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Searching for wild elephants in Munnar

Searching for wild elephants in Munnar

Munnar is….tea and elephants!

That’s quite a combination. Throw some extremely uncooperative weather into the mix and you have my trip to Munnar, in the Indian state of Kerala. If you’re visiting Cochin and want to do some sightseeing out of town, Munnar will likely be one of the prevailing options available to you. It’s definitely worth doing, even if the weather is somewhat unreliable. For a start, the landscape is completely different to Cochin. Based high in the Western Ghats, close to the border with Tamil Nadu, Munnar is surrounded by tessellated tea plantations, waterfalls and thickly forested mountains. Secondly, you have the opportunity to see something quite special: wild elephants.

I had seen elephants before and not just in the zoo. I’ve been lucky enough to get fairly close to them in Nepal and in Sri Lanka. The first time I saw one casually strolling past the window of our minibus in Nepal is something I’ll never forget. It was a definite “wow” moment. However, even though some of the elephants that I saw in Sri Lanka were on a nature reserve, I’ve never seen any truly wild elephants before now. Elephants that are just left alone to do their own thing, with no interference from humans. I was under no illusions that such a sight wouldn’t require a lot of luck – particularly in the vast forests of the Western Ghats and particularly when you were just driving around, not going off-road or trekking remote trails.

Anyway, you know that uncooperative weather I mentioned? Well, it rained during our trip. It rained a lot. I think we had, perhaps, three hours of dry weather and most of that was spent in the car as we headed out of Cochin. When we stopped off at one of the many spice gardens en route to Munnar (Kerala is famous for its spices), we had to dig out our waterproofs and try not to fall over as we navigated the steep, slippery paths around the garden. By the time we reached the tea museum, it was clear that even our waterproofs weren’t going to cut it. And at this altitude, the temperature had dropped to UK levels. As we sat in the museum, wet and shivering, it felt like so many of the school field trips I had taken. In other words, it was miserable.

We had hoped to do some hiking through the tea plantations, especially as our attempts to do this in Sri Lanka had come to an abrupt and soggy end. But, once again, the weather just was not on our side so all we could do was head straight to our accommodation. It wasn’t how we had wanted to spend our time in Munnar but we had high hopes for where we were staying. It had been sold in to us as a “luxury” house owned by “the richest lawyer in Kerala”. And we would have it all to ourselves. At least we’d be able to cosy up somewhere comfortable with a good book and a cup of tea until the rain stopped.

Er, no. The house had been converted wholesale into a hotel, with every spare room being turned into a bedroom. As far as common areas were concerned, there was a dining room and there was a large terrace, which wasn’t particularly appealing given the weather. And that was it. We had expected an actual house, something perhaps along the lines of an Airbnb place, but what we got was a very basic hotel which cost twice the amount we would usually pay. It certainly wasn’t luxurious. It was freezing cold, it was damp, there was no hot water and our shower didn’t work, meaning we had to wash with a bucket. And we didn’t have the place to ourselves; there were four other people staying there. At least there was wifi, so we could binge Netflix as the rain lashed the outside world. Then the power went out so that was the end of that. I couldn’t picture the richest lawyer in Kerala living like this.

It was too cold to sleep properly and, as the weather grew wilder, I lay awake worrying about the very real possibility of being stuck on the mountain. After a freezing bucket wash the next morning, compounded by a freezing breakfast surrounded by cloud on the terrace, we were eager to return to the tropical climate of Cochin asap. Had the weather abated during the night then we might have been able to do some hiking but guess what? It was still raining. Which left only one more thing on our itinerary – look for Munnar’s wild elephants. Our driver, Shaji, was mortified by how our excursion had been derailed by the weather – even though bad weather can’t be helped – so he was determined that something would go to plan today and we would see those elephants.

Actual view from the terrace

However, pinning all your hopes on a wild animal is a short-cut straight to disappointment. We were all too aware of this after failing to see any leopards at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, despite it being one of the best places in the world to spot these incredible beasts. We pootled along the mountain roads, watching plastic-clad people pick tea; small, multi-coloured specks in a world of green. We saw the town where the plantation workers lived, made up of buildings as colourful as their owners, straggling their way up the hillside. We visited Top Station bazaar where the steam rising from the roadside chai stalls merged with the low clouds. All the while we were craning our necks and squinting into the distance, just in case we caught a glimpse of an elephant. But it was not to be. Shaji reluctantly turned the car around and we made our way back down the mountainside.

So that was my trip to Munnar – wet, cold, grey and a little bit of a let down. Until….

About 10 minutes after we turned back towards Cochin, Shaji suddenly yelled out “ELEPHANT!”. And, lo and behold, in a field right next to the road were three, absolutely incredible wild elephants including a baby. They were far enough away so as not to be disturbed by us but close enough for us to be able to fully admire them. It was a wonderful sight – beautiful wild creatures just making their way through their world, exactly as they are meant to.

After that it didn’t matter about the crappy weather. Or the cold hotel (sorry, I mean “luxury house owned by the richest lawyer in Kerala”). Or the bucket shower. Or nearly falling on my arse while looking at plants. Because seeing wild elephants is so awesome that everything else fades into the background. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my travels and is a memory that I’ll be able to call upon to make me smile for years to come.

What are your travel highlights? Share in the comments below.

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala: How to relax like a pro

A houseboat in Kerala, India

A houseboat in Kerala is…for people who can’t switch off (and for those who can!)

I don’t know about you guys but I’m not great at switching off. Living in London does it to you; the constant thrum of the capital means you’re pretty much always on the go. Even when I was vegging out in front of Netflix, my brain would still be processing the sensory overload of the city; thinking about what to do and where to go next. And I’m the same now I’ve left London. Contrary to my belief that giving up my full-time job would free up some time, I’m actually busier than ever, just in a different way. How would I cope staying on a houseboat in Kerala – a full 24 hours without the internet???

As the many road signs proclaim, Kerala is God’s own country. This blissed-out, palm tree-strewn southern Indian state is pretty close to paradise on earth. If you only do one thing in Kerala, you should stay overnight on a houseboat. Kerala is known for its backwaters; silent lagoons linked by sleepy, meandering channels. The best way to explore this beautiful area is by houseboat and you will find lots of different tour companies offering various packages – either online or just by walking around Fort Kochi, for example. However, you’ll most likely end up on a motorised boat around Alleppey, jostling for space on the water with a hundred other houseboats. This is not the chilled-out Keralan vibe that you’re looking for.

On the Kerala backwaters, India

If you’re going to do the whole houseboat thing in style then the trick is to escape from everyone else who wants to do exactly the same. And for that you need to avoid Alleppey. By chance, we wandered into the office of Wilson Tours in Fort Kochi where we were given a choice – take a motorised houseboat around Alleppey or a smaller, punted boat in a place where we would see no other tourists. Well, it was a no brainer really…. That’s how, one slightly damp morning, we found ourselves boarding our very own houseboat in a tiny Keralan village. And it really was all our own – complete with two guys to punt and one onboard chef. It seemed like such a treat but actually only cost around £25 each.

The houseboat contained a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom, a kitchen and a deck area complete with two lounge chairs, a coffee table and a fold-away dining table for our meals. We settled into our seats, were given a pot of tea and a plateful of freshly made banana crisps (to die for) and off we went. There was literally nothing to do but read, write and watch the sleepy Keralan countryside glide by. And that’s the beauty of a houseboat in Kerala – you’re forced into a digital detox where the only thing you can do is relax. There was no noise other than the splash of the punt or the sound of the many birds along the backwaters – kingfishers, brahminy kites, fish eagles and loads more that I couldn’t even begin to identify.

Onboard a houseboat in Kerala, India

Wilson Tours were true to their word. We didn’t see any other tourist houseboats on this trip. Occasionally we passed local people in canoes or fishermen on their way to check the large Chinese fishing nets that were dotted around. But that was about it as far as other people went. As the late afternoon light grew more golden and the shadows grew longer, I felt like I could quite easily doze off. Considering I have been on sleeping tablets for three years, this is nothing short of a miracle. Having absolutely nothing to do other than lazily float on calm, green waters while being fed incredibly well is clearly a winning strategy for relaxation.

A Chinese fishing net in Kerala, India

We moored up in a lagoon for the night and watched from underneath our canopy as rain fell gently around us. As it grew dark and we enjoyed our dinner of curry with freshly made chappatis, hundreds of fireflies darted around us; a beautiful sight I’ve never witnessed before. I was then more than ready to curl up in our cosy little wood-panelled bedroom and enjoy a nights sleep with zero light pollution. Waking up to a soft, Turner-esque dawn and settling down to watch as the morning mist gradually evaporated off the lagoon while fish eagles wheeled and dived around me beat that Tube commute any day.

The Kerala backwaters, India

For someone who doesn’t really know how to relax and who gets slightly twitchy whenever there’s no internet, a houseboat in Kerala was the perfect tonic. Spending time away from the “black mirror” of my phone and laptop genuinely helped me to switch off and decompress. There are times when my decision to escape the rat race has been hard, but this definitely wasn’t one of them.

What relaxing experiences have you had while travelling? Share them in the comments.

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

Fort Kochi: Where to eat great food

Fort Kochi is the perfect introduction to India. If you’re a first time visitor to the sub-continent, the chilled out state of Kerala, with its palm trees, fishing nets and spice gardens, will gently welcome you with just enough Indian verve to make you feel like you’re somewhere truly exotic, yet with minimal hustle and hassle. If you’re an old hand when it comes to the chaos of India then Fort Kochi will seem like a a long cool drink of water. This historic, bohemian town – shaped over time by the Portuguese, the Dutch, Catholics, Hindus, Jains, Jews and so many more – is a hub of local artists, colourful cafe culture and fascinating local life. It’s difficult to find bad food in Fort Kochi but you can be a little overwhelmed by choice. Here’s where to head to first.

Dal Roti
This stripped back, simple restaurant is super popular and for good reason. The North Indian food is excellent, the portions are generous and it’s ridiculously cheap. We ordered the chicken biryani and the mutton thali – both of which were incredible. I’m always a bit wary around mutton as it risks being tough and chewy, but in this instance it just fell apart. The biryani was huge and easily one of the best I have ever eaten – and believe me when I say I’ve eaten a lot. Decent lassis, warm service and a full belly for less than a fiver? Winning.
Dal Roti, Lilly Street/Elephanstone Road, Fort Kochi

Kashi Art Cafe
Like almost every tourist, we took up almost permanent residence in Kashi Art Cafe. Tucked away down pretty Burgar Street, this garden cafe cum art gallery is hot property. Their breakfasts are legendary – you can choose from the likes of French toast, turbo-omelettes, homemade granola and even cinnamon breakfast cake (yes, breakfast cake!!!) – as are their chocolate brownies. A good mix of Indian and Western dishes is available all day until 10pm. Go for the art, the vibe and the food; stay for the lovely staff, the wifi and the excellent masala chai.
Kashi Art Cafe, Dist Ernakulam, Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Oy’s Cafe
Also located on Burgar Street, Oy’s is boho, artsy and perhaps wouldn’t be too out of place in the likes of Shoreditch – only there’s no London prices or hipster wankers here! This vibrant jewel of a cafe serves up excellent all-day breakfasts and a limited, yet incredibly delicious, evening menu cooked by local Indian women. Lounge against colourful cushions, admire the art on the walls, sip on one of their powerful ginger concoctions (Cochin is known for its ginger) and pimp your social media feed at this Instagram-friendly haunt. Don’t miss out on one of their super-naughty, super-decadent milkshakes!
Oy’s Cafe, 1/390 Burgar Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel
We would never have found this place had we not asked our tuk-tuk driver to take us somewhere for a good biryani. Hidden away down the labyrinthine streets of Mattancherry is Kayees; a spit and sawdust restaurant that’s home to (allegedly) the best biryani in town. We were the only foreigners in the place, which was packed with Indian families – always a good sign. Expect no frills, maybe a few curious stares and plates piled high with THE most delicious biryani. I looked at mine and thought “there’s no way I’m going to even make a dent in this and then I’m going to look so wasteful” but funnily enough I cleared my plate. Our tuk-tuk driver asked me to marry him.
Kayees Rahmathullah Hotel, New Road, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi

Teapot Cafe
Another gorgeous gem of a cafe – Fort Cochin really does spoil you! This peaceful, saffron-coloured retreat is housed in a crumbling, high-ceilinged old building liberally decorated with different teapots from across the years. What would be twee in the UK somehow manages to be quirky in Fort Kochi. The softly-spoken, smiling staff guide you through their fabulous food and drink menu. The tea selection is extensive, and you can also get “tea bites” like Indian rarebit alongside more substantial offerings such as the local fish moilee (a green, coconut-based curry) or Kerala fish curry. A yummy cake selection is available too.
Teapot Cafe, Peter Celli Street, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi

Fusion Bay
It’s a known fact* that you cannot visit Kerala and not eat a fish curry. Kerala is known as the Land of Spices due to its historic spice trade routes, and curries here are flavoursome rather than face-meltingly hot. Coconuts grow in abundance in Kerala so they are frequently used in cooking, giving a milder, creamy feel to dishes. And of course, fish is a food staple around the coast. Fusion Bay feels a bit like an old fashioned curry house found in the UK but they do a mean – and great value – fish curry. Go for the fish masala or fish moilee and mop up the delicious sauce with appam – spongy bread made with fermented rice and coconut milk.
Fusion Bay, Santa Crus Basilica Junction, KB Jacob Road, Kunnumupuran, Fort Kochi

*In my world