Finally, four days later than planned, we managed to drag ourselves away from lovely Varkala and headed off to visit the most popular nature reserve in India - Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Our friend Mark, who we seem to have been following since we came to Kerala, was also wanting to see a tiger and so the three of us set off together on the full day's journey up into the hills. We stopped for brunch in Kottayam, where we changed from the train to the bus and had another pretty funny little lesson in cultural differences! It seems to be very difficult (or maybe impolite) for people here to say no...this has led to all sorts of confusion - but we've learnt to question further if a reply is vague, or is the 'yes' comes with a pained expression. On this occasion, Mark asked the waiter if he could have some banana fritters. The waiter looked him in the eye, said 'no!' quite firmly, then dissolved into fits of laughter! I asked for a pineapple juice and go the same response! Mark then says to him 'Oh, you're joking!' 'Yes sir!' he replies, and we all have a good laugh at his little joke. We're still chuckling when he appears at the table a minute later with the bill... So, fritterless and thirsty (except for Nige who had the good sense to order chai), on to Kumily - the closest town to the reserve - and the Coffee Inn, where we stayed, with it's lovely grounds overlooking the reserve and a choice of little cottages and tree-houses - gorgeous! Mark chose a treehouse (which he started to regret halfway up the 20ft bamboo ladder with his backpack on!) and we went for the bigger, although more boring, option of a cottage. There is also an observation tower tree-house in the grounds, so once we'd unpacked, we all clambered up there, sat back and watched the wild boar, sambar, barking deer and bison coming down to drink! The nature reserve is off-limits unless you are on an organised tour, so we decided to check out the surrounding spice-gardens and tea and coffee plantations in the morning and do the organised boat trip through the reserve in the evening, when you're supposed to see the most animals. The tour of the spice gardens was brilliant - we learnt so much and it was so much fun as well due to our crazy guide Abbas, who, apart from knowing absolutely everything about spices, tea and coffee, taught us some songs in Malaylum and had an endless repertoire of jokes. He also let Nige and Mark have a drive of the auto-rickshaw - although he looked a little worried when I confided in him that this was the first time Nige had driven since getting his license!! After some delicious fresh marsala tea (made with tea, cloves, cinnamon and star anise) we excitedly headed down to the reserve, hired our binoculars and boarded the boat...tigers, elephants, what would we see?!? Well, apart from the stunning scenery, a few egrets and one terrified otter, which the boat almost ran down whilst the 200 or so tourists on board screamed and pointed...absolutely nothing! Not put off, we resolved to do one of the expensive guided treks the next day. That evening we got chatting to a few people who had done the trek that day! They mentioned not only the total lack of animals (the elephants have literally headed for the hills for the monsoon apparently!) but the hundreds of LEECHES!! We did what any sensible person would do - went and bought some cold beers and watched the sunset on the wildlife from our lovely leech-free lookout instead!