Of flora and fauna

nature walk

The bus hesitantly huffed up the steep mountainous slopes as the sun lazily rose through the dense forest, piercing the early morning mist. As we climbed higher up, a brilliant panoramic view of verdant fields in the plains below opened up.

spotted A slender-necked water bird , perched on the shaft of a tree jutting out of the surface of River Periyar. Half an hour later, the bus pulled into Kumily, a sleepy township in Kerala’s Idukki district, just across the border from Tamil Nadu, the base for most visitors to the Periyar National Park. Spreading over an area of almost 1,000 sq km, the park is one of Kerala’s largest wildlife reserves.

Kumily appeared to have vastly expanded since I last visited the town almost a decade ago. Dozens of hotels and lodges — catering to almost every traveller’s budget — had sprouted across the town, as had eateries and massage and ayurvedic treatment centres. An amiable autorickshaw driver guided me to a delightful, modestly-priced home-stay, where I was to spend the next week in near-perfect serendipity.

All along the road leading to the wildlife sanctuary, old bungalows had been tastefully converted into inns for tourists, mostly foreigners, and were evidently doing brisk business. Some innovative locals had even built bamboo huts atop enormous trees — simple but expensively-priced accommodation for travellers with a taste for adventure.

From Kumily to the boat landing in Thekkady, the centre of the separate zone within the Periyar reserve where tourists are allowed access, was a pleasant four kilometre walk, with almost impenetrable jungle spilling out on either side of the road. Birds busily squawked in the thickets. A party of racket-tailed drongos — graceful birds with tails shaped like spoons — swam in the clear sky. Giant spiders lazed in their intricately woven webs that hung like blankets from enormous trees.

A battalion of crickets kept up an incessant chatter. Dozens of gaily-painted butterflies and electric-hued dragonflies flitted about energetically. Black-faced monkeys scampered around, chattering excitedly. A slender hornbill suddenly flew across my path and disappeared into the forest. Trudging ahead, I spotted a pair of bushy-tailed pale-red Malabar squirrels snoozing high up on a tree. 

Unlike most other wildlife sanctuaries in India, where movement is generally greatly restricted, there is much that tourists can do in the Periyar National Park — thanks to the enterprise of the park authorities, who have developed several innovative programmes for visitors. The highlight of a visit to the park is a two-hour boat-trip, priced at a nominal Rs 40, across the vast lake that was formed when the Mullaperiyar dam on the Periyar river was constructed more than a century ago.

Early mornings and late evenings are the best time to take the boat ride. Turtles laze on rocks on the banks, sunning themselves, and shoals of fish dart about in the muddy waters. Slender-necked water birds nest on the shafts of trees that jut out of surface of the lake. The placid water shimmers with the soft light of the sun, and barring the gentle waves produced by the boat, nothing else moves — a picture of unsullied peace and silence.

Packs of wild boar and spotted deer saunter about in the distance. As the boat swims further down, a vast family of majestic gaur or Indian bison trudge down to the banks of the lake. Then, as the boat moves ahead, a lone elephant comes into view, but, on seeing the boat, it slides back into the jungle.

For the more adventurous, the park authorities offer several guided and fairly affordable trekking options. These include a one or two day trekking and camping experience deep inside the park; a one day trek-cum-rafting expedition; and a night trek patrolling the jungle. I chose the easiest option — a three hour trek — crossing the lake on a raft made of bamboos strapped together and then heading deep into the forest.

Pottering around in Periyar

No sooner did we get off the raft than my shoes were assailed by a horde of leeches — slender pink-coloured worm-like creatures that comically bounced their way to my feet. The ground, I noticed to my horror, was littered with these blood-sucking creatures, crazily dancing from leaf to leaf in search of gore. Monachan, our amiable guide, had provided us with special socks and tobacco powder to keep the leeches out, but that did nothing to prevent them from rushing towards us as we trudged ahead.

After a point, the narrow path gave way and soon we were blindly pushing ourselves through the dense undergrowth, with not a care that behind a neighbouring bush, a reptile or other animal might be lurking. An hour later, we were in really impenetrable forest — a rich profusion of fauna growing all around, with almost not an inch left bare. It was humid and dark here, and despite being mid-morning, pale slivers of sunlight struggled with difficulty to filter through the massive canopy formed by the tree-tops that spread all around.

Enormous bee-hives hung from giant trees. Wild cardamom bushes grew in rich profusion. The laughter of invisible monkeys pierced the eerie silence, followed by the machine-gun-like rattle of an energetic woodpecker in the far distance.

A frog with giant spectacle-like eyes hopped out of my way. A sharp-edged quill and abundant droppings indicated that a porcupine had recently passed by. In the distance, I spotted a lone bison sauntering. It is rare to encounter larger animals on such a short trek, though the sanctuary boasts many such species — including tigers, leopards, sloth bears and wild dogs.

Two hours later, we emerged out onto a grassy plain on the banks of the lake. A band of tribal men squatted patiently, their fishing rods dipped in the water. An army of cormorants rose up from the lake and headed in the direction of the surrounding hills.

I had initially expected that a week in Kumily would have been too much, but time sped by, and, before I knew it, it was time to return home. I spent several lazy mornings ambling simply around the town or walking through the forest; an evening watching a delightful Kathakali performance — held daily by an amazingly-gifted team — and a day trekking through tea and spice estates that spread out over the rolling cardamom hills that surround Kumily.

The guided tour I undertook through a tribal settlement at the edge of the Periyar reserve — home to several dozen families of the Mannan tribe — was definitely a major highlight of my trip. The Mannan, culturally distinct from the surrounding Malayali and Tamil-speakers, had once lived in almost total splendid isolation deep in the forest, but had recently been forced to leave their ancestral homes. From Shaji, my Mannan guide, I learnt a little about how a different way of life — that of his ancestors — which was at peace with nature, had once indeed been possible. 

Most tourists spare just a day or two for Kumily and its environs, but, as I discovered, even a week is perhaps not quite enough to really savour it.

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