Jungle V.I.P at Thekkady

Jungle V.I.P at Thekkady
Photo Credit: Srikanth Kolari

Watch wildlife as you sip on your morning coffee at The Lake Palace, Thekkady

Achal Prabhala
July 08 , 2014
08 Min Read

It was all quite James Bond: the setting sun at the Aranya Nivas jetty, a motorboat idling in wait, cutting through perfect Thekkady landscape, getting to a little peninsular outpost of the forest, climbing a set of steps to an early 20th century palace-turned-hotel, settling in to the former abode of the Travancore royal family. Of course, that cunning linguist has yet to visit God's own country — and his absence was made up for by Vikram, the A-list Tamil actor, a friendly and unassuming man whose family is reassuringly normal, and whose real name is John Kennedy.

 The Lake Palace, Thekkady is usually described as sitting on an island in Periyar Lake. This is a romantic image but strictly speaking the land we're on is a peninsula, and well connected to forest main­land — as evidenced one morning, when during the course of coffee (Nescafé; it pierced through to an unfathomable place in my palate and still stays there) a bunch of wild boars happily frolicked past, quite unconcerned by the gawking five-star guests.

 My room had a delightful chaise-longue upholstered in leopard-skin velveteen, the print being something of a hotel motif. Two imposing chairs on the balcony adjoining my room were similarly kitted out, and even as I sat down in them wearing modest male apparel, it was hard not to get with the safari-bordello theme.

 Spotting wildlife from the hotel is not difficult — all you have to do is look. Deer, bison and wild boar regularly stroll through the grassy beaches of the lake. A slightly more uncommon sight is the elephant. Much more uncommon, to the point of being impossible, is a tiger sighting. At the time of the last census, there were approximately 50 tigers left in Periyar, which means that proclaiming this a 'tiger sanctuary', as the tourist brochures do, is a bit of a stretch.

 There's no doubt that the Lake Palace is comfortable. The problem is that it aims for luxury, which is not a word that fits easily into the vocabulary of mammoth bureaucracies such as the divinely ordained Kerala Tourism Development Corporation ('official host to God's Own Country'). My first day at the Lake Palace, I fell asleep quickly, needing to recover from the combined effects of a 4am flight on that great railway in the sky, otherwise referred to as Air Deccan, and a four-hour car ride from Cochin. The next morning I woke at 7am, rosy-cheeked and eager to safari. I wanted to go bamboo rafting. Impossible, bookings had to be made 24 hours in advance. Could I go on the nature trek then? Well, it was possible, I was told — except that the only boat to the mainland had already left. Was there anything I could do that morning? Well, yes. Go for a boat ride.So ride the boat we did, in a very pleasant two-storey affair, packed to the gills with tourists of my hue (Winter is when foreigners descend; off-season, between the monsoon and winter and vice versa, is mainly for Indians; the monsoon is simply no-season). Periyar Lake was at its lowest ebb — this being the tail end of the dry season, with the monsoon just due to begin — but it was entirely magical. There's a lushly perfect finish to Thekkady that makes it hard to believe that it's summer. Travel anywhere in Karnataka or Andhra in May and the land is parched, brown and dry. Try Thekkady and there's a glistening green glow to everything. The landscape has the surreal appearance of a staged backdrop, and you expect it to be pulled, or the curtains closed, any moment.

 Twenty minutes into a very pleasant boat ride, we were joined by another boat, and then yet another. So when we eventually came upon a family of elephants taking a waterfront stroll, all three boats did a double-take. Ours was first up, so we got closest to them, the other two circling in close. Cameras were unfurled and for the next 30 minutes, all you could hear was the click, clack and whirr of the holiday photo — including this magazines. There must have been over a hundred paparazzi on the three boats combined and it was hard not to feel like a stalker.

 Perhaps the pachyderm celebrities enjoy the attention as much as our human ones do. Certainly the elephants in question that morning sported the impervious “What, me?” demeanour of, say, Aishwarya Rai caught breathing by Hello! magazine. One baby elephant  —  a wondrous sight if there ever was one  —  pushed away the family's protective restraint and jiggled briefly for an adoring audience. Then, they plunged into the water en masse, haughtily re-emerged on the other side of the bank and disappeared into the forest.

 Exit the concrete jungle; enter the urban zoo. The words are Desmond Morris' not mine, and he, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for our fascination with animal life and the quaint delusion that wild creatures live the pure life by — for instance — neither masturbating nor forming 'homosexual pair bonds'. Kookiness aside, I'm all for the romance of the animal kingdom. And people-centric environmentalism notwithstanding, the sight of wild animals gets me all emotional and excited.

 I was particularly fascinated by the deer carcass that littered our trek the next morning. “Freshly killed by wild dogs a few hours ago,” our guide, Raju, cheerfully explained. A little later we came upon what was once a fluffy little porcupine, which met its end between a leopard's cold jaws. Inside the forest, and halfway through a half-day trek, we stopped in a clearing. This, I thought, was luxury: the chill, damp, musky scent of a proper forest, langurs in the trees, kingfishers in the air, giant tortoises and dwarfish frogs in the undergrowth, bison who stop, stare, snort and vanish and, well, if truth must be told, an enduring hint of eau de animal pee.

 There was much more I wanted to do, but couldn't. The 'Jungle Patrol' for instance, beginning at 10pm and stretching up to 4 am — which I couldn't partake in because boats don't ply after 5pm (sanctuary rules) and I'd have had no way of getting back to the hotel. The 'Periyar Tiger Trail' for another —  it would have involved spending several days in tents in the middle of the jungle, and bookings had to be made in advance. Or the aforementioned day-long 'Bamboo Rafting'. But my loss, dear reader, could be your gain.

 To be sure, Thekkady is an endlessly fascinating forest, best explored several times over. And the Lake Palace is certainly one of the most comfortable places to launch those explorations from. The nicest things here are the simplest: nature trails and idyllic boat rides. A bit of planning and some onsite investigation will lead a long way, and once the tiresome details are taken care of, you might discover, like me, that real jungle luxury is simply natural solitude.

 The information

Getting there: The most convenient way to get to Thekkady is to fly to Cochin. From there you can either hire a taxi to Thekkady (4hr; Rs 3,600 one- way) or take a bus. You will need to get to Thekkady by 4pm, since access to the Lake Palace is not allowed after that.

 The Hotel: The Lake Palace (0486-9222023, www.ktdc.com/LakePalace) has six cottages. Rates start at Rs 4,200 (single)/Rs 5,300 (double).

 Periyar Tiger Reserve: Sprawled over 777 sq km, Periyar is one of India's most efficiently managed and best preserved habitats. Set high in the Western Ghats in Kerala, the elevation in the park varies from 100m to 2,019m. The centrepiece is the 26 sq km Periyar Lake, the lush forests surrounding it drained by the Periyar and Pamba rivers.

What to do: Periyar is one of those blessed places where a community-based eco-tourism initiative seems to have actually worked. People who once made a living from illegal operations in the forest have since become forest protectors and earn their livelihood as guides and facilitators. There are several jungle walks that you can undertake, each with a unique emphasis. These include a full-day Border Hike (Rs 1,000), which doubles as a patrol through the edges of the reserve; the Periyar Tiger Trail (Rs 3,000 for 2D/1N, Rs 5,000 for 3D/2N), which consists of trekking and outdoor camping; Nature Walk (Rs100, min. 5 persons), a three-hour day trek with a trained tribal guide and perhaps most thrilling, the Jungle Patrol (Rs 500), a three-hour walk in the dead of night with two protection watchers and one armed forest guard. To sign up, see www.periyartigerreserve.org or contact 04869-224571.

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