Living the High Life

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February 21st 2008
Published: February 28th 2008
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Vegetable Market - KodaikanalVegetable Market - KodaikanalVegetable Market - Kodaikanal

A colourful street market in Kodai selling regional produce such as potatoes, onions and cauliflower. © L. Birch 2008
It was not hard to pick out the ferry from the knot of boats moored at the quayside. It was a battered old tub with peeling paintwork; its hull scarred and gouged from one too many dockside collisions. The passenger deck was roofed with wood and corrugated iron, while astern; a mess of ropes lay ready for the boat boys to tie-off at each of the village stops the boat would make along the way. The Indian boat pilot sat at the wheel combing his hair. When he was satisfied with the result, he returned the comb to a shirt pocket and began flipping the throttle as if he was eager to leave. Each time he did so, a black gout of diesel smoke belched from the pipe above the passenger deck: Indian public transport at its best.

Actually, we had been looking forward to this, our final trip on the Backwaters. The boat was taking us to Kottayam - 30 or so kms inland. It would take two and half hours to complete the journey passing pretty canals and small villages on the way and allowing us to say a final "Goodbye" to Kerala's Backwaters.

The boat got
Spice BoxSpice BoxSpice Box

Exotic spices - like the ginger, nutmeg and pepper pictured here - were sold in almost every shop lining Kumily's busy main street. © L. Birch 2008
underway shortly before 8.00am. We had breakfasted on sweetly spiced masala tea and samosas at a quayside stall. Suitably fortified, we sat back as the boat nosed its way through floating mats of water hyacinth and out of the canal - leaving Alleppey behind. The journey was a slow one, with the boat calling at numerous small villages and filling up with passengers until there was standing room only. In a way, this only added to the appeal of the voyage, affording a chance to see life as it was lived on the waterways. People on their way to work or school crowded aboard the boat; field workers with calloused hands and headcloths, children in school uniforms, smartly dressed businessmen, Muslims in white knee-length juba shirts and filigree skull caps, market traders and dark skinned women in saris balancing goods on their heads with practiced ease.

The journey was so entertaining that it seemed over far too quickly. At busy Kottayam, we found our way to the bus station and boarded a distressed looking bus for the four hour trip up into the foothills of the Western Ghats. As the bus left the plains behind and wound its way
Banyan Tree, Periyar NPBanyan Tree, Periyar NPBanyan Tree, Periyar NP

The buttress-like bole of one of Periyar's venerable forest giants reaches for the canopy. © L. Birch 2008
up into the hills, the air coming in through the open windows became noticeably cooler. The palm trees disappeared to be replaced with cool forests and tree ferns. Later still, tea estates appeared, crowning the rounded tops of the hills like manicured lawns.

Compared to many of the towns we had passed through en-route, Kumily - a small hill town bordering Tamil Nadu - seemed relatively affluent. It was bigger than we had expected and almost certainly owed its prosperity to its rather fortunate position: right on the doorstep of Periyar National Park. Despite several reports that the Periyar experience was now little more than a money trap (foreigners pay 11 times more than Indians do just to enter), we had decided to take a look for ourselves as we were passing through.

Settling in after the usual arrival hassles, we checked out the surroundings near our guesthouse - situated hard up against the park boundary on the outskirts of town. Ajumal the owner, was keen to sell us an expensive trekking tour telling us, when we demurred, that to try walking in the park without a guide was an offence punishable by a 2000 Rp fine. The
Boats at PeriyarBoats at PeriyarBoats at Periyar

National Park boats await customers for trips on Periyar Lake. © L. Birch 2008
reason, or so Ajumal told us, was to protect visitors from attacks by wild animals. I listened to this with a degree of sceptical cynicism. The authorities liked to make a big deal of the fact that tigers still roamed the park. However, Periyar's tigers were so rare (only about 30 animals at last count) that seeing one was about as likely as seeing snow in the Sahara. Perhaps there was a small risk of something dangerous happening but I felt it more likely that this was just another excuse to get as much money as possible out of visitors.

Ajumal's warning didn't stop us from skirting the boundary and making a brief incursion though. There was no fence, the forest just began at the end of the road and - lured by the hooting sounds made by a troupe of black langur monkeys - we nipped over the boundary for a closer look. The monkeys, black with a mane of orange fur, were a new species for us and while we stood watching them we became aware of other wildlife all around us. There were several exotic birds from parakeets and chattering mynah birds to two magnificent hornbills
Morning light on Periyar LakeMorning light on Periyar LakeMorning light on Periyar Lake

The first boat out provides lake views and, if you're lucky, sights of wild animals like elephants, boar and sambar deer. © L. Birch 2008
in the branches of a fruiting Ficus tree. We stood listening to the birdsong for a while and watched entranced as a giant Malabar squirrel ran nimbly along the branches above our heads; all in all, a very profitable piece of trespassing.

Highlife and Lowlife

Satisfied with our few animal sightings the day before, Viv decided to forego the National Park experience and visit a tea plantation instead. And so, hiring a bicycle early the following day, I set off alone to catch the 7.00am boat from the Park jetty. Periyar's centrepiece was a 26 sq km lake created by the British in 1895. National Park boats did a 2-hour trip on the lake, 4 times a day but the first boat out was usually the best bet for seeing wildlife.

Though I hurried to get to the jetty on time, I need not have bothered. In true Indian fashion, the boat didn't leave until it was completely full - finally pulling away from the jetty at 7.20am. Because of the altitude (about 900m - or 2970ft - above sea level), low cloud grazed the hilltops surrounding the lake and a weak, wintry sun peeped shyly through
Double TakeDouble TakeDouble Take

This cottage in Kodaikanal looked as if it could have been lifted from the English countryside. © L. Birch 2008
a curtain of grey. The boat slid quietly through an eerie landscape of long dead, partially submerged trees. Only the trunks remained and now provided fishing perches for pied kingfishers and white-breasted cormorants. My first animal sighting was of an otter lopping along the indented shore of the lake. As the journey progressed, there were sightings of monkeys, a sambar deer stag - resplendent in a fine set of antlers, a party of wild boar and a small herd of Gaur. Sometimes referred to as the Indian bison, Gaur have become increasingly rare but not as rare as the tigers and elephants which remained, firmly out of sight.

Meanwhile.... as I was busy game spotting on Periyar Lake, Viv had taken a bus out into the nearby hills to visit a tea plantation and spice garden but things didn't quite go to plan. Here is her report:

"Everything had gone well until I came to leave the tea plantation. There were no buses to get me where I wanted to go, so I took a share-rickshaw full of local people. It was great. Everyone was friendly, there were lots of smiles and squeezing me in - with
Washing Day in KodaiWashing Day in KodaiWashing Day in Kodai

The terrace of a house in Kodaikanal looks out over cloud-scudding views of distant hills. © L. Birch 2008
6 other people - to a seat designed for 3 small Asians was not a problem! However, when I got off at my next destination, there was a problem. I discovered that my camera had gone from my bag. I couldn't believe it at first, then I just wanted to cry.

Retracing my steps, just in case the camera had fallen from my bag as I got out of the rickshaw, I encountered a group of villagers and, with their limited English and my mime, I told them what had happened. They were appalled that anyone would do such a thing to a visitor and took me to the local police station where I was plied with tea, biscuits and sympathy. After telling the police what had happened and filing out a report in triplicate, two officers jumped onto a moped - one on the front the other riding pillion, and announced that they were, "Going to look for clues," before riding off down the road. The remaining policeman looked at me gravely. "Madam", he said. "You can be assured that we will do everything in our power to apprehend these rascals.""

We laughed at that, the
Bear Shola WaterfallBear Shola WaterfallBear Shola Waterfall

A reflective moment at one of the waterfalls near Kodaikanal. © L. Birch 2008
image of two policemen going off to search for clues on a motorbike seemed particularly comical, but we were both saddened by the loss of Viv's camera. Not only had we lost the images stored on its memory card but we were now deprived of any further pictures depicting Viv's unique take on life. There was no real chance that the camera would be recovered and unable to wait around, we walked out to the edge of town next morning, ducked beneath a red and white painted barrier across the road and entered Tamil Nadu.

Getting High in Tamil Nadu

The hill station of Kodaikanal was not as high as Ooty - its better known and more popular neighbour - but at a height of 2100m above sea level (6930ft), it was higher than Ben Nevis, the UK's tallest mountain. After months of sweltering temperatures, it was rather refreshing to have to wear a fleece and hat again. At night, it was so cold that we had to shower early and burrow beneath piles of blankets to keep warm. During the day, the temps sometimes rose into the low twenties if the sun was out but mostly
Macaque MonkeysMacaque MonkeysMacaque Monkeys

Monkeys play in the forest trees above Kodaikanal. © L. Birch 2008
it was overcast, with low cloud sweeping in by mid-morning. By mid-afternoon, a wintry fog often enveloped the town. Such days were more reminiscent of a Cornish winter than they were of spring in tropical India, but then, Kodaikanal - or Kodai as it was more often known - was full of strange surprises. For a start, it was the only hill station in India established by the Americans sometime during the 1840s. Of course, the British moved in later, leaving behind an ornamental garden (among other things) filled with the sort of plants that you would only ever see growing in a temperate climate in the tropics; plants like Camellias and Strelitzia, roses and Bougainvillea.

Kodai was very much an Indian town. It was scruffy, dirty and smelly - in part, but it also had a certain charm. The steeply inclined streets of the main town were lined with Tibetan shops selling woollen jumpers. There were hardware stores, stalls selling cuts of raw meat and tea houses advertising "Tiffin" in their windows. On clear days, you had views out across neighbouring hills where houses climbed the slopes, looking as if they had been stacked one upon another. Around
The Forest in BloomThe Forest in BloomThe Forest in Bloom

A wild Rhododendron, flowering in montane forest near Kodaikanal. © L. Birch 2008
every corner there was a surprise; whether it was a church with stained glass windows, a house festooned with Tibetan prayer flags or a cottage that looked as if it had just been plucked from the Devon countryside.

Walks were the thing to do here. The climate lent itself to strolls through pear orchards, their leafless boughs clothed in blossom, and out to viewpoints with spectacular vistas. There were waterfalls to visit and steep, bracing climbs through forests where wild Rhododendron bloomed and monkeys played in the trees. Like Periyar, Kodai's centrepiece was its lake. On a map, it is shaped like a letter 'K'. The pretty 5km circuit along the lakeshore can be done comfortably in two hours - or you can hire one of the kitsch pedalos that Indian families seem unable to resist, and explore the lake at close quarters. Strangely, we felt drawn to this idea ourselves: a last intrepid boat trip at 7000ft above sea level. Well, not that intrepid really but it was a great bit of fun, our laughter echoing across the cool surface of the lake and mingling with that of the Indian day trippers. It was to be the last
Kodai LakeKodai LakeKodai Lake

Water lilies cover the surface on a quiet corner of Kodai Lake. © L. Birch 2008
boat trip we would undertake and the last pleasant experience we would have for some time.

We left Kodai on a crowded night bus bound for Ernakulam, but at 2am I woke to discover that my seat was infested with bedbugs. I had been woken by their bites after sleeping for less than 2 hours but after that, any further sleep was impossible. When we finally disembarked, I was itching all over. I had sustained bites on my hands, arms, head, back and on both legs. What's more, as the day progressed, I seemed to develop an allergic reaction that required a course of antihistamine tablets before it calmed down. We were only just recovering from this small setback when we received some rather shocking news from home.

After days out of 'radio contact', we had finally gotten to a computer. Viv was at the console while I sat nearby scanning the headlines of a day old newspaper. Suddenly, Viv's hands flew to her mouth. "Oh no," she gasped.
"What's wrong?" I said, jumping up to read the email over her shoulder. It was a message from our son's girlfriend in England.
"Its Brendan, he's got cancer!" The
A Life on The Ocean WavesA Life on The Ocean WavesA Life on The Ocean Waves

Circumnavigating a high altitude lake in a pedalo shaped like a swan... there's nothing like it! © L. Birch 2008
words came out choked with emotion and beneath my hands, Viv's shoulders began to shake with sobs. As I too read the message, I felt my legs giving way as the terrible words leapt from the screen; 'lymphoma, cancer, chemo therapy' - it was almost too awful to believe.

Sitting down with a thump, I could not think coherently through the shock of it. 'How, why, what did it mean?' One thing was clear though. Our everyday concerns had suddenly become minor ones by comparison. In the space of just a few minutes, all our plans had been changed.


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