Our alarm was due to go off at 5am to catch our early bus, but we were awake well before that. A monsoon storm raged outside and the streets poured with water. The early light of dawn broke, and we made sandwiches for the journey ahead, before stepping out into the sodden streets. Luckily the rain stopped, and we made the bus stop by 6:30, catching a muted sunrise on the way.
We didn’t have a number for the bus, and all the buses had their destinations written in various scripts we weren’t familiar with, so we checked with every bus that arrived until ours eventually turned up. It was a rickety local bus, with open spaces where windows would have been, and shutters to pull down in the event of rain. The benches were hard and slippery to sit on. When the bus set off around 7:10 we were already starting to get too hot, and the breeze as it wound through the narrow roads out of Fort Kochi was a welcome relief.
Kerala was so beautiful that for the whole journey we just gazed out of the windows, taking in the changing scenery of the diverse region. In the flat, water-logged plains the roads were raised on banks, or carried by bridges over paddy fields and waterways. People lived in homes partly built on stilts over the water. An old man stood in the mud of a field hoeing deep brown soil the colour of his skin. He looked as if he were part of the earth there, one and the same with the land he worked.
When we hit the outskirts of Kottam the humidity increased. The city appeared to sit under a pall of smoke, but it was moisture in the air rather than the universal pollution. It was like being in a steam room. We began climbing toward the city centre and after passing through the bus station chaos we left it behind and worked our way up into the hills.
We had to negotiate a stop for Jay to use the loo. The conductor and driver had hopped off a few times on the way, but not for official stops, and we hadn’t wanted to get off to find a loo and be left behind. Being a local bus not a long-distance one, there were no scheduled breaks in the journey, and we had to get other passengers who spoke English to help explain that 6 hours was too long to wait!
We passed plantations of trees which had plastic ‘skirts’ around them, row after row of trees all with these strange coverings. It turned out to be rubber tree plantations, and the plastic was covering the sap collecting buckets to stop the rain entering.
Climbing further we suddenly broke out of the trees and found ourselves on a road with nothing but air and a void on one side of it. Mountains covered in forest and grasslands stretched far into the distance and clouds clung to the treetops guarding their secrets closely. Entering the cloud layer the temperature dropped and the mist seeped into the bus. For a while it rained heavily and people pulled the shutters down. It was dark and humid without the breeze, and the movement of the bus was unnerving. Shops and hotels clung to the roadside, jutting out into the empty space above the deep valleys below. After 1.5 hours of terror roads, we finally arrived at the small town of Kumily, near the border with Tamil Nadu.
It was hot, but not sea-level hot, so we walked to our hostel up a long hillside. It backed onto the jungle and the trees were alive with monkeys. After dropping our bags we headed up to the roof; a terrace surrounded by netting to stop the monkeys coming in. There was a hammock and we lay together listening to the sounds of the jungle, and the breeze in the branches. Before we knew it, after only a few hours sleep the night before, we were both fast asleep. It was a lovely peaceful place for a nap.
We were spending one night at a hostel, then three nights in a bamboo hut just inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which began at Kumily. While there we planned to trek into the jungle and had booked onto a walk. You had to be part of a specially organised and guided group with armed guards, as the forest needed protection from damage caused by poachers and tourists, and we needed protecting from any predators.
We had dinner at a restaurant with huge panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto an exceptional view across a water meadow, and to the forest and mountains beyond. We sat for a long time, just watching and drinking coffee, entranced by the beauty of it. In the gents, the cubicle also had an enormous window next to the toilet, only this one was open. Jay was in there a long time, just sitting quietly listening to the sounds from the jungle that carried across the still air of the meadow. Somewhere in the trees, something very large was, well, chomping.
We walked back through the town, and from somewhere not far away in the trees came a strange and eerie call. “Elephant” said Maeve having heard them in the wild in Kenya. There’s something very humbling about being reminded that we are only small frail creatures, and that there are things out there that are a lot bigger and tougher than us; that we are ill equipped for living tooth and claw. That night, with the noises from the trees behind the hostel drifting into the room, Jay dreamed of thick green tunnels, and of things that watched from within them.
The next morning we awoke when the people in the next room were, as is frustratingly common in India, using their outside voices indoors. We stayed awake when Maeve realised that something had been sharing her bed with her, and it had been voraciously feeding on her feet and legs. She was covered in red bites and raised welts, which burned and itched painfully. We left quickly in search of both breakfast, and anaesthetic cream. In a pharmacy in the town we were sold the type of thing that you’d never get over the counter in the UK; a cream containing fungicide, antimicrobial chemicals, antibiotics, steroids, and an anaesthetic. It did the job though, and we were able to relax and enjoy breakfast in the same place we’d had dinner. This time the meadow was not empty, and a herd of Indian Guar were gently grazing, birds alighting on their backs. A dog trotted along a track in the meadow. It turned a corner, spotted them, and did a very hasty about turn.
We went back to the hostel to get our things, which was more complicated than you’d expect due to the monkey family sitting on the gate of the hostel. A kid came out with a slingshot and they moved on pretty quickly. We were glad to leave after Maeve’s experience, relieved we didn’t have to sleep in that bed again and excited about sleeping nearer the jungle. Hailing a tuk tuk we moved on to our next stop.
Bamboo Grove was an area of bamboo stands protected from predators by an electric fence. It housed about 10 bamboo huts and a small restaurant (which was closed except for when we arranged to have food, because it was the off-season). It was the most expensive accommodation we’d stayed in in India, but by no means actually expensive, and all the money was going back into the reserve.
After being taken to a hut by the carpark where building works were going on, we asked to move and were given the furthest one. It was so peaceful and we started to unpack, excited to be somewhere for a few nights which made it worth emptying our bags. Maeve was hot and about to get in the shower when Jay shouted to get out.There was an enormous spider in there! In a different country, in the jungle, it’s impossible to know whether something is poisonous without local knowledge. Poisonous or not it would certainly give a very painful bite. Jay went to find some staff to ask. They thought it was hilarious that we were coming to get them because of a spider.
Is everything ok?
There’s a spider in our hut
<cue lots of finger waving hand gestures>
<cue lots of laughing, calling to colleagues, talking in Tamil>
Um, this is the jungle
<cue more laughing>
I know, it’s just I don’t know if it’s poisonous.
It’s not poisonous!
But he came anyway to look at it, and brought a colleague with him. And Jay was fairly satisfied that despite the reassurance that it would not be poisonous, neither of them would go near it, and it took both men over 5 minutes to get it onto a piece of card and out of the door. Looking later online we were pretty sure it was a giant huntsman spider – not poisonous but with a very painful bite.
Does it bite?
Um, yes. Sometimes.
They asked if we wanted to move rooms to a different hut. As it happened, we did. Not because of the spider, but because the one next door looked out onto some lovely plants, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to shift over. The hut had clearly been shut down for the season, and no one had obviously been expected to use it for some time. It was musty inside, full of dead things. The hot water was off (Maeve worked it out after a play with the fuses round the back!), and the tiles in the bathroom floor were broken, so who knows where the water was flowing to. The bedding was damp, but not yet mouldy, which was a relief. We settled with coffee on the veranda once the staff had gone. It was so quiet, with only the crack and whisper of the immense bamboo stands giving us an unexpected backing track to our repose. One of the biggest surprises there was the noise of bamboo. Over 20 metres tall, these dense stands of old bamboo trunks spoke constantly to each other. They were dark inside, and so closely did the trunks grow that Jay couldn’t squeeze inside the stands. They creaked like old wood, and made a noise in a gentle breeze like a great wind rushing towards you. They cracked and snapped like aching joints and yet they looked static, like great stone fortresses, immobile and apparently silent.
We sat quietly listening to the bamboo, and to more distant noises from the forest that occassionally penetrated into the grove. The clink of our metal cups as we put them on the table, the call of an Indian Robin as it passed through. And then, from a shadow, a long grey creature appeared. Like a large mink, it emerged and then only a few feet away it realised we were there, watching. It darted away, but not so fast that it was scared. We found out later it was a mongoose so we called it Rikki Tikki Tavi, and hoped we’d see it again.
After a lovely dinner we retired to the hut and packed for a big hike the next day. Outside the cabin, in the dark, the jungle was noisy. The bamboo creaked around us, the frogs were croaking, and insects chirruping. The moon rose bright, a crescent above the trees, and stars came out through the breaking clouds. We slept deeply.
The next morning we sat before dawn on the veranda. The light slowly, gradually increased, shapes taking form and colours emerging from monochrome twilight. The noises of jungle night subsided, frogs and insects silenced, mosquitos settling. And the sounds changed as gradually as the daylight, emerging with chirps and buzzing and birds flitting through branches, alighting on the path by our cabin, unperturbed by our presence. We were bitten sitting there, but it was worth it.
Despite being up at 6:30, we were still 5 minutes late for the trek through the jungle. However the usual laissez-faire attitude presided and we did a lot of sitting around before anything actually happened. Before we set off we were put in groups. We were given small tiger reserve rucksacks containing our breakfast and lunch. We were also, confusingly, given a set of bizarre gaiters. These were giant green material socks like christmas stockings that we were instructed to put on over our socks and trousers and inside our shoes. They came up above our knees. We were both pretty incredulous. We had ordinary gaiters with us, but in the end we decided to wear them, despite the certainty that they’d cause blisters, because well, we didn’t want to be ‘those’ people. And as it turned out, that was very much the right decision.
We were in a group with two sisters with American accents who turned out to be great folks to spend a day with. At the start, our walk wound through tribal villages, the only people allowed to live and work in the reserve. The heat and humidity were intense and as we left the path and entered the trees, the noise dramatically increased with the sounds of many thousands of birds and insects.
One of the guides pointed out interesting plants along the way. One, a ground plant called a ‘touch-me-not’ curled up its leaves into tight folds the moment anything brushed past it, no matter how lightly.
Around us the ground was saturated and the foliage dripped from the humidity, as did we. As we started to make our way uphill through the leaf litter it became apparent that we were very much NOT ALONE. The ground literally seethed with many thousands of leeches, and we only noticed when they started to cover our shoes and lower legs. A milimetre to a couple of inches long, they stood on one end, waving the other in the air until it attached to some poor unfortunate creature. To our surprise and horror we also discovered that they can jump some distance. As we acquired more and more the reason for our weird booties became apparent, as the leeches headed straight into our shoes, only being prevented from attaching to us by the thick gaiter material. One of the women we were with was very upset by them, and took some time to calm down after one made the top of her gaiters.
We were led to a very large, flat rocky outcrop to stop for a snack. Despite the absence of leeches on the rock, none of us were prepared to sit down, as we’d brought quite a few with us. Maeve found one had crawled all the way to the top of her trousers! Unfortunately one had actually made it inside her top and it took two people to peel it off.
We continued our journey climbing ever higher through steep jungle. The ground was alive with multicoloured crickets and grasshoppers. There was also an incredible sound from a bird called a Whistling Thrush, that made us feel like we were in the Hunger Games. An eerie, tuneful call, like a person whistling a melancholic melody. Later we heard a high pitched and terrifying shrieking call. Turns out its the same bird, just in a different mood. We can all relate to that.
We climbed for a few hundred metres up steep slopes, hacking through undergrowth to forge a path, which felt disturbingly destructive. The jungle floor was slippery and muddy and we desperately tried to stay upright, scared of falling onto the leech-infested ground. We passed huge woody piles of elephant dung, and great footprints marking their passing, porcupine scat and quills, and evidence of bison and other ruminants.
Eventually we crested a ridge and gasped as all around us the jungle extended as far as we could see across a vast rippling sea of hills. We felt the breeze for the first time, leaving the humidity of the trees to step onto a grassy hill-top, the plants stirred in the wind. We could see Periyar Lake a few kilometres away, a reservoir made by the British that flooded part of the jungle killing a lot of the trees and changing the biodiversity of the landscape. It is now used for bamboo raft rides for tourists. The land was green as far as the eye could see, with light clouds scudding across a fierce blue sky.
Too soon our guide moved us onwards. We were strolling along the ridge, enjoying stretching our legs after the cramped feel of the jungle, when suddenly he dropped to the ground and told us all to get down. We understood we were to stay low, and very still. Suddenly we realised why. From our left, up the side of the hill came a huge swarm of very large bees. They crested the ridge, flew a few feet over our heads, and then down the other side. For a few minutes they came, thousands of them. Looking at the armed guard with us, we realised that there were many more ways we could come to harm here than those ways he could protect us from. It was a humbling perspective.
We descended through pampas grasses back into the forest, passing a small meadow where a large male Guar sized us up before vanishing into the trees. Leaving the breezy peaks the temperature and humidy rose dramatically. We passed a small stream full of giant tadpoles a few inches long lazing in dappled pools. We followed it for a while, turning steeply downhill and meeting another stream where it began a series of cascades over sharp rocky outcrops. Reaching some flatter lands we emptied from the forest into a water meadow at the very far end of one of the many ‘fingers’ of Periyar Lake. The heat was intense as we were fully exposed to the sun approaching solar noon. In the bowl of the meadow, among the verdant greenery, stood dark dead trees, killed when the water rose. At the forest edge where sunlight played throught the canopy, an enormous golden leaf fell silently in slow motion, flashing with brightness where it caught an errant beam that had slipped through the living foliage. Two bright orange butterflies danced together in and out of the shaddows. Among the trees a strange etherial sound reverberated, the call of the Nilgiri Languor.
In a pool at the start of the lake Pied Kingfishers and White-Throated Kingfishers competed and the meadow around it hummed with insect life. A huge eagle circled overhead, vanishing into the canopy with an almighty shriek. Crossing from one side of the meadow to the other a Guar emerged from the grass and gave us a wide berth. Our guide stopped us to point out some tiger scat, which looked disturbingly recent. We passed an old elephant bone. At another pool Brown Kites and Brahminy Kites were fishing, one dropping down in a blurring swoop and plucking a large fish from the water.
Stopping for lunch we spent some time picking leeches that had made it past the gaiters off our clothing. We were ready for food by then and it was a welcome relief to get out of the hot sun and under the shady roof of the hut we stopped at. Once replete though we were on our way once more, back into the trees, for the shorter walk out. We mainly followed a track for this section so the going was flatter and easier.
Our guide suddenly stopped us and pointed into the trees. High in the canopy was a giant squirrel, not at all bothered by us, just chilling and doing its thing! At one point while we followed the track something landed on us from the canopy. We looked up to see a troupe of Nilgiri Languors staring down at us. Pretty sure they threw it on purpose.
We’d seen a lot of paper wasp nests, like huge beige lanterns in the trees, round and fragile, but the wasps didn’t bother us. Bees however did. We stopped for a drink at the side of the track, and as we were getting out our bottles, the air was suddenly reverberating with a deep droning sound, which was manifestly hostile. The drone throbbed and pulsated, getting louder and closer. “Honey bees!”, our wide-eyed guide said, grabbing his rucksack. We moved on very swiftly until we were well out of earshot. We didn’t see the bees, but figure that’s probably for the best.
As we neared the base another giant squirrel gave itself away by dropping lumps of jackfruit in front of us, so it ended up being a Two Squirrel Day which is no bad thing. Back at the cabin, exhausted and hot (and very stinky), we peeled off our shoes and emptied out the leeches, with one of our hiking companions being so freaked by them that she put her shoes straight into the bin. Showered and rested we drank away the rest of the evening in their company, and were unconscious by 10pm. Rock And Roll.
The next day was a write off. We just hung out at the cabin, watched the wildlife and took it very easy. We found a giant hairy poisonous catterpillar that literally threw itself off a branch at Jay’s face. We also found skinks nearby, and discovered that there are crabs in the mountains that dig tunnels in the soil! We didn’t mind a lazy day after the hike, that was the main thing we’d hoped to do in the area, and soaking up the more temperate climate was next on our list.
On our final morning Jay went to pay for the food we’d been eating. Kerelan robins hopped around his feet as he walked to the cafe. He handed over the cash and the guy went to get change, so he chatted with the chef for a while. Suddenly the chef stopped and said “snake”, in a very relaxed, almost noncholant way. Sliding gracefully toward them was a metre long brown snake, clearly not in the least bothered by humans.
Is it poisonous?
Should we move out of the way?
We said farewell to the cabin and the noisy bamboo and the humming insects, and headed for the chaos of the bus station. Eventually we found the right one, with a lot of ‘helpful’ conflicting advice, and started the 5 hour journey South West to the Keralan coast.