Thekkady, in Kerala State, is best known for its closeness to one of south India’s main wildlife sanctuaries, Periyar National Park. Visitors hope to sight wild elephants and tigers, as well as other fauna.
My visit purposely coincided with Kerala’s biggest annual Hindu celebration: the 10 day Onam festival. Days and nights were punctuated by music, song and ritual. The streets went wild.
The road trip in India’s south, from Kerala’s tropical coastal lowlands to Munnar in the mountainous Western Ghats (reaching 2,695 metres or 8,842 ft) is an adventure.
A road that in most countries is two lanes, becomes something else here in India. However, there is a certain logic to what appears to be complete chaos.
Larger vehicles – trucks and buses – travel in the middle of the road, straddling the white line that theoretically divides the two lanes. On each side, space is taken up by the next largest road users – cars, utilities and vans. To their sides, motorcycles and auto rickshaws pass or are passed, on both the outside and inside. Meanwhile, bicycles, pedestrians and animals – goats, cows – are relegated to the road verges, or a rarer foray onto the sealed road.
After a long 9 hour drive from coastal Varkala, peering down precipitous drops off the edge of the road as a distraction from the adrenaline-inducing road focused experience, it’s bliss to arrive at our accommodation near Munnar, a yoga retreat located in a 300 acre spice garden. Rising at 6am, 90 minutes of yoga follows in the outdoor open-sided pavilion that begins in darkness and ends with the day breaking, as mists slowly rise to reveal mountains, steep valleys, waterfalls, rain forest, and tea gardens. Yoga’s Sun Salutation (surya namaskar) makes perfect sense here. Meals are south Indian vegetarian, which are filling and delicious, with Dosa, Uthappam, soft Idli, and sometimes toast.
A spice garden walk takes you through cardamom, pepper, coffee, and other crops, to encounter women in brightly coloured saris harvesting cardamom, and swapping smiles, gossip and laughter. Neighbours grow other spices; ginger, garlic, nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves. A longer walk takes you downhill to the rushing river, wildly pushing through boulders and rapids.
At a higher altitude, a walk through tea gardens provides a picture of neatness and symmetry as they cover the slopes, like a vertical carpet. Up here there is a chance to catch sight of a house from another era – a bungalow established by the British during the colonial period to house the owners of the tea estates. Many now serve as holiday accommodation. Further, into the hills, wild elephants graze near the road.