Kerala part 1: looking for elephants in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
A trip to Kerala was the best way to see in the new year. After falling in love with the hustle and bustle of Rajisthan on our last trip to India, we were keen to see how Kerala was in comparison. It did not disappoint.
We crammed a lot into our two weeks there, and there were two distinct themes to the trip: enjoying the landscapes and wildlife and then a chance to chill out before heading home.
When we arrived, we spent three nights in Kochi (Cochin) to get used the time zone and see some sights. It is a good idea to have a few days here at the start or end of your holiday so that you can see some of Kerala’s historic sights. We stayed in the Brunton Boatyard; a very pretty hotel with excellent food and right next door to Kochi’s famed Chinese fishing nets.
Heading into the great outdoors at Thekkady
I had underestimated how huge, and green, Kerala is. The drive from Kochi to Thekkady was 5-6 hours, but there was so much to see that it didn’t much matter. Plus we had a fantastic driver, Babu, who was a mine of information and was happy to stop for photos, or to just take in the sights. Within in the first hour, we were out of the city and heading into the cleaner, quieter roads leading to Thekkady. On the drive we saw hundreds of Hindu pilgrims heading to a large temple for a festival – many would have been walking for days, often barefoot, and the heat was in the low 30s. We also got our first glimpse of tea plantations. Babu pulled over and suggested we climb the steps up to a church for a panorama. It didn’t disappoint.
The Spice Village
Our hotel for two nights was the Spice Village in Thekkady. The gorgeous thatched bungalows are set in peaceful grounds, built with local materials in a traditional style. Although it was just off a road, it felt like we were already in the jungle of the nearby Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The grounds were home to monkeys, the huge Malaba squirrel and birds – including a flock of hilarious guinea fowl who spent all day playing follow the leader!
The rooms are lovely and cool, and it would be easy to kick back and chill out inside. Indeed, if we were there for longer, I would have loved to spend more time with my feet on the cool tiled floor, lounging on the upcycled furniture. But there is lots to do on site: from chilling by the pool, or the bar, taking a walk with the resident naturalist, yoga, cooking demonstrations and lots more. Of course I did a cookery demo (high range vegetables using the ubiquitous coconut which Keralan cuisine is famous for), and we also enjoyed a meal in the 50 mile restaurant where all of the food and the dishes are from a 50 mile radius.
Searching for elephants
As wonderful as the hotel was, we had travelled to Thekkady in the hope of seeing some amazing wildlife, so we had pre-booked a walk through Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary (also known as Periyar Tiger Reserve) with a ranger. The whole reserve is vast, over 350 square miles, with only a handful of tigers, so we knew they were an unlikely spot. But we really wanted to see the elephants who had made the reserve their home.
We had met with a rep from the tour company when we were in Kochi and had asked for an early morning slot – yes it is a pain to get up before 6am on holiday, but we wanted the best chance of seeing elephants. So we were disappointed to discover that we were booked on to a mid-morning walk and not the early slot. Everyone knows that the best time to see wildlife is before it gets too hot and too busy, so we got on the bus to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary without high hopes.
Trips into the sanctuary are well managed to protect the ecosystem – you can only arrive by bus and walks and boat trips are through the official tours only. Visitors aren’t allowed on the bus with plastic bags or visible snacks (one family had a plastic bag full of food which they had to leave behind with someone). This is to discourage monkeys from scavenging food and it also keeps as much plastic as possible out of the park. Which is good because as soon as you get off the bus, the monkeys are waiting! They know that the bus stop is where the action happens so they have made that area their chill-out zone.
We met with our ranger and headed out. There was only one thing than no one had bothered to tell me – we had to cross the lake on a sodding bamboo raft. I am not a big fan of rafts, but it was the only way to get across and it really wasn’t too wide, so I reluctantly hopped on.
It turned out that very few people were doing a walk, at least on the route we were taken. We saw a small group five minutes in and then no one else for a long time. It was bliss – strolling by the waterside and then heading into the cool wooded area with nothing but birdsong and monkey calls around us. Until….until something big rustled in the undergrowth next to us. Our guide indicated for us to stop and be silent. Then he ran in to see what it was! At first we were bemused, but as the minutes passed we started to worry. Had a tiger carried him off to feed the pride? Could a water buffalo have chased him away? He told us not to move –arg! What left like an age was probably no more than five minutes and he reappeared – after unsuccessfully tracking a monitor lizard!
It was getting on for noon and we had been walking for over an hour when both Andrew and our guide both heard something at the same time. The ranger knows the park like the back of his hand, and slowly took us to a point that looked out over a clearing in a slight dip. And there they were.
One adult. Two adults. And a youngster! I can’t begin to tell you how it felt – to stand there, watching them get on with their day was humbling. Two females and a youngish calf. I would have stayed all day, but there came a point that we had to start walking back.
We saw them a second time, we bumped into another ranger with a family and showed them where they were. We were closer this time, but the rangers said that they are very protective of their young, rightly so, so we headed off in the opposite direction as we seemed to be on their route.
Not just elephants
Some what reluctantly we started back. Although there were no more elephants there was plenty to see, including black monkeys (who live off fruit and vegetation and stay clear of people) and a bird which our guide was more excited about than the elephants! With the pressure off, we definitely noticed more on the way back than we did on the way out. Then it was back to reality, and a short wait for the bus.
When humans and wildlife collide…
Waiting for the bus to get back was a chance to chat to a group of young guys who had come to the sanctuary for the boat trip, and to watch the monkeys edge closer, literally cheeky monkeys, looking to get an easy meal or drink.
As we got on a bus, I saw this macaque pictured below, with a drinks carton in his hands; chewing away on it trying to open it up. It broke my heart – he could choke on that straw, and if not him it must happen to others when they are given or pick up junk like this. The park has a plastic/snacks policy, but I wonder, could that have been bought in the café and left on a table? Or plucked from a bin? Either way, it obviously isn’t working and they should consider a complete plastic ban, even water bottles. It was a sad end to what had been an amazing few hours…
A spicy little trip
Back at the hotel, we just had time to rehydrate and scoff some pakora before heading off for a walk around a local organic spice farm. I didn’t take any photos, my cold was kicking in and I was knackered, but the guy showing us around was so knowledgeable…although his claims that ginger would make me thin were spurious and a little unwelcome! We noticed that they kept ducks and he explained that duck egg was mixed with cow dung to make an excellent fertiliser. He was a good salesman though, so we left with a small, fragrant stash of spices which we already use regularly so we know that they will get used within the next couple of months.
Almost as soon as we had arrived, it was time to leave Thekkady. It was sad, but we were excited to move on and I’m not sure that there is much else to do there unless you are seriously into your wildlife hikes. The next part of the trip was on to Munnar and then over into the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. We were hearing reports that Munnar was quite literally freezing – we hadn’t packed for -3c and I was full of a cold! What on earth would we find?
The nuts and bolts
The trip was an If Only tour which we tweaked to suit or own needs; adding additional stops and making it a busy 7-stops-in-15-days agenda! It was a private tour so that means that we were driven from place to place. Babu, our driver was a lovely guy and a font of knowledge. If we ever go back to Kerala I would definitely ask them to book him.
We flew with Emirates with a change in Dubai. In fact, we saw in the new year coming in to land in Dubai which was pretty cool!
Brunton Boatyard and Spice Village mentioned here are part of the CGH Earth group. They work hard to employ local skills (such as the thatching of the cottage roofs) and also to minimise their environmental impact. The latter includes filtering water to avoid needless single-use plastic waste, recycling newspaper for bin bags, providing shopping bags, envelopes and shopping bags, locally sourced food and conservation projects.
SHE LOVES: the breathtaking sight of a young elephant with no one else around. Magical.