Periyar Day One


31 December.


View of Periyar Lake from near rest house

Periyar Tiger Reserve is one of the best-known and most heavily visited sites in the Western Ghats. It’s centered on a large reservoir in a part of the Ghats that is farther south from Parambikulam, and it was a five-hour bus ride from Coimbatore to Cumbum where we arrived at around 4:30 am and were met by a driver who took us the rest of the way to Thekkady, which is the town where most Periyar visitors stay. But despite our early arrival to the gates of Periyar, it would be late afternoon when we were finally cleared to enter the park. Apparently there was a rest house out in the reserve, but we would have to wait for its current guests to clear out before we could enter. I suspect the “current guests” that we were waiting for were actually tourists who were using the station as a picnic stop on their trekking excursion or as a base for the bamboo rafting trips offered through the ecotourism functions of the reserve. Once the last of these more generously-paying visitors were clear from the space, we would be allowed to occupy. None of this was clear to me at the time, so I dutifully stuck around close by all the while thinking that we might be given a green light at any time.


Pod with stacked seeds from a tree at the Inspection Bungalow, Thekkady, Kerala.

I spent most of the day watching from the Inspection Bungalow’s front porch as small groups of tourists arrived and were made to don leech gators and given a sack lunch with sandwiches and bottled water and then assigned an armed forest guard/guide who would walk with them and keep them from doing stupid things that would compromise the forest and/or their safety. It appeared that the two most popular trips were a borderlands trek and a bamboo rafting outing, and both of these brought the visitors precisely to the field house where we would be allowed to stay that night (which was New Year’s Eve, no less).


Arun’s casting lesson, Periyar Lake, Kerala.

The main attraction of Periyar is the wildlife spotting from the boats that run from a main marina area on a different arm of the lake and are accessed from a different reserve entrance. Most of the visitors I was seeing entering from this side of Thekkady were the ones who had already been on the boat and seen their elephants and gaurs and were looking now for a wilderness experience involving at least a bit of physical exertion. Unlike in the previous Western Ghats sites I had been to over the previous week and a half, the visitors here seemed to be largely from abroad: Europe, North America, and Asia. Dr. Mani says that it is really only the foreign tourists who sign up for these trekking tours, so what I was seeing here was really a non-representative sample of Periyar tourists, who are actually mostly Indian and do only the boat tour.


Waiting is waiting. As for me, this is the kind of waiting that I prefer.

I don’t mind waiting, and this wasn’t the time or place for impatience. I found out later that our staying in this part of the reserve was not in the original plan at all. Dr. Mani had hoped to take a boat out to station on a remote arm of the lake, from which we would be hiking 10 km to some truly remarkable sampling sites. Something went awry with the arrangements and now the word was “maybe tomorrow.” In the meantime we could go out to this field house, do a little informal sampling and enjoy a peaceful New Year’s in the forest. All right.


Somehow Magesh ended up taking an unintended swim when we went out to set the gillnet. I had nothing to do with it. Seriously.

So we loaded up another vehicle and schlepped all of the stuff out to the site. A hornbill (Great Indian Pied Hornbill) was in a banyan tree behind the station. We took one of the bamboo rafts out to set a gill net, stringing it between two snags—Periyar has thousands of submerged trees sticking out from its waters. It’s really amazing is that this lake was built in 1896, and it’s been that long since these long-dead trees have remained standing upright with their roots spread in the valley floor now flooded.

After returning from the gillnet setting, I was handed the telescoping pole again and told to catch something good for a special New Year’s dinner, but this was just not going to happen. I had brought along a spool of 10 lb. Spectra line—this turned out to be a good idea, since the line on Mani’s reel was fairly heavy mono and was not very good for casting. There was still the problem of terminal tackle. Mani had a kit with various floats, a few very heavy sinkers, a couple of spinners, and some pre-tied hooks. The easiest option was to tie on a spinner and hope for something like a predatory mahseer, though mahseers are characteristically river fish and it would have to be both foolish and totally lost in order to be catchable where we were. The angling effort wasn’t a total waste, though. I was able to give Arun and Magesh some instruction on how to operate a spinning reel. Dr. Mani demonstrated how to snag the bottom, and Arun demonstrated how to wade/swim out to liberate the snagged lure.


The 2-burner stove at the rest house on Periyar Lake.

There were two forest guards with us at the station. One was particularly good at operating a cast net, and we spent the rest of the evening until after dark following him around and harvesting the little fishes he caught (nothing big enough for the table). There are bazillions of very large tadpoles in the lake, and many of his casts resulted in hauls of a hundred or more of the golf-ball-sized wiggly, gloppy things.

Dinner that evening was more elaborate than usual and collaboratively prepared. We had sliced raw veggies, fried onions, and fried cauliflower to go with the rice and sambar. The kitchen at the station used fuel wood fires and the only light was from our torches, and yet somehow a very fine multi-dish meal was brought to the table and enjoyed. Food was not a problem at all throughout my trip, but on this evening I ate too greedily and my digestion suffered a bit the next day. We had just started eating when the new year arrived in Tokyo and we were all asleep by the time it came to India.

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