Kochi to Periyar
Another early morning yoga lesson and swim to start the day before we set off for the Western Ghats - the mountain range on the eastern border of Kerala, home to the Periyar nature reserve.
Mr Binu arrived on time and as smart as ever, to find us still in breakfast after our energetic start.
The drive through Kochi was fascinating as ever, with streets full of people and vehicles approaching from all directions. As we drove over the bridge to the mainland we saw the colourful boats of the fishing fleet returning to the harbour - they were all shades of pink, lime, tangerine, turquoise and red. We travelled by main road for a while and then through small remote villages surrounded by lush vegetation. After a couple of hours we stopped for a break and ordered coconut juice and masala chai. The waiter accidentally gave us two menus - one menu for tourists, one for locals. The locals could buy a cup of chai for 30 rupees (30p) whereas the tourist menu offered the same for 60 rupees(60p) - cheeky, but who can blame them, and where could you buy a hot drink, served with a winning smile, in Britain for 60p?!
The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary encompasses 777 square kilometres and a 26 square kilometre artificial lake created by the British in 1895. It is 900 metres above sea level and is reached via a winding mountain road. We passed rubber tree forests, coffee estates and then tea plantations. The distant views of tree covered mountains became more and more beautiful.
After five hours we arrived in the village of Kumily and our hotel 'Spice Village'. Our welcome included a necklace bearing a little used letter from the Malayalam language that indicated the link between old and new. We were also served fresh herb tea, mint for me, lemonbalm for Bill.
The grounds of this hotel are laid out to resemble a tribal mountain village. The cottages are all thatched with elephant grass, have bare tiled floors with hessian mats. Despite the natural rustic appearance, each cottage has state of the art lighting and plumbing with well made fly screens so that all the windows can stay open and the ceiling fan means that no air conditioning is necessary.
From our room near the edge of the grounds, all we could hear was birdsong and the sound of frogs and monkeys.
We arrived at 3.30pm and whilst unpacking noticed the 'Pepper vine' tour at 4pm daily.
This was a great success. Essentially this was a free two hour tour of the grounds and reserve boundary with a well informed and very enthusiastic naturalist. The whole place is the brain child of an organisation called CGH (cleaner, greener, healthier) experience. They produce over half of their electricity from photovoltaic cells, compost everything for use in their organic gardens, process their own waste, filter and purify their own water, which is oxidised and used in their swimming pool, they recycle and make their own paper, and grow and sell their organic peppercorns to Europe. Their food is all produced within a 50 mile radius of the hotel.
We had a detailed tour of all of this and at the same time we saw a Malabar Grey Hornbill, Common Tailor Bird, Spotted Dove, Plum Headed Parakeet, Oriental Magpie Robin, White Cheeked Barbet, Asian Koel, Jungle Myna, Ashy Swallow, White Bellied Treepie as well as several black monkeys and some flying foxes (a bat with a wing span of 1.2 metres) hanging in trees a little way away.
As dusk fell we went for a swim in the pool. As we swam on our backs and looked up at the darkening sky we saw literally hundreds, possibly thousands of flying foxes and some smaller bats flying overhead, leaving their roosts to start their night flight hunting for fruit. An astonishing spectacle.
Time for a quick shower and change of clothes and then a cookery demonstration and introduction to local spices in the restaurant.
The chef talked about the typical spices used in Kerala and demonstrated a recipe for fish curry with Malabar tamarind and coconut. After that we went to a dance display. A small local band comprising drum, sitar and singer and two brightly dressed girls with painted faces dancing and telling another of the Indian epic stories. One of the stories involved one of the girls dancing on the edge of a bronze plate with a small urn full of water balanced on her head. Clever stuff. After this we met the naturalist again and he did a slide show presentation of local wildlife we might encounter.
Feeling fully settled in, and well informed, after being at the hotel for just over 4 hours, we thought that we deserved dinner!
Dinner was in the covered garden restaurant. It's called 'the interactive kitchen' in other words it's laid out like a conventional buffet dinner, but with chefs and waiting staff wandering about explaining, advising, cooking to order. There is lemon and coriander soup with a variety of breads cooked to order in the hot tandoori oven, there is local fish cooked with or without local herbs and spices, about a dozen different chutneys and vegetable dishes including crispy fried okra. There is mutton or chicken curry and a multitude of salads and Indian puddings. We finished with cardamom tea made with hot milk. It seems unlikely that any of our clothes will fit when we get back home.
Back in our bungalow we chatted to Mike and Chris, and then enjoyed the peaceful candlelight from the lantern in our room, and listened to the sounds of the night forest around us.