I huffed and puffed up the rainforested slopes of Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Kerala, wondering when we would reach our destination. Fortunately, there were other distractions. A green forest lizard scampered close to my foot when I sat down to rest. It climbed up my shoe and looked up at me quizzically, before realising that I might be dangerous and scooting off. I was also mesmerised by the pretty fruits of the cycad, a palm-like species that has been around for several million years.
I was glad when we broke through the tree cover and reached the meadows on top. The sight of the rolling slopes of the Western Ghats, the mist slowly rising from the valleys, the lush forest below, and tall grasses swaying in the wind, enough to rid me of all tiredness. Suddenly, I felt like the world was at peace. It’s not easy to find a place in India where nature is in its near-pristine form. Luckily, there are regions like Neyyar, which forest officials or communities have managed to conserve, not giving in to the temptations of logging, mining, or large-scale tourism.
Neyyar is one of Kerala’s oldest wildlife sanctuaries, notified in 1958, and spread over 128 square kilometres. The majestic Agasthyamalai peak (1,868 metres) towers on one side. Believed to be sage Agasthya’s abode, this mountain is also the source of the Neyyar river, the water of which is supposed to be like ghee—or “neyya” in Malayalam. The sanctuary is part of the 3,500 square kilometres Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve that was recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
My trek up the slope was considerably slow, since I stopped every few minutes to listen to bird calls and craned my neck to look for their singers. A black crested baza, an attractive small bird of prey, let me watch its movements for a long time, but flycatchers and warblers gave me only tantalising glimpses. The chatter of bonnet macaques and Nilgiri langurs interrupted my walk every once in a while. Beyond where I’d reached, there is a cave from which visitors can get a good view of the grasslands, where the Nilgiri tahr like to graze. The tahr is endemic to the Western Ghats of south India. Since they are not found anywhere else in the world, sighting one is an exciting prospect. Also roaming in this forest are endangered lion-tailed macaques, gaurs, elephants, tigers, and the occasional leopard.
Walking up through the thick forest I marvelled at the girth and height of the trees, their buttress roots helping them stand tall despite the typically shallow soil of a rainforest. Mesua, silk cotton, ironwood, myristica, wild species of mango, jamun, cinnamon, and many other trees towered above me. Then there were lianas and creepers, some as enormous as tree trunks and some as thin as reeds. Every once in a while I’d spot one of the 125 species of flowering orchids found here, or a cluster of bird’s nest fern. Moss and lichen were everywhere, covering gnarled tree trunks and fantastically shaped branches, which made me half expect an elf or gremlin to pop up and say hello. The bountiful region has over 1,000 species of plants. A great variety of them are known for their medicinal properties.
Since Neyyar is not a tiger reserve (though it does have tigers), nature lovers can walk through it, which is a better way to experience the forest than via jeep safaris. Visitors can do easy hikes along the foothills, or a tougher climb up to some dizzying heights.
The sanctuary’s administrative complex, near the Neyyar Dam, has an information centre where activity bookings can be made (contact the wildlife warden on 0471 2360762 or 0471 2272182). Apart from trekking, there is a lion safari where visitors can see the big cats roaming around in the open and a crocodile park and research centre, where the large reptiles laze around. The safari should not be a replacement for a trek since that is when the region’s true wilderness is experienced. There are also elephant and deer rehabilitation centres, where tourists can get close to animals.
Boating is also available in the Neyyar reservoir (a 20-minute ride for 7 people in one boat costs ₹670). An ecotourism package for a day visit includes boating, visits to the lion safari park, crocodile park, and deer and elephant rehabilitation centres. The Neyyar Ecotourism Ecodevelopment Committee runs this, so that local people benefit from the revenue (Indians: adults ₹250, children ₹125, foreigners: adults ₹350, students ₹200).
The sanctuary is open throughout the year. November to March is the most pleasant time to visit. June to October brings heavy rain which makes trekking plans unpredictable. This is also the time when armies of leeches surface.
Thiruvananthapuram is the closest airport (30 km/1 hour) and Neyyittinkara, the closest rail station (20 km/1 hour). Taxis can be hired from the station, airport, and city.
Appeared in the July 2013 issue as “Monsoon Forests”.
Ashish Kothari is founder-member of Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh. He has taught at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, coordinated the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, served on Greenpeace International and India boards, and has (co)authored or (co)edited over 30 books including “Birds in our Lives”, and “Churning the Earth”.