Praying for time in Periyar National Park

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Asia » India » Kerala » Periyar National Park
January 19th 2015
Published: March 16th 2015
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We were leaving Madurai and heading west to Thekkady. Ren woke early and headed out to buy water and a few packets of electrolyte for me as I had been ill during the night. I hydrated, packed and made my way down to reception. I wasn’t feeling too bad, but I was looking forward to the destination more than ever. Ren was coming down with a cold/flu, so we weren’t travelling well. About an hour into the trip I started feeling back to normal, but Ren was getting worse. We were making our way westwards across the bottom tip of India, so we were travelling through rural landscapes filled with rice, palm, banana, sugarcane and cardamom plantations. We had a brief stop in Theni to buy some throat lozenges for Ren before we started to wind our way slowly upwards through thick forest to the small bustling township of Thekkady.

We arrived at Hotel Ambadi at 2pm, which was walking distance from the main township of Thekkady. We’d been travelling for four hours, and while I’d managed to survive the trip in one piece, Ren was getting worse. We checked in and headed straight to our room. Ren climbed into bed and slept for three hours, while I caught up on my travel notes.

We headed out to Abraham’s Spice Garden at 5pm for a guided tour of a local family’s spice garden followed by a meal in their home. The tour was almost interesting, but the meal was fantastic. We had sambar (dhal based vegetable curry), vegetable thoran (dry vegetable stir fry with coconut), fish and chicken curries, with Kerala paratha (layered flat bread) and Kerala red rice served on a banana leaf. We finished the meal with fresh bananas from the plantation and then headed back to the hotel in auto rickshaws (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin). We picked up a few snacks in the local shops for our early start the next day, and by that stage Ren was exhausted. We walked back to our room and she climbed into bed for the second time in five hours.

I made sure Ren was comfortable and then walked into the main township of Thekkady to pick up some beer from the only liquor store in town. It was a government-run establishment, and I couldn’t believe the queue when I arrived. About 100 men were lined up along the street, waiting to be served by four men in a tiny concrete shop with a thick metal grill on the front. I took my place in the queue and braced myself for a long wait when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and a local Indian man behind me pointed to the front of the queue and said “Foreigners go straight up. Don’t wait, go straight up.” I smiled, shook my head, thanked him for the friendly gesture and turned back around. He tapped me again and insisted that I go to the front of the queue. I realised I would have been there for at least 30 minutes, so I walked up to the front of the queue. Not a single person objected. I asked for two beers, paid the guy and walked away. I felt terrible, but I noticed all of the men had vouchers of some kind, which the official looking men behind the metal grill were stamping when they handed over their alcohol. I felt uneasy for jumping the queue, but I didn’t understand the voucher system, so I convinced myself there must have been a reason why the friendly local didn’t want me to wait. As I was walked back to the hotel in the dark I noticed a number of illuminated Christian statues along the roadside. I began to like this town – it felt friendly and welcoming. When I got back to the hotel, Ren and I sat out on our private balcony and enjoyed the warm night air as we caught up on our travel notes.

The next morning we woke early, grabbed a coffee from a coffee wallah (coffee seller) who happened to be passing on his motorbike (his coffee urn was strapped to the back of the bike) and headed to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in an auto rickshaw. We arrived at 7am, donned a pair of leech-proof socks and started out on a nature walk. We crossed the lake standing on a bamboo raft and walked in silence through the tranquil evergreen forest which we shared with wild boar, squirrels, monkeys, deer and a variety of bird life. We made our way back to the lakeside, carefully boarded the bamboo raft and re-crossed the lake to our starting point.

We walked out of the sanctuary, jumped into an auto rickshaw and headed back to the hotel for breakfast at 9.30am. I had a masala dosa (dosa stuffed with a creamy mix of lightly cooked potatoes, onions, green chilli and spices) and a masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea), while Ren had fried eggs on toast and a ‘normal’ tea. It was fantastic, as we’d worked up quite an appetite during the walk.

I had shaken the gastroenteritis, but Ren was still struggling with the cold/flu she’d picked up the previous day. After breakfast I settled down in the hotel lobby to access the wifi and catch on my travel notes, while Ren headed off for a Sampoorna Abhyangaswedam massage. I managed to write a few postcards, so when Ren returned we headed into Thekkady to post them. The local post office was a tiny, run-down concrete building in the main street with two women sitting at a long counter. One had a sign saying ‘Speed Post Counter’ in front of her, so I thought I’d line up there. The person in front of me was posting a handful of letters, and the Speed Post woman weighed them, handed them back and pointed to the second woman at the counter. The whole process seemed to take a long time, and I began to wonder about the speediness of the Speed Post Counter. When it was finally my turn, I explained that I had needed stamps for seven postcards, six of which were going to Australia and one to England. She said they would cost 15 rupees each and pointed to the second woman at the counter. I walked over to the second woman and explained that I had just spoken to the woman at the Speed Post Counter and that I needed seven 15 rupee stamps. She asked where I was sending the postcards. I told her the same thing as I told the woman on the Speed Post Counter. She said there was no such thing as 15 rupee stamps, but there were 5 rupee stamps, and that I would need to use three on each postcard. I started to wonder about the role of the woman at the Speed Post Counter. The second woman handed me the stamps and pointed to a glue bottle on the counter. It took ages to glue all the stamps on the postcards, and when we finally posted them we realised it would have been quicker if we had bypassed the Speed Post Counter. This wasn’t the first time we’d experienced bureaucracy in duplicate (or triplicate) in India, and I doubt it will be the last.

We walked back to Hotel Ambadi around 2.30pm and lunched in the hotel restaurant. We shared a masala omelette (spicy omelette with red onions and green chillies) with aloo paratha (layered flat bread stuffed with spiced potato), and cooled down with a ginger lime soda (fresh ginger and lime juice with soda water) and mint lime juice. The early morning start was catching up on Ren, so she decided to nap in the late afternoon. I relaxed on our balcony with a beer and cassava chips and caught up on my travel notes in the afternoon sun. We’d been travelling at a frenetic pace for the past six days, so it was great to be able to kick back and enjoy a warm Indian afternoon.

We walked back into Thekkady in the late afternoon and wandered around the streets amidst the deafening and never-ending sound of vehicle horns before heading out for drinks at 7.30pm. We opted for the Hotel Sandra Place for dinner, and it was a great choice. We shared (between five of us) chana masala (chickpea curry), dahl tadka (yellow lentils cooked with garlic, ginger and green chilli and flavoured with roasted cumin), aloo gobi (potato and cauliflower curry), vegetable kadia (Muslim vegetable curry), paneer butter masala (cottage cheese cooked in a creamy tomato and onion gravy), biryani (dish of spiced rice and vegetables), rice, naans (leavened bread cooked in a wood fired oven) and chapathis(unleavened whole wheat flour flat bread, cooked on a dry skillet). It was an absolutely fantastic meal. We wandered back to our hotel at around 10pm, as we had to pack for an early start the next day. We were heading to the Kerala Backwaters (Alleppey), which was a four hour drive and two hour boat trip.

We really enjoyed our time in Thekkady. We had been able to relax and unwind here, and we had got to know the dusty streets, the local stalls and the people who ran them. I will probably never come back, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to stay a while in this bustling little town.

We were supposed to catch our first long distance public bus from Madurai to Thekkady in Kerala. Intrepid travellers we may be, but when it was suggested that for an extra 600 rupees each we could hire our own transport, there was an overwhelming majority vote in favour. So we started our journey inland to Periyar National Park in our small private minibus. There was the possibility that we may have had more space on the public bus, but there was also a big chance that we would have been squashed in like sardines. The South India leg of the trip was drawing to a close, and everyone seemed to be feeling a little bit tired and sick, so the minibus was seen as a luxury purchase. As it turned out, both Andrew and I were far from 100% on this trip, so it had been a fortuitous decision.

Periyar is an area of Kerala famous for its spice plantations, and also for a renowned wildlife sanctuary which is home to tigers and elephants, among other wild animals. The long drive of four hours was broken up with a few stops (including at a small pharmacy in Theni for assorted supplies for cough and cold remedies), but it was still a long, hot journey. We eventually began to climb into the Western Ghats ranges, and the scenery was beautiful as the landscape became leafier and more jungle-like. The temperature was starting to drop as we climbed higher into the ranges. It appeared that every single centimetre of arable land in the Western Ghats has been used to grow tea, eucalyptus, rubber, cardamom and a variety of other herbs and spices.

I missed most of the trip, as I'd drugged myself with strong cold and flu tabs (with the extra good stuff in it) and tried to sleep. However, having ended up on the very back seat of the minibus (which was also on a wheel arch), it was nearly impossible to do so. Andrew and I had a miserable time of it, but the good news was that Andrew was starting to feel much better.

At last we arrived at Hotel Ambadi in the small town of Thekkady. Thekkay is located adjacent to the Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve. We were in the Cardamom Hills – high in the southern segment of the Western Ghats, so the air was cool and refreshing.

Hotel Ambadi was close to the entrance of the Periyar Sanctuary and was set out in a series of charming two-storied wooden chalets. Our room had a decent-sized balcony that would have been perfect to have a morning cup of tea on, but unfortunately we didn’t have tea and coffee facilities.

After checking in, I managed to get some sleep for a few hours before we had to re-group at 5pm for a tour of a nearby spice garden. Kim thoughtfully dropped in with some cold drinks, as we had skipped lunch – thanks Kimmy!

I was feeling marginally better, so against Andrew’s better judgement I had a hot shower, rugged up and went out. We caught auto rickshaws (motorised tricycles with a passenger cabin) to a house high in the hills with an almost overgrown garden. The spice garden was owned by Mr Abraham (who had a very impressive moustache and tufts of ear hair). The family-owned spice farm had been featured on a BBC program called 'Around the World in 80 Gardens', and he seemed very proud of his plants.

The organic farm was jammed into not much more than a hectare, brimming with pepper, turmeric, cumin, cloves, cardamom, papaya and black-honey that was produced by bees no bigger than a mosquito. There was also a giant lemon tree with fruit the size of a football, different varieties of coffee and cocoa, and several varieties of chillies. We learnt about the household and medical usages of most of the herbs and spices. This was the first time I’d seen a cardamom tree up close, and at one point we actually found ourselves in a bit of a cardamom forest.

There seems to be a special place in the hearts of Keralites for cardamom. In addition to acres upon acres of cardamom growing on roadsides, numerous hotels and restaurants are named after it too. I love the flavour, but for me it’s very much a case of less is more. The slightest heavy-handedness can easily overpower all other flavours in a dish. And if a whole cardamom pod (or whole clove for that matter) is ever used in a dish, Andrew is sure to be the one who bites into it...and it’s usually in the last mouthful. It’s become a bit of an in-joke between us. Having said that, we are already quite addicted to the masala chais (spiced sweet milky tea) with lots of cardamom flavour.

We walked into Abraham’s house where his wife (we assumed it was his wife who was sitting in the kitchen) had prepared a traditional Kerala home-cooked meal for us using all their lovely produce. Dinner was served on banana leaves. We were served sambar (thin vegetable curry), vegetable thoran (dry vegetable stir fry with coconut), fish and chicken curries, with Kerala paratha (layered flat bread) and Kerala red rice. I didn't have the fish or chicken dishes, but I heard they were good. The meal was accompanied by spiced drinking water – I didn't quite get the name of the spice, but it coloured the water rose pink without giving it any particular flavour. I think it was supposed to have digestive properties.

We returned to the hotel to have an early night, but for various reasons sleep evaded me, so I joined Andrew on the balcony where we spent the rest of the evening catching up on writing notes. Between late nights and getting sick, we were the most behind we’ve ever been on our blog writing and posting.

The next morning we woke at 6am to meet at 7am for a guided walk through Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Tiger Reserve. The Reserve is based around a series of lakes, formed by a dam from 1895. This is a rare sanctuary, in that it is possible to walk around certain parts of the park when you are accompanied by park rangers.

We caught auto rickshaws to the park entrance and walked down the long driveway through the forest to the guides’ hut. We signed in and were issued with leech-proof socks, which are like canvas gaiters with a foot. It goes over your own sock, into your shoe and is then tied with string below your knee. The ground wasn’t very wet, so I didn’t think there would be many leeches around, but we were armed with spray-on insect repellent...just in case.

The first challenge was to cross the misty man-made lake on the edge of the park. The lake was calm and the air was still, except for a crane that patrolled the edges, occasionally plunging dramatically into the water. There was a raft of sorts to take us across the lake. It was a precarious looking raft constructed of bamboo poles with an extra pole crosswise at each end. The guides pulled us across by a rope, using another long pole for guidance. Embarking and disembarking the raft was an exercise in extreme balance! Luckily, all of us managed it relatively gracefully.

We had been split up into two groups. Once on the other side, our group (consisting of a park ranger, Andrew, Damien, Brian, Elisabet, Karni and myself) climbed up high into the jungle and back down, while the others started on the lower track near the lake. It was the dry season and the lake was low, which in theory should have improved our chances of seeing animals on our walk, but I think we had started later than we should have (well after dawn), so the animals were already well hidden.

We saw elephant footprints and elephant droppings, but no elephants. There was a cat footprint, but no tiger or leopard to go with it. However, it was a fabulous walk in a humid forest canopy, with a slightly added degree of difficulty to keep things interesting – like a bridge over a creek made only of a few bamboo poles.

We came across a large sambar deer (which was mistaken for an elephant for a brief period), a snorting wild boar, a troupe of grey langur monkeys with diagnosable Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, a couple of timid Nilgiri langur monkeys who watched us suspiciously, and giant Malabar squirrels breakfasting on jackfruit. Nilgiri langurs have fuzzy brown fur and are only found in Periyar, so it was fantastic to see them. We saw a lot of birdlife – cranes and cormorants were hanging near the lake, while blue-green parakeets and an eagle flew overhead. There were several other exotically feathered things that I can’t name here, as they were either too fleeting to check their identity with our ranger or he repeatedly told me a name that just didn’t register in my brain (I had many of those awkward moments when I just had to nod and smile, and pretend I understood). There were amazing brown and orange dragonflies that tried to hypnotise me by flying in circles in front of my face, and we also had the occasional grey langur ‘walk’ with us by crashing overhead through the trees along our path.

The landscape and flora were equally exotic looking – as we walked uphill, we walked into a dense canopy of trees and through paths thick with tropical vines and shrubs. At ground level, little touch-me-nots recoiled from our feet and the swirly woody brown mushrooms looked lethal (although I was assured they weren’t). As we started descending towards the lake, the forest canopy opened up and we were bathed in dappled sunlight as we crunched our way downhill. We then emerged into the muddy grassland surrounding the lake, which held lots of evidence of animals who had drunk at the lake early that morning. It really was a very beautiful walk.

I’m certain that while on our walk we were under the hidden but watchful eyes of the tigers. Even though it may sound like I’m making a big assumption, the park definitely has a large number of them, and we were near their water source – so it’s an educated assumption. However, we shouldn’t be so disappointed that we didn’t spot one, as even locals who have worked in the park for many years haven’t see one.

In hindsight, my assumption above does beg the logical question – what the hell were we doing walking around a jungle where wild elephants roamed and big cats hunted? Well, as I’ve mentioned, we had a park ranger for ‘protection’, but given he was unarmed, I doubt very much he could have prevented us from getting eaten alive by a tiger or stomped to death by rogue elephants. There was an instance where we spooked a wild boar, who (luckily for us) decided to run alongside and then away from us. I still wonder what our little group would have done if it had decided to run straight at us. Regardless, all the members of our group made it back alive.

By 9am I was hot and hungry, and very happy to see our raft crossing again. My stomach was growling, my feet were tired and I was starting to hallucinate about a chai wallah (tea seller) materialising in front of me. While we waited a little while at the guides’ hut for the other group to rejoin us, we snacked on chocolate biscuits to keep us from dying of hunger. 😊

We eventually caught auto rickshaws back to the hotel, where we ate breakfast as if we had just walked out of a jungle after being lost for 40 days and 40 nights. Andrew had a masala dosa (dosa stuffed with a creamy mix of lightly cooked potatoes, onions, green chilli and spices) and a masala chai (spiced sweet milky tea), and I had a large serving of fried eggs on toast and an English breakfast tea.

At midday, a few of us took up the option of experiencing an Ayurvedic massage, a Kerala speciality. We walked along the freshly tarred road (I had bits of hot sticky bitumen sticking to the soles of my shoes!) to Mayura Ayurvedic Centre. I opted for the 80 minute Sampoorna Abhyangaswedam massage which included a body, head and face massage with a medicated steam bath (for 1500 rupees). My therapist Lakshmi had trained for a year as an Ayurvedic masseur and had been practising for three years. I’ve never had an Ayurvedic massage before and here are a few points of difference with this and a regular oil massage – the oil had the distinct scent of cinnamon; the massage started and ended with me sitting on a stool; I had to endure the use of what I can only describe as a disposable wax paper loincloth; and the normal use of towels for strategic coverage of bodily bits isn’t a skill required of therapists in Ayurvedic massage.

I sat on a stool while warm oil was poured over my head, which was the start of a head and shoulder massage. I then lay down on the massage table and had a back (and front!) massage, followed by a weird face massage which even included my eye sockets getting a little caress. So basically every part of my body that wasn’t covered by that flimsy wax paper loincloth was massaged to some degree. For the most part, it was really quite relaxing and hypnotic (apart from the utter shock of having my breasts rubbed down and my eye sockets prodded). The treatment finished with a ten minute steam bath, which turned out to be in the very ancient torture-chamber-looking apparatus that was in the corner. I had to sit on a small stool inside the wooden cabinet with my head poking out from a hole in the top, while steam was pumped inside. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, and it allowed the thick herbed oil to lift from my skin. The whole thing ended with another slightly uncomfortable surprise – I was towel dried by the therapist like a small child after a bath!

That afternoon we walked to the busy commercial centre of Thekkady. It was a noisy and dusty walk of about fifteen minutes. Thekkady has a thriving main street lined with shops of every description. We walked to the post office to post the postcards we’d bought in Madurai for our niece and nephews. Andrew lined up behind a guy at the ‘speed post counter’, and there was also one person in the ‘normal counter’ queue. After much discussion between the two staff members, the first person in the speed post queue was sent over to the normal counter. Then it was Andrew’s turn, and when he asked for stamps, there was another discussion between the staff members, and he was also sent to the normal counter. We were in the post office for about 20 minutes and the girl at the ‘speed post counter’ did not serve one person. I really would have loved to ask what exactly the ‘speed post counter’ did. If I was her colleague in the normal counter, I would not have been happy.

We returned to the hotel for lunch at 2.30pm, and shared a masala omelette (spicy omelette with red onions and green chillies) with aloo paratha (layered flat bread stuffed with spiced potato). The cold ginger lime soda (fresh ginger and lime juice with soda water) and mint lime juices were very welcome.

After a little downtime (I had a much needed nap), we headed out for another walk to explore the other side of the Thekkady. We had to walk along a walled section of bamboo forest to get to the main township of Thekkady, and I noticed that we were being accompanied by a curious but very shy young grey langur walking along the wall with us. I stopped to take a photo of it, but realised that it had frozen in fear and was looking past me at a big ugly bonnet macaque walking towards us. I made the mistake of making eye contact with the macaque, which set it off in a rage. I tried to walk away casually but Andrew who was watching me from across the street probably saw the slight shadow of fear cross my face as I realised the macaque was now running at me. I hurriedly crossed the street towards Andrew, and luckily oncoming traffic prevented the macaque from pursuing me any further. Phew. Stupid, angry rabies-ridden macaque!

Apart from the bamboo forest teeming with not-so-friendly bonnet macaques, we also had to run the gauntlet of a row of shop keepers who yelled out cheesy lines to try and entice us into their shops. It was mildly amusing at first, but saying ‘no thanks’ about twenty times in the space of a few minutes got a bit tiring.

Thekkady wasn’t a pretty town by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly had a certain energy about it, and I enjoyed walking around observing local life. There were masses of spice shops with eye-catching names like ‘Shiny Spices’ and ‘God’s Spices’, and many fruit and vegetable shops. I was intrigued by the dried Ayurvedic herb shops and would have loved to buy some concoctions, but there was zero chance we would have been to get them back into Australia.

Andrew wanted me to see the spectacle of the ‘wine shop’ that he had experienced while buying some beers the night before. The liquor stores can usually be found by looking for a shopfront covered in steel bars and a long queue of local men. There were truckloads of dusty workers being dropped off in front of the shop, and even though it was only about 5pm, and the queue was already curling around the block.

It was on this walk that I broke my golden rule about not giving to beggars. We’d walked past a disabled man a few times that day, but on this particular walk (I’m not sure what was different) I looked at him and my heart just broke – so I doubled back and gave him some money. I know, I know...

After much discussion about dinner, a few of us ended up at a high end hotel near us. We had a drink in the bar, but when we sat down at the restaurant we realised that it was a menu catering purely to tourists, and that really wasn’t our thing. So we paid for our drinks and left for a more local place. It had been a good decision to move, as the food at Hotel Sandra Place was fabulous and we had a very enjoyable vegetarian feast. The only downside to the dinner was that we had over ordered, so there was a pile of food that was wasted. I hate wasting food at the best of times, but I felt really horrible wasting food in a country like India.

When we were planning this trip, I read something that claimed a trip to southern India would not be complete without a visit to Periyar. I usually scoff at such claims, but I have to admit that this place was quite special in that it was uniquely Keralan.

Next we travel west to a home stay in Kerala backwater country.


21st March 2015

Periyar NP
I'm doing some travel research for a trip to India later this year, and I found your blog very useful. Thanks.
22nd March 2015

Re: Periyar NP
Thanks for reading Mohan. I'm glad our blog helped you with your research - happy travels! :)
21st March 2015

Periyar National Park
Never fun to travel when you are not feeling well. At least you were well enough to take care of each other. Never travel without leech proof socks. I'd love to go for one of those massages. Great story about the speed post counter. The organic farm sounds fantastic. I could feel those tigers watching you. They are sneaky and you'll never get to see them. This does sound like a very special place.
22nd March 2015

Re: Periyar National Park
Merry we were quite lucky that being sick didn't make us miss out on too much... I will private message you a photo of us in our leech proof socks - it wasn't pretty! :)
22nd March 2015

Glad the leech proof socks worked!
Hey Ren, It's only now that I can immerse myself in your latest adventures and marvel once more at your experiences along the way; living vicariously as always and in doing so not getting sick ;) What an amazing time you guys had. Will do my best to recreate the cheesy Neil Diamond and sweet vodka when we next get together! XXX
22nd March 2015

Re: Glad the leech proof socks worked!
Thanks for reading Cinds. We didn't really need the leech proof socks - but with murphy's law loving me so much, it's probably a good thing that I wore them. Sweet vodka and Neil Diamond around a bonfire at the farm?? You're on! xx
24th March 2015
masala dosa

our favourite breakfast!
25th March 2015
masala dosa

Re: Yum!
We just can't get the same flavours from the dosas here! Have you tried a Sri Lankan thosai breakfast? I'd be interested to see what you thought.
11th January 2016

Good one.
Hey thr, Nice description. I liked the way you go up with your own experiences. Nicely done... Keep up... :)
12th January 2016

Re: Good one.
Thanks for your lovely comment Mary :)

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