I intended to wake up super early to catch my bus inland, but I didn’t. Oops. I left my hotel at 10AM to take the “5 hour” bus ride to Kumily a.k.a. Thekkady a.k.a. Periyar. As soon as I heard that there was a tiger reserve nearby, I knew had to go. I wasn’t going to spend 6 weeks in India and not have the opportunity to see a tiger! So I took the ferry from Fort Cochin to Ernakulum and ended up grabbing the 11:40 bus to Kumily. As difficult as train travel is to schedule, bus travel is easy. Every single time I’ve tried it, I show up at the bus station, someone tells me what bus to get on, I grab a seat, and then the conductor tells me when to get off, because everyone tries to look out a little bit for the confused white person.
The first couple hours of the bus ride were unexciting. I may have napped, I probably just read A Game of Thrones. Then, we entered the area of India known as the Western Ghats. I’m still not entirely sure what a ghat is, but all I know is they were beautiful. I didn’t arrive until 6:20PM, but I spent 5 hours of my bus ride, standing in the aisle so I could have a better vantage point of the views and take pictures. See for yourself!
I arrived to Kumily, the town outside of the Periyar Park, and checked into my very reasonably priced hotel (I upgraded from 6 dollars a night to 10 dollars a night to have hot water. Luxury.). That night, I continued my regime of “cultural” massages getting the local Ayurvedic massage. This massage was incredibly relaxing and most defined by the entire body-length massage strokes and the extremely limited boundaries of the masseur. It was still a welcome remedy after a long bus ride.
I found out that Periyar is very strict about how tourists experience the park. It is entirely government run, and you are forced to choose very specific hikes, treks, activities that only happen at certain times, in specific places, and there are only those options. I chose the one that would get me to the park the earliest to have the best chance at seeing the wildlife. This was an all day affair, taking a jeep to another town deep in the reserve and then doing some hiking from there. At 6:30 AM I got into the jeep and there was only one other guy. Nicolas was a 22-year old from Belgium also traveling alone. We became fast friends and ended up spending the whole day together. The Periyar park is breathtakingly beautiful, with rolling hills and deep jungle constantly surrounding you, and it’s made all the more exciting by the possibility of encountering a tiger or an elephant at any minute!
That’s how it feels, but it is in no way how it is in practice. We were “lucky” and saw wild elephants from about 300 yards away, roaming the hills in the distance. We saw lots of monkey and some exotic breed of squirrel. For our strictly scheduled hike, Nicolas and I were joined by a French couple who were extremely jaded and well traveled. On our morning trek, we didn’t see any wildlife, but saw a whole lot of beautiful scenery and walked through a cardamom plantation.
On the trek, we had a conversation with our guide about how often he saw wildlife. He had lived in the reserve his whole life and had been a guide for 8 years and had only ever seen a tiger 4 times. Nicolas and I got talking and figured something must be up. Were we in the wrong part of the park? More likely, it was we were hiking the same paths as every one else at the same time with the same guides. The animals must have figured out to avoid these paths long ago. We decided to look for more unconventional ways to explore the park.
The first thing we did was to do a night time hike. It was just the two of us and two guides who were very chatty with each other and one of them carried a rifle. While it wasn’t the best way to see wildlife as we foolishly thought it could have been it was just incredibly cool to be completely alone in the wild at night. We each had a flashlight and trekked through the pitch black. I have never seen stars so incredibly vivid. Unfortunately, a nighttime trek doesn’t do so wel for pictures.
The next morning we did something that was maybe possibly a little bit illegal (it was definitely illegal). We hired an illegal guide to take us around the gate and into a mostly unexplored area of the park. While we still didn’t see any more elephants or tigers, we were certainly closer. We saw tiger paw prints, we walked on the trails that boars made through the tall grasses, and up the switchbacks that elephants had stamped out in the hillside. This guide said he saw tigers once a month or so, and took us to a lot of his favorite places.
Nicolas and I were so glad we did this, but this meant we had spent 20 hours in the park within a 30 hour period with not much sleep. We were both beat and I had to catch a 7 hour bus ride back to Kochi to get my next train! This time, the bus ride was less beautiful because it was raining and the driver went twice as fast so I had to physically hold on to the seat for 5 straight hours. Good thing Kumily is well worth the drive.