Tiger Trails in God's Own Country

Kerala is one of the prettiest states in India. Located in the South the diversity ranges from stunning palm-lined beaches on the coast to the rolling green slopes of the Western Ghats, home to thick jungle and green tea plantations as far as the eye can see.

We had 2 reasons to be in Kerala: firstly to visit Periyar National Park, home to 45 tiger, 1000 elephants and various species of monkey and birds. Secondly was to do the highly rated houseboat cruise round the backwaters – one of the top 10 things to do before you die, according to the God of Lonely Planet.

Kochin itself is made up of a bustling town on the mainland and several islands all connected by bridges. The furthest of these is Fort Cochin – a maze of crumbling, Portuguese houses and narrow streets, old churches, and a busy fishing harbor.

We had a lovely night and day in Fort Kochin – lovely that is apart from the food poisoning Caro got from the fish curry she bravely sampled. I wasn’t game enough to try, opting for eggplant curry instead. Kochin was a trading town and where Vasco de Gama set up a number of spice routes, when India was under the rule of the Maharajas. De Gama apparently died in one of the guest houses round the corner from where we stayed. We walked down to the harbor to check out the catch being pulled up in the Chinese fishing nets, a weight and pulley system that is now outdated by modern fishing methods but still used in Kochin. The water is filthy, full of litter and pollution, and we’d already eaten so Caro said later she suspected that her traditional Keralan curry would come back to haunt her. Hundreds of spice traders line the streets going towards an area called Jew Town, but it was Sunday and most were shut. Little goats run everywhere chomping on piles of rubbish, and we saw more cats than we’d seen previously, lured no doubt by the promise of discarded fish heads and guts.

This is home of the lungi, which takes the place of shorts or trousers, and is similar to a sarong except they tuck it up so that it comes above their knees. I don’t find it the most attractive item of menswear, and they are forever fiddling and adjusting them which means there is a little bit too much activity with the hands in the groinal are for my liking! The tuck, left or right, depends on your religion, fact fans. I’m sure they are wonderfully cool in the balmy Southern Indian climate but glad they haven’t caught on outside of India. Not even the hippies have been tempted and that’s saying something.

I could easily have spent more time there as it is incredibly pretty, but the next day we caught the bus to Kumily which is the town on the borders of Periyar National Park. After leaving Kochin we had a terrifying few hours swerving through polluted litter strewn towns, trying to ignore the fact that every time we looked out of windscreen we were appeared to be hurtling towards a head-on collision. This was not easy to do considering we were just behind the driver and somehow our terrified eyes were drawn forward each time the driver blared on his horn, which was pretty much all the time. We’ve since learnt that when driving in India indicators are completely redundant. They use a system of different types of horn beeps (ie short, long, multiple) and flashing lights to indicate their intentions to other drivers. Anyone foreigners that intends to drive in India should attend some sort of driving school first. Otherwise it’s suicide.

Finally we left the smoggy towns and started winding up into the mountains. The rolling hills of Kerala, called the Western Ghats, are covered in tea plantations as far as the eye can see. It’s incredibly beautiful and despite the fact that we were still in the kamikaze bus we felt rejuvenated and excited about our impending jungle adventure. Kumily town isn’t particularly pretty but we stayed in a fantastic guest house called Rainbow Cottage which literally was all the colours of the pastel rainbow, complete with disco style flashing lights. We could even pick what colour room we wanted! Blissfully it had hot water, something which is a luxury in India. Kumily is on the outskirts of Periyar National Park which in itself covers over 770 hectares.

The next morning we were waiting outside in the dark for our jeep driver, all set to do a ‘jeep safari’. I’m putting that in inverted commas for a reason, which will soon become clear! Our small group consisted of Carolyn and myself, and a German and French guy, both of whom had a good sense of humour. Turns out we’d need it. Our jeep safari consisted of driving round the border of the park. Although we saw signs of elephants in the form of vast mounds of elephant dung, there was nary an elephant to be spotted in the dense growth. We did see squirrels – not your common European garden variety but much larger and only found in that particular region. They were a pretty russet colour and had an incredibly bushy tail, and were about the size of a possum. We got bored of spotting these eventually, after all a rodent that can climb trees is much less exciting than a tiger or an elephant, but before we knew it the jeep part of our jeep safari was over and we went on a hike through the forest.

Our guide was local, and his English was fairly limited, although he was an absolute sweetie. It turns out that with the variety of accents I ended up being the unofficial interpreter. After spraying ourselves liberally with RID – not to ward off mosquitos but to ward off the hundreds of leeches that, to my absolute gut-clenching horror, were out in force because of the wet weather – we started off through the jungle. There were signs of wildlife everywhere – in addition to the elephant shit there were deer tracks, bear tracks, bison tracks… we saw more squirrels, a woodpecker, tons of leeches, some tadpoles and scores of other birds, but apart from some langur monkeys, cows and manky chooks the whole 3 hour trek was pretty animal free.

Our guide was kind enough to invite us into his home, which is in the park. He earned less than $1AUD/day, yet despite this they were lovely hosts and shared cake with us, and were proud to show off their small house. It was pretty humbling. We went back to a hotel on a lake and had lunch, followed by an hour and a half of sitting round doing nothing where at least 3 of us fell asleep. Then we had a boat trip. This consisted of rowing round a corner to a fairly mediocre waterfall and back, which took half an hour. Then a 30 minute walk up a hill to a pretty viewpoint, followed by coffee and biscuits. By this stage our patience was wearing thin at the lack of activity. A jeep safari anywhere else on the planet would be what the name suggests – offroading in a jeep tracking animals. .We DID get back in the jeep after this, nearly 12 hours after we’d got into it, and cruised slowly back to Kumily trying to spot elephants but again only spotting squirrels and monkeys. Oh, and some manky chooks.

Periyar is beautiful though and I’d recommend it to anyone who was interested in bird-watching as there were hundreds of varieties. The Western Ghats are stunning and Munnar is supposed to be very relaxing although we didn’t make it that far. But for the big game Bunipar in the North of Kerala is apparently much better, with at least 3 tigers a week being spotted and Ranthambore in Rajasthan is supposed to be even better.