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Published: February 16th 2017
Local character Incredible India 2 of 3
Wearing the traditional dhoti
Southern India 26th January 2017
Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala
These are the fertile plains of Karnataka, vast fields of rice, cotton, bananas, carrots, flowers and brassicas, and out through the early morning mist to our left, the Western Ghats, their high, forested peaks diminishing gently into the dusty grey of humidity. These are the green lands of Southern India we came to see, on this, our second trip, to Incredible India.
Our journey today takes us two hours to the south of Mysore into the Bandipur National Park on the Karnataka state border with Tamil Nadu, from where we will access the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. The excitement starts immediately on entering the park where a guard checks our driver’s paperwork: spotted deer, long-tailed macaques, langur monkeys and great views of local birds: the fabulous peacock, Asian koel, fantails, red-vented bulbuls, magpie robins, shrikes, white-bellied drongos and….. wild chickens – the jungle-fowl, revisiting memories of Key West in the USA.
Green forest turned to dense scrub as we approached the Mudamalai Tiger Reserve, the long line of safari 4x4s awaiting customers, and our local guide.
With 35 years of experience we were expecting great things from this guy. It soon became clear his knowledge of birds left much to be desired, but we were shortly on a roll with sightings of a family of mongoose sneaking through the undergrowth, peacocks, wooly-necked storks, rollers, kingfishers, bee eaters and water buffalo by the Moyar River before the big one we’d been hoping for came in sight - a mother elephant and her calf grazing the trees, then warily crossing the road in front of us. That’s our sort of day – no tigers as expected, but that one will surely bring us back yet another time! The benefit of age comes with a bonus on this safari; I’m allowed the front passenger seat. But for others it’s not quite so good. So beware, the back seats face inwards instead of forwards, making it extremely difficult for the rear passengers to experience those special fleeting glimpses of wildlife.
By mid-afternoon we were on our way to the Wild Planet Jungle Resort, 3,200m up in the Western Ghats at Devala, for two days of relaxation surrounded by sweeping vistas of tea plantations and magnificent forested hills
lost in the mist on the horizon. The journey itself is all part of the experience. A half-hour of driving on precarious dirt-track roads ended at a car-park high in the hills for our driver, leaving us a further fifteen minutes of shaking and bumping over steep rocky tracks by 4x4 to finally reach the resort. As the name Resort suggests this is remote holiday-making country, principally for Indian families and groups of smartly attired businessmen enjoying a ‘boys' weekend’: a swim in the pool, a bracing 70mph zip-wire experience (a first for me – never pass a new experience by!), kayaking on the lake, wildlife walks, river crossings, trekking, tree walks and dancing around the camp-fire with young Indian ladies late into the evening, just for starters. Our magnificent thatched log cabin offered fine views across the neat wavy lines of the tea plantation from the verandah, listening to the silence, broken only occasionally by the strange calls of the Indian giant squirrels and passing birds. Meals are served in the restaurant at reception, accessible from our cabin by an incredibly steep uphill climb - or taxi to order by dialing 100, a must! This remote resort covers many
acres, all of it electric-fenced to keep the wild animals out. When asked if we were allowed out to see the ‘wildlife’ we were told it was too dangerous! For ‘wildlife resort’, read resort. It’s also a ‘dry’ adventure here too - no alcohol, as with many establishments. We'll manage for two nights. That said, they’ll serve you a beer outside in the grounds, but not on the premises! And our 4x4 failed to complete the journey out. The front offside wheel collapsed with a ruined bearing and our driver had to call for another vehicle to rescue us, leaving the single-track road completely blocked! All-in-all, a wonderful experience.
It’s still hot, even up in the hills; low 30C’s at a guess. We’re also extremely high here too and breathing can be stressful for some, particularly at night. Let’s just sit and enjoy the view – likewise breathtaking!
Spectacular views also greeted us the following day as we headed further south, driving on winding roads into the undulating green hills, past eucalyptus forests and seemingly endless tea plantations, roadside vendors selling carrots and sweetcorn, and chocolate shops would you believe, a local speciality here
in the cool hills where it won’t melt on your fingers.
Toy trains are a magnet for boys and men I’m sure you’ll agree. The Nilgiri Blue Mountain Train journey from Coonoor to the hill station of Ooty (or should I call it Udhagamandalam, for that’s the name on the station platform) on rolling stock as old as the railway itself, doesn’t match the one up to Shimla (Simla) in the north but it is an adventure and all part of the visitor’s package, so let’s do it if just for the rattle and shakes and people-watching. The scenery is nothing special and the first-class seats are hard, but train travel is very affordable here in India. We paid 25Rs each for the 19km one-hour journey. (30p) That wouldn’t get you as far as the platform in the UK, or the rest of Europe for that matter.
January was Republic Day. We spoke earlier about the living legacy of the days of the Raj and I want to relate to you a little polite detail in support of this. A written invitation was passed under our door in the hotel the previous
evening, and I would like to quote a small passage from it for you.
Greetings from Gem Park, Ooty.
The management and staff take immense pleasure in inviting you to the 68th
Republic Day celebration. Soliciting your esteemed presence.
With best regards, Front Office Manager.
Dress Code: Casual
Isn’t that delightful? We went of course, casually dressed, 9am prompt, to be seated, front row as honoured guests, as the flag of the Indian Republic was raised in the car park (with a slight hitch) by a local dignitary. The staff, all lined up in regimental formation, saluted, sang the national anthem and drinks and nibbles were served to all and sundry with hearty handshakes all round. Well done and thank you Gem Park Hotel! Today is a public holiday bringing crowds to the manic streets bustling with brightly coloured busses, tuc-tucs, scooters and motorbikes, posters and hoardings on every wall and every shop, open-fronted stalls dazzle with fruit and flowers, telephone and electricity wires dangle listlessly from roadside poles in knotty tangles to the constant toot-toot-toot of smoke - belching traffic. Such is the song of Incredible India.
villages dot the green hillside as we leave Ooty en route to Cochin (Kochi), driving through verdant valleys of rice paddies and banana plantations, pineapples, turmeric, coffee, cabbage, tea and sugar, pepper, grapes, beans, melons and pomegranates, peacocks and goats in the fields, dogs in the road and great swathes of dry grass, now struggling against an unseasonal drought.
Amongst all this beauty there are mounds of fly-tipped rubble beside the road, great piles of rubbish, plastic, dust, filth and decay of the most horrifying nature everywhere – and I mean everywhere. It will require enormous investment and then many generations of culture change before there’s the remotest chance of turning a corner on this blight. India’s consumer driven society is yet to come. Next will be the throw-away mentality we in the western world will surely share with them and the piles of trash will continue to grow ever higher and higher and higher. This is indeed Incredible India.
They’re working on it. A dustcart appeared in the street beside our hotel in Cochin (Kochin or Kochi) and two men were bent double, cramming a mountain of bags of trash into the back
by hand. They need an army. There are signs everywhere in many areas where plastic is banned and degradable bags are now dispensed in the shops. But it’s a gigantic battle of such a scale that it will surely never be won. There are also great cracks and cavities on the sidewalk and potholes in the road, so watch your step – our despicable solicitors would have a field day here.
There are no cigarette ends on the streets and none of our chewing-gum splattered pavements. It is very rare indeed to see anyone smoking anywhere. If you wish to smoke you do it at home our driver tells us. It’s also somewhat rare to see a man without a moustache. They do all have those beautiful irresistible dark sparkling eyes though, set in large white pools like hard-boiled eggs or snooker balls - and we get those wonderful broad smiles of sincere friendship wherever we go.
We’re going to Kochi for a cooking lesson with a TV chef tomorrow and then it’s off to the coast for a couple of days in Kerala to check out the backwaters and the beach. This two-week
winter break already feels like three.
David and Janice
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