Tuesday, we set out on an adventure we had been looking forward to since we signed on to work in India. We set out to see elephants in the wild. After a fabulous masala dosa breakfast at our hotel, we were off to Periyar Tiger Reserve, a national park in Thekkady, on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu (though all our Keralan hosts would want us to be clear – it is almost entirely in Kerala). We had signed up for a full day trek, part hiking and part bamboo rafting, into the heart of the reserve.
We took a bus ride a few miles in to the park to the boat launch. It took us a minute to make sure we were in the right place – there is also a boat dock for a larger, less trek-y boat ride to see wild life. After a quick cup of coffee, we made our way to our little hut by the river.
Preparation for the trek was both a relief and eye opening. A relief because we met our fellow travelers. It was a very small group – eight tourists and five guides. We were joined by two very eager grad students doing an exchange semester in Gujarat, one Swede and one German; and a family of four Angelinos in Kerala for a wedding. The guides were charming local men who clearly love what they do. They were eager to tell us about everything we were seeing and worked very hard to make sure we had a great experience.
Gearing up was eye opening because of the gear. First, it was a little bit of a relief that they gave us leech-prevention booties to put inside our boots and outside our pants. We’re pretty sure that leeches aren’t fatal, but they’re just unpleasant enough that we were happy to be protected from them. The other eye opening bit of gear was the shotgun. We don’t usually hike with shotguns. We were going to be consorting with some dangerous critters indeed.
We got started with a very small taste of the bamboo rafting to come with a rope-pull ferry of a bamboo raft to get us across a small arm of the lake that would be our host. The first leg of our trek amounted to a nature hike through a beautiful, lush jungle. The two of us kept getting separated from the rest of the group, essentially meaning we had two of the guides to ourselves, who loved pointing out what we were looking at.
The guides seemed to have assigned jobs. One led the procession. Another had the shotgun. One fellow seemed to be the bring-up-the-rear guy. The other two carried supplies and helped us along the way. None of them spoke perfect English, but all of them were super excited to share this beautiful park they had all worked in for years.
They set our expectations early. Not only are tigers rare (about 50 of them in the 975 square km park), but they are nocturnal. The odds of seeing a tiger are almost nil. In 10 years, one of them had seen tigers twice. There are 1000 elephants, so that’s possible but still not likely. They were clear that we needed to be there for the splendor of the place, not to check a sighting off our bucket list.
The two guys helping us, the shotgun tender and the rear guide, indeed helped us appreciate the splendiferous place. On this leg of our trek, we saw trees – a cobra tree that looked like the hood of a king cobra, a spiny Indian corral tree, and ancient cotton and jack fruit trees. We saw otters, a black monkey, a giant squirrel (the name of it, not a descriptor, though it was indeed giant), and some kind of a lizard. We saw a banyan tree growing over a teak tree, eventually killing it since it will suck all of the water out of it. We saw evidence of the grand animals we were after: the skull of a bison that had been killed by a tiger; a tree where a tiger had “cleaned its claws,” leaving deep marks that reminded us while we would love to see one, we wanted to be no where near it; many trees elephants had rubbed against, massaging themselves; and scratchings in the ground of three kinds, elephants doing something we were never clear of, wild boars digging for roots, and tigers marking their territory.
Another fun element of this wonderland were the wild spices. We started trying to keep track of the delicious things we could make with the spices they pointed out to us: green pepper (the spice not, as they call it here, capsicum), cardamom, ginger, turmeric, curry leaf, cinnamon, and allspice. We’re pretty sure we were just missing hot peppers and cloves, and we could have made ourselves a really nice masala with all of the wild spices.
Just before we stopped for breakfast (or second breakfast in our case), we had our first major sighting. A collection of wild boar (complete with mynah birds perched on top) were digging away for their own meal across the river.
Breakfast was a chance to start chatting with our fellow travelers and rest up a bit for the next leg of the journey. We took a quick walk to where we got on our bamboo rafts. Eight people could fit on one raft, so we took two: four tourists on each with two or three guides accompanying. The paddle was pleasant and relaxing. This was the point where we were moving slowly enough that we could realize one of the best parts of the day – no human noise outside of our little, quiet group. No traffic noise, no airplanes, no yelling, no nothing. Just birds, quiet conversation, and the dip of the paddles. It was heaven. We were keeping our eyes on the tree line of the shore for critters coming to the lake to drink. No takers. We had to settle for simply being in a little slice of paradise.
Occasionally in the pictures that involve water, you can make out in the background small gatherings of people. Periyar has an interesting and almost tragic history. As the tea plantations, which are everywhere in this district, started encroaching in the late 19th century, the maharaja protected the area as a hunting ground in order to save the forest. Then, as the hunting threatened the existence of the tigers, elephants, boars, sambar deer, and others, the government in 1978 turned it in to a national park. In order to pull that off, the government had to relocate the indigenous communities who had lived there for millennia. In exchange, the communities were given almost free access (they can sleep only one night inside) to the park to continue the fishing they had always counted on. What you are seeing are small groups of fishers upholding generations of experience.
We stopped for lunch on shore. One nice thing about this trek is that they supply a small backpack filled with food for the day – dosas with a curry for breakfast, pulau with an egg curry for lunch, an orange, an apple, mango juice, and a couple of other things we never did really figure out what they were for. The family from Los Angeles entertained us with their first attempts at eating rice with their hands. It was good food, especially for packing it up for a trek.
After lunch, we loaded up for a trek through the jungle behind us. Two of our guides stayed back, so we were able to leave our life jackets and lunch packs behind, allowing us to move a little faster. Just as we were starting, the three remaining guides told us very sternly that this was the silent part of the trip, so we headed off in silence.
The lead guide was on a mission. We started realizing what that mission was when he took off, leaving us between two meadows, to check out an area beyond where we could see. He came back, shaking his head. It turns out he was trying to find some elephants for us. We were told that he had been guiding in Periyar for 25 years, and it showed. We scooted through large meadows, deep woods, and stretches where it didn’t seem like there was any path at all. At every transition he would stop, listen, look around, shake his head, and move on. Once, he even made like he smelled something, but to no avail.
At one point he ran off ahead to check out a meadow, and he looked back with a very different reaction. He looked like a little boy who just scored his first goal. He waved us over, and we were ecstatic to see the back of an elephant in some very tall greenery. Then we moved on and saw a big old tusked elephant in the tree line behind the first. Then we realized it was a mama elephant because the baby elephant was several feet away from her. THREE ELEPHANTS! IN THEIR HOME!
We made our way slowly around the edge of the meadow, both to get different angles and to see if we could get just a little bit closer without spooking them. The guides were obviously very nervous. Every once in a while, we’d be so distracted taking photos and just generally being in awe of them that we’d get separated from the rest of the group, and the guides would physically herd us back together. Then the elephants started moving. The silence was broken as the guides started imploring us to move now, we have to get out of here. Sure enough, those huge beasts turned nimbly back to the woods and started powering up the hill. They even started trumpeting as they went. We were told later that if not for the baby, the larger elephants probably would have charged, but they had to stay back to protect the baby.
It made our day. Already this was a glorious trip, what with the silence and the peace and the beauty and the nice travel companions. But elephants in the wild? Even our guides kept telling us, “You are very lucky.” Very lucky indeed.
Our trek back to the boathouse was a bit quicker. After a break back at the lunch spot, we got back on the rafts for an occasionally rain-spattered paddle. Then the rain became a downpour. We high-tailed it out of there. The guides took us through several short cuts, making it clear that the first leg of our day really was all about pointing out the natural splendor of the place. Our soaked sprint home was only interrupted by a huge herd of bison, big enough that our guides also seemed impressed.
Drenched and ecstatic, we arrived back at the boathouse and met the bus to go home. This was exactly what we had hoped for. It would have been enough to be able to take a hike and a boat ride in a beautiful place. Even better that the people we travelled with were charming and had the same priorities for the trek. Even better that it wasn’t simply peaceful; there was no traffic noise at all, not even airplanes. Even better to do this all with the knowledge that we are walking in the homes of some of the most powerful, impressive animals in the world, and if they didn’t want us there, we were in trouble. And best that we saw what we came for: elephants in the wild.