Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
Periyar National Park
Centred on a vast artificial lake created by the British in 1895 to supply water to the drier parts of neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary lies at altitude of between 900m to 1800m, and is correspondingly cool. Temperatures range from 15 deg cen to 30 deg cen.
The royal family to Travancore, anxious to preserve its favourite hunting grounds from the encroachment of tea plantations, declared it forest reserve, and built the Edapalayam Lake Palace to accommodate their guests in 1899. It expanded as a wildlife reserve in 1933, and joined Project Tiger in 1979.
Seventy percent of the protected area is covered with evergreen and semi-evergreen forest. The sanctuary is divided into core, buffer and tourist zones.
The tourist zone-logically enough, the part accessible to casual visitors-surrounds the lake, and consists mostly of semi-evergreen and deciduous woodland interspersed with grassland, both on hilltops and in the valleys.
Although excursions on the lake (either by diesel-powered launch or paddle-powered bamboo raft) are the standard ways to experience the park, you can get much more out of a visit by walking with local guide in a small group away from the crowd.
The best time to visit is from December until April, when the dry weather draws animals from the forest to drink at the lakeside. Avoid the period immediately after the monsoons, where leeches make hiking virtually impossible.
Bamboo Rafting by Forest Department
By far the best options for wildlife-viewing from the lake is to sign up for one of the Forest Department's excellent bamboo rafting trips, which start with a short hike from the boat jetty at 8am and return at 5pm, with a minimum of three hours spent on the water.
The rafts carry four or five people and, because they're paddled rather than motor-driven, can approach the lakeshore in silence, allowing you to get closer to the grazing animals and birds. It can be booked in advance from the Eco-Tourism Centre on Ambadi Junction. Note that during the busy periods places sell out quickly so reserve as far ahead as possible.
Boats by Forest Department
Forest Department boats are smaller and shabbier than the KTDC vessels, but can get closer to the banks (and thus wildlife)-more importantly, they are the only ones with upper decks (seats on the lower decks are waste of time).
The Forest Department will issue two seats per person. You'll also need to fill in an indemnity form before boarding, and once on board life jackets must be worn at all times.
Tickets sell out very fast, so you'll need to be at the lakeside at least two hours before the scheduled departure time (or ninety minutes if you are aim to get the 7.30am boat). The sales counters are located just above the main visitors centre (daily 6am-6pm), next to the boat jetty.
Boats by KTDC (Kerala Tourism Development Corporation)
As for the boat tours, though these are considerably less expensive it is quite a hassle to book yourself on one, and the trips themselves can come as a disappointment.
It is unusual to see many animals - engine noise and the presence of dozens of other people make sure of that. To maximize your chances of sightings elephants, wild boar or sambar grazing by the water's edge, take the 7.30am service (for which you'll need to wear warm clothing in winter).
The least satisfying option is to take one KTDC's official boat trips (daily 7.30am, 9.30am, 11.30am, 2pm, and 4pm), which use large launches with noisy engines; they also only have one deck. As with the Forest Department boats, tickets need to be bought two hours in advance from the sale counter by the boatjetty; KTDC allocates just one seat per person.
Walks and Treks
Although you can-leeches permitting-trek freely around the fringes of Periyar, access to the sanctuary itself on foot is strictly controlled by the Forest Department.
Department's community-based eco-tourism programme offers a variety of structured walking tours, ranging from sort rambles to three-day expeditions, all guided by local Manna tribal wardens. Tickets should be booked in advance from the Eco-Tourism Centre on Ambadi Junction, where you can also pick up brochures and leaflets on the trips.
"The Nature Walk"(7am, 11am and 2pm, maximum 5 people) is amongst the least demanding options, covering 4-5km of lever evergreen and moist deciduous forest. Groups are led by a guide who identifies trees, plants and wildlife.
You can also do a similar walk at night: "the Jungle Patrol" (7-10pm and 10pm-1am) is loaded with atmosphere and the sounds of the forest, though you probably won't get to see much more than odd pair of eyes picked out in a torch beam.
For scenery, a better option is the full-day "Border Hiking" tour (8am-5pm), which takes you into grassland and thick jungle at altitude of between 900m and 1300m.
"The Periyar Tiger Trail" is one for committed trekkers. Guided by former poachers, the itinerary lasts one night and two days, or two nights and three days. Armed guards equipped with walkie-talkies accompany the group, trekking through 35km of hill country, thick forest and grasslands to top wildlife spotting sites in the Periyar Sanctuary, sleeping outdoors in tent camps and eating vegetarian food prepared on kerosene stoves and open fires.
Accommodation and Eating in the Sanctuary
For the Lake Palace, Periyar House and the Aranya Nivas you should book in advance at the KTDC offices in Trivandrum or Ernakulam- essential if you plan to come on a weekend, a public holiday, or during peak season (Dec-March), when rooms are often in short supply.
Forest Department Jungle Inn
3km east of Kumily at Kokkara
Off the Mangaladevi Temple Rd
An hour's walk (3km) in to the park, this simple "forest cottage" sits in a glade frequented by langur monkey's and giant tree squirrels. It is cramped and overpriced, though the location is serene and does allow you to be in position early for the wildlife. Tariffs include half-board; check-out 9am. Book through the Eco-Tourism Centre at Ambadi Junction.
KTDC Aranya Nivas
Near the boat jetty
Tel: 04869 222282
Plusher than Periyar House, this former colonial manor has some huge rooms, a restaurant, bar, garden and shabby pool-with plenty of marauding wild monkey's to keep you entertained-though as with all government places it is poorly managed.
KTDC Lake Palace
Across the lake from the visitors centre
Tel: 04869 222023
The sanctuary's most luxurious and peaceful hotel, with six suites in a converted Maharaja's game lodge surrounded by forest. Wonderful views extended from the old-fashioned rooms and lawns.
This has to be one of the few places in India where you stand a chance of spotting tiger and wild elephant while sipping tea on your own veranda though this being a government-run hotel, don't expect the same standards of service and comfort you'd get for comparable tariff elsewhere.
KTDC Periyar House
Midway between the park gates and the boat jetty
Tel: 04869 222026
Close to the lake, the cheaper than the other places in the park, but shambolic and invariably full of noisy groups.