Speeding buses, spice gardens and a steam bath

After returning to Alleppy on my houseboat yesterday morning, I headed inland, up to the Periyar National Park on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border in the Western Ghat Mountains. I was hoping that the higher elevation might get me away from the persistent rain which looked like it had settled in for at least another day on the coast. It did, because after about three and a half hours driving, we broke through the low cloud at about 2,000 feet and were able to see some beautiful vistas over the mountains with the rain clouds in the valley below.

My driver was quite careful by Indian standards, but there were a few hair-raising moments when other drivers overtook us at high speed on blind corners – the drivers here are much worse than Malaysia when it comes to driving on rural roads.

I had contemplated hiring a car and driving myself, but several guidebooks had suggested that it was better to hire a car with a driver – because it doesn’t cost much more and they are more familiar with how the crazy drivers behave here. The guidebooks were right, because swerving out of the way of speeding buses, and trying to miss the cows on the road at the same time, requires a certain skill that can only be acquired from driving many years on Indian roads.

There were a lot of red and yellow local buses plying the route that we were on, and they were taking the corners on the winding roads like they had no brakes.

I guess one of them didn’t have any brakes because on the way back down this morning we saw one halfway up an embankment on the other side of the road. My driver seemed amused that I wanted to stop and take a photograph of it. I suppose that’s because it is a sight he sees every day.

After getting above the clouds we traveled through some rolling hills covered in lush green tea plantations. I stopped to take a photograph of one of the plantations, and noted some men playing cricket in some open space. It seems that in India every bit of flat ground on which something is not built or growing is turned into a cricket pitch. (Click on the photo to enlarge and you will see a cricket match in progress in the bottom left).

About an hour later we reached Vandiperiyar, a bustling town at an altitude of about 2,750 feet, which is a trading centre for the surrounding tea, coffee and pepper plantations. I took a few pictures in the busy main street (which is actually the main highway between the coast and Periyar – although you’d never guess it from the pictures below).

Twenty minutes later we reached Kumily, a spice trading centre a few kilometres from the Tamil Nadu border. I visited one of the many spice gardens in the town where they were growing vanilla, pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and many other spices. The aroma of the vanilla beans on the vines was delicious.

I stayed in a homestay on the edge of Kumily – the room was clean but the food was very basic compared to what I had enjoyed on the houseboat the previous night.

After dinner my driver took me back into town where I had a fabulous massage with ayurvedic oils followed by a steam bath that was very relaxing. It cost just 650 rupees (about US$16) for 70 minutes – very good value indeed – and eased all the stiffness from having sat in a car for five hours.

On the way back down to Kochi this morning, my driver spotted some elephants being given a bath by their handlers in one of the rivers that we crossed. I would have missed seeing them in the dense jungle, but I guess his local knowledge helps him to know where to look out for photo opportunities like this one.

It was a long trip up to Periyar and back down to Kochi – about 10 hours driving in all over the two days – but it was worth it as the scenery is constantly changing – from the low-lying backwaters and paddy fields, then up through rubber plantations, forested hills, tea plantations and finally the rugged mountains of the higher altitude Western Ghats. Along the way there are many fascinating small towns and villages which provide the traveler with some interesting insights into what rural life is like in this part of India.

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