Vannakkam! Maddie McGuire here, guest blogging for the day. Our first full day in Kerala could not have been better. Originally, the government had closed the Periyar Tiger Reserve to the public because of the Ayyappa Pilgrimage, so we intended to go on a hike on the outskirts of the reserve. The day before, Sunil found out that the government had decided to open the Periyar Tiger Reserve and raced to get us tickets as soon as they became available (hooray for last minute government decisions and Sunil’s inside information!). Brian and Amy quickly rearranged out day to allow us to go. Once we heard the news we were ecstatic; even the fact that we had to be ready to leave at 5:30 a.m. couldn’t bring us down.
Bags packed with water, snacks, sunscreen, and bug spray, we were ready to load the Jeeps and head to the reserve that morning. We, of course, had to stop for tea and coffee because is it really a good morning in India if you don’t have tea or coffee? We drove through tea plantations and spice gardens, which wallpaper this town on the way out.
The Jeeps that we took could fit 6 passengers and had room to stand up and look out the top for a better view (don’t worry mom, there were bars so we wouldn’t fall out). Wind in our hair and smiles on our faces, we entered the reserve. Our drivers had trained their eyes to spot animals. We stopped three times to look at the monkeys they saw.
After breakfast in the reserve, we started on out 3-hour hike in the mountains with the hopes of spotting animals. We were not allowed to talk the entire hike because we might scare off the animals. As you can imagine, that’s a hard task when there are 22 students wanting to gush about their excitement. The trails were not quite as defined as those in the Smokies because they didn’t want to disturb nature, so we were walking through leaves and plants that poked onto the trail. Aside from the fact that out three guides had been working on the trail for years, some of them live in the villages in the reserve, so they knew the best trails around the mountains. These guides were also skilled in listening for animals. Some of the specific animals in the park are elephants and tigers. There are approximately 1,000 elephants and only 44 tigers in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Our lead guide said that he had only seen three tigers in the past seven years. Since seeing a tiger is so rare, they focused on finding elephants. They knew that the best way to determine if an elephant was near was by looking for footprints and broken bamboo. We hiked down and up the mountains. The upwards part was much more of a climb than a hike. If you can imagine walking straight up a mountain, that’s exactly what it was like. Once we reached the top, we took celebratory pictures and enjoyed the beautiful view.
While we didn’t see any elephants on our hike, we bonded over by the fact that we had accomplished this arduous feat together. Then, on our drive out of the reserve, the unexpected happened: Our driver got word from a passing motorcyclist that an elephant was up ahead. We raced to the spot and jumped out of our Jeeps. We finally caught a glimpse of the wild elephant we had been waiting for. I guess Ganesh was on our side that day!