Stretching across vast swathes of the Cardamom and Pandalam hills in the South Western Ghats in Kerala, with a total area of 925 sq km, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary was declared a tiger reserve in 1978. Located in the picturesque region of Thekkady, in Idukki district, the topography here ranges from hills and plateaus to grasslands and waterbodies. The emerald green hills are covered with tropical evergreen and moist deciduous forests. Thus, the reserve is able to sustain an incredible variety of flora and fauna.
This Garden of Eden is where I decided to spend part of my 35th birthday. It being the first time I was spending my special day away from friends and family, I wanted to mark it by doing something out of the ordinary. So I booked a cottage at the Spice Village resort and arranged for a cab to drive me from Kochi to the small town of Kumily, which is about 4km from Thekkady.
The reserve offers a number of activities such as nature walks, border trekking, tiger trails, bamboo rafting and bullock cart rides as part of its eco-tourism programme. These are restricted to 10 sq km of the tourism zone, which is a part of the buffer zone. Thekkady is also famous for spice and coffee plantations, scenic mountain trails and hill towns.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
A tarred road leads into Periyar Tiger Reserve (https://www.periyartigerreserve.org/) from Kumily. Early morning mist clung to the tops of lowlying hills, as I made my way into a world dominated by dazzling hues of green. An armed forest guard and trained guides accompanied our group of six. The guides usually belong to the local tribe and, hence, their knowledge of the jungle is unparalleled, having been handed down generations. A few are rehabilitated poachers, now guardians of this rich environment. Before we entered the forest we were given a pair of leech socks, a small packed meal and a bottle of water.
At first our group passed by houses belonging to the local tribal community, who were relocated from the deeper recesses of the forest to the outskirts. They have lived here for generations, and walk long distances in the jungle with complete confidence and no weapons for defence. Slowly the road gave way to a red mud pathway and it grew quieter as we moved deeper into the sanctuary, the silence broken only by the occasional call of a bird.
The dense green foliage on either side of the path made it nearly impossible to catch sight of avian life or arboreal creatures up in the canopy or those in the underbrush. Usually only the trained eyes of a naturalist or forest guide can spot furtive movements in the undergrowth or branches, quietly signalling to visitors to look in the correct direction, occasionally whispering to let them know what kind of animal they’re admiring.
The only sound we heard in the forest aside from the calls of birds or the warning call of a mammal was that of our feet stepping on fallen branches and dry leaves. Occasionally, we had to jump across a narrow stream or bend low to make our way under a tangle of low-hanging creepers. You’ll only feel the sun’s rays on your skin if you’re in a clearing, the rest of the time you’ll be walking under a dense canopy. Keep an eye out for the giant wood spider that spreads its web between trees, often sitting in the centre waiting patiently for its next meal.
We passed by pugmarks in wet mud side by side with a porcupine’s pawprint. One of the guides casually commented that there was a high possibility that a tiger could be watching us from somewhere in the dense foliage. Don’t wander away or too far ahead of your group, for you never know what you might encounter around the next tree.
Our guides stopped abruptly at one point, signalled us to keep completely silent, then pointed towards a clearing where a great Indian bison stood munching grass. When you see pictures of these magnificent rusty red and black bovines, your mind can’t comprehend how huge they are, but at 200m distance, you begin to realise the incredible strength a tiger must have in order to bring one of them down.
Suddenly, she looked up and stared in our direction. We held our breaths collectively, waiting and hoping she would not charge at us. Luckily, bison tend to be short-sighted so she resumed grazing and we moved on, mindful that the rest of the herd was probably obscured by the surrounding vegetation.
A little later we heard the distinct whoosh that can only be produced by a large pair of wings. The great Indian hornbill was somewhere to our left, probably a kilometre away. Our eagleeyed guides took no time in scanning the forest with binoculars and zeroed in on a tree it had conveniently perched on. We took turns admiring its distinct plumage, marvelling at the yellow and black casque that sits partly atop its head and bill. Sadly, these large members of the hornbill family are threatened by loss of habitat and hunting.
Birds aren’t the only creatures living in the trees here. The beautiful Malabar giant squirrel lives high up in the canopy. You may spot one if you’re lucky. Its thick dark fur helps it blend in, making it next to impossible to distinguish it from the branches, which it often rests on. Nilgiri langurs also live in these parts. Unlike the more commonly found grey langurs, these old world monkeys have smaller bodies, covered with glossy long black fur. Although herds of elephant live in the reserve, we didn’t encounter any, apart from two we saw high up on a hill, silhouetted against the sky.
Tip: Dress in dark or khaki colours as animals are attracted to bright, moving objects.
We arrived at Periyar Lake hot and sweaty but the breeze cooled us off. The lake was formed by the construction of the Mullaperiyar Dam in 1895. Partially submerged trees still stick out from the water, making convenient perches for a number of resident and migratory birds. The rafts are made from bamboo poles tied together with thin rope. They might seem unsteady as you step onto them, but once you settle down in your seat, you’re in for a fairly comfortable ride. It was quiet out on the calm waters of this large reservoir.
If you’re lucky, you’ll spot elephants drinking and bathing along its shores. The drier the season, the higher the chances animals will emerge from deep within the forest for a cooling drink. Various species of cormorant, heron and egret can be seen out on the lake, along with kingfishers, storks and eagles. Flocks of parakeet often fly screeching from tree to tree, looking for the best fruit or juiciest leaves. You’ll be able to witness a kingfisher or cormorant dive beneath the water to claim its catch. They do put on quite a show.
Tip: Keep a raincoat handy just in case there are unexpected showers. Wear a hat when out on the lake.
As we walked back the way we came, I thanked my lucky stars for sending this incomparable experience my way. In a world where forests are shrinking at an alarming rate, there’s still one that’s fiercely protected by the authorities and the tribes that call it home. This is an ancient place that makes you fear and respect nature in all her primal glory.
Spice Plantation Tour
The following day I decided to visit one of the numerous spice plantations Thekkady is famous for. Several conduct tours giving visitors an insight into this aromatic business. I’d always envisioned a spice plantation to be acres of open fields. Instead what I saw was a lush mini jungle, aptly named Abraham’s Spice Garden (Timings: 8am-6.30pm). Abraham, the owner, took us on a walk around his property and showed us striking flowers such as the dazzling red bird of paradise. He offered us leaves from the cinnamon plant to taste, which were sweet, along with mildly hot carom seeds.
Cardamom grew close to the ground in several patches, coffee plants with their red coffee beans were ever present and pepper vines snaked their way up tree trunks. Maroon cacao pods grew in one tree, while a lemon the size of my hand hung from another. Various kinds of banana plants including one whose leaves can grow to a span of 15ft dotted the property. All through the walk Abraham kept us entertained with his own brand of humour. There is a spice shop on the property from where you can buy cocoa powder, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, coffee, turmeric, cardamom and other spices.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
There is a wide range of stay options here, from luxury to basic. Thekkady also has a few resorts set inside the sanctuary. There aren’t many stand-alone eateries but all the hotels offer meals and non-guests can eat at most without advance notice.
Inside the Forest KTDC’s Aranya Nivas is a great option for birdwatchers, right inside the forest. KTDC’s Lake Palace is also within the sanctuary. There are six rooms here, with restaurants and Internet. The Lake Palace can only be approached by boat. KTDC’s Periyar House is located midway between the main entrance and the boat house. You will get a feel of the jungle if you stay here, plus there’s a restaurant and beer bar, as well as boating, trekking and plantation visits.
The Forest Department also has Bamboo Grove in Anavachal, with 15 cottages; Periyar Tiger Trail inside the forest, with three tents and the Tented Camp in Vallakkadavu. Meals are arranged. For bookings, contact Eco-tourism Centre, Periyar Tiger Reserve.
Outside the Forest The CGH Earth Group’s Spice Village, located in a spice garden near the forest, has a pleasing ambience. There is a bar, a wildlife centre and Ayurvedic treatments centre. The hotel arranges tours to tea and spice gardens and has many activities on offer. Club Mahindra Tusker Trails, earlier Taj Garden Retreat, has 49 lovely cottages with restaurants, a swimming pool, a spa and an Ayurveda centre.
Another highend option is the Muthoot Cardamom County with 42 rooms, a restaurant, swimming pool, gym and a spa. Coffee Inn on Lake Road; Hotel Ambadi at Ambadi Junction; and Hotel Kumily Gate in Kumily offer comfortable rooms, restaurant and Wi-Fi.
Amongst the many homestays, Chithrasala on the Munnar Road in Kumily offers four rooms and home-cooked meals. Mickey Homestay has three budget rooms.