Top Slip

The Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary situated in the Annamalai hill range of the Western Ghats is the setting for one of the most beautiful nature preserves of Tamil Nadu. The nearest airport to this pristine surrounding is Coimbatore and the closest town to this sanctuary is Pollachi. Top slip is about 2.5 hours from Coimbatore by Road. The one & a half hour drive from Pollachi to Annamalai hills is an eventful experience in itself, passing through villages like Vettaikaranpudur and the likes (especially on market days which are called Sandhai).

For families, especially those traveling with kids, it would be a good idea to stock up on Milk Powder, Snacks, biscuits, water bottles etc at Pollachi, for there are not many options in terms of shops or department stores amidst the villages or at Top Slip (more so, if you are reaching Top Slip late in the evening).

The forest check-post at Sethumadai is the entry point into the tourism zone of the Indira Gandhi Wildlife Sanctuary. Entry tickets for Visitors, vehicles, camera?s need to be bought here. Make sure you declare you Video Camera, for there are separate charges for them. As you leave the check-post behind, the climate begins to change as the road winds up the Ghats through deciduous jungle & bamboo thickets (not to forget more than a dozen hairpin bends). The excitement starts right away, as sightings of gaur, elephants and leopards are not uncommon during the early / late hours of the day.

Top Slip is a little hamlet where the Forest Department has its tourism infrastructure. This includes the reception and information centre, guest lodging, a canteen run by a co-operative, a ration shop and the Forest Department's office. Teak, one of the primary crops grown here was introduced during the British Raj. Since then it has been harvested in a planned manner every year. In the colonial days, the harvested timber used to be 'slipped' to the plains from the hills through a narrow canal. This is how the area got its name, Top Slip. The jungle around Top Slip holds a diverse population of wildlife and this has been the primary lure for me having visited this place at least a few dozen times till date (and would love to go back anytime an opportunity presents)

Adventures and Encounters have been aplenty. A decade ago (when the Maruti 800, hit the Indian roads) on a blind U turn one late evening, got within handshaking distance of a lone tusker, when we had to beat its charge by backing the entire U turn and almost 200 meters in reverse gear !!! Sometime later, again at twilight near the Thunakadavu check post (on the Kerala side of Top Slip), we had a close shave with a Bison which had crossed our path, to find the other side too steep for it get down, and the only way it could now turn was into us. It actually hit our Jeep on the rear, before we could speed away. Once on trek along with forest officials and local tribals as guides, we spotted a big cat (Leopard) about 20 ft away under thick undergrowth. It stood its ground for almost 10 minutes before deciding 9 humans, were too much for one cat to take on. During the same trek, a sloth bear charged one of the tribals for a few meters before spotting the rest of the crowd and backing off into the wilderness (these bears are supposed to be shot sighted and hard of hearing!). These are times, when reality dawns, that in all our percieved might, we are at the mercy of nature and the creations of the master. Other sightings include flying squirrels, jackals, porcupines, mongoose, dholes (wild dogs) and the lion-tailed macaques in their natural habitat.

The evenings at Top Slip are simply magical. A huge lawn covered hillock, with the forest guest house right at its top is a mystical setting. The beauty of the hills in all their majestic surrounding, the green canopy of the thick forest vegetation and the soothing cold breeze flowing down the mountains is an enchanting experience. Add this to the spotted deer, sambhar, and the occasional bison roaming the lawns along with the mesmerizing call of the wild and the songs of the birds as a background is a recreation of heaven on earth. A word of caution is to be extremely careful with kids, especially during nights, and would not be advisable to let them out alone, even if it just outside the guest houses.

There are two ways to spot wildlife. One, on a forest department jeep, with the forest staff as guides and the other, a trek into the forest, with the forest department staff and local tribals for guides.

The Jeep mode, helps to cover a larger terrain, but reduces the chances of spotting wildlife at close quarters, for those jeeps (old Willys and Mahindra models) are too noisy and rickety. However, these are the best bet for seeing wildlife at distances, especially if there are kids around.

Trekking is an awesome experience, if you have the safety of the forest personnel and the local tribals for company (though in an emergency, it is everyone to himself). Early mornings are the best times for treks and the duration depends on our fitness and enthusiasm levels. Easy hikes to the Elephant Farm at Kozhikamuthi where one can see trained elephants being cleaned and fed are the starters on the menu. A visit the watch towers at Ambulli Illam, Karian Shola or deeper treks to demarked zones based on species (Elephant, Gaur, Big Cats etc) are other main course on the serious options.

All said and done, sighting wildlife, is more of a chance and a load of luck. The thumb rule is, those that are large in population and numbers are easier to spot in the wild. The lower the numbers, the thinner the chances. No wonder, Spotted Deer, Gaur, Elephant and the Monkeys are the most common and almost certain spotting, while the big cats, bear and the elusive birds and reptiles are the hardest of the lot. It is all about patience and endurance. In other words, no pain, no gain.

It is also about managing expectations. It is better to start with an open mind, with a view to enjoy the entire experience, rather than expecting a lone tusker in every corner or a Tiger inside every cave. When it actually happens, the thrill of the experience is so much more.

Top Slip actually blends into Parambikulam, which is part of the state of Kerala. There are a couple of check posts that will need to be negotiated and quite a few interesting dams in that area. Some of the sights around this place are breathtaking and are great spots for wildlife watching.

Top Slip simply lingers on you. There is mysticism about this place, which is kind of addictive. The urge to revisit this place engulfs you and a semblance of a chance is all that is required as an excuse to make the trip again. Every second of the stay is an experience in itself. There is mystery, enigma and perceived danger behind every rock, tree, bend or bush. A pug mark or fresh elephant dung is all it requires to get the adrenalin levels soaring and the excitement culminates when luck translates expectations to reality, when you actually spot the wildlife in all its natural majesty amidst gorgeous surroundings, the sheer thrill of not knowing what the next move would be.

FAST FACTS
Getting there
Nearest airport/ railhead: Coimbatore (90 km). Pollachi Rly Station 35 Kms
There are buses fromPollachi to the park (though not very frequent)
Distances Coimbatore-Pollachi: 40 km/ 1 hrs; Pollachi-Top Slip: 35 km/ 1.5 hrs.
Food: A lone Canteen run by the forest dept and a few small stalls are the only source of food (other than the cooks at the guest houses). No other hotels here. There are a few on the Kerala side of the santuary, which is atleast half an hour by road
Clothing: Carry easy-to-wear, dull-coloured clothing, cotton socks and a pair of sneakers/canvas shoes.
Specific necessity (especially if you plan to trek): Torch, insect repellants, anti-leech lotions (mix of tobacco and rock salt), sunscreen, headgear & sunglasses.

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