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A Report from

Southern India’s Endemics Christmas and New Year 2006/7,

Richard Munns

Note: Each day the birds are listed in the order they were seen and will only occasionally be mentioned again regardless of how many are seen during any day.  The first sighting of any bird is in bold type.  Sightings of other beasts appear in italics, bold for the first sighting.

Saturday 23 December 2006

After four days of freezing fog it was only slightly misty and damp.

We got up at 4.30am and had grapefruit and cereal for breakfast rather than set off with empty stomachs.  We were very pleased it was not as foggy as of late and we had a good run to Gatwick, the only place it was poor visibility was crossing the wash at Mepal.

We had time for a leisurely coffee at Clackett Lane services before parking at NCP Flightpath and taking the bus to the North Terminal.  It was fairly chaotic in the check-in area and we had a job to get to the Emirates desks but we arrived at 9.30am and the desks didn’t open until 10.00am.

Security was very slick; many of the staff were wearing Santa hats.

We went to Starbucks and had huge coffees and egg and mayonnaise sandwiches.

Naturally going to India we went to WH Smith and bought a book about Cuba, which we read until we were summoned to Gate 51.  We sat for nearly an hour in the gate area whilst the plane was being cleaned and eventually took off an hour late at 2.40pm.

It was 4.00pm before lunch was served so we were glad of the sandwiches earlier in the day.  The flight was very smooth and we enjoyed the forward and downward facing camera views for the landing at Dubai.  It was 9.30pm UK time, 1.30am Dubai time or 3.00am Kochi (Cochin) time.

After finding gate 14 for Kochi we explored the Duty Free area, lots of Christmas trees everywhere.  Never mind political correctness Christmas is commercial.

Sunday 24 December 2006

Don’t really know when this day started but we were served breakfast, of omelette, hash browns, croissant and jam, immediately after take off from Dubai.  It was actually very good especially as we thought we weren’t hungry.  Crashed out for an hour or so before landing at Kochi.

There was a 25-coach passenger train and an enormously long goods train whilst we were taxi-ing to the terminal building after landing at Kochi.

It was sunny and steamy hot at Kochi.

Immigration was quite slow but very efficient and Joan asked permission to photograph the Indian Santa Claus in the arrivals hall.  At 55% Kerala probably has a higher percentage of active Christians that Britain.

We collected our bags, went through customs and changed money. 84 Rupees to £, we changed £400 between us but half as much would have been more reasonable we had to change back over £250 when we left.

Lester met us with our driver Sivu (his name allegedly means problem solver); our minibus was splendid, bright yellow and very comfortable.

Our first journey was just a few minutes to the Hotel Abad where we had buffet breakfast.  Richard and Joan just had fruit juice, cereal and coffee others had a little more but none of us were hungry.

Refreshed we had a journey of about 2 hours to Coconut Lagoon resort at Kumarakom.  On the way we saw House Crow, House Sparrow, Cattle Egret, Great Egret, Intermediate Egret Indian Pond Heron, Purple Heron, White-throated Kingfisher, Black Drongo, Brahminy Kite, Indian Roller and Black Kite.  The traffic was chaotic, or it seemed so to the untutored eye.  Kochi was very busy and it wasn’t until we turned off the main coast road that there was less traffic.  Along the way we saw two more trains, locomotive numbers 16882 and 18576, (yes we were hot in two anoraks!) and an elephant with big tusks.

The last bit of our journey was by ferry as Coconut Lagoon Resort is not on a road so we managed some short cruises on the Kerala backwaters.

We were greeted with coconut milk from freshly opened coconuts.  Getting to our rooms seemed to take ages as we were longing to have showers.  We had a single bungalow whilst the others were semi-detached or terraced but the rooms were all similar and all had open-air bathrooms.  In daylight hours this was fine but when it was dark the insects knew it was Christmas; we wished we had mosquito coils to burn outside.  We had showered and rinsed our clothes carefully using only hand soap to avoid pollution of the drains.

The grounds of the resort were full of birds and we were a bit late gathering at 2.30 pm as everyone was looking somewhere.  We took a ferry back to the road then walked over the river bridge and into Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary.

It was good to see so many local people and Indian tourists appreciating the bird sanctuary but they may have caused a bit of disturbance.  Nevertheless we saw several birds Little Cormorant, Large-billed Crow, Pale-billed Flowerpecker, Köel, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Rufous Treepie, Darter, Loten’s or Long-billed Sunbird (singing his socks off at the top of a tree), heard Blyth’s Reed Warbler, heard Greater Coucal, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Asian Paradise Flycatcher (white form), Darters nesting and better seen and not sniffed, Marsh Harrier, Bronze-winged Jacana, Barn Swallow, Whiskered Tern and Grey Heron.  Other sightings Terrapin, Lesser Fruit Bat or Flying fox, Monitor Lizard, Smooth Indian Otter, and lots of butterflies including Glassy Tiger, Crimson Rose, Plain Tiger and Common Grass Yellow.

We reached the point where we were looking across the river at the resort entrance but started walking back trying a short cut but a bridge was missing so we had to turn back to the start of the short cut.  Ed decided he had walked far enough so he, Evie and Jeannine commissioned a local boatman to ferry them back to the resort but the rest of us walked back the way we came and were rewarded by seeing several large flights of Lesser Whistling Duck over the river bridge.  From the return ferry we saw a Common Kingfisher.  Lester was staying elsewhere but arranged for us to collect picnic breakfasts tomorrow before leaving.

We were just about changed for dinner when the carol singers came round complete with two Santa Claus.  The group gathered, with beer and/or wine beside the dining area so missed the cake cutting but were very handy for the fireworks.  We, and the bar staff, nearly leapt out of our skins when the first fireworks went off.  The firework code was given scant regard as chaps went round lighting the blue touch paper and not retiring at all.  It was quite a magical evening with superb food of more varieties than the most ambitious appetite could sample.  The entertainment included a Kathakali dancer in full make-up but what we saw was a very small sample of the genre.  There was also a magician who trained with Tommy Cooper but he was very amusing.

We were all too tired to appreciate the live band for too long and went to bed about 10.00 pm and the live band did not stop us sleeping.

Monday 25 December 2006

Bright sunny and very warm start at sea level, cooler and cloudier later at altitude; Periyar is 2555ft above sea level.

Up at 5.30 am and had coffee whilst finishing packing.  Most of last night’s party had been cleared away but House Crows were hunting for any remaining crumbs.

We collected the picnic breakfasts and left on the ferry a few minutes after 7.00 am.

We made several birdwatching stops on the way up to Periyar seeing Cattle Egret, House Crow, Indian Pond Heron, Barn Swallow, Ashy Woodswallow, Black-rumped Woodpecker, Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant, Stork-billed Kingfisher, Black Drongo, Wood Sandpiper, Black-hooded Oriole, White-breasted Waterhen, Pacific or Fork-tailed Swift, Common Sandpiper, Oriental Magpie Robin, Little Egret, Common Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper, White-throated Kingfisher, Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla thunbergii), Common Myna, Plain Prinia, Brown Shrike, Gray-bellied Cuckoo, Marsh Harrier, Crested Serpent Eagle, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Dusky Crag Martin on an almost vertical Basalt rock face.

We arrived at Aranya Nivas Hotel about noon and were soon in room 122, very nice not as swish as yesterday but the bathroom had a roof and everything worked including a television.  We sorted out a load of laundry and handed it in for washing.

We met at 12.30 pm for lunch, the dining room was packed with Christmas diners.  It was a set meal of vegetable soup, fish, chicken, two vegetable dishes rice and poppadom followed by a sticky sweet dessert and tea or coffee.

White-cheeked Barbet (one bird was eating coffee beans very close to us and seemed to eat so much it couldn’t move)

After lunch we took a short birdwatching walk not far from the hotel and saw lots of birds and mammals.  Malabar Parakeet, Jungle Myna, Jungle Babbler, Red-vented Bulbul (these were surprisingly uncommon), Chestnut-tailed Starling, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Purple Sunbird, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Great Tit, Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-cheeked Barbet (one bird was eating coffee beans very close to us and seemed to eat so much it couldn’t move), Loten’s Sunbird, Brahminy Kite, Palm Squirrel, Bonnet Macaque, White-bellied Treepie, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Black Baza (perched in a prominent place giving brilliant views), Wild Boar, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Orange Minivet (split from Scarlet)and Velvet-fronted Nuthatch

Took the 4.00pm trip on the lake with all the world and his wife.  Whilst we were queuing we established the precise location of Periyar National park between 9° 06’ to 9° 40’ North and 76° 55’ to 77° 26’ East we also saw Oriental Honey Buzzard, Sambar Deer and Woolly-necked Stork

It all seemed chaotic with hundreds of people all over the place but when the boats came in from the earlier trips it all fell into place and everyone boarded their allotted craft.  We went on the back of the top deck of a big catamaran.

Despite the fact that the reservoir was built in 1895 there are still many tall tree stumps standing clear of the water.  Navigation was restricted to the middle of the valleys and the boats all went in a flotilla but we actually saw quite a lot of birds and other wildlife.  We saw Red-rumped Swallow, Crested Tree Swift, Pied Kingfisher, Red-wattled Lapwing, White-browed Wagtail, Great Cormorant (nesting in the old tree stumps in the middle of the reservoir), Southern Hill Myna, Elephant, Gaur, Indian Smooth Otter, Nilgiri Langur, Asian Fairy Bluebird, and lots more Sambar and Wild Boar.  Once we turned back towards our embarkation point we were heading into the wind and being at the back of the boat was most advantageous as it was quite cold.  Many young Indian men were wrapping themselves in their wife’s, sister’s, mother’s or girl friend’s shawls or scarves.  We found this most amusing as young lads at home would rather freeze than wrap themselves in anything let alone brightly coloured female clothing, a major cultural difference discovered.

We were all cold when we got back on land and Evie’s head cold had really got the better of her but a brisk walk along the road again warmed us up.  We saw Malabar Whistling Thrush having located it by its haunting call.  We took up position on an open area on the entrance road and waited for dark.  A park ranger was clearing up rubbish and burning it and a ‘Wild’ Boar pursued him until it got given some food scraps, it was entertaining but worrying because he could be creating a long term problem, Wild Boar can be very aggressive if they choose to.

We didn’t have too wait long before a Jerdon’s Nightjar swooped through the clearing.  Lester heard an Oriental Scops Owl and we searched the trees all hearing it calling quite clearly but we didn’t see anything at all of it, bet it saw us!

We were all in the bar for a beer in record time; birdwatching is thirsty work.  We did the bird list before having buffet dinner, soup, a selection of vegetarian, fish and meat curries with rice, chapattis and poppadoms followed by a selection of very sweet desserts and tea or coffee.

We were all in bed by 9.30 pm.

Tuesday 26 December 2006

Very misty early but soon bright and sunny and pleasantly warm.

Up for breakfast at 6.30 am and left for our morning walk at 7.00 am.  Evie did not come as she had coughed all night and was too tired to go on an energetic walk.  We all, except Ed, put on leech socks, the local guides brought spares and Valerie and Mike had some of those to wear.  The local guides wore leech socks so we were prepared for the worst.

We had to run the gauntlet of the cruise boat ticket queues, which was not a problem for us.  Buying the boat tickets seemed to be a fraught affair and there were frequent raised voices.

We had to cross an arm of the reservoir but we used a rope ferry pulled across by the local bird guides.  The raft were made of long, thick bamboo canes tied together with other, short pieces, of the same cane tied on top at right angles to sit on.  It all looked quite alarming but was fine even if the middle of the raft was under an inch or two of water.  The only thing that got wet was the seat of our trousers where we sat on the dew-covered seats.  We saw Indian Pond Herons as we crossed.

Once on the forest side of the reservoir it was very quiet, all the crowds were left at the ticket office.  The first bit of the walk was quite steeply uphill but otherwise the walk was not difficult at all.  We saw a Large-billed Leaf Warbler whilst we were catching our breath after the first climb.

As with all forest birding we saw nothing for ages then there were several birds together.  This walk was the only one when we saw leeches in quantity we all had them on our boots but they mostly fell off before reaching the top of the leech socks.  This was Valerie’s first experience of leeches and she was really worried until she had one bite her hand and another got inside her shirt.  She soon stopped bleeding and by this time could spot them on the ground and plants as we passed.  Much later Ed found he had had a leech attack his foot but he had no leech socks so that wasn’t surprising.

We saw some very good birds, Malabar Trogon, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, Greater Flameback, Black-naped Monarch, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Grey Junglefowl, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, Woolly-necked Stork, Brown Shrike, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Grey Wagtail, Red-wattled Plover, Common Sandpiper and White-browed Wagtail.

We walked around the headwaters of the reservoir and had to make several small river crossings in the process on the way back and we all got nicely muddy but no one got wet.  We arrived back at the hotel at 10.15 am just as the park was getting full of tourists and the sun was getting hot.

Sivu drove those of us that wished to go into Thekkady to look at the shops.  Lester worked for a pharmaceutical company in an earlier existence and went to a chemist to buy Evie some drugs to sort out her chest infection.  Jeannine, Alf, Richard and Joan had a look in the bookshop and bought cookery and guides books but the bird books were disappointing.  We then split up and looked in different shops Jeannine and Alf were looking for spices, Richard and Joan went looking for the beautiful Christmas stars that are used everywhere for decorations then went to the Post Office looking for commemorative stamps and ended up being invited out the back to sort though the selection.  We had decided not to write any postcards whilst we were away having decided to buy cards and write them on the way home.  Whilst in the town we saw House Crow and House Sparrow.

Our room was being cleaned when we got back so we chatted to Valerie who was ensconced beside the swimming pool.  We decided to try and climb up to the roof to see the view but found that is where the laundry is dried and ladies were busy with their chores.  A girl was ironing using a charcoal heated iron, effective but very hard work, as the iron must have weighed a ton as well as being dangerously hot.  We had long since established that the Health & Safety Executive has not reached India and a good job too.

Lunch was the same format as yesterday but all the dishes were different.  After the mornings exertions beer for lunch was justified.

At 2.30pm we drove in the minibus to the main gate into the National Park where Sivu parked whilst we walked behind the houses and into an area of marshland with raised bunds.  The first bird we heard was a Grey-breasted Prinia but only Lester and Joan saw it.  Rufous Babblers were also heard but skulked in the bushes despite the efforts of our guides to persuade them into view; they showed themselves in their own good time but whilst waiting we saw Blyth’s Leaf Warbler, Spotted Dove, Brown Shrike, Common Tailorbird and Ashy Drongo.

The original plan was to cross a weir to get into the forest but Jeannine and Joan refused to risk the very slippery walk across so we continued to explore the marshland mostly on the bunds of granite rocks.  We didn’t go very far at all but saw several good birds especially in a bare tree that the guides called the ‘bird tree’.  Birds seen were Red-whiskered Bulbul, Jungle Myna, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Plum-headed Parakeet, Barn Swallow, White-cheeked Barbet, Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker, Malabar Parakeet, Malabar Barbet, Lesser Yellownape, Purple-rumped Sunbird, Red-vented Bulbul, Nilgiri Flowerpecker (split from Plain), Jungle Owlet, Purple sunbird, Brown Needletail, Black-headed Cuckoo-shrike, Common Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail, Green Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Rufous-bellied Eagle (much better views than this morning), Common Iora and Southern Hill Myna.  As the sun started to go down we staked out an area that had been open water in hope of seeing a Watercock but Water Hyacinth had invaded the area, this in turn had allowed grasses to grow obscuring any water that may still be underneath and the chances of seeing anything but a distant fleeting glance were remote so we voted with our feet.  There were several Wild Boar on the roadside as we drove back to the hotel.

Malabar Barbet

Priority after showering was beer and birdlist in that order.  Evie was back with us having managed to catch up on some sleep and we all enjoyed the buffet dinner.

We all retired at about 10.00 pm and the Oriental Scops Owl calling failed to stop us sleeping.

Wednesday 27 December 2006

Misty start after quite a chilly night but soon hot and sunny that lasted all day.  Had breakfast at 6.30 am ready for a 7.00 am start.  Evie was with us but Valerie decided to relax by the pool having found, as an inexperienced birder, she didn’t get enough out of forest birding she also didn’t like the leeches.  Murphy’s law was fully operational, as we didn’t see a single leech all morning.

The seats on the bamboo rafts were very wet from the overnight dew but our backsides soon dried, many preferred to stand showing their confidence in the rafts.  Having scaled the initial climb we went the opposite direction to yesterday and soon found a flowering tree with lots of birds but after that it was quiet forest watching with occasional good sightings.  Our early list included Nilgiri Langur, Brahminy Kite, Large-billed Crow, Jungle Myna, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Ashy Drongo, Orange-headed Thrush, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher, Oriental White-eye, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Small Minivet, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Pompadour Green Pigeon, Blue-winged Leafbird, Golden-fronted Leafbird, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Malabar Grey Hornbill and Golden Oriole.

Our guides then took us to find Wynaad’s Laughingthrush which entailed quite a rush through the under storey that was mostly Lantana with slightly thorny stems that kept hooking our clothes.  We all eventually got good views, there were five birds but there were lots of Jungle Babblers to confuse the search.  We also saw Orange Minivet, Asian Brown Flycatcher, Little Spiderhunter, Common Kingfisher, Grey Junglefowl, White-throated Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail, Crested Tree Swift, Woolly-necked Stork and Malabar Parakeet.

Malabar Parakeet

We walked a lot of the way back along the lakeside; we never had to descend the steep climb from the raft ferry, which was a great relief to the nervous walkers amongst us.

On the return walk we met ladies who were fishing for Barbel.  They had metal bowls covered with a cloth with a small hole in and they were their fish traps.  They put boiled rice and termites inside the trap and put it in the water; fish would go in to feed and fail to get out again.  They planned to dry their catch for sale.

We were back at the hotel by 10.15 am and those who went to Thekkady yesterday relaxed beside the pool and vice versa.  There was temporary knee exposure as shorts were brought out or trouser bottoms were unzipped.

We found out that if we wanted to do the night walk it would be from 10.30 pm to 1.30 am and none of us fancied being so late especially having an energetic walk in the forest where we would not be able to see the leeches.

After another excellent lunch we went for our last walk in the forest after crossing the raft ferry again.  We didn’t go very far in distance but went up and down quite a lot.  We heard, and Richard glimpsed, a White-bellied Woodpecker and it lead us on a merry dance around the forest.  We could here it calling and tapping on the tree trunks but always from high in vines at the top of tall trees, Richard glimpsed a large bird flying from one tree where we heard it.  Jeannine realised that she had seen the bird this morning but it was during the Laughingthrush hunt and she didn’t have a chance to get others onto the bird.  During the afternoon we added Large-billed Leaf Warbler, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher, Malabar Trogon and Mountain Imperial Pigeon to our list.

Back to pack and shower before having a much needed beer with the birdlist.  An Ornitholidays group arrived on the last leg of their tour having seen many good birds but they had missed the Yellow-throated Bulbul.

After another excellent meal we tried to pay our bills but they were not started let alone ready so we went to bed at 10.00 pm.

Thursday 28 December 2006

Very misty and cool at first but the sun soon broke through to give another glorious day.

Up for coffee and ready to leave at 6.00 am but though our picnic breakfasts were ready our bills and the coffee were not.  It seemed odd that we signed computer-generated bills for all our drinks and services and yet the bills had to be added up using brainpower and written in very large ledgers.

We were actually loaded up and on the road by 6.15 am so we weren’t seriously delayed.  The drive through Thekkady was very slow because of all the traffic trying to enter the park and people queuing to get tickets having left their vehicle thereabouts anywhere.  The blocking vehicles were quickly got out of the way; Jeannine and Alf said they had waited over an hour on a previous visit so we did well.

We had not gone very far before Lester spotted a Peregrine Falcon or Shaheen and it perched so we all had a good look at it through Lester’s telescope.  At the same spot we saw Indian Pond Heron.

We stopped beside the road to have our breakfast and then deviated into Tamil Nadu in search of Yellow-throated Bulbul down a very tortuous road.  Only Ed and Evie saw the Yellow-throated Bulbuls having stayed in some shade near the vehicle whilst the rest of us walked downhill.  It was nearly mid-day and really too hot for us let alone birds.  We did see Red-whiskered Bulbul, Rufous-bellied Eagle, Purple Sunbird, Oriental Honey Buzzard, and Bright Green Warbler.  The magnificent scenery made up for the lack of birds, huge granite spires soared above us and the variable granite beside the road was amazing; some was typically hard whilst other was very friable.  There were also Dragonflies and Butterflies to look at; one beautiful Butterfly was called Bluebottle.  We told Lester this was unfair as at home a Bluebottle is a horrid big fly.

We drove back past the Travancore checkpoint and on to Cloud 9, our hotel for the next two nights.  The site was lovely with views over topiary tea plantains to a waterfall.  It was fascinating to see a chap herding bunnies to mow the lawns of the hotel, we hoped rabbit was not on the menu; we couldn’t see it.  There were a lot of captive/pet animals and birds wandering around the hotel.

We had to order lunch over the telephone from menus in the rooms; Ed and Evie only had one page, which made life difficult.  We all ordered quite a lot of food some local and some international but even Ed and Evie had a good meal.  Several of us had lime soda to drink but Joan was the first to mix hers and was unprepared for sugar syrup to have the same effect as granulated sugar on soda water with lime juice already mixed in.  Having allowed the eruption to subside it was incorrectly assumed that the soda water was degassed and some salt was added only for a second boiling of the gas out of the liquid; very messy.

We gathered at 3.30 pm to walk down the track beside the hotel.

We began seeing birds immediately we left the road starting with a Grey Wagtail and a Brown-breasted Flycatcher we then saw a bird that none of us recognised, all the books came out but we couldn’t find a bird that fitted all the criteria to be our bird.  It sat very quietly and we gazed at it and photographed.  Later Lester thought it was probably a juvenile Brown-breasted Flycatcher; much later, when we were home the photograph was posted on the Internet and a juvenile Blue-capped Rock Thrush was suggested but our bird had plain cheeks so we are still thinking.  We didn’t walk very far, being aware that it was uphill all the way back, but we saw some good birds and other creatures; Gray-breasted Laughingthrush, Oriental White-eye, Brown Shrike, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Malabar Whistling Thrush, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Indian Scimitar Babbler, Black-lored Tit, Ashy Drongo, Common Rosefinch, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Golden Oriole, a jet propelled White-bellied Shortwing, White-cheeked Barbet, Pygmy Squirrel, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Black Bulbul, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Common Buzzard, House Swift, Indian Swiftlet and just as it was getting dark a vague view of a Nilgiri Woodpigeon.

The sun was setting by the time we got back to the hotel.  Richard’s new glasses fell to pieces and the screw would not bite to fix them so it was lucky he had a spare pair for the first time ever.

Dinner followed the bird list.  It was a buffet, which was fine, but we had all found something we fancied on the menu and couldn’t have it.  Mike was feeling a little poorly but managed a dish of Crème Caramel.

By the time we went back to our rooms at 9.30 pm it was very cold. We were at about 5200ft so we should not have been surprised.

We were all in bed when waiters from the restaurant came round for us to sign for beers with dinner and the drinks we had at lunchtime.

Our sleep was interrupted later by telephone calls at 11.45 pm asking us what time we wanted breakfast the day after tomorrow.  Most of us shrugged and went to sleep quite quickly but Ed said he didn’t sleep anymore.

Friday 29 December 2006

Cold misty start with frost in the mountain valleys but once the sun was up it was hot and lovely.  The valley frost explained why the tea was not actually planted in the valley bottoms.

We all gathered at 6.00am and our picnic breakfasts and lunches were ready but Sivu was nowhere to be seen; Lester soon fetched him and we were on our way.  The road to Munnar followed a route clinging to the mountainside with wonderful valley views, at one point we passed steps disappearing into the mountainside, obviously the entrance to a troglodyte dwelling.

We had a couple of stops to look at Nilgiri Woodpigeons but they are very shy we also saw Grey Wagtail, Pied Bushchat, Spotted Dove, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Large-billed Crow, House Crow and White-throated Kingfisher.

Saving a visit to Munnar for later in the day we carried on up to Eravikulam National Park.  We drove past the park entrance and loaded our picnic breakfasts into our rucksacks before walking back to catch the buses into the park.  The first bus left with us on board at 7.55 am so we arrived first at the visitor centre and it was wonderfully peaceful.  Eating is not allowed except at the new erected canteen at the visitor centre where coffee and other drinks were available so we ate our breakfast there.  Eating was interrupted by birdwatching as a White-bellied Shortwing was bouncing around right below the canteen giving brilliant views unlike yesterday’s subliminal view.

Before starting the uphill climb into the park we also saw Gray-breasted Laughingthrush, Blue Rock Thrush, Painted Bush Quail, Common Rosefinch, Tickell’s Leaf Warbler, Tytler’s Leaf Warbler and Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

We hadn’t got far up the hill when we saw a Nilgiri Pipit on the overhead wires we also had a view along the bare rock face that had a considerable number of Nilgiri Tahr the only mountain goats in India other than in the Himalayas.  There was water running over the rock face and several Hill Swallows were feeding above it.  Kestrels were also patrolling the area.

Nilgiri Pipit

We spent quite a while peering into a patch of shady scrub in hopes of seeing a Black & Orange Flycatcher but only saw a Eurasian Blackbird.

The distance we could walk into the park was restricted to reduce disturbance to the Nilgiri Tahr; the road went through to some villages but passing vehicles do not cause as much disturbance as uncontrolled tourists.

A second trip to the loo and cup of coffee was appreciated before we walked farther down the hill.  On the way we saw Black Bulbul, Nilgiri Flycatcher, Crested Goshawk, Bonelli’s Eagle, Black-throated Munia, Pacific or Fork-tailed Swift and House Swift.  There were a few Neelakurinji flowers still visible beside the road; they bloom once every twelve years but there are so many plants that there is a good display somewhere in the park every year.

We got on buses that were already full to ride the rest of the way and chatted to a group of business students on a day out.  They wanted to know what business school is like in England; sadly we had no idea and couldn’t help them.

Sivu parked the minibus in Munnar and we had a wander round each going our own ways.  Richard and Joan went with Valerie and Mike to buy tea at the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations House where they has an excellent selection of different teas as well as pepper and other spices.

Munnar is a very attractive town with shops aimed at local buyers rather than lots of souvenir shops.  There is a Hindu Temple perched on the hillside overlooking the river and the daily market.  Joan couldn’t understand why one chicken had been left in a cage half way down a pile until she realised it was a rabbit; presumably all the chickens had been sold and the rabbit had been bought.  We did manage to buy some postcards at a small kiosk.

Sivu asked if we could sit in the garden of a restaurant to eat our picnic lunches but they were too full to have us.  We carried on towards a dam on the river stopping to see Long-tailed Shrike, Wood Sandpiper, Little Grebe and Indian Pond Heron

The custodians of the dam would not let us cross to the Top Station Road because we were not staying at any of the accommodation along the road.  We returned through Munnar and drove up the other side of the river and into a private road leading to the Tata Tea Plantation.  We came to a barrier across the road and again we were refused admission but fortunately Lester had met the Tea Plantation Manager on another occasion and had his card.  Armed with this card Lester went to see the manager and we were allowed through.  Not far along the road we stopped to see a Common Moorhen, not rare but another bird for our list.

We ate our picnic at the viewpoint overlooking the valley; because of the haze in the valley and the sun in our eyes we really couldn’t see the view.

After lunch Sivu was given instructions to come and find us at 4.30 pm and we set off on foot.  The group split in two as some walked much faster; the leading group were out of earshot in a village when a Booted Eagle circled round overhead.

Our walk took us through tall old trees and Lester lamented the lack of young trees growing to replace them when they die and the shade for the Cardomoms will be gone.  There were a few birds, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher, Orange Minivet, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch and very good views of Common Rosefinch.  We watched it bend a shoot so it could reach the edible parts more easily.

Six of the group decided to sit on a concrete block and wait for Sivu but Richard and Joan walked on with Lester.  There was a tiny shrine to Shiva hiding away under a rock ledge a very short distance along the road.  We did see Mountain Imperial Pigeon and had much better views than last time, we also saw a Pompadour Green Pigeon.  The Mountain Imperial Pigeon stayed on its perch and the others had a chance to see it when Sivu brought them along in the minibus.

We arrived back at Cloud 9 at 6.15 pm and Richard and Joan had a Nilgiri Woodpigeon eating figs just outside their bedroom window but it soon climbed down out of sight.  Not realising that the water was not hot until 6.45 pm, some of us had cold showers.

Nilgiri Wood Pigeon

We had dinner at 7.30 pm after doing the bird list and went to bed about 9.30 pm.

Saturday 30 December 2006

Cool, clear start but soon warm and sunny, hot and humid in the lowlands.

Up for breakfast at 7.00am, the service was rather odd and quite slow, apart from hot dishes which were ordered, it was difficult to say where the buffet ended and where served items started.  They served porridge, that was a treat, but they had no jam at all only honey.

Loaded up at 8.15 am and drove directly to Thattekad there being no places for birding on the way but we saw lots of birds around Cloud 9 and during the journey; Nilgiri Woodpigeon, White-browed Wagtail, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Pied Bushchat, Long-tailed Shrike, Shikra (we did stop for us all to see this new bird), Green Bee-eater, Indian Pond Heron and House Crow.

None of the group had been to Mundackal Plantation Home Stay before and Sivu stopped and asked the way several times.  The last part of the journey was on a single-track road through a rubber plantation and we were amazed when we turned a corner to find the plantation house in its beautiful garden.

Daisy and Jose Mundackal welcomed us to their home and, whilst we drank delicious homemade passion Fruit juice, they explained all about the place.  As well as taking in guests just for accommodation, like us, they give Kerala Christian Cuisine lessons, Naturetrek do a ‘Wildlife and Cuisine’ tour and stay here.

We were all shocked to learn that Saddam Hussein had been hanged at 6.00 am local time in Baghdad.  Jose had the television on listening to world reaction.

Lunch was served at 12.30pm and it was a memorable meal.  We were served chapatti, Kerala rice which has much larger grains than usual rice taken with curries, all toned down for western taste but still too hot for Ed, poppadom, different curries made from potatoes, tapioca, fish, peas, unripe jackfruit and yoghurt, there was also salad, yoghurt, beef patties and lime pickle (the lime pickle was wonderful), Richard and Joan were promised some full power chilli content in a fish curry on the last evening.  For dessert we had pineapple to clean our palates followed by crème caramel.

We relaxed in the shade and Lester laid in one of the hammocks provided and gave a concerto of gentle snoring.

Because of the execution of Saddam Hussein a protest strike was planned for 3.00 pm so we drove round to Dr Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary at Thattekad arriving at 2.55 pm just in case but we saw no signs of strike at all but we did see lots of Whiskered Terns and some White-throated Kingfishers perched above the Periyar River

Entering the reserve at Thattekad was quite a performance, we all has to present our passports then we had to pay to take in our cameras and the information had all to be carefully noted.  On a previous visit to India we observed that some officials have learned British bureaucracy and multiplied by several, we have no one but ourselves to blame for the ‘jobsworth’ culture.  Whilst we were waiting we saw Oriental Magpie Robin and Black-naped Oriole.

Our track into the forest crossed a lake and we saw Little Cormorant and Little Egret as well as a chap giving hell to his laundry on a stone.

The track through the forest was level but paved with loose stones like railway ballast and it wasn’t easy on the feet.  Several old basalt lave flows came down beside the path and the folds in the surface, that formed as it cooled millions of years ago, looked as fresh as if the lava was still hot underneath.  We climbed up one of these rock faces in search of a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo as it lead us a merry dance through the trees.  We all got good views of the bird, one none us dared hope to see.  During the search we also saw Brown Shrike, Spotted Dove, Jungle Babbler, Rufous Treepie, Greater Flameback, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Golden Oriole and Asian Paradise Flycatcher.

It all went very quiet so our local guide took us off piste onto narrow tracks that were actually better walking.  We followed the edge of Periyar Lake and had to cross some rickety rackety bridges.  After a while we were lead into the bushes to be shown a pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths roosting about 8 ft off the ground, they were so close to us we had a job to see them because we were looking too far away.  The guide then took us on quite a rush to another spot where a female Sri Lankan Frogmouth was perched about 6 ft off the ground, she was totally unmoved by our attention and ignored even flash photography.

The route back followed the lakeside over several bridges and we saw Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Black-hooded Oriole on the way.  At the end of the last, and longest, bridge we were shown roosting Indian Scops Owls (formerly Collared Scops Owl) in a clump of bamboo, these too were quite close and it took ages to get our binoculars focussed at the right distance.

We wished Lester good night as he was staying at Thattekad because our group filled all of the five rooms at Mundackal Plantation House.

Back at the Home Stay we had more passion fruit juice before we showered and changed for another memorable meal.  The bird list was accompanied by beer before our meal which began with rice noodles with egg masala we then had fried fish and chips, curries of Yam, Plantain flower and yoghurt, Kerala rice with dahl (lentil curry), salad, poppadoms and lime pickle.  Pineapple was followed by a dessert of condensed milk blancmange with chocolate sauce and chopped nuts.

We went outside and finished our beers under the stars, it was brilliant moonlight so the stars were outshone but we saw some fireflies.  Late to bed at 10.00 pm.

Sunday 31 December 2006

Cool fresh start but soon hot, sunny and humid.

Up for breakfast of Puri and potato curry for breakfast at 6.15 am then left at 7.00 am to collect Lester and the local guide at Thattekad entrance and to drive to another part of the forest at slightly higher altitude.  We walked along a forest track and didn’t really go very far but saw some splendid birds, beast and butterflies; Ashy Drongo, Common Myna, White-throated Kingfisher, Great Egret, Little Egret, Cattle Egret, House Crow, Jungle Babbler, Whiskered Tern, Indian Pond Heron, Green Imperial Pigeon, Indian Swiftlet, Flame-throated (Black-crested split) Bulbul, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Common Iora, Dark-fronted Babbler, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Oriental Honey Buzzard, Brown-cheeked Fulvetta, Brown-breasted Flycatcher, Yellow-browed Bulbul. Malabar Rose Butterfly, Bronze Drongo, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Bright Green Warbler, Large-billed Leaf Warbler, Crested Goshawk, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Spotted Dove, Tamil Yeoman Butterfly, Plum-headed Parakeet, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Large-billed Crow, Black-naped Monarch, Orange Minivet, Black-headed Cuckoo-Shrike, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Blue-throated Flycatcher, Rustic Butterfly, Bar-winged Flycatcher-Shrike (a bird smaller than its name) and White-bellied Woodpecker we had heard this bird before at Periyar National Park, only Jeannine and Richard had seen it, and we chased round the forest like headless chickens trying to see it and here it was right beside the road on the side of a bare tree, it was ever thus.

Back in the minibus we drove a short distance and sat inside whilst Lester and the local guide went to look for Mottled Owl roosted but they were elsewhere.  Whilst they were gone we saw Richard’s Pipit and Green Bee-eater.

Back at Mundackal Home Stay we were just enjoying a passion fruit juice when a Heart-spotted Woodpecker flew in right beside the house, a real bonus as we had all missed two that were spotted by Lester beside the road days ago.

Lunch today started with parathas with pork curry this was followed by several vegetable curries of peas, tomato and zucchini, we also had yam cutlets, Kerala rice, salad, poppadoms and lime pickle.  After pineapple we had doughnuts in syrup for dessert; all art of our calorie controlled diet!

We relaxed in the shade before having tea or coffee at 2.30 pm then going back to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary.  Getting in for a second time was not complicated at all and we set of along the stony track.  We were warned that there were elephants on the path farther into the park but we carried on not really regarding them as a danger but a Land Rover full of rangers came along and told us to turn back.  As we walked back out we met lots of young men going in full of bravado hopefully the rangers also turned them back, some certainly didn’t go far.  We later saw a chap who was injured, only grazes, apparently he was frightened by the elephants and ran into a tree, we suspect time and telling will expand on the incident and his heroics.  Let’s hope the furore hasn’t disturbed the elephants.  During our walk into Thattekad Bird Sanctuary we saw Purple Heron, Intermediate Egret, Darter, Oriental Magpie Robin, Rufous Treepie, Little Cormorant, Grey Junglefowl, Ashy Drongo, Black-naped Oriole, Red-wattled Lapwing, White-throated Kingfisher, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Spotted Deer and White-browed Wagtail.

We drove back to the area where Lester and the guide looked for Mottled Owl this morning and our local guide went and asked permission of the landowner for us to explore his area of grassland.  It was a very pleasant change birdwatching in an open area.  We soon found the Richard’s Pipits again and realised there were also several Blyth’s Pipits and we were able to compare and contrast the two species.

Amongst the areas of dry grassland were large patches of bare basalt that get very hot in the sun. As we walked farther from the road we became increasingly aware of the smell of ginger and realised it was drying on the bare basalt.  By the time we were near enough to see the ginger clearly we were also aware of a strong smell of Sulphur dioxide (SO2) that is possibly sprayed onto the ginger to prevent bacterial growth and/or darkening in air (it is commonly used to stop peeled potatoes, apples and other vegetables and fruit losing their colour).  We all started to cough so moved away slightly.  We saw several birds in the area, Chestnut-tailed Starling, Common Kingfisher, Crimson-backed Sunbird, Purple Sunbird, Yellow-billed Babbler, Black-rumped Flameback, Streak-throated Woodpecker, Lesser Yellownape, Besra, Golden Oriole, Crested Tree Swift and Barn Swallow.

As soon as we arrived back at Mundackal Plantation Home stay fresh pineapple juice was made for us, it was wonderful with a lovely frothy head on in.

We did the bird list with beers before having another superb meal.  We started with chapatti again but had Fish Moilee, the first dish that we recognised from the assorted buffets we had at earlier hotels, we also had different dishes of duck, kukra (can’t remember what this was made from but it tasted delicious), cauliflower, yoghurt, salad Kerala rice and lime pickle.  After pineapple we had bread pudding for dessert, Mike had two portions!

Sat outside and finished our beer before going to bed at 10.00 pm.  We could hear New Year fireworks being set of in the village but nothing stopped us sleeping.

Monday 1 January 2007

Cool fresh start but once the sun came up it warmed up to be hot and humid.

There was an all India strike today in protest at the execution of Saddam Hussein but it was clearly not affecting rural areas and we saw nothing untoward at all.

Up for coffee at 5.30 am and we left at 5.50 am taking picnic breakfast with us.  We collected Lester and a different local guide from Thattekad Bird Sanctuary entrance and drove to Idamalayar Forest.  The last part of the journey was in Mahindra Jeeps because, beyond Idamalayar Dam the road was very steep and rocky and our yellow minibus wouldn’t have made it.  Whilst negotiations for the jeeps was taking place we all tucked into the plantains that came with breakfast.

We went up to about 1000 ft and stopped at the edge of the forest and ate our breakfast of chicken and mayonnaise sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and pineapple before walking into the forest.  This was primary forest and we walked as far as a river where we saw assorted damselflies and dragonflies.  During the morning we saw House Crow, Jungle Myna, Indian Swiftlet, Green Imperial Pigeon, Crimson-backed sunbird, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Dark-fronted Babbler, Crested Goshawk, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Purple Sunbird, Black-naped Oriole, Rusty-tailed Flycatcher, White-bellied Woodpecker, Greater Racket-tailed Drongo, Bonnet Macaque, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Malabar Grey Hornbill, Bronze Drongo, Palm Squirrel, Common Flameback, Köel, Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher and, just as we got back to the jeeps after our walk, a very close soaring Black Eagle.  Before going back down we also saw White-rumped Needletail.

We stopped briefly part way down to look for raptors but we had already seen Black Eagle and that would have been the target bird at that stop.  Another stop was made at Idamalayar Dam and had to be very careful not to take strategic photographs.  We saw Dusky Crag Martin, River Tern, Indian Pond Heron, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater and Little Cormorant from the Dam.  Travelled back in our minibus from the jeep stop.

Back at Mundackal Home Stay both Jeannine and Alf found they had been leeched despite the fact that none of us had seen any and Lester and the local guide said there were no leeches.  We had been into the undergrowth to get better views of the Asian Fairy Bluebird and that is probably where the leeches were found; had we stayed on the track there would not have been a problem.

Lunch today began with strange dome shaped pancakes with a texture much like crumpets as if they had a lot of raising agent, we forgot what they were called but they tasted good, they were served with chicken stew, fish cutlets, curries of yoghurt, green beans and banana stalk, vegetable patties, Kerala rice, poppadoms, salad and lime pickle.  After pineapple we had cheesecake for dessert.

We relaxed until 3.30 pm Jose took us on a tour of his garden and plantation.  We started off looking at all the vegetables and fruit growing around the house including okra, pepper, ginger, turmeric, pineapple, passion fruit, various varieties of plantain (bananas are plantains), chillies, coconuts, betel nuts (for sale not consumption) and loads of others.

He then took us around the rubber plantation and showed us how the trees are tapped every 2 or 3 days.  About two hours before dawn the rubber tappers cut a narrow strip of bark away to start the flow of latex, 18 trees will produce about a litre of latex in one tapping.  The trees are tapped on one side for seven years, then seven years on the other side by which time they can tap the first side, in a different area, again.  In theory there is no real limit to how long a tree can be tapped but they have a rolling program of replanting to keep healthy trees.

Some of the latex is put into drums to be sold as a liquid.  Other latex is filtered to remove detritus then Formic Acid is added to solidify it.  After two hours it is put through a wringer to remove the water then hung over a washing line to dry.  Once dry it is smoked, using coconut wood to produce the smoke, for three days before being sold. 2 kg latex would end up as 600g of cured rubber worth about £1.  We calculated that there are 10500 rubber trees on the entire plantation. 

Jose explained to us that Kerala has a very high literacy rate and the children of his employees now have high-powered occupations and don’t want their parents doing manual labour.  He has to employ people, via gang masters, from Tamil Nadu because he can’t enough local workers.  This is a similar situation to the UK where we are employing Eastern Europeans because most Brits aren’t interested in manual labour.

During the tour around the rubber processing area we passed a tank or reservoir they had once used as a swimming pool but it now has huge fish in it and we fed them with bread.  Jose said they no longer want to swim in the water, as it is full of fish poo.

Jose also showed us the old plantation house built by his Great Grandfather.  It is built of granite rocks from the forest all other materials came by bullock cart through the forest.  The old house is still sound but has no facilities; Jose plans to make it into a honeymoon suite.

Jose suddenly realised how time was flying by and we rushed back to the house for tea and coffee before driving down to Periyar Lake for a boat trip.  We couldn’t have timed it better as the boat was just returning with the previous tour group.  Jeannine and Alf recognised the boat as the vehicle ferry that had been replaced by the bridge near the entrance to Thattekad Bird Sanctuary.  It consisted of three large wooden canoes, with the planks tied together with twine, fixed together as a tri-maran with an iron platform on top that vehicles used to drive onto.  It now had a very nice roof and railings and made a very stable cruise boat.

We cruised slowly up to the bridge and back to the dam where we boarded, as the sun set the engine was turned off and it was very tranquil watching the sun disappear.  We saw quite a lot of birds, Southern Hill Myna, Intermediate Egret, Grey Junglefowl, Little Egret, River Tern, Whiskered Tern, Darter, Indian Cormorant, Common Kingfisher, Ashy Woodswallow, White-throated Kingfisher and Pied Kingfisher.  Before we left we waited until two large flocks of Cattle Egrets flew past to their roost and it was almost dark when we disembarked.

Lester came back to Mundackal Home Stay and we did the bird list before he went back to his accommodation.

Our last dinner was excellent; we had parathas again with banana curry, chicken legs, fish curry (mild and hot for those who really enjoyed it), tapioca, fried zucchini, poppadoms, salad, dahl and lime pickle.  We didn’t have any rice, Daisy had realised we enjoyed the assorted breads so much we weren’t eating rice.  We finished with pineapple and dessert of tiny bananas with palm syrup, delicious.

We did some packing before bed because we had eaten too much.

Tuesday 2 January 2007

Bright sunny and very warm day, quite hazy in Kochi.

We went for a short walk before breakfast at 7.00am and this meal was as memorable as all the others.  We had igies (rice dumplings) with sambar (vegetable curry) and coconut curry.  We also had dosa (pancakes) with honey, scrambled egg, steamed plantain, toast, butter and jam.

At 7.45 am we said our sad farewells to Daisy and Jose and drove to Kochi making a couple of birding stops on the way.  We saw White-throated Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper, Intermediate Egret, Purple Heron, Indian Pond Heron, Purple Swamphen, Cattle Egret, Common Myna, Jungle Myna, Black Drongo, Green Bee-eater, Great Cormorant, Darter, Indian Cormorant, Little Cormorant, Plain Prinia, Brahminy Kite, Whiskered Tern, Rufous Treepie, Barn Swallow, White-breasted Waterhen, Black-winged Stilt, Black Kite and House Crow.

We were soon on Willingdon Island and checked into the Casino Hotel, very smart.  Welcome drinks and garlands of flowers were presented, the garland flowers had very powerful perfume.

Meals here were not included so we were very pleased to have an excellent buffet lunch, with a huge choice, for 788/- (Rupees) for two including a large shared beer and coffee (84/- = £1 so less than £10 for lunch, no wonder we didn’t spend all the money we changed).

We gathered at 2.30 pm and met our local guide Anwar who took us on a tour of the old city of Kochi.  We drove first to Mattancherry Palace that was built by the Portuguese in 1557 and given to the Raja of Cochin in exchange for trading privileges and as compensation for a temple they had destroyed.  By 1663 the Dutch had taken over in Cochin and they renovated the palace, which is why it is now known as the Dutch Palace and doubles up as a Museum.  We entered by steps to the top floor and went from the very plain outside to the quite elaborate inside.  The most amazing thing was the carved wooden ceilings in all the rooms.  We looked at the Museum exhibits that included palanquins and fine clothing and parasols.  Joan was pleased to see some of the stamps that she had at home in her collection.  By the time we had gone half way round the museum Jeannine, Alf, Evie and Ed had gone out again and took no more interest in the tour.  They didn’t look at all the wall paintings from the Ramayana on the top floor or go down into the women’s quarters and see explicit wall paintings from the Karma Sutra; Valerie, Mike, Richard and Joan enjoyed all of the tour.

Outside the palace we saw the Hindu Temple at which a big festival had just finished and all the decorations were being cleared away.  We could also see the clock tower of Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest in the Commonwealth.  From the grounds of the Dutch Palace we could see two clock faces one in the local script and one in Hebrew and were told the third face, which we saw later, was in Roman numerals.  There is no clock face in the east side of the tower.

It was quite a long walk to get to the entrance to the Synagogue and the walk through the old shops was very interesting, most of the buildings date from the 15th or 16th century.  We even passed the Pepper Exchange and Cochin Oil Merchants.

The Jews arrived to trade in Cochin before the birth of Christ but came as refugees from the sack of Jerusalem by the Romans in 72 AD.  The Synagogue was built in 1568 when Jewish refugees, escaping religious persecution, arrived from Spain.  We had never been inside a Synagogue before and were surprised to find how similar it was inside to a Mosque.

There are now only 4 Jewish families left in Kochi and 67 in the whole of Kerala because most have drifted back to Israel since 1948.

On the way back we bought some spice and watched a lady hand weaving a sari.  Back at the minibus the others were sitting inside with the air-conditioning on, we hadn’t realised there was air-conditioning because we hadn’t wanted it.

It was a short drive to St Francis Church, which, like Mattancherry Palace, was built by the Portuguese in 1503; originally it was wood but was later replaced with stone.  It started out as a Roman Catholic Church but when the Dutch restored it in 1779 it became protestant and in 1795 it became Anglican under the British.  The interior is very plain with cane seated pews, much more comfortable than solid wood.  There is a long canvas punkah suspended above the pews with ropes attached that go out through holes in the wall so the punkah-wallah, outside, could fan the congregation.  The most famous object in the Church is the tombstone from the grave of Vasco da Gama who was briefly buried in the Churchyard when he died in 1524. His son later repatriated his remains to Portugal.

We walked from the Church to Fort Kochi at the entrance to Kochi harbour where the tide rushes in and out from the huge harbour of Kochi and the Kerala backwaters.  There is only a few bits of the wall of the old Portuguese fort remaining.  Chinese fishing nets line the edge of the harbour mouth but can only be used about an hour each side of high tide so they weren’t active when we were there.  Lester had told us there are few seabirds around the Kerala coast and he was exactly right, there were a few distant egrets and one rather pale gull a very long way away.

Sivu dropped Lester, Richard and Joan at The Kathakali dancing theatre; even Valerie and Mike didn’t want to see this.  Kathakali dancing is a very ancient art form traditionally performed only by men.  We watched as the two main dancers applied their make-up.  The green face paint indicating the hero whilst red is reserved for untrustworthy characters and demons have black faces.  The make-up looked like powder poster paint applied with oil and water, they only used thin sticks and their hands to apply the colours.

The performance was in two parts explained by a narrator who was difficult to understand because the microphone was too loud but we understood him well enough to follow the first session when a dancer used minimal eye and body movements to express facts and emotions; the same idea as ballet but totally different in execution.  The narrator explained the plot of the short dance we were to see, a proper Kathakali dance lasts more than a day.

The hero, green face, was sitting beside a river and a demon disguised as a woman (red face) came to seduce him.  At first he is not interested but then suggests marriage, not what the demon had in mind at all so the proposal is refused.  The hero leaps about expressing his displeasure and the demon reveals himself by pulling a black wig across his face.  The hero slays the villain and tranquillity is restored.  The others missed something really good but they certainly didn’t miss the uncomfortable plastic chairs we had numb parts! We would certainly go to see it again but take something soft to sit on.

Driving back in the dark it was nice to see all the shops with their lights on.

We all eventually met up at about 8.30pm for another excellent buffet after some confusion over who was where.  They were actually frying kalamari (squid) for us while we waited.

Did most of our packing ready for an early start tomorrow.

Wednesday 3 January 2007

Misty at first in Kochi but it cleared as soon as the sun broke through.  It was cloudy in Dubai and all the way to Gatwick where it was drizzling but it was clear and cold when we reached home.

Despite the fact that all the hotel information said breakfast started at 7.00 am we found it was in full swing at 6.00 am.

The drive to the airport took about half an hour and we passed two trucks with bull elephants riding on the back.  They seemed quite happy passengers, they would have to brace themselves to go around bends or the truck could easily turn over.  It seems most working elephants in India are now used mostly for ceremonial parades; these elephants probably performed at the Hindu Festival we saw being cleared up yesterday.

We had to say our farewells to Lester and Sivu outside the airport, only ticket holders were permitted inside.

All our hold luggage had to go through x-ray machines before we checked them in.  The queue for check-in was slow because a lot of people had excess baggage and had to pay extra, we didn’t get a refund for being underweight.  The long wait gave us plenty of time to change our money back into $ and £.

We all had body searches before going through into the departure lounge where the chairs were actually comfortable.

The flight took off about 45 minutes late but made up most of the time on the way to Dubai.  Lunch was very good as was afternoon tea and dinner on the Gatwick leg.  The cloud all the way to Gatwick made it quite bumpy, tea and coffee weren’t even offered after dinner.

Lots of bags did not appear at Gatwick, apparently there was a conveyor belt failure at Dubai altogether about 1400 bags did not reach their destination on time but ours, at least, arrives safely the next day.

It was an excellent trip in every way and it was good to stay in hotels full of local tourists and to visit National Parks where we were not the only tourists.  India is very colourful and the people are very friendly and it is difficult to see any improvements that could be made to this tour.


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