The Hidden Valley, Parambikulam

For Lynne and Rob

As fellow country types we know you would have loved the scenery, animals and hikes we enjoyed this week. Barney the dog would have given the Tigers a damn good run for their money as well! Lynne, your sausage rolls are legend (although I’ve heard your jewellery making is even better, if you are that way inclined). Rob, you’re a top bloke and thanks for turning up to help me pack away the chicken run. If I hadn’t just fallen into the stinging nettles I would have been more graceful! You made our time in Finches great fun and we look forward to many more laughs in the future.

Following a completely unique and beautiful experience in the tea plantations of Valparai, any onward travel was going to have to be pretty special to stand in comparison. Good news then that we were now readying for our most remote stop yet, the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve. We were still unsure if we even had a booking, despite checks made in both Fort Kochi and Valparai by some kind people we met on route. To complicate matters it was Diwali and everyone seemed to be distracted and extremely drunk…

Week 8 – 17th to the 23rd of November

Having packed somewhat apprehensively (why were we leaving the beauty of Valparai behind on Diwali of all days?), we set off in a taxi with a rather brash driver, who claimed to own most of the businesses in Tamil Nadu. We wound down a mountain pass famous for spectacular views and having a vast number of switchbacks. The switchback pride has continued throughout Asia. Everywhere is really proud of having ‘X’ number of switchbacks and you can usually buy a T-shirt to prove you have traversed them.

40 switch backs on the road to Pollachi
Valparai to Pollachi, home of the common greater switchback!

As we emerged onto the plains below we started noticing long queues at innocuous looking shacks on the side of the road. ‘They’re queuing up for Brandy’, Thomas, our driver told us. ‘It’s the only time you will see the men of Kerala queuing’ he added. The shacks that were dispensing the liquor in question were government owned and apparently despite this control, Kerala has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in India. As we watched we saw man after man down entire half bottles of Brandy before staggering off. High consumption certainly did not seem to lead to higher alcohol tolerance. Everyone was rat-arsed. There are now prominent campaigns by politicians to turn Kerala into a dry state like some other regions to try and manage the increasing levels of alcoholism.

After several hours on a heavily potted road we arrived at Parambikulam. The only way in to the Kerala administered part of the reserve is through Tamil Nadu. On the Tamil side there was an elephant ride and a zoo! A zoo for Christ sake, right in the middle of a massive wildlife reserve! We had been told that the Kerala part of the operation was much more environmentally sound but still we bit our nails.

tree tophut accommodation at in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve
The Tree House in Parambikulam, a splendid place indeed!

Having paid a second admin fee to re-cross the Kerala border, we arrived at a field camp that looked much, much more like it. The main site consisted of some large brick built dorms and education centres as well as a campsite with semi permanent tented accommodation held within a sensible looking electric fence (gulp). Camouflage uniformed rangers and guides were visible around the camp and we pulled up at the main admin block.

Upon arrival, Thomas started chatting to the rangers and a very dramatic, increasingly loud and very worrying conversation ensued. Instantly we thought that our attempts to reserve accommodation must have failed. Or perhaps the ‘Rat’ issue (see last post) was worse than we thought. It turns out that the tree house I had tried so hard to book was indeed ours for 3 nights. The problem was that it was 8km into the reserve and you were supposed to have your own car to get you safely from there to the camp for meals and treks. Apparently we should never have been allowed to book without one.

Cross party talks were then conducted between the ‘Cant go off script’ party (the rangers) and the ‘Lets Freestyle’ party (Catherine, Thomas and I). The upshot was that a small amount of off-piste thinking (not India’s strongpoint as I’ve mentioned before) was all that was required to solve the problem.

The park is administered by government appointed rangers (not local and on a 3 year assignment) but staffed by local villagers, who do all the work. The employment provides the 4 local tribes with good education, healthcare and salaries that encourage excellent levels of environmental protection. A bus runs through the park 4 times daily and transports the villagers to the different areas of the reserve for their work.

Dam wall in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve
Both tigers and, we presume, Scooby Doo villains live over there!

Having established, much to the rangers amusement, that travelling on these buses was not going to kill us or make us complain to the government, we were allowed to stay. It was implied that a new script had been developed to ensure we were fed, but we weren’t particularly clear on what that script was!

Having negotiated our entry to the park we were assigned a local guide called Shiva for the duration of our stay, Thomas drove the three of us to the tree house and then left for the long return to Valparai. Fortunately we grabbed his phone number in case we couldn’t sort transport back to Fort Kochi.

Now on our own, Shiva introduced us to the tree house. What can I say, I still can’t quite believe our luck. The building consisted of a small inner cabin, housed within a larger deck and roof structure. It was 4 meters up into the trees, hanging out over a vast lake containing otters, crocodiles and all manner of aquatic life. It was heaven.

We managed to ascertain through sign language that we were free to relax for the evening and that we needed to be outside for 7am to catch the bus. We were also to lock the internal and external doors and Shiva would be staying in a building around 30m away in case of an emergency (again Gulp!). Over the next hour we met the resident Macaques and watched as they slowly dismantled one section of our roof! Then, just as we were thinking that we should have eaten before entering the park (keeping food in the huts was a big no-no), Shiva arrived with what would prove to be the first of our nightly bento-box style dinners.

A childlike thrill associated with scout style camping (Catherine and a childhood friend were the first 2 female scouts in England for those of you who didn’t know) overtook us as we sat within the cacophony of the jungle soundtrack and ate our curry, dahl, chapattis and rice from the stack of metal tins. Given that we were under house arrest and that there are precious few night-time entertainment options in the jungle we went to sleep at around 8.30pm!

Shortly thereafter we finally understood why rats had been mentioned so many times during the reservation process. It seemed our tree house was the Ritz in rat circles and several families had well appointed penthouse nests on the roof. Fortunately we were used to living with mice in Albourne so weren’t overly bothered by their larger cousins.

Rob on Parambikulam Tiger Reserve work bus
Covert selfie on the ranger bus

The next day we caught the bus with Shiva (much to the confusion of the other local guides) and had a great time. We got to see the kids going to school and the pay cheques being delivered. In fact the bus doubled up as a remote office for the bursar. Once at the main camp we went on a brilliant morning hike through the valley. On just this first hike we saw Langur monkeys, Kites, Peafowl, Giant Squirrels, Samba Deer, Guar, flycatchers and, my favourite, Hornbills.

Hornbills are incredibly prehistoric looking birds that waft over the canopy in pairs making ghostly whooshing sounds with their enormous wings. They are awesome in the proper sense of the word. One other fun aspect of that first hike was the territorial tiger markings we saw along the route. We were really excited until Shiva (with whom our communication was improving rapidly) told us that they were only an hour or so old…(double Gulp).

Volcanic rocks in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve
Volcanic rocks on our first hike through Parambikulam Tiger Reserve

After a great local lunch back at camp we were forced to watch the compulsory orientation DVD’s (80’s corporate video style) before getting on a bus to go out into the reserve for the afternoon program. This consisted of hurtling along a precarious road through the remote parts of the reserve before enjoying a ride on a local bamboo raft and then experiencing some obligatory folk dancing. Whilst quite touristic it was still populated by great characters and had plenty of the shambolic charm we loved about India in general.

The bus journey also featured the first (and for a long time our only) experience of seeing a wild elephant! Although it was a distance away, it was a big thing for Catherine and I and we were thrilled to finally see one. The bus home was a repeat of the perilous journey into the park but with the welcome distraction of using torches to try to spot real cats eyes in the undergrowth. Unfortunately our search was in vain, but the process was really exciting.

Rob rowing a large raft with another man across the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve reservoir
There’s crocodiles in that lake, big crocodiles. I did not know this when I volunteered to row

The following day was pretty much a repeat but with a different trek in the morning. This time we ascended Mount Stuart, a steep peak of 1000m with a disused Tamil government bungalow at the top. The climb was tough in the relentless heat and I was so sweaty that honey bees started to home in on me. Shiva laughed and explained that they were after the salt from my skin and did not sting. Once I parked my fear of the little bees it became quite funny as they pursued me through the woods!

The top of Mount Stuart held a couple of interesting sights for us. Firstly the grave of said Mr Stuart, a British Teak Plantation manager who was held in high esteem. His humble grave carried an inscription that outlined his love for the mountains and desire to protect them. The other fascinating feature was the damage inflicted on the Bungalow by elephants. They had methodically ransacked the building and Shiva imparted that any structure left unoccupied was liable to get the same treatment.

As the program was the same every day we managed to duck out with Shiva and head back to the tree house to chill for the afternoon rather than repeat previous activities. This proved to be a good choice as, on the way we saw a huge crocodile basking on the side of the lake (rare for the time of year), we also saw a family of otters playing on the bank as well as all manner of other fauna.

Whilst taking all of this in on the lake facing side of our veranda, we heard faint scuffling sounds coming from round the corner. Upon investigating, Catherine found a whole family of Macaques, holing hands and stretching along the balustrade around the side of the building. Make no mistake, they were clearly planning a smash and grab raid on the various cameras, books and other detritus surrounding our seats. Once spotted Catherine engaged in a game of ‘who can pick up all this crap the quickest’ with the monkeys. Catherine won but only just!

catherine climbing a hill in Parambikulam Tiger Reserve
The top of Mt Stuart, so humid that honey bees harvest salt from your sweat!

That evening we repeated the bus journey in the vain hope of seeing Tigers. There were reports of 2 being spotted, however, our luck had been all used up and then some! Special mention must go to our guide Shiva. A more wonderfully calm, intelligent, resourceful and kind man you could not wish to meet. He was a real gent and we could have spent weeks in his company. Although he couldn’t help falling into laughter when Catherine and I enthusiastically spotted what we thought was a Civet in the woods, only to realise that it was a cardboard cutout information board!

The following morning with great sadness we packed up our kit at the end of the best week of the trip so far. Having borrowed the only phone line in the jungle the previous day, we had arranged for Thomas to pick us up and he duly drove us back to Fort Kochi whilst imparting many more words of his own wisdom. Although he was a nice guy, I think he got a bit of backlash from us for not being Shiva and taking us away from the Kerala/Tamil Nadu boarder lands, even if it was through our own choice.

Before we left Fort Kochi a week previously, we had realised that it made sense to stop off there for one more day before heading south to the backwaters, we had decided to ensure that we avoided the more negative aspects of our first visit. With that in mind we did our usual trick of arriving and then asking to see potential rooms before booking a hotel. This led us to a great second visit, staying at the wonderful Walton’s Homestay.

Mr Walton of Walton's homestay behind his desk surrounded by second hand books and helpful information about the local area
The very helpful if slight disorganised Christopher Walton, proprietor of Walton’s Homestay

Run by Christopher Walton (one of many Syrian Christians in Kerala) and his lovely family, this place exuded character and charm. The main office was strewn with ledgers, second hand books and all kinds of flotsam and jetsam. The property itself looked like it was built on Shoreham high street with a clapperboard seaside style that was reminiscent of the south coast. We shared the place with some lovely Canadians with whom we went for a great dinner before indulging in my favourite cocktail of the trip so far. What was obviously intended to be a Blue Lagoon was rather wonderfully called ‘Vodka and blue stuff’ on the menu.

We spent our clear day in Kochi doing some chores, getting our clothes washed and sending some parcels (Catherine braved the communist Post Office for a second time…she still has nightmares). We also sneaked in one last cheeky chicken and bacon sandwich from the excellent Kashi Art Cafe (I’m not proud).

The following day we took an early morning stroll past the scenic fishing nets, listened to the fisherman call their auctions and finally passed the parade grounds where, being a Sunday, every spare inch was taken up with cricket playing kids. This was a great sight and one that helped us to leave Kochi on this second occasion with a much nicer set of memories than on the first.

Catherine praying with an image of a halo behind her on a wall
Channelling St Catherine on our last night in Kochi

After a couple of hours heading south we began to see the changes in the environment as we neared the Kerala backwaters. Not dissimilar in geography to the countryside of the Norfolk broads, the land between Kochi in the north and Kollam in the south is a patchwork of Paddy fields, canals, rivers and lakes. Much like a rural version of Venice, many of the (often high quality) residences and villages are only accessible by one of the many forms of water-based transport.

We had decided to avoid the main commercial hub of Allepey, as the common consensus was that we would be touted to death once more. Instead we headed for a heritage homestay in the backwaters; the confidently named ‘Akkarakalam Memoirs‘. On arrival we realised that, as was often the case in India, we were the only occupants for the 6 or so staff to accommodate. The house was beautiful and very sympathetically converted from a family home to a Homestay. We were pleased to find out the baby in the antique family photos that adorned the wall was now the current hands on owner.

Boat travelling through the narrow canals of Alappuzha Chambakulam
Many villages in the Kerala backwaters are only reachable by canal

After a look around we were taken on a small boat for a free tour of the local backwaters. The homestay itself was on one of the major routes but, once we had crossed this, we entered a world of back canals, fishing, rice harvesting, weaving and fully water based service delivery! All aspects of life have been converted to delivery by small boat and we had a wonderful couple of hours soaking it up. 2 breeds of kingfisher, Cormorants and many other water birds darted around us as we went.

The next day we were chuffed to find out that our Homestay operated a small fleet of environmentally friendly Kettuvallam Rice barges. Furthermore, as we were staying in the Homestay we got a great rate and booked a 2-day cruise. Having taken care of this booking, our last ‘must do’ for the India leg of our trip, we ambled off on some complimentary bikes on a route suggested by our host.

Farmed ducks sitting in rows along the side of a padi field on fields around the backwaters of near Alleppey, Kerala
Ducks living on the edge

This took us south through the rice fields and afforded us an excellent opportunity to watch the paddle wheeled tractors as they worked the fields. We watched the rice being dried, bagged and packed on the sides of the roads and giggled furiously as duck herders, yes you heard right, duck herders were comprehensively outwitted by the thousands of ducks they were attempting to corral.

Back at the Homestay we read and recorded some music before yet another lavish South Indian feast. By this stage we were asking for vegetarian food as the sheer variety and tastiness of the vegetable curries had completely overpowered our desire to eat meat. Over dinner we reflected on just how lucky we are to be able to experience the Tea plantations of Valparai, Parambikulam and now these wonderful backwaters in the space of just a few short days.

Tomorrow would see us achieve our last major goal of India, cruising on a converted rice barge, surrounded by a unique low land tropical landscape.

As you can probably tell we liked Kerala a whole lot in the end! And we still had one or two more surprises to come. I hope you are still enjoying the updates!

Love Robin and Catherine xx

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