Around the Western Ghats

Trip Start Dec 12, 2005
Trip End May 02, 2006

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Monday, April 3, 2006

Maire and I have just returned from our sixteen day taxi tour of the area around the Western Ghat Mountains. The total distance covered was 2800km and once again we had a full itinerary of wonderful places to visit.....This time we tried to keep the amount of time we spent driving to a minimum and thus give ourselves more time to enjoy the various locations. Once again, our driver was Raffi and the places we visited ranged from the high range mountain towns of Munnar, Kodaikonal and Ooty to the cities of Mysore and Kochin. We even found time to visit a religious retreat! I had hoped to do some updates to the journal while away but this was simply not possible so I shall deal with the journey over a few installments and as usual include a few pictures.

We left Varkala on Thursday 16th March and after about 90 minutes of driving we started to climb into the foothills of the Western Ghat Mountains. These form the boundary between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Raffi had to stop on route to get his shock absorbers seen to.....The suspension takes a real hammering on the bumpy Indian roads. Fortunately, the spare parts for Ambassador Vehicles are cheap and plentiful and all the work was completed while we stopped for a cup of tea at a roadside stall.

Our first nights stop was a hill town called Theckady where we were treated to a tour of a local spice garden. The garden was set up in 1947 by the father of our guide and he was a mine of information about the various plants, trees and shrubs that we were able to see.

We were booked into "Green View" hotel, which was clean and comfortable. One of the benefits of having a local driver is that he has a pretty good idea of what type hotels we were looking for. All of our hotels (with a couple of exceptions) were in the mid range of prices (around 500 to 1000 rupees per night) in every case these were comfortable and pleasant.

The following morning we were up for an early start as we were to go to the Periyar National Park for a spot of trekking. The trip to Periyar was undertaken in a jeep and we shared our vehicle with a family from Germany (although the father was in fact English) We were given an Indian Breakfast with the other trekkers and then split up into groups for the walk through the forest. Maire and I were assigned to a young local lad and the first question he asked was "Do you want a 1 hour, 2 hour or 3 hour walk." I told him that we could manage a three hour walk which seemed to disappoint him somewhat. We were all given gaiters to wear. These were necessary to keep the leeches which inhabit the undergrowth at bay. After about 15 minutes of walking I spotted our first (and as it turned out, our only) animal....A large snake which was curled up by the side of the path. Knowing that Maire is not at all happy with snakes, I decided to keep it to myself but a few seconds later she saw it for herself and gave a little shout of alarm.....This alerted our ever vigilant guide, who gave an even louder shout of alarm! He was clearly even more worried than Maire! Once he had removed himself to a safe distance (and the snake had slithered off into the undergrowth) he pronounced that it was a "viper" and not poisonous. I suspect the snake was a young python or similar snake and was about 8ft in length. At this point I was having doubts about the ability of our guide who said that he only been doing the job for about two months. Apart from a few birds we did not see any other wildlife. We did however see lots of evidence that elephants inhabit the park but when we came across. some very fresh dung.....our guide took us off down a detour in the opposite direction! Something told me that the very last thing that he wanted to be confronted with was any actual wildlife! Our three hour walk turned into two hours, obviously our guide had an urgent and pressing engagement and I am afraid that his tip reflected that fact. Once the other groups returned (None of them had actually seen anything of much interest) we had a pleasant lunch and the day was ended with a pleasant row in a boat on the lake. Once again, our guide was not terribly keen to over exert himself so I relieved him of the oars and enjoyed myself with a spot of waterborne exercise.

The next day saw us climb still higher up to the hill station of Munnar (1500 meters). The journey took 4 hours. It could have been much quicker but I kept stopping the car to enjoy the spectacular scenery. It seemed that at every turn in the road, the views became ever more stunning. I kept wondering if Dad had ever visited any of the tea plantations which abound in the area and I was thoroughly enjoying the smell of the tea bushes. Once we had settled into a pleasant little guest house we went out for a drive which took us to a little tea plantation village. Raffi took us down in to the plantation where we chatted to the workers who were cutting branches from the trees which they would burn in their cottages. They told us that the company give them 20 rupees for each tree they prune but the real value for them is in the wood that the pruning provides for their fires. The evenings in these hill stations can get very chilly indeed and we certainly needed our blankets to stay warm at night.

In the evening Raffi took us down to the local bazaar for some shopping and to eat our evening meal. Maire was not too sure about this idea but managed to eat an omelette. Raffi and I tucked into some more ethnic dishes. I chose a mutton and rice dish with parathas (all eaten with fingers, naturally) and followed that with a dish of quail's eggs. I have never tried them before but they were served in a tasty sauce which was delicious. The outdoor restaurant was packed with locals enjoying their Saturday night and they were delighted to see us eating the local food and voiced their considerable appreciation. We found the people of the hill towns to be friendly and extremely sociable.....I lost track of the number of times we were approached by people who just wanted to say "Hello" or very politely ask if they could have their photos taken with us. I think that we have been in more photos during the fortnight than Mr and Mrs Beckham!
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