04 October 2022

Witness elephants in Periyar National Park
Follow that elephant!
We want a sunshine holiday with a boredom factor of zero, Helen Minsky insisted. In the southern Indian province of Kerala, she got her wish - and then some...
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ashing the sagging underside of an Indian elephant’s vital statistics with a scrubbing brush may not be everyone’s idea of a relaxing week in the sun. But, hey, at least it beats the sun-seeker’s perennial enemy – inertia. It was all our own fault. My trainee-solicitor daughter and I had asked the travel company to suggest a week-long holiday in the sun. The only caveat was that we weren’t to get bored by long, lazy hours on a beach. After I gave assurances long-distance flights were not a problem, we were despatched on an 11-hour flight to the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Bored we weren’t. From the palmfringed beaches (where we swam with a dolphin frolicking not 50 yards away) to the green splendour of the Periyar wildlife reserve in the Western Ghats mountains (where we took photos of wild elephants and were chased by a boar), boredom (no pun intended) was never going to be a problem. The only dilemma was how to fit in our busy itinerary, which took us from the blissfully cool hill station of Munnar to the scorching heat of the Backwaters, the extraordinary maze of lakes, rivers and canals near the coast, in just eight days. The answer was an airconditioned 4x4 and a chauffeur.

What luxury. In India it is cheaper and easier to hire your own driver than rent a car and our driver, Abhilash , proved a huge asset. En route from the hills to the coast, he suggested we stop at what looked like a dingy basement café called the Indian Coffee House. The loos were basic but the marble washbasins were spotless, as were the formica-topped tables. And the food was superb – local dishes flavoured with spices grown in the hills nearby.
Locals pick tea in the fields of Kerala
a mine of information and rivalled Monty Don with his knowledge of the local fauna and flora, even knowing the Latin names of plants such as bougainvillea, clematis, frangipani and flaming poinsettia trees.

He showed us rubber and coffee plantations, ebony trees, the massive leaves of the soap-nut tree and stopped to pick us the fragrant white blooms of a wild coffee tree. Coffee flowers, I discovered, smell like jasmine. Abhilash also recommended a massage with a local Ayurvedic medicine exponent. This ancient Indian art aims to ‘balance body and mind’ using plants and herbs instead of Western drugs. Some visit Kerala just for treatments. Alternatively, you can have a massage with hot herbal oils. I chose the latter, a 90- minute rub by two young women who oiled me so liberally I almost slithered off the table. But back to elephant scrubbing. This bizarre episode came about as I took a stroll in Thekkady, a village near the Periyar National Park up in the rolling spice hills.

I wanted to go shopping but the elephant driver had other ideas. He insisted I stop shopping and help him wash Nellie, the local domesticated elephant who is employed to give tourists a half-hour ride. Quite how I ended up scrubbing the sensitive rear end, while he got the end with the trunk, remains a mystery. At Thekkady we stayed at the aptly-named Elephant Court Hotel and a second night at the Spice Village Hotel where the food is superb and the chef gives lessons. Thekkady also boasts the Ambadi Hotel and Restaurant, where an outstanding meal for three cost £5. Our choice included fish masala for 80p, paneer mattar (peas and cheese) for 40p and ginger gobi (cauliflower) for 90p. Thekkady is a short drive from the Periyar wildlife park – tiny on the map but larger than Surrey. So big that visitors are unlikely to get a glimpse of the tigers that live there. We missed them but saw elephants, black monkeys, Sambar deer and whitelegged water buffalo, weighing a ton and very aggressive.

We took a boat trip on the lake and spotted all sorts of small animals arriving at dusk to drink. At the car park we met a family of apparently peaceful wild boar and I foolishly tried to stand near them for a photograph. Daddy Boar did not want to be in my album and charged, missing me by inches. Much more peaceful was our next visit – to the home of 22- year-old Sheeba Kallummakkal, who opens her Greenland Spice Garden to the public.
We had three dishes between us, a masala dosa (a pancake with curried potato), a vegetable curry and a vegetable biryani – plus parathas and a bottle of water, and the bill came to the princely sum of 70 rupees (around 80p). For half the price of a Starbucks cappuccino, we’d eaten a great meal for three. Abhilash was
You may be lucky enough to see tigers in the wild
"Boredom was never going to be a problem here."
We had driven to Periyar across mountain roads from Munnar, where we spent our first night at the immaculate Tea County Hotel. Munnar, a dusty town with an exotic vegetable market, is surrounded by hills and tea plantations where the bushes get picked by an army of smiling tea ladies. We visited the tea museum and watched leaves being rolled, and strolled through the plantations. I recommend a walk near the Mattupetty Dam. Built in 1929, it created a spectacular man-made lake, 5,500 feet above sea level. To come were three days by the sea at the peaceful Marari Beach Resort where previous guests in the whitewashed, air-conditioned thatched cottages have
included the Duke of Kent, Kate Moss and Sir Paul McCartney and Heather , who stayed in cottage 17; a thankyou letter signed by Paul still hangs on the bedroom wall.

The Marari is the sister resort to the Spice Village Hotel and the food is just as good. The hotel is the most ecofriendly in India. It boasts a huge organic vegetable garden, and harvests its own herbs for the Ayurvedic centre. Everything is recycled and food waste is composted and transformed into methane for cooking. A naturalist has planted a wildflower butterfly sanctuary and is to buy a herd of organic cows. It was here we encountered a dolphin as we swam in the sea. The undercurrents can be dangerous and we were told when it was safe by the hotel’s lifeguard.

We visited the nearby canal town Alleppy and took a ride along the famous Backwaters, gliding by paddyfields and former rice barges which are now used for overnight cruises. We spent our last night in the town of Cochin. There, a tailor copied my £700 designer jacket for £18 and my daughter’s favourite silk blouse for £6. He measured us up at 2pm and the jacket and top were delivered at 10pm. Are we going back to Kerala? You bet.

Original article published in Oct 2007. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
"Munnar is surrounded by hills and tea plantations where the bushes get picked by an army of smiling tea ladies."
Enjoy the palm fringed beaches of Kerala
The peaceful Marari Beach Resort
Elephants in Periyar National Park
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