A “Jungle Safari” in Kerala’s Thekkady Region Yields Lots of Tea

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Asia » India » Kerala » Thekkady
October 2nd 2019
Published: October 3rd 2019
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First there was the matter of negotiating the price of the Jeep tour. Actually I hadn’t intended on doing the “jungle tour” with any of the jeep drivers hawking their offerings to visitors in the Thekkady area. But the two guys across the street waved a brochure at me and I checked it out.

In broken English they offered the full or the half day tour, and showed photos of animals such as elephants and the wildly colored Malabar squirrel that tourists could see on the tour. I declined the full day, noting its 188 km length which was far too much bouncing in a jeep for me. But I did express interest in the half day and started walking away thinking about when I could do it.

“Okay, last price 1800 rupees,” he called after me. That was down from the initial 2,000. I hadn’t even asked for a lower price. Business was very slow for these guys.

I took another look at the brochure, then I did what I always do to have fun. I spoke a little Tamil, even though this is Kerala where the first language spoken is Malayalam, a closely related Dravidian language. The two guys thought I was great after that and smiled a lot and spoke Tamil with me.

“Okay, last price, 1700 rupees.” Again, I hadn’t asked for any more bargain, he was just tying to get me to commit to the tour. I pulled out some paper to write down the phone number, and jotted down 1700, then 1600 beneath it.

“What about this?”

“No, no, already a good discount.”

I said I’d think about it and call, then they watched me circle the 1600 price on my paper.

“No, Madam.” They were laughing by now. So I put a star by the 1700 price. One of the guys grabbed my pen and marked out the 1600 price. It was settled then.

Two mornings later Srijit picked me up from my guest house at 5:30 am and we were off. No seat belt, that’s the first thing I noticed, so if we screeched around the curve I could go flying out the open door. He did a lot of whirling and swirling (zooming and speeding) along the road, rising higher and higher into the hills in the growing light, past spice plantations and small towns, then off the main road to a narrow paved road.

We stopped for tea at a small shop while he pulled back the cover to open up the jeep. By this time Srijit was speaking only Tamil to me and I couldn’t follow even 10% of it, and instead guessed the meaning by his gestures and the few English words he was using. I was supposed to get in the back seat so I could behold the sky as we sped along, but on the tortuous road I preferred the front seat so I wouldn’t puke.

Grey sky, mist everywhere, bouffants of lemon grass sprouted along the road. Then the tea plantations started, corn rows of cropped green bushes, separated by spidery but orderly paths. A small church appeared on the hillside. Many people living in Kerala are Christians, and the churches intermingle with Hindu temples that serve many of the tea plantation workers from Tamil Nadu.

Srijit bounced us on deeply rutted dirt paths, then dropped to our first overlook spot, where jeep after jeep shuttled other jungle experience seekers. Except there wasn’t much jungle, rather a lot of cleared land filled with tea bushes. Tall hills rose in the distance, and the sun was trying to burn off the mist that lingered.

This is where Srijit started showing his passenger (me) off to his other jeep-driving buddies. He made me speak Tamil to his friends and they all thought I was a hoot. One of the tourists commented that I was making them all so happy because I was speaking Tamil. I’m glad I was making their day a little bit more interesting.

But at this point I was not so enthused about the tour, as I suspected we’d be headed back to my homestay, giving me a very minimal jungle feel, if any at all. Srijit kept insisting there were deer on the hill far far away, and grabbed my camera to get a photo which I later deleted because it showed nothing.

After a short stroll shared with seven other jeeps carrying about 50 people busily memorializing themselves in front of the mist, we went off to the next viewpoint. Along the way we spotted a jungle fowl on the road, and a herd of water buffalos, which was better than seeing no wildlife at all.

The next viewpoint was much better. Srijit told me to go climb up the path, which no one else seemed to want to climb. When I was almost to the top, I heard him yelling from below and rushing toward me.

“Elephant! Elephant!” Sure enough, way way way off in the distance on the ridge top was a big lump. I tested the telephoto lens of my camera and could barely see him. Srijit caught up with me, panting and sputtering and bending over coughing. He appeared to be very out of shape. Nonetheless, he went back down the hill to retrieve my binoculars and came back again.

By now there were six elephants grazing on the ridge top. I guess this really was some kind of jungle safari, despite the lack of jungle.

After watching the lumps on the ridge top, we headed to the last viewpoint, where we were forced to pass by a dump where a pack of dogs foraged for food and cows busily ate trash. By then the light was very poor for photos and I was tired of the jungle safari.

But some of the best images came after that—the mesmerizing lines of tea bushes, undulating over the hill contours. All this land was once covered in jungle vegetation and supported wild animals. But the land was nearly perfect for growing tea, and so was transformed initially by the British during colonial times to accommodate the growing tea industry. It made for an intriguing visual, but I think I would have rather seen more wild animals on this jungle safari.

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