Lake Palace - an experience at Thekkady
The sun was bright in the sky and the rippling water reflected it beautifully. The old cottage stood behind me giving a bit of shade from the scorching day. The grass felt soft under my palms as my hands rested on the ground, and I looked out in the distance across the lake. On the other side, a hill loomed with thick forest all over it. On top where it was a little less dense, I could spot a few animals standing and chewing on grass. I could barely make out their shapes from that distance. But I knew that they were bison, I had seen them earlier through binocular. A little diagonally from me, a patch of grassland cleared off of any trees sat next to the lake. A group of deer and wild boar roamed that land mingled into each other with a mix of harmony and indifference. There was also a lonely stork sitting at a little distance from the group. I couldn’t tell if it could fly, because it had barely moved from that spot in past one hour. But then again, so had I.
Maybe that’s what life was like out there – just being absorbed in the moment, becoming part of everything around you and moving only when absolutely necessary. As far as I was concerned, it was a perfect life. And it was as close as it could get to my dream of living in a forest.
The cottage that we were staying in was built during 1800s, supposed to be a summer palace for Travancore kings. Now it had been converted into a resort by KTDC. It wasn’t much of a palace though. Barely a cottage made of brick and wood, with five to six rooms and features resembling ethnic Kerala houses. A simple but pretty place. There was a small front yard to it, and the whole area was shaded by trees from all sides. At the backside of the cottage a small iron gate on a low boundary wall led directly into the forest, which spread across for miles beyond there. On the front side, the ground sloped down slowly reaching finally up to the lake. There were stairways made in two places to access the water, one of which was used for boat landing. That was the way we had come in.
We had actually arrived a day earlier, well into the morning. We started very late one night and landed in Kochi at 4:30 AM next day. Of course day is just semantics, the sky was still dark and there was no sign of dawn breaking in. The cab was booked in advance and soon we were huddled inside either sleeping or on our way to sleep as the car left airport and sped through the darkened city streets. I don’t have memory of leaving the city and starting our journey on the hilly roads, but the serpentine motion of the vehicle did manage to make its presence feel even on my sleeping mind. Once in a while I would open my eyes and look outside for any sign. It would either be some shallow forest or a house surrounded by trees and a few times I noticed empty town streets yet to wake up for the day.
A little after 9 we stopped for breakfast. A lonely restaurant at the edge of hill, only about 10 km before reaching the town. It took only 20 minutes to reach Thekkady from there. The small town started to appear around the road that we had been traveling on and soon we were driving down a busy town street. Among all the local things, I noticed a few souvenir shops representing the tourism side of Thekkady. And it grew more in number as we reached the gate of Periyar National Park. That’s where the town ended for us and the forest began. The gate was open as it was well before 5 PM, and I was surprized to find that our names were present with security to pass us through without any hitch. Inside, the road continued smoothly amongst the tall trees and frequent signboards bearing instructions and direction to boat landing point. And boat landing point is where we headed.
Periyar national park offers many programs for enjoying wildlife – forest walk, bamboo rafting, night trek and so on. But the most popular activity is boat safari. Every day morning & evening boats start from the north end of the lake (closest to the gate), carries people to its full capacity and takes them for a ride across the lake amongst birds and animals alike. Right beside where these boats start from, is a resort by KTDC called Aranya Nivas. That was the final destination for our vehicle. Beyond that cars would have been of no help to us as these two resorts are separated only by water body. So we left the car at parking of Aranya Nivas and informed the reception of our arrival. I don’t know what I expected, but I was pleasantly surprised to find ourselves walking down the road towards the lake accompanied by a hotel staff within ten minutes of our arrival. A boat was ready for us. Like that. A whole boat ready, just to take us to our resort. Oh how I looked down upon the whole boat safari at that point!
The place looked marvellous. I could see water on three sides of my vision and hills bordering this water. There was open blue sky above us with scattered white clouds and pleasant breeze on our skin. We boarded the boat and took seats in the front. And with that we started to bolt through the water and move ahead. There were remains of dead trees sticking out of the lake at places, which gave the lake a unique look. Some of those trees were occupied by bird nests and we could spot many cormorants flying just above water or sitting on a dead tree or inside their nests tending to the new born. And the hills on both sides continued with no sign of any human intervention.
After riding for about fifteen minutes we started heading towards a piece of land, which at first gave an impression of an island. But as we approached I could see the land turning and meeting the hills on my right with a branch of lake flowing in the middle. I still couldn’t quite see where we were heading as the resort view was completely sealed by the trees and only a patch of green ground was visible to indicate its presence.
The boat landed and we disembarked. Broad concrete stairs were made to lead the way up to the resort (or the cottage more aptly). I stopped at the head of the stairs and absorbed the scene. It was quite surreal. We were completely surrounded by forest and lake from every side. And through the silence of the place, you could still hear the sound of forest. Sound of wildlife. Maybe a swooping bird, or a distant call of monkey, or rustling of some trees nearby, or even a whizzing bee passing by quickly. And it was wonderful.
I know it could feel like being trapped in a place like that, constraint to the small area, left to your own devices with nothing to but observe the forest. But I didn’t feel that way. I felt quite liberated. Beautiful view, wonderful atmosphere, forest all around you and absolutely delicious food. What else could I ask for! And we did find a few ways to entertain us or keep ourselves busy.
In the evenings we took the boat safari, which was complimentary with our stay and delivered to our doorstep. The boat would start from the main point keeping a few seats empty, pick us up from the resort and after half an hour of ride, drop us back to the same place. We didn’t really see anything much during those rides, but it was still quite fun. We saw much more though during our jungle trek in the morning. We had booked it on the day of our arrival and were picked up next morning at 6:30 am and taken back to the main boat landing place. There they gave us gaiters to wear before taking us across a narrow branch of the lake on a bamboo raft. The gaiters were supposed to be for avoiding leeches, which we found in abundance through our trek inside the forest. Within fifteen minutes of walk they were all over my shoes and some even crawling upwards. The guide told us they would die once we reach higher ground with more sunlight. And so I held my breath and waited for that to start happening.
The forest was damp and dense. But apart from leeches there weren’t any challenges we faced. We saw a flying squirrel, which was bigger than I expected and saw some endangered species of monkey called Lion Tailed Macaque. The guide showed us many different types of trees and we spotted many interesting and camouflaging insects. The leeches did disappear as the sun came out, which was a blessing. From there on it was smoother walk. On our way back we took a route by the lake, keeping the forest to our right. We saw a lot of tadpoles in the water and once a snake swimming by. Cormorants were all around and we stopped paying attention to them. But we did see some other birds as well.
After the jungle trek we decided to go for cycling in the forest. We collected them from Aranya Nivas and went for a ride in the road we came by. When we were done and wanted to go back to our resort, a boat was ready for us again. By this point I was starting to feel a bit royal.
On the last evening we went to the backside stairs of the resort, where boats didn’t come and enjoyed the sunset from there. It was a beautiful sunset. We noticed the group of deer & boar, which had become too familiar to us by then, disappearing into the woods as the sky started to darken. We still sat there as long as we could until it got too dark to see anything. We enjoyed our last dinner and went to bed with an absolute sense of calmness. The sadness came over when the boat came to take us back the next morning. It was strange to feel so strongly about a place you have only been for a few days. But as I said before, it was a perfect life and I didn’t want it to end. So we left saying our goodbyes and making a silent promise to come back again.
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