Listening to the sounds of the forest from the terrace of our room became surprisingly addictive. By no means avid birdwatchers, the conversations that seemed to be going on through various chirps, tweets and songs were still mesmerising. As well as treepies and parakeets, one of the most frequently heard was the racket-tailed drongo, which has a particular talent for mimicking other bird calls.
We were a five hour drive from Cochin in the south-western ghats of Thekkady – an area offering a welcome respite from the stifling heat and humidity of the coast. Famous for its spice plantations, as well as being home to the Periyar tiger reserve, it’s well worth the drive as you climb the winding roads passing tuk-tuks, local buses and the occasional elephant with its mahout steering the way. There is plenty of accommodation in the town itself but we headed another 5 miles out of town, and further up into the plantations to Aanavilasam – a recently opened luxury homestay owned by Keralan photographer Salim Pushpanath and run by a friendly and welcoming Finnish ex-pat.
Set within three hectares of a lush cardamom plantation interspersed with pepper, banana, coffee and spice trees, Anavilasam – meaning elephant corridor – is home to myriad species of birds. Unfortunately there are no longer elephants. Plantation manager Subesh gave us a guided tour, pointing out all the different spices – nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, turmeric and allspice, which is grown purely for its smell and not taste –– and explained the process of drying out the cardamom in their surprisingly small factory room. Bedrooms are either in the main building itself, or a short walk away immersed in the plantation, and some come with a private pool.
Alongside birdsong, other chatter could also be heard: all day ladies from across the border in Tamil Nadu crouch under the cardamom plants to pick the pods that grow across the floor. Harvesting works in a rotation, and when the pods are picked from one area, they simply move on to the next to allow time for the next bunch to ripen.
The main draw to Thekkady for tourists is the Periyar tiger reserve. Having read in guide books that the boats are often rowdy – although unconvinced that a 7am departure could possibly be that raucous – we opted for the 3 hour nature walk, a remarkably cheap 1200 rupees (£12 approx.) for up to four, plus a £3 park entrance fee. This needs to be booked in advance, but the drivers can help with the inevitable formalities. The walk from the car park to the starting point was only 300m, and should have been a relaxed stroll at such an early hour. Instead we found ourselves among noisy tourists, dressed more appropriately for a Sunday family gathering than a visit to a wildlife reserve. Fortunately for us they all jostled for boat tickets in long queues, and we had the park to ourselves – apart from the tiger that had been roaming the same paths earlier that morning. Having donned leech socks and boarded a rather precarious bamboo raft to take us to the other side of the lake, we set off with a park ranger to explore.
The 900 sq km reserve is home to more than 20 tigers, and around 1000 elephants along with bison, wild boar, macaques, Sambar deer and the Malabar giant squirrel. The spotting of a tiger’s fresh paw print was gripping, knowing it was probably watching us from close quarters, but meant that all other animals were still in hiding. Unfortunately for us, we only saw the squirrel, some monkeys and a lone wild boar strolling along the path. The ranger said this was very unusual and seemed genuinely disappointed.
Thekkady surprised me. There was more on offer than I’d expected, and even without many wildlife sightings, waking up before dawn and walking alongside fresh animal tracks was exciting, and the scenery beautiful. But for me, its real beauty came from escaping into the plantations and sitting for hours to listen to its sounds.
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