Tiger footprints. We stop in our tracks. Excitement rises. Our guide kneels and studies them, and concludes they are old ones. Disillusion comes with a hidden sense of relief. There is a gun-carrying guard with us, but still.
We set off once more along trails through a forest so hot and dry that the dehydrated leaves barely hang on to the trees. The sound of walking through the fallen leaves reminds me of Europe’s autumns, which is entirely at odds with the scorching temperatures.
Hiking through the Forest
The guide walks up front and the guard brings up the rear. They point out medicinal plants and trees and colorful creepy crawlers. Suddenly the guide stops short, holding up his hand in a gesture saying we should keep silent.
“Monkeys,” he says.
Now we hear them too. A whole pack of macaque runs through the treetops. Not much later we spot Nilgiri langurs. These animals always radiate a sense of pride, I find. They sit on boulders undisturbed by our presence, exuding the message that they’ve always belonged here.
Bamboo Rafting in India
At the boat landing of Periyar’s reservoir, we take a rest while we’re lavished with milk tea and biscuits. When we step on the bamboo raft I wonder if it will hold us all; it doesn’t look too sturdy. But this is a needless worry; every day there a couple of groups visit the park and these rafts have proved their worth.
All we have to do is sit. Feet stretched out in front of us, a hand lazily dangling in the water, and we’re ready to go. The silence, broken only by the rhythmic splashing of the peddle,s creates something of a meditative state, and for a couple of hours it is impossible to believe we are actually in India, where life is generally ruled by chaos.
The Foundation of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
Some one hundred years ago the construction of a dam flooded a large forest of the Western Ghats, which resulted in this reservoir. The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary was created as a tiger reserve in 1978 (there are an estimated 40 tigers in the park), but today it’s more likely to spot elephants, of which there are about 1000. The guide proudly informs us that the park is home to some 50 species of mammals, 240 species of birds, 20 species of fishes and more than 100 species of butterflies.
Hundreds of bare, almost white teak trunks protrude from the water surface like a work of art. They are excellent lookouts for waterfowl that use the branches as a springboard to dive into the water to catch their fish. The local name of this teakwood is Thekkady, as is the name of the nearby village.
There is no wildlife to be seen, which I understand. The animals must have passed out, as we would have were it not for the pleasant breeze that brings a bit of relief on the water. However, at the end of the afternoon, when the heat abates, the forest comes alive.
Ducks, herons, buzzards and kingfishers all come out their protective foliage to go hunting. And then, at last, we see the mammals we came for: elephants. I’ll admit, for Africa-goers this may evoke merely a yawn but for me, and others who have never seen elephants in the wild before, this is quite a sight. Majestically, three of them move over the hilly fields. The best wildlife sightings are during our walk back: A pack of gaurs and herds of wild boars, which are so close by we almost trip over them.
- Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary lies in India’s state of Kerala, about 140 kilometers from Madurai and 190 kilometers from Cochin (both reachable by air). From here take a bus or taxi to Thekkady, which has accommodation and is a good place from where to start this day trip. Tour operators will probably find you before you find them.
- The trip takes all day (8am-5pm). Lunch, snacks and drinks are included. You may want to bring an extra bottle of water. The maximum size of groups is ten people.
- Don’t forget hat, sun lotion, camera and, if you have, binoculars (can be rented in Thekkady). The Periyar Sanctuary advises wearing camouflage colored clothes in green, brown or khaki.
- Best time to visit: September – May because of temperatures. In March/April you have the best chance to see animals because of the low water level. June-August are monsoon months.
- If you have another day to spare, a visit to a spice plantation in the area makes for a nice outing.
Here are more stories about India.