The story's end
The final chapter of my North Kerala adventure was to unfold at Wayanad Wild, a discreet lodge hidden away in a reserve of primary rainforest and waterfalls in sight of looming Chembra Peak, one of the highest points in the Western Ghats. Wild elephants, leopards and even tigers roam the reserve, although in reality sightings of the latter are vanishingly rare. Resident naturalist Maneesh Manu had stories to tell about “thrilling small things we might encounter on nature treks.”
Oddly, the sort of forest residents Maneesh meant turned out to be implausibly large: butterflies as big as both your hands; metre-long Malabar giant squirrels with faces like koalas, leaping and crashing through branches; and in a clear, fast-flowing stream, sinister-looking black tadpoles with heads the size of quails’ eggs.
On a night hike, Maneesh knew where to find rare Western Ghats endemics such as a Malabar tree toad, and bizarre bioluminescent fungi glowing eerily on the rotting bark of dead tree trunks. His torch beam scoured the undergrowth to alight on quivering eyes in the bulbous head of a green vine snake.
Snakes stir unsettling sensations in me. A flick of forked tongue flitted me back to the writhing serpents of Gulikan’s headdress, despite this forest of the night feeling a world away from the frenzy of a Theyyam.
At dawn, on the balcony of my cabin in the leafy canopy, I watched a hornbill sail gracefully past, then a long-armed Nilgiri langur slinking from tree to tree. It was transcendently serene, a moment to reflect on the stories that had unfolded on my journey through Kerala’s lesser-known north. It had been packed with hypnotising energy, captivating history, and escapes to pristine wilderness. And all lifted to heightened levels by Mohan, Binusha, Farhan and their fellow tellers of illuminating tales.
The author travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838330; audleytravel.com) on a 12-night tailormade trip based on two sharing. This included international flights, all transport in a private car with driver and B&B accommodation.
When to go
Kerala is warm year-around with relatively little seasonal variation in temperature (27°C-29°C).
December to March is the dry, peak seasons. In June to August the south-west monsoon drenches the state. Lighter, less frequent rain can also be expected in April, May and September to November. That said, traditional weather patterns are becoming decreasingly reliable.
Most Theyyan performances happen November to April.
Etihad Airways expect to resume flights from London Heathrow and Manchester to Calicut (Kozhikode Airport) via Abu Dhabi. Flight time was around 13 hours. Alternatively, BA or Virgin connect at either Delhi or Mumbai, and then on to Cochin (Kochi) International Airport from there.
The author was driven by car as part of a pre-arranged package. Except for those on backpacker-basic budgets, this is the norm. There is a railway all the way up the Malabar coast, and bus services to Wayanad. In towns, auto-rickshaws are the easy option.
Cost of travel
India is cheap by UK standards and North Kerala especially so because prices have not been inflated by mass tourism. Expect to pay about INR900 (roughly £10) per person for a meal in a good-standard restaurant.
Raviz Kadavu (theraviz.com) is the pick of the Calicut five-star properties, just a short drive from the city centre, standing at the edge of a peaceful backwater. B&B doubles from £46.
A wellness retreat of understated opulence, Neeleshwar Hermitage (neeleshwarhermitage.com) is peerless on the Malabar coast. B&B doubles from (£193).
For a houseboat experience, the Lotus (thelotuskerala.com) offers elegance, peace and pampering. Double cabin from £198 for one-night cruise including all meals.
It’s an immersive experience at Pepper Trail (peppertrail.in), a family-run plantation with roots in the Raj. Accommodation is in luxury rooms and treehouses. B&B doubles from £73.
Wayanad Wild (cghearth.com/wayanad-wild) offers individual cabins with balconies, hidden in the forest canopy. A range of hiking and wildlife trips included. B&B doubles from £89.