Sunday 13th December
Periyar and Kumily
Yet another early start... Up at 6 for a cup of coffee and coconut cookies in the restaurant and then to Periyar Nature Reserve for a boat tour of the lake. Just us, a local naturalist guide, and about 200 brightly dressed, chattering Indian tourists with smart phone cameras. The holiday company had booked us tickets on the first boat of the day in seats numbered 1 and 2. So there we were sitting at the front of the top deck feeling very conspicuous in our long trousers, boots and long sleeved shirts, clutching binoculars and cameras! As Mike would say - we looked very beige! We were unperturbed. We had a great view of the lake and the right equipment to see what ever wildlife appeared. So, whilst everyone else chatted and laughed loudly as they stood under the signs saying 'keep silent on the boat' and 'do not stand or walk when the boat is moving', and took endless hilarious selfie photographs, we trained our binoculars on the lake shores.
Despite our best efforts we did not see any elephants or tigers. The recent rains meant hat the lake was incredibly full so that the beaches where animals might usually walk down to the waters edge were submerged, and the water lapped around the lower branches of the trees.
The lake was very beautiful in the morning sunlight. The water sparkled and sunlight dance through the leaves creating shadowy movements amongst the trees to raise our hopes! What did we see?
We saw a Monitor lizard, several Indian pond herons, and many cormorants -either swimming, diving, sitting on nests or perched on dead trees with wings spread out to dry in the sun. We spotted numerous bright blue common kingfishers perched in reeds near the lake shore and occasional pied and white fronted kingfishers amongst them. High up on the distant hills we could see what looked like boulders or small trees - Indian wild buffalo or Gaurs that can weigh up to 1000kg! In a grassy valley we could see a small herd of wild boar.
On a post between all the cormorants was an Indian darter or Snake bird, a curious creature with a birds body and a long slender head and neck that looked very snake like, it's appearance similar to something from Hindu mythology. Finally there were ashy swallows, white-browed wagtails and a falcon.
We disembarked and walked back through the reserve to the car. There were macaque monkeys everywhere. Known as the naughty monkey locally, they do not hide away in the tree tops like the black long tailed langurs, but behave rather like the seagulls at the British seaside, hunting for treats, and are particularly fond of pinching sunglasses!
Driving back to the hotel we spied a Giant Malabar Squirrel on a tree beside the road. This beautiful creature is about the same size as a badger with a huge plumed tail. The face is similar to a British red squirrel and it crouches to eat fruit held in its front paws in the same way. The colouring is similar to our red squirrel but with a dark scarlet patch on its back, cream throat and black tail.
Back at the hotel it was breakfast time. With the encouragement of the waiters and chefs we worked our way down the Indian breakfast menu of millet dozas and uttapams -fermented rice pancakes - with sambar (lentils and veg in spicy gravy) and coconut and coriander chutneys.
The fresh pineapple juice was refreshing and delicious and the ginger and cardamom flavoured coffee was hot and spicy.
After breakfast our next plan was to visit an organic spice plantation nearby. There was time for a quick swim in the pool and time to reflect on how unusual this place is, with its emphasis on sustainability and self sufficiency. There were chalk boards displaying the weekly and annual weights of vegetables harvested (275kg mushrooms and 850 kg cabbage last year). All around the grounds are fruit trees and spice bushes. The recycled and filtered water in the swimming pool is cool and crystal clear, the drinking water tastes lovely and there is not a plastic bottle in sight! The bedrooms have little pottery urns of shampoo and shower gel and there are herbal loofahs. The coffee and tea is all grown locally.
At the organic Spice Farm we were met by an incredibly knowledgeable botanist, wearing a brightly coloured Bob Marley T- shirt, who took us round the plantation. This was perfect for our combined interests of cooking and gardening.
First of all cardamom - not pods on a tree as we had expected but, small fleshy green fruits arising from aerial roots or panicles at ground level. There were pepper vines everywhere, twining their way up other trees and coral trees in particular. The small green pepper berries are attached to catkins and are harvested and processed in various ways. If dried in the sun they become our familiar black peppercorns. For white pepper, the fruits are soaked in plain water so that the green outer coating rots away. They are then cleaned and dried to create the white peppercorn. Green peppercorns are created by placing the green berries in salt, brine or vinegar to preserve their green colour. Red and pink peppercorns are a different species,grown on trees in South America.
In Periyar, they refer to pepper as the Prince of Spices and cardamom the Princess. Vanilla is King and saffron the Queen.
Next up was a plant that looks like a bay tree but has spicy leaves and berries resembling large black peppercorns - allspice. The nutmeg tree was intriguing. The fruit looked like apricots or small peaches, splitting open like a walnut or conker when ripe. Opening the fruit revealed the familiar whole nutmeg enclosed in a strange red layer like a mesh - mace. We saw the rhizomes of ginger and turmeric - the latter a deep orange/yellow colour.
The guide picked a leaf from a small plant in a pot. We tasted a tiny fragment that was incredibly sweet - stevia, a natural sugar free sweetener. Nearby there were Devil Chilli bushes. Tiny red chillies that were as hot as our more familiar Scotch bonnet chillies - these small ones are dried. We saw a cinnamon tree and learnt something new. True cinnamon is the bark of this tree, small chips and strips being scraped off the trunk when the tree is about twenty years old. The neat little pencils that we buy from the supermarket to drop into our mulled wine are not true cinnamon, they come from a different plant -cassia- grown in Vietnam where the bark is treated with a chemical to make it pliable enough to roll up. Hmmm, the ones in my pantry are going onto the Christmas tree for decoration I think!
Cloves were not currently grown on the farm but they had a few new bushes and explained that they are the dried un-opened flower buds of the plant. Finally we saw coffee beans and cocoa pods and even some aloe vera plants, all harvested and used to produce organic products for their shop, which, of course, was where we went next.
We had nothing planned for after lunch and so decided to hire a guide and go trekking. It's not possible to just go for a walk in the reserve - there are tigers, elephants and buffalo in there, for a start!
One condition of the trek was that we should be as unobtrusive as possible. No bright coloured clothes and no perfumes. That was reasonable enough. It was more stringent than that, however - boots and long trousers with dark, long sleeved clothing. Beige or cream or light grey would not do. We racked our brains and eventually had to resort to wearing our long sleeved thermal vests!
We arrived at the Rangers hut already feeling rather pink and sweaty. Our guide, Rejinam, by contrast, looked as if he was just off to Buckingham Palace to receive a medal from HRH. Like all people employed by Indian government agencies such as the police, army and park rangers, his uniform appeared well tailored, freshly pressed and immaculate. He wore olive green trousers with sharp creases front and back and a short sleeved shirt (dark skin so short sleeves allowed) with epaulettes and lanyard over the shoulder. He also wore special canvas socks over his boots to protect from leeches. Thinking they were some special garment, I asked what they were called. 'They are called leech protection socks madam' he replied, handing me a pair to put on.
We set off into the forest
which was full of wildlife but no other people and we walked quietly along spotting white-cheeked barbets, ashy trogons, racquet-tailed drongos and chestnut tailed starlings.
We heard and saw the crazy White-bellied and Rufus-breasted Treepies with their very long tails. There were parakeets everywhere, plum-headed, rose-ringed and Malabar male and female varieties. Bill spotted a golden oriole and other birds on the list included the jungle and hill mynahs, male and female Malabar grey hornbills, Asian Koel, Malabar Trogon and a greater flame back woodpecker!
There was a great clatter in the trees as a group of black langur monkeys jumped from branch to branch chattering, their long tails swinging, upsetting a family of great Malabar squirrels. A group of green pigeons suddenly flapped through the treetops and there was another commotion as a large brown wood owl swooped low through the forest.
As we walked we got much hotter and much sweatier and very itchy. I kept finding lots of little black caterpillars on my neck and arms. I assumed there were falling out of the trees overhead. They were difficult to brush off and caused itchy bites.
There was no stopping Reginam. Despite his diminutive stature (just about five feet tall) he was marching briskly along, in swift and enthusiastic pursuit of the next sighting. When I stopped yet again to brush off the caterpillars I found blood on my neck and Reji looked aghast. Leeches! Not caterpillars dropping down from above, but leeches climbing up from below. My trousers and body were covered with the horrible squirmy black things. When they bite they secrete a coumarin anticoagulant which is what caused the bleeding.
Reji leapt into action, picking off the leeches one-by-one and dusting me down with brown powder -tobacco. Bill got a dusting too, for good measure, and we marched on.
Reji suddenly stopped in his tracks. A footprint in the mud. I assumed it must be a tiger and went through a mental checklist of what one should do if faced with a tiger... After careful analysis Reji declared it the print of a wild dog (you can see claws in a dog print - cats retract their claws). Nevertheless, Reji plucked a stick from the undergrowth and walked with the stick in front of him. Bill and I followed so close that next time he froze we nearly fell over him!
This time we were looking straight into the eyes of an Indian wild buffalo. Reji explained that in a group they were relatively safe, but alone could be dangerous and suddenly charge without warning. This one was alone. We stood very still. I wondered exactly what Reji's stick could do in the face of 1000 kg of charging buffalo and glanced around at the nearby trees to spot one that we could scramble up in a hurry. I also took slow deep breaths and tried not to scratch my leech bites....
All was well, dear reader. Reji snapped his stick in half and the sudden slight noise caused the buffalo to slowly turn her head and walk slowly away.
We walked in the other direction rapidly but quietly. For a small man, Reji could cover the ground very quickly, and despite the heat, undergrowth and marauding creatures he still looked cool, crisp and smart in his uniform - in stark contrast to the bedraggled tourists at his heels, scrambling along in sweat soaked thermal vests, muddy boots and trousers, hair stuck to our faces (well, mine anyway) and spots of blood on their necks!
Our final sighting was a pair of Scopps owls, nesting in some undergrowth.
The sky had been looking 'brooding' all afternoon and now it started to spot with rain. Reji's stride lengthened and we hurried back to the ranger station, arriving three or four minutes after the heavens opened! Mr Binu was there as usual, beaming and ready to whisk us back to The Spice Village where the rain got steadily heavier! Luckily we had umbrellas with us, but by the time we got back to our cottage we were soaked from the knees down due to the torrent rushing down the path, and from the waist up due to the exertions of the afternoon. A cup of tea and a shower improved matters.
Then Bill returned to visit Mr. Binu's brother-in-law 's shop as promised, and was accompanied by the same clad in doti and umbrella!
The cookery demonstration followed, today a recipe for Pepper Chicken and after that another dance display. People looked strangely at the blood dribbling from my neck wounds, which continued to bleed despite all the usual first aid. They did tend to move away when I explained that they were just leech bites!
By that time we felt that we deserved a beer and some dinner!
Tonight there was no buffet, just an a la carte menu for everything you could imagine. Bill imagined mutton curry with coconut and I chose Keralan fish curry.
The voyage back to our cottage against the torrent of rainwater promoted an impromptu Fred and Ginger dance in the rain ensuring that we really were thoroughly soaked by the time we got back.
After a large pot of fresh mint tea we retired for an early(ish) night.