A journey through Gavi Rainforest
It is touted as the “Experience of a lifetime.” That tagline from the tourism brochure excited all of us with much anticipation. Gavi is an eco-tourism initiative that is attracting global attention. Taking a day off from the mundane, traveling through the thick of a rainforest where wild animals aplenty, experiencing the exhilarating fresh, cool, misty mountain air sounded so good. We longed to see the hills, and valleys, fresh water streams and rivers, man-made dams, and experience the sights, and sounds of exotic birds, and other big and small creatures of the wild. Often there is a discrepancy in perception and reality (actual experience). With that caveat in my mind, I approached the Gavi journey as a ‘back to nature’ trip. We couldn't wait to see nature unplugged, in her raw form.
We took the Gavi tour organized by the Department of Tourism and fulfilled by the District Tourism Promotion Council facilitation center in Pathanamthitta. The journey starts from the Konni Elephant Camp/Eco Tourism Center, about 10 kilometers from Pathanamthitta town center. Thus, just before the onset of the monsoon, we purchased Gavi tour packages from the Konni Elephant Camp/Eco Tourism Center.
The elephant camp in Konni is one of few centers, a kind of rescue/refuge center, which takes in orphaned, sick and wounded wild elephants, mostly babies, and nurse them back to normalcy. Visitors are allowed to watch the elephants and are allowed to take a ride on certain trained ones. There is also a store selling indigenous, natural products that are gathered from the rainforest. The small museum has displays of tools and artifacts and other interesting details on the historical aspects of capturing/training of elephants.
Our tour package included transportation, sightseeing opportunities, boat rides, three meals, and snacks, etc. Our driver/guide, Jose, explained to us the activities for that day. He sounded knowledgeable and experienced on all things related to Gavi. We, 11 people, left the starting point at around 7 am. It was cloudy, and we felt a drizzle but anticipated a clear day with no heavy showers.
We were forewarned about the increased presence of mosquitos, and tiny leeches due to the rains. Leeches can cling onto the body and suck blood without pain or awareness. The weather in the rainforest and on high elevations can change without warning. Rain brings in a thick mist that can cover the entire hill area and may impede visibility and driving. Wildlife may roam freely even on the paved roads, creating a hazardous situation. With those warnings in our minds, we set out to enjoy the pristine forest, and the fauna, and flora.
Our first stop was Adavi, about 12 kilometers from Konni, for breakfast, and Coracle (Kuttavanchi) ride. The typical Kerala breakfast with idli, dosa, sambar, coconut chutney, and coffee was appropriate. The place has a rustic setting, built like a typical ‘kappi kada’ with thatched roof, wooden benches, and tables right on the clay floor. Food items were freshly made and piping hot. Definitely, there is ample room to improve the ambiance and cleanliness aspects of the outfit, but it suits the rough and raw jungle feel.
I found a marked improvement in toilet facilities in many places of Kerala, of late, perhaps due to greater awareness.
Coracle ride was exciting, but at the start, I felt it as a slightly precarious one. After the initial inhibitions, the ride turned out to be just fine and an enjoyable. It was nice experiencing the fresh mountain air, and soak in the scenery of pristine ecosystems, lush greenery, and clear waters of the Kallar River.
We spent about an hour in Adavi and then continued our journey towards Gavi via sparsely populated, forest and plantation areas. Sithathode and Angamoozhi are sorts of gateway into the deep rainforest. The single lane forest/mountain road that leads to Gavi was built for the ‘dam country', as there are many dams and associated projects along the route.
We stopped at Kochandi Check post to file proper paper works to get the permit to proceed into the restricted forest and dam-country. Due to many reasons, the number of vehicles that can enter the forest is controlled. Traffic is allowed only during the daylight hours to protect the wildlife and the visitors.
From the checkpoint, we entered the evergreen forest area and continued our journey to Gavi, via Moozhiyar, Kakki, and Kochu Pampa. Next 80 kilometers is solid forestland with many species of wildlife, varied terrains, and greenery. The weather was slightly cooler with the intermittent rain, drizzle, and mist. The air felt fresh and slightly humid.
A fresh trail of elephant dung on the road was an indication that built excitement and at the same time anxiety. At every hidden turn on the road, we expected to see a (un)friendly beast blocking our way and looking straight at us. There was an eerie feeling that something was hiding in the next turn or corner. That kind of anticipation kept us on the edge of the seats. Our guide’s explanation put a damper on our excitement. According to him, the animals usually appear during early morning or during the twilight time.
The scenery was beautiful. As the road snaked past gorges, and tight corners as we enjoyed the dark, lush and tall trees and colorful bushes and flowers, streams with clear water, mountains with misty crowns, grassy meadows, and many hydroelectric dams.
I remember the early days of the Moozhiyar project. The country and hillside roads were not adequate to carry the huge loads of penstock pipes and foreign built turbines. In order to accommodate the big rigs, many hairpin curves, and narrow sections of the roads were rebuilt, along with certain access roads. I recollect a childhood trip to Moozhiyar, Chalakkayam, and Pampa along with my father during bus route mapping trips. That was the very first fast passenger bus, Trivandrum- Moozhiyar- service, initiated by the state transport corporation.
Moozhiyar Dam and the power station are part of the Sabarigiri project that is in existence from the early part of 1960. It is second largest power generation station in Kerala. There are a few dams, Pampa, Anathode, and Kakki, are part of the project supplementing water for the hydroelectric plant.
Kakki and Anathode dams are part of the Sabarigiri Hydroelectric augmentation project. Kakki dam is on the Kakki River, one of the tributaries of River Pampa. Kakki reservoir also receives water from Pampa River, and from the Monsoon rains.
Occasional rain showers and mist greeted us into the deep forest. The forest has its own ambiance, a particular scent of wild flowers, musty underbrush, lush green and rotting leaves, and the moist soil.
The evergreen rainforest has a plethora of plants, shrubs, grass, and hardy trees. We saw a sampling of flowers such as Lady Shoe Flower and Spider Flower along the way.
We reached Kochu Pampa Forest Station by around 1 pm. A special lunch was ready for us at the canteen. We opted for the rowboat ride in the Kochu Pampa river first as there was a chance of rain. The boat ride was serene, and beautiful in the pristine waters of the river. The gentle waves as the oars hit the water, the light rocking motion of the boat, sounds of the wild birds, unspoiled greenery: it was back to nature all the way. Felt very refreshed after the boat ride. The oarsman gave us a few dried Rudraksha seeds from the Rudraksha tree nearby.
A scrumptious lunch followed. Both veg and non-veg options were prepared exclusively for our group. One of the highlights of the meal was a freshly cooked omelet with sweet onions, green chilies, and curry leaves. The enticing aroma of the omelet cooked in coconut oil was mouth-watering and brought back childhood memories.
As part of a government initiative, about 1000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees were settled in the Gavi-Kochu Pampa area. Initially, they were to work in cardamom plantations, but they now are part of the eco-tourism initiatives. Later I learned about their meager existence and plights to have a decent living.
Another attraction was the sight of ‘Gopher Tree, near Kochu Pampa. There is a Biblical connection to the Gopher wood, as it is a term used in the Bible (Genesis 6:14) in relation to Noah’s Arc. Another well-known tree is of the genus Boswellia from which the frankincense is obtained. Tribal people collect the dried sap/gum of these trees and sell them to outside world. There are many religious rituals associated with burning of frankincense.
We continued our journey via Anathod Dam towards Gavi. It is part of the Periyar Tiger Reserve and about 3400 ft. above sea level. According to the tourism brochure, visitors to Gavi can avail many nature-oriented activities such as trekking, outdoor camping, night safaris, bird-watching etc. Visitors can book camping tent sites, and tree houses, or stay at the ‘Green Mansion’.
Gavi has plenty of wildlife. From Nilgiri Tahr to Lion-tailed macaque, elephants, tigers, leopards, bison, Indian gaur, sambar, and Malabar giant squirrel can be seen in Gavi. There are many species of birds in the Gavi forest including great pied hornbill, and kingfishers.
There are a few indigenous colonies (scattered in the Gavi forest area). They live in the forest: collecting and trading wild honey, frankincense, wild herbs, and other products from the deep forest. According to reports, there are over thirty different tribal communities in Kerala. We find a few of their houses along the Gavi road. Their makeshift houses are temporary tents made of tarpaulin and other readily available items from the forest.
We had a tea-snack-break at Vallakkadavu. We bought some frankincense from the store to take home, as it is a mosquito repellent.
The road out of Gavi, outside of the forest area, has tea, and cardamom plantations. Our return journey took us via Vallakkadavu, Vadiperiyar, Peerumedu, Kuttikkanam, Mundakayam, Erumeli, Ranni and finally reached Konni Eco Tourism center by 9 PM .
As the rain and the thick mist started to build by the nightfall, our driver decided to get back home. At the conclusion of the journey, we generously tipped him and thanked him for his courteous and safe driving. It was a memorable journey with certain unique charm. It was an experience to enjoy nature in her wholesome way and it was exciting. However, there was a tint of disappointment, as we could not encounter wild animals in their natural surroundings. It could be the weather or our ill luck. On second thought, we should have included a night safari from Gavi for the wildlife experience. Perhaps, next time.
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)