I thought trekking in the South Indian jungles, camping out under the stars and sneaking up on wild elephants was something I’d only see in the movies, until I joined a group of adventurous travelers on the Periyar Tiger Trail.
Led by a small team of highly experienced guides — who have quit their former jobs as poachers of tigers, elephants and plants such as sandalwood and teak — our small, four-person group hiked into cool, green forests and out again into vast, sunny meadows; and hung out with an astounding array of wildlife including herds of wild elephants, sambar deer, lion-tailed macaques, otters, innumerable birds such as the brilliant blue kingfisher and the great pied hornbill, and more than 100 species of butterflies.
After three days, we emerged from the jungle — hot, dirty and tired, but grinning from ear to ear. It’s a life-changing experience, and I can’t wait to get back.
Oh yeah, there are tigers, too. If you’re lucky, you might also catch a glimpse of one of Periyar’s 41 protected tigers; we didn’t, but we thrilled at their growls, and on one trail, we came across a tree bearing evidence of their presence: eight-foot-high, deep claw marks exposing dark red wood beneath (an unsettling sight, to be sure).
I first heard about the park through a contact in England, and while on a trip to Kerala with my sister, Carey, I thought I’d give it a try. It was March — the hot season in Southern India, and temperatures reach the high, humid 90s — and though we knew it would be a challenge, Carey reminded me that wildlife viewing is often best when it’s hot because the animals are more likely to come out in search of water. We made the five-hour trip from Kochi by taxi to Thekkady, on the outskirts of the park, and spent a night at the Aranya Nivas hotel.
That evening, Juby Sebastian, our tour guide (tall, handsome, courteous and competent), came to the hotel to introduce himself and to answer any questions. The next day, a car picked us up for our noon meeting at the park’s headquarters, where we met our travel companions, a good-natured young German couple. The Periyar Tiger Trek, though better known in Europe than in India, is nevertheless starting to attract growing numbers of Indian visitors, thanks to recent coverage in the Times of India, the Hindu, The Week, Frontline and other outlets.
We kicked off the journey with a three-hour afternoon walk through the forest, as monkeys shrieked a welcome from their treetop perches and elephants trumpeted in the distance. After settling in our first of two campsites, we rested a bit and then took off for a twilight walk (see sidebar for itinerary).
TourIndia is the only operator certified by the Kerala Forests Authority to participate in this unique ecotourism program, which takes guests for a 2 night/3 day or 1 night/2 day trek into one of India’s most spectacular nature reserves.
Only 20 hikers a week are granted access to the deepest interiors of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, a 777-square-km paradise located in the mountains of the Western Ghats in southern Kerala. Over 500,000 people visit the park annually, but each day at dusk, after the last bus of chattering school kids disappears into the distance, you’ll have the park virtually to yourself.
The company was started by Babu Varghese, a Thiruvananthapuram entrepreneur who is one of the leading influences in Kerala tourism’s remarkable success story. Twenty-eight years ago, Varghese got the idea to promote its sleepy Kettuvallam backwaters as a tourist destination. He then set his sights higher — the treetops, to be exact — and founded India’s first treehouse hideaway, the now-famous Green Magic Nature resort in the Wyanad Hills.
Alarmed by reports about declining numbers of endangered plants and animals in the Western Ghats, and spurred by the potential he saw in leveraging global eco-awareness with the state’s existing tourism infrastructure (which is the best in India), Varghese then got together with the Government of Kerala’s India Ecodevelopment Project, which is funded by the World Bank and the Global Environmental Facility, and proposed the idea of training former poachers to lead expeditions.
Varghese’s plan seemed farfetched at first, but the government soon caught on. After all, who but these local men knew the secrets of the forests better? They could chart every bend in its streams by memory, identify every birdcall, and locate every fragrant sandalwood or pepper tree. They knew the animals’ rhythms, they knew how to move through the jungle with a minimum of noise, and they knew which herbs to crumble into a bottle of water to purify it.
As a result of TourIndia’s Periyar Tiger Trail initiative, these former poachers are now earning honest money. It was a bit less than they were earning before, but with far greater benefits — their families, once ostracized, were welcomed into their communities, and their children now had futures to look forward to. According to a company spokesman, 10 percent of revenues go to a welfare fund to aid their families with education and health care. The program is a stellar success. Today, TourIndia boasts that in Periyar, over two years have gone by without a single report of poaching.
I still laugh at some of the memories from the trip — loosing one sneaker in goopy mud (I was finally able to fish it out); sipping tea in the misty dawn; hiking down moist, fragrant mountain paths and across wide fields of buffalo and deer; savoring wild orchids and spices; and never tiring of the orchestra of animal sounds. Even the challenge of the hours-long hikes in the heat just made the trip’s pleasures that much sweeter.
For the traveler brave enough to forsake the comforts of civilization for a few nights, and ready to embrace the jungle in all its isolated beauty, the Periyar Tiger Trek is a life-changing trip.
Day 1: TourIndia picks you up at your hotel before noon. At the forest station, you’re given a sleeping bag and a 2-litre bottle of water to carry in addition to your own backpack; after a round of introductions, you’ll be asked to sign a release, although TourIndia provides basic insurance coverage. In addition to up to five guests, the group includes around five experienced guides and an armed, uniformed forest officer. At least two of the trekking staff speak English. Most treks average around 10 kms per day.
The trek starts at around noon, and takes the group along the lakeshore, in sunny open areas and through jungles and forests.
Around three hours later, you’ll reach the campsite (the guides shift the location of the campsites periodically depending on the seasons and other factors), where a guide prepares snacks and tea.
After a comfortable rest, the guides set up the campsite while the trekkers prepare for a two-hour afternoon hike, this time unencumbered by heavy packs. Carrying only your camera or binoculars and a bottle of water, you’ll explore new corners of the jungle as the shadows lengthen and twilight approaches. Dinner, at around 8 p.m., is a full South Indian vegetarian feast, served up on a stainless steel thali with plenty of crispy pappadums and fresh fruit to go along with it. Later, drink tea by the campfire and share jokes and stories of your day with your companions.
Day 2: After a cup of chai and a piece of fruit, the trekkers will make their first exploration of the day, from around 9 to 10:30 a.m. Return to the campsite for a proper breakfast, and pack your gear. After another three-hour hike to the second campsite, you will again drop off your gear and go on a third walk, in search of evening wildlife. Dinner is around 8 or 9, and if you can still manage to keep your eyes open by then, you can bask in the starlight from the constellations above.
Day 3: Arise at around 7, take a morning trek and return to the camp for breakfast, pack up your gear and start your walk back to the forest office headquarters. You will be back by around 12 or 12:30.
The guides tote 2 and a 3-person tents for the guests, plus sleeping mats, but guests are expected to carry their sleeping bags (furnished by TourIndia). The tents are quite nice Western imports, with windows and mosquito netting. Inflatable pillows are furnished too, but ours went flat before morning. The guides take turns standing guard at night, because curious animals can present a real concern. Since two guides are awake at any one time (good!), you may be kept awake by their conversation (not so good!).
Forget what you knew about camping food — these guys lay on quite an impressive spread considering that all their ingredients and equipment is trekked in, atop the heads of the guides. All the food served on the trek is vegetarian. A typical meal might feature sambhar over rice, accompanied by okra, green beans and cabbage stewed with coconut, mustard seeds and curry leaves; plus pappadums, fresh fruit, biscuits and chai.
Breakfast is substantial and protein-packed (though you won’t eat breakfast till around 10 or 10:30 a.m., after a two-hour hike). We feasted on channa dal, puris, bananas, biscuits and chai. Usually, the guides pack coffee, though on our trip they didn’t and I went through a bit of withdrawal.
Plenty of drinking water is always available. The guides boil the lake water, and add a few sprigs of a locally grown Ayurvedic herb called pathimugam to purify it. The herb doesn’t impart much of a taste, but it does color the water bright red!
Who Should Go
Most trekkers are between 20 and 45 (the oldest person to make the trek was 82), and in reasonably good physical condition. A sense of humor and an easy-going nature does help. There are between 2 and 5 guests per trip. Not suitable for children. Women, when scheduling the trek, keep in mind that there are no hygiene facilities at all.
When to Go
Tucked away high in the north, where the map of India narrows and the region becomes mountainous, lies the state of Himachal Pradesh, a land of undulating hills, the summer capital of the Raj, and one of the Indian tourist's favorite haunts.
Kullu-Manali are neighboring resorts, surrounded by pine-covered hills and lush meadows. While its secluded hill retreats offer ideal spots for anglers and those wanting a quiet getaway, the barely accessible valleys of Lahaul and Spiti are a trekker’s delight.
To the well-traveled eye, the region is reminiscent of Austria, with an eastern flavor. With conifer-clad, snow-cloaked mountains, chalet-like huts with overhanging balconies and serene blue valleys watered by snow-fed streams, Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, still maintains a hangover of the Raj. Shimla, Dalhousie, Kullu, Kasauli, Manali, Chail and Kufri are a few of the hill stations that are particularly cool in summers and offer breathtaking scenery. Dharmasala, where the Dalai Lama lives, is another important center on the tourist map. The foremost shrine in Kangra town is the Brajeshwari Devi temple. Thirty kilometers from Kangra, where Kangra Museum has an impressive art collection, is Jwalamukhi, one of the most revered temples in northern India.
A variety of programs and a splendid setting make Shimla's summer festival a memorable event. In June, Shimla hosts the Red Cross Fair, sports tournaments, flower shows, a photographs and posters exhibition, and a fashion show based on folk costumes.
The Kangra festival is also held in June at Kangra. At Solan, on the third Sunday of the month, the Solan fair honors the goddess Shilooni, the presiding deity of the region. On June's full moon night, the Ghantal festival is held at Lahaul’s Guru Ghantal monastery.
In the arid Trans-Himalaya, at Kaza's Ladarcha fair, the old trade routes come alive during July as traders barter and sell a variety of goods and produce. At Keylong, the Lahaul festival is also held this month.
Chamba's famous Minjar fair, which celebrates the bounty of nature and prays for a good harvest, is normally held in August. Also in Chamba, the Manimahesh Yatra to the sacred tarn of Manimahesh is held immediately after the festival of Janamashtmi. Celebrated in Chamba, Kullu and elsewhere, Chrewal, Badronjo or Patroru is a festival of fire and flowers - and a time for purification of the fields.
Himachal has been known since the earliest of times as "Devabhoomi," the abode of the Gods. The splendid heights of the Himalayan ranges, with its great scenic beauty and aura of spiritual calm, seem the natural home of the Gods. Two thousand or more temples all over the state reiterate this fact.
As a state full of isolated valleys and high ranges, several different styles of temple architecture developed: there are temples with carved stone shikharas, pagoda style shrines, temples that look like Buddhist Gompas and Sikh Gurdwaras. Several are important places of pilgrimage and each year attract thousands of devotees from all over the country.
It is said that the Sikhs came to the Shivalik Hills in Himachal Pradesh in 1695, at the invitation of the ruler of Sirmaur, to help him fight the Mughals. Shri Guru Gobind Singh, with his army, settled in Paonta Sahib in the foothills. During the reign of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, at the end of the 18th century, many of the western hill states also came under Sikh sovereignty.
Paonta Sahib is the main center of Sikh pilgrimage in Himachal. The gurdwara, picturesquely located on the banks of the River Yamuna in the district Sirmour, is venerated due to its association with Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru. In March, an important fair is held and the holy Granth Sahib is taken out in procession.
The remote valleys of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur have strong Buddhist traditions. Splendid gompas, Buddhist monasteries, built along bare mountain-sides, seem to be a part of the rugged terrain and are the repositories of a wealth of Buddhist art and culture. The dim, cool interiors of ancient monasteries glow with the brilliance of painted murals, stuccos and elaborate thangkas framed with rich borders of silk.
In Dharamsala is a marvelous Tibetan township where an entire cultural tradition is being nurtured. It is a center that attracts scholars, tourist and pilgrims.
Christianity made a late appearance in Himachal Pradesh, after the arrival of the British. None of the churches is more than 150 years old. Relics of the Raj, they are to be found mainly in the small hill stations that the British built as summer retreats.
Himachal Pradesh is a heaven for the avid golfer. At Naldhera, 23 kilometers beyond Shimla, is one of the oldest golf courses in India. With topography that is absolutely natural, the course was originally created by the British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. The par 68, nine hole course is regarded as one of the most challenging in the country.
The main trekking areas in Himachal are the Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges, routes over the passes between the Shimla region and the Kullu valley, the numerous treks out of Kullu, and select tracks in the Trans-Himalayan regions of Kinnaur, Lahaul and Spiti. Most trekking areas are between 1,500 meters and 6,000 meters.
With well over 270 trails, the variation in terrain is also enormous. Low scrub-land and paths through paddy fields give way to trails strewn with pine needles. Then come woods of oak and flowering rhododendron, which merge into forests of Himalayan cedar, or “deodar,” and spruce.
On most trails, small pastoral hamlets dot the way. Cunningly hidden between the high mountains are passes once known only to migrant shepherds and dare-all traders. These led to the fabulous swift rivers of the arid Trans-Himalaya.
For hardcore rock climbers, the area around Manali presently forms the core of mountaineering in Himachal Pradesh. The Beas Kund region and lower reaches of the Hanuman Tibba, the Manali and Shitidhar peaks around the source of the river Beas, and the Deo Tibba area are suggested for beginners with some experience. The Chandra Bhaga ranges, the Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges are also popular.
Himachal has an enormous range of weather conditions. Most areas of Bilaspur, Solan, Sirmour, Hamirpur, Kangra and Una are largely warm to hot in summer, and mild to pleasant in winter. The districts of Chamba, Kinnaur, Kullu, Lahaul-Spiti and Shimla are largely mild to pleasant in summer and cold in winter.
Some tips to keep in mind. Travelers to the region should stay only in hotels or guest houses registered with the Department of Tourism. A certificate to this effect is usually prominently displayed by any of these establishments. In the main tourist centers, the rates of porters are fixed. For hiring porters and pack animals, especially for treks, the rates are normally negotiable.
Curio and souvenir seekers will do well if they shop at “Himachal Emporium” outlets, where the prices are reasonable and the quality is ensured. Visitors can also buy directly from craftsmen located throughout the state.
Credit cards are accepted at most shops, restaurants and hotels in the main towns. Their use is minimal outside the main towns where all payments are in cash.
For sight-seeing and excursions, contact the Himachal Tourism offices or government-approved travel agents and tour operators. Himachal Tourism has its own fleet of coaches and taxis. Visitors are also advised that, where available, they should use pre-paid taxis and auto rickshaws or, pay by meter, or ask for the fare chart.
Most importantly, travelers should observe local traditions and customs, especially while visiting religious places.