Exploring Kerala and the Western Ghats, India

Rolling tea estates, forest tribes, rare monkeys – and was that a leopard? There’s more to Kerala than those beautiful backwaters

7 mins

“Lyn – wild dogs!”

I’d been so transfixed by the lion-tailed macaque on the roof of the bus shelter that I hadn’t noticed the dholes – Indian wild dogs, and incredibly rare – that had just crossed the road.

There was a cacophony of shouts, barks and screams from down the hill. Sinna, my guide, called to some people outside the row of small houses that were home to tea-plantation workers here in the Anaimalai Mountains: it seemed a pack of dogs had just seized a goat.

We ran down a slippery mud path and into a grassy clearing but there was no sign of them; they’d already melted into the forest behind. Apparently there were about 30 in the pack – one goat would have been a mere hors d’oeuvre.

An Indian success story

My trip to Kerala had started rather more sedately, in Kochi – or Cochin, as everyone still calls it. I’d explored the evocative streets of Fort Cochin, taken rubbish photos of the iconic Chinese fishing nets, and had a taster of the traditional music and dance. I’d also bumped into guidebook writer David Abram. “I’m not sure why Kerala is so popular,” he mused.

“It hasn’t got any great sights like other parts of India.”

“But you love it, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes, definitely,“ he smiled, “but I’m always surprised when other people get as passionate about it as I do.”

True, Kerala hasn’t got incredible monuments. But what it has got is natural beauty: lush green valleys, sparkling waterways, unspoilt beaches, forested reserves, tea plantations and waterfall-clad mountains. Hindus, Christians and Muslims live cheek by jowl in this liberal state, literacy is high, life expectation the highest in India, and the abject poverty you see in some parts of the country less in evidence. All in all, Kerala is a success story and, with its laid-back atmosphere, a perfect introduction to the subcontinent.

Unmissable: the vast labyrinth of rivers

I couldn’t visit Kerala without experiencing the backwaters, a vast labyrinth of rivers, canals, lakes and lagoons that extend for almost half the length of this slip of a state. The most common way to explore is by cruising – for a few hours or a few days – on a ketuvallam houseboat, converted from a traditional rice barge. Brad and Angelina came here in 2005, and I had a nose around the huge double-decker they’d stayed in, before making myself at home on a more modest version.

As we chugged along we passed locals in small canoes; one family was rubbing their canoe with sardine fat, to waterproof it. Rice was being harvested on reclaimed land that had been turned into paddies, and a group of men were stacking sacks of it into a school for storage. The banks were bustling with activity: women were laundering clothes; a beautiful girl rinsed her lustrous black hair; people of all ages, shapes and sizes were washing themselves.

We saw a fisherman selling his catch from his canoe, shouting as he passed the houses; other people were fishing from their verandas. “The waters provide everything except their drinking water,” explained Sinna.

Cattle egrets stalked the paddy fields, white-headed brahminy kites sat sentinel in the trees and kingfishers flashed by. Gradually the sky became menacing, and the temperature dropped. We could see a storm heading towards us, so moored up, pulling down tarpaulins to shelter the deck.

As the tumultuous rain eased, the air was filled with the sound of quacking. I peeked out from under the tarp to be met by the slightly surreal sight of several hundred bedraggled ducks being herded past, all frantically trying to dry themselves off.

Kerala is a long, thin state, and from the backwaters it was only a half-day drive to the magnificent scenery of the Western Ghats, the mountain range that stretches 1,600km through south-west India. First stop was the small town of Munnar, centre of the tea-growing industry. About 130 years ago this area would have been thick with teak and ebony, and rich in wildlife. However, the British came, and after some experimentation, the area was cultivated for tea and coffee.

An abundance of wildlife

Despite the intense farming, the Western Ghats is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, with over 5,000 flowering plants, over 500 bird species and 139 mammals, including some rare and threatened species.

This part of the Ghats is known as the Anaimalai – ‘Elephant Hills’. The highest peak in the Ghats is in Eravikulam National Park, home to the Nilgiri tahr, a rare mountain goat. There are only around 2,000 of these tahrs; 40% of them live in the park. The habitat is mostly grassland, and the tahrs are often spotted on the slopes near the park entrance. I was lucky enough to see a few through my binoculars.

I was less successful at spotting the fabled pohayan, a mysterious big cat with a ‘smoky coat’ that has been sighted many times in the park. Leopards are sometimes seen, and the park staff told me that a tiger had strolled past their office just a couple of days earlier. Fortunately poaching is uncommon these days, as the park works with local tribal communities to ensure they benefit from tourism.

Many of the old planter bungalows on the tea estates have been turned into accommodation for travellers who want a glimpse of the colonial days. I spent a night at Talliar Bungalow, built in 1924 by a Sir William Mackenzie, who ran the Talliar tea estate from 1910 to 1945. This is still very much a working estate, with 650 people employed here. Like the other estates, Talliar is a self-contained community, with its own hospital and school.

I was woken at 5.30am the next morning by a workers’ siren. After a typical breakfast of idli, dosa, chutney and sambar (the chowder, not the deer of the same name), we drove out, passing a protected sandalwood forest, and into Tamil Nadu. After driving through the forested Anaimalai Tiger Reserve we descended to a flat plain, heavily cultivated with betel nuts, peanuts, mangoes, papaya and maize. Inevitably, there was also the ubiquitous coconut palm.

A twisting road took us back up into Kerala

Back to the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, which was declared a tiger reserve in February 2010. As the crow flies, we were not far from Eravikulam, but the only way to access the park by road is from Tamil Nadu.

The road was lined with magnificent stands of bamboo, clacking in the breeze; behind them we could see teak and rosewood trees. Macaques and langur monkeys watched us drive past, amongst them the endangered Nilgiri langurs, with their glossy dark coats and tufty golden hair-dos.

The hills, forests and rivers of Parambikulam are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. The sanctuary is run by visionary warden Sanjayan Kumar, who has transformed the place since he took over in 2006. “Kerala is highly populated, so there is pressure on the land. It was a challenge to protect the forests day and night,” he told me. “If there are tribes still."

The hills, forests and rivers of Parambikulam are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. The sanctuary is run by visionary warden Sanjayan Kumar, who has transformed the place since he took over in 2006. “Kerala is highly populated, so there is pressure on the land. It was a challenge to protect the forests day and night,” he told me. “If there are tribes still living in the forest, the situation is worse. We can’t be an oasis of conservation… we empower the people by employing them. Ecotourism is a tool in the conservation of our forest.”

Four tribal communities live here, and there is a range of initiatives to keep them gainfully employed, from running boat trips to leading walks to producing honey. At dusk the verges along the sanctuary’s roads came alive with creatures great and small. Herds of spotted deer gazed at us as we drove past, and wild boars trotted across the road. Most impressive of all were the gaur – the world’s largest bovine, the huge black males pushing 2m tall.

Was that a leopard?

In the morning I woke in my comfortable safari-style tent to what sounded like a human whistling tunelessly outside. This transpired to be a Malabar whistling thrush, which became the soundtrack to my stay.  

A guide called Shamugam took me on a bird walk, and within minutes we were spotting drongos, orioles and gorgeous little scarlet minivets. I was captivated by a pair of Malabar giant squirrels, almost a metre long; as I looked up at them I wondered why the langurs were making alarm calls. Then I heard a cough coming from the forest. When we returned to camp there was a palpable buzz of excitement: a leopard had been seen by some of the staff. When they described the direction it had been heading, it would indeed have been close to us. Was that the cough I heard?

My driver had recently seen a leopard at my next destination, back up in the tea plantations, but this time on the Tamil Nadu side of the Anaimalai Mountains. We took a dramatic road up, with 40 hairpin bends; rival troops of macaques waited at scenic viewpoints on the way, ready to mug tourists.

Stanmore bungalow is another throwback to colonial days. The three bedrooms are huge, the lawn well manicured, the staff polite and eager. Chef Ranga is a legend. His food was terrific but it took a while to relax while eating it: Ranga served me a dozen dishes at dinner, and he and the staff watched to check I’d sampled them all. No wonder I put on half a stone.

Outside the view was over rolling hills covered in neat tea gardens. The Stanmore estate is a major producer in the area and grows pekoe – ‘rich man’s tea’. Groups of colourfully dressed women worked amongst the waist-high bushes, using a new type of shears that collects the leaves.

They smiled shyly as I explored the local lanes, with some expressing concern that I was wandering on my own: wasn’t I worried about wild animals?

On the lookout

In the morning an atmospheric mist hung over the valleys as we drove to a spot known for lion-tailed macaques, one of the rarest and most endangered primates in the world. We met up with Chinnasuamy, a former watcher on the tea estate, whose job was to stop wildlife raiding the crops. As we pulled up, he was excitedly watching Kerala’s state bird– a great hornbill. The early morning sun was glinting on the gold of its head, and highlighted its massive yellow beak and ivory casque.

The hornbill looked majestic at first. But then he tried to hop onto another branch, which gave way under his weight. He was left swinging through the air, before hurling himself at a nearby bough – which he missed with his feet but caught with his neck. He hung by his chin for a couple of seconds before he managed to pull himself up into a more dignified position.

Up near him in the trees sat the dark shapes of some lion-tailed macaques, which suddenly started to hoot in a very un-lion-like way. And that’s when Sinna spotted the wild dogs. After that excitement, we headed back to the offices of the local tea estate. A lion-tailed macaque was on the roof of a bungalow that belonged to a field officer, and his wife beckoned us in. Zubaida explained that the macaques often came round looking for food. The official line is that no one feeds them… but funnily enough there are often scraps around.

Other macaques had appeared on the nearby trees and roofs. We went inside Zubaida’s house and a dominant male macaque peered in at us through the window; I now knew what it was like for a monkey in a cage, with an inquisitive human starring in.

Eventually the whole troop appeared, some of them venturing down to the ground in search of anything to nibble. Zubaida remained remarkably sanguine about the monkeys that were playing on her washing line, upturning plant pots and picking seeds out of her tiny garden. It was a surreal scene, given their reputation for avoiding human contact.

Further up the lane was Woodside, a beautiful, 140-year-old colonial bungalow; it is believed that the Mountbattens used to visit. Sadly, an attempt to restore it by a previous owner has left it with a bad subsidence problem. However, one late afternoon we went to Woodside for a sundowner.

We sat in the gazebo while dusk fell, and fireflies danced around the garden. Suddenly, there was a loud crack from the trees. Could it be the elephant that had been seen here yesterday? We heard a few more cracks – before all went quiet. It was frustrating not being able to see the mighty beast, but heartening to know that India’s wildlife is still hanging on up in the Elephant Hills.

The author travelled with TransIndus

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