Kerala has more than its fair share of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in the Western Ghats. Of these, the Periyar Tiger Reserve at Thekkady [Kumily] is the most visited. It is our favourite wildlife reserve simply because we have always seen wildlife there on every trip, without even trying to!
At a mean altitude of around 900m, Periyar is never too warm. A wide brimmed hat at mid day in the height of summer is more than sufficient for comfort. Periyar is pleasantly cool in winter.
The visitor to Periyar has a lot to choose from the various “eco tourism” activities jointly promoted by the Forest Department along with the local tribals who used to be former poachers and obviously know the jungle best. The authorities have permitted the indigenous tribals to live in the periphery and to fish in the lake.
Those who want to see wildlife and who does not, must make the effort to do the first boat ride in the morning. Only the morning ride offers guaranteed sightings and most people who complain about not seeing wildlife here have taken later boat rides. We always prefer to walk to the jetty from the main entrance, so as to enjoy the Nilgiri Langurs and Giant Malabar Squirrels along the way. Not to mention the multitude of birds.
KTDC operates double decker boats, suspended for awhile after the terrible tragedy of 2009, but now very much back in action, albeit with compulsory life jackets for all. The Forest Department offers single deck boats. Both offer equally good views! Tip: Get your hotel to book the tickets in advance especially in peak season, this will save you having to queue up for tickets early in the morning. All the boats depart in a synchronized flotilla at 7.30am or more usually after all passengers are on board.
As always, we saw bisons, elephants, sambar and wild boar. Some people have seen otters but we have never had such luck. The boat ride lasts about 2 hours offering excellent photo opportunities for beautiful landscapes, apart from wildlife. We sorely missed having a high optical zoom camera on our visits, which is a convenient excuse to go back. Remember to carry a good pair of binoculars, else you will have to make do with the pathetic Chinese ones available on rent.
Of the several activities available, we have done the forest treks and on our last trip we did the whole day bamboo rafting programme. This was quite a new experience involving rafting through the lake on a bamboo boat along with several stretches of walking through the forest. In all we must have walked about 14km that day, and it was worth it. We were fortunate to be the only people that day so we had the two guides and one armed guard giving us personalised attention throughout. The guides effortlessly lug heavy packs of simple home style breakfast, lunch and tea with crockery and cutlery thrown in for good measure. Leech socks which are canvas putties tied to your shoes are given to those who do the forest treks etc. They are not really necessary except when it is very moist and of course in the rains – when most activities are suspended anyway. Here are the pictures from the bamboo rafting day:– literally \’tied wood\'”]
There are three hotels run by KTDC within the sanctuary, apart from Forest and Irrigation department guest houses. Hotels and lodges are available at all price ranges in Kumily. On our last trip we stayed inside the sanctuary and spent one day just wandering about on our own through the several short pathways leading from the road to the lakeshore. I was poring over some bright red caterpillars when my husband suddenly pointed up to a tall tree.
A very rare, highly endangered Nilgiri Marten was peeping down at us from a crook in the tree. At the time we did not know it was a Nilgiri Marten and imagined it to be a type of giant squirrel – good enough for us. We took as many photos as we could in our excitement, though none of them came out well focused, no fault I might add of the camera. Nonetheless, they are priceless memories. Later on we learnt that it was a very rare sighting, and subsequently we have received enquiries from scientists and research scholars. Needless to say, that was the highlight of the trip.
The advantage of staying within the sanctuary is that at twilight if you take a short walk just out of your hotel, you are bound to see wild boar and sambar. Those who are interested can also stay at Gavi which is adjoining the sanctuary and offers its own array of “eco tourism” programmes run by the Kerala Forest Development Corporation. This is the place where a foreign tourist was killed by an elephant last year, however these one off incidents should not deter the visitor who wants to savour, and is willing to respect the wild. When we spotted elephants on our trek path while walking through the Periyar forest, our guides were most cautious and made us take a really long detour involving running some distance faster than the speed of light – or so it seemed at the time to us city slickers – to get away. They scolded us for stopping to take photos! Who would imagine that elephants can be so dangerous, they look so beatific and benign. One of our drivers whom we use on trips to the Nilgiris also told us that the most dangerous wild animal to fear even if you are in a closed vehicle, is the elephant. Especially if there are baby elephants around.
Kumily is also prime spice plantation country. Like everyone else, we too made the mandatory purchases of cardamom, cloves, pepper, vanilla et al in the market place. Another beautiful area we went to was Annakara, a short distance from Periyar. Chellarkovil is a rugged promontory here, overlooking the Kambam plains of Tamil Nadu, the high Palani ranges of Kodaikanal to the north, the Suruli waterfalls of Theni district in the mountains to the east and the Periyar reserve in the south. There is so much to enjoy in and around the Periyar Reserve, our few days are never enough and we look forward to spending at least a fortnight here on our next visit.
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