Kerala: A stretch of paradise

Kerala: A stretch of paradise
Aerial view of the Wayanad Road

God's own country offers the perfect solution for a holiday full of nature's wonders



by

Suchitra Steven Samuel

Published: Fri 9 Sep 2016, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Wed 14 Sep 2016, 4:38 PM

Fancy a good rain? A good time to visit Kerala is during the monsoons when the weather showcases nature in all its glory. My colleague and I took an IndiGo flight from Dubai and arrived in Kozhikode's Karipur airport at around 9am. Pavithran P.P., a former tourist guide, who now works as a Public Relations Officer, Branding and Communications for Aster DM Healthcare, warmly welcomed us to the city. We travelled together to Vythiri. There were nine hairpin bends in the 12-km long mountain pass or ghat section. The drive up the Wayanad ghats was exhilarating as each hairpin bend in the climb unfolded more and more dense forests and stunning vistas.

Chain tree


En route to Wayanad, we stopped by at the famous Chain Tree (changala maram). There is an interesting story associated with the tree which goes back to the time when the British ruled India. There were no roads through this part of the Western Ghats. Legend has it that Karinthandan, a young Adivasi or tribal youth belonging to the Paniya tribe, knew his way through the dense hilly forest. He assisted a British engineer in discovering this road between Kozhikode and Wayanad, but the latter did not want to share the credit of discovery with the Adivasi and killed him. After his untimely death, several accidents happened in this area. The Panikar, or holy man, attributed the problem to the soul of Karinthandan roaming restlessly in the area. The solution, according to him, was to chain his spirit to a tree, hence the heavy chain around the tree. It was noted that after this was done, accidents reduced. Today, curious travellers stop by this place to pay their respects and, as a result, this location is almost a shrine of sorts now.

Vythiri Village Resort
By afternoon, we checked into the Vythiri Village Resort, where a traditional Kerala buffet was served for lunch. The rooms were fairly spacious with modern amenities. A hanging bridge, spectacular views of dense greenery, treehouses, domesticated animals and birds, and a herbal garden (where plants were identified by their scientific names) added something special to the getaway experience.

Pookode Lake
It was time to visit a popular attraction in Wayanad. Nestled in the lap of nature, Pookode Lake, just a 3km drive away from Vythiri, is a nature lover's dream. Spread over an area of 8.5 hectares with a maximum depth of 6.5 metres, this is the second largest freshwater lake near Lakkidi and is surrounded by lush evergreen forests. Incidentally, Lakkidi is 700 metres above sea level and home to 140 species of birds.
The verdant greenery overlooking the lake offered a captivating view that reminded me of my journey to Switzerland. The serenity and romantic elements offered an idyllic setting for a holiday and, according to Pavithran, "This is one of the most sought-after destinations in Wayanad."
Meanwhile, Saleem, the boatman, enlightened us about the Ambal Poo (Nymphaea stellata) or water lilies floating around the lake. The buds grow in the centre of the leaves and they float around, with new plants growing on their own from leaves.
It was a very peaceful evening with the occasional drizzle. Kayaks and rowboats glided on the placid waters of the lake. We could see the Chembra Peak at a distance. At a height of 2,100 metres, the towering peak is located near Meppadi in the southern part of Wayanad.
After spending more than an hour on a boat cruise and enjoying the fantastic views, we took a 2km nature walk around the lake to enjoy the sights and sounds of the forest - experiencing the dream-like serenity of the lake and the hills surrounding it.

Kanthanpara waterfalls
The next day, we visited the DM Wayanad Institute of Medical Sciences, where learning and healing takes place in a serene, eco-friendly campus. After lunch at the college canteen, we went to another ideal picnic spot in Wayanad called Kanthanpara waterfalls located about 22 km from Kalpetta. It was raining and the road was slippery, but closer to the road was a small waterfall that makes the travel worth it. One has to manoeuvre on slippery pathways to access the main waterfall, deeper into the forests. Here, we spotted a black Nilgiri langur (Trachypithecus johnii), a species of monkey, resting on a tall tree. We couldn't help but take several photos before leaving.
Soon, our conversation moved on to jackfruit. Hailing from Lucknow, my colleague had not tasted jackfruit, an indigenous fruit of the area. Though it was available in plenty, it was not sold in shops. So Pavithran and the driver Nikhil decided to have a mini-adventure; they stopped the car, climbed a tree and harvested a whole jackfruit, during the heavy monsoon downpour. Fully wet, they gave the fruit of their labour to my travel partner to taste - a firsthand experience of the hospitality of the people here. She was touched by their gesture and enjoyed every bit of it, although I did have to advise her not to have too much as we had a lot of travelling to do. Meanwhile, Pavithran and Nikhil enjoyed the experience as much as we enjoyed the jackfruit!

Jungle safari
From here, we drove to the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary - Muthanga Range in Sulthan Bathery. This tropical forest is a tiger reserve that is home to panthers, leopards, and vultures. We travelled 15 km into the forest in an open jeep, a jungle safari that lasted more than one-and-a-half hours. Mathan, originally from the Adivasi tribe Mullukuruma, and also a member of the Vana Samrakshana Samithi (the committee that protects the forest), escorted the vehicle.
Driving into the forest, we saw a herd of spotted deer that had paused because of the rains. We were told there are four different types of deer in this forest - spotted deer, sambha deer, barking deer (they can bark like dogs) and mouse deer. We got to see some forest trees with beehives, a source for forest honey; huge termite hills; a lone peacock perched on a tree; bark stripped from a tree by an elephant; fresh elephant footprints and areas of the forest damaged by wildfires. Mathan, truly the son of the forest, had a keen eye for spotting animals, and catching a glimpse of wild buffaloes, bisons and a wild elephant added to the afternoon thrill. We also got to see a huge tusker called Surya who lives in the elephant camp in the forest. The forest spreads over three states, Muthunga in Kerala, Bandipur in Karnataka and Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu. Combined, the area is said to be the largest home for Asian elephants.

Food
On our way back we stopped at a local bakery in Sulthan Bathery as my colleague wanted to taste ela ada, a sweet delicacy of Kerala. It consists of a rice paste that covers coconut and sugar, with a tinge of cardamom, and steamed using a banana leaf. Truly a must-try.
Next morning, we checked out of Vythiri Village to travel to Kozhikode. On the way, we visited the Malabar Institute of Medical Sciences in Kozhikode and Kottakkal. With heavy rains and traffic on the roads, it was late in the evening by the time we checked in at the Marriott Hotel in Cochin. My room was on the 18th floor and the view of Kochi was truly spectacular from here. Subhash was our tour guide in Cochin.

Aster Medcity
The next morning we visited Aster Medcity, one of India's advanced healthcare destinations. It combines the best of talent with state-of-the-art technology to provide holistic treatments. The 40-acre waterfront campus in Kochi is a 670-bed quaternary care facility with one multi-speciality hospital and eight separate Centres of Excellence (COEs). Unique to this hospital is the 'No-Stress ICUs' - single patient rooms with large windows offering panoramic views. This reduces ICU-induced stress while the natural lighting helps one's sleep cycle. As treatments are in separate rooms, the risk of cross infections are also reduced. Moreover, the view of the river and the surrounding green landscape is just amazing. Different types of cuisines are served to cater to medical tourists from different parts of the world.

Kerala houseboats
The next day, we went on a houseboat cruise along the endless backwaters of Alappuzha in a boat belonging to Granma Tours (www.granmatours.com). This single bedroom, air-conditioned boat was commissioned three years ago at a cost of Rs36 lakhs. Apparently, there are three to four companies in the area that manufacture these boats. According to our boatman, Rajesh, around 1,000 boats ply this 900km waterway. The speed of each boat is approximately 14 km/hour and the tourist season is from October to February.
Rajesh has been operating in the Vembanad Kayal (lake) for 11 years. According to him, the majority of tourists are interested in agriculture and fishing in the area. Bird watchers visit as well. The waters are blessed with different types of fish and fresh catches can be cooked in the houseboats.
The boats are always checked for safety, he adds, as checking the propeller is very important. When the water level rises by just one foot, water enters the homes dotted along the shore. While on the cruise, Rajesh showed us the houseboat of Malayalam film actor Dileep. Interestingly, the annual boat race during Onam takes place here. A distance of 1,250 metres is covered in four-and-a-half minutes (finishing time).
Lunch was a typical Kerala meal: lentil curry, cabbage and carrot thoren, salad of tomato, carrots and onions, okra mezhukku puratti, chicken curry, white rice, karimeen pollichathu, curd and sambhar. Tea was accompanied with onion bajiyas.

Fort Kochi
On our way back to the hotel, we visited Fort Kochi. Close by were the famous Chinese fishing nets installed on bamboo and teak poles and suspended horizontally over the water to catch fish. A furious sea, with waves crashing relentlessly against the rough shores, enhanced the beauty and unpredictability of nature. We walked along Vasco Da Gama Square, a narrow promenade along the beach. Nearby stalls were serving steaming hot seafood. We opted for some fresh tender coconuts, which were refreshing.
For centuries, traders and voyagers have been visiting Kochi  and leaving their mark through a number of monuments. These include the Dutch Palace, St Francis Church and the Santa Cruz Cathedral. We did a little bit of shopping at Anokhi, where the new summer cotton fashion styles were in store. Thus ended our few days of discovering the natural wonders and beauty of Kerala.
Overall, the journey was awe-inspiring. In Kerala, both the people and the land are deeply in touch with their cultural and natural heritage, which is maintained and shared with the world. We returned to Dubai feeling refreshed, with hundreds of photos to remind us of the good times we shared and the beautiful places we visited.
suchitra@khaleejtimes.com

Houseboats are quite popular with tourists in Alappuzha, Kerala
Houseboats are quite popular with tourists in Alappuzha, Kerala
Boats berthed along Pookode Lake, Wayanad
Boats berthed along Pookode Lake, Wayanad
Man and nature nestle together in harmony — Pookode Lake.
Man and nature nestle together in harmony — Pookode Lake.
Resplendent greenery at Vythiri Village
Resplendent greenery at Vythiri Village

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