Serene and peaceful are words often used to describe Kerala. Tranquil backwaters, towering mountain ranges, bountiful wildlife sanctuaries and turquoise beaches–God’s own country is capable of impressing even the biggest of cynics. But with the Arabian Sea to the west and the majestic Ghats in the east, Kerala offers a varied landscape that is a gateway to adventures crafted by nature itself. The 900 kilometres of backwaters are great for canoeing, kayaking, wind surfing, parasailing, bamboo rafting and host the state’s famous boat races. From September to January, activities like paragliding, trekking and rock climbing are organised all over the state. Whatever be your brand of thrill, Kerala is the place to face your fears and foray into adventure tourism.
Kannur is home to the popular Payyambalam beach, but that’s not all there is to the district. On the border of Kerala and Karnataka, 65 kilometres from Kannur, is the highest peak in north Kerala, the Pythal Mala. Situated in the Western Ghats, the hill descends into the Kudaku forest in Karnataka. The trek to the top is six kilometres long, rich in meadows and valleys that are home to varied butterflies and birds. A thick blanket of mist surrounds the ruins of tribal king Vaithalkon’s palace. The Pythal Mala is a monsoon trek. Way up in the north is the Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary’s forests extend into Coorg in Karnataka. In Kerala, they spread over 55 kilometres, with diverse forests of evergreen, semi-evergreen, deciduous and moist deciduous nature. The hill slopes are gracefully dotted with plantations of teak, cashew and eucalyptus.
The altitude varies in these hills, with Katti Betta, the tallest, reaching 1,145 metres. Enter the sanctuary from Valayamchal, the southwest corridor. From here, guests can scale 25 kilometres of tough terrain to reach the Ambalappara watchtower. Trekkers settle here for the night, and camp inside the rainforest the next day. The third day is spent returning to Valayamchal. This trek is moderately tough and not recommended for beginners. One can even choose, instead, to trek to Meenmutty waterfalls, 14 kilometres from Valayamchal. On the way, notice the rare Malabar giant squirrel, also known as the flying squirrel. Snakes, tigers, elephants, deer and wild boar are some other wildlife that you might encounter.
A three-hour drive from Kozhikode will take you to Meppadi from where one can scale the highest peak in Wayanad. The Chembra peak is 2,100m above sea level and is home to several exotic species. Prior permission is needed from the Meppadi forest office to undertake this beginners’ trek. Guided tours are also available.
Start from the Chembra foothills tea garden and trek three kilometres uphill to see waterfalls and natural springs. The heart-shaped lake Hridhayathadakam is enthralling post monsoon, with the flora around it in full bloom. A three-storey watchtower is perched atop the hill. The peak joins the Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu and Vallarimala in Kozhikode.
Wayanad is more than just trekking. Adventure junkies can head next to the cluster of islets popularly called Kuruva Island. Located 40 kilometres from Kalpetta, it is known for its bamboo trees and herbal plants, and can be accessed from October to May. Here, experience bamboo rafting on crafted rafts that take visitors through nature’s bounty.
Wayanad is a mixed bag of terrains. What better way to experience it than by testing your driving skills in an off-roading jaunt. The vastly different altitudes of the Western Ghats, the forests, the savannahs and the plantations make for a dream ride for any motorcyce junkie.
The agrarian district of Palakkad is pristine and has stayed clear of mass tourism. The forests of Silent Valley and the Malampuzha dam come under this district. Drive for three hours from Palakkad to the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve where tourists can enjoy two treks. Trudge along a century-old tramway route on the Cochin state forest tramway trek. Or try the Kariyanshola Trail through evergreen forests. These forests shelter endangered medical plants and 67 rare species of orchids.
In Thrissur district, the Chimmony Wildlife Sanctuary is home to endemic and endangered species that spread over 86 square kilometres. The deciduous forest makes up most of the greens, besides tropical evergreen and semi-evergreen forests. The only human inhabitants, the Malaya tribe, assist in treks that start from a 40-metre altitude and slant eastwards to 1,116 metres at the Punda Peak. The Chimmony River houses a dam in the sanctuary, where guests can choose the short or the full-day version of bamboo rafting trips. The verdant landscape doesn’t offer marked trails, so a trek can be taken through several paths with streams and fallen trees. Rocks and boulders en route offer challenging climbs and drops.
Idukki is a must-visit in Kerala, Munnar being its finest hill station. Here, one can undertake a six-hour trek that goes through the butterfly forest to the 2,624-metre-high Meesapulimala. Trace the Western Ghats when descending, and notice the tea and eucalyptus plantations in Rhodo Valley. Hiking on the steep cliffs of Munnar is a challenge filled with rocky contours. The rugged landscape of Munnar offers more than just treks and rock climbing. At the 2011 Malaysian Motorcycle Grand Prix, Shell Advance named the path from Coorg to Munnar as the ultimate Riding Wonder. The challenging topography covers a range of mountains and bends, and is host to a premier off-roading event, Mahindra Great Escape.
In Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary¸ poachers-turned-protectors lead a trek that passes through the hills and valleys of the tiger reserve. These armed experts help you in spotting wildlife like the Nilgiri langur, the giant squirrel, and elephants on the Periyar Tiger Trail. Visitors with luck on their side can even spot tigers. This is an expert-level trek and is open to people aged between 15 and 65 years. Border Hiking is another trek in the same area that ranges from 900 metres to 1,300 metres. It is protection-oriented and trekkers can spot wildlife such as sloth bears, gaur, deer and elephants.
From Periyar, go for a 2N/3D trek to explore the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. The jungle filled with pre-historic caves and dolmenoids has become an archaeological wonder. A trek to Vysiapara takes you through the tribal settlements and requires an overnight stay.
The erstwhile Travancore kingdom makes up most of south Kerala, with Trivandrum being the capital of course. Today, Trivandrum is more than a cultural centre and has become a hotspot for activities like trekking, rock climbing and watersports.
Kovalam is a beach town that aces surfing, catamaran sailing and parasailing. The waves here can vary between half a metre to two metres in height, making surfing fun for experts and easy for beginners.
Varkala beach, 50 kilometres from Trivandrum, is another bustling beach town. The cliffs near the beach lend themselves to thrilling paragliding experiences. The beach offers surfing, parasailing and scuba diving. A combination of board riding and paddling, stand-up paddling makes for an interesting alternative to surfing. Catamaran sailing with modern propellers is available all around Varkala. The second highest peak in south India located 70 kilometres from Trivandrum, Agasthyakoodam stands tall at 1,868 metres. Trekkers have to scale grasslands interspersed with waterfalls and steep climbs. The peak was named after the sage Agastya and is frequented by pilgrims. Women are not allowed on the peak and cannot partake in the trek. The ideal time to trek Agasthyakoodam is in December and a forest pass is needed from the wildlife office at Trivandrum.
Alleppey may be famous for its backwaters, but its beaches and harbours make for the best of watersports. One can indulge in parasailing, surfing, and snake boat races held in August and September. Called the Venice of the East, it also offers a beautiful kayaking experience. The palm-fringed waterways provide singular sights of village life.
Limits are tested when one challenges gravity. The 160-foot-high cragged rocks of Eruthavoor and the jagged grounds of Thenmala are both prime spots for rock climbing. The high grounds of Thenmala are equipped with pegs and ropes for rappelling. Eruthavoor is on the outskirts of Trivandrum and is host to the Kerala chapter of Adventure Foundation. One can reach Thenmala by travelling 72 kilometres on the road from Trivandrum to Kollam. The expansive backwaters of Kollam cover one-third of the district. In 1984, the tropical semi-evergreen forests of Shendurney were declared a wildlife sanctuary. It offers several intermediate and hard treks that go up to eight hours. The Wet ‘N’ Wild trail has altitudinal variations of 1,000 metres and passes through deciduous forests. Elephants, leopards, and sambar deer are frequently spotted here. There’s also the Edapalayam mount hiking trail that goes through the scenic Palaruvi waterfalls and offers ample opportunity to encounter wildlife. Covering an area of 18 kilometres, the Evergreen Trail introduces tourists to flagship species like the shendurney tree and the lion-tailed macaque.
From Vagamon, take to the hills of Kolahalamedu where the Paragliding Grand Prix is held every September. The paragliding here is in tandem with expert pilots who manoeuvre the flight over hills, meadows, dense pine forests and waterfalls. The site has a 10-kilometre ridge with a height of over 3,000 feet, making it a prime destination for paragliding. The activity season starts from September and goes on till January.
Kerala has always had the topography for adventure activities. Now, it also has the intent. With Kerala Tourism pushing for adventure-oriented holidays, and the winter season officially beginning, there has never been a better time to visit God’s Own Country for some thrilling experiences.