The hubby and me have this constant argument about how good things are abroad, and how we mess up things in India. He thinks I am a snob (which I admit I probably am, but if I am perfect in every other way does it really matter, I say!), and I think he is too “earthy” for lack of a better word. You know true “son of the soil” kinds 🙂 Given this conflict, making travel plans has always been as much of an adventure, as the trip itself.
So the hubby had been waxing eloquently about Silent Valley for a long time. As much as I trusted his word, I consulted an old trusted friend, the Internet for valuable advice. And of course, as always, he didn’t let me down. (I always think of the Internet as a he, but that’s a discussion for another article). I liked what I was hearing. Silent Valley is supposed to be one of the most bio diverse regions on the planet with no history of human inhabitation. As much as I would like to say that the biodiversity part excited me, I have to admit that I have no real talent for identifying different kinds of plants and wildlife, and even lesser inclination to learn more about it. I am the kind of person who loves nature, but for me, anything that’s green qualifies as nature. So tropical green, alpine green, deciduous green, mossy green…anything qualifies, and the more I have around me, the happier I am. So it goes without saying that I love forests, love them with an impartial, all-encompassing kind of love – you know the kinds kids have towards ice-cream – one where they are not particular, but they are passionate? That kind of love. But to get back to the point, I wasn’t excited about the biodiversity part; all I could think was how great it would be to go to a place without human habitation for a long time.
So when my old trekking group was looking for a new places to walk and die, I jumped up and raised my hand, well, over email, but with the same amount of enthusiasm. And I have to admit that the boys responded with the same kind of enthusiasm, though boys being boys, they fought over important things like whether to drive down or take a cab. Happens you know, when you go for a 2 days trip, it’s but natural that you spend 2 days arguing over the mode of travel 🙂 Very natural.
So Silent Valley. After quite long journey across three states (it’s a 9 hour journey, but the three states part adds drama to the travelogue), we rumbled our way up the hills into the forests. As our tempo traveler whizzed past Palakkad, and inched towards Silent Valley, I had to admit to a vague sense of disappointment. Kerala is beautiful, and I would be the first person to shout it from the roofs, but it’s a fact that it’s a densely populated state. It’s lush and green and gorgeous, but every inch of it seems to be inhabited by humans! Don’t believe me? Check the facts – Kerala has the highest per square feet density of population in Indian states. So it’s not that I wasn’t prepared for this, but I had still believed that considering that Silent Valley was a nature reserve, the surrounding areas would be less crowded. Let me make myself clear here. The word ‘crowded’ could be a bit misleading here. ‘Crowded’ gives you an image of teeming people, noise, rush, and hassle. Kerala is anything but that. It’s quiet, serene, laidback, and filled with people. As much as that sounds like a contradiction, it’s true. Take a bus or a train through Kerala, and you would see house everywhere. Each house would have lots of land, lots of trees, lots of fields, but it would be surrounded by more such houses.
So while travelling, it’s going to be rare to find vast expanses of remote or inaccessible land; it’s all been taken over by the enterprising Keralite!
But I digress yet again. So did my luck. After having a heavy breakfast, our van lugged our weight and started climbing the hills. I cheered up. Suddenly the houses were sparse, the trees were more dense, the roads were narrow and winding, the sky was an impossibly bright blue, and sun was a very intense hot oven. I cheered up. As we climbed the hills, there was a cloak of silence in the van. It’s always amazed me how even the most rambunctious group of people can go quiet when they are in midst of nature. (And if they don’t, then something’s wrong with them, and they should hurled down some mountain top!). Nature has that effect on people. The empty narrow roads, the dense green foliage that looks un-penetrable, the rocks standing tall in weird positions, the sound of streams and chirping of birds – it has an effect on people. Suddenly, the cribbing, the jokes, the loud laughter fades away, and people are looking out of windows in a happy stupor. It’s a wonderful place to be – to feel nature, and to see people around you, feel their senses soak in nature. .
We finally reached Mukkali, the base camp for the Silent Valley reserve. We intended to stay in the Government Inspection Bungalow, and had made prior reservations with the Forest Department. I have to confess that I was bit apprehensive about the accommodation. My earliest memories of travel involved stay at seedy lodges in religious places, and while I remember those days with nostalgia, I felt that now I was entitled to not just comfort, but luxury and aesthetics while I was travelling. But I have to admit that the Inspection Bungalow did attract me on various levels. First, I agree that having resorts around forests upsets the ecological balance, and so it’s best to have them at a distance; so having just a simple guest house with a controlled number of guests helps the environment. Second, am essentially a cheapskate, so when somebody tells me that I can get a room for Rs 450, my heart goes tra la la, and la la lah – well, you get the idea. Third, the Inspection Bungalow pictures looked like one of those 80s bungalows in old Mallu movies where middle aged mallu men in thick moustaches have their secret deals, sitting in the lawns having their ‘foreign’ whisky and porichu kozhi. In fact, I remember one movie, where the heroine gets killed in the bungalow, and it leads to a wonderful murder mystery. So how could I not get excited about staying here – there was nature, there was economy, there was good food and there was the prospect of a delicious murder happening in the bungalow.
The IB, as how it is referred to by government officials, was as good as I expected it to be. The flooring was good old mosaic, the furniture was carved solid wood, and bathrooms functional and clean, the sheets old but freshly washed, the walls solid with peeling paint. It was nobody’s idea of a resort, but it was definitely my idea of a 80s bungalow – well, one built by a rich businessman, one who was possibly selling illegal alcohol, and ivory as well, the rascal. Anyway, long and short of it, we liked the IB, not just the rooms, but also the place. It had huge grounds, and had a garden with medicinal plants. Just beyond the ground, there was the Bhavani river flowing with joyous abandon. It was a good place, it felt good – the air, the plants, the sounds, even with the quiet heat, and the sulky caretaker.
It was with a spring in my step that I went to the Government Information center, a few steps away from the IB. The staff was helpful, and explained how things worked. I have to say, I was impressed. Silent Valley has a core area of 89.52 KM2 and buffer zone 148 KM2. We would be taken through the buffer zone for around 23kms, and then into the core zone for only around 1km. The rest of it was off-limits, unless you were a tiger, elephant, or any being with four legs. Okay, it wasn’t off-limits to researchers who were lucky enough to study the bio-diversity in this page, but it was off-limits to the general public. As I said, I was impressed.
We bundled ourselves into the jeep, and into Silent Valley.
A 400 year old tree in the Silent Valley buffer zone.