We left the peaceful tea fields of Munnar and started our harrowing journey along the tiny (one and 1/2 lane) roads but in a bus this time. As we hurtled down the little roads, with a short honk as we turned blind corners, in hopes of alerting on comers that there was a giant, slightly out of control, bus coming. My friend Claudine had told me many years ago about a bus journey that she was on in India – she had her hand out the window and her bus side skimmed another bus and broke her fingers … SCARY! Now I am always sure to keep my hands and legs inside the bus at all times.
Click here to experience a bus ride …. I promise it’s scarier when you are in the bus 🙂
As we left the higher elevations and the tea fields disappeared, we started entering a more jungle-like environment. The wind became warmer and the vegetation changed – we were entering ‘spice country’ and the smell of the cardamom plantations was amazing! Kerala is famous for its spices and there are spice farms everywhere! The most common spices that are grown here are black pepper, ginger, cardamom, cloves, turmeric and nutmeg though there are many more spices available.
After our 4 hour bus journey, which covered a mere 105km, we arrived in Kumily. We had come here primarily to see the Periyar Tiger Reserve. We didn’t have too much hope of seeing the tigers (despite the name) but were hoping to see some other wildlife such as elephants or leopards. It seems that most of the reserves promote themselves as tiger reserves even though the tigers are rarely seen. We spoke to one local lady who was about 40 years old who told us she had never seen one in her entire life …. its good to keep the expectations low. There are 2 areas in India where tiger sightings are more common the Bandavgarh reserve in central India and in the Sunderbans (closer to Calcutta) where the man-eating tigers live.
A French guy had told us in Munnar to go to the ticketing office as soon as we arrived to see what tours are available and reserve some spots. Though it is recommended to book on-line it is impossible to do… a seemingly typical Indian phenomenon. Never make it easy. We decided on 2 different tours within Periyar – the first was a full day excursion with hiking interspersed with bamboo rafting. The second one sounded too exciting to pass up and that was the ‘Jungle Patrol’ – night trekking into the park with a guide and an armed guard.
We had found a good home stay right outside of town (Dean Dale Cottage) for a whopping 500 rupees a night (about $8) with a large balcony with great bird viewing so in between our forays to the park we had a good spot to relax and enjoy the jungle.
On our first day in town we decided to get Ayurvedic massages – after all Kerala is famous for its Ayurvedic treatments. We didn’t really know what to expect and Kevin had asked me if we would have to be naked .. I wasn’t sure so I told him to ask. Asking wasn’t necessary .. as soon as I went into my room the lady told me to completely disrobe – there is no privacy like in the States – she stayed in the room and stared (common practice) while I got naked and got on the table. I had a pretty standard massage (nice oils) and for the last 15 minutes she put me in a steamer with herbs. This was a manual hamamm like those contraptions that you see on 60’s TV for weight loss if you know what I mean – a steam cabinet really. Kevin had an even better experience – he had to get naked, put on a paper g-string and sit on a stool while his therapist stretched him. After that he got on the table and was slathered in oil and massaged while turning over 3 times in the process. For his steam experience, he was too tall for the steam cabinet so had to hunch over inside to get his shoulders to fit. Following that awkward experience, his therapist had him do a variety of stretches including knee raises, spinal twists, head rolls and toe touches all while he was buck naked. When he told me about this I cried with laughter – I wish I could have seen his face… priceless.
After having showered to remove the excess oil we went to see a Kathakali performance – this is one of the classical Indian dance forms. The actors where heavy makeup and extravagant costumes and use mudras, eye and face expressions as well as some dance moves to tell their stories. It was interesting to see although while the narrator was explaining the story the audience was busy chatting and taking selfies so it was difficult to hear what was going on. Despite that we enjoyed the experience but we have to admit that we were glad it was only 1 hour long.
The following day we had our big tour of the reserve. We had to get up early as you have to buy your park entry ticket the day of the tour (yes! you have to do it separately you can’t buy it at the same time as the tour – another unnecessary complication to the whole system). We arrived on time and met our fellow trekkers. We were a group of 12 with English, Swedes, Italians, Dutch, Russians and us – a real smorgasbord of people, plus our armed guard and 5 guides. After our packed lunch was distributed and everyone was packing it away, some clever monkeys came and grabbed some of the English peoples lunch and jumped away into the tree – we all picked up our packing speeds after that.
We started our trek into the forests and shortly after we left we spotted an elephant across the meadows. They are much smaller in India (the Asian elephant) than the African elephants that we saw in the Serengheti. It is said you can tell the difference between the two by looking at their ears – the African elephants ears have the shape of a map of Africa and the Asian elephants ears are shaped like a map of India. Besides that African elephants are taller with their minimum height being 8 foot at their shoulder whereas the Asian elephants reach a maximum of 9 feet at their back. In any case, let’s just say I was happy to have our binoculars because the elephant was pretty far away…I am only assuming she had Indian shaped ears.
As we continued trekking we saw the giant squirrel, I know this doesn’t sound exciting, I mean it’s a squirrel… right? But they are pretty cool – and including their tail, they can reach to about 3 feet. We only saw them jumping around in the trees but they were fun to watch. We also saw woodpeckers, hornbills, storks, herons, egrets and the amazing kingfisher who is a beautiful blue color. We were exiting the forest and heading to the lake when we heard an elephant trumpet very close by – this put our guides and guard into a frenzy and we were told to hurry towards the water and our bamboo boats. We headed down as quietly as we could and spotted some wild boar near the water but the elephant did not charge us (much to my dismay … yea I would have liked a good ‘run from elephant story’.)
Once we had found our seats on the bamboo boats we started rowing – as the rafts have no rudders and some tourists paddled with more gusto then others (that’s to be kind – some just dipped their paddles in the water) we moved forward rather slowly. As it was mid-day no animals were out since it was really hot but it was nice to see the park from our silent bamboo rafts. After a little bit we landed and took another trek before lunch – and this is where we hit the payload. We found a family of 6 elephants grazing – 2 babies (one male, one female), one teenage male and three adult females (one of which was pregnant.) We sat in the grass across a small meadow from them and watched them interact and eat. They are such a beautiful species and it was an honor to be able to watch them in their natural habitat.
After lunch and a nap, we headed back the way we had come. More paddling (but with significant head winds this time) and trekking. We saw water buffalo on the way back, sambar deer and more birds and black monkeys which were apparently called … black monkeys…. It was a good day.
Now the moment we had been looking forward to had arrived. Jungle Scout. Trekking in the blackest night of the jungle. Night eyes watching us and the roar of a tiger close by as she hunted in the night. Well at least that is how I imagined it. We met our guide and our armed guard at 7pm and were joined by a German family who was also eager to experience the jungle by night. We each received a small flashlight – most of which barely made a light circle when pointed 2 inches away. The guide/guard had powerful lights so that was good – although they weren’t always interested in the same things as we were.
We set off on our trail and I have to say it was amazing. There was a warm breeze and the stars were absolutely brilliant. Though most of the animals were silent (no roars I am afraid), we did see an elephant, nocturnal porcupines, water buffalo, loads of fireflies, rabbits, herds of sambar deer and the Indian nightjar. Now the nightjar is a nocturnal bird who sits on the ground during the day (and apparently at night) as its plumage allows it to blend in with the ground. Our guide spotted one for us and thought it was hilarious to poke at it (on the ground until it flew away) SIGH …. oh India….We have changed the popular tourist slogan ‘Incredible India’ to ‘Inexplicable India’.
Happy trails. Next stop is Houseboating in Alleppey. Feel free to leave a comment or question 🙂