Arriving in Trivandrum after a short flight from Colombo the first thing you notice is the laid back atmosphere of the place. The airport being very small anyway was almost empty as I walked out into the fierce and bright sunshine. I expecting hassle, noise and chaos I got none of that and quickly found a cab and headed off to meet up with Marie and her friend. I had met Marie on the Rinjani trek in Indonesia and we were both planning on being in India at the same time so decided to meet up and travel the west coast together. Her friend from Denmark had also recently come out to join her for a short stay before they both returned to Denmark for Christmas. It was good that I now had some travel companions to explore the rest of India.
Traveling India on your own is a lot more lonely than in SE Asia as there are less travelers in India and also fewer places to meet other travellers apart from hotels and restaurants. Kerala is translated as Coconut and on arrival you can tell there are more than a few coconut trees around, and not a place to come if you don’t like coconut as it is in pretty much every dish you eat. Within a hour of meeting up we decided that it was best to head straight up to the Periyar wildlife park to begin our adventures. Rather than braving a 8hr public bus journey we decided to split the cost of a taxi which proved to be only £5 more expensive and took 5 hrs off the journey.
We arrived in Kumily later that night after a decent drive up through the rolling hills and through many small towns. Kumily is the base camp for the Tiger trek and the main reason people come to stay there. We booked into the pleasant Green Stay guest house and which is on the outskirts of Kumily and very close to the Tamil Nadu border. Once fed and settled we looked through the range of activities to occupy us during our stay there. The next day we deiced to visit a tea plantation, spice garden, book our 3 day tiger trek and to take in a local martial arts show.
Feeling organized we headed off to bed for an early start the next day. Up early we had breakfast and met up with our guide for the day – Shuresh who would take us to the tea plantation and spice garden. Shuresh turned out to be an excellent guide and really helpful as we quizzed him about anything and everything Indian. We arrived at the local tea plantation around 9am on a Sunday morning and we greeted by an entourage of young lads from the village. It was Sunday so everyone had the day off and were chilling around the village. It also turned out that they were preparing for a celebration for one of the young wives of the village as she was pregnant.
We had a short walk up into the tea plantation and had a grand view on top of one of the hills looking out at the sprawling tea trees which littered the hills. Back down into the village we said goodbye to our new friends after a long chat and a few photos. A quick spot of lunch and then onto a spice garden after passing a number of pilgrims. These men (women over 6yrs old not allowed) were on their annual 40km barefoot pilgrimage to Sere Vallabha temple where they would give blessings and crack open a coconut at the temple floor. The coconut is carried on their heads all the way to the temple and giving their blessings their is believed to give the worshiper good luck and prosperity for the coming year.
Kumily is famed for its spices and is a trading post for supplies throughout Southern India. Part of our tour included a visit to a small house in one of the hills near the tea plantation to explain the spices they grew in the area. We were greeted by a very enthusiastic man who although spoke good English none of us could understand him due to his heavy Indian accent. He went to great lengths to show us many spices – pepper, Cinnamon, coriander, turmeric to name but a few but we were lost for we couldn’t understand much of what he said most of the time. At the end of our tour of flowers and spice the guide introduced us to the owner of the garden. We were a little taken back as this man had the most hairiest ears I have ever seen. It was almost as though he had been using fertilizer in his ears as there were bushes of thick black hair sprouting from deep inside his ears. I am surprised he could actually hear anything.
The hairy ear thing was to become a common sight in Southern India! Giggling all the way back to the hostel we had one more stop which was a splendid view out and across the plains of Tamil Nadu. A short stop to take in the view and chat to Suresh and Indian culture we went back to the hostel and prepared and packed for the trek the next day and then afterwards we took in a local martial arts show.It was a strange display and one that featured a lot of yoga, shouting, bending, sword fighting and a lot of leaping around, but it was an interesting way to end the day.
We were up early the next morning and on our way to check into the Periyar Sanctuary all excited about the prospect of what lay in store. Upon arrival we were given what only can be described as large baggy socks to wear over our trousers to keep off the leeches and numerous forms to fill in (typical India) before we headed off into the dense Forrest with our four guides and a rifle. The plan was to have a short walk for around a couple of hours to get us used to the surroundings and then head on into the real park across the lake around mid morning.
We ventured into the lush dense forest and immediately encountered our first taste of wildlife which was a pack of deer and soon afterwords spotted a number of monkeys and then one of the biggest squirrels ever known to man. The thing was around the size of a large cat and barely resembled a squirrel bar its large bushy tail. During this short morning walk the peace and quiet was shattered by the sound of tuk tuks racing past and honking their horns. It kind of destroyed the ambiance of the surroundings but after a couple of hours we arrived at the lake and were crossing over on a home made bamboo raft. As always in India safety is never paramount and the homemade raft seemed to be sinking but thankfully we made it across. We then headed deeper into the sanctuary and across plains and through forests. The surrounds were beautiful and throughout our trek we kept a look out for any tigers and any other fauna. the trekking was easy no real hills to come across and the only difficulty was the heat.
The guides told us that we would be lucky to see an elephant let alone a tiger. The sanctuary in total is around 227sq km and home to bison, antelopes, wild boar with around 700 elephants and about 35 tigers. The last tiger spotting was about a month ago so we were keeping our hopes up. The first sighting came around 3 hours into the trek, unfortunately not of a tiger but elephants, Mum and baby to be exact. We spotted them around 250m away feeding in the dense scrub, they soon caught wind of us and disappeared into the forest but it was amazing to see these beasts wild and free.
A hour after that we arrived a base camp dumped our bags had a a bite to eat and then headed on back out for a short 2 hr trek around one of the many man made lakes made by the British in the 1850’s. Here we saw lots of Bison, boar and one snake (our guide nearly stepped on it sunbathing on a rock) but unfortunately no tigers or elephants. We got back to base camp, which was a better camp than we expected with a large moat around the side (to prevent any stampedes) with a prominent main tent and kitchen and then our tents. The guides erected our sleeping tents and after decent feed and chat around the campfire we retired to bed sleepy but eager for the early morning rise the next day.
Sun broke early (5.30am) and so did the camp staff and I. The day involved a short walk before breakfast followed by a longer walk mid morning then a late afternoon walk to one of the nearby hills to trek in the sunset. Most of the walks were conducted in silence as not to disturb any wildlife and in the hope of finding a tiger. The best of the three walks that day was the late afternoon walk where we saw the most wildlife. During this walk we came across a family of elephants (within 100m) a Sloth Bear (50m) and plenty of mongeese. We made it to the top of the hill well before sunset and took in the views. We of course had to make it back before dark so after some elegant views across the park we headed back to base camp. The cook managed to whip up a lovely dinner (all veggie) and supplied us with copious amounts of chai (honey and ginger) well into the night as we all snuggled around the roaring camp fire gazing up at the stars.
The next day was our final day and to our surprise not a full day, a very lazy morning of waking up and packing away th tents was followed by breakfast and then a walk back to the park office. The walk back was pretty uneventful as the only wildlife we passed were local fishermen with their catch of the day. By midday we were back at the hostel, showered and changed and making our way to the bus station to catch a bus to Kochi to then catch a bus to Kollam and to head into the sedate and tranquil backwaters of Kerala on a traditional wood and coconut fibre boat. The trek was a good trip but not as exciting and as flush with wildlife as I had expected but it was another chance to escape the mayhem of city life, have some decent walks with in stunning surroundings. On we marched and towards the backwaters.