Many things have obviously happened during the last 8 days, as we have traveled a few hundred kilometers and seen some amazing (mostly natural) things. We travelled from Kottayam to Kumily by bus, where the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is located. After a typical tasty Indian meal, at a local hotel (as in not a "restaurant") we followed a tout to a local homestay, which is the preferred method of lodging in Kumily, so as to avoid the overpriced hotels aimed at tourists. So we stayed at a nice place, called Summer Cottage, with our room on the 2nd floor, seperate from the family's living quarters. Our plans to visit Periyar the next day were foiled however, as a state-wide strike halted not just the buses (as we had been led to believe), but also virtually all the restaurants, stores, and even the boats within the Sanctuary. In addition, the prices were not what we expected, instead of 150 rupees for the first day and 50 rupees for subsequent days, it was 300 rupees each and everyday. Our initial plan of seeing Periyar for several days quickly changed then, and we decided we'd do one day only, unless we were simply so amazed that we had to go back. The strike day, therefore, we just laid low, though we did go see a Kathakali performance, a local type of dramatic performance, combining music, dance, drama, and acting, all to tell traditional Indian stories. While interesting, we were glad we'd attended a shortened-for-the-tourists rendition, instead of the normal allnight affair that Kathakali originally was. That also meant that our initial plan of going to Cochi after Periyar was nixed, as other than beaches Kathakali is the main attraction!
Our day at Periyar started later than initially intended, as we were ambitiously going to awake at 5 am to be at the park at 6 am when it opened, but Anderson accidentally mis-reset the clock, resulting in our sleeping until almost 9... but all worked out, as we didn't mind the extra sleep one bit, and we still got to experience the two things we wanted to at Periyar: a guided nature hike through the forest, and the park-sponsored boat-trip through the park's lake. Our 11 am nature hike was very nice, as it was just the two of us and our guide, following dirt paths through the forest for around 4-5 km. The walk took around 2.5 hours, during which we saw a variety of animals. No tigers or elephants, since both are hard to spot, though we did see ample elephant dung and several footprints, indicating that they had been around recently. Periyar is one of India's larger wildlife preserves, so it would seem that the animals would be quite aware of the habits and time schedule of their human visitors. But we did see several species of monkeys, a massive yellow spider, a white frog, and several types of birds. The highlight, however, was without a doubt the two endangered giant squirrels that we saw right before our hike ended - they were quite large (for squirrels), with jet-black bodies and bright red sides, and they calmly sat in the trees just above us, allowing for perfect nature photography! Right afterwards we had to re-cross a river, by bamboo raft, to get out of the main area of the park, at which time Anderson, while itching his leg, noticed that he was bleeding, from where a leech had latched itself one to him! We then tore off our socks and shoes to discover a bunch more, Liz had 6 in her shoes (though none had attached themselves yet), while Anderson had a total of 5 leeches, 3 of which were busy blood-sucking, though all for better-or-worse popped off when the socks were removed, so salt and/or a lighter weren't necessary, though the definitely had done some damage, as all 3 bites bled for quite a while, as leeches secrete an anti-coagulant when they attach themselves, so Anderson ended up with some very bloody socks.
After sitting around for a while, and enjoying some cake that we'd brought as our "lunch," we took the 4 pm boat ride (which cost only 15 rupees each), the last of the day, which was hyped as having the most animals out and about. We saw several herds of deer, some boar, a fairly large lizard, and many species of birds, including a bunch that were nest-bound with their young, on trees in the middle of the lake. So we had a great, full day, though we decided that one day was definitely enough, since we didn't think we'd see many more animals if we returned, even if we did one of the quite pricey (and thus unappealing) nature treks.
From Kumily we headed to Munnar, a mountain town surrounded by giant tea plantations, so our lengthy 5-hour bus ride was mostly spent slowly winding up lush green hills, which was certainly a bit nauseating, as Liz proved by losing her lunch near the top! Even so, the views were immaculate, with endless rows of tea being grown throughout vast valleys. The downside of bus travel is that things always take longer than they ought to, with buses arriving late, taking longer to navigate the bumpy roads, and up in the mountains they frequently stop to allow traffic to pass going the other way, since the road is often not quite wide enough for two vehicles. In addition, sitting on the bus here is much more exhausting than you might think, since the jostling is endless, the turns often force you to grab onto the seat in front of you for support, and without fail every bus is packed to at least capacity. This means no leg room, people pressed up against you for hours on end, and often we are packed in tight with our bags, since the ancient delapidated buses here are certainly not designed for global travellers with large backpacks! That being said, rides are extraordinarily cheap, never more than 40 or 50 rupees for a several hour ride, so although sometimes a bit stressful there is nothing one can rightfully complain about: you get what you pay for.
Munnar itself is accurately described by Lonely Planet as "grubby," but fortunately the surrounding hills are quite beautiful. Our three days there, then, were spent exploring the areas around the town. One afternoon we rented bicycles and rode a ways up one of the hills, which was quite tiring, but the relaxing ride back down, complete with cool mountain winds, made it a worthwhile exchange. That was in the early afternoon, since we needed to waste a little time waiting for the next bus to arrive, so that we could take a short daytrip up to Top Station. Top Station is basically a collection of tea stands high up in the mountains, on the Kerala/Tamil Nadu state border, but the views of the misty mountains were simply amazing. It is also home to the rare-blooming Neela Kurinji flower, which shows its beautiful purple flowers only once every 12 years. Luckily, November 2006 was the first bloom of the new millenium, which meant that even though we arrived a month too late to see purple-coated hills, we were still fortunate enough to see a few late-blooming plants. The ride up was just under 2 hours, so in order to catch the 5:30 (and final) bus back to Munnar, we had to hurry to the actual highpoint of Top Station, and were unable to relax and enjoy a cup of tea, much to the vendor's unhappiness, but at least we got to see the impressive view as well as the rare flowers, which we weren't even expecting to be able to see at all.
The next day we returned to our wildlife watching ways, journeying 9 km up into the hills to Ernavikulam National Park, one of the last remaining homes of the rare Nilgiri Tahr. Essentially a mountain goat, the tahr is ridiculously tame, such that they were hunted virtually into extinction by the British, and even today remain on the endangered species list. Their inherent tameness meant that we not only got to watch them feeding on the mountain steppes, but also were able to get within mere feet for photo opportunities, as a herd of around 20 or 30 tahr were feeding right next to the paved path up the mountain. Touching them is prohibited, obviously, but we were able to stand right next to them, even the young goats and the pregnant mothers (they give birth each January) didn't mind our presence at all. Definitely a drastic change from our experience at Periyar, where we had to keep our fingers crossed just to see the animals!
We were initially going to next head to the mountain town of Kodaikanal, in Tamil Nadu state, but we decided on a whim to check out Munnar's Forest Department Office, which had information on additional national parks, and after reading up about the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary, we decided to go there for a night, since it was on our way, but relatively off the beaten tourist trail. It is also home to numerous rare species of animals, from leopards and tigers to elephants and white bison. In addition, the had an overnight treehouse lodging option, for the low price of 1000 rupees per night, including meals. While 1000 rupees is technically over our daily budget, we figured staying the night in a national park was a worthwhile splurge, as well as a slightly-early Christmas present to ourselves... and it was definitely worth it!
The next day then, after spending a few hours winding through, and up and down, the tea-filled hills, we arrived at Chinnar just in time for our 2 pm check-in. After a bit of confusion about our reservation, which meant we were surrouned by 9 wildlife officials, all trying to determine whether "Anderson" was the same as "Andrews" or whatever scribbled writing they had written down as the reservation, we headed to our treehouse. The 1 km trek, with our huge bags in tow, wasn't all that bad, as fortunately our excitement enabled us to ignore the weight of our packs. Our lodging was indeed literally a house in a tree, accessible solely by a rope ladder, which then took a bit of maneuvering to climb with our 20 kg packs. But we made it, slowly but surely, and after a moment to relax, we headed off with our guide into the wilderness for an evening nature trek.
We quickly learned the difference between hiking and treking, as during our 3-hour journey we were never really on much of a path, instead we climbed up crumbling hills, cut through brambles and brush that needed to be hacked down first by our guide's everpresent machette, such that we were soon quickly covered in sweat and short of breath. It was all most definitely worth it, as we soon heard noises from the bushes, "ele-pants," we were assured. Then the most amazing thing yet, at least in India thus far, happened: as we rounded a corner, we got to see a huge male bull elephant, a "tusker," heading right for us! Our guide literally turned around and sprinted in the opposite direction, yelling at us "come, come, dangerous," so although National Geographic may never quite forgive us, we followed suit rather than stop to take pictures. Male elephants are definitely potentially dangerous though, as they can move quite quickly, are simply enormous, and since they are often leading other elephants, will not hesitate to attack anything that might be deemed a threat, which intruding Western tourists would certainly qualify as. The key to photographically hunting elephants, then, is to be far enough away that they cannot see you, but that you and your camera lens can safely see them. So, after quickly hiding in the nearby brush, we worked our way up a steep mountain slope, which was surprisingly covered with elephant tracks and droppings. The terrain seemed more suited to the tahr, which also live in Chinnar though we didn't see any, but it seems that elephants can travel through the hills more easily than we humans. After walking several kilometers, we worked our way up to a lookout point, high above the valley where we sighted the elephant. From above we were able to see numerous elephants, around seven or eight total, in two different groups, one feeding in a clearing and the other wandering across the hillside. It was really quite spectacular, as we had no expectations of seeing any elephants at all, since they are unfortunately getting more and more rare in the wild. We continued treking for a while longer, and while resting on another rocky hilltop we were able to see numerous bison, including one rare (and lucky) white bison, all wandering through the park to their sleeping places.
We're currently closing down this internet cafe, so we will continue our adventures soon, hopefully tomorrow...