Kerala, India: Dawn at Kolukkumalai Hill Station

The way I like to remember it, I woke the second before he knocked. It was 4am on a crisp Indian morning but I was entirely alert as I leapt out of bed, took three strides to the door of my tiny room, opened it and greeted my driver, Arjun. My old man had said it once and it stuck: "James, the best thing about waking up early is the sense of superiority it inspires." I had never been an early riser but as our feet crunched gravel to Arjun's World War II-style Jeep, our voices hushed and reverential, our shallow breath trailing us in twin smoky spires, I began to understand what he meant. See, Arjun and I had an appointment. His Jeep would climb more than 600 metres via a pot-holed, crumbling, spine-realigning track to Kolukkumalai Hill Station, home of the world's highest tea plantation and apparently a hell of a place to sit, watch the sun rise and feel entirely smug.

I had flown into India two weeks earlier for reasons I'm sure are not unique. I was 23, I had a degree majoring in nothing in particular, a measly bank balance and a vague, crushing disillusion with the onset of adult life. I had made a choice and it was the only sane one left; I had decided to run away. But where on earth had I run to? India was a sensorial assault, a game-changer. Here, the fundamental paradigm of the traveller had been contorted; instead of being an observer I found myself an active participant. Beggars would approach with plaintive, personal appeals, families invited me into their homes, I had fireworks thrust into my hand for Diwali, I played Test matches with kids in dusty parks, and everywhere I went an army of tuk-tuk drivers would descend, each one offering to grant wishes with a fervour that would put a Jinn to shame. India wasn't happening around me, it was happening to me.

But, on the 10th night I lay supine on my bed in the humidity of Kochi, lacquered in complex layers of sweat and tiredly warding off endless squadrons of mosquitos. I was exhausted, consumed and a little lonely. I thumbed through my guidebook and found the Munnar Hills section; it promised mist-wreathed peaks, rolling hills of lush tea plantations and acres of exquisite space. Most importantly, it looked cold.

And so, a few days and many buses later, I found myself at the foot of Kolukkumalai, freezing in the mountain air. Arjun handed me a green fleece beanie that matched his own and we began the long, jarring ascent. Silence was adopted early on, our expressions grim and set, our tortuous path guided by weak headlights and vibrant stars. My anticipation rose with the altitude as shadowy features – an ancient tractor, huge hessian sacks overflowing with tea leaves, and the occasional lowing cow – began to emerge in the looming daylight. We eventually reached a final plateau. Arjun killed the engine and led me to a precipitous rocky crag that he assured me would give us the best view. We sat and waited, looking out over an inky black expanse in front of us.

Then it happened.

Fat and bulbous, the sun rose steadily like yolk through treacle, casting a million spectral fingers of incandescence, permeating thoroughly the mist that clung in pockets to the surrounding peaks. And as the vibrant tortoiseshell green of dappled tea shrubs appeared all around, carpeting the valley in every direction, I truly felt completely awed; any semblance of early morning superiority washed away in the sheer grandeur of that sunrise.

See, I like to think that I woke the instant before Arjun knocked and I also like to think that some sort of seismic realisation occurred in that moment, that perfect crystalline moment. That as the sun rose over Kolukkumalai Hill Station I became aware that the terms of my travel had changed. I was no longer running. From now on I was chasing.


James McQuiggin is a radiographer now living in Brisbane. He can't stand stasis and believes he is at his best when windmilling chaotically from one location to the next. This is not only his philosophy in dance, it also applies to the way he tries to live his life.