Just as we were getting settled in Cochin, it was time to move on. I had booked train tickets from Cochin to Palakhad from the comfort of my armchair using the excellent Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Company – IRCTC website.
Once on board, I simply had to show my booking on my phone and passport and the train guard was perfectly happy.
Soon came the chai and coffee wallahs. We had sweet coffee. Later the biryani wallahs took my order and I was presented with a huge portion in perfect time for lunch.
I had already booked accommodation and Sue was a little perturbed to discover that I had selected a tree house and a tent for our two nights…Entirely suitable accommodation for a couple of aging memsahibs, I thought!
We arrived at the security hut and gates to the reserve just beyond the town of Pollachi at exactly 1730h. The guard said he was unable to let us in because it was too late. However, after some chat and charm from us we paid our dues (Foreigners Rates – How did he know we were foreigners???) and were allowed to proceed. We bounced along increasingly pot-holed roads. As the evening gloom arrived we saw three different types of monkey swinging through the enormous trees that shimmied ever closer. The monkeys peered in at us as we peered out at them.
We arrived at a place called Topslip. After a few enquiries, we were directed with a wave of the hand and a nicely timed head wobble to a further destination some 20km further on into the reserve.
By now it was dark. Our taxi driver was wonderful. Using his own phone he called the park officials and arranged for us to be met by a park ranger and for our dinner to be prepared.
I must say that we were mightily pleased to see lights and a building when we finally drew up at 2030h! And so was our taxi driver, I suspect.
Later, reading the small print, I noticed that the booking document said; Check in – 1230h but I had assumed it meant we could check in from then, not at then! Little did I comprehend just how remote and huge a place this is and how it is best not to be wandering around here in the dark.
We were fed a delicious dinner and then shown to our tree house. A charming bamboo covered affair on stilts with a slightly disconcerting list to the down hill side. Anyway, it came complete with a shower room and precariously balanced flushing toilet.
After a good sleep we awoke at dawn to have a quick cup of tea and to meet our guide and helper from the night before, Mr Manihandran.
Joining us were our dinner companions. We chatted and they kindly invited us to join them on safari in their comfortable car. I accepted, and Sue gave me a look that suggested she might not be best pleased with that plan! We brought Mr M along as chaperone and all was well.
We arrived back and found ourselves in a throng of people all of whom wanted to take selfies with us, shake our hands and introduce themselves.
We slipped away after thanking our new friends and headed off to the dining room for a delicious breakfast.
From there we headed back to the tree house to pick up our bags and catch the public bus to the village where our next night would be spent. We bounced back along the road we had arrived on the previous evening and had covered in our morning safari! This route was becoming quite familiar but, unfortunately, no less pot-holed. We arrived in time for lunch. Yet another yummy meal. Keralan curries and condiments.
We were shown to our ‘Tented Niche’. A luxury tent with ensuite shower room.
At 1500 we were ready and waiting for our ‘Safari’.
A camouflaged vehicle arrived. Mr M had advised us to sit at the front. Once more we rattled and bumped down the road we’d just arrived on. I am not quite sure how it was that the bus actually held itself together. The noise of its progress down the track would surely scare off any tigers!
At 1800 we were back in the area where our tree house had been. We attended the Reserve Orchestra and Tribal Dance Performance which had a dizzying (and, rather giddy) effect on us. The women dancers shuffled round and round the stage in time to traditional drums and instruments. We managed to stay calm as we piled back in the vehicle for our ‘Night Safari’.
The herd included a huge matriarch who was looking less than thrilled to be having a very bright torch beam flashed in her eyes. As her ears flapped a warning we gazed in wonder at the couple of babies and young juvenile in the group. It was a special moment. Luckily, the boss elephant declined to rush the bus, shove us over and roll us down the steep hill behind.
We also saw mongoose, hares, some buffalo, deer, monkeys but no tigers. There are apparently forty two tigers in the reserve but since it is so huge they make the sensible judgement to stay well away from any kind of human settlement!
Soon, we arrived back at base (again) and had a huge dinner. We slept so well after the strain and effort involved in trying to keep our bodies upright and on our seats.
The next morning, we were to meet Mr M at 0630h to take part in a walking safari. For me thus was the highlight of the whole weekend. It was simply mesmerising to be out in the wild at that time. Mr M was extremely knowledgeable about birds and flora. The realisation that elephants and alligators had recently been where we were walking added a certain frisson to the proceedings.
We said our goodbyes and caught the public bus back through the reserve to Palakhad. The temperature gradually increased as we descended in altitude.
Next: We head to the Tea Plantations around Munar