From Munnar, I took yet another overcrowded bus on an unnecessarily long journey south to the town that is known as both Kumily and Thekkedy. All across India, I had encountered towns with multiple spellings or pronunciations, and even ones with names so difficult that they were normally just abbreviated (like Tiruchchirappali, which is thankfully just known as Trichy), but here at the gate to Periyar Tiger Reserve, two names are given for the one little town.
Kumily, as I shall call it, is a tiny little town comprised of gift shops, tour guide offices, and hotels. Pretty much all private residences also function as homestays, and anyone not employed in the above places drives a rickshaw for a living. The reason is simple – Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is located right on the edge of town, is a huge draw for tourists across India and abroad. Although your chances of actually seeing a tiger here about as great as the likelihood of seeing the Dalai Lama while wandering through the Himalayas, people nonetheless flock to this little national park that straddles the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil-Nadu. With a population of around forty tigers, as well as some one thousand elephants, it is certainly the region’s premiere destination for viewing wildlife.
I arrived and walked about two kilometers to my homestay – a nice little house on the edge of the forest, run by a polite elderly couple. From the offset they seemed utterly determined to help me enjoy my time in Kumily. They were almost aggressive in their friendliness, in fact. After being shown to my room and told that I must take a rest, they attacked me with cups of tea and advice about what to do, and then booked four days of activities for me after negotiating slightly lower prices than advertised. “You just tell me whenever you’re hungry, David,” the old woman told me. It sounded like a threat, and I got the impression that I might end up being held down and force-fed at some point during my stay.
The first stop on my itinerary was a spice garden. Kumily – and in fact much of southern India – is covered with these little plantations. They are basically just spice farms that have been turned into tourist attractions in order to boost profits since the Kings and Doges of Europe tend to go to Tesco for their cinnamon instead of having it shipped directly from India. Nowadays, friendly tour guides will take you around and show you where your cloves and cardamoms come from, and what pepper and nutmegs look like when they are growing. It is, in fact, absolutely fascinating, and visitors are encouraged not just to look but to grab a handful of each plant and have a good taste or sniff.
A heavily pregnant woman, who told me she was on her last day of work before maternity leave, guided me and two Indian families around the garden, giving us copious details about every plant. Her knowledge of botany was rivaled only by her ability to deal with the Indians, who treated her with the sort of rudeness I’d never before seen. It was so unbelievably casual that they were almost friendly in how they abused and belittled her. It was India’s infamous caste system in action.
The next morning, I was up at four o’clock for a full-day tour of the local national parks. Bleary eyed, I stumbled into a jeep with my guide – a young man who spoke relatively little English and sped off into the night with awful music blasting from the radio. We tore through the dark country roads until we arrived at the entrance of a neighboring national park a little before six.
“The office opens at seven-thirty,” he told me. “You want to sleep?”
I wondered why we had to leave at four o’clock if we were going to arrive an hour and a half early. Couldn’t I have just slept longer at home instead of, as he seemed to be suggesting, the back seat of a small jeep?
I sat patiently until seven-thirty, at which point the guide went in to get my ticket. He came back out and told me that we just had to wait a little longer – for what, I had no idea. Next, he asked if I wanted breakfast, which was really code for him wanting breakfast. Why couldn’t he have eaten during the time we were waiting for the office to open?
It was nine o’clock by the time we got moving. I had been awake for five pointless hours. This had better be a bloody good tour, I thought.
We set off into the park, a vast expanse of dense forest with only tiny roads and a number of reservoirs to remind you that humans sometimes come here. There were two tour jeeps and four private cars. In the other car was an elderly couple from Scotland who liked to complain about anything and everything, which was fine because I have the same hobby. The other cars were filled with friendly but idiotic Indians who I think were disappointed that the park was not divided up into enclosures like a zoo.
That was it for visitors; the park only allowed six vehicles each day. The cars took off at speed, beeping their horns as Indians are inexplicably wont to do, chasing away all the wildlife to ensure that no one would see a damn thing. It probably didn’t matter, though. My driver drove too fast and had little in the way of a knack for wildlife spotting. This was a skill I’d developed during my many safaris in Africa. I saw several sambar deer by the road that he missed, and a number of interesting birds. When we did see something, he was unable to tell me what it was, and gave me all of five seconds to have a look before he took off again. I was decidedly unimpressed.
Thankfully, during the day my driver had the idea of closely following the other jeep, whose driver spoke fluent English, had a wonderful sense of humor, and knew the flora and fauna of the region as you might expect from someone employed as a guide. We were able to latch on to his finds and whenever we stopped, I would strain to hear what he told the elderly couple in his vehicle. Instead of “It’s a bird,” he would explain the mating and migratory habits of the Malabar hornbill. He would point out tracks and scents, and lead us off trail to spectacular viewpoints. Meanwhile, I was surprised my driver could manage to operate the vehicle at all. He didn’t seem to have the requisite intellect for moving different limbs at once.
By the end of the day, we had seen a number of fascinating birds, a family of bison, and honestly not that much else. The park was incredibly beautiful, but the thick forest that protected the animals made it hard to actually see them from the road. I didn’t mind, of course. I was happy to see that such a place existed in an otherwise grossly overcrowded country. There were places where wild animals could live as they were meant to, and I was honored to get close to them – even if I couldn’t actually see many.
The next day I went on a trip into Periyar itself, where my small group hiked for about ten kilometers to a little lake, and then rowed a bamboo raft for half an hour. Along the way, we got within a few hundred meters of some elephants and saw various signs of tigers – like scratches on trees and paw prints in the mud. We were accompanied by several former poachers who had an intimate knowledge of the local wildlife and showered us with useful information. There was also one man who, thankfully, didn’t have a background in poaching as he was armed with a pump-action shotgun. He explained that if we were attacked by a rogue elephant, he would fire it into the air.
“Have you ever had to use it before?” I asked.
“Oh yes!” he laughed, looking very proud.
Later that day, in another part of the park, a ranger was caught unawares by a sloth bear, who was evidently quicker than its name suggests. The bear snuck up behind him and ripped one of his eyeballs out. Everyone seemed very excited about this and not at all worried for the ranger or indeed the possibility of it happening again.
On my third day I took an even longer hike around the park with a group of four other tourists. We mostly climbed over hills on the border between the two southern Indian states during an enjoyable six hours of walking. Again, we got up close with some elephants, saw more bison and sambar, and a huge variety of birds. But, as was expected, there was no tiger sighting.
I didn’t feel much frustration at not seeing a tiger in the wild. I have been incredibly privileged in my life to go on a number of safaris, nature hikes, and even just boat rides into the world beyond human habitation. I have seen lions and leopards, sharks and whales, and a great many of the most amazing species on our planet. Tigers are elusive. They are good at hiding, and that’s probably the only thing keeping them alive right now. All over the world, wherever tigers live, they are under threat. If it were easy to see them in their natural habitat, they would have been wiped out long ago to make fake Chinese medicine and provide trophies for men with small penises.
I would still like to see a tiger in the jungle, but it would not happen on this Indian trip. That’s ok, though. When travelling, you should always leave something unseen or undone. That way, you have a good reason to come back in future.