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Beyond the Backwaters

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April 2005
Beyond the Backwaters

For adventurous tourists in India, a new way to experience the many pleasures of Kerala can begin on the tops of trees.

By SAJITA NAIR������

Ever wondered what it would be like to live on the tops of trees? If you think it's only monkeys who do that, you are mistaken. Welcome to tree houses ? the latest addition in the world of travel and adventure. As the name suggests, tree houses are constructed on giant trees in verdant tropical forests. In India, only "God's Own Country", Kerala, offers these heavenly abodes. Once on top, there is a veritable feast for the senses ? a bird's eye view of acres of greenery, chilly winds, quiet nights and the thrill of being on top of the world! Although living high does not come cheap, a number of visitors both from India and abroad opt for this offbeat offering to experience the rare and unique riches found in the midst of trees. It is also an ideal destination for honeymooners, since it offers privacy coupled with quiet and romantic surroundings.

Half an hour drive by jeep on rough terrain from Vythiri (near Calicut) through coffee and spice plantations leads you to the location of the tree house. You also have the option of walking with a guide through the jungle to reach your destination. This is highly recommended, as walking on this trail can be a delight and a learning experience. The first sight of the tree houses is astounding. Two giant trees have wooden cottages built high on them, and 86 ft above the ground they look like an adventurer's trove. There are four double rooms in the two tree houses. Before you can query about getting there you are ushered into a large cane basket, which will now be your lift. By a combination of pulleys and counter weight of water, this bamboo lift winches you to the top. This is an indigenously developed mechanism to minimize noise and avoid using electricity. Access to the tree house is by a suspension bridge, connected between two trees. Once on top, the view is breathtakingly beautiful!

Tree houses are made of ethnic, eco-friendly and locally available materials. Each of them is equipped with facilities such as beds, carpeted verandahs, bathrooms with flushable toilets, washbasins with running water and shower. There is also a sit-out where you can relax in the lap of nature. Indigenous techniques, skills and experience of local craftsmen, who are mostly tribal, are used for the construction and maintenance of these houses. Guides for sightseeing trips are available and currency exchange is possible. Laundry and restaurant services are also provided.

Without the cacophony of TV, stereos and other electronic devices, the evenings and nights are quiet and in total contrast to the chaos of urban India. Living with the birds on treetops, this is the closest one can get to nature. Hurricane lamps with kerosene oil and solar energy are used for lighting. Whoever said that only babies are rocked to sleep may be proved wrong here. In the tree house, get rocked by the wind playing in the trees and sleep like a baby. When you wake up in the morning just remember how high up you are!

Indian cuisine, especially specific to northern Kerala, is served here and the menu is simple. Given the influence of ancient Arab trade links in this region, the cuisine will appeal to varied tastes. The food court is interactive and visitors can see most of the activities. Food is served on banana leaves as done traditionally in Kerala, so no knives and forks are provided. That leaves you with a lip-smacking and finger-licking experience!

As the resort is eco-friendly, water is taken from the nearby stream and filtered. The energy used for this is provided by solar panels. This helps prevent air and noise pollution. Food is prepared from fruits and vegetables grown in the organic farm without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Meals are cooked using gobar gas, which is made by the tribals from cow dung.

Since the tree houses are set in 500 acres of Wynad forest reserve, there are a number of jungle trails one can choose from. A walk through pristine, undisturbed jungle, teeming with various forms of life, is a refreshing experience. Each trail promises a different adventure. You can also go on a trek with your guide or explore the surrounding areas ? such as Pookode Lake, where you can go for boating, and Muthanga, where you can see the taming and training of wild elephants.

The great bio-diversity offers a variety of flora and fauna. Monkeys, birds and occasionally other animals like sambar, wild boar and elephants are seen in adjoining forests. The various viewpoints offer a panoramic view of the valley below. As the area is completely eco-friendly, no plastics or glass are allowed. This is to protect the animals and their natural habitat. In the quiet and serene atmosphere, one can also unwind by doing nothing. Meandering in the wild or reading a book can be quite relaxing. You can also take short elephant rides on tamed elephants.

GETTING THERE:

Vythiri is about 40 miles north of Calicut (Kozhikode) on the Calicut-Mysore highway. It is 93 miles from Mysore and 180 miles from Kochi (Ernakulam). Being well connected by road, bus and taxi services are readily available. At an altitude between 3750 - 4500 feet, Vythiri is known for its evergreen tropical rain forest and coffee, tea, cardamom and pepper plantations. The nearest railhead and airport are in Calicut, which is only 40 miles away. And the nearest bus station is in Vythiri, at a distance of less than 2 miles.

The best season to visit is between September and May. Monsoon months (between June and August) can be messy as the jungle teems with leeches. These 1-inch long thread-like creatures latch on to any open area of your body and bloat on your blood. The rainy season, however, also has its own charms as the rains pitter-pattering on the tree houses provide for a true tropical rainforest experience.

WHERE TO STAY:

You can select your tree house based on its location. Vythiri in northern Kerala, Idukki in southern Kerala and Munnar in central Kerala presently offer this unique experience. Idukki is easily accessible from Kottayam or Thekkady, and Munnar from Kochi. Apart from the tree houses, these eco-resorts also have land-based ethnic and eco-friendly cottages. The prices range from $150 to $450 and any off-season discount is applied during booking.

Green Magic Nature Resort

Thalipuzha, Vythiri, Wayanad, Kerala

Contact: greenmagic@hotelskerala.com

Carmelia Havens Resort

Vandanmedu - 685 551, Idukki district, Kerala

Apart from the tree houses, this resort has a multi-cuisine restaurant, swimming pool, watch tower, Ayurvedic body massage center, open-air barbeque and facilities for various games. It also has cave houses and attractions like boating, trekking, fishing, visit to tea factory and cardamom curing center.

Contact: carmeliahaven@hotelskerala.com

Jungle Park Resort and Tree Houses

Vythiri, Wayanad, Kerala

Contact: junglepark@hotelskerala.com

B-Six Holiday Resort - Tree House

Near Lechmi Estate, Mankulam Road, Munnar-685612, Kerala.

Contact: bsix@hotelskerala.com


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