Periyar National Park
Today we drive further west into the Ghat mountains and the border of Tamil Nadu with Kerala. The Periyar National Park is a large game preserve centered around an artificial lake. Only a portion of the park is open to the public, where one can take boat cruises to spot birds and other animals near the shore. It is a nice change of pace from cities and temples so we are looking forward to the clear, cool mountain air.
The general mood of expectation is broken when we arrive at the end of a long drive to learn that a massive earthquake has caused a deadly tsunami that hit the coast a couple of hours previous. At the time, we hear of possibly a thousand deaths, 100 in Chennai, and destruction at the shore. The toll across Asia climbed during our stay, finally hitting 6000 in India alone. On this day, all we knew from BBC was some general sense of a huge, unprecedented disaster. Our hotel couldn't reach their sister property on the coast, international phone lines couldn't be had due to high traffic, and even the Yahoo! and MSN site were overloaded. Fortunately we are able to get onto our server and send email home to let everyone know we are ok. We learned later that there were any number of friends and family members frantically trying to find Periyar on a map that morning, mostly without success.
In uncertainty and concern, we head off to the park for our cruise. It's Sunday of a three-day weekend and a nice day, so this is a popular idea. The park is packed, every boat overloaded to the point of concern. Our boat is basically a raft with a railing on which about 50 plastic chairs have been set up in rows. The pilot seems very concerned to ensure that we remain in our seats, a sentiment I share given the low waterline. One tiger sighting and the whole thing's going over.
Not that we have to worry about seeing tigers. All the dozen or so boats, most much larger than ours, head out at once along only a few possible waterways. The tree trunks dotting the water, left from the creation of the lake, provide wonderful perches for bird's nests. Cormorants and kingfishers abound. On the shore, we can see sambar deer and some wild hogs. The tiger food, perhaps, but no tiger. The highlight is spotting an elephant cow and calf on the bank. As you would imagine, a number of boats spot them and a herd of tourists stampedes the cove. One group of tourists manages somehow to convince their pilot to set them down nearby and start walking purposefully toward the elephants. Shortly thereafter, the wardens show up and send all the boats packing. Small powerboats patrol the lake and wardens board a few boats to inspect tickets and generally keep order. We gain two stern-looking officials for the rest of our cruise which much have scared even the birds.
In the evening, we enjoy the lovely setting of the hotel. Cool, crisp air is a particularly welcome respite. The rooms are in small cottages scattered along a path winding through an overgrown garden. Coffee trees, pepper plants, bougainvillea, and many others line the path and set the jungle mood. We are at the end of the path in the leopard cottage, which has a stained-glass leopard window to watch over us. Despite my hopes, no actual leopards appear. Tonight we once again hear late-night mortar fire, but this time we are much quicker to conclude that these are Boxing Day fireworks. Why not? After all, Boxing Bay is a holiday in the Commonwealth. OK, so 2 nights of fireworks. But at least we're done until New Year's.