BEYOND THE BACKWATERS

On a road trip around Kerala, Lakshmi Sharath chances upon a hamlet suspended in time and a hidden forest that is home to rare birds

There is always something poignant about the journey of a river as it empties itself into the ocean – and I was on a boat, experiencing the moment, near a remote coastal hamlet in Kerala called Poovar, listening to the murmurings of River Neyyar as it joined the Arabian Sea. 

Poovar, tucked away in the tip of Kerala, barely 30 km from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram, is one of the state’s best-kept secrets. Kerala may be synonymous with backwaters but there are several destinations hidden away inside dense forests or in villages by the sea that offer unique experiences. And I had taken a road trip to explore a few of them.

As we reached Poovar, I noticed that celebrations were in the air, as Onam was just around the corner. The few homestays and resorts dotting the green hamlet were in a festive mood. One family even invited me to return the week after, during Onam, to try sadya, the traditional vegetarian feast served during the festival.

Flanked by the towering Western Ghats on the west, Poovar is a true tropical paradise with swaying palms and a long stretch of golden beach. Enjoy Ayurvedic massages, a walk by the sea, a cruise down the palm-fringed emerald backwaters or just lose yourself in the moment.

After a river cruise on a boat and lunch, we left for Kochi, stopping at small hamlets along the way. There was a general buzz, as the snake boat races were around the corner too, in Alleppey or Alappuzha.

But our destination was Thattekad, a remote patch of dense forest located by the Periyar river. It was a long (270-km) drive, and it was dark when we arrived. The moon shone through the fog that had enveloped the sky as I reached my homestay, located right at the heart of the forest, near the Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary (constituted in 1983). Thattekad is a patch of evergreen forest on the banks of the river, lined with rubber plantations. It is the haunt of wild elephants and home to over 250 species of birds. I had read about this verdant jungle, around 60 km from Kochi, while researching the native birds of the Western Ghats.

As dawn broke and the first rays of the sun lit the landscape, I marvelled at the curtain of mist lifting from the river, revealing emerald-tinged waters. My morning walk took me across a rubber plantation, where workers were extracting latex from the trees. A crested goshawk looked down from its perch and a pair of Malabar hornbills wished me good morning. Malabar is a common prefix here: Malabar grey hornbills, Malabar trogon and Malabar parakeets, among others. My host and birding guide Girish helped me spot yellow-browed bulbuls, white-bellied treepies, orioles, leaf birds, sun birds, Asian fairy bluebirds, racket-tailed drongos and white-bellied blue flycatchers as well, flitting around in brilliant shades.

In the evening, Girish guided me into the heart of the jungle for a tryst with the nocturnal birds. On the way, we stopped at Bhoothathankettu dam. It is said that the natural fortification of hills and forests that guard the place were built by bhoothams (spirits/ghosts) but abandoned by them before completion. Bhoothathankettu is considered to be the gateway to the Western Ghats and is an excellent base camp for trekking, wild safari, boat rides
and fishing.

As we stood by the river with Girish trying to look for the elusive Sri Lankan frogmouth – a nocturnal bird highly adept at camouflaging itself – darkness descended all around and enveloped the forest behind us. Soon, we spotted a couple of the rare birds sitting still on a nearby branch, with their wide, gaping mouths and eyes staring right into ours.

As we walked back to the homestay, meandering through the forest with the moon for company, I wondered about exploring many more such secrets. On second thought, maybe they are better off lost to civilisation!

Ezhikkara

A remote hamlet surrounded by languid backwaters and lush green groves, and dotted with temples… if this is what you have been looking for, head to Ezhikkara, a dreamy Kerala village near Kochi. Famous for the farming of pokkali rice, a rare saline-and-flood-resistant variety, and fresh water prawn farms, Ezhikkara is off the tourist grid. With a few homestays offering lodging, expect to spend tranquil days here, exploring nature and cruising along the backwaters in small boats.

Athirappally (Athirappalli) falls

A trip to Kerala is not complete without a glimpse of the Athirappally (Athirappalli) falls, popularly known as India’s Niagara. I had heard a lot, but nothing could have prepared me for the roar of the cascade as the Chalakudy river plunged 80 feet into a cloud of milky white foam. Surrounded by dense forests, the Athirappally (Athirappalli) falls is best experienced in monsoon. The surrounding forest is also home to several species of rare birds. Researchers have spotted four endangered species of the hornbill here, the only place where they thrive in the Western Ghats.

The author is a senior travel writer and the views expressed in this article are her own

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