We had originally planned to go South from Palakkad and focus more on the backwater region (which is also most travelled by Westerners) and the popular Wildlife Reserve Periyar in mid-Kerala. However, after having spoken to Mr. Kutty and some other locals, we decided to leave the beaten tracks and move a bit further North to Wayanad, which enjoys the reputation as the most beautiful part of Kerala among Indians. We chose the town Kalpetta as a hub for the region, and especially for its proximity to the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, a less visited alternative to Periyar.
The journey there itself is worth a comment. After having said good-bye to the Menons in Calicut (in the form of a hearty hug with Shanta, an unmotivated pat on the back by Das – clearly not a goodbye person -, and mutual reassurances that we would see each other again during our road trip through the US) we took a bus to Kalpetta in the Western Ghats. The Western Ghats are a hilly, densely forested area in the east of Kerala. They are referred to as the Alpes of Kerala and look like a mixture of Lost/the jungle scenes of Predator and Lord of the Rings Auenland – maybe the most beautiful part of Kerala, if not India. Another association is with the prehistoric jungles during the era of dinosaurs – huge, twisted and alien-looking trees, prop roots and wines hanging around, orchids and moss growing on branches, the sounds of a dozen different chirping birds, spotted dear, monkeys and the anticipation of a tiger lurking behind a bush. Because of its rich and diverse flora and fauna, at least half of the Western Ghats has been made National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries.
And this is what the bus took us through. Picture Rama and Anna sharing a tiny, bumping, screeching bench in a rusty bus overcrowded with passengers navigating a trail which for one part consists of steep hairpin bends and for the other part overlooked cliff faces dropping at least 1000 meters. We were subjected to a confusion of emotions: On the one hand, the serenity of looking at all that greenery; on the other hand, the sudden lurches that the bus made on account of the formula 1 style of its driver, ensuring that the serenity was short-lived and rudely reminding us of our mortality. Especially to Anna (who is scared of driving even in Germany), it was a miracle how the driver could navigate the streets with so much precision.
For those Westerners wearing Saffron robes with unkempt hair embarking upon a journey of seeking spirituality we would strongly recommend a ride to the Western Ghats by KSRTC public bus.
After about 3 hours of mood swings ranging from exhilaration to fear, we reached a substantially less inspiring Kalpetta.
Lonely Planet had recommended a certain Ayurvedic Hospital in Kalpetta, which it described as a mixture of Ayurvedic Center and hotel. It turned out to be a proper Ayurvedic Hospital with some adjunct rooms for long-term patients. Having reached the place on a Kerala state holiday, the only refrain that could be heard from the frequently appearing, but mostly disappearing staff was the statement that the doctor was on leave and that they don’t have any facilities.
We chose a small room with A/C within a large guesthouse opposite the hospital and soon realized that we were the only inhabitants of the guesthouse. Kalpetta is a 8 PM town, with all establishments except for some restaurants (almost always called hotels, irrespective of them providing accommodation or not) closing between 8 PM to 9 PM. As our host hospital served only meditational meals, we wandered out on to the main street to source our dinner from the reasonably well-maintained ‘Woodlands’ restaurant. The restaurant and the hotel (in this case Woodlands did offer accommodation!) staff were very helpful in arranging transport for the next day’s visit to the sanctuary and other local attractions. We were lucky that the Woodlands hotel staff (especially Mr. Jibin) helped us out, as our host hospital staff seemed not to know much about visiting the wildlife sanctuary. In fact, they seemed a bit lost in a time warp and often wore a rather startled look whenever the talk of visiting the sanctuary came about. This is despite the fact that the Lonely Planet and other travel guides clearly mention Kalpetta as a useful base-town for visiting the sanctuary.
The next day started very early for us. We were ready at 5:30 AM to be picked up by Shameer, our jeep driver. After a delay of only 15 minutes, Shameer picked us up in his trusted Mahindra Jeep. Soon we were driving towards Sultan Batheri, the next town, to enter the Muthanga gate of the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary. With the visibility at 10m on account of the early morning mist, the entire route to the gate of sanctuary seemed like a scene from a David Lynch movie, with majestic and sometimes twisted trees suddenly looming out of the mist, and more weirdly, people with stoic facial expressions appearing out of the mist equally suddenly.
After a drive of about an hour, we soon reached the Muthanga gate and then Rama was given the ignominious honor to jostle among about 100 tourist jeep drivers, tour operators, other drive-yourself tourists to obtain the entry permit. By the good offices of Shameer, we received token no. 3. This entitled us to enter the sanctuary as the 3rd vehicle of the day. An advantage, that was soon surrendered by Shameer to other Jeep drivers in his valiant and chivalrous attempt to show Anna a tame elephant maintained by the forest department. During this scintillating tame animal spotting, other jeep drivers overtook us without any major effort to do so. We had to take a snap of the tame elephant, as it was the only way Shameer would continue the drive.
Soon we spotted deers and monkeys, quite ordinary stuff for Muthanga sanctuary. After trying in vain for close to an hour to spot the bigger animals such as buffalo and elephant, we had started talking about how the forests themselves were worth a visit even without spotting the animals (believe us… they truly are!) in order to assuage our feelings and more importantly those of Shameer who was disconsolate at having ‘failed’ us. Just as we were taking the exit route to conclude our rather insipid ride, we noticed that the Jeep in front of us stopped. The driver of the Jeep in front of us told us “there is something moving on the left side”. We noticed that the grasses were indeed swaying oddly at a point on our left. Suddenly, distinct from the background of dull brown tall grasses, we saw the head and the trunk of an elephant emerge! The driver in front of us, after a perfunctory stop of about 30 seconds so that the tourists in his Jeep could take pot shots with their cameras, soon took off. However, Shameer parked our Jeep with as little noise as possible beside the forest road and waited. The next 10 minutes were worth all our efforts to be at that point in Muthanga at that time, as we were treated to the amazing spectacle of two bull elephants with tusks crossing the forest road at a distance of 20 m from our Jeep in clear view.
The trip to Wayanad will not be complete without mentioning our visit or rather the climb to the Edakkal caves, a site about 12 kilometers from Sultan Bathery hosting prehistoric rock carvings.
The jeep trip to the base of the Edakkal caves was as scenic as one had come to expect in Wayanad, with coffee plantations, cashew-nut trees and an almost absurd excess of jack fruits and mangos hanging by the road-side.
At the base of the Edakkal caves, the point beyond which vehicles were not allowed, Shameer excused himself and asked us to continue the journey on foot to the caves. We expected the caves to loom large or low, after a brief climb of about 50 meters. But what followed after the first fifty meters was another stretch of upwardly curving path at an angle of about 45 degrees. At this time we were sure that within the next 60 m we would definitely be at the Edakkal cave entrance. However, to our dismay and shock, we found that the upward inclining path continued for close to 500 m before coming to the actual entrance area of the Edakkal caves. Then followed the real torture, a final lap that consisted of steps cut almost vertically out of the hill for another 200m. This was followed by the pinnacle of all tortures: an almost vertical steel ladder for the last 50 meters. The ladder was less than a meter wide and had to accommodate streams of tourists (mainly local) going upwards to the caves and those descending from the caves. With neither stream of people keeping towards one side of the ladder, it was a miracle as to how there was no stampede resulting in people falling in droves from the steep ladder. An even bigger miracle was the feat of hundreds of women and girls many among them sporting heels making the climb.
When we finally reached the cave we had developed a real respect for those pre-historic cave dwellers who must have climbed the same way regularly to collect food and water without any path or ladders in place. The cave itself was a giant natural cavern whose walls were covered with hundreds of jagged lines that combined in various ways. The lines formed almost cubistic geometrical clusters, which made it difficult to identify the carvings from close. However, from afar, the lines resolved themselves to reveal fascinating patterns, depicting humans with elaborate headgears framed against what could be interpreted as trees. One did get a mental image of the Stargate series, involving the unique headgears and spears.
Interestingly, we seemed to be the only visitors actually interested in the carvings. While we were examining and interpreting the patterns, most other tourists were busier taking pictures of each other or queuing up in front of a narrow chasm between two monolithic boulders to enjoy the rather limited view between them. Anna interpreted this weird behavior with an apparent absence of real cultural interest in favor of a group activity/participation based motivation.
We survived the return trip by timing our descent with a brief lull in the visitor stream going up. After enjoying an ice cream and soda water on the way down, we returned to our Jeep, exhausted and sweaty, but proud of ourselves.
Upon arrival at Kalpetta, we had the feeling of having had a long day and were ready for the bed, whereas it was only 1 o’clock. At this point, Rama felt that, having been accommodated in hospital rooms meant for patients, we were morally obliged to take some Ayurvedic treatment. As the hospital staff was not able to explain any of the treatments that were mentioned in the brochure, Anna went for the safest bet: The Abhayanga, the full body oil massage. Anna’s attempts to customize the massage by pointing out her neck pains failed miserably. Her further attempts to induce the masseuses to focus on her feet were met with polite directions to a beauty parlor. Upon retrospect, we think they were perfectly justified in directing Anna to a beauty parlor, who, in a brief moment of greed, had tried to use the Ayurvedic hospital as a massage parlor.
We left Kalpetta fully satisfied that we had seen all that could be seen about it.
Exploring our favourite Indian state Kerala, my boyfriend and me travelled from Chennai to Palakkad, Kalpetta, Kannur, Ernakulam, Munnar and Alleppey in April and May of 2012 and wrote this travel documentary on the way.