So today it’s time to join me on the next leg of my Indian Odyssey. Time to leave Karnataka and start the journey of discovery through beautiful Kerala. Bring it on!
Time to head south, through vibrant towns and villages, past rice paddies and onion and spice fields with plenty of goats and cows along the way. We’d got quite used to the street cows in Karnataka and now we were being introduced to their country cousins – all privately owned – you can tell because they have a rope around their necks.
Travel is never fast in India, but it is endlessly fascinating. And challenging – in the countryside the overwhelming traffic and noise is replaced by narrow roads, fearless overtaking and ambling livestock with no sense of road etiquette. As we passed through the colourful town of Katikullam, our driver Vinish, announced “We have arrived in Kerala”. Welcome to God’s Own Country! First stop, Wayanad.
Wayanad is set high in the Western Ghats in north-east Kerala. This magnificent mountain range covers an area of 140,000 square kilometres traversing from Kerala to Gujarat in the north. It’s the land of misty mountains, dense forests, tea plantations, rice paddies and legendary spice gardens.
The peaceful greens of misty mountains
We headed steeply uphill along a bumpy, dusty road to our home for the next two days – Parson’s Tea Plantation. The ultimate in peace overlooking lush tropical forests and verdant tea bushes. Tea was introduced to India in 1830 and Parson’s still uses some of the original equipment, dating back to the time of the British Raj, to harvest its 402 acres of tea garden. I love my tea and somehow it tasted even better in India.
The royal plantation houses, home to the original tea farmers have been renovated and are the perfect haven to explore this incredible region from.
We enjoyed personal service and the freshest of local food cooked specially for us. Like this feast of green beans and coconut, luscious dhal, chicken curry, hot, fresh poppadums and fresh sliced tomato and cucumber sprinkled with pepper.
As well as being the ideal place for a real get-away-from-it-all, revive your soul sort of experience, there’s also plenty to see in the area.
Our journey took us from the land of tea, through incredible coffee plantations shaded by teak and betel nut trees, rubber plantations (weird to think that rubber comes from a tree), expansive rice paddies (who knew rice paddies were so beautiful) and of course the ever-present bananas and coconuts. Kerala translated means Coco Land – and these amazingly versatile fruits grow everywhere in abundance. We also saw cashew nut trees, which I got very excited about, and our first glimpse of Wayanad’s famous peppercorns which grow on creepers covering the trees of the forest. Who knew?
The climb to ancient Edekkal
Our destination – the fascinating Edekkal Caves. These are no ordinary caves! Firstly they are one of the oldest signs of human settlement in the world – and secondly you have to climb a long way to get up to them. I always thought caves were an underground thing…clearly not.
There’s a 20-minute walk uphill past market stores and more mischievous monkeys until the main gate where you ascend 250 man-made steps, which are more like a ladder than any staircase I’ve encountered, and probably the steepest ladder ever.
The cave at the top is formed from two enormous curved rocks with their surfaces covered with ancient wall carvings. The were discovered by an English explorer in 1896. How he stumbled upon them is a total mystery to me…
The oldest carvings are said to date back 4,500 years with later works from around 1,500 years ago. They include pre-tamil and sanskrit written language in the form of a poem telling the story of the local maharaja who protected his people from tigers. How I love that this tale is still being read over 4,000 years after it was written.
The calm of Pookot Lake
From ancient history to more natural beauty. Pookot Lake is a large freshwater lake surrounded by stunning mountains and evergreen forests. It’s a popular destination for local people to take some time out and relax and as it was Christmas Day the place was buzzing with happiness, with the lake full of smiling faces pedalloing (I think I may have invented a new word) their boats on the mirror-calm surface.
The road to Calicut
An early morning start meant leaving Wayanad and climbing the steep, winding road through the Western Ghats towards Calicut. An incredible journey with some hair-raising traffic encounters (part of every road trip in India), past myriad pineapple plantations clinging gallantly to the slopes. We ascended to 700 metres above sea level before taking the route downhill along narrow roads with all manner of vehicles jostling for position.
Until we reached Calicut – also known as Kozhikode. It’s the second biggest city in Kerala and an important spice trading centre. Vasco da Gama landed here in 1498 in his search for said spices – quite some feat which is commemorated by a very underwhelming plaque. Poor Vasco, I feel he deserved more!
The train to Ernakulam Junction
From Calicut we boarded the train to head for our next destination – Cochin. Rail travel in India is an incredible experience from the minute you wend your way through the bustling stations with the longest of platforms (some of the trains have over 20 large carriages), to the constant stream of vendors on board, serving everything from chai to samosas and ice creams. And it’s a fast way to get around. Next stop Cochin (Kochi) and the exotic-sounding Ernakulam Junction. A world away from my daily commute through that other Junction – Clapham. Can you spot the train’s air conditioning?
Historic, multicultural Cochin
Cochin is the biggest city in Kerala and has a rich and ancient heritage. You’re following in a lot of people’s footsteps as you explore. It’s been home to the Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Jewish and Arab traders and has been annexed and ruled by the Dutch, Portuguese and British. Obviously a desirable place! This means multiple influences and churches for all religions, temples, mosques and even a synagogue, all harmoniously co-existing. Learn the lesson, humanity!
A truly fascinating, bustling and unique city which is also home to the dhobi khana (public laundry), where everything is washed by hand (extremely vigorously, too), put out to dry in the yard and ironed using massive, traditional smoothing irons.
No trip to Kochi is complete without experiencing the Kathakali. India’s very own form of opera with dramatic (and often brutal) stories, told by characters in elaborate costumes. What a spectacle.
On the road again
Love a bit of vibrant city living and I could certainly have stayed longer in beautiful Cochin. But it was time to go in search of spices…those magical spices that fill my kitchen cupboard have to come from somewhere and I was longing to visit them at home. And I didn’t have to wait long! Very soon into our drive we passed nutmeg trees before starting our ascent. And what an ascent it turned out to be.
Kerala was devastated by floods in August 2018. Over 300 people died, many crushed under debris caused by landslides. A huge amount of homes were destroyed and the rubber, tea, coffee and spice plantations inundated with water. A lot of the roads were also washed away (or half washed away) as we were about to discover. Not so much fun when you’re high in the mountains, drops are precipitous, and there are hurtling buses and reckless overtaking all around you! I was constantly surprised how the traffic chaos works – we didn’t see one accident in our whole journey. Nothing short of miraculous!
The mountains of magical Munnar
This part of the Western Ghats is so ruggedly beautiful with spectacular waterfalls, burbling rivers and the densest of jungle on all sides.
Our destination: Munnar, Southern India’s largest tea-producing area with plantations over 100 years old. The vivid greens take your breath away and bright yellow tractors piled high with freshly picked tea leaves trundle down the hill to the factory. Everything feels right with the world in this tea wonderland.
As well as tea, coffee and cardamom are grown in abundance here. The fertility of the fields and orchards is a sight to behold and the lush mistiness of the valleys adds an ethereal beauty.
Our super-spicy Thekkady sojourn
Now we’re heading deep into spice land – along some particularly hairy roads with large chunks missing that had clearly been swept deep into the valley by the flood, passing myriad cardamom plantations. It’s one of my favourite spices and it wasn’t growing the way I thought it would be. Don’t know what I was expecting – a cardamom tree? Kind of like an olive tree perhaps? Instead it grows bamboo-style with the aromatic pods on stalks at the base of the plant. It’s a really beautiful sight.
Thekkady is total spice heaven. I was blown away by it – every spice you can possibly desire and incredible aromas to inhale. We ambled among nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and all-spice trees, examined ginger and turmeric tubers deep in the soil and curry leaf bushes, all under a constant canopy of green peppercorns, clinging to creepers winding up every tree.
As well as all this, Thekkady is home to banana, coconut and coffee plantations. Is there nothing that doesn’t grow here?
I want to live in such superlative spice land. Next best thing, stock up in the local Spice Supermarket. Possibly my favourite shop ever with huge sacks of fresh spices which are weighed and packaged for you. I didn’t hold back. My top discovery – the little pink nutmeg flowers you can see near the bottom right of the picture. Pink flowers that smell and taste of nutmeg (because they are nutmeg)! Yes, really.
Here are my purchases ready for some Keralan experimentation in the kitchen at home.
What a week and what an introduction to Kerala. More than living up to my expectations. Oh and we still have no stomach issues. I’m starting to wonder why I spent all that money in Boots “just in case”.
I am sharing my story with you in the chronological order we discovered Southern Indian. And there’s a lot more still to see. Next time, it’s all about the Keralan waters – from backwaters to beaches. Watch this space.
We organised our incredible Indian Odyssey with the help of the experts at Eastravel.