This place is a secret

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November 5th 2009
Published: November 7th 2009
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1: Hornbill Camp & Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary 256 secs
The Periyar RiverThe Periyar RiverThe Periyar River seen from our dining table
Thattekkad - Wednesday 4 & Thursday 5 November

Our driver, with his air-conditioned Tata Indigo car, arrived promptly at 9.00a.m. We’d already had another enjoyable breakfast on the terrace at the Fort House Hotel and paid our bill, so left straight away for our 100kms drive to Thattekkad. It took almost an hour to leave the city of Kochi and emerge onto the less-busy country road. There, greenery surrounded us in the form of rubber plantations, fields of small pineapple plants, and coconut groves. The car would be with us for the next 11 days, as would our 26-year-old driver, Jino Thomas, a Christian from a small town 60kms from Kochi, employed by Rent-A-Car Kerala through whom I’d arranged the hire by internet. Jino had never been to Thattekkad before. Inevitably, we took the wrong road when nearing our destination and ended up at the entrance gates to the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, about eight kilometres from where we should have been.

I’m having second thoughts about revealing our eventual destination - it’s so good I think it ought to be a closely-guarded secret. It’s quite unusual and, if lots of people get to hear about it, I fear it
Hornbill tentHornbill tentHornbill tent

Our tented accommodation at Hornbill Camp
will be expanded, lose its unique character, and become just another place to stay, another place like all the other tourist hotspots, another ordinary hotel. Mmm..., this part of my blog would then be a bit empty, so...

At the end of a short, rough road with forest on both sides, we arrived at Hornbill Camp, one of two or three similar ecologically-friendly places within the Kalypso Adventures group. The amiable manager, Raj, knew we were coming and was waiting as we drew up at the entrance. He also knew that we’d lost our way. He’d been alerted by the Forest Department man at the entrance to the Bird Sanctuary! As it happened, this was the very start of the season and no-one else was expected - we were to be the only guests at this small camp on the banks of the Periyar River.

The sound of silence was deafening! Truthfully, we could hear nothing - not a car engine, a plane, a bird, nor even a rustle of leaves in the trees. And it was all ours - our own private camp, complete with manager, three waiters, cook and a ‘kayak master’ - for the next two
The guest area at Hornbill CampThe guest area at Hornbill CampThe guest area at Hornbill Camp

Comfortable seats look out over the river, kayaks and moutain bikes stand ready for use free of charge, and the buffet-cum-dining area is at the far end

The camp comprises ten large tents permanently erected on platforms beneath thatched roofs, each with a twin-bedded room with electric light and ceiling fan, and a sit-out with two wicker chairs and a view towards the river. Behind each tent is a separate, private building with an open-air shower and toilet covered with mosquito netting. Invited by Raj to choose whichever tent we preferred, we opted for the one nearest the river and the central dining area. The tents are named after birds - we’d chosen Hornbill. Next door was Bulbul, then Kingfisher, Lark, Robin...

Lunch, a delicious, freshly-made buffet, was served shortly after our arrival. While we napped afterwards, there was some light rain but this cleared and three o’clock saw Lajpal and me donning life-vests before boarding one of the camp’s two-seater kayaks. Accompanied by Raj and the kayak master in another kayak, we set off along the river in search of birds. Until recently, the water in the river had been quite low but the barrage downstream had now been closed and the water was backed up like a long, wide lake. In the two hours spent on the river and up some of
Our private waitersOur private waitersOur private waiters

Nothing was too much trouble for the excellent staff at Hornbill Camp
the narrow creeks, we saw a wide variety of herons, egrets, kingfishers and other less-familiar birds. It was an enjoyable experience. “I think I’m living a dream” said Lajpal, who’d never done anything like this before.

We returned to the Camp with tired arms and me with very wet jeans from the water that ran down my paddles. We needed the masala chai (spiced, sweet, milky tea) and some banana fritters that awaited us, before we retired to our tent for an hour on the terrace, Lajpal catching up with the last three days news in The Hindu and me writing this blog. As darkness arrived and mosquito coils were lit, so the tranquillity was shattered by a cacophony of calling cicadas and frogs that lasted long into the night.

Thursday morning, before dawn (5.00a.m. to be precise!), we woke and had a cup of tea before driving to the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, 15 minutes away, where a guide selected by the Forest Department from the local people awaited us for a morning’s ornithological walk. On the way, we’d picked up Jijo Mathew (on the Guided Birding website, you'll need to find the list at the bottom of
Kayaking on the Periyar RiverKayaking on the Periyar RiverKayaking on the Periyar River

A very enjoyable way to spend a few hours
their home page, click on India and then scroll down to Jijo's details), a member of Kalypso Adventures’ team and an expert ornithologist. Anyone seeking a leader for a birding tour would be well advised to contact him; we found him very knowledgeable, not only about the birds, but all the flora and fauna of the region too.

Our three-hour walk through the forest revealed a vast quantity and variety of birdlife. David and Janice, my brother and his wife (aka bloggers Grey Haired Nomads), both very keen birders, would love it here and, with their specialised viewing and photographic kit, would have an absolute ball. As for us, we saw drongo, shrike, starling, flycatcher, kingfisher, woodpecker, barbet, roller, hoopoe, myna, baza, cormorant, warbler, egret, heron, and hornbill (some of them in plural). With added ‘white-throated’ this, ‘flameback’ that or ‘black-naped’ the other, all were very specifically identified by Jijo. Alas, as many were small, distant and quick moving, only a few could be committed to memory card or video. However, the pair of Sri Lankan Frogmouth you can see in one of the accompanying photos, posed obligingly without blinking for as long as we needed! We also saw a monkey, some huge spiders, several Giant Malabar Squirrels, numerous tiny frogs, and some lovely flowers, teak trees, and many of the plants used in Ayurvedic medicine.

Although cool when we set out, the temperature climbed as we reached the end of our walk and we were pleased to return, in our air-conditioned car, to the Camp for a late breakfast, a nap, and, later, a light lunch. Our planned afternoon bike ride to neighbouring villages and spice plantations was abruptly halted by a heavy rainstorm that lasted well into the evening. We thought we’d missed the Thulavarsham, the north-east monsoon. However, a newspaper article tells us that it’s late and hasn’t actually arrived yet! Unfortunately for us - but fortunately for the Keralans, to whom this represents 20 per cent of their annual rainfall - it’s expected shortly. We leave for the hill station and tea gardens of Munnar in the morning. We keep our fingers crossed that the monsoon might keep at bay for a few days more, but fear the worst.

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In Salim Ali Bird SanctuaryIn Salim Ali Bird SanctuaryIn Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary

On our guided walk through the forest
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Additional photos below
Photos: 11, Displayed: 11


In Salim Ali Bird SanctuaryIn Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary
In Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary

The forest was fascinating
Birds in Salim Ali Bird SanctuaryBirds in Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary
Birds in Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary

Oh for a really strong telephoto lens...!
Be afraid...!Be afraid...!
Be afraid...!

This was the female. The male was about the size of a pinhead and, we were informed, gets eaten after sex!
Sri Lankan FrogmouthSri Lankan Frogmouth
Sri Lankan Frogmouth

There are two of these birds here - the one on the left has its back to the camera, the one on the right clearly shows its strange beak

9th November 2009

Secret Plac
Beautiful photos Mike - Naughty female spiders though!
29th December 2009

great pics... we are looking fwd to spend the new years eve here :) we go tomorrow!
18th January 2010

kerala climate
Hello there...we are considering going to kerala in mid 2010...but am concerned it might be too hot...what do you know about the climate that time of year and the amount of rainfall? People there, friends and tourist places say it is about 86-90 F. and some rain every day...cooler in the hill stations. If you have any other info about it i would greatly appreciate it! Gorgeous photots!!! how much did this lodge cost you for the time you were there?
19th January 2010

Hornbill Camp again
Sorry, forgot to mention that you Hornbill Camp asks for prepayment - but it accepts PayPal, so that's nice and easy. Keep smiling!
7th September 2011

very vivid!
My husband and I are soon to take a trip to Kerala and I was researching online to discover some unspoken treasures in Kerala when I tread upon your blog and I couldn't stop reading it in its entirety. You ave wonderfully orchestrated your journey into words and it is very helpful as well. Tough I do grudge that you haven't mentioned the name of that one hidden treasure that you chanced upon on ur way. Thanks Sujata
26th September 2011

Kerala is all a hidden treasure!
Thanks for your comments, Sujata. I'm pleased you found my blog helpful as well as interesting. I don't really understand your comment about "that one hidden treasure" though. Even though Hornbill Camp is "a secret", I do actually mention it by name, provide a link to its website and feature it in my little video. Or maybe you're thinking of another secret? Keep smiling!
23rd March 2016

This looks like a great place to visit. Hope to get there some day!
23rd March 2016

That was 7 years ago...
...but Kerala, and the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary in particular, are still vivid memories. If you're at all interested in birdlife, the Salim Ali Sanctuary is a 'must' during any visit to Kerala - in much the same way as Keoladeo (Bharatpur) is if you go to Rajasthan in the north. Read about the latter in my blog from 2013 entitled 'A Birder Paradise in Rajasthan?' ( India is a great place to visit for birds and other wildlife, culture, history, people, religions... It has it all!

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