What do nature-lovers want on their perfect holiday? Some of us want to have a quite drink in front of lush green hills, and mountains with a hint of mist teasing you from their peaks. Some of us want to float on a river and watch the sunlight play on clear blue waters, while kingfishers and other water birds swoop down around you to hunt for their prey. As cliché as it may sound, some of us just want to watch a gorgeous sunset over a never-ending sea, or walk barefoot on the beach on a clear, blue day. And if you decide to be greedy and choose to do all these things and more, then South India is the place for you. This week, we bring you a two-part travel diary of a trip that starts at the Western Ghats mountain range in the state of Kerala and finishes in Kanyakumari, the gorgeous coastal town on the southernmost tip of India.
Planning the trip
While Bangladeshis tend to travel to West Bengal and North India for holidays, South India and especially Kerala has long been popular tourist destinations as well. This means that a preliminary search on Google will give you many options to choose from in terms of popular (or secluded) spots to visit and hotels to stay in. You will find travel companies who will arrange the whole trip, including a car – which is essential since certain parts aren't accessible by public transport and the information on rail/bus travel is not easy to find either. The package that this writer personally travelled on cost around Tk 25,000 per person, which included the cost of nine days of travel by car and eight nights at some very nice hotels. A bargain, if you ask me! The other sizeable expenditure from the trip will be booking your flights into and out of India. We started with a flight from Dhaka to Kolkata, and from Kolkata to Kochi, although it is just as easy to fly via Mumbai or Chennai as well.
Misty mountains of Munnar
Kochi airport is actually quite far from the port city itself, so we decided to skip the city and take a car straight to the Munnar hill-station, which is around 5,200 ft above sea level. The journey takes around four hours but the view will make you forget any discomforts of the long trip – it is absolutely stunning! Just hours and hours of the brilliant green that only blooms on the hundreds of young leaves in tea gardens, with high mountains and low clouds in the background, and the occasional mountain waterfall trickling down once-rocky surfaces. Of these, the Cheeyappara and Valara watergfalls are most well-known and can be quite crowded in peak seasons, but if you want somewhere more secluded to dip your toes into the clear, cold water and enjoy the view, there are plenty of spots to choose from.
And this is only on the road to Munnar. The company that we travelled with, called Seasonz India Holidays, definitely deserves to be commended for choosing an incredible resort for us to stay in. Right in the middle of tea gardens, with a view of the mountains on one side and orange orchards in the back – Dream Catcher resort in Munnar deserves its cheesy name – this is such stuff as dreams are made on. While the resort itself is the perfect place to sip a cup of tea, and read a book while swinging on the garden hammock, it is also a painful distraction from all the other beautiful places to travel to from Munnar. The Mattupetty Dam and Kundala Lake are a short drive, and other than the beautiful view, you also have the opportunity to take a speedboat or pedal boat and explore the lake yourself. This part of Kerala also has the Eravikulam National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that among a host of mammals, birds and amphibians, is also home to the largest surviving population of the endangered Nilgiri tahr.
A long detour to Thekkady
If you are an amateur wildlife photographer or generally just love seeing animals in their natural habitat, then the four hour long drive to the Periyar National Park in Thekkady is totally worth it. If you're not, then it might seem like too much effort for just one day, although this writer would strongly recommend the trip. Once you enter, you will be incredibly underwhelmed to see the size of the park – until you realise that this giant nature reserve (925 sq km) is so untouched that the only way to properly go into it is via boat on the Periyar river that runs through it, or by jeep if you are willing to put more cash into it. For the even more avid adventurers, you can pay the park to go on guided trekking and camping trips into the forest.
There are 35 species of mammals at the park, which is an important tiger and elephant reserve, although you are extremely unlikely to come across the former. However, you will definitely see herds of Indian bison and sambar (a type of deer) grazing on the shores, and we came across a family of river otters as well. The park also holds around 265 species of birds, including hornbills, hawk-eagles, parakeets and more. And of course, what is a trip to a subcontinental forest/grassland without running into monkeys? If you're lucky, you will also be able to see herds of wild elephants. While on the topic of elephants, you will see them in almost all of South India, especially in the touristy places. Unfortunately, all of these will be elephants in captivity, cruelly bound in chains and being whipped to carry gullible tourists for entertainment. If you really are a fan of these beautiful creatures, please do take the time out to watch these happy families at nature reserves from afar. You will be able to see the stark contrast between wild elephants and captive ones yourself.
Houseboat in Alleppey
The backwaters of Kerala are an important part of the unique ecosystem of South India – a labyrinth of interconnected canals, lakes, rivers and inlets where freshwater from the rivers meets seawater from the Arabian Sea. Floating on a houseboat on some part of almost 900 km of waterways is a must-do in Kerala. If you happen to be from the land of rivers, this might not seem as unique an experience as it would to some tourists, but it is still wonderfully peaceful to just float on the clear water, watching fishermen haul in their catch, with hawk-eagles circling above waiting for a chance to swoop, and coconut trees gently swaying on either side of the shore. Personally, I preferred navigating the narrower canals on a smaller boat (more on this next week!), but the traditional Kerala houseboat was definitely a unique experience. Although you can decide to splurge on the more luxurious houseboats and spend the night, we would recommend just taking a day trip on the cheaper ones, since you spend the night being tied to the shore anyway.
To find out about where to travel to from here, make sure you check next week's magazine. Till then, Veendum Kaanaam!