Why do you ski?

By Stuart Elliott and Sharon Tickle

It’s the kind of question put to companions to fill spaces between downhill runs. If nothing else, snow skiing provides endless opportunity for idle chat; long, slow double chair lifts, thirty minute sardine queues for the Lagazuoi cable car, and double bubble rides. At some point someone is going to ask, ‘Why do you ski?’ A simple, personal question requiring reflection to answer honestly.

Now, trapped as we are in a mountain refuge in a whiteout at 2413 metres, weather Italians describe succinctly as ‘Brutta’ (ugly), this is the perfect time to answer that question.

 

Why He Skis:

The eternal beauty of the mountains enhanced by the purity of the whiteness of the snow glistening in the sun. The contrast of the strong colours of sky, snow and trees. The unwavering solidity of the rock.

Floating and dancing amongst such beauty is uplifting for the soul, awe inspiring and joyful. 

 

The sense of being on the edge. But what does this mean? It is the thrill of speed, the potential danger, the adrenalin rush.

 

Then there is the sense of freedom, of almost being released from one’s body, gliding. It’s probably the closest I’ll get to being a bird which I hope to return as in my next life.

 

But the complete skiing experience for me in my latter years includes the welcoming and warming mountain huts with their panoramic views, sun decks and hospitality. 

 

As with most experiences in life, all of the above is enhanced by sharing it with loved ones and friends.

Why She Skis:

 

My answer has changed slightly over the thirty-plus years I’ve been hurling myself down mountains. At first it was a key part of our courtship. Skiing was something Stuart did as a winter holiday in Europe when he could afford to. He was 25 and I was 20 when we met. He’d already been skiing fifteen years and I had only ever water-skiied in Australia, but I was game to try. 

 

Of course it didn’t always go smoothly, I’m a hard person to teach and bad weather skiing is testing for any relationship. But weather it we did. I love speed and the exhilaration of being constantly on the edge of disaster is addictive.

 

Ski holidays a deux became ski holidays a quatre as Stuart inducted our sons into alpine holidays. When they became teenagers and more proficient than me I took a step back and encouraged father and son excursions. Both boys loved boarding and skiing and went on to make their own adventures with few, but precious opportunities for skiing en famille.

 

There came a time in my fifties when I had to make a decision whether I would ever ski again.  The economic benefits to communities and whole cities of skiing are indisputable, but the environmental practices and impacts troubled me. Stuart still wanted to ski and with semi-retirement he had even more time to do so. We reached a compromise. Most years I would ski with him one or two weeks and he found ski buddies to ski with more often.

 

My answer now to the question, ´Why do you ski?’ is essentially the same, but with a twist. I ski because I still enjoy spending time with my husband doing what he loves best in the world besides motorcycling (which I choose not to do with him any more – that’s another story), but I have also grown to love skiing more for its own sake.

Every day, every hour, every slope is different. Each time I point my skis downhill is an opportunity to lean down the mountain and submit to gravity, not knowing what will happen next. Time stops. Thinking stops. Responding refexly starts. I try to meld my body with boots and skis and let them find the best way to navigate a route down (without coming into contact with any other skiier!).

 

Most days there will be at least one run that opens the floodgates of joy, that fleeting feeling of intense happiness. Duende. 

 

One morning this week we happened on the perfect black run (normally I only take black runs when absolutely necessary). Incline, snow quality, few other skiers and great visibility. Perfection. 

 

We skiied it three times in quick succession and each time I came as close to flying as an earthbound person can get. I could have stayed and played there all day…..

We skiied the Dolomites again this season. It’s hard to better Italian hospitality, vast, well maintained ski areas and the staggering grandeur of their mountains. The first week we stayed in our favourite Ortizei hotel, The Albion, then in the second week we met up with Australian friend, Michael, in Cortina D’ampezzo to stay in his favourite hotel for three nights, the Menardi, then moved up to the top of Mt Averau four nights in a rifugio at 2413 metres.

We had a mix of glorious sunshine the first week then more unsettled weather the second that deteriorated to a 24 hour blizzard which kept us all off the slopes. The fresh snow next morning was delicious! The difference between icy corduroy and powder is like nails on a blackboard versus the touch of silk.

Unfortunately Stuart hurt his low back pulling off a sudden avoidance manouvre on day eight and, although he got treatment at the rifugio (his therapist, Piero, arrived on skies with his collapsible table) and in Cortina, his back wasn’t stable enough to go on ski safari with Michael as planned for the third week. Hence he is here in Edinburgh with me making more happy memories with the Scottish side of the family. The wee lassie is just over ten months now and a bundle of joy.

Piero Fabrici, the very mobile therapist.

 Goodbye, finally, to Stuart’s very heavy, very long Rossignols!

Pops on duty in Edinburgh.

Driving in India Revisited

Bonus blog post by Stuart Elliott.

I write this from the back of a Nissan Sunny as a distraction from being scared witless by what unfolds in front of me. We are on a six-hour journey from Kochi to Parambikulam Tiger Reserve up in the hills of Tamil Nadu. Personally I was very happy enjoying the delights of the Taj Malabar, but thats how it goes…And apparently we have a purpose so alls good, except…..

 

The Indian road statistics are sobering; a death every 4 minutes. Having said that there are more dangerous places in the world on a per head of population basis.

Selvan, our careful driver, with Sharon in the front seat.

What is astonishing is that there are not more accidents. Indians are ace at putting themselves into dangerous situations and then extracting themselves, and all without road rage. (two Royal Enfield motorcycles have just passed us on the wrong side of the road ridden by Indian hipsters – no helmets of course. As someone put it to me we dont need road rules, the safest way to drive is to find a space and go for it by whatever means, which always involves leaning heavily on the horn, in a Hi Im here sort of a way. Hooting doesnt mean what it does elsewhere; it means you, the vehicle or cow, are occupying the space which I want to occupy, and which I will occupy within seconds, regardless that it would appear, to any sane person, that there is no opportunity to overtake. (We just drove over a field of rubble as a short cut.)

Road surfaces are interesting. Generally they are in reasonable shape, but in some areas they dont bother repairing the road; its just like at home in Byron Bay, where in order to affect traffic calming you just leave holes and undulations in the road.

 

Entering a main road from a side road is unique. If on a 2 wheeler or tuk tuk, looking to see what is coming requires too much effort, so you just pull out and assume that nobody will knock you over. 

 

Meanwhile the best thing to do with a helmet is, in order of preference:

-Not have one

-Carry it somewhere on your bike but not on your head

-Use it as a means of supporting your phone; a sort of hands free device for motorcyclists

-Wear it without the chin strap

-Use it as a football

Most dangerous situation witnessed? On a two lane highway, a clapped out 30 plus year old bus, clearly driven by a dope head, overtaking a car overtaking a truck with a scooter approaching in the opposite direction. I think sometimes they live in an alternative universe and this isnt really unfolding in front of me. So I take a deep yoga breath and silently Om it away. Meanwhile somehow the impending disaster has been averted.

 

Roundabouts; well heres the thing. In most countries you either go round them clockwise or anti-clockwise. In these parts however if theres not too much traffic you just take the shortest route.

We had the misfortune of observing, from our hotel balcony, driving tests. They were being conducted on the local oval with the invigilator standing in the middle under an umbrella; not exactly confidence inspiring.

Most dangerous for us (so far)? Well I have no idea because I am either cowering in the back seat or averting my eyes in the front, admiring the normally immaculate and colourful saris worn by women sitting sidesaddle on the back of motorcycles. But the worst I noticed was approaching a blind right angled bend with solid walls on either side of what, in Oz, we would consider a busy road. Incidentally and relevant to this situation they dont do pavements in Kerala. We were behind, for once, a conservatively driven bus. So we had to overtake it didnt we? What was coming round the corner in the opposite direction was only an expendable motorcyclist. So that was okay then. (Someone please remind me never to ride a motorbike in India.)

We are now driving through a rural village at 50 km/hr with bikes and tuk tuks flying around everywhere, a truck up my arse hooting at us, a bus in front and our driver on the wrong side of the road preparing oncoming vehicles for our overtaking manoeuvre. Oops forget that, a tuk tuk just came out of a side road and… a car appeared from nowhere overtaking us and….

 

I think Ill just get back to my cowering with a purpose.

Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, Kerala, India: Just Monkeying Around

Part six of our six-part Kerala adventure.

With a stable population of 37 tigers, Kerala’s Parambikulam Tiger Reserve is doing well by its big cats. A relatively new reserve of 391 square kilometres, established in 2010, it encompasses three large man-made reservoirs and healthy teak, rosewood, neem and sandalwood forests. Its oldest known teak tree, at 465 years, has been listed as an Indian ‘Great Tree’.

The approach taken to tiger conservation here, which combines ecotourism with tribal community involvement, isn’t unique in India, but it is certainly heading in the right direçtion.

Rather than ring fence the reserve, demarcate a buffer zone between problematic animals (tigers, elephants, gaur and sloth bears), then allow farming and dwellings outside the buffer zone as many other tiger sanctuaries do, the original four indigenous tribes of 2,000 people live in the buffer zone and work to maintain the environment, roads, undertake fire prevention and run the tourism activities and accommodation. And whereas many other tiger reserves fall under the sole management of the Forestry Department, Parambikulam is managed by a group with representatives from all the relevant state departments plus two representatives from the tribes.

 

According to our guide, Jimmy, there haven’t been any attacks by tigers on humans here as they have plenty of prey with healthy numbers of gaur, sambar and cheetal. Sloth bears, gaur and elephants on the other hand pose a danger to tourists who leave their vehicles or wander far from their accommodation.Jimmy and Stuart

 

Under the compact tribal people are able to continue their traditional fishing and gathering to extract value from the land, but each family must have at least one member employed in some capacity. No outside workers are allowed onto the reserve except with special permission. We met indigenous guides, drivers, cooks, labourers, dancers and musicians.

On arriving at the reserve gates after a hair-raising five-hour drive from Cochin we had to first pass through the Tamil Nadu section of the reserve, called Anamalai. Foreigners must reserve accommodation and supply their passport details in advance. At the gate they are checked in by a Tamil Nadu official and pay vehicle and admission fees plus a camera fee (fees are less for Indian nationals). A few kilometres down the road the process is repeated when we pass into Kerala. Essentially if you want to go to Parambikulam you have to pay for Anamalai too as there is no other way in.

I am happy to pay to support the people and creatures of Anamalai and Parambikulam, but I would appreciate being able to drive on an actual road and not on a series of potholes and craters. Most of the single lane entry road needs resurfacing. This is under way but judging by what we saw it will take years to complete. With an average speed of 10k it took another hour to get to the accommodation office then fifteen minutes further to our treehouse. If I go back it will be by helicopter.

Our package comprised two nights accommodation in a basic but serviceable en suite treehouse built on three teak trees beside the lake.

We discovered later this treehouse was the premier accommodation. It pays to book well in advance (Suresh did this for us but you can book single nights online).

All meals were supplied by a lovely couple who cooked for us in a small building across the road. We also had the 24-hour services of a guide, 54-year-old Jimmy who has been guiding for 35 years. Actually Jimmy proved to be more of a minder who made sure we didn’t do the wrong thing or wander off in the dark.

On the first afternoon we took the afternoon bus safari with a load of other tourists on a set route. Besides an eagle-eyed driver we had a guide and four other strong fellows on board. They found us cheetal, elephants, gaur, sambar, giant squirrel, Nilgiri langurs, Bonnet macaques and wild boar. Most of these were some distance away and well camouflaged in the forest, but we all got to glimpse them. No tigers, leopards or jungle cats.

February is well into the dry season, a time when the big cats are deep in the forest. With so much water accessible and plentiful prey they have no need to come anywhere near tourists. Jimmy told us November-December is the best time to visit as the land is green and you can hear the tigers mating.

 

After passing several viewpoints we were dropped by the water’s edge for a bamboo rafting experience at sunset. This involved walking onto a flat raft of lashed bamboo with two bench seats built onto it and stations for four rowers, hence the four extra men. They rowed us around in a circle for forty minutes telling us about the crocodiles that inhabit the lake (translated by some kind, English-speaking Indians present) and the elephants that swim to the island, then dropped us back at the same spot where the guide gave us tea in tiny paper cups and a digestive biscuit.

We had another hour and a half of driving with the guide shining his spotlight into the verges, but no other animals were sighted.

 

The rest of the evening and night passed unremarkably, however I did have an odd experience with my face oil. We’d been instructed to put snack food items inside a wall compartment that had mesh on one side and a glass window on the other. We assumed that was to keep monkeys at bay. We hadn’t reckoned on ants.

 

I went to apply face oil after a shower and found large ants had gnawed away the rubber stopper from the pipette. Having destroyed the rubber they showed no interest in eating the oil so I thought it was safe to keep the glass bottle on the floor until I could decant it into another container. Next evening after returning from safari I found my bed sheet and the floor around the bottle covered in teeny tiny biting ants. It took me a good thirty minutes to get rid of them.

The morning activity was listed as a bird watching walk. At 6:30am we duly waited for Jimmy and at 6:45am he came down rubbing sleep from his eyes. He led us back up the road we’d driven in on. Masses of birds were calling, creating a symphony of birdsong. Most of them were high in the trees and too small to see without field glasses (which neither Jimmy nor we had). We soon became aware that this was a bird listening walk rather than a bird watching walk. We did spot racquet-tailed drongos, a kingfisher, jungle fowl, jungle warbler, mynah, and peacocks and heard a woodpecker and cuckoo. 

 

We walked a couple of K to the nearest village where Jimmy has his home and he led us past his neighbours’ houses. The huts are small and one I could see inside had a dirt floor with a mat in the centre. The villagers seemed unperturbed by us wandering through in the middle of their ablutions, but we were disturbed to hear the groans of a woman in pain coming from a hut with its door shut. Jimmy said she probably had a fever. It sounded worse than that. Three doctors staff a central healthcare centre and visit the seven villages on a weekly rotation.

Jimmy was proud of the new primary school which seemed well built if rather hot with its tiny, barred windows. School is 9am-4pm with a morning break and lunch break. All three of Jimmie’s children went away to high school and college. Now his daughters, his granddaughter and his wife live in Cochin while his son is on a sports scholarship in Trivandrum.

No other activities were scheduled for us until the same kind of safari in the afternoon so we just took it easy and at lunch time I watched the cooks making chapatis and poppadoms over a wood fire (the rest of the food is prepared on a gas cooker). How they don’t burn themselves is a mystery to me.

Stuart found the bumping and lurching of the bus too hard on his back so chose to miss the second safari trip. When I went to wait for the bus outside the treehouse I found we were penned in our room by a tribe of Bonnet Macaques. They’d been looking for ways to get inside and were playing with the verandah furniture and a plastic bottle they’d extracted from the bin. The young ones dispersed when Stuart waved a towel at them, but their large male leader just bared his teeth and wouldn’t budge.

There is no mobile phone signal in the reserve so I couldn’t call Jimmie for help and he wouldn’t hear us shouting. It was time to channel my inner lion tamer. I picked up a cane chair from the verandah and holding it in front of me forced the macaque to back away as I moved forward. He gave up ground reluctantly even with much shouting and baring of teeth by me. I finally got him down the stairs and managed to get past him to high tail it up to Jimmy’s hut where he was sleeping soundly. When Jimmy saw the male macaque, which had taken up a position on the verandah again, he realised I wasn’t fussing about nothing and fetched two long cane sticks. With the sticks in one hand to keep the monkey at a distance, he pelted it with small stones he picked up off the ground. It took him at least fifteen minutes to move the male and the rest of his tribe along. My bus was late so I was able to admire Jimmy’s skill.Back in sole occupancy of the treehouse.

 

The second safari was exactly the same route and routine as the first (and I saw all the same animals again plus a river fishing owl) but with the addition of a tribal music and women’s dance performance in the community hall. Of course I leapt at the opportunity to dance with them when invited. A four-year-old Indian girl wanted to be on stage with them and seemed mesmerised by their circle dancing, happily standing in the centre for several dances.

The bus was fuller the second time, mostly with a group of French tourists led by an experienced French guide who was on his tenth annual visit to Parambikulam. I had to ask him how many tigers he’d seen in that time. The answer was as I had come to expect. None. The only place I would see a Parambikulam tiger would be on a camera trap.

 

There didn’t seem any point waiting around for breakfast before departing next day and Selvan was happy to make an early start on the six-hour return journey to Cochin.

 

Nothing exciting presented itself until we were in Anamalai when suddenly a russet brown creature the size of a house cat with a bushy tail shot across the road. It was a vulnerable (population less than 1,000 and decreasing) Nilgiri Marten that was a split second from becoming our road kill.

PS The food stops en route to and from the reserve were highlights – we ate delicious dosa and idli at the same roadhouse for the equivalent of AUD3 total each meal. And have a look at the size of the dosa!

 

Cochin, Kerala, India: Mattancherry

Part five of our six-part Kerala adventure.

By guest author, Stuart Elliott.

Looking out from the balcony of our sixth floor bridal suite in the Taj Malabar Hotel (no idea how we scored that!) and viewed through my less than 20/20 vision eyes, Cochin or Kochi by its old name, could be mistaken for the lagoons of Venice. This view I should add is a far cry from our previous accommodation in an antinfested, mosquitoridden bambo and reed treehouse surrounded by marauding monkeys. But I digress….

Closer inspection of Mattancherry and Fort Kochi unveils an eclectic mix of old Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture mixed amongst some modern, mainly nondescript, modern buildings and older tatty structures. 

The streets are unusually clean on the main tourist thoroughfares, but veer off the beaten track and you are greeted with the more common Indian street decoration of discarded plastic and other detritus, along with herds of goats, albeit healthy looking ones. Tourists are entreated to enter the myriad of Aladdins dens. There are also plenty of government regulated shops selling all manner of exotic goods. On this occasion we restrained ourselves.

The non shopping tourist trail includes the Synagogue, with its Delft inspiring blue tiles and inadequate numbers of Jews to perform traditions without Hindu ringins, the Dutch Palace with interesting works from the 17th century onwards, a rather dull Portuguese cathedral which both the Dutch and British decided not to destroy in deference to possible divineretribution and the inimitable Chinese fishing nets. The latter are a lazy way of fishing; attach a large net to a Derrick, let it sink and every now and then winch it up. I am hoping the one small part of a fish which I ate did not emerge from these odiferous waters. Having said that, porpoises populate the harbour and fish abound in the back waters which feed into the harbour, which incidentally is home to Indias second largest port.

Women sorting drying ginger (above) and door to door seafood salesman (below).

What is not immediately obvious to the casual observer is thatCochin is a small part of what is shown as Kochi on most maps. The new town of Ernakulam is far larger and the commercial hub of the 30 million strong Kerala state. 

 

Kerala is home to a surprising number of sundry types of Christians, as well as Muslims and Hindus, who all seem to get along with great tolerance. We met any number of smiling, delightful well-educated people from many walks of life. Kochi has to be one of the top spots to live in India. Sadly our next visit, should we be so lucky, will not involve the bridal suite of the ultra luxe Taj Malabar.

Photos by Sharon Tickle, taken with the permission of the humans involved.

Kumarakom, Kerala, India: One of my Less Clever Choices

Part four of our six-part Kerala adventure.

This is going to be a shortish post. Parents admonish their children with, “If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all”. Our Kumarakom experience fits that category. My fault. I chose the location and hotel based on glowing internet reviews and photos.

Until they clean up their act give Tharavadu Heritage Home in Kumarakom a wide berth. More importantly don’t visit the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary. I won’t give you chapter and verse of the shortcomings of both. Suffice to say we bailed after one night to go to Cochin early.

Lest you think us cutting and running had anything to do with the two-day Murugan Hindu festival at Sree Kumaramangalam Temple on the opposite canalside, it didn’t. Despite the loudspeaker volume being cranked up to defcon five and firecrackers like cannons going off night and day we would have stayed otherwise. Sleeping pills work a charm for both of us in situations like that.

And whilst I abhor the use of hobbled elephants on these occasions, I can see the beauty in the rituals and respect the genuine reverence of many of the worshippers.

If you do go to Kumarakom rent a small, quiet boat in the early morning or late afternoon to birdwatch on the lake and waterways. That way you might actually see the migratory birds the area is famous for.

Stuart’s report on Cochin up next!

PS Mr Suresh managed (without being asked) to get us a full refund on the night we did not stay at Tharavadu HH. Much appreciated.

Alleppey/Allapuzha and Overnighting on a Houseboat in the Backwaters

Part Three of our Six-Part Kerala Adventure.

 

This may be oversharing, but the reason I have time to scribble and publish this is because I’m confined to barracks while Stu goes off gallivanting around Fort Kochi with Mr Selvan and our guide, Susan, for the afternoon. Stu suffered a dodgy tummy a couple of days ago and today it’s my turn. Nothing as punishing as Pushkar, but still risky. I’m quite content lying here in my room with a water view counting the Brahminy Kites a couple of metres away.

The next leg of the trip took us back up north. Four gruelling hours from Pulinkudi to Alleppey with one ten minute toilet and drink stop. Mr Selvan is a good driver, but one of us is obliged to sit up front as only one of the rear seat belts works. That person is also tasked with being additional eyes and ears and to ensure Mr Selvan stays awake.

Wedged between the Arabian Sea and inland waterways flowing from giant Lake Vembanad, Alleppey as it’s still commonly known (despite the official name change), warrants at least an overnight stay. Our evening coincided with St Valentine’s Day. Following a recommendation we walked to Avocado Cafe to be greeted with rose and chrysanthemum petals, fairy lights and a special romantic menu (all of it unsuitable for vegans). No matter they cooked something yummy for us. The hip, young staff were delightful and seemed amused that we chose to spend the time whilst waiting for our meal playing Sequence. After 40 plus years together we know what works.

We stayed in a well-run small heritage hotel, Raheem Residency, with original features dating from 1868. It once enjoyed a perfect location opposite a wide public beach, however the National Government saw fit to build a massive concrete flyover running right along that stretch of coast. When it becomes operational the area will be far less salubrious. Progress?

Our room was the Begum’s Nook which looked onto a small courtyard. It would have belonged to the highest ranked woman in the household. Stuart fell in love with its crushed velvet drapes, barley twist teak bed posts and sculpture.

Behind the hotel and visible from the roof terrace restaurant a large open space is used variously and sometimes concurrently as a car and motorcycle driving school, a cricket pitch and a football field.

Alleppey’s temples, cathedral, markets and street life are easily explored on foot and by tuk tuk. Our random tuk tuk driver, Titus, was as good as any guide. I was intrigued by worshippers at a Ganesh Temple who smash blessed young coconuts as part of their Hindu prayer ritual. If you don’t want to smash the coconut yourself for fear of messing your clothes you can, for a fee, outsource it to someone else.

Which leads me to our less than ideal experience on a house boat overnight. Ours was to be a private ‘premium riceboat’, a modernised replica of the flat wood bottomed boats with cabins made from woven rice stalks, called Kettuvallum, that once carried rice and spice cargo around the waterways between Kochi, Kuttanad and other loading points.

The boat itself was seaworthy and the bedroom and ensuite bathroom modest but serviceable. The two crew were also pleasant and tried to be helpful, despite some communication problems. Certainly Biju, the young captain, was very accommodating in letting me drive the boat on the river and Francis, the cook, produced a creditable vegan lunch and dinner.

The issue I had with the crew was that at no point did they point out any safety features, talk about what to do in the event of an emergency, and they were generally neglectful of health and safety matters. I’ve been in too many boats. If a thing can go wrong, eventually it will go wrong so plan for it. It especially concerns me that families with young children hire these boats.

 

The overnight routine is that all boats (and there are 2,500 operational houseboats carrying two to 24 passengers) cast off at about 2pm from various points near adjoining roads and closely follow, as in a convoy a bit like a period war movie, down the river mouth into the lake. Thence they diesel motor across the lake at a tangent and up another tributary.

At 5pm they tie up fender to fender bow on to a narrow muddy bank. Biju rafted us to another boat from the same company which had a shoreline out. That boat had a flimsy lashed bamboo plank to clamber ashore. Power was supplied by a jerry-rigged point onshore.

Having navigated the prow and walked the plank we wandered down the bank a distance as the sun started to set over rice fields.

It felt intrusive strolling past what was effectively economically disadvantaged people’s back gardens and bathrooms and the litter was disturbing. We soon turned back.

This lovely family from another boat asked us to join them in their group photo and were happy to let me snap this.

The houseboats don’t have a licence to serve alcohol, however Biju obligingly legged it to a shop and bought Stuart a large bottle of beer to accompany his dinner. Kingfisher of course!

We were fortunate in our neighbours. Once the amplified music from a nearby Hindu temple festival finished at about 10pm all was quiet.

 

The loveliest moment was dawn when everyone else was sleeping and we could watch the sky turn pink. Moments later the crimson sun slid up through the palm trees on the riverbank opposite.

All in all it saddens me to say it’s not an experience we would recommend. I haven’t even touched on the fact that none of the boats have toilet flush holding tanks.

 

Obviously we are not the first to highlight these problems, but thus far it seems to be a case of NATO, Talk Only No Action.

Maybe one could find a company somewhere with robust eco-credentials that works a well cared for patch of the backwaters in partnership with the local people, but to us it was just depressing to see how poorly managed this precious resource is. Right now I feel the cultural chasm is too wide for this to be possible since tourists, including us, share the blame for the current situation.

 

An illustrative incident happened at afternoon tea time when we asked Francis for a cup of tea. Some thirty minutes later he climbed up to the upper deck with a tray on which were two small cups of black tea and a plate of french fries. Stuart pronounced it the perfect tea time snack. Ubiquitous, bold crows were keen to sample the fries too and kept hopping closer. I clapped my loudest flamenco clap to scare them off and suddenly Francis popped his head back up the staircase. ‘Yes Madam?’

 

He quickly understood we weren’t clapping to call him, but what a cultural difference that act highlighted. 

 

Niraamaya Surya Samudra Retreat, Pulinkudi, Southern Kerala, India

Trigger Warning: If you gag at descriptions of luxury resorts back away now.

Part two of our six-part Kerala adventure is dedicated to Ayurvedic wellness with some natural and man-made history thrown in. 

 

Our base for three nights, Niraamaya Surya Samudra Retreat, perches above a semi-private beach. Built originally as a residence, subsequent owners transformed and expanded the house and gardens into an immaculate lush tropical paradise with 33 rooms in villas and heritage bungalows. A spectacular infinity pool hugs the granite cliff and a world class Ayurvedic spa is tucked away in its own oasis of calm.

An eagle greeted our arrival and dropped a feather by a fountain as it drank. I took it as a good omen and so it was. Scores more eagles and Brahminy Kites wheel and swoop overhead hunting fish and small creatures.

Our room is heritage-style, lots of dark wood, brass, and an outdoor garden bathroom with two showers (one open to the sky and one glassed in). Each evening staff waft anti-insect incense through the room and when we return from dinner our mosquito net has been dropped and the bed turned down.

One small niggle, I’d found it impossible to make treatment reservations prior to arrival. Emails went unanswered and a phone call got me no further than reservations, so the first order of business was a visit to spa reception for a chat with resident Ayurveda specialist Dr Accamma. She advised different daily afternoon treatments that slotted in neatly with our two half-day excursions.

Mornings began with green tea and dawn meditation before the 7am yoga class instructed by Mr Ayyappan, the singing guru. In a mellifulous bass more suited to a cocktail bar than a yoga class, he crooned a progressive relaxation that included, ‘Relax your hair, your hair is relaaaxed’.

The reward for our asanas and pranayamas was a glass of fresh watermelon juice and an a la carte Indian or Western breakfast (included in the room rate) at the terrace restaurant overlooking the pool and beach. The daily morning show was two sets of fishermen hauling in vast nets. Their catch seemed disproportionately meagre for their effort, but it ended up being sold by the roadside within the hour.

Our first excursion was 45 minutes down the coast to Poovar for a birdwatching boat trip on the Neyyar River. We were just the two of us plus trusty Mr Selvan and our local guide, John. It was fortunate indeed that Mr Selvan came too or it would have been Stuart helping John push the boat through the muddy shallows for 45 minutes. We’d struck an extra low tide.

Bird life is prolific here; snake birds and cormorants dive, herons and egrets wade, while more raptors soar above and masses of brilliant blue and rust-coloured kingfishers dart about the banks.

Our second outing was a little more adventurous. The largest intact wooden palace in Asia, Padmanabhapuram, is located at the base of The Western Ghats (mountains) in Tamil Nadu, 48 kilometres away. Padmanabhapuram was built in 1601 as the capital of the Travancore Hindu kingdom.

Crossing the state line required paperwork for the vehicle and us in triplicate that added half an hour to the 90 minute journey. Teak carving and intricate slatted galleries, gardens and sculptures made the effort worthwhile.

Some of the exhibits were chilling, such as this human restraint, used for people sentenced to a slow, agonising death by incarceration in the device. They were placed in an open, public space, where they died of dehydration and/or attacks by animals and birds. The practice was only stopped ‘on the arrival of the Britishers’.

I should at this point congratulate Southern Kerala on the tidyness of its streets and the generally law abiding citizens we encountered. Smoking in all public places is illegal, and we didn’t see a single beggar, drunk, few stray dogs and zero stray cats. Even more surprising was the total absence of loose cows wandering around, so common in many others parts of India. The few cattle we did see were either penned, being bathed or being led carefully down the footpath.

Southern Kerala has joined the ‘Must Return’ list. Niraamaya Surya Samudra Retreat is only half an hour south of Trivandrum Airport which has a direct flight from Dubai with Emirates. Three nights was ideal for us (and our budget) but it’s quite common for guests to come from Europe for a weeklong package.

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t mention the blot on Niraamaya’s landscape. The scourge of the Carmichael Basin and The Great Barrier Reef (Queensland, Australia) and India’s second richest man, one Mr Gautam Adani, is building a port two kilometres up the beach. Except for Sundays the sound of pile driving, though muted by distance, is constant day and night. Small explosions can be heard and seen as puffs of white dust burst into the air. The jetty will function both as a cruise ship terminal and deep sea cargo port. Adani’s record in India is horrendous and for this project shockingly bad Times of India report. I sincerely hope the promised job creation for locals outweighs the further environmental degradation caused by that environmental criminal.

Logistics:

Full credit to Mr Suresh P.R. of Palmland Tours, Kerala, (I located him online) for putting this trip together for us. I sketched out where we wanted to stay and for how long and he constructed a program with the extra tours and activities, made the reservations and arranged our drivers. It was slightly nerve wracking paying by international electronic transfer (in instalments), but it went without a hitch, we received good value and I cannot fault his communication or organisation prior to and during our travels.