We decided to escape from the heat at the coast and head inland to the Western Ghats for mountain scenery and the possibility of more wildlife sightings. We spent the first few days with our friends Malcolm and Linda in Kumily so travelled there in style in a shared taxi- just a pity that we had to wait 2 hours for it to arrive (much like a local bus). Kumily is surrounded by spice and coffee plantations.
Kumily is the gateway to the Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve - most of the wildlife spotting is done from the lake in the Park. We booked a full day jungle safari by jeep, comprising a 40km driving through the reserve, a 3 hour trek and a boat trip. We assumed, quite wrongly, that the trek was in the reserve and the boat trip was on the main lake - we obviously haven't yet learnt to ask all the right questions before booking. The trek was outside the Park with a guide who thought that you could spot more wildlife if you walked very fast - as a result he was miles ahead of the group and would have frightened the wildlife away before we could see it - if there had been any to see! We only saw a troupe of Lion-tailed macaques in the distance, which apparently are very rare. Also saw lots of elephant dung - not too impressive.
Periyar National Park
Paparazzi in Periyar National Park
The boat trip wasn't what we expected - a rowing boat on a small man made lake with no wildlife in sight at all - the lakes in Crystal Palace Park and Southport Botanical Gardens are both more exciting. It wasn't all bad as the scenery from the jeep and on the walk was really nice with distant views of hills, forest, monkeys and bison. But the highlight of the day, on the drive back, was spotting a Malabar Giant Squirrel - an amazing animal that looks like a huge soft toy with its front paws and chest made from a different coloured fabric.
Malabar Giant Squirrel - photo taken by Malcolm
We stayed at Green View which had a lovely garden full of trees and spices such as black pepper. We saw more birdlife, and the occasional monkey, in the garden than on any of our walks. We also had a TV so we watched the Australian Open Men's final - say no more.
Green View garden
As we said, we were hoping to escape the heat and although the days were warm and sunny it felt much cooler and we all ended up getting sunburnt on our first walk - forgetting that the sun was even stronger at altitude. We then left Kumily, and Malcolm and Linda, to go to Munnar, this time by bus. The local buses have bars rather than glass in the windows and we froze on the 5 hour journey through the hills with our fleeces locked away in our backpacks at the back of the bus. The scenery on the way was spectacular with spice plantations, especially cardamoms, giving way to tea plantations as the altitude increased. Most of the tea plantations are owned by Tata, which seems to have a finger in every pie in India.
Tea town en route to Munnar
Munnar is an old hill station at 1450m - it's even cooler here and we were glad of blankets at night. The town has little to offer but it's surrounded by great scenery of hills, waterfalls and more tea plantations. We just stayed two nights there so booked a full day tour with two other Brits to see as much as possible. This included a 2 hour trek with dolmens, 9000 year old rock art, distant views of bison and the sound of a large animal crashing through the undergrowth uncomfortably close - another bison we were told. We saw more bison on the way back - this time a lot closer.
Anamudi - the highest peak in Southern India
We stayed at a homestay overlooking the river (and one of Munnar's two golf courses, built by Scottish tea plantation owners many years ago). The cook was incredibly grumpy in the mornings refusing to cook anything but fried eggs or omelette - but he did make a great dinner one night when we ate with the other guests. For once the English speakers were outnumbered and the majority of the conversation was in Italian.
We saw this boy with his dog cycling through Munnar:
The bus from Munnar to Cochin was probably the oldest and most uncomfortable that we have taken. The road down to the coast was very windy, causing one of our fellow passengers to lose his breakfast on the way down. Colin tried to miss the bus at the toilet stop but Sue and a group of local boys managed to persuade the driver not to take off without him - although his leisurely saunter back wasn't really helping.
We're spending our last few days in India chilling out at the beach and our clifftop garden in Varkala. All the accommodation and restaurants are perched on the clifftop, mostly at the North end of the beach. We're at the South end staying in a bungalow in a lovely cool garden shaded by palm trees with views over the sea. The beach has miles of golden sand and is really quiet - it's too hot for us to sunbathe on the beach so we just go down to swim and then back to the deckchairs and hammocks in the garden.
Our local beach
The only downside has been the sea, which is quite rough with occasional huge waves. Unfortunately, Sue first lost her prescription sunglasses after being hit by a wave, despite them being secured with a cord and then the following day her goggles (also with prescription lenses) went the same way. We spent quite a lot of time looking for them but not surprisingly without any joy. Sue was then dashed against a rock, grazing her leg and foot, so she's not really impressed by the sea here.
We met up with Linda and Malcolm again so have had some sociable (and boozy) dinners, taking advantage of the wonderful fresh tiger prawns and a great selection of fish including marlin, butterfish, snapper, tuna, barracuda and kingfish. It was hard to believe we were in India, walking along the cliff choosing a restaurant - it felt more like a Mediterranean resort.
We decided to try the local Ayurvedic massage - quite a different experience. Instead of lying on a towel you stripped naked and lay on what looked like a groundsheet on a table and had loads of oil slathered over you. It was definitely an all-over intimate body experience with same sex masseurs - virtually no stone was left unturned! The hardest part was turning over half way through with the potential to slither straight off the table. The strangest part was at the end when we were soaped and shampooed by our masseurs - we both drew the line at letting them dry us too.
Flying off to Sri Lanka tomorrow - looking forward to a new country, although it will be strange to leave India after such a long time here.