Wednesday, 27 January 2010

River deep, Mountain high

It's kind of a given that if you're going to explore Kerala then taking a trip on a houseboat is a must, so ending our beach-bum stint we left Varkala taking the short trip Northward up the coast to Kollam, where we boarded an overnight cruise through the lush tropical backwaters. The majority of the traditional style boats are now mainly used for tourism but life on the river is pretty much the same as it has been for centuries; dominated by sustainance and small scale commercial fishing and dotted with little villages where the river is central to pretty much everything in life. The day was spent chugging along the lakes and channels with a few hours on a small rowing boat drifting through the tiny waterways that threaded through the villages. We stopped for chai at a banana plantation, took a walk though a spice garden and at sundown were taken to the local temple and then on to our young guides house in the forest to meet his mother and sister, who showed us the usual Indian rural hostpitality. Along the way we stopped to say hi to numerous locals who all seemed to be either cousins or aunties or uncles too - it seems no one strays too far from home on the backwaters! We had an early start the following morning, heading on to Alleppey where we appeared to be staying in the middle of a menagery - outside our bedroom window were ducks, a fox, parrots a pair of friendly and inquisitive mongoose and a large and not so friendly emu. It made for an interesting alarm clock anyway!

From Alleppy we then took the boneshaking bus trip that climbed west to the rolling green hills and valleys of the Western Ghats - Keralas inland highland region best known for its tea and spice plantations. The public buses in india are always a mini-adventure, a bit like being stuck in a rusty sardine can on wheels full of all sorts of random people. It never fails to amaze firstly how fast and efficently the drivers manage to get round potholed hairpin bends on mountain roads without hitting anything, secondly how the buses havent actually fallen apart yet, and thirdly just how many people its possible to get inside one. As the already fully seated bus pulled into a small town about 30km from our destination it was clear that school had just finished - imaculately dressed kids were pouring out and running toward the bus. About 20 managed to get on, making it about as packed as we thought it could get. But no! At the next village it stopped again and Sam and I looked at each other in disbelief as litterally another 20 kids somehow wedged themselves in by crawling in between peoples legs, climbing up and standing on the back of chairs, hanging on to the luggage racks, and sitting on the laps of whoever was seated. Face were squashed against windows and armpits against faces. A rickety old bus that must have been made for 30 people now containted about 70. The soundtrack to the next 20km was of zombie style moaning as we felt the full force of every pothole. I'm not even sure there was enough oxygen on the bus for everybody...

Arriving in Kummily, the small town close to the Peryar Wildlife Park, the first thing you notice notice is the smell. It's good. Usually in Indian towns that is not the case. As big producers of Cardamom, Cloves and Vanilla, there are rows of shops lining the main street and it fills the air. Unfortunately their isnt much else in Kummily. But it does smell nice. If you like spice. It had been raining pretty much from the minute we arrived so there wasnt much to do really - we'd planned on doing a full days trekking into the hills to see elephants, but talking to some guys who'd done it the day before and spent what sounded like a miserable afternoon wading through wet leech infested rainforest we decided to let the weather clear up before hand. So, we had to do the only other thing that you could do besides going to the pub. Go to the Tea Factory. Rock and Roll.

Now Sam and I like tea (me - Earl Grey, little milk, one sugar please, Sam - PG Tips Builders Tea - bag pressed against cup), but lets face it - tea factories are the sort of places you go on school trips. Had it been a vineyard I would have been there like a shot, but it wan't, so donning our macs Howard and Hilda style (should I have brought a notebook and pen?), off we trundled for the highlight of our years travelling. Our rickshaw broke down on the way. Initially I was a bit pissed about this as it was still chucking it down and we were getting slowly soaked, but when we arrived it turned out that litterally every cloud does have a silver lining! At the entrance we were informed by an appologetic tour guide that unfortunateley the hour long "How tea is made" film had already started and we would thus not be able to attend and have to proceed directly to the factory walk and plantation. I did my best to hide my disapointment. To summarise the trip to the tea factory, I would say that it may have enabled me to answer some trivial persuit questions that I might not have known the answer to before, but on balance, the Rexel Cumberland Pencil Factory in the Lake District which I went to when I was eleven was still slightly better.

The rain continued, but we did eventually get to do a short trek in in Peryar Park; no elephants alas, but lots of monkeys and leeches. The next morning we headed further up into the Western Ghats to the hill station of Munnar. The surrounding areas are some of the highest tea plantations in the world and the views are stunning - the uniform height (twenty seven inches - I did learn something at the factory!!) that the tea bushes are cut to make the hills look like a giant rolling green shag pile carpet, and at a distance, almost like one vast golf course. Munnar itself is a shabby and odd town, and it seems suprisingly out of place amongst such stunning scenery. Our disapointment with it was further compounded by arriving late and getting the last room in the worst hotel in town. Sandwiched between the local Kerala State Alcohol Shop and a half demolished house full of dogs and chickens with two old fellas burning a fire made of plastic bags, it could have been better located and the queue of alcoholics past the bedroom window wasnt ideal, but at least we didn't have to walk far for a beer.

Following a lovely night in the palatial surroundings of Hotel Fantastic and a "refreshing" morning shower of cold water with a bucket we set out for Top Station; the highest point in Kerala and the border of Tamil Nadu. The scenery grew more dramatic the higher we rose and we'd expected a spectacular view into Tamil from the top, but we were actauly above cloud level by the time we got there - zero visabilty - so we sat in the caf with the locals and our driver, drank chai and eat some very good cakes. From there it was down hill all the way...well nearly.... 6 hours drive back to Cochin, then 15 hours by train to our home for the next month...Goa, and party time...

View our pics here:

Kerala Part 2

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