Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Wildlife Spotting in Wayanad

As we rode our luck with the weather quite considerably in Alleppey we decided to give Kerala's beaches farther South a miss and head North to Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary to do some wildlife spotting. So we took a train to Calicut/Kozhikode from where we took a bus up into the mountains to Kalpetta, a small town that is (relatively) conveniently near Muthanga national park.

There is very little to be said about Kalpetta. We settled into our chosen guesthouse which appeared to have last been renovated sometime in the 1950's (only did the rarely trodden areas right around the skirting board and under the bed reveal that there was actually carpet of sorts on the floor) and ate dinner at a nearby restaurant for the princely sum of $1.50 between us. Monique started gaining her wildlife spotting badge early by snapping the biggest grasshopper just outside our room.

Very early the following morning we checked out of the hotel, and took the 2 hour bus ride to Muthanga where we arranged a jeep tour through the park (after being charged some unofficial additional charges in addition to the usual significantly higher foreigner rates – something we have unfortunately become quite accustomed to). We were pretty excited as we had been informed that this was the best place in Kerala to see wild elephants. Although we had seen 4 already they had either been a blur as we passed by them by bus, or had been quite a distance away. We wanted to see real wild elephants up close and personal.

Our tour guide gave us lots of confidence; his head constantly flicked from one side to the other surveying the surrounding forest for animals like a little meerkat looking out for predators. If there was wildlife to be spotted we were pretty sure that Mr. Meerkat would spot it. Things started off well with a group of wild deer close to the jeep very early on, including two stags locking horns, which was quite impressive.

Those were the first of literally hundreds of deer we saw during the tour, including one big group of about 50 in the distance, and loads of smaller groups much closer. We also saw various monkeys, a mongoose, and a giant flying squirrel. Unfortunately they were all too quick to get photos of, but some huge termite mounds (up to 2m high) stayed still for us to snap.

The excitement cranked up a notch when Mr. Meerkat spotted some fresh tiger tracks near to a puddle in the road.  Although the chances of seeing a tiger were extremely slim, just imagining such an endangered animal drinking from that puddle shortly before was pretty cool.  It was, however, slightly less cool to imagine that same endangered creature taking a dump just a few feet away as it had evidently done.
Such was our eagerness to see something exotic that any sort of movement in the surrounding forest became worthy of excitement.  "What's that?" I asked, pointing towards a number of large creatures moving in the undergrowth.  "Domestic cow" came the deadpan reply from Mr Meerkat.

Unfortunately the tour ended with an anti-climax. Needless to say that we did not spot a tiger, but nor did we see any elephants. Seeing hundreds of wild deer fairly close was really nice, but it wasn't what we had visited Wayanad to see. Consequently we left Muthanga a little downheartened, and with a difficult decision to make as to whether to stay another day and visit Tholpetty park, where the chances of seeing wild elephants were apparently lower, or to continue our way further North.

The day was still young, however, so en route back to Kalpetta we stopped via the Edakkal Caves to see some cave carvings dating back to 5000 BC, some of the oldest known carvings in the world. Having agreed with our rickshaw driver that he would wait for an hour for us we were slightly surprised to find that the route to the “cave” was up a lung-bustingly steep winding path that took about 40 minutes to climb up (although a good 10 minutes of that time was taken up when we came across a group of monkeys laying siege to some cars and stopped to take photos of them whilst a man, presumably the owner of one of the vehicles, tried to chase them off with a stick without any success).

Before entering the “cave” at the top of the climb we took some time to take in the breathtaking views. According to the Lonely Planet, Wayanad is considered to be the most beautiful part of Kerala. For my money the views on Munnar were more beautiful, however from this viewpoint the terrain dropped down extremely rapidly making for really dramatic scenery that made the climb up well worth it.

As for the “cave” itself, it is less of a cave and more of a rift with a roof made up of some very large fallen rocks that looked a little precarious for my liking. The carvings were really interesting, and unlike anything I've ever seen before; amongst the many undecipherable markings were clear images of human forms and faces. It's really hard to believe that they were made over 7000 years ago.

After some consideration we decided that as we had come all this way to see wild elephants it would be silly not to give it another go while we had the chance, so we decided to stay another night and head to Tholpetty park as early as possible the following day (having been told a very early tour would maximise our chances) and then move onwards afterwards. First, we had to suffer an incredibly frustrating afternoon/evening of trying to check into a suitable guesthouse as near to the park as possible.

First we took the bus to Manathavadi which was straightforward, however it was raining when we arrived and each and every guesthouse/hotel we enquired at informed us that they were fully booked because it was the high season for them (despite the town appearing to be dead and there being a number of keys hanging up behind reception at one guesthouse). We were directed towards one guesthouse which we were assured would have a room available, however the room which we were shown (available at a pretty outrageously high price) stank so strongly of urine that we could probably have discounted it before opening the door. We're not particularly picky when it comes to where we sleep, but that smell would probably have killed us during the night.

Soaking wet and fairly pissed off we decided to take a rickshaw to a town even closer to Tholpetty and which would make our planned early arrival at the park even easier. En route we stopped at a hotel which looked like it had some potential; we explained our situation to the hotel owner who informed us that it was not the high season at all (as we had expected) but that the majority of guesthouses in the area were not willing to let rooms to foreigners because to do so required them to fill out some additional forms for the local authorities which they were not willing to do. Nice! Without much choice we continued on our way only to be informed in no uncertain terms by every guesthouse we spoke to that there were no rooms available (one hotel owner was so vehement in shooing us off his property that if he had had something in his hand I'm sure he would have thrown it at us!). The feeling of being unwanted was palpable and deeply unpleasant to say the least.

Fortunately, just as we were at our wits' end we finally found some helpful people who confirmed what we had previously been told about the reason for being refused a room and gave us a list of three places back in Manathavadi that were worth trying. We took a bus back and with a huge amount of relief found that a guesthouse right next to where the bus dropped us off had really nice rooms available for a really low price and had an owner who couldn't have been more nice and helpful, even directing us to a delicious and ridiculously cheap restaurant. We were exhausted, stressed, wet and incredibly grateful for finding a place that didn't discriminate against us for not being Indian. Our long, long day had consisted of bus; bus; jeep; bus; rickshaw; walk up a mountain; rickshaw; bus; bus; walk in the rain; rickshaw; walk in the rain; and one final bus. Tholpetty had better be bloody worth it!

The following day we woke up before dawn determined to make it to the park at its opening time of 7 am. Our wonderful guesthouse was located right by the bus stop for Tholpetty which greatly assisted this aim, and with the help of some locals we got on the bus in the right direction. The bus journey was brightened up considerably by the sight of a group of wild deer, and then another, and then another. Whilst we had already seen hundreds of wild deer the previous day it was certainly a welcome sight to our tired eyes and surely bode well for further wildlife spotting that day. Then, unbelievably, we drove right past two wild elephants feeding right at the side of the road. Tholpetty was worth it before we had even arrived! We couldn't contain our excitement, and luckily the other passengers on the bus also seemed excited by the sight so we didn't feel too much like silly tourists.

Once again we arranged a jeep tour upon our arrival, but this time we were the first of the day to pass through the park. Initial signs, however, weren't great; in contrast to Mr Meerkat. our guide did not fill us with confidence. We weren't sure that he would have even spotted the elephants which we had already seen on the way, and our driver seemed more interested in his mobile phone than in stopping to look at anything. Our first sighting was of a wild boar which I spotted before the guide and which the driver went straight past before reversing far too late to get a good look.

For some reason our guide was particularly excited by peacocks. We had seen a few the previous day, but as we had both seen plenty before in the UK, US and already in India we weren't particularly excited by them. Our guide, however, acted like they were super rare and the most exciting thing to spot in the park. Annoyingly this had the effect of getting our hopes up for something actually exciting each time he anxiously directed our attention to yet another bland pea-hen.

Again we saw loads of deer of different types, including some fighting females and a stag who reared up to full height on his back legs to warn us off his harem.

We did see some more monkeys and a kingfisher, however time was ticking on far too quickly and our guide was pointing out far too many unoccupied areas which he informed us were usually popular with elephants early in the morning. We were nearing the end of our allotted time, and our driver seemed keen to get back promptly so was no longer even stopping for long to watch groups of deer (or even peacocks!). 

It's amazing how, when you really, really want to see an elephant, things start to look a lot like an elephant; rocks, trees and even cows got my heart racing at various points (yes, the rear of a cow from a distance can look surprisingly similar to an elephant!).  However as time passed our optimism waned, and I got the distinct impression that our guide had also given up.

But then, out of nowhere, we saw the most beautiful sight; a fully grown male elephant drinking from a river just to the left of the road. After having given up hope we were absolutely elated. We watched for a few minutes as he repeatedly drank from the river, first spraying the water into his mouth and then spraying the remained back out. After a short while he turned and started walking away, perhaps aware of our presence, however he then stepped back down to the river slightly further away and continued to drink. It was absolutely incredible how gentle such a large creature could be so gentle and even graceful as he lowered himself down to the water, and amazing to watch him playfully spraying water around. It made all the difficulties in getting to Tholpetty well worth it.

After watching for quite a while our guide insisted that we head back, and we reluctantly left our new friend behind us. Our guide still insisted on pointing out yet another bloody peacock, which stood very little chance of making any impact on us given our excitement. Incredibly only a few moments later we saw another elephant, this time an even larger male, albeit a little further away, strutting through the forest towards us swinging his trunk from side-to-side. We were completely content after seeing the first elephant, so this one really was the cherry on top. We watched him strolling through his territory until he passed out of sight.

Our experience in Wayanad is pretty typical of our experience in India generally, albeit in a somewhat exaggerated way. Almost everything in India is hard work and just when you feel like you're getting on top of things there is an unexpected difficulty to set you back again. However, just when you start to feel like India is grinding you down, it throws up a friendly person who goes out of their way to help you or an experience that makes all the hard work worthwhile. In terms of time the vast majority of our time in Wayanad was fairly unpleasant, however the memories of the highs will long outlive the memories of the lows.

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