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  • Writer's pictureAadeesh Deshpande

Hiking through Periyar tiger reserve!

Spread across 777 km², the Periyar Tiger Reserve is located in the southern region of the Western Ghats in the Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala, India. Named after the Periyar River that originates from the forest, the reserve is home to 62 species of mammals, 315 species of birds, and 45 species of reptiles. It is truly a wildlife enthusiast's paradise. Some notable mammals found in reserve are the Asian elephant, Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, gaur, sambar deer, barking deer, Nilgiri langur, and lion-tailed macaque.

Dense forest of Periyar National Park, India
Colorful flowers as seen in Periyar National Park

The forest was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1978 and is characterized by tropical evergreen, tropical semi-evergreen, moist deciduous forests, marshy grasslands, and eucalyptus plantations. An artificial lake formed due to the construction of the Mullaperiyar dam on the Periyar river adds to the beauty of this sanctuary. Even though the reserve is open throughout the year, the charm of this picturesque landscape is best experienced from October to May. Visitors can explore the wilderness through boat safaris, trekking, camping, nature walks, and bamboo rafting.

In November 2018, we visited Thekkady, a small town in the Idukki district, and stayed at Hotel Treetop. The resort is 500 meters from the Periyar Tiger Reserve and is spread across a scenic four-acre plot surrounded by large, dense trees. Due to its proximity to the reserve, we could see many Malabar giant squirrels, Nilgiri langurs, and colorful birds from our cottage.

The highlight of our 6D/5N stay was a full day of hiking and bamboo rafting in the Tiger Reserve. A part of the eco-tourism project, it's a four-and-a-half hour, nine-km hike in the dense forest and three hours of bamboo rafting in the Periyar lake.

Group of hikers in Periyar National Park

On 9ᵗʰ November 2018, we started the day at 0745 hrs at Thekkady boat landing, where we were greeted by forest department staff, guides, and an armed forest ranger. We were joined by visitors from Belgium, England, and the Netherlands. On inquiring about the firearm, the forest ranger told us that the gun makes a loud noise and scares away wild animals.

To prepare us for the hike, the staff gave us a sling bag, water bottle, breakfast, lunch, knee-length khaki socks, and a packet of tobacco powder. We were puzzled about receiving tobacco powder! The guides, noticing our curiosity, told us that tobacco acts as leech repellent, and we must sprinkle it on our shoes and socks.

Silhouette of a black monkey as seen in Periyar National Park, India

We began our hike at 0815 hrs, it was drizzling, and the terrain was muddy due to the last night's downpour. The region is famous for its spice plantations and we saw many spice plants in the forest. While walking through the woods, we spotted several Nilgiri langurs and Malabar giant squirrels. Still, surprisingly we did not see any sambar deer, even though we had a close encounter with a pair during a self-guided tour through the forest the previous evening.

En route to the rafting pickup point, we stumbled upon several gaur and elephant skulls. We couldn't resist taking some pictures, but our fun was interrupted by some locals who had ventured into the forest to collect honey.

They informed our guides that a small herd of elephants was roaming a few kilometers away. Sensing danger, our guides decided to halt our journey to wait it out. One of our guides recounted a recent incident where a large herd of elephants had blocked the guides' path for over an hour and a half, resulting in the hike being canceled. Fortunately, after twenty minutes, we met some other locals who confirmed that the herd had moved on, and we could proceed to the pickup point.

Bamboo rafting at Periyar National Park

Once there, the guides divided us into two groups and assigned one raft per group. The rafting route was picturesque, running through the forest. The remnants of dead trees protruding from the lake created by the dam's construction added to the scenery. Despite our initial apprehension, rafting was a refreshing experience, with the cool breeze and sounds of birds and deer calls energizing us.

We spotted an island and were thrilled when the guides insisted we explore it, even though we were wary of being in the reserve's midst. However, we spotted tiger scratch marks on a tree trunk, which unnerved us, and we asked our guide how to react if we encountered a tiger or leopard. Our guide, once a poacher, chuckled and reassured us that he had never spotted a tiger or leopard in any hike during the twenty-two years of his forest service. Nevertheless, we remained cautious after seeing the marks.

After three hours of rafting, we returned to the pickup point without encountering any elephants or gaurs. Our guides, however, remained optimistic, and we weren't disappointed for long. Within an hour, we were awestruck by a big herd of gaurs grazing peacefully just few hundred meters away. If only we had seen them earlier, we would have stayed there more. Interestingly, earlier in the morning, we had made a stop at this very spot to have our breakfast.

A herd of Gaurs as seen in Periyar National Park

As we resumed our trek, our guides signaled us to lower our voices, and we saw a small herd of elephants - a calf and four adults, grazing a few hundred meters away. It was possibly the same herd that had blocked us earlier in the day. A stream separated us this time so we weren't in danger, and we marveled at the sight of the calf hiding in the tall grass while the adults protected it.

A herd of elephants as seen in Periyar National Park

We couldn't resist taking photos, but our guides advised us to switch off our camera flashlights to avoid startling the elephants. As evening approached, it started drizzling. We hurried along the same path and reached the boat landing by 1700 hrs.

This hike through the dense forest was an unforgettable experience. Seeing elephants in the wild, especially on foot, was a first for us, and we were in awe. We definitely want to revisit this place and do a night safari.

Pro tips:

  1. Travel light, wear full length pants and sturdy shoes, apply sunscreen lotion and carry first aid

  2. If there’s rain forecast, carry a light weight raincoat

  3. Avoid bright colored clothes. Prefer black, brown or green colored clothes that will easily blend in the surrounding

  4. The breakfast and lunch provided by the forest department may not be enough. Carry a 200 ml juice cartoon, fruits and sandwiches. (We were provided Stuffed Potato Paratha and Tropicana 200 ml juice for breakfast, buttermilk and rice for lunch.)

  5. The container provided by forest department is very heavy. Carry lightweight reusable plastic boxes and transfer the provided lunch and breakfast into your boxes

  6. Book tickets in advance at Eco tourism information center


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