India Part 6    Kerala & Tamil Nadu

1st February

We have a day off and spend the day relaxing in the guest house, catching up on writing and  organising our plans for the next couple of weeks.

Our original plan was to drive south as far as the tip of India, Cape Comorin, from where we would drive up the east coast, 1500miles (2440km) to Kolkata before shipping to Malaysia.  After the last couple of weeks driving, we have both grown tired of the relentless, unforgiving, and hazardous roads.  With an average speed in India of only 30mph and only a few sights along the way, we agree that we cannot face another 50 plus hours of driving here.  We therefore put in place plans to ship directly from Chennai to Port Klang, Malaysia.

2nd February   Kerala

Kerala, famed for its 900km of backwaters, winding through picturesque paddy fields, beautiful deserted beaches, mountain highlands covered in tea, spices, and some of the best wildlife in India, we both have high hopes that Kerala does not disappoint.

We wake in our small cottage, and lounge around until late afternoon when our rickshaw arrives to take us on a sunset backwater trip.

We booked a boat with an engine, so that in 4 hours we will be able to see as much as possible.  We did think about hiring a house boat for the evening but at around £70 per night it was out of our budget.

As we pull up to the canal, we see many beautiful long, slim boats, with comfortable chairs that you can actually lie back in.  We can already imagine drifting through the peaceful backwaters sipping a nice cold drink, taking in the views.

We are shown to our boat and are quite surprised by its size.. surely it can’t be just for the two of us, it could fit 30!

Even so, we jump on board and before we can sit down, we have set off at a gentle pace.  The first 20 minutes go ok, with the thumping noise of the inboard engine just behind us.  But we’re finding it’s quite uncomfortable.  Sitting on benches with no cushions and looking at all the other luxury looking boats speed by, we begin to think this was a big mistake.  It’s not as the guest house described and our views are restricted.  We both agree we cannot handle another 4 hours of this.  We make a few calls to the guesthouse to change boats but by the time they agree we are already 45minutes into the backwaters and are persuaded by the guesthouse to stay on a bit longer before returning.

As we cruise through the backwaters, we pass small villages, with local woman washing in the river.  We are quite disappointed as the parts we see are crowded with boats, and there is rubbish and signs of pollution.  At this point we decide there’s not much point in continuing; the scenery is not as we imagined, and the boat is just too uncomfortable.  On the way back we pass many house boats, that look more like floating palaces, maybe we would have enjoyed it more if we had one of these or one of the hundreds of boats  where you are able to lie back and just relax.

We decide to make the most of the day we have left and head to the beach but there’s not really much to see, just a plain sandy beach so head to a café to grab a late lunch and a beer.

3rd February

We leave for Periyar wildlife sanctuary,  one of two main parks in the state, the other being Waynad. We have heard mixed reviews about both parks.  To get the most from our trip to southern India we plan to see the two main parks in Kerala and also the Anamalai tiger reserve in the Western Ghats, Tamil Nadu, a neighbouring state.

In unusually hazy sunshine, we drive through lush green fields, and through the Keralan backwaters.  We start to ascend through small towns and rubber plantations.  The scenery is great, and we both seem to be happy to be in the cooler mountains again.  The road takes us up to 1060m where we come across beautiful fields covered with tea plantations.

Once we reach the town of Kumily, we stop to ask directions.  A local guide approaches us telling he has a guest house just around the corner.  To our surprise the room is brand new, and much cheaper than the guest house we had originally chosen.

We had heard that there is 70km of off-road trails around the park and try to arrange for a guide to show us where they are, but unfortunately they are asking for 1600rp per person, the same price as a day jeep safari, which is out of our budget.

We stroll into town for dinner, but find all the restaurants in the area overpriced compared to what we have been paying elsewhere in India.  We eventually find a small café and settle for a simple meal.

4th February

After a lie in, we head to the sanctuary.  On the drive in, we pass a couple of large black monkeys, sitting in the treetops.  We take a boat ride on the lake through the middle of the park (constructed at the end of the nineteenth century by the British), hoping to spot a few animals.  The boat takes us on a half an hour journey down the lake but we only spot some wild boar, sambur deer, turtles and birds, including cormorans and kingfishers, and all at a quite a distance away.  The best times to see the animals are said to be the first and last boats of each day.

We stop for a drink and some ice-cream at the park café.  On the way out an opportunist monkey spots Nicole’s ice cream.  Bounding towards us, he jumps and snatches it straight from her hands, and makes off to enjoy his spoils.  As I’m trying to take photos of the thief, another opportunist sneaks up on her, this time to steal her drink.  The monkey is clutching the bottle, trying to pierce it with its teeth.  I run towards it to try to scare it off and retrieve the bottle but the monkey’s not scared of me at all and growls back, making off with stolen Sprite bottle in its mouth!

We then visit the Periyar-Connemara tea plantation, about 10km from Kumily.  A guide takes us through the tea making process, which we find quite interesting.

Next is the Green Valley spice plantation where everything is grown from huge vanilla and rubber trees to cardamom and clove plants.

Later we take a walk to Ebonys rooftop café where we order a biryani and butter chicken.  They decide to give us instead pineapple fried rice and Chinese style chicken-well at least it tastes good.

5th February

Leave for Indira Ghandi National Park, our GPS taking us through verdant green Keralan hills at 1200m.  It’s a pleasant 22C.  The road is narrow and winding.  We come out of the tea plantations to mountain peaks and steep drops, driving along their ridges.  The views are truly fantastic.

Throughout Kerala and Tamil Nandu, we notice the men wear a skirt that appears to be some sort of sheet wrapped around them.  Frequently we see the advantages of such dress, as we often see them peeing along the sides of the roads, with the local dogs!

The GPS fails us; we follow it down narrow lanes and through small villages, which just does not seem right.  We decide to head back to the main roads and reroute via the larger towns.  Having driven probably twice the distance we should have today, we decide it’s more than enough, and pull into a roadside hotel for the night.

6th February

After breakfast we arrive at the Parambikulam Sanctuary main gate.  It’s a further 20km up a deteriorated mountain road to Topslip; half an hour later we drive through a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

A park ranger books us a room relatively easily-accommodation ranges from 500 to 2000rp/night so decide to risk it and take the cheapest-the Bison lodge, surely it can’t be that bad!  We speak to the head ranger who organises a jungle trek for us the same day, and a guide to take us in our vehicle through the park the next morning.

We set off into the jungle with our tracker.  He was lucky enough to see two panthers yesterday around the same time.  For protection, the tracker carries only a machete, no gun to protect us from the animals.

Entering the jungle, we start our trek through, following animal tracks.  Our guide takes us of the beaten track, cutting us a path through the plants, trees and bushes, which obscure our way.

We walk through the dark jungle, with the sounds of bamboo creaking, and monkeys howling in the distance.  We walk silently so as not to scare the animals, however the jungle floor is covered in large dry leafs, which when stepped on sound like you’re crunching a crisp packet.

The first animal we spot is a giant squirrel, almost the size of a cat, running up a tree.

We quietly scope out a small stream and wait around for a few minutes, but nothing comes.  We then see a large black shadow coming through the forest; suddenly a large swarm of bats streams past us.

Our guide tells us he has been a tracker all his life, and has grown up with the jungle.  He belongs to a local tribe, and is able to smell the animals from 25 metres away.

We move on, until we reach a plateau with views down through the valley for around 30km.  We spot several black monkeys swinging through the trees in the distance, which keep us entertained for a while.

As we track down another stream, a wild dog appears with its cub, sitting on the rocks below.  We go down to have a closer look; it appears to our left then darts off into the bushes.

We see several other animals in the jungle; black monkeys swinging in the treetops above our heads, Barking deer, Sumba deer, wild boar, wild bison, and several birds, including a stork, kingfishers and a Great Indian hornbill, a rare sighting due to its declining numbers.  It is large and noisy- we hear it long before we see it.  Its wing beat can also be heard more than half a mile away.

By now it’s 5pm and we are still in dense jungle, and have been walking non-stop.  We eventually get back at 6:30pm.  As they are not serving dinner until 8pm we go for a drive around the park, but don’t get too far the as the road is blocked.  We spot a couple of owls, their eyes shining in our head lights, poised to catch their prey.

Dinner is pretty abysmal consisting of a chapatti and a rationed spoonful of dahl!

7th February

Wake up at 6am to pick up our guide and drive around the park, but the major is not yet up so hang around waiting for him.  One of the guides knocks on his hut, he appears in full view in the door way, looking worse for wear and naked from the hips down….

Our drive takes us 30km along tracks, which are normally out of bounds for private vehicles.  We see various animals on the peaceful drive through.

We reach the elephant camp; we’re just in time as the elephants are coming down from the mountains for feeding.  In the kitchen they boil up a mixture of all sorts into large brown bricks.

They feed each elephant one or two blocks at a time; as they approach, the elephants lift up their trunks and open their mouths, at which point they gently place the food inside.  They consume 20kg each in the morning, 20kg in the evening and 150L of water.

We meet Suriya, Durba, Vikram and Baba.  One of the trainers explains he is the ‘father’ of Suriya.

We are surrounded by at least 10 elephants-it’s an amazing experience; we are only allowed to touch a couple of the elephants as most of them have little or no interaction with tourists.  One is carrying a huge log in its trunk, whilst another is being washed in the river.

We leave the park heading towards Waynad, passing through the Western Ghats, the busy towns of Pollactin and Coimbatore.  We drive through an elephant movement area, Nilgiris, queen of the hill stations.

Dangerous hair pin bends follow another, surrounded by dense tree-covered mountains, climbing to 1200m.  Reach Kunnar and we are 1700m.  Pass through tiny town of Ella Nali at 2300m. We arrive in Ooty, India’s most famous hill station passing Coonoor and search for hotels.  We finally choose one up at 2250m.  We had expected it to be cooler here but not this cold, and there is no heating in the hotel.  Being used to temperatures of 30 plus for the last month or so we find it difficult to stay warm.

8th February

In the morning we head towards Waynad, passing fields of green grass, pine trees and people riding horses.  We see a sign to Glenmorgan, a reminder of the British presence in the early 19th century.  At 1200m, we drive through a tea plantation area.

Suddenly we are in a thick forest, there are more hair pin bends and monkeys lining the roads.

We descend to about 1000m, and continue on to Waynad, where we search for accommodation. Again it’s overpriced, so decide to head to the park and find something along the roadside later on.

At the main gate quite a few tourists are lining up for jeep safaris.  We too have to queue up for one of the guides to come with us in our vehicle.  The cost of entrance and the guide is 250rp, which is much cheaper than using one of their jeeps.  The drive is only 7km, down a bumpy and rocky road.  We see a vulture, deer, an elephant in the distance and a giant squirrel hanging upside down.

We carry on driving through national park territory all the way to Mysore.  As we leave the park, two police officers stop us, friendly and joking at first, until they demand 100rp tax for driving through the park.  We demand to see a receipt, take their names and police numbers before handing over any money.  We then take a few photos of each officer and inform them that at the next police station we will pass all of this over to the Chief of Police.  At this point their tone changes and they start apologising for trying to bribe us and beg us not to report them!

On entering Mysore, we are also stopped by traffic police for insurance, but they don’t seem to understand that none is needed.  After explaining we have been through Agra, Amritsar, Goa etc. with no problems, they let us go.  Next problem is searching for our hotel and mastering the one way system in the city.  We eventually locate it and settle in for the evening.

9th February

In the morning we head to the shops before visiting the main attraction, Mysore palace.

Mysore was ruled by the Wodeyar dynasty right up until independence in1947, and the palace was built by them in the 14th century, repaired and expanded over the years.  The last was in 1912 after the palace suffered a fire in1897.

The palace is surrounded by landscaped gardens, which we take a leisurely walk through.  We spot a group of elephants getting relief from the sun under the shade of some trees.  The palace is huge, with intricate stained glass windows, carved wooden doors, regal paintings of past kings and queens,  and even a pavilion area.  It is one of the most visited attractions in India after the Taj Mahal.

Chennai & the Joys of Shipping

10 February – 18th February

We leave early, at around 8 am, to make the 280 mile drive to Chennai, our last leg in India.  Most of the roads are good and fast; however out GPS decides to take us the wrong way, and delays us by an hour.  Having to back track we ignore the GPS until we reach Chennai and keep to the main motor ways.  Once in Chennai we head straight to Benline agencies, where we discuss the shipping.  We feel in safe hands, with promises to have everything cleared the next day.

In the previous two weeks we have contacted many shipping agencies, and had reduced these down to two.

We chose to go with Benline shipping, who have been established for over 150years, and are a global shipping company, who can also provide us shipping for Australia and South America too, through Swire shipping.

The process of packing and clearing the shipment will take us 2-5 days, with the shipping taking another 5 days.

On our way to the hotel, we have a car cut us up turning at a junction; the driver miscalculates the turn and the rear of his car hits our front wing, sending the rear of his car sliding over the road.  We stop to check there’s no damage to our car, it’s just a couple of scratches.  However the whole of the rear wing on his is crumpled.  We think nothing of it, it’s his fault and get in the car to drive off.  As we attempt to drive the passenger of the other car stops us.  He wants some money for the damage and says it our fault, given that we were stationary.   They have no mirrors, and the driver is a learner, we totally disagree with him.  He threatens to call the police unless we pay him, which we are happy for him to do.  In the end a policeman comes over who does not speak any English.  He indicates that we have to pay for the damage, which we are not willing to do.  We do however make one offer of 500rp  (£8) for the damage, just so we can move, which the owner of the car reluctantly accepts.

We spend a few days relaxing and not doing too much.  Our main concern is sorting out the shipping so wait patiently for news.

On the 14th, we are sent a one line email from Benline stating that we can only ship what is detailed on the Carnet, and no personal belongings with the vehicle.  He obviously did not understand the implications of this.  If we had to empty the car and all its contents we would have to take over 100kg’s worth of baggage and tools onto the plane, which would simply be too expensive.  We also do not understand why customs would not accept belongings being shipped with the vehicle too.

In the end, we find another shipper, and would advise people not to use Benline agencies.  They do not seem to have much experience shipping vehicles or personal goods.

In the afternoon, we go to Rado shipping, which seems more promising as they have shipped quite a few personal cars and seem to be much more knowledgeable about the whole process.

We agree to ship in a 40ft container, so we do not have to take the roof box off etc, but which costs us slightly more.  There are also a few bribes to pay to customs, to get everything moving and the personal items cleared.

On the 17th we drive out to the site where we pack the car.  Customs have a very quick look at the car, and drive off to their superior’s office to have the final clearance signed.  It seems like they have gone on a very long lunch break as we wait hours for them to come back with the clearance.  With a 4pm cut off for the next shipment, the carrier and agent manage to clear the shipment without a further customs check.

In order to ship we have to drain all the fuel and gas from the car.  Following this we load the vehicle directly into the container and the chocking and securing process is carried out.

As soon as the car is in, we are given some bad news.  We have missed the 4pm cut off and the vehicle will not arrive in Malaysia for another 14 days.  We are not happy as you can imagine.  Both the carrier and agent try their best to get the shipment on the next ship.

We leave the site not knowing whether the car will be with us in 4 days or two weeks, and head to the airport for our flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Martin & Nicole