Reader Jaya Mary Asirvatham shares her experiences off the beaten path in Kerala, India.
Kerala, a state in India, is a well-known tourist destination known for its backwater houseboats, Ayurveda massages and hill stations but there is another attraction that is often overlooked – the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Commonly known as Periyar Tiger Reserve, this is prominent as a tiger and an elephant reserve. There are around 1,000 elephants and 24 tigers in the park. It was gazetted as a national park in 1982, and has been assessed as “very good” by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. It is the oldest and largest protected area in Kerala and is a national model of tribal and local community participatory conservation.
Periyar Tiger Reserve is suitable for anyone, including non-adventurous types who are interested in wildlife sightings. To visit the park, one can either take a flight to Cochin and head to Periyar or, as I did, board a train to Kottayam (approximately 110km away) and take a bus to Kumily town.
Ample accommodation is available, from hotels to chalets, provided early bookings are made for the peak season. The best season to visit is from October to May.
After checking into Michael’s Inn, I took a 10-minute walk to the Eco Tourism Information and Reservation Centre to book my activities. The normal programmes provided are boating for wildlife-sighting, hiking and trekking, bamboo-rafting, tiger trail and tribal heritage performances.
The tribal communities of the reserve include Mannans, Paliyans, Uralis, Ulladans, Malam-pandarams and Malarayans. They have partial or complete dependency on the forests for various purposes.
The tribal art performance is an hour-long show on a daily basis from 6pm to 7pm. The show begins with a brief introduction to the tribal communities, the explanation for each dance and ends with a memorable photoshoot with them.
We witnessed the Paliyan and Mannan dances, which were vigorous. Each dance movement represented a different ritual performed during the harvest festival, marriage or death ceremony, hunting and other festive events. It was awesome!
The night walk from 7-10 pm was with a ranger and an armed guard. The terrain was not tough but it was really dark. I saw pairs of eyes glowing in the dark – it turned out to be a herd of gaurs resting.
As I walked deeper into the forest, I heard the sound of branches breaking. The ranger signalled to us to be quiet. The sound came from a herd of elephants across the river some 50m away. The ranger seemed tense. I was asked to sit still on the ground. Wonder and fear enveloped me as I heard the elephants rambling about.
We had two choices: A half-day or a full-day tour. I opted for the full-day tour from 8am to 5pm, a combination of paddling 10km around the lake and a trek. The package comes with a packed lunch of chappati, pastries, fruits and bottled water.
After crossing the lake on a raft, we trekked an hour through the forest where I saw traces of fresh elephant dung, tigers’ scratch marks on the bark of a tree, a gaur’s skull, birds, spiders, mongoose and boars.
It’s the perfect activity for those wanting to get away from civilisation. There were seven of us on the raft, including two Irish, an English national and an Indian.
We seemed to be the only ones around. Only three rafts are available each day and the occupants are guided by two local rangers and a gunman.
It was a very peaceful journey. I saw Brahminy Kites perched on submerged trees and water birds feeding. I was amazed at the raft design with its seats made from bamboo and tied with string.
I was so excited to spy a mother elephant and its young grazing along the bank of the lake.
The boatman was kind enough to bring us nearer. We were merely 30m away when we saw the mother elephant turning away from its calves and stomping in the direction of our raft.
We were quite panicky as the boatman tried to steer us away while the gunman had his finger on the trigger. A loud trumpeting sound came from the mother elephant.
That’s when the rest of us thought of jumping into the lake to save ourselves!
The ranger told us to remain seated and said it was just the mother elephant’s way of warning us to stay away as she wanted to protect her calves. What a thrill it was!
As the herd moved away, we docked, and had our scrumptious lunch while taking in the beauty and serenity of Periyar Lake.
Four nights and five days are sufficient for a stay at Periyar and, if your expectations are reasonable, you won’t be disappointed!
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