Wild elephants in the Western Ghats – a travel blog

In my previous blog I mentioned my time in the Western Ghats was that good it deserved its own blog. So here goes…

Having been to Ooty and spent the weekend with Alan I knew I wanted to visit the region again. Like Ooty, Munnar is a scruffy little town but the surrounding area is what makes it. Koidikanal town is an upgrade on both. It has a lovely lake and most importantly has no rickshaws and therefore no rickshaw drivers. Taxi drivers do their best to be as annoying but they don’t do it with quite the same verve.

Along with two friends I took a local bus from Cochin to Munnar. I was happy as I’d secured the much sought after left back position but then had to contend with a toothless, spit shoveling local who first tried to steal my book whilst I was reading it and then proceeded to stroke my knee and face. I was half tempted to give him a wink and a lick of the lips but used my better judgment and let some responsible locals eject him from the bus.

The scenery in the last hour of the journey set us up for the main attraction of Munnar, the tea plantations. Terraced or running down, they straddle the sides of the majority of mountains in the area and although subtle, the top layer of tea leaves are a greeny yellow that I’ve never seen before which creates a really vibrant and striking colour. You have this colour on rolling smaller hills (which creates a rival for the setting of Hobbiton, I was just surprised it was small Indians coming out of the tiny bungalows and not Frodo and co) or on knife-edge precipices. Either way they are spectacular. The hills that aren’t straddled by tea leaves show what the area used to look like before the British started planting. And these are just as impressive. The vistas you get from the rugged mountains running down to the plains of Tamil Nadu are as dramatic as you’ll see. The Pambar River flows over massive waterfalls and through vast gorges in the middle of the valley, best seen from Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Having paid about £8 for a sightseeing tour which included entry into the Sanctuary we weren’t expecting much. Our guides said wild elephants had been seen the day before but none of us really believed them. Dennis, a Turkish guy I had been travelling with was saying as much as he turned round and stepped in fresh elephant dung. It was fascinating to see the guides in action when we were ‘tracking’. They picked up on the smell, (although it was pretty overwhelming, even I was adept at sniffing them out) but also the shape of bushes they had grazed on, what type of insects and creepy crawlies were around, as well as foot marks. It was a nerve tangling experience creeping round. This time I didn’t see any elephants but you could hear their roars and ungainly stomping. We did see a herd of wild bison though. I was assured they were more scared of us than we were of them, I can’t clarify that though as I was hiding behind a rock. Even with my rapid turn of pace I wasn’t confident of getting away from them at full pelt.

It was a few days later that I saw two wild elephants. I wasn’t aware there were any knocking around the area before coming but having come close in Chinnar, at every opportunity I asked, ‘will we see any elephants?’. In part this was curiosity and wanting to see some but more so because I really didn’t want to see any and wanted to know the best way to avoid certain death. FYI, the best way is to run down the steepest slope you can find. Elephants can’t run and aren’t very good on slopes…and can’t see. I asked the question before setting off on a trek and was promptly told there was no chance. So it was a surprise to see one, especially so high up, over 2400m, and at the time, alone. The guide then did his reconnaissance of the area and was ‘reasonably’ confident it was alone. That he asked me what I thought should probably have raised a concern. We had this view for about 20 minutes before getting a whiff and turned round to see another Elephant about 100 metres below us. It was time to go, so off we ran down the steepest slope. We weren’t in any real danger but it was close enough. The fact that my Dad had sent me an article about a British tourist being trampled to death by a wild elephant about 100km from where I was acted as enough incentive not to lurk around.

So combined with amazing scenery and abundant wildlife, the Western Ghats are highly recommended. Just don’t get the buses if you have weak stomach, the amount of vomiting by passengers is quite astonishing…