Sunday, 25 October 2015

Follow me into the Jungle

Be warned that this post will be incredibly lengthy. Have lots of patience to read this. I can assure you it will be worth the read if you're planning a forest trip in Kerala.

Gavi is a very small village located amidst the thick forests of Western Ghats and it is a part of the World famous Periyar Tiger reserve (well, i'm not sure whether the babies in Namibia know about this, but trust me, this is World famous). Gavi can be reached by two ways and by only one mode (road transport). One option is to make an entry from Kerala, where you need to reach Ernakulam (Cochi is the nearest airport) or Kottayam (again, Cochi is the nearest airport) and take a bus all the way to a place called Kumily (you'll burst into a hearty laugh if someone calls this a hill station). From Kumily, you need to reach Gavi either by hiring a jeep or by taking an Ordinary bus service that runs between Kumily and Pathanamthitta (2 buses per day), which i'll be discussing in detail as the post progresses. The other option is to make an entry from Tamil Nadu, where you need to reach either Madurai or Theni (Madurai is the nearest airport) and take a bus all the way to the mother of all hill stations Kumily. You poor thing have no other option than to take either jeep or the Ordinary bus services (or by your own car if you're self driving) to reach Gavi from Kumily, even if you make an entry from Tamil Nadu.   

Option 1:
Chennai to Kottayam - distance: 749 Km (overnight journey by train)
Kottayam to Kumily - distance: 108 Km (4 hours journey by KSRTC bus) 
Kumily to Gavi - distance: 32 Km (1.5 hours journey by Ordinary KSRTC bus)

Option 2:
Chennai to Madurai - distance: 472 Km (overnight journey by train)
Madurai to Kumily - distance: 141 Km (4 hours journey by TNSTC bus)
Kumily to Gavi - distance: 32 Km (1.5 hours journey by Ordinary KSRTC bus)

I decided to choose option 2 as option 1 was ruled out because of festive season (no train tickets were available from Chennai to Kottayam). In the route map, the total distance between Chennai to Gavi is shown as 642 Km, which is applicable when you're driving from Chennai to Gavi on your own vehicle (conditions apply) and it can increase according to the road conditions.

My option 2 had this plan: Chennai to Madurai by Duronto Express (departed on October 21st 10.30 pm and arrived on 22nd 7 am) - Madurai to Kumily by bus (departed at 8 am on 22nd and arrived at 12 pm on 22nd) - Kumily to Gavi by Ordinary KSRTC bus (departed at 1.15 pm on 23rd and arrived at 2.45 pm on 23rd). Then, depart from Gavi on 24th by following a different plan, which i'll explain as the post progresses (told you, it will be an incredibly long post).

Madurai to Kumily (141 Km - 4 hours)

This part of journey is exactly where my expectations and enthusiasm began to crumble. I was aware about the beauty of the journey from Kottayam to Kumily, where most of the travel is through Ghat roads, and I had similar level of expectation while traveling from Madurai. For almost 3 hours 25 minutes the bus was traveling on a plain straight roads. I could see mountains surrounding us but the bus was adamant to climb any of those. And then the uphill journey began, which didn't last for more than 35 minutes (just 6 Km uphill).

Then there was Kumily, lying on the border line between Kerala and Tamil Nadu (two different states). Since I made an entry from Tamil Nadu, I had to get out of the bus and walk a few meters to enter Kumily, which lies in Kerala. If you look at the pic closely you'll find a check post with 'Stop' sign on it. That's the border and the state beyond the check post is Kerala.

Kumily and Thekkady - Tamil Nadu and Kerala Border
Kumily is a small and moderately crowded town (I couldn't convince myself to call it a hill station), which serves as an entry point to the World famous Periyar Tiger reserve and the globally acclaimed best ecotourism destination Gavi (oh yeah, I'm being sarcastic).

Kumily sightseeing (3 hours)

Elephant Ride at Thekkady
This marks the most hilarious thing I ever did in my life. I wasn't sure why I opted for this until and unless I covered those 5 so called sightseeing places that were spread across Kumily. There were just things I really enjoyed - one is my first elephant ride and the other is standing at the tip of a waterfall. There is not much exciting things to do in Kumily except for this elephant ride and waterfall view point. Most of the travelers who reach this place will head to Thekkady and opt for different trekking programs conducted by Kerala forest department. The reason for me not to opt for the trek program at Thekkady was Gavi ecotourism. I had an intention of opting for a package that included a trek in the dense forests of Western Ghats, which sounded far more exciting than trekking in normal hills.

And then, I was taken to the third view point named Paandi Kuzhi (literal: Pit of Paandi) and it had a funny trek path (as shown in the below picture). I was under assumption that I had to trek for a while to get to the top but the trek path didn't stretch for more than 50 meters. Even the view from Paandi Kuzhi wasn't that good, except for the nice cloud pattern that I caught in my camera (Canon SX 30 IS). 

And then, I was taken to a small waterfall (I don't remember the name), where I spent some worthy 30 minutes enjoying the scenic beauty and snapping plenty of pictures.

Panoramic view from the View Point

Food at Kumily

The most interesting part, next to Elephant ride, was authentic Kerala food. As suggested by the Hotel manager, I visited a restaurant named 'Hotel Mamma' and trust me, the restaurant has the best serving authentic Kerala food in Kumily (I'm not being sarcastic here). Fish Curry and Egg roast were the dishes that delighted my taste buds, and Aapam/Appam (pancake made of fermented rice batter and coconut milk), which is a traditional breakfast in Kerala, tasted extremely delicious. The foodie in me (my other alter ego) left extremely satisfied.

Fish, Chicken, and Rice @ Hotel Mamma
P.S: Do not miss to taste "masala tea" and buy few packets of the tea powder when you're here (I myself am sipping some masala tea as I type this) ;)

Kumily to Gavi (32 Km - 1.5 hours) 

This is the most interesting part of my journey. Gavi can be reached from Kumily by two ways, if you're not self driving - one is by hiring a jeep and the other is by taking the Ordinary bus services to Pathanamthitta. Jeep travel is expensive where you need to pay additional 1300 rupees per head to the forest department to collect the permit apart from paying 1500 to 2000 rupees for the jeep. No need of buying a permit if you're taking the bus (that's the biggest advantage and the ticket price is just 42 rupees one way). I decided to opt for the bus travel (hassle free). Currently there are just 2 buses plying between Kumily and Pathanamthitta. First bus at Kumily starts at 5.30 am and the first bus from Pathanamthitta reaches Kumily at 12.30 pm (starts from the arrival point at 6.30 am). The second and last bus at Kumily is at 1.30 pm, and 12.30 pm at Pathanamthitta. There is a website called Aanavandi where you can find the exact departure and arrival timings of this bus service. 

The bus starts at Kumily and makes its first stop at Vandiperiyar (14 Km). The journey is normal uphill and downhill with tea and cardamom plantations covering both sides. From Vandiperiyar, the bus takes a turn and heads towards Vallakadavu (6 Km) where the forest department has their check post (here's where you're required to collect your permit). The route to Vallakadavu will be scenic with the misty mountains covering your sight. From Vallakadavu, the bus enters Periyar Tiger reserve (the same World famous stuff which I was talking about earlier). The journey from here to Pathanamthitta is through a road that passes through dense jungle. It will be both scary and adventurous for those who're traveling for the first time. Scary part comes when the bus breaks down in the middle of the jungle. You'll be left with no option than to wait for the next bus to head that way (you won't be able to spot any jeeps post Gavi). This particular jungle road is prone to wildlife animals like Tiger, Leopard, Black Panther, Notorious Elephants, Venomous Snakes and Bison. The only cell phone carrier that works here is BSNL, that too with a limited coverage. If your bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, make sure you have plans to save yourself from Tigers and Elephants (that's where the adventure peeks in). Vallakadavu to Gavi (12 Km) will be the most enjoyable journey for nature lovers. 

A night's stay at Gavi

Green Mansions, Gavi
I opted for a night's stay package with Kerala ecotourism department, which costed Rs. 2500 (that includes stay, food, jungle safari, nature walk, boating, and additional 1000 rupees for trekking). I realized that I shouldn't have opted for a night's stay when the tourist guide told me about the ban on the trekking programme. Yes, you heard me right, the trekking programme is unconditionally banned by the Kerala Government and there's a story behind that. Six months ago, a North Indian couple were taken to trek inside the jungle. At that time they spotted an Elephant approaching them. Elephants in those forests are notorious and dangerous, and instead of running for their life, the wife asked the husband to take a picture covering her and the elephant. Looks like this pissed the Elephant off and it smashed both the husband and wife to death (luckily, the guide escaped). 

As the trekking was banned, I was left with very few options - boating, nature walk and jungle safari, which could've been covered in a single day. The guide told me that the groups departed a day before my arrival spotted some Elephants and other animals on their way and that gave me some hope to spot at least some Elephants (I was hoping to see some Tigers as well).

Boating in Gavi lake took close to an hour. It was a beautiful experience where the guide took me to a waterfall, which is, as per the guide, the actual starting point of River Pamba (those who've been to Kerala will know how about this river). Post boating, I had to push the nature walk programme to the following day as the place was engulfed with fog. At 7.20 pm, I had the most ridiculously awkward dinner, and then went straight to bed (after watching an episode of House M.D on my iPhone).

Jungle safari in Periyar Tiger Reserve

Next was the much awaited jungle safari. The excitement began to crumble as the journey progressed and ended with utmost disappointment. I did not spot even a single wild animal (of course, the animals would run away on hearing jeep's noise). I was under assumption that the tour guide would take me on a different path into the jungle, instead he drove the jeep on the same road where the bus to Pathanamthitta travels. Instead of opting for jungle safari, I could have taken the bus all the way from Kumily to Pathanamthitta, which would have covered 50 Km of jungle (also I would have had some chance to see Elephants). I would not recommend anyone (who plans for Gavi) to opt for jungle safari, instead I would recommend you to take 5.30 am bus from Kumily and you can enjoy the ride all the way to Pathanamthitta. In the whole safari, all I could spot was cow, hen, squirrels, goats (Damn! Did I travel all the way to Gavi to see those?). And, the guide was being sarcastic about other groups spotting the animals. They would have spotted the animals from a very far distance (2 to 3 Km) like I did (yes, I captured some pictures of elephants from a incredibly long distance). On the whole, the most awaited jungle safari sucked to the extreme.

Nature Walk at Gavi

After the disappointing jungle safari, the only thing that cheered me up was the nature walk. It was a short trek uphill (5 minutes) and the view from there was mind blowing.

Panoramic view of Gavi

From Gavi to Chennai

My return journey was a hectic yet adventurous one. I had my flight to Chennai at 6.45 pm and I didn't want to put myself in risk by relying on the Ordinary bus service. The chances of missing the flight were huge even if I get delayed by 15 minutes. My tour guide at Gavi arranged for a jeep that was about to leave to Vandiperiyar and the jeep driver agreed to drop me there if I pay Rs. 500 (reasonable as we were two persons - 250 rupees per head). 

9.15 am: Check out from Kerala ecotourism, Gavi. 
9.40 am: Depart from Gavi (0 Km)
10.40 am: Arrive at Vandiperiyar (20 Km)
10.50 am: Boarded a sharing van to Kumily (20 Km)
11.30 am: Arrival at Kumily (32 Km)
12.00 am: Boarded bus bound to Madurai (32 Km)
3.50 pm: Arrival at Madurai (173 Km)
4.30 pm: Depart to Madurai Airport by auto rickshaw (173 Km)
5.15 pm: Arrival at Madurai Airport (198 Km)
6.45 pm: Board SpiceJet SG 610 to Chennai (198 Km)
7.30 pm: Arrival at Chennai Airport (617 Km)
8.15 pm: Board train from Chennai Airport to my home (620 Km)
9.15 pm: Home sweet home (645 Km) 

It was a wonderful experience traveling the entire 645 Km in 12 hours by utilizing all means of transport (except Sea).  

Whoa! It took me close to 5 hours to complete this travelogue. If you're reading this line, then I should really appreciate your patience.


  1. Hari OM
    I read that last line...&*> Fantastic trip and nice narration of your experience. I think you got great shots of the elephants, considering the prevailing conditions. Such 'safari' trips are notorious for lacking in sightings, but the surroundings have to be enjoyed as much so as to not be disappointed. Mostly, I think you did that! wonderful to linger here today... YAM xx

    1. Looks like luck backfired at me when it comes to spotting animals. But yeah, the surroundings were splendid and I enjoyed the ride to the fullest. Glad you enjoyed the read and thanks for your patience :)

  2. Great Aswin, Enjoy your life as u dreamt! :)

  3. Green and Blue all over the shots clicked. Your pictures are like a coolant for the eyes. It's a lengthy yet an awesome post, well, after a long time. Thanks for sharing the experience, Ashwin :)

    1. And thank you for your patience, Rat. It's been a long time since I saw your comment in my blog :P Hoping to write more articles in the near future, and yeah, i've plenty of stuffs to read from your blog :)

  4. This was an excellent read! I loved seeing the pictures; the elephant pictures turned out great even with the large zoom!

    1. Thanks for your patience, Andy :) It would have been awesome if the fog was less and elephants were bit closer :P

  5. Well written and good info ....nice clicks too!

    1. Thanks for your patience, Sravani. Glad you liked the read

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  7. You are a adventure freak !! Nice photos !!