Posted: under India 2007/08.
Southwest India part 2 Feb. 15 – Mar. 15
I left Kalpetta for Mudumalai national park. I took a bus from Kalpetta for one hour to Sultanbathery. Here I had to wait for an hour for the next bus. I waited at a very calm and deserted bus station, except for the monkeys. Bonnet macaques were abundant and very comfortable around people. They would be all over the buses, sitting inside them, climbing on top of them and just all over the place. It was funny to watch them. As soon as a bus started moving though they would get off it. From Sultanbathery I took a bus to Gudalor. Even though I only had to go about 100km, I had to take 3 buses to cover the distance. From Gudalor I took a bus and finally reached the reception area of Mudumalai. Mudumalai is on the main road between Mysore and Ooty and is only 13km from Bandipur national park, where I saw the 2 leopards 2 weeks ago. Mudumalai is part of the 3000 sq.km Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. It was my last park to visit in the Bioshpere reserve as I had already visited Nagerhole, Wayanad and Bandipur. There was no way to do them all in a one way route so I kind of had to do a circular route.
I didn’t book ahead and was glad that they had very cheap accomodation available. I got a no frills very basic 4 bed dorm to myself for $4. The reception area only has park run places to stay, no private accomodation or restaurants, so it was very quiet. Working elephants were bathed in the river in front of my dorm and hung around the area all day. Sometimes I would just go sit and watch them. They would also blow dirt all over themselves as a kind of dust bath. I arrived at the park in time to do the last afternoon safari.
The safari setup was similar to Bandipur with no private vehicles allowed. Tours are limited to 25 seater minibuses. Also like Bandipur, the entry fee and a 45 minute safari were very, very cheap. The bus left around 4.30pm. It was full of Indians and quite a few foreigners. It’s a loud bus but I’ve learned to curb my anger and temper. No shushing in the world in going to keep Indians quiet. They seem to thrive on noise. I quietly exploded on some guy during a safari in Bandipur. He just filmed a video of an elephant approaching the bus and then proceeded to watch it right after. It was loud and he was told a few times by other Indians to keep it quiet but he just nodded his head from side to side in the frustrating way so many Indians do and kept watching the video. Anyone who knows Indian people knows what I’m talking about. I told him to keep quiet or I would throw his phone out the window! Not my proudest moment but I felt it had to be done. What they really need are safari police to keep the buses quiet to not disturb the animals. The drivers only say something if it gets really loud.
I’m done with shushing now. Let the Indians shush their own kind. I just try to ignore them. We see some of the usual, 3 sambar deer, spotted deer and langurs. We also see a group of elephants but only one is close. The park is hilly and sometimes hard to see distant animals. The forest is similar to the other parks in the reserve. Sometimes locals ask me which park is better but that’s a hard question to answer. I’ve seen amazing animals at them all and the forest is not very different, so I usually say they’re all good.
Mudumalai was declared a wildlife sanctuary in the 1940’s with only 62 sq. km, now it is over 320 sq km. Its a mix of low hills, valleys, flat terrain and swampy areas. The forest ranges from moist decidous in the west to dry decidous and thorn scrub in the east. Theppakadu, an elephant camp near Mudumalai’s reception has had more elephants born at it than any other camp in India.
I meet Kutin at the reception after my safari. Kutin is a local guide I met after the safari.He tells me that he conducts night safaris, though only on the main road running through the park. Unfortunately they are not allowed to use a spotlight,only the headlights. This doesn’t sound too promising but I decide to try it anyway. He picks me up at 10pm which I like, he says less traffic on the roads then and I agree. But tonight would be different and there actually was a lot of traffic on the road. He says he’s never seen it this busy. I drink a cold tea I had been hoarding since dinner to get wide awake and I’m ready to go. I’m on alert for any eyeshine since I use my headlamp on the left side of the vehicle and Kutin scans the right side with his similar headlamp. We see a few sambar deer but don’t need any light to see the elephants. There is a group of 5 and one of them is on a hill right beside the road. He doesn’t seem to bothered by the headlights in his face. I don’t take any photos and leave quickly, I don’t want to bother him too much and besides, I’ve seen plenty of elephants in daylight hours. The other elephants disappeared into the bush while we watched him. It was a long night drive at one and a half hours but this was all we saw. It’s kind of funny that I’m doing night safaris to see nocturnal animals and the only animals I see are the same ones I see in the daytime.
Last night before my safari I ate dinner with Meital and Zeev, a nice Israeli couple staying around the corner from me. They were going on a walking safari the next morning and invited me to join them. I met them at 5.45am and we picked up 3 others and drove 7km to the small village of Masinagudi. Walking is not allowed in the park but the area outside the park is still rich wildlife habitat and that’s were we would be going. We stopped for tea and then drove another 5 minutes to the bush. Our guide, Santosh was at the tea stand but wasn’t around when we left for safari. Our driver tells us we will be going with 2 tribal people who don’t speak English. We were confused and pissed. Santosh told the Israelis how good of a guide he was and how he spoke good English and now he’s not coming. Meital was the pissed voice of us all and demanded the guide or we’re not going. The driver goes back and gets Santosh. He says his reason for not coming was due to illness but I don’t buy it. He’s just lazy. The funny part of it all is that last night Kutin told me this is exactly what would happen if we went with Santosh. The guides really know each other here.
We begin our hike and nobody is talking to Santosh. He ruined any chance he had for a tip. We hike for 3 hours through scrub forest but only see a few spotted deer and sambar deer. We pass through many prime elephant areas but they aren’t around. After I eat an omelette and crash till lunch.
I join Kutin for the afternoon walking safari. He is with a Dutch family with a 13 year old daughter but says it’s ok if I join them. I have to make my own way to Masinagaudi where we are starting from. Public transport jeeps aren’t leaving till they fill up and I need to be there in 15 minutes so I try and hitch the 7km. I only wait for one minute and the first vehicle gives me a ride. I find Kutin at the main intersection of the small village and we drive to an area of open meadows and trees to begin our hike. We see some spotted deer and sambar deer before hearing the intimidating call of an elephant out of sight but ahead on the trail. The Dutch family runs in the opposite direction in response to the angry vocalization but I want to get closer. Kutin says he will get closer from another direction. We see a herd of large elephants from a distance of about 100m. A large male makes a loud roar and everybody runs. I don’t feel in danger with them that far away and Kutin says we shouldn’t go any closer. He tells me in private if it was just him and I we could get closer but the Dutch family is already visibly freaked out so we will have to keep our distance. I understand. We see the elephants again a bit closer from another direction across a river. It was exciting to see them on foot. Near the end of the hike we have to cross a crotch deep river. The Dutch have no problem in removing their pants and cross in their underwear. I just pulled up my shorts got a little wet. I wanted to go on another wallking safari with just Kutin and I but he had family stuff to take care of the next morning so I would just do minibus safaris.
That night after the elephant close encounter I ate dinner again with the Israelis. They were recommended a jeep driver from other travellers. They saw many animals with this guy the previous night so we thought we would give him a try. He picked us up at 10 and we took a different road than I had been on last night. He really gave a good effort at trying to find animals. He would pull down small side roads and drive towards the side of the road trying to get his headlights into the bush. As it turns out we didn’t see any large animals even after driving for 2 hours. We talked with a few other jeeps and they saw nothing as well. But it wasn’t a total loss. What we did see were plenty of black naped hares, a subspecies of the Indian hare.There are 13 supspecies of the Indian hare. I had not seen any hares or rabbits in India yet so I was quite happy to see them. First we saw 2 together but then we saw another and another and another…. We saw about 15 hares in total. They were they only thing around that night. Hares differ from rabbits by not digging a burrow and give birth to furry young who can already see, as opposed to the ugly raw skin, blind rabbit babies.
The next morning I’m at reception a little early at 6.45am. It’s been a busy few days of safari with night drives till midnight and then getting up early for morning safari. I’m first in line for the bus safari and get the front seat. The first safari is a little quiet but we do see a herd of gaur. The bus is also remarkably quiet or it might just be that sitting in the front the noise is muffled by the engine. But I do really think that the people were just more well behaved.
Meital and Zeev join me for the second bus safari that takes the other route in the park. There are only 2 routes that the buses take. This safari, the bus and the wildlife is also very quiet. I go back to my room and crash till lunch.
I’m back at 3pm for the first afternoon safari. I get the front seat again. When I’m on safari I like to sit beside the driver or behind him, this way I’m close and can give him a tap to stop the bus if I see something he doesn’t. I was getting better at spotting stuff and asked him to stop a few times. We see a group of sambar deer, spotted deer and langurs, all hanging around very close to each other. I’ve never seen them all this close. I’ve often seen spotted deer and langurs but without sambar deer. They all hang out so there are more eyes on the lookout for predators and give an alarm call upon seeing something dangerous. Ahead on the road are 6 elephants. We give them a bit of time to get off the road and then head towards them. The heavy sound of the diesel engine scares them to a safe distance from the road. They stay close to the road and everyone gets a good look at them. Once back at the reception I go in to buy a ticket for the next safari. The driver warned me we were taking the same route but I didn’t care. I wanted to see how much things changed, if at all, going the same route again so soon. I got the front seat again. We saw most of the same animals. One herd of elephants had moved a little and the other herd I saw had disappeared completely. So it was a little different. Once we got back I bought my ticket for the last safari of the day. This time we were taking a different route and I had a good feeling about this trip. It was 5.30 now, a time when animals are more active.
We had to drive the main road for 5 minutes to get to the safari road inside the park. Before we even entered the park road, a small car was pulled over on the side off the road. This was a good sign, they had stopped to see something. We pulled up ahead of them and stopped. I was looking but didn’t see anything. The Indians were exclaiming ” Cheetah, cheetah!” I knew from an earlier safari that cheetah was the Hindi word for leopard but I couldn’t see it. The bus reversed 1M and I saw him. He was obscured from my view by a tree but was now visible. The leopard was only a youngster, maybe 6 months to a year old. He was much smaller than the 2 other leopards I had seen. He sat and snarled at us and then walked away. The park road was right up ahead,we made a left into the park and again saw the leopard go past the bus and retreat into the undergrowth.
We see sambar deer and some elephants, both of which I spotted and alerted the driver. I spotted another herd of elephants down a unused road. Next I spot something black running away through the thigh high grass. At first I think it’s a wild boar but the driver says it was a sloth bear. I started to think about it and he was right. It ran like a bear and the fur looked like nice black fur, not the wiry hair that wild boars have. Wow, a leopard, many elephants and a sloth bear,the fifth safari of the day was the last and the best. I decided just to relax tonight and not do a night safari.
As I walked the 3 minutes to the dinner place I experienced something better than any night safari here had delivered. The sun had just set and I was walking under a tree when a black shape took flight above me. My first instinct told me it must be a bat. But when I looked up I was surprised and super happy to see that it was a giant flying squirrel! This massive rodent glided right over my head and landed low on the trunk of a really tall tree. I sat in the grass and just looked up, determined to see him fly again. Tiny insects were biting me in the grass, I was itchy, something else was scrambling in the grass and massive wild boars were searching for food behind me but none of that mattered. It was all about the giant flying squirrel. I watched him climb higher into the tree. It was getting dark and sometimes the squirrel looked at me and I could see his eyeshine in my headlamp. I only saw the branches move every few minutes to know that he was still there. This was the tallest tree around in the area and I knew he was going to glide to a distant tree. I sat in the grass for 20 minutes. Literally, seconds before I was going to give up and go for dinner, there was activity in the tree. The squirrel made a running leap and was off, gliding through the air across a river and into the darkness. I couldn’t see where he landed but I didn’t care. I saw him glide again and that was what I wanted. What an amazing experience to have this giant flying squirrel glide right over my head, and it was free! This was one nocturnal animal I was really hoping to see on a night safari.
I arrived at reception at 7.10am. I wasn’t the first in line but I got the front seat again and that’s what was important. Before we enter the park we see some spotted deer and loads of peacocks. I haven’t really mentioned it but I have been seeing peacocks at almost every park I’ve been to. The peacock is India’s national bird and the tiger its national animal. The first animals we see in the park are a herd of 5 elephants. Then a herd of 10 elephants! We only see a few spotted deer, sambar deer and langurs so it was great to see mostly only elephants. I haven’t had too many safaris like that.
I go for the second safari which I thought was on the other route but then the driver takes the same route. I get the front seat again. It’s a loud bus this time and one Indian guy won’t shut up. He is shushed several times by other Indians. We see the same small herd of elephants but not the larger herd. After I eat an omelette and pack up. I hitch a ride the 7km to Masinagudi. From there I get in the back of a jeep to go to Ooty.
Ooty is southern India’s most famous hill station at 2250M. The drive up is very scenic passing rocky and forested mountains. The jeep climbs 38 numbered hairpin bends. Soon the mist and clouds encircle us and I can’t see anything. The air becomes chilly and I am thankful that I am only passing through Ooty so I have less travelling to do tomorrow. I don’t wait long at the bus stand till I’m on another bus heading to Coimbatore. The bus descends a different road with 18 hairpin bends. Bonnet macaques are abundant on some of the bends and there are signs warning that they are wild and not to feed them and to leave them alone. A terrible burning smell is coming from the bus. I open my window more but it only makes it worse. We stop for a break and I see that smoke is billowing out of the front right tire. Nobody seems too concerned though and we carry on. I just hope it’s not something to do with the brakes!
I finally arrive in Coimbatore at 6pm. The hotel in the guidebook is full and after some searching I find the Hotel Pushpam. I’m a little shocked to hear the price of a room is only $2.50. What kind of dump is this, I’m thinking. I take the most expensive room for $5. It was an ok room, TV, but no hot water and only squat toilet but it will do for one night.
It’s funny that cities have become my place to relax and indulge myself. In the parks I’m up early and busy most of the day with limited food and drink options,so I treat myself in the cities. It’s also a contrast that there were hardly any mosquitos in the park and now while I eat dinner at an outside patio I’m getting eaten alive.
I ate a tasty breakfast in Coimbatore before heading to the bus station. Coimbatore is a large and industrial city of a million and a half people and I didn’t see any other white faces. Its mainly a transport connection. I took a local bus to another station in the city to get the bus I needed. I’m on my way to Silent Valley National Park. I wasn’t sure if I was going to go here because it’s on the map in the guidebook but no information is given in the guidebook. The American couple I met at Pachyderm Palace went there and gave me all the logistics on how to get there. I have time so I decided to go there but first I had to get there. I took a bus from Coimbatore to Palakkad for one hour. From Palakkad I took another bus to Mannarkad. It was sunday and almost everything was shut in Mannarkad. I don’t think they get many backpackers in Mannarkad. I got a lot of strange looks but people were super friendly and saying ‘ Hi ‘ and waving. Mannarkad is so off the beaten track it didn’t even get a mention in the guidebook. It’s too late to go to Silent Valley today so I have to hang out here. I wanted to write emails but the many internet cafes in town were closed. I got a room at the Nawar Tourist Home. It was a huge room with no hot water but TV and fan. It was really hot, 35 C in my room! I liked it though, it wasn’t humid so I wasn’t swimming in my own sweat. It was just a lazy do nothing kind of heat. I could have taken an airconditioned room but chose not to. I had enough cold temperature the first 2 months of my trip. It’s all about the heat now. I didn’t have hot water and I didn’t care. I wanted a cold shower but only luke warm water came out of the tap. The one time I want a really cold shower and I get a warm shower!
Part of the reason I travel is for a warmer climate. I despise the cold. I love the constant heat and humidity of the tropics. I never have to think about what I’m going to wear. It’s always shorts, t-shirts and sandals and maybe a raincoat. Sometimes I go into the mountains where I know it’s going to be colder and that’s fine but this trip has been a climatic rollercoaster,from a steady 13 C in my hotel room in Darjeeling, up to 35 C and everything in between. I haven’t mentioned the weather lately because there’s been nothing to say. It’s been pretty agreeable, no complaints ever since I got to Mysore. The temperature hasn’t dropped below 23 C and I’m loving it. Besides the cooler temperatures in the first half of my trip, the skies have been almost cloudless everyday. Even now after being here for 3 months, I’ve only seen rain 3 times and hardly had any cloudy days. That being said I would like to see India during the monsoon when everything is lush and green and the temperatures and humidity are always high.
I went in search of a cold drink. I found an ice cream place and had a mango shake, pistachio shake, ball of mango ice cream and a faluda. Faluda is a local treat, ice cream, dry fruit and noodles. There was nothing else to do but chill in my room. I only went out to eat. The Tourist Home didn’t provide any extra bedding but that’s ok because I always have my sleeping sheet or sleeping bag with me but tonight I didn’t need anything. Only in the middle of the night did I use my t shirt as a mini blanket, just to have something covering my chest. Despite the heat, I slept fine. The temperature dropped slightly to 30 C during the night.
I skipped breakfast to start heading to Silent Valley,right away since it would only be a day visit I wanted to get going. As I drank a tea at a road stall the bus came. I had to stand the whole hour to Mukkali. From Mukkali I went to the forest department and hired a jeep and a guide. This was the only way to drive the 25km to the park. We drove through coffee plantations. The bushes were in bloom and the small white blossoms filled the air with a delicious fragrance. The plantatins gave way to tall, dry evergreen forest. After an hour we reached Silent Valley. There are no safaris or adundant animals at Silent Valley. All the parks I had been visiting so far were for animals and not for the forest. Silent Valley was for me, I knew I wouldn’t see many animals but I would see one of the only pockets of evergreen rainforest left in the western ghats. This area recieved a lot of attention in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s as a site for a hydroelectric project but local, national and international conservation organizations combined to halt its construction. A 90 sq km. park was declared in 1984. Silent Valley took its name from the absence of cicadas in the park. Altitudes range from 650m to 2000m and habitats range from tropical evergreen forest, sub-tropical hill forest to evergreen sholas and grasslands. The dense vegetation makes it difficult to spot wildlife but elephants, tigers, wild dogs, lion tailed macaques and 35 other species of mammal live here.
My guide and I first climbed a lookout tower for panoramic views of the park. Hilly evergreen forest stretched out in every direction with some of the highest peaks covered in grass.We walked a 2km path through the forest. I really liked the forest here, huge, tall trees and sparse undergrowth. I felt at home, I was back in my element. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more access to the forest but I knew this before coming here from what Derek at Pachyderm Palace told me, so I wasn’t surprised.
After walking for an hour we had completed the only trail around this area and we went back to the jeep.I asked my guide if there was any other hiking available. He said he knew of one 3 km trail about 4 km down the road on the way to Mukkali. This wasn’t the usual hike though and I should give him a tip, if I’m happy, he told me. It was a good hike and the forest very similar to Silent Valley so I really liked it. We saw elephant shit but no signs of any other animals though apparently a lot of animals do live here or visit seasonally. On the drive back to Mukkali by attentive driver was always looking in the forest on the right side of the road. He spotted Malabar giant squirrels many times and I was able to get my best photo yet of them. He also stopped one other time and said he saw a cobra. I got out excitedly and looked but it was gone. I have yet to see my most desirable reptile here in the wild. Maybe next time. After a few buses I arrive back in Mukkali at 4pm.
Today was going to be a long day with lots of travel but worth it for less travel tomorrow. From Mannarkad I took a bus back to Palakkad. From Palakkad I get a bus to Pollachi and arrive at 7pm. I’m sleeping in Pollachi and get a nice room at Sakthi Hotel. I eat channa masala (spicy chick peas) in the hotel restaurant. My waiter asks me if I would like a beer. If it’s cold, I told him. He brings me the beer in a stainless steel water jug, to conceal the fact that I’m drinking.This is a family restaurant he tells me and apparently in many restaurants in Tamil Nadu, liquor is not served. You drink in a bar and eat in a restaurant and the 2 never cross paths. But here the waiter was willing to break the rules. As he poured my beer he says “ I’m pouring you a glass of water.” I guess it didn’t matter that I already had a glass of water on the table.
I had a really nice room and spent the evening watching movies.They didn’t supply bedding here so I use a pillow case and unused towel as a makeshift blanket just to take off the minimal chill of the 29C room.
After breakfast the next morning I go to the forest office to make a booking for accomodation at Annaimalai National Park. The officer at the wildlife office is trying to get me to take a treehut for $60 but I tell him it’s too expensive. My next option is a room for $40. I tell him this is too much too becuase I’m in India for 4 months and need to stretch my money, I can’t afford something like this. I reluctantly agree to the $40 room for 2 nights because he says it’s my only choice. Fortunately we get talking and in the end he gives me a room in Ambuliilam resthouse for $6 a night. Now thats what I’m talking about! It was reserved though and I watch him erase the people’s name and put mine in their place. He says he doesn’t usually do this but he’s going to give me a break because I’m a foreigner and travelling here for a long time. Now I can spend more money on safaris in the park. I book for 3 nights.
I have a few hours to kill before the next bus to the park. I write emails for an hour, relax and pack. I get the bus at 3.15. The road ends at Parambikulam, just after Annaimalai national park so traffic is very thin. The bus climbs up to 880m. We see some spotted deer on the way and I know I’m back in a park. I check in at the reception area known as Topslip. My resthouse though is 2km from there, in a giant bamboo forest. I meet Kathan, a guide recommended to me by Kutin, my guide from Mudumalai. Kathan walks me to my room.
I really like the accomodation here. It’s far from any road and there are no dogs or chickens to ruin the silence. I’m thinking how perfect the silence is here when it’s shattered by a jeep full of Indians. They try playing cricket in the dining area and then crank the volume of a movie they are watching in the back of their jeep. I ask them to turn it down because the rules of the park are that silence be maintained. They turn it down but only a little and it’s still blasting. Indians treat their national parks as a place to party, not to experience the beauty and tranquility of the area. I walk the road out of the resthouse in search of some silence. The cook and one staff member chase after me. They tell me it’s too dangerous to walk around at night. I tell them I left because it was too loud there so if they can break the rules,why can’t I? They tell me they will get them to turn down the volume and they do. Silence returns and I can hangout in peace. Kathan is meeting me at 7am the next morning so I go to bed.
Annaimalai is also known as Indira Gandhi and is contigious in the west with Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary in Kerala state and Eravikulam national park to the south. Annaimalai is a special park because it contains some remaining evergreen forest and is home to the lion tailed macaque. I came here to see what I could see but the lion tailed macaque was the main goal of my visit.
Kathan and I left at 7.30 with a packed breakfast. We walked to his village, a small working elephant camp. Then we walked another hour on a hardly used road till we entered the forest. The forest consists of many areas but we were visiting the area known for lion tailed macaque. Kathans english was very ‘small’ and he was hard to understand at the best of times. I was a little confused when during our first conversation he keeps saying LTM. I told him I was here to see lion tailed macaque but it took me a minute to catch onto the local slang, that LTM is lion tailed macaque. Now it makes more sense. He says there are 2 groups here. Minutes after entering the forest we see a small herd of gaur downhill from us. They give us some disapproving grunts but eventually flee the scene. The area is very hilly and we are always going up or down. Sometimes we’re on a trail but most of the time we aren’t. Kathan just walks where ever through the forest. It’s not so bad because the forest is similar to Silent Valley and the undergrowth is sparse. We see lots of Nilgiri langurs. Everytime we hear activity in the canopy I get my hopes up that it’s the LTM, but it always turns out to be Nigiri langur.
We see some small bushes that are covered in congregations of daddy long legs. These aren’t like any I’ve seen before, with orange body and lime green legs. They are absolutely everywhere though in some areas. We don’t have much luck with mammals but do see some rare birds. The most spectacular being the great pied hornbill. This massive bird is 1M from head to tail and sounds like a Harrier jet when it flies. We see a group of 8 of them in a fruiting fig tree and Kathan tells me I’m very lucky.
I thought we would be out for 3 -4 hours hiking but it turned into a full day. On the way back we stopped at Kathan’s house for some rice and masala. I finally got back to the resthouse at 4.30, 9 hours after I left. Even though we didn’t see LTM, I still had a great day wandering around the forest. This is what I have been wanting to do since I arrived in India but it’s only possible in a few places.
Besides mammals and reptiles I’m also very interested in insects and back at the resthouse there was a scorpion. It was a beautiful jade green and about 20cm long but covered in ants. I was confused and upon looking closer I saw its tail wasn’t held up but crushed and black. It was still moving when I poked it but obviously not doing well. The cook told me he had been sweeping the area and accidently stepped on the tail of it, so it was pretty much screwed. The ants were eating it alive.
I was very surprised to see that 2 other backpackers had arrived. They were Carl and Jen and they were from BC. It was great to shoot the shit and eat dinner with some fellow Canadians. I was going out hiking again tomorrow and invited them along.
We met Kathan at 6.30. We were already to go but Kathan said that we had to go to Topslip to get permission to visit the area we had visited yesterday. Apparently he got in shit yesterday because he didn’t do this. Then he tried telling me that Carl and Jen would have to get their own guide, we couldn’t share. I didn’t understand this, 3 people or 1, what’s the difference. We go to some head honcho’s office and ask persmission. We get permission and I ask him if 2 more can join with us. He speaks excellent english and says it’s no problem. Everything is solved and we begin to walk back, first to the elephant camp and the finally into the forest, same place Kathan and I went yesterday.
We again see the great pied hornbill. Carl was very happy to see this bird. We explore the forest again all day long. We come to an area filled with dozens of butterflies fluttering around. I’ve never seen a sight like this deep in the forest. We also see the colorful daddy long legs and they seem to be even more widespread. We walk for 5 minutes and they are everywhere, covering bushes and some on the ground. Jen is really freaked out by them. Our exhaustive search for the lion tailed macaque again comes up fruitless though and we return to our resthouse at 4.30. We walk back to Topslip, I’m in search of a public phone and all of us in search of a cold drink. Unfortunately we find neither. I’m trying to call to book accomodation at my next park but I guess I’ll just show up and see what’s available. We get back to the resthouse after another long 11 hour day.
I take a warm bucket shower and as I’m towelling off a huge rat enters the bathroom. He climbs up the toilet and out the window which is broken so I can’t seal it out. I felt something run across me while I slept last night and heard its vibrations through the pillow. I thought it was a mouse but also thought it was something big because of the heavy vibrations. Now I know what it was. Upon further inspection I could see that even with my bathroom door shut, the rat could still enter through a hole he chewed in the corner of the door. Before I crash I fill the hole with part of the supplied blanket I’m not using. It works and I don’t hear any visitors in the night.
Last night we were the only guests here and it was so quiet. Now a family of Indians arrived and their kids are running around and screaming. After putting up with it for a bit, I ask them to stop running around. They surprisingly listen to me and go to their rooms. Why can’t any Indians read books or do something quiet. Like I said before, they seem to thrive on noise. Loudness is the fuel their bodies run on.
I got up at 6.30am in order to walk the 2km back to Topslip and catch the 7.30 bus to Parambikulam wildlife sanctuary. Carl and Jen decided to go to Parambikulam with me. There are only 3 buses a day from Pollachi via Topslip to Parambikulam, the next not until 4.30pm so we took the first bus. While waiting for the bus I was looking at my legs and noticed a very small tick. It wasn’t feeding on me yet and I could easily remove it. Now that I knew ticks were here I would check myself more often.
I knew Parambikulam was close but was surprised that the first song on my ipod didn’t even finish before we got to the checkpoint of the park. Here we paid our entry fees and then it was another 2km to the park reception. It was Friday and without a prior reservation I wasn’t sure what accomodation would be available. Most of the parks and sanctuaries are notoriously busy on weekends. This is why I left Annaimalai after 3 days, there were no more cheap rooms available. I think I put in a good effort to try and find the LTM, hiking almost 19 hours in 2 days but with no luck. I have already seen so many animals though and I’m not too disappointed if I don’t see the lion tailed macaque.
The cheapest accomodation at Parabikulam without attatched bathroom was $60! I could do it for one night if Carl and Jen wanted to share the room but they didn’t. So I had decided not to stay, I didn’t want to pay that much for a room. They told us they tried to discourage too many visitors and this is why they keep the prices high. I can understand that and think it’s a good idea, it just sucks that they are discouraging me from staying overnight.
What they could arrange for us was a 16km trek for the day. However, Jen wasn’t feeling good and wasn’t up for a hike. So her and Carl took the next bus back to Pollachi. I ate breakfast and then went on the hike with just the guide and I. My guide’s name was Krinen, a tribal from the area. The hike would be 8km on a paved road and then 8km on a safari road and trail in the forest. I was telling Krinen I would be happy if we saw any snakes and 10 minutes into walking the road we saw a large ratsnake beside the road. It was about 2M and amazingly hid in a little hole in the side of a hill bordering the road. I didn’t get a photo but I didn’t care, I saw the snake and that was enough for me. Just a bit further on we saw a very small dead pit viper. Its head had been crushed by a car.
Our hike started around 10, which isn’t the best time to be hiking because animals are less active at this time but I had no choice. After the paved road we entered the forest which was mostly old teak plantations. Their huge, dead and dry leaves cracked like chips the size of dinner plates. We wouldn’t be sneaking up on anything here. We saw a few spotted deer and sambar deer. We came to a treehouse and went up to it to take a break. I had entered tick town and everytime we stopped for a break I had a few of these on my pants or legs. My arch enemy – the tick! These ticks were so small they were hard to see, so I had to pay close attention when looking for them. Inside the treehouse were about 10 small bats. I took a few photos of them which didn’t disturb them. Contrary to ( what I think) is popular belief, bats aren’t bothered by light, it’s noise that disturbs them into flight. I took a few flash photos and shone my torch on them without bothering them.
We’re walking down this crunchy leaf road and I think everything around us can hear us but it wasn’t true. Krinen spots a small group of gaur feeding in the bushes just ahead of us. They don’t know we are there so we stop and watch them for a while. We start slowly walking and they get wind of us and retreat up a steep hill behind them. We reach the end of our hike at Parambikulam village, after almost 5 hours. The village is tiny and after lunch I lay down for a rest under a concrete pavillion. We have to wait here till 5.30 for the bus back.
We catch the bus, Krinen gets off at the reception and I take it all the way back to Pollachi. I arrive in Pollachi at 8 and go to Sakthi Hotel. They have a room but can only give it to me for 12 hours, even though I would be paying for 24 hours. I said screw that and looked for another place. It took me 40 minutes to find a hotel with a vacancy. The guidebook only lists the Sakthi Hotel so I had to ask locals until I found another place. The place I found was acceptable with cold bucket shower and TV for much cheaper than Sakthi at $4.50. I ate a tasty channa masala, watched Posiedon and went to bed.
I had a masala dosa and rice idly for breakfast before catching the bus to Udumalipet. From there I got a bus to my destination,Munnar. The bus passed through a different area of Annamalai park that I didn’t know we would be going through. It also passed through Chinnar wildlife sanctuary and Erivakulam national park, my next 2 places. I was going to Munnar first though, because it was the weekend and I wanted to get more money and book a room for the coming weekdays. Munnar is at 1524M and surrounded by vast hilly plantations of tea and spices. I arrived at 4pm and walked the 2km from the bus stand to Aida hotel. I got a nice room with a view, hot shower and TV for $12. After dinner I went to one of many shops selling local crafts and produce. I bought some chocolate coffee powder ( which I can’t wait to try), ginger coffee ( wondering what that will be like, I like ginger and coffee, never thought of putting them together) and some homemade chocolate with cashews. I bought the highest quality available because a lot of the chocolate I bought here that was made in India was low quality and I would have to buy European chocolate if I wanted the good stuff. This chocolate here was the best Indian chocolate I have ever had and I ate the whole 100gm piece in one night.
Munnar is a small touristy town but I like it here. I hang out for the day to relax, write emails and book accomodation for Chinnar wildlife sanctuary and Eravikulam national park. I also book a flight for the end of my trip from the southern tip of India back up north to Mumbai where my flight home leaves from. There are many places to stay, lots of restaurants and many stalls all selling spices, tea, clothing, local handicrafts and homemade chocolate.
I left for Chinnar on monday morning. I took a local bus with some of the most comfy seats ever. This got me as far as Marayoor. From there is was another 16km but I didn’t want to wait till whenever the next bus came so I hired an autorickshaw. The park reception is right on the main road. I paid 1000Rp ($25) for accomodation in a treehouse which also included breakfast dinner and trekking. It wasn’t too bad a deal until I saw the treehouse. The treehouse was 3km from reception along a river. I had all my things with me because I wasn’t sure what I was going to need in the treehouse. It was a hot walk but my guide, Manny and I saw a herd of wild boars bathing in the river along the way. There was nothing else around the treehouse and it was perched 10m high above a sandy, forested beach at the confluence of 2 rivers. I really liked its location. Manny went up first and prepared it for me. Climbing up was a bit hairy, there was a swinging rope ladder for the first half and then a dodgy bamboo ladder for the next half. Climbing up wearing both of my packs took some careful manuevering.
I entered the treehouse and was surprised at how spartan it was. Only a thin mattress on the ground and lots of rat shit! That came free of charge! Nevertheless I still stayed 3 nights. There were 4 large windows, one on each wall and a really cool gecko welcomed me. I was thankful I brought all my stuff since I was definetely putting up my mosquito net. Not so much for the mosquitos, as they weren’t that bad. The net was to keep the rats from running over me in the night and it worked.
Around 4, Manny and I went on a hike. The forest around the river is lush gallery forest but away from there it gets drier and rockier. It really was like the brochure said, it reminded me of the African savanna. It was very hilly and it seemed like every few minutes we were admiring the view from another good lookout. Just before sunset at the treehouse camp I bathed in the river. It was the only option here to get clean as there was no toilet, shower, or electricity. I didn’t mind this at all and actually prefer it at times. There are crocodiles in the river but apparently don’t hang around if people are there. So that was good, I could bath in peace. Another guide, Rama, came around 6.30 with dinner. It was chapathi with veggie curry and it was good. I thought I was going to be left by myself but unfortunately Manny and Rama would be sleeping on the ‘balcony’ of the treehouse. I felt like I was being babysat. I was looking forward to doing a bit of night trekking but they wouldn’t allow it. Too dangerous, they said, the same story I get everywhere. After dinner I sat on some rocks in the middle of the river and watched the sky. The stars were crystal clear and the perfect silence reigned. Many and Rama sat around a fire but as soon as I went up to the treehouse they followed. I stayed up for a bit watching South Park on my ipod. When the lights went out the rats came. I had my prize possession, 2 pieces of homemade roasted cashew chocolate ( that I was fast becoming addicted to!) tucked deep in my large pack and they left it alone. They ran all over near the ceiling and on the ground. When I shined my light on them they usually ran out of the treehouse but didn’t take long to come back. I had just to learn to ignore them. It just sucked because they were shitting on some of my stuff but there was nothing I could do. I feel sorry for Manny and Rama,hey must be running all over them outside.
My second day at Chinnar started with breaky at 7 – bread, butter, bananas, oranges and black tea with sugar. At 7.30 we were on the trail again. There are tons of trails here and sometimes we would just walk off the trail till we hit another trail. It being so dry here, there were some large candalabra type euphorbia trees, stapelia cacti and acacia trees. Many of the trees had thorns or sticky seeds that attatched themselves to any passerby. This morning we spotted an elephant and her calf on an opposite hill. We went in for a closer look. We got fairly close before they disappeared into the bush. We were walking towards the reception and as we got closer we stopped on another lookout and saw a herd of 12 elephants with a few calves.
I paid another 1000Rp for the night. My 2 guides english was so ‘small’ I needed a microscope to see it. I asked an officer at the reception if they could show me the giant grizzled squirrel. This large rodent is the main reason I came to the park. Chinnar is supposed to be the best place to see them. The giant grizzled squirrel is endangered and only found in 10 locations in the eastern slopes of the Western Ghats.
The officer relayed the message to Rama and in 10 minutes we were in the gallery forest under a tree in which the giant grizzled squirrel was resting. His long tail was hanging under him and he lied on his stomach with limbs also hanging. It gets its name from grizzled hair around its ears but it was hard to see and just looked like a more grey colored giant squirrel but still I was very happy to see it.
I had a tea at the cantina and then began to walk back to the treehouse along the river. Rama left to go Marayoor to get my lunch. It’s so stupid that they only include breakfast and dinner in the package. ‘Lunch is a problem.’ I was told. They suggested I take the bus back to Marayoor and eat and then come back. I didn’t like that idea. I came to the park to look for animals and relax, not to be running around on local buses. They said I could give money to Rama and he would go get my lunch. That worked better for me.
Manny and I walked the trail back to the treehouse. There was a large troupe of hanuman langurs. I spotted a very beautiful lizard in a small bush at eye level, just off the trail. I tried pointing it out to Manny but he kept looking for something across the river, not right in his face. Finally he saw it. The lizard was dark green with a red head when I first saw it but my getting in his face to take a photo prompted him to turn his whole body light green and puff out his neck flap. Fortunately for me and unfortunately for him,there was no where to run. He had to stay put until I was satisfied with a photo. A snake hid in under a rock at our approach but I was still able to get a photo of him.
Back at the treehouse I just relaxed and had a siesta. It was 32 C, but last night the temperature dropped to a chilly 14C and I was glad that they at least provided a warm blanket. I came down for lunch around 1.30. I sat around camp in my boxers because it was hot and I didn’t think anyone was going to show up. I was wrong and felt slightly underdressed when a group of 3 Israeli girls and 3 guys showed up. They said they didn’t mind that I was half naked. Of course not, I’m the naked one, not them! I told them how some people, mostly Indians, think I’m Israeli because of my epic beard. I only shave my lower neck and high cheeks when I travel and let the majority of my beard grow. One of the girls said I did look Israeli but not because of my beard. She said that my eyes had ‘wisdom’, like an Israeli after they come out of their mandatory military service, like I had been through a lot. It was the one of the nicest compliments I had ever heard. They only stayed to eat a bunch of fresh fruit they brought with them. They didn’t like the look or the price of the treehouse and would be going back to Munnar to sleep. The night was a repeat of the previous with a spectacular sky and me enjoying them from my rock on the river. Oh yeah, the rats were the same too.
My third morning at the treehouse was like the previous 2 except that last night’s instant maggie noodles were added to breakfast. Manny and Rama came with me on this mornings hike. We weren’t seeing much but then came to a large black rock plateau, another lookout point. In the centre of the rock was a tall island of shrubs. All of a sudden Rama comes running out in a huge arc towards me pointing at the island. I don’t know what the hell he’s running for. Then he says ‘ Elephant’ and we go to the other side of the island to have a peak. I look around it and see the ass end of a lone elephant walking away through dense bush. Apparently we found out about each other at the same time.
We walked back to reception and I paid for my third and final night in the treehouse. I thought we might see something interesting along the river trail on the way back but we only saw langurs. I took a siesta in the treehouse and woke up to the sound of monkeys in the trees. It was weird to be actually above the troupes of langurs and macaques for a change. It’s kind of an unnatural feeling to be looking down on monkeys, somethings not right there! They were behaving naturally and never came into the treehouse or were aggressive in any manner. They saw me and they ran.
It’s a long story interspersed with miscommunication but my lunch got delayed by about 2 hours and I was lucky to get any at all. Manny said he was coming back with it in 2 hours but didn’t come back for 6 hours and Rama made a special trip back to the reception to get me some food. Only Rama and I go for the afternoon hike. We see a few gaur. I take a wash in the river. Dinner is the same parota and veggie curry but its always been tasty and I like it. The stars were again crystal clear. My trip is ending in 2 weeks and it’s nights like these with absolute quiet that I am going to miss the most.
I was woken in the middle of the night by the terrifying roars of elephants just on the other side of the river. My last morning here, all 3 of us go for the hike. We see a few rabbits and some elephants but they are very far away. I pack up my things and carefully lower my large pack from the treehouse.
I catch a bus back to Munnar and get a nice room with a balcony at Vinayaga Masionette. I had never heard of this hotel but walked by it while I was looking for another place and it seemed like a good option. I was only going to stay in Munnar for the night and then go on a 3 day trek tomorrow. First order of business while in Munnar was to wash my clothes from the last 3 days at the treeshouse. It was difficult to wash clothes there and I only washed one shirt once.
I’ve noticed that I’ve created some habits while travelling and over the years these have been getting more refined. Successful backpacking is almost an art form. One habit I’ve really gotten into is washing my own clothes the more I travel. My first few trips I would always look for a laundromat type place. Then I started getting into washing my own clothes and liking it and only paying to have them washed sometimes. Last year I only had paid to have my clothes washed twice. This year I had them washed a few times while in Darjeeling but only because it was just too cold and cloudy to try and wash them myself. There was no fan in my room so they would never dry and besides that, the water to wash them with would have numbed my hands in minutes. I’ve also learned that I can wash clothes in the evening and have them dry for the next morning, if it’s warm and I have a fan blowing on them. All my clothes are a thin quick dry type material, which I think is the best for tropical travelling.
After I had all my clothes hanging to dry I went out to get more homemade chocolate. I went to the forest department to ask about visiting Eravikulam national park. They told me that the park closes every year from January to April because it’s calving season for the Nilgiri tahr, an endangered mountain goat that is the flagship species of the park. Fortunately though, the park is open to anyone who chooses to go on a 3 day trek offered by the forest department. This sounded great because I would actually prefer to go trekking in the park as opposed to just visiting it for one day. I talked with the head of the forest department and he answered all the questions I had about the trek. Whenever I’m going on a trek I like to know all the details before hand. What am I going to need to bring? Is there a mattress? Mosquito net? Potable water? Are we hiking close to villages or are we on our own? What meals are included? And so on. I found out all the information I needed and agreed to meet here tomorrow at 9.
While wandering around town I heard some backpackers walking behind me and I could tell by their accent that they were Canadian. We got to talking and met up in the evening for dinner and drinks. It nice to hang out with my fellow countrymen. I watched Jacob’s Ladder with a buzz before crashing.
I get up at 7.30 to eat breakfast and be ready for 9 at the forest department. I arrive on time but then have to wait for 30 minutes for someone to drive me the 14km to the park. We get to the park reception area and I wait here while they load the jeep with our supplies. Coming with me are one forest department guide in a beige uniform and 2 tribals in green uniforms. The forest department guy seems like the head honcho and hardly carries anything. I only have to carry my personal stuff and I went minimalist so I wouldn’t have to carry my large pack half empty. Once were all loaded up we only drive for 5 minutes before I see a few Nilgiri tahr on a steep rock on the side of the road. I ask the driver to stop and I get out. As I look around I noticed more Nilgiri tahr, there are a dozen in total and they keep coming closer. I thought it was great just to see them from a distance but the whole herd comes within a few metres of me. They just look at me a little but aren’t bothered by my prescence at all. The seem like they are almost tame, even the fawns, only 2 weeks old and supercute. A large male walks up to me. I thought he was going to come right up to me so I could scratch him behind the ears but he stops one metre from me and goes to the other side of the road. The whole heard crosses the road right in front of me. This such an amazing wildlife encounter. I was just hoping to get a glimpse of the Nilgiri tahr, not this spectacular up close and personal experience.
The Nilgiri tahr is an endangered mountain goat endemic to the Western Ghats. They are on the general decline in their native habitat due to poaching and habitat disturbance and only number about 2500 in the wild. I came to Eravikulam specifically to see them. Eravikulam national park is 97sq km and ranges in altitude from 1400 m to 2695 m, Anaimudi, peninsular India’s highest peak. It was created in 1978 and is a picturesque landscape of high mountains, rolling grassy hills and dense evergreen shola forest.
After I was extremely satisfied with my Nilgiri tahr encounter, we drove for another 10 minutes over rough roads through tea plantations and then stopped, loaded up and set off walking. We walked uphill for only a few minutes through a grassy area and then downhilll into the forest. The park is mainly high grassy bluffs and this is what I thought we would be hiking in but I was surprised when we stayed in the forest because the forest department said this was ‘ high altitude trekking’.Don’t get me wrong, I love hiking in the forest and haven’t done enough of it this trip, this just isn’t what I was picturing the hike to be like. I wondered if anyone in the forest department had actually done this trek before. An hour and a half into the hike we stopped for lunch at a natural pool in smooth rocks in the only place around with a view. We descended down into the forest for another hour and although we didn’t see any animals there was a lot of evidence of elephants around, mainly in the form of head sized balls of dung. Elephants have a poor digestive system and this is part of the reason they have to eat so much. This also means that not much of what they eat is broken down and absorbed into their bodies. After a few weeks of dry weather, elephant dung resembles a pile of dry grass that be handled with bare hands with no fear of a bad smell or getting ‘shit’ on your hands. I’m speaking from first hand knowledge as I have picked up old piles of elephant dung before just to see how different they are from when they come out fresh. Elephants in general are a smelly and dirty animal. I’ve often smelled them before I’ve seen them. A guide I had in Ghana said elephants are ‘like pigs’.
We finally reached some flat ground and stopped, at the resthouse we would be sleeping at tomorrow night, for lunch. Unfortunately the trek would be in and out the same way, 36km in total. I always prefer a circular route and loathe backtracking, whether it’s during a trek or travelling around a country. From the resthouse it’s another 3 hours through the forest to our resthouse were we will spend the night. The resthouse is newly built, only 2 years old and fairly comfortable considering were we are. Its much nicer than I expected even though it has hard mud floors and no electricity, it has running water. I get my own private room with attatched bathroom. There’s even a western toilet but only a cold bucket shower, but, they did supply a towel, which is good because I went really minimalist this trek and didn’t bring a towel. This is mostly because I thought I would be sleeping at a higher and colder altitude and didn’t think I would want to shower in the cold temperatures. The resthouse is located in a flat deforested valley surrounded by hilly forest. There are a few other houses around but they are far away, but not far enough apparently. As I sit on the porch I can hear a TV blaring from someone’s house powered by a generator. It can be hard to find the perfect silence in India. The perfect silence is a term I use that means an absolute absence of noise created either by mechanical means ( cars, radios, TV), humans or domestic animals. I found this in a few places but it can be hard to find. Though I only heard the TV for a few minutes and then the perfect silence reigned. Dinner was a delicious vegetable stew with chapathi. Even in remote areas in India I have been impressed with the food. We are far away from any city but the sky is overcast and there are no stars so I go to bed after watching South Park on my ipod.
Breakfast isn’t till 8.30 and I sleep in. Rice, vegetables and black tea are the fuel to get us going today. We trek to a high waterfall that is nearly dry and once the water hits the ground its a fine mist. We relax here for a while and reach the other resthouse at 1pm. I crash for a few hours and then read. Even though I was going minimalist on this trek I made sure I brought a book and my ipod. This resthouse has the same layout as the other but instead of suppling a towel like the other, they supplied toilet paper, which I always carry with me. I used an extra pillowcase as a towel and it kind of worked. Its just a relaxing afternoon hanging on the porch reading and drinking tea. Dinner at 7.30 is the same tasty meal as the previous night. I’m awoken at 3am to shouting and I wonder what the hell these Indians are up to now. At breakfast my guide, Naza, asks me if I heard the commotion last night. I certainly did. He told me an elephant had wandered into the area and they were trying to scare it away but it wasn’t working very well. Then he tells me that the path going throught he village is an elephant path! Well, then they can’t be too surprised when an elephant wanders into the village.
We finish an Indian breakfast of rice and curry at 9 and begin the hike back. It’s all uphill and I’m sweating and loving it. A giant squirrel is the only animal I see besides the Nilgiri tahr. We stop for a rest at the same smooth rock pool we stopped at on the way in. After 2 hours we’re out of the forest and back in the tea plantation were we wait for our ride back to the reception. At the reception I have to wait for a different jeep to take me back to Munnar. There are some Nilgiri langurs in the trees and a giant squirrel. As I watch the squirrel he keeps coming closer. I’m so happy because I’m finally able to get a good close picture of a giant squirrel that I have been hoping to get the whole time I’ve been in India. On the drive back I see a small herd of Nilgiri tahrs and I again stop to take some photos.
In Munnar I go back to Vinayaga lodge and get my same room. I wash clothes and hang them to dry on the balcony. I go to the special shop that has the homemade cashew chocolate I can’t live without. I stock up with two 250 gram pieces because I am leaving Munnar tomorrow for good and don’t know if I’ll be able to find this mouthwatering chocolate anywhere else. I eat dinner at a sterile, generic looking Munnar Inn food court and surprisingly eat the best butter chicken and rice I’ve had, washed down with a mango shake. Mangoes are my favourite fruit after visiting Guimaras, a small island in the Philippines known for having the worlds sweetest mangoes. Unfortunately this isn’t the season for them now in India but cheap mango flavour drinks seem to be everywhere.
I watch a dubbed German horror flick called Anatomy but like all the movies I’ve watched on TV here, it was heavily censored. No swearing, drug use,nudity or excessive gore and violence on Indian TV. Which really sucks because those are all the things I like in movies!
It’s March 3, I have 10 days left till I have to be in Mumbai for my flight home and I’m on my way to visit southern India’s most popular park, Periyar Tiger Reserve. Kumily, the small village I will be using as a base for visits to Periyar is 4 hours by bus from Munnar. The scenery is spectacular along the way with lush tea and cardamon plantations. We stop for a break halfway through as I have with many bus journeys. The problem with stopping is I never know how long we will be stopping for. Is it a 20 minute lunch break or a 5 minute bathroom break? I always have to be near the bus and keep and eye on it because they will leave without me. This time it’s different though. The conductor actually tells me and another foreigner on the bus that we will be stopping for 10 minutes. I like this and I wish more conductors were that thoughtful.
My first stop in Kumily is to the eco-tourist office. They offer a variety of programs in the park but the two that I’m interested in are the 3 day Tiger trail trek and a night hike. I sign up for the night hike tonight and the Tiger trail tomorrow. There is already a couple signed up for the trek so I will be joining them. I get a cozy elevated room on stilts for $9 at Coffee Inn. Its cool that its up on stilts but there’s no attatched bath. I eat dinner at the Jungle Cafe next door and then walk the 5 minutes to the entrance gate of the park.
The night hike covers 5km in 3 hours and begins at 8pm. An older British couple and I are the only ones going and I like that we are a small group. First we must sign the proper permits and get ready. Our guide gives us leech socks to put on. He doesn’t tell us what they are right away but I already knew. I wore leech socks in Borneo and wish I had brought them to Madagascar. I ask the guide if there are leeches out there because it has been dry lately and leeches are only abundant when it’s wet. He looks at me and takes his time to answer me, looking at me like I let the cat out of the bag or something. He says ‘maybe a few’ leeches but I don’t think there will be any but I go through the motions and put on the leech socks. They are thick and much cheaper quality than the pair I purchased in Borneo. They give the 3 of us flashlights but when I point mine in the trees the guide says they are only for looking on the ground to watch our step. I don’t like this, I like to be looking around for anything in the trees the guide might miss. I always thought the more eyes looking the better but the guide says the lights ‘ confuse’ him. I try to keep my totrch on the ground but sometimes can’t help myself and have to look around. The guide is mostly looking for animals on ground level but most of the animals I want to see and haven’t seen yet are in the trees, like slender loris, flying squirrel and even leopard cat. I’m not expecting anything on this night safari because we are not walking deep into the park and are only on the edge of the park forest and quite near the living quarters of the park workers.
Even though I’m not expecting anything from this night hike, I still find all night safaris very exciting and unpredictable. I’ve learned that the Indian forests can always have a surprise in store and not too judge them till I’ve experienced them. Day safaris are more about actually physically seeing the animal first, where are night safaris are more about first hearing the animal or seeing its eyeshine. Most animals have a layer behind their eye that reflect light back and this is the way to spot animals at night. Different animals have different color eyeshine. Clouded leopards in Borneo have blue eyeshine and caimans in Venezuela have red eyeshine. My own torch is the small, compact, durable waterproof Princeton Tec Quad. It runs on 3 AAA batteries and has 4 L.E.D. lights that run in 4 different modes. Its a perfect light for spotting eyeshine from a distance but the problem is that the light isn’t powerful enought to focus clearly on what I’m seeing. I can spot the animal but need a more powerful light to identify it. My night safari skills have improved since my trip last year to Madagascar. I did many night safaris there, some of them alone, and I spotted many nocturnal lemurs, chameleons and snakes. One of my guides told me I had a great eye. He was even surprised at the small animals I was spotting. This wasn’t the first time I had a guide tell me I had good eyes. I had a guide in Borneo tell me that if I stuck around for a while he could teach me to be a guide. Being a guide or ranger in a rainforest is kind of a dream job for me. Who knows, maybe someday it will become a reality.
We are walking at a snails pace when our guide spots some eyeshine low to the ground. He takes out his powerful torch to shine on the animal and it turns out to be a mouse deer. I get a great look at him for a few minutes but no photo. Mouse deer are the smallest type of deer and not much bigger than a rabbit at only 4kg. They are spread throughout peninnsular India but are nocturnal, which is the main reason I haven’t had too many opportunities to see them. They are the only species of deer found in southern India that I haven’t seen yet. I have been really lucky with my deer sightings in India. Out of the 9 species of deer, I have seen 6 – Spotted deer, Sambar deer, Barking deer, Swamp deer, Hog deer and Mouse deer. The other 3 – Himalayan Musk deer, Kashmir Red deer and Brow-Antlered deer are rare and with an extremely localized distribution. The Brow-Antlered deer is almost on the brink of extinction in India with approximately only 100 left and the Kashmir Red deer not far behind with about 400 left.
Halfway through the hike my feet are getting really sweaty from the leech socks and I haven’t seen a single leech yet, so I take them off. Seeing the Mouse deer was the highlight of the night safari but we do also see some sambar deer and wild boar. In my room I organize my pack for the 3 day Tiger trial trek I will be starting tomorrow. Again I am going minimalist and leaving my large pack behind.
I’m at the park entrance at 9am and meet Eugene and Lily, an American couple my age that are in India for a 2 week holiday. We get along instantly and I have feeling it will be a good trek with them. This is the first trek they have done and the first time they have ever camped. We start out walking through the forest with our guide Pamelian. He seems skilled and can find animals but dishes out some misinformation. He says that strangler figs are parasites, they aren’t. I try to tell him this but its not changing his mind. He also says gaurs weigh up to 200kg, but they only weigh up to 1200kg. Also that the scientific name of the black monkey is the Nilgiri langur. Nilgiri langur is just another common name and not the scientific name. The scientific name is something in latin ( Trachypithecus johnii ) I tell him and he seems to believe me on this one.
Periyar is 777sq km and its main feature is a manmade lake formed by the British in 1895 by damming the Periyar river. The lake and nearby forests were declared a sanctuary in the 1930’s and became part of project tiger in 1977. We took a small raft across the lake and walked its shores until we came to our campsite an hour later. We had walked 10km from the reception area to reach our campsite. The camp was spartan at best. There were no table or chairs or any tarps to escape the sun though there were a few trees. We each got our own tent but no mattress or pillow. They supplied a sleeping bag but I wish I had brought my pillow and sleeping mat. The whole camp was surrounded by a 3m deep elephant trench. The camp has been here for almost 20 years but the elephant trench was newly dug. Pamelian said they had some problems with elephants coming into camp so the trench was dug to protect visitors. We have lunch and then go on a 15km hike in the afternoon. It’s a 4 hour hike through scrub forests and grassland and mostly in the sun. I’m super sweaty after the 4 hour hike where we saw elephants, gaur and some wild boar. I wash in the lake but Eugene and Lily are scared of parasites or something and don’t wash. The water is very warm. After dinner we sit around a fire. The stars are amazing and I see a few shooting stars.
Last night was a new experience for me sleeping without a sleeping pad and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I think all the firm beds I’ve had on this trip have toughened me up. Before our breakfast of channa masala and puri ( breadlike doughy thing) we paddled on the lake for an hour and saw many birds of prey. We had time to kill before our afternoon hike and I spent it writing in my journal and sleeping. Lily’s stomach was bothering her and she didn’t feel like going on a long hike so I went on the hike with just the guide and a ranger with a gun for our protection. We see a large herd of gaur faily close and some wild boar. We take a rest in the forest and a Malabar giant squirrel traverses the canopy above me. I noticed him first by a trail of urine that was landing beside me. I looked up and saw the giant squirrel trying to pee on me! A few minutes later 2 more giant squirrels pass overhead and then another. Wow, I couldn’t believe it, 4 giant squirrels in 10 minutes. After 3 hours we arrive back at camp the same time Eugene and Lily are coming back from their paddle on the lake. They didn’t see anything but enjoyed being on the lake. Dinner is a mix of things. We again sit around by the fire and I see 4 shooting stars.
Our last morning in the park we’re up at 8.30 for breakfast and then walk walk back to the reception. I go back to the Coffee Inn and get a nicer room with attatched bath. Of course, the first thing I do after returning from a long trek is wash my clothes. After I’m done this I go out to eat lunch and do some shopping. With only a few days left before I have to go back home, I don’t care about the wieght of my pack anymore and by some books. I shed the fleece sweater I have been carrying for months that I haven’t used for months. I give it to the girl of a Spanish couple I meet hanging in the gazebo in the common area of the Coffee Inn. The girl is so happy, it fits her perfectly and she likes the color, so I’m glad someone is appreciating the sweater.
I met Eugene and Lily for dinner at Ambadi, a nice restaurant. I have a cold beer and a butter chicken. My description of previous delicious butter chickens prompts Lily to also have the butter chicken. We are both not disappointed. We part ways but might be up again in Mumbai. I’m on my way to Alleppy which is the houseboat capital of southern India and the place to organize a tour of the backwaters. This part of Kerala state is a mix 900km mix of canals, waterways and lakes and according to the Lonely Planet, renting a houseboat and cruising the backwaters is one of the ‘10 things to do before you die’. I have to take 2 buses to Alleppy, the first drops me in Changanacherry where I switch to a mega packed bus for the last hour to Alleppy. None of the places recommended in the guidebook stood out for me so I was open to staying anywhere. I got off the bus and was approached by a young guy touting his guesthouse, The Lemontree. The price was right so I went with him on the back of his scooter to check it out. They only had 3 rooms but the place was clean and it would do for a night. As I hung out with the guys that owned the guesthouse, 2 more backpackers arrived. We all went out for dinner. While looking for a place we ran into 2 other backpackers that had met on a boat earlier that day. We all joined forces to look for Kream Korner restaurnat which was eluding us. We were where the guidebook said it was but it took us a while to find it. I ate the special of the day, giant tiger prawns and washed it down with a chocolate shake, well kind of. While I was gently stirring my shake, the spoon broke a hole in the glass and the whole thing was in my lap! Unlike in the west where if this happened to me, restaurant staff would be running over, helping and apologizing, the Kream Korner staff hardly even realized what was happening. Nobody apologized and they reluctantly asked if I would like another drink. Needless to say, I didn’t feel guilty about not leaving a tip.
Ed, a 40 year old British guy in our group of 5 and is also looking to do a houseboat tour. We agree to meet up tomorrow morning and shop around for a tour. We meet at 9.30 and after breakfast at the Indian Coffee House we go to the tourist office. They show us a picture of the houseboat they have for rent and the price is about what I was expecting, $50 per person, which includes 3 meals, fuel, a driver and a cook for a 22 hour tour. Ed and I decide to go with them and went back to our respective hotels to get ready. I know the tour is only for 22 hours so I just pack my small pack and leave my large pack at The Lemontree and will pick it up tomorrow. I didn’t realize then how much I would regret this decision.
I meet Ed at the houseboat and we leave at noon. Our houseboat is small and only for 2 people. There is only one room with a bed but there is a bed in the open at the front of the boat which I will sleep on with my mosquito net up. The boat is very comfortable with chairs, table and small, upstairs balcony. We start our tour across a large lake and we see many other houseboats. Some of the houseboats are like floating hotels, 2 levels with many rooms and a large eating/common area. The local inhabitants of the backwaters are very friendly and wave as we go by. Many people live on a patch of reclaimed land that is only 4 -5 m wide surrounded by water. Its a surreal landscape and the bright sun glares off the flat water of the lake. There is a cooler on board with ice so I can have cold water, juice and beer. We pull over for lunch at a small patch of reclaimed land. We are a smaller boat and able to venture down some of the smaller canals. We explore the canals and lakes until about 5, when we anchor in the middle of a lake for the night. On the shores of the lake are many other anchored houseboats. It’s a calm and warm night and Ed and I sit on the balcony with a few beers. We crash late and I sleep fine but I’m awoken in the morning by local people going about their business.
I get up at 7.30 and have a coffee and 2 omelettes, Ed wasn’t hungry. We cruise slowly back to Alleppy and arrive at 10. Ed comes with me back to The Lemontree and I pick up my pack and pay for the previous night. I open the the top of my pack and the contents look a little shuffled around but I thought maybe my pack was just upside down or something. Ed and I take a combination of 3 buses to get us 3 hours south to the popular beach town of Varkala. In my room I unpack some of the bag and realize everything is in disarray. It’s like someone opened up my pack and then just threw everything back in . I’ve been on the road almost 4 months now and have a lot of stuff in my pack and I pack it a certain way everytime. It was obvious someone had been rummaging through my pack. Now I had to figure out what was missing. This was difficult because I had so much stuff in my backpack now. I figured out that a pair of boxers, a t shirt, a patch, my raincoat, a custom pair of pants from Varanasi and 500Rp ($12) were missing. I was furious, my blood was boiling. The guys from The Lemontree had ripped me off! It hurt me even more because I hung out with them and thought they were all cool guys and didn’t have any worries about my stuff being robbed. Even though the items weren’t extremely valuable, that wasn’t the point. I wanted justice, I couldn’t rest otherwise. I couldn’t let this go. I had to do something. I checked out of my room and put all my things in Ed’s room and decided to go back to Alleppy and confront Lemontree. I’ve never felt this angry before, I felt personally violated.
I had to make the same journey back that I just made. I arrived in Alleppy at 6pm and one of the guys from Lemontree was at the bus stand. I accussed him of stealing my stuff and he denied any knowledge of it but invited me back to Lemontree to clear it up. Along the way I met 3 German backpackers and asked them to come with me just in case things got hairy. They totally understood the situation and my anger and although they admired that I was seeking justice, they doubted that I would get any. I hung around The Lemontree for 30 minutes waiting for everyone to arrive. I was very angry and probably acted a bit over the top but I couldn’t help myself from raising my voice and using a lot of profanities. Everyone denied knowledge of the thefts from my backpack. I gave them an hour to sort it out amongst themselves. I went to eat at a stall beside the bus stand.
A funny thing happened to me on the walk back to Lemontree. An Indian guy in his mid 30’s was riding a bicycle on the road beside me and smiling a lot. Alleppy is a small town and this was away from the centre so there weren’t many people around. He asked me where I was sleeping that evening. I briefly explained the situation to him and told him I would be taking the bus back to Varkala to sleep. Then he asked again where I would be sleeping. I realized now that he didn’t understand much English. I just said ‘ Bus, Varkala, sleeping’. Then he asks me ‘ Do you like sex?’ This took me by surprise but now I understood why he was following me. I told him to go away, get out of here and leave me alone. I turned to look at him and he was making an obscene gesture with his finger in and out of his mouth. I told him again to leave me alone and he slowly road away. This isn’t the first time I’ve been hit on by gays in other countries. I don’t know what it is, why are they attracted to me. It was kind of a funny interlude to what was happening but I wasn’t in the mood to laugh. It will be a funny story to tell everyone at home.
I went back to Lemontree after an hour and they still denied everything and I I told them I would report the theft to Lonely Planet and tell every traveller I met not to stay there. If I wasn’t leaving India in 5 days I would have gotten the police involved. It was now almost 9 but I didn’t feel like sleeping in Alleppy so I got on my first bus back to Varkala. I was still pissed and frustrated but I felt a bit better knowing that I at least tried to get justice.
I met Ed at a bar in Varkala for a beer at 11.30. Since I checked out of my room, Ed let me sleep on the extra bed in his room for the night. Before this all happened I was thinking to myself what a successful trip its been in terms of not losing anything or having anything stolen. Not anymore. I’ve never been so blatantly robbed like this. I had just unpacked most of my pack the night before I slept at Lemontree because I bought some souvenirs after the Tiger trial trek and had to make them into my pack. I had no doubt that it was anyone other than the guys at Lemontree who took my stuff. So, if you’re headed to southern India, let this be a warning against staying at Lemontree, spread the word.
I just wanted to do nothing else but relax in Varkala my last few days but I had to go south on the train for an hour to Trivandrum to change the date on my flight back to Mumbai. I mistakenly booked it for a day too late and could only change it at the airline office in Trivandrum. This all went very smoothly and I was back in Varkala in 4 hours. I met Ed on the beach and we went for a drink. Now I could relax.
Varkala is a really cool beach town. All the accomodation, restaurants and shops are on the edge of a steep cliff and below is the beach. There is a sidewalk all along the top of the cliff. Varkala is a very popular place and I saw the most backpackers here than anywhere else in India. Though I did skip Goa and the Taj Mahal, 2 of India’s most popular destinations where I’m sure there were more foriegners. Goa was out of my way and is mostly a hangout and party beach place that I didn’t care if I missed. The Taj Mahal was also out of my way and I didn’t care if I saw it or not.
Ed and I would walk the strip in the evening and check out all the different restaurants that had the catch of the day resting in a bucket of ice in front of the their places. Most places offered the same deal and we finally settled on one. All I wanted to eat was grilled fish. Grilled fish, veggies and rice is my favourite staple meal and since I haven’t been near the coast until now I haven’t been able to have it. We both have butterfish and it’s really tasty. The weather here is hot and humid, day and night and is exactly the type of weather I love but haven’t experienced much of in India.
My last full day in Varkala I wake up not feeling the greatest. I think all the stress and travelling I put myself through the last few days is taking its toll and I just take it easy the whole day. It’s my last full day with nothing to do before I start to travel back to Mumbai. I walk around Varkala and buy a few more souvenirs. Ed and I have our last dinner together and I eat grilled fish, veggies and rice for the last time.
I say bye to Ed the next morning and begin the long journey back to Mumbai. I take a cab to the train station and an hour long train to Trivandrum. My flight to Mumbai is 3 hours in total but this includes a stop in Goa. The flight was smooth and hassle free. I arrive in Mumbai just as the sun is setting and share a cab with a couple from Norway to the backpacker area of Colaba. While we sit in a huge traffic jam, I notice giant fruit bats are flying overhead out in search of food for the night. I’m really surprised to see them in the heart of the city. They must have to fly a long way to find food. I have heard accomodation is notoriously booked up in Mumbai so I booked at room at Hotel Maria a few days back. My room was on the third floor and was way overpriced for what I got but I had also heard this about Mumbai. I walked around looking for something to eat but nothing was catching my eye. I didn’t know what I was in the mood for until I saw a Subway. I haven’t had a sub in at least 6 months and was really craving one all of a sudden. It really it the spot. I felt like I was back in Canada being in there.
Mumbai is a huge, dirty, polluted city with some modern areas but I didn’t like at all and wasn’t in the mood to deal with it, so after I ate I just watched TV in my room. I have met other backpackers who said they liked Mumbai but I knew I wouldn’t like it before I even got there.
My flight left at the sleepless time of 2.40am. Checkout time was noon but for almost half the price of the room the owner let me stay in my room till 10pm. My last day in Mumbai was spent shopping for last minute souvenirs. I bought a lot of nice things thought it was tiring day walking around and bargaining with everyone. I went back to Subway again for dinner and went to see a movie before I had to leave.
I always have mixed feelings before I return home. I’m happy and look forward to seeing my friends, family, cat, my plants and playing drums and mountain biking again among many other things. But on another hand I’m reluctant to be leaving life on the road again and go back to ‘reality’. After 4 months on the road, travelling has really become a part of me and the lifestyle I live on the road seems like my reality but my reality is at home, living and working in Canada. Or is it?
Comments (1) Nov 17 2008