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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

India: Periyar

Decaying boats by the shore of Periyar Lake
The rather bedraggled lake in Periyar

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is a funny old place. Yes, it might be one of the few places on earth where you can theoretically see tigers – though with only about 35 tigers in a 777km2 park, your chances are slimmer than slim – but it's also faintly depressing, particularly at the moment, because the veneer of tourism is so thick you have to dig quite deep to get away from it all. Luckily, when you do, Periyar is a delight.

Peta and Mark in the rainforest of Periyar
Exploring the rainforest of Periyar
A fig strangling a tree in Periyar
A fig slowly strangling a tree in Periyar

The Wildlife Sanctuary

A tree with ancient tiger scratches and more recent elephant foot scrapes
A tree with ancient tiger scratches (top) and more recent elephant foot scrapes (bottom)

Kumily is one thing, but the wildlife sanctuary at Periyar is another thing altogether. Kumily has the feeling of a place that is feeding off the tourist dollar, and you can see the effects in the more impressive hotel developments and some of the shops; one shop, Red Frog, is so beautifully presented that it looks as if it's been beamed straight in from the King's Road, with its large plate-glass windows, arty displays and modern lighting. It looks rather out of place in an Indian street, surrounded by rickshaws and stray dogs, but it would look even stranger if it moved 3km south into the wildlife reserve, because if there's one thing Periyar is, it's faded.

A fresh elephant tusk hole in a Periyar tree
A fresh elephant tusk hole in a Periyar tree
The rainforest in Periyar
The rainforest in Periyar

Tourists to a national park/sanctuary 'should not':

  • Take any pete inside the park/sanctuary

  • Honk unnessarily

  • Should or bease or chase wild animals

  • Organic merry making like camp-fires within the park/sanctuary

Just to make sure we got the message, it listed a whole set of rules, including the ominous Rule 7:

Leaving litters; smoking; consumption of ALCOHOL; illegal entry of vehicles; blowing horns; playing music systems; parking outside the parking zone; feeding, teasing, disturbing wild animals; bringing pet animals; unauthorized trekking and picnicking; firearms, wildlife traps, poisons substances; breaching in the lawful directions of the park, staff in the protected area are prohibited under section 33 of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and the violation is punishable with a fine of not less than Rs1000.

Or, to put it another way, Periyar is not supposed to be like the rest of India, though that doesn't seem to stop it from trying. There's a laudable 'no plastics' policy in place in the park, and it's noticeably tidier than most Indian settlements, but lurking beneath the surface, it's still India. The sign saying 'No plastics as they are non-biodegradable' is right next to the park shop, which happily sells plastic bottles of water, and there are still one or two plastic bottles floating in the lake, ready to cause a painful death to the wildlife, so I guess the plastic ban isn't perfect. But it's good to see them trying; this is a wildlife reserve, after all.

The Nature Walk

A monkey hiding in the Periyar canopy
A monkey hiding in the Periyar canopy

Our walk turned out the be an excellent way to experience the park. The three of us set off into the forest, crunching the dried leaves underfoot and weaving our way along thin paths until the noise of the small number of local but vocal tourists back at park headquarters had disappeared into the distance. Every few minutes Shaji stopped and motioned us to be quiet, and he'd stand still, looking into the trees, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that had alerted him. Even though it was the middle of the day, when most of the animals are sensibly hiding from the heat of the sun, he managed to spot a fair amount of wildlife, and each time he was full of information.

Walking through the Periyar rainforest
Walking through the Periyar rainforest
Scenery on the nature walk in Periyar
Scenery on the nature walk

The Head of the Family

Periyar Lake
Pretty Periyar Lake

As we'd decided to devote an entire day to exploring Periyar, we thought we'd go with the flow and book a seat on the last ferry of the day, the 4pm departure, when we would have the best chance of seeing any wildlife peeking out of the forest as the sun headed for home. After a quick snack in the snack bar – where the only food available was dosa, so we opted for... well, dosa, then – and swatting off a clearly idiotic rickshaw man who asked me whether I wanted a rickshaw just as I was about to sit down to eat lunch, we wandered over to the ticket office and asked the man for a ticket on the top deck of the KTDC boat.

The wildlife cruise on Periyar Lake
It can get crowded on Periyar Lake
Distant elephants by Periyar Lake
Distant elephants by Periyar Lake
Distant elephants by Periyar Lake
Look closely and you might see elephants…

Wildlife Spotting

Dead trees on Periyar Lake
Periyar Lake is full of amazing trees

When the British created the Periyar game reserve, they wanted to create a lake that would attract big game whose brains they could then blow out before retiring for tea and tiffin. They achieved this in 1895 by building the Mullaperiyar Dam, blocking up the Periyar River and flooding the valleys to create the 26km2 lake we still see today. An interesting side effect of this is that the trees that were already there are, well, still there, sticking up from the lake bed, as dead as doornails but still resolutely clinging on to the lake bed. This makes Periyar Lake feel both beautiful and slightly eerie, as the ferry winds its way between these long-dead trees. Birds nest in the stark branches, a beautiful and tranquil sight as you sit there on the top deck, looking out for wildlife on the shores.

Park headquarters in Periyar
Park headquarters in Periyar
Dead trees on Periyar Lake
Threading the boats through the dead trees on Periyar Lake is an art