Sunday, July 26, 2015

Parambikulam - Forest of Teaks & Tigers

The Western Ghats or Sahyadris, is a stretch of mountains running south along the western edge of the Indian peninsula. Starting somewhere on the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra it runs south through Maharashra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and ends at Kanyakumari in Tamilnadu. 

It is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site and in its 1600 kilometers of nearly unbroken terrain, encompasses within its 160,000 square kilometers, one of the world's 10 most hottest 'biodiversity hotspots'! Along its length it includes 39 major national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and reserve forests; 20 in Kerala, 10 in Karnataka, 5 in Tamilnadu and 4 in Maharashtra.

I said 'nearly unbroken' because when it reaches the middle of Kerala the Western Ghats suddenly sinks to the ground from an average elevation of nearly 2700 meters to just 140 meters above MSL for about 30 kilometers of its' length. This is the Palghat Gap, a cleavage in this mountain chain allowing an east-west access from the peninsula to the west coast. On the north lies the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and the south is flanked by the Anaimalai hills.

On the northern edge of the Anaimalai hills, in Palakkad district is Nelliyampathy and it forms the northern border of Parmbikulam Tiger Reserve. Parambikulam sits in one of the biodiversity rich parts of the Western Ghats. On the west is the Peechi-Vazhani WLS and Sholyar. On the east is the Aliyar RF, Indira Gandhi National Park and Chinnar WLS. On the south is the Sholayar reservoir and Chalakudy river, beyond which lies Idamalayar. At the southern tip of this approximately triangular part of the western ghats is Idukki WLS and Periyar Tiger Reserve

This is an area that I could spend wandering around for the rest of my life, if I could!

I have been to Parambikulam only twice before, in an era when you could drive into the forest in your own vehicle accompanied by the mandatory guide deputed by the Forest Department from the local EDC. That was over a decade ago when Parambikulam was a wildlife sanctuary. There were not many restrictions on the route we could drive on and it was an experience that can never be repeated now. With the elevation of the WLS to a Tiger Reserve in 2009 many restrictions have been put in place to ensure the tiger and its prey base are well protected. This trip was done last monsoon though I'm recording it now!

ROUTES & ACCESS: (All distances from Palakkad)
Though Parambikulam is in Kerala the only access, by road, is through Tamilnadu. Most of those traveling from outside Kerala will have to reach Pollachi before joining up with the road from Kerala at Ambarampalayam. Those coming along the west coast highway (NH-17) from Mangalore side will eventually have to reach Palakkad.

Travellers driving up from South Kerala will have to turn off  on the NH 544 (the erstwhile NH 47) to Nemmara from Vadakancherry. That route will pass through Kollengode before eventually reaching Meenakshipuram, the common point for the three routes. For those coming from North Kerala there are two routes from Palakkad. 

You can either drive up the Palakkad-Pollachi road upto Gopalapuram and take a right turn near the check post to Meenakshipuram. The other route, that people like me living in the town can take is the Palakkad-Koduvayur road, turn left at Koduvayur to Thattamangalam (also spelt Tattamangalam) (21 kms). Immediately after Thattamagalam  the road divides into two. Take a right turn towards Vandithavalam and Meenakshipuram (41 kms); the left goes to Chittur. Ambarampalayam (49 kms) is 8 kilometers after Meenakshipuram, where you have to turn right to Anaimalai (55 kms). In the center of Anaimalai town take a right to Vetaikaranpudur (58Kms) and eventually Sethumadai (66 kms).

Sethumadai, where you turn right to Parambikulam
The road swings right at Sethumadai and reaches the first of the many check posts on the road to Parambikulam. The first check post, at the bottom of the ghats, is controlled by the Tamilnadu Forest Department. You have to register your vehicle and passenger details here first. 

The first check post

The second check post is in Top Slip (76 kms) where you again have to get out and sign another register. The TNFD has rest houses and dormitories in Top Slip. There is a basic forest department canteen where food can be obtained by prior order. 

TNFD Forest rest house at Top Slip

The third check post is at the border of the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve, manned by the Kerala Forest Department. Your vehicle will be subjected to a thorough check for liquor, plastics and the like before being allowed to go further. The last check post is at Anapaddi, where you have to leave your vehicles if you are a day tripper. Private vehicles are permitted beyond this point only if you have booking at one of the available accommodation facilities run by the department. Once again, a guide is allotted for each vehicle. 

For day trippers the department organizes a three hour bus trip to all the important places in Parambikulam. There is a stop at Thunakadavu dam. The FD has a tree house on the edge of the reservoir. 

It is from here the bus takes you on a short drive through the forest up to the Kannimara Teak, reputedly one of the oldest and largest teak trees in the world. 

Kannimara's canopy

Full length view of the Kannimara tree

During this drive you have the best chance of spotting some wildlife. Since our trip was during the monsoon there was not much activity of the larger mammals. 


Wild boar relaxing in the slush

Nilgiri langur & Malabar Giant squirrel

Nilgiri langur juvenile

Malabar Giant Squirrel
Once you finish the Kannimara teak visit, the rest of the drive is on asphalted road. The bus halts briefly at a view point from where you can see dam you just left behind. The reservoir is just a small shining patch in the middle of the lush forest that covers all the landscape as far as eyes can see.

Thunakadavu from the view point

The final stop is in Parambikulam (81 kms) dam site and the township. If you are on a day trip you can find small eateries here or you can fix up with the canteen at Anappadi check post. We had carried a packed lunch so that was not required.

The forest department has another tree house and a rest house with rooms here. The best accommodation appears to be their Tented Niche at Anappadi. A small patch of forest fenced off near the  check post. They have tented accommodation that can be booked for overnight trips. I am yet to do a trip there but that is the next on my agenda.

We stopped at the Anapaddi check post and unpacked our lunch in the company of butterflies, peacocks and a rhesus macaque who was trying very hard to appear uninterested in our lunch!

  1. Parambikulam is easily accessed from Palakkad or Pollachi so you can have your base in one of these places.
  2. Start early from Palakkad. You can stop at the Sakthi Resorts just outside Ambarampalayam for  breakfast. Be warned, they seem to have a very laid back attitude and we spent an hour waiting for breakfast. Otherwise pack your breakfast and lunch for the trip.
  3. Carry no plastics or liquor. They are very strict about it and will confiscate bottles. They only keep a count of plastic bags and bottles. 
  4. The check posts open at 6.00 AM and close at 6.00 PM. Cross the Top Slip check post on time otherwise the Sethumadai check post will be locked and you will have a little hassle. 
  5. The best option appears to go on an overnight trip or a two night package that the forest department offers. Though you are not allowed to drive around in your own vehicle, the FD has a dusk drive at 6.00 PM. Ideal time when the wildlife are getting active. Leopards are very often seen in the evenings though tigers are rarely seen.

Happy Woodcrawling...................