolukkumalai is the land of jeeps. 30-40 year old jeeps take staff, workers, supplies and a surprising number of tourists paying good money for the pleasure of having their breakfast churned and violently ejected from their bodies – all up a narrow, rocky, craggy, steep and terrifying track. A track with leeches. Lots of leeches. Leeches that leap at you while you admire the stupendously mesmerising views. Leeches are not fun little creatures. And in consequence, I am not stepping out of the Hilux.

Not that I’m making a big sacrifice. The Hilux has the same wide and powered leather seats, 8-inch infotainment and 6-speaker sound system as the Fortuner. The ergonomics are spot on. I’m surrounded by seven airbags. The driving position is lofty, from where you survey lands far and wide. There’s a solid, chunky, built-to-last-very-many-wars solidity to everything, which explains why most of those 20 million examples that have been sold across 180 countries are still in service. And that diesel engine.

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Strange to be saying this but fact is that a big diesel is a rare thing these days. That ticking over at idle conveys raw intent. Blip the throttle and it grunts its approval. And grunt it has aplenty. The effortlessness makes easy the work of cleaving traffic on the six-hour drive from Kochi to Munnar, then carving the corners of the terrifically spectacular Gap Road, and finally knocking on the gates of the Harrison Malayalam tea estate where we commence our ascent by backing up 100 metres. Thank heavens for parking sensors all round, and especially for the reverse parking camera!

It’s called the Suryanelli-Kolukkumalai Tea Estate road and it is a road purely in the sense that people use it. Rather frequently. You have the aforementioned 4x4s used for regurgitating breakfasts before spitting out tourists at the (admittedly awesome) sunrise and sunset points. Then there are tractors that bring down the tea leaves from the plantatioShot by Rohit G Mane for evo Indians. And in between them, all the daily activities of plantations that sprawl across several hundreds of acres. Only vehicles with permits, and driven by local drivers are allowed in here – the cabbies get awesomely aggressive with tourists who so much as suggest they drive themselves up. But that’s the thing with the Hilux. Everybody backs right off. Nobody asks to see our permit, which the good folk at the Kolukkumalai tea estate have sorted out for us, prompting me to wonder why we even bothered. But hey, responsible citizens we are. And I employ the parking camera to back up the Hilux and let a tractor groaning under the burden of fresh tea leaves rattle past.

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Kolukkumalai, as with most of the big tea estates in India, traces its origins to the British era, 1838 to be precise, when they started tea cultivation using seeds brought in from China. Wikipedia is a bit hazy on this and so I don’t have a logical answer for why it took a whole century for the tea factory to get completed in 1936, and that was probably when this track was finished and promptly forgotten about because it doesn’t look like anybody has maintained it since then. You climb over boulders the size of the average Mumbai apartment. You then drop into holes where stars go to die. The drops are gloriously unbarricaded affording magical million-view Instagram reels; even more if you don’t make the corner and commence an uncontrolled descent back to Suryanelli. And half way up, as we stop for our videographer to fish out a leech that has crawled up his pants, I discover that I haven’t even slotted it into 4x4, forget 4-Low.

This is a problem. We are in search of hardcore off-roading but the Hilux isn’t breaking a sweat. Now’s when you realise why it has been built like it has. That ladder frame chassis is getting a pounding but I only know this because I can see how the other 4x4s are hopping and bouncing around like crazy. Inside the Hilux my breakfast is in no danger of being transformed into projectiles. Those leaf springs? Give it abuse and it laughs at you. The off-road capability is stupendous, and so easily accessible. Shift-on-the-fly 4WD is accessible via a twist of the knob on the dash, switching from RWD to 4-High while you are moving. Stop, push and turn the knob and you have 4-Low. And if that isn’t enough there’s the rear diff lock though with A-TRC (Active Traction Control) you will rarely, if ever, need it. A-TRC applies the brakes on the wheels that are spinning, forcing the differential to transfer power to the opposite wheel on the axle and thus ensuring the Hilux never bogs down. This is a fully automatic system that kicks in as soon as the system detects trouble. Plus there’s hill start assist and downhill descent control. All the bells and whistles means the only time I have to do any work is when executing three-point turns up the hairpins, the Hilux is after all a vast 5.3 metres long. I’ve got five inside the Hilux basking in the dual zone climate control. If we had a ramp handy we could have just loaded our support car into the load bay that is rated, on paper, up to 470kg, but we all know is easily twice that in reality. No time to fool around though, everybody is hungry and the tea is getting cold up at Kolukkumalai.

Which, erm, let’s just say the nuances of fine teas are lost on your correspondent. They say the quality of tea improves as the altitude increases. I’ve even read that by dint of being the highest tea estate in the world Kolukkumalai delivers the best tea of all time. I am hardly an expert on these matters, but what I do know is that we aren’t yet at 7,130 feet, the highest point at Kolukkumalai.

With light fading fast we drive past the barrier and begin our climb to Bose Peak, I’m assuming named after the owners of the property. The climb through Harrison Malayalam is astounding in its natural beauty but through Kolukkumalai things take a turn into staggeringly unbelievable territory. Round every turn, up every hairpin, the views make such unreasonable demands on the brain’s computing power that it shuts down and lets go of the jaw which proceeds to flop onto a tea bush in stark disbelief.

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Good thing then that the Hilux isn’t making any demands on the brain. I’ve now got it into 4-High, to smooth out our climb over the jagged rock faces, and accounting for the wet rocks thanks to a persistent drizzle. This is territory that the 4x4 jeeps rarely, if ever, venture through. It’s tractors and trekkers huffing and puffing up to the peak in the clouds. On a good day the clouds are under the peak, you will see mind-blowing pictures of it all over Instagram, but we are now at the start of the monsoons and the entire peak is shrouded in clouds. Like a stupendously large mountain goat, the Hilux clambers over the track, 17-inch AT tyres finding grip and bite, higher and higher, punching through the boulders and rivulets, until there’s no track. No sunlight. No trekkers. No tea bushes. No tea planters. No Google Maps. These aren’t Himalayan heights but this is high enough for a shiver to run down the spine. If something were to go wrong that would be a guaranteed oh-my-dear-god-save-me experience, plus we are so poorly prepared the leeches will have drained all our blood by the time we finish the trek down.

Which is why we are driving the Hilux. It overcompensates. Be it the Himalayas or the Western ghats, the Hilux guarantees adventure while making up for our inadequacies. Wars were won on its back. A cup of tea is hardly going to slow it down.

Shot by Rohit G Mane for evo India
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