Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thekkady: Of boats, boars and boors

The single biggest draw in Thekkady is probably the boat safari. Of course, one wonders what the scenario is like now, post the tragic boat capsize that killed 40-odd people. We were on that boat exactly a week before the mishap and almost ironically, I had commented on the utter lack of safety gear on all the nine boats docked there.

Anyhow, our experience was far more pleasant. Thanks to KTDC’s super-efficient Mr Ravi (no, I am not getting a commission to mention his name on my blog this often), we had our tickets to the upper deck of “Jala Raja”, one of the biggest boats there.

As the boats chugged along, expertly dodging the dead trees in the lake, I couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast in the kind of crowd in the upper and lower decks of each boat. The upper decks were full of tourists from all over the world, cameras clicking away at the gnarled trees, the lush green jungle set against the red muddy river bank and the benign elephants plodding about their business as usual. The lower decks, however, were bursting at the seams with local romeos, grinning from ear to ear, cameras clicking away at anything vaguely human female, oblivious to the glares from certain other disapproving males. (*Ahem*)

We spotted a herd of elephants with their clumsy babies, an absolute multitude of bison, sambar deer (a name which a lot of people pronounce like the South Indian lentils curry), grouchy wild boar, and half a dozen snake birds and kingfishers.

No tigers. Tsk.

As we spotted each lot of animals, the boat would slowly spin around in circles so that everybody got a good view regardless of where they were seated. The excitable types would rush to the edge each time, clamouring at the top of their voices – until the ever-efficient Mr Ravi shushed everybody saying noise would scare the animals away. (Seriously, no commission)

The boat ride lasts a good two hours and you are almost guaranteed to spot an elephant or five this way. However, as we slowly chugged back to the docks, a sense of ennui set in amongst the crowd; even the know-it-all Bengali man stopped broadcasting his vast store of trivia to an admiring group of foreigners who’d lapped it all up until they could lap no more.

That is the moment the old foreigner seated in front of us chose to raise himself slightly and let one rip (or passed a noisy wind, if the former sounds too crass), and then sat back down absolutely poker-faced. His wife, although startled for a split second, remained unconcerned -which is more than I can say for Ducky. He began choking with laughter and set me off too.

The elephants were nowhere to be seen. They probably ran for cover.

The old windbag’s wife then handed him a candy. “That’s to combat the weakness he must be feeling after that expulsion”, said Ducky before dissolving into more laughter.

And thus it was that "Jala Raja" chugged back to the docks, with two grownups, belonging to an organization known for being prim-n-propah, snorting with laughter like two juvenile school kids.

Thekkady: Bamboo rafting and an eight-hour trek

Going on a tiger hunt, I’m not scared...Got leeches by my side, guavas too...

The prospect of bamboo rafting and trekking through areas of Periyar sanctuary that are otherwise off-limits for everyone except forest rangers was a cheering thought. No loud, lecherous camera-toting locals or excitable squealing tourists – just us, a bunch of forest rangers, a rickety bamboo raft, and the great outdoors...

Whatever. Okay, so I thought I’d get lucky and see a tiger. Put it down to fanciful Piscean day-dreaming.

The efficient Mr Ravi introduced us to our guides – rangers from the Kerala Forest Services – and I was immediately mimicking their strong Malayalee accents in my head for future use against certain “fake” Mallu friends of mine.

As it turned out, our trekking group was just the two of us with a young German couple. Ravi told us to don their improvised “leech guards” – khaki stockings that end just around the knee. The prospect of the little bloodsuckers around didn’t daunt me – I’m quite used to extricating them from self and dogs with a squeeze of lime or a pinch of salt (and tequila?) – which is more than I can say for the terrified German couple who thought the things got under a person’s skin like Guinea worms. Tsk.

We set off, traversing the first part of the river on a rickety bamboo raft that looked nothing like the one in the brochures. Our guide excitedly pointed out Touch-Me-Nots. “Oh, whee!” I thought, “this is going to be a whole lot of fun! Touch-Me-Nots?!!” I steeled myself for another “100% natural jungle” type rip-off.

Fortunately, the trek got more interesting as our guide was full of trivia about other flora and fauna as well. The only fact that he erred about was attributing the zoological name of a frog “Rana something-or-the-other” to Rana Pratap Singh, the Maharaja of Mewar (the "Frog Prince" of Mewar?).

My hopes of seeing any wildlife shrivelled as quickly as the Touch-Me-Nots. I had to content myself with heaps of elephant dung in various stages of freshness, an elephant skeleton, a tiger pugmark, a couple of noisy Drongos, a red dragon fly, some tadpoles and fish, a herd of bison (that Ducky quickly shooed away with a well-timed cough), and a fleeting glimpse of an elusive Malabar squirrel.

The Germans, who weren’t very fluent in English, didn’t know what a squirrel was. Pity for them, they will never know – although equally ‘well-informed’ Ducky helpfully told them it belonged to the pig family! (*Snort*)

The German girl looked increasingly flustered, most so when she asked to use the restroom during our stop for a tasteless lunch. The guide very politely pointed her in the direction of some thick trees and bushes.

Although I claim excellent bladder control most times, my luck ran out that day and I sheepishly waddled behind a bunch of bushes myself, keeping my fingers crossed that none of the greedy leeches who came dashing toward me became ‘bottom feeders’.

Towards the last leg of our trek, we trudged back in the hot sun, as one ranger enthusiastically plied us with all the wild guavas we could eat. We reached the last bamboo raft waiting to take us back to our starting point and I cautiously stepped onto it first.

As my rotten luck would have it, a bamboo log gave way and I sank knee-deep into the dark 120-foot deep water. Pure reflexes and an irrational fear of water made me leap to safety in a fraction of a second. If you thought the boats in Thekkady have no safety equipment, try the bamboo rafts!

I was more than grateful to limp back to my room and soak in the tub, gingerly nursing the awful blister on my foot that the ‘leech guard’ had created.