Nov 18-21 Jungle Bird Home Stay – Thattekad, Kerala
My hesitant introduction to what will become my home away from home in India, began at about 11:00 am when Sudha, the beautiful 57 year old owner of the Home Stay walked me and my bike up the road into the park, sat me down and fed me a late breakfast. I was kind of joining in at the tail end of the morning bird outing, which is followed by a late breakfast. There was no discussion about whether I was staying or not, just the hospitality of a person who saw a red-faced old man about to die if she didn’t get something into him. I had had a very easy morning, belying my appearance, and had been captivated by the place and would be staying indefinitely but Sudah, I think just felt that I needed sustenance. The next four days she and the others here tried to restore all of the weight that hot, hilly cycling had removed. Unique, among the many places I have stayed at around the world, we never did settle on rates for accommodation, meals and services, but somehow we just knew it would work out to every one’s satisfaction.
I spent four nights here, met many avid and casual birders, became part of a small and growing group that quickly became friends. I went on six bird outings, they are held in the morning beginning at 6:30 and in the afternoon beginning at 3:30 pm, each for about 3 hours. I added about 60 new birds to my non-existent life’s list, some quite exotic, and learned a lot about birding in the process. My six trips were to five different sites, I have no idea how many more there may be.
The characters in this play begin with Sudah Chandran, the owner who dragged me into this great experience. I went on three of the bird treks with her. She is about 5′ tall, wears long Indian saris and sandals, but scampers over the rocks and roots nimbly. She is old school, I think the binoculars that John, one of my partners, gave her are interesting for her, but she spots and identifies the birds by sound, habitat and good eye sight. She also works in a school and runs her guesthouse admirably. Helping her are her son, daughter in-law, her mother, and 4 or 5 others depending upon the number of guests.
Sudah’s son Gireesh, is a lawyer in addition to helping run the guesthouse and providing the significant bird guiding activities, so he runs off to complete these duties in between efforts catering to us. I went on three outing with him and was so impressed by his enthusiasm and deep knowledge, but will save that for the conclusion of this short tale.
The day I arrived Gireesh called everyone, which included six Indian birders at the guesthouse doing a one day birding count, and John, a 65 yr old doctor from San Francisco, who is here for his second two week birding visit this year. We all followed Gireesh into the jungle adjoining the guesthouse as he had identified the call of a Malabar Trogon, one of the rare birds everyone was after. Sure enough, it was spotted high in the trees, and we got some fuzzy, over-zoomed photos.
Back to John, the first of my little group of compatriots. I went on all of my outings with him. He is a serious birder in a nice way. We spent much time visiting and tasting different alcohols, while waiting for the next meal or the next outing. He has a Swarovsky spotting scope that is an added bonus for me, as my viewing involves taking a picture at maximum zoom, then digitally zooming in many times again, until I have a fuzzy image with with to appreciate the bird. When we can get John’s Swarovsky on the bird it really gives a finer appreciation.
Each of the people I talked with over my first days here removed a little of the incentive to go down to the back-waters between Alleppey and Kochi. The Indian birders indicated that the bird reserve would not get birds until April, and others indicated the house boat thing was of poor value, confirming my earlier assessment that I would not likely do this. I will still head in that direction, but not for as long. All this opened the incentive to stay on here, as it has all of the attributes that I am looking for as the end of my trip.
Our day begins with tea and biscuits at 6:15, and then we head out to a birding site. The birds are most active as the sun is coming up. The bird activity begins to die about 9:30 and so we return for breakfast at 10:00, kill time until lunch at 2:00 and head out for the afternoon birding session at about 3:30 until dark at about 6:00. We squeeze in a sun-downer before dinner at 7:00. Meals are very communal as we eat together and visit a lot with all the people staying at the guesthouse.
My second day here Sudah, John and I took a tuc-tuc into Khotamangalm where I got a haircut. Sudah picked up some bottles of Toddy, a local home brew made from some part of the pine tree, for John and I to add to our alcohol tasting. Mari, a young German girl joined our little group on this day. On the third day, Sudah brought Rich up the stairs, she had found him out on the road and brought him into the fold. In the meanwhile the groups were still arriving. A group from Sweden and Norway on a guided cycle outing joined us for one night, and a group of photographers from Bangalore joined us for my last night, but we don’t go birding with the groups..The final member of our group came in on my final day. Bruce is a hippy from the 60s who is still a practising Hindu and has spent much of his life bouncing between India and flower (or other plant) life in California. I wasn’t sure there were any still around. But he is fun and has lots of interesting ideas.
Some of the exotic or interesting birds that I saw included the Malabar Trogon, the Dollar Bird, a Changeable Hawk-eagle, Chestnut Bee-eater, three different Drongos, Asian Paradise Flycatcher, Brown Capped Woodpecker, Black Baza, Ceylon Frog Mouth and Indian Pita.
A final story on Thattehad illustrates the capability of a strong bird guide like Gireesh. Our final night as a group I wanted to see a Frog Mouth and John wanted to see an Indian Pita. We went out and as the dusk was beginning to settle around us Gireesh left us and headed into the deep undergrowth and came back requesting we follow him, but not to touch any of the brush. Two Frog mouths were sitting on a branch, the strangest birds I have ever seen. We got some photos under the light of Gireesh’s high powered flashlight. After walking about a bit more, it was now getting quite dark, Gireesh stopped and indicated that he had just heard a Pita. Playing two recorded Pita calls on his phone and making some himself we headed back up the trail and at a certain point we stopped while he continued to make his calls. Now we could all hear the answering calls, as the Pita got closer and closer. After about 20 minutes of this the little Indian Pita, the cover bird on the Birds of India Guide, jumped up on a branch, and with flashlight illumination let us all take our photos.
My four days and nights here were incredible, even more so when you read Lonely Planet describing the Bird Lagoon, 12 km away, as the place to go. Every one loved the Jungle Bird Guesthouse, Sudah, Gireesh and the others there, at a fraction of the price.
Nov 22, 23 – Kumarakom
Sudah was up to take Rich and Bruce birding and to give John and me breakfast before we left. Rich would leave after birding. I got away on a foggy morning about 7:00, and soon got to Kothamangalam and the busy highways. I stuck to the main roads to Kottayam, so it was fairly busy the whole way, there were more hills than I expected and I was back in deep humidity as I expected. So, as there was no real reason to stop much I rode right on through. Once past Kottayam I was on small roads leading into the back-waters and on into Kumarakom and our chosen hotel, the Tharavadu Guesthouse, After the busy main roads the back-waters was nice. I caught a few good birds and the traffic was slow. The Guesthouse is lovely. I checked in a bit after twelve, and had my shower and a beer and was working on my notes when Rich turned up.
I did 95 km getting here and another 20 in the area.
The next morning, after a late breakfast we made out way down to the Bird Sanctuary and started with a two hour tour of the canals with a guy in a wooden canoe. Our guide was pretty good at spotting birds and we had some good sightings, including a Brahminy Kite, new to us. We also saw lots other birdes and some back-water life as people went about their daily activities. Later we saw numerous large and medium sized houseboats heading out into the big lake with their guests.
After our tour we had a long leisurely beer and buffet lunch at a government resort. Late in the afternoon , even though we had been told it was the wrong season for birds in the sanctuary I did the 4-5 km walk through. All in all the visit to the back-waters has been pleasant. It is an enormously attractive place.
Nov 24-26 – Ernakulam, Kochi
I did 90 km, getting to Ernakulum, visiting Kochi and looking around.
I left the Tharavadu at 8:00, continuing north on the road along the east side of Vembenad Lake, although never really seeing it. I was following a route I had picked out from a back-waters map I picked up at a visitor information centre. I initially crossed many canals and saw lots of people activity but no birds. 20 some kms along I hit the end of the first road and found a ferry from Viakom across Vembenad to one of the main islands below Kochi. It cost me 2R, about 4 cents. This gave me 20 more kms of back road cycling. When I hit the main road into Kochi/Ernakulam I only had 10 km left. After a nice second breakfast in a high end hotel I had an easy ride in on the 4 to 6 lane highway.
Once in Ernakulam. I did another 15 km finding the YMCA, where Rich and I agreed to meet. I got there first and was told Rich had not turned up and that they had no room. As I walked out, Rich walked up, saving the hassle of trying to find a place and then going back to the Y to leave a message for Rich. We checked into a hotel Rich had stayed at when he went through five days ago, and then we both went out to find things we need for packing our bikes for transport, and both found some things that might work.
Our second day would be a visit to Fort Cochin, the tourist enclave for this area. We took small people ferries over to the town, I had my bike. I rode around a fair amount and visited the two main attractions, a musem with great Hindu muralsss and a Jewish Synagogue. However it was Sunday and my museum visits were marred by hoards of people, Indians and Europeans from a large Cruise Ship. Mostly I enjoyed riding slowly around the narrow lanes. Rich and I stumbled into each other in a restaurant before catching the ferry back to Ernakulum. Some time is the last two days I figured out that I had an extra day here, which is kind of annyoying as I should have used it back in the countryside, or at least we should be over in Kochi.
The next day, my wasted day, we hung out at the hotel and around the streets until Rich headed off for his all night train trip to Goa, pick up his bike and fly to Delhi.
I will make my way to the next town up the way, where the airport is, pack my bike into a parcel hopefully acceptable to the airline and fly to Delhi.
We both find these sorts of things more stressful than the actual travelling. But we are leaving what has been the highlight and most enjoyable part of this trip. The Western Ghats and backwaters of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.