Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary & Munnar Friday 15 - Friday 22 May 2009
As we drive along we are often astounded by the sheer friendliness of the people we meet and we are often waved at. As we drove out of Alleppey a carload of guys were waving away at us so we waved back. We kept passing each other until eventually they stopped and invited us to stay at their farm that evening. We had been planning to head on to Periyar - but these unplanned diversions are what makes the trip worthwhile - so off we went!!
We were taken to meet all the family - and enjoyed a really good jackfruit curry for dinner - before going on the steep drive up into the hills to their father's farm where we spent the night. Next morning we awoke to a wonderful view across the Western Ghats.
The farm itself was interesting. It is more a hobby farm as their father has retired from working for the Indian Spice Board but they produce quite a few products including rubber (which is hung out in sheets after being dried over the fire) vanilla, cardamom, pepper and a vast array of tropical fruits including jackfruit, mangoes & bananas. We had a lovely evening and the next morning they were all glued to the TV as the election results were coming in. The election has been going on for the last month but it has been fairly low key compared to other countries so it hasn't really affected us at all. Eventually the same party was returned to power and as far as we can gather most people seemed happy with that.
Anyway we said our goodbyes and drove on through the hills, which was a very pretty drive through villages set around tea plantations before getting to Periyar NP. The park is a wildlife sanctuary set around a large artificial lake created by the British in 1895 in order to provide a water supply for Chennai. We actually camped at the nearby town of Kumily - which is basically a strip of hotels and spice shops 4km outside of the park- and found a really nice hotel where they let us park - the Sinsa Home stay.
The way to see around the park was by boat & there are 2 hour boat trips on the lake. We had planned to take a boat trip that night and be off first thing the next morning - but it didn't pan out as the boats for the final 4pm session were all booked out by the time we got there. So, we got up at some unearthly hour attempting to get on the 7.30am boat but again we missed out. We went back to 8am to get tickets for the 9.30am boat to be told there were only 40 tickets …and 100s of people in the queue!! The whole thing was starting to feel a bit doomed but one of the forestry guys beckoned to me to come to one side and said he's reserve a ticket for us but to come back later! I guess this was a bit unfair but by this stage I was determined to get on the boat at any cost!!
The weird thing was when we did board the boats at 9.30am there were more like 400 people than 40 so God knows what that was all about - maybe fearing a riot they pulled a load more boats out of commission! It is a gorgeous setting but as we went up the lake about 8 boats in convey we were fairly noisy so I imagine the wildlife was scared away! We did see some bison and quite a few birds but no elephants and certainly no tigers- apart from the cut out one we saw near the entrance!! One of the forestry guys told us he'd seen a tiger last week on a trek about 16km into the jungle so it was nice to know they were in there somewhere!!
It was a beautiful setting and on the way out we saw plenty of monkeys including a red faced variety we hadn't seen before which was interesting. Kumily was a nice little market town and we got to know the owners of the Sinsa Homestay as well as possible with quite a few language limitations and they invited us out that evening to see a Hindu festival at Veerapandi about 30km away across the nearby border back into Tamil Nadu.
It was certainly an experience - apparently it is a yearly festival which had been going a week & this was the final day though it showed little signs of slowing down. The festival is in honour of the gods and it involves people carrying burning coals in baskets around - sometimes on their heads! Beyond that we couldn't go - our kind hosts were actually Muslim so possibly they were as much in the dark as us!!
The area is a mixture of Hindu Muslim & Christian people and everyone seems to get on with no problems. The festival was a bit like a massive Easter show sort of set up, radiating out from the packed temple were stalls selling food and goods and there were also fair rides.
It was pretty chaotic and full on and a really interesting experience which we'd never have found on our own. Everyone was thrilled to see us and wanted us in their photos which was nice but slowed our progress a fair bit! We left at midnight but coaches of people were still arriving so it was going to be a long night!
In the morning we drove on to our next destination Munnar a former hill station and the site of some of the highest tea plantations in the world. It was a beautiful drive if a bit hair rising in parts as despite the twisty roads no one seems to feel the need to slow down at all or stop overtaking wildly on blind corners!
The temperature is dropping and we actually had some misty rain as we arrived which was pleasant. Generally the temperature here in summer is very nice - a sunny mid 20s in the day dropping to 10 or so at night making it very comfortable for sleeping.
Each bend seems to show off still more stunning scenery and we passed banana plantations, followed by cardamoms, ginger coffee and of course tea plantations with tea workers hard at work pruning everywhere. The tea workers work wrapped in plastic presumably to keep dry. Every now and again there were factory outlet shops selling tea and other local products, and also small ad hoc stalls selling local produce - mangoes honey oranges and a lot of carrots - it is obviously carrot season!!!
Munnar itself isn't as pretty as its surrounds but is an interesting busy little town, where the communist flag flies as ever in Kerala (though they lost in the recent election).
It is low season but there are still a few (mainly Indian) tourists. The central Bazaar Street was interesting -lots of shops selling spices, alongside tea/coffee and stalls making repairing and selling clothes, shoes and umbrellas.
They make a lot of handmade chocolates here too - so of course we had to sample some! We have now hit some rainy weather - and intermittently we have showers and we have also had to pull out some warmer clothing for the first time in India.
We found a great spot to camp slightly out of town overlooking the tea plantations. The family who lived there were very hospitable and we even got woken by their children bringing us a morning cup of tea - at 6am ……groan!! They go to the tea plantation schools (of which more later) and certainly seem to be pretty well taught in English - they were quite fluent.
We enjoyed a few good meals at Rapsy restaurant in the middle of town. This restaurant - with its somewhat bizarre sign outside - is a bit of a Munnar institution and we enjoyed beef curry - first time we've seen beef on a menu for ages - with paratha bread - delicious!
We also saw a man with an unusual job - with a bag on a stick he was keeping together a flock of ducks - not sure where they were off to but it looked a pretty full on job - he couldn't take his eyes off them for a second!
We had a look around what claims to be India's only tea Museum the KDHP Museum. This plantation was originally started by the British in the late 17th early 18th century. Later on after independence it was owned by the infamous Tata family for some years until finally whilst keeping a share of 35% (their name is everywhere here - tea, cars, designer water you name it! - they sold the remainder to employees of the company making this the first Indian partially employee owned and managed company.
There was an interesting display on the tea making process and some colonial relics from the good old days. They do seem to look after the workers well. Undoubtedly working in the tea fields is a fairly hard life but the company provides schools and hospitals as well as sports facilities and reasonable housing - which makes the plantation workers a lot better off than a lot of workers here!
The majority of the workers were migrants from nearby Tamil Nadu who came to work and have stayed on. The estate which employs 11,000 people consists of 36,000 acres contained within which are 26 acres of Eucalypts. It was weird seeing Aussie trees out here.
Apparently the original seeds were smuggled in by one of the Director's wives over 100 years ago, allegedly concealed in her stockings (not sure if she was wearing them at the time or not!!!) and they were planted liberally across the plantation in order to provide timber & shade and so they could grow pepper up them. They also have Silver Oak trees (we call Silky Oak in Australia) here and Poinciana trees in full flower around every corner too - all in all it is an incredibly scenic area.
The next day we headed out to the hills to hopefully see some wildlife after failing in Periyar! We drove out to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and then on into the Parambikulam Wildlife sanctuary which was across the border into Tamil Nadu.
The drive was absolutely beautiful - stunning views of hills & waterfalls around every corner - we agreed some of the best scenery on the trip so far. Finally in Parambikulam we were rewarded by seeing a herd of wild elephants.
We have had quite a few elephant experiences on the trip to date - we bathed with them in Malaysia, rode them in Cambodian and Laos and slept with them in Northern Thailand- I even got to feed one out of the car window with some bananas on the drive up here! - but these were the first really "wild" elephants we saw which was a real thrill.
As it was a large group with quite a few youngsters we couldn't get too near for safety as they are very protective - but my photos show one having a dust bath and one heading away into the jungle. We saw the whole group crossing the road though sadly we missed this on film. Afterwards we camped out at nearby Marayoor - at the fuel station - which was a dozy little station and surprisingly quiet so we had a good sleep in.
Next day we headed back to Munnar stopping via another NP - Eravikulam. When we arrived we almost didn't bother as there was such a queue - literally stretching as far as the eye could see. Andrew went off to park the car and I trudged to the end of the queue - but I was only there a few seconds before I was ushered to the front. This is mainly because foreigners pay 200 rupees entrance fee as cf Indians 15 rupees (Aus $5.70 cf 70 cents) to get in - but it made me feel a bit awkward. Not awkward enough to rejoin the queue for 3 hours though!!
You can't drive in the park so we were taken up by bus and then let out to do a walk around part of the park. It is a beautiful place and the big attraction is the Nilgiri tahr - a very rare type of mountain goat which is a protected species. We saw loads and they are incredibly tame and clearly very used to the visitors! The landscape was a bit reminiscent of the Scottish highlands - though a lot warmer! There is a rare blue flower which blooms here all over the hills every 12 years but we couldn't wait around until 2018 to witness this!
Our final destination in the area was Top Station. This is a high up tea station 32km out of town up a steep hill to the border with Tamil Nadu. It was a stunning mountain view at the top - and pretty chilly. I had developed a bad cold so we were pleased to meet Mano of Forest trails - a local guide who let us camp at his house and quickly organized a huge fire! Andrew was fascinated by the blow pipe he'd fashioned which was used like bellows to stoke up the fire - a great idea. Mano's brother in law Daniel runs Daniel's Restaurant nearby and we ate a lovely meal before climbing into bed - hats and socks out again! We got up at 6am to see the sun come up and though it wasn't that spectacular a show sun wise it was still a great view.
Whilst there we met an interesting guy who was an antique dealer who was on his way to see a private buyer in Delhi. He showed us his proudest new acquisition - a 300 year old silver covered shell. It was very heavy 9 kilos or so. He said the bottom level value was $8,000 Aus though he hoped to get a lot more. It was certainly beautiful workmanship close up, and was probably formerly owned by one of the Princes of north India though it wasn't known for sure. Private collectors apparently pay a fortune for something like this.
We spent a pleasant morning with Mano and his family and he showed us pictures of all his treks - some lucky people from England even saw a tiger and took some amazing pictures. If you want to go on a trek and stay in this lovely location (Mano runs a basic but comfortable homestay) he can be contacted via Daniel's restaurant which you can't miss at top station. We promised to return when we had more time.
Finally on the morning of Friday 22 May we arrived back in Munnar in time for lunch before hitting the road once more. We got some interesting information from a by-stander who was curious about our RAW 4 x 4 stickers. Apparently RAW is the Research Analysis Wing - or the intelligence branch of the Indian police - he suggested we remove them as they might be a bit tricky when we cross into Pakistan! We'll cross that bridge at a later date as we're very proud of our RAW 4x4 stickers as our shocks are doing such a great job -we just hope they don't land us in jail in some remote province! We now head to Kochi or Cochin a historical City on the Malabar Coast.