MY TRIP TO GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
My basic plan when I decided to backpack Kerala was to see as much as I could whilst spending as little as possible, to rough it out as far as hopping between destinations and staying goes. I wanted to have a complete native experience and I believe that the best way to do that was to avoid going for high end services because as they say a thick wallet actually insulates you from the very culture you want to experience.
I took off from Mumbai on the 15th of Feb, getting a low priced air ticket to Ernakulam. Stayed the night in
one of the lodges off the Boat Jetty.
16th : Took the early morning boat across the waters to Mattancherry and Fort Kochi. Hired a bicycle and toured the whole island . The Chinese fishing nets, the quaint medieval houses
17th : Boarded the early morning bus to Munnar. Nothing that I had read or heard about this place was ever going to prepare me for the absolutely stunning vistas. It was like I was entering a whole new world where this endless carpet of greenery was laid out as a royal welcome to all who visited and the homes, hotels and other concrete constructions were incidental pock marks on a face so ravishing.
I stayed at this wonderful Home stay looked after by a great Caretaker named Sam. I also got a Scooty on hire for a very nominal price.
Visited the Tea Museum, where they take you through the entire tea production process.
Also rode all the way upto Devikulam (a place about 7 Kms. off Munnar town), Gap Road (14 kms.) and Anayirankal dam (abt 30 Kms from Munnar). Anayirankal dam is also the place where the top end home resorts (Club Mahindras, Sterling to name a few) are located. Truly, whoever talked about misty mountains and visions of heaven on earth when referring to Munnar sure knew what he was talking about. It took all my effort to turn my bike around and return to roost in the evening and not keep on riding away soaking in the heavenly sights. One can never have enough of this place, you know.
18th : Started off early in the morning to Top Station, a scenic point about 34 Kms. from Munnar, which is also on the border with Tamil Nadu and you get this wonderful view of the Western Ghats. The route to Top Station is fringed with beautiful landscapes and some breathtaking spots on the way, like the Mattupetty dam and Devikulam Dam. The entire journey to Top Station is so divinely scenic that it leaves one speechless.
Although so much has been said about the Tea plantations and misty mountains of Munnar, I doubt that any words ever written or spoken ever comes close to actually experiencing the real thing with one’s own eyes.
19th : Boarded the early bus from Munnar to Chinnar Wild life sanctuary, a distance of about 60 Kms.
Chinnar Sanctuary covers an area of 90 sq.kms, located in the eastern parts of High ranges of Western Ghats,
The terrain is highly undulating with altitudes ranging from 500m to 2300m. It is home to 225 species of birds, largest number of reptilian fauna, the grizzled giant squirrel, white bisons, elephants, tigers, leopards, to name a few of the other animals.
They have three wonderful tree top huts that they give on rent to promote tourism, widely spaced, in the heart of the forests, completely cut off from civilization. In short an ideal place for any “townie” to actually experience that intimacy with nature that could only come with being all alone and, for once, keeping silent and letting the forest speak in the innumerable tones and voices, from the gentlest of rustling of the tree tops, to the heart melting chirping of the birds, to the sonorous fear instilling growl of the leopards, to the commanding trumpet calls of the elephants.
I stayed in the tree top hut named Kottar, at the convergence of the two rivers, Pambar and Chinnar.
There are two guides assigned for the entire duration of the stay. They were responsible for my safety and also for my meals. I had a wonderful time bathing uninhibited in the flowing streams, having black tea on the banks, going trekking (I did spot a heard of elephants, some spotted deers, bisons, langurs) and listening to my guides, whilst having dinner by the bonfire, who were helping me identify the various calls of animals.
The high point of my stay on the tree top was in the middle of the night, with my guides fast asleep, with me lying down in the hut under the blanket of twinkling stars and on a carpet of green, trying to decipher the sounds of the forest, when I realized that the very effort of me trying was blocking my senses from absorbing the essence of what was being said. The night was both silent and exploding with sound at the same time, only, the silence was astoundingly loud and the sounds seemed to mute to an imperceptible pitch.
It is in moments such as these, when your life has slowed down to the most basic and primal needs that your thoughts evolve to an ethereal plateau and your heart beats in harmony with the universe as a whole.
20th and 21st: I returned back with my able guides to the check post, completely rejuvenated in spirit. Caught the bus heading for Munnar and then the next connecting bus to Kumily which is were the Periyar Wild life sanctuary is situated. The entire journey by the K.S.R.T.C. bus, from Chinnar to Kumily was about eight hours. I stayed in a lovely place called Coffee Inn, very near to the entrance of Periyar Sanctuary.
Periyar (Also known as Thekkady) is one of the world’s most fascinating natural wild life reserves, spread over 777sq.km. This is the only sanctuary in India where one can have a unique experience of viewing wild life from close quarters from the safety of the boat. However I must admit I did not get to see much from the boat, but the ride on the river is a wonderful experience by itself.
The sanctuary has got a range of programme for tourists, from boat rides to bamboo rafting, from two – three hour treks to 1-3 days tiger trails.
I also went for the three hour trek, starting at seven the next morning, which is better that the boat ride as it gets you closer to the wild life.
Amongst other things I also got myself an Ayurvedic massage, which is one of those must-do things.
22nd : Departed Kumily in the early evening, destination Alleppy and the glorious backwaters. The total journey time from Kumily to Alleppy was about five hours. Shacked up with an uncle of mine who was glad to accommodate me, although he and his family were a bit surprised (As were most of the other folks in my family!!!) to see me with my single backpack, moving around Kerala as if I were already a local. It’s funny, how quaint the idea of back packing (and all alone for that!!!) seems to most people.
23rd : Scouted the boat landing area for the best deal on a house boat. Got an amazing deal with one of the leading operators, thanks to my uncle. I got myself a three bedroom houseboat for the whole evening, all to myself.
Checked in on the boat at 1700 Hrs, with a bottle of wine and a few good books. All my earlier apprehensions about the living quarters, the food and the service onboard were brought to naught within an instant of stepping on the boat. Here was a boat so tastefully and elegantly done and efficiently run by a crew of three that I was quite impressed. I boarded the boat at the new jetty being constructed for all houseboat landings, a place very close to the Nehru Snake Boat Race viewing stand. We went for a short ride and at sundown anchored nearby an islet (as the boats are not licensed to navigate in the night), with
the bow embraced by the swaying bosom of a paddy field and the stern bobbing ever so gently in the wake of passing rafts. Whilst the meals were being prepared (tailor made to one’s taste and requirement) I lounged on the deck under the canopy of stars. One thing I had promised myself when planning the houseboat trip. That I would sleep on the bow, under the stars and the shimmering waters below. And boy was I glad that I tried it out!!. It is truly amazing, lying down on the bow, reading by the candle light, sipping wine, you somehow get the feeling that the stalks in the paddy fields, the ripples in the water, the journey work of the stars overhead are actually merging into oneness as if wanting to give you an exclusive performance of the wonders that are to behold, if one could only learn to observe. I’m sure that this was one performance where the performers did not seek any applause or a larger audience, after all they give such performances, each night, never tiring, never discriminating…..Oh! If only you and I could stop and stare in awe and bow our heads in gratitude at such visions each day!!!
Early next morning we set out on a cruise on the Vembanad Lake. Watching the small village huts float by, the village folk going about their daily chores, merely an arms breadth away, truly it is one unique experience and something I will cherish for a long time to come.
24th / 25th : Having completed my backwater journey, it was time to wind up my Backpacking journey. There was just one last stop before I could hang up my walking shoes for or a while. Let’s see……Islands of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, misty mountains and hill station experience of Munnar, Jungle life in Chinnar and Periyar Sanctuary, Backwaters of Alleppy……..what have we missed out……….why, the beaches of course.
As I was running out of time, I decided to head to Varkala beach because, from what I had read Kovalam Beach had become too commercial.
The journey from Alleppy to Varkala was about three hours.
This place is very unique in the sense that all the hotels and other activities are on this cliff overlooking the beach and you have to actually climb down to the beach.
There are countless shacks and home stays to choose from and one has to scout for the best deals around. The first evening I stayed in a shack close up on the cliff, facing the beach. However I found the place too noisy and crowded for my liking and hence the next day I shifted to a wonderful hotel named Bohemian Masala, which although is a bit further away from the beach, it is very idyllic and peaceful. In short the perfect place for me to wind up my journey.
If I was asked to mention the highlights and “best part” about this trip, I would be at a loss as it seems to me that in my mind every experience and each memory is jostling for recognition every waking second. No, it could not be done. At least not by me.
I would like to make special mention here to the Tourism department, the K.S.R.T.C Buses, the local D.T.P.C offices who have done a wonderful job to promote tourism and make the entire experience as stress free as possible. And how could I not thank the wonderful people of Kerala, every person I met, each individual I interacted with, their broad smiles, their upright stance, their openness helped me bridge the language barriers, the initial hesitation of mingling vanished and I felt that I learned a lot about myself in trying to learn more about them. If the old saying “The People Make The Place” is true that I must say that Kerala is truly a Becoming Place!!
I now know why Kerala is known as God’s own Country…….and I feel doubly fortunate as I had this feeling that He was very much in attendance during my entire journey.As for me, I’m very much back in Mumbai, running on 150% efficiency and wondering where my backpack and walking shoes are going to lead me next!!.