I’d taken the family to Thekkady for a few days during the school summer vacation. On inquiring about the activities organized by the Kerala Forest Department, I decided to join the next day’s bamboo rafting program. This is a full-day program, combining trekking and bamboo rafting, commencing at 7:30 am and ending at about 5 pm.
This was the starting point of the journey. This stream joins the Periyar Lake further downstream. While waiting for the trek to commence, I spent a few enchanted moments here watching a pied kingfisher wheeling in the air and diving for fish in the water.
The first step is to cross over to the other side on the rickety bamboo raft in the picture below.
One of the guides, Pandyan, who turned out to be a fine raconteur, pulls the raft this side of the bank. Pandyan is one of many ex-poachers who have been recruited by the forest department to run eco-tourism programs like this. The scheme has been an unqualified success: poaching is virtually nonexistent in the sanctuary today.
This Danish couple is the first on board.
They are joined by a couple from Beijing who have come to India to spend their honeymoon in Kerala, and an armed forest guard. Interestingly, the couple was advised by their travel consultants against going to Munnar.
I asked Pandyan if he did not prefer the sedate salaried job in the forest department to his former occupation, poaching. I’d expected an unequivocal yes, but he replied that there were advantages and disadvantages to both professions. The current job was secure, but he had to work every week. However, once a poacher made a kill, he could relax for a couple of months.
And this pair of nature lovers from Kottayam and I are the last to cross over to the other side.
An elephant’s footprint, our guides tell us.
Birds were in plenty by the lake. Here is a snake bird.
Only tribals are allowed to enter the sanctuary freely without a pass from the forest department.
And so the trek begins in earnest! It’s a four kilometer walk to the point where we board our bamboo rafts.
More birds along the route.
In single file down the trail.
The route was along open areas like this; we didn’t venture into the forest proper.
Elephants rub their itchy hides here, the guides told us.
For once, the path wended its way through a forest glade.
And then it was open terrain again.
The pause that refreshes. We took a short break here. The honeymooners from Beijing spoke excellent English. The girl has an interesting job: she works for a company that helps move foreigners (looking to work in China) lock, stock, and barrel from their own countries to China. She loves Indian food. Beijing is a horribly polluted city, she said; the skies there are a permanent gray. And when she landed in Delhi en route to Kerala, she said to herself, Hey, this is Beijing all over again. Her husband is a mechanical engineer.
The couple from Denmark. I got them to smile by paying a tribute to the Danish badminton star Mortem Frost Hansen, and reminding them of one thing our countries have in common: a passion for badminton.
A bison that was taken by a tiger not far from here.
And the trek resumes. We’re approaching the boarding point. we can’t wait to get to our bamboo rafts.
A bamboo raft belonging to a tribal. Only tribals have permission to fish in the Periyar Lake. The concept of bamboo raft tourism owes its existence to these simple rafts built and used by the tribals in the sanctuary.
Pandyan and I watched this colorful insect while the rest prepared to board the bamboo rafts.
And at long last, the bamboo rafts! They are parked by tying them to the pole in the water, else elephants would trample them.
All set to cast off!
Bamboo rafting is an exhilarating experience. The fact that we’re sitting at water level makes for a more intimate encounter with the lake. In fact, the middle of the raft lies so low in the water, a puddle forms there.
A bamboo raft parked mid-water.
These projecting tree stumps are characteristic of the Periyar Lake. The lake was created when the Mullaperiyar dam was built over a century ago. Virgin forest was submerged, and these projecting arms are silent reminders of that event.
We disembarked for breakfast here. Pandyan told us that the guides build the rafts with their own hands, with hardy bamboo collected from deep inside the forest. They last for about three years, after which the wood begins to rot.
This is where the Tiger Trail trekkers bed down for the night. The ditch around the camp site is for protection against elephants.
And yet another bison killed by a tiger.
And after breakfast, it’s back to our rafts. On the opposite bank is a tribal camp.
The forest guard accompanying us was a teacher before joining the forest service. I asked him if he has ever had to use his gun. He said yes, a few times, to scare away charging elephants — once during a similar bamboo rafting trek!
And off we we went, headed for our lunch site. The scenery was breathtaking, and there was no better vantage point to enjoy it from than the languidly floating bamboo raft. Row, row , row along, …
The rafts are partially submerged in the water, making for a tactile encounter with the lake. And, no, there are no crocs in the lake. 🙂
An accusing finger, reminding us of the price paid for our pleasure: the submerged forest beneath the lake.
This is where we got off for lunch.
One of the guides claimed he could see a bear on the opposite bank. Though we scanned the area with my binoculars, no bear was visible. A pair of good binoculars will double your enjoyment of this trek. Only I had brought along a pair, and they were passed around the group freely.
Our guides enjoy a well-earned respite from paddling.
Yet another tiger kill. No, we didn’t spot any tigers.
The Common Five-Ring, I think.
A leaf-like moth.
The Bicolored Frog.
An ant with an elongated green tail on our lunch mat.
I hadn’t seen this pattern of web before.
Baby elephant dung. The sanctuary abounds in elephants, but we didn’t see any. Spotting wildlife is a matter of chance.
Lunch over, we returned to the boat. The enterprising Pandyan had caught some fish in the meantime. By the way, the meals provided were the only negative aspect of the trek. Breakfast was bread, jam, bananas, and black tea. Lunch was an apology for a fried rice with a basic onion salad as accompaniment.
And now we retraced our path, heading back to our starting point.
A tribal on his own bamboo raft, fishing.
The Kottayam duo.
Our trusty guides, ex-poachers both of them, take a breather. Pandyan’s friend has seen a tiger fight at close quarters, deep inside the forest in his poaching days. I asked Pandyan to whom he sold the meat he bagged in his poaching days. His answer was surprising: wealthy locals who would pay to tickle their palate with exotic meat.
A last backward glance at our trusty raft, and the return trek begins. The route is the same as the outward one, and this is perhaps another possible improvement. Can’t a different route be taken for the return leg?
The wildlife we spotted were bison in the distance, a langur, and these wild pigs. There are piglets in the herd, so it’s best to give them a wide berth.
This is what we wore for protection against leeches. As we didn’t venture inside the dense forest proper, we didn’t pick up any.
But this young girl on another trek did. The poor thing was screaming her guts out.
And it’s almost over. This was a magical time for all of us.