A trek deep into a forest home to 48 tigers

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'Tiger trail trekking' is a unique tourism package offered by the Kerala Government and Forest Department at Thekkady in Idukki district. Though it is probably the most interesting trekking experience in Kerala, very few people opt for it. Reluctance to engage in long walks is cited as the reason for the situation and participants in the trek are mainly travellers from North India and foreign visitors.

Three packages

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The trek can be booked by calling phone number 8547603066 or on the website periyarfoundation.online There are three treks every week. The first one starts on Monday and lasts till Wednesday – one night and two days. The second is from Wednesday to Friday, again two days and a night. Meanwhile, the third package is longer, starting on Friday and winds up on Sunday – three days and two nights. The third is the best option and only six persons can take part in each package.

After doing prior booking, participants have to reach the trekking office at Thekkady by 8.45 am on the starting day. As the office can be reached only through the entrance gate, the fees there also have to be paid, which amount to Rs 33 for Indian citizens and Rs 450 for foreigners. However, children below 12 years of age are not allowed to take part in the trek.

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On reaching the office, a document has to be signed by participants before starting the walk by 9.30 am. They then head to the boat landing centre at Thekkady and board a country raft to the cross the lake. The place where they get down on the shore is the starting point of the trek.

A curious tale of forest theives

There is an interesting story behind the trek. After starting the package in 1995, it was made more attractive a year later. This was made possible by roping in an unlikely group of people – forest thieves!

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Around 25 persons were nabbed by the authorities for stealing Indian bay leaves from the forest. These men were involved in other thefts too. However, instead of proceeding with the legal action, the Forest Department officials withdrew the cases against the men and sought their services for the trekking into the deep woods.

This unique arrangement was the idea of the then eco-tourism officer Bennichan Thomas, who carried out all official procedures to implement it. O P Kaler, who was the DFO (Divisional Forest Officer) at that time, offered full support to the initiative. Bennichan Thomas is still in service, holding the post of CCF (Chief Conservator of Forests). All the 25 former forest thieves were officially appointed as guards for the trek. As these new appointees were already familiar with the forest, they could regale tourists with exciting tales of their previous adventures in the area.

Now, over the years, Tiger trail trekking has come to be known as one of the most interesting wildlife packages in the world, offering each participant a singular experience.

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Each step on the trek presents a stunning image of the forest, which is spread across 925 sq km. The trek covers 26 sq km. According to the 2016 census, there are 48 tigers in this forest area, apart from wild animals like elephant, bear, bison, sambar deer, leopard, and black panther. Another rare and attractive species commonly found here is Nilgiri Marten, which resembles the wild squirrel.

Claw marks of tiger

All along the trekking path, stately trees as well as dew-covered grass greet travellers. There a large number of tree species belonging to the Ficus family, some of which are 200 to 600 years old. Another peculiar variety is the 'Chorakali' tree, on many parts of which the claw marks of the tiger can be noticed. Tigers mark their territory as well as clean their claws by scratching on the Chorakali tree.

By 1 pm, the trekkers can reach the first camp site after these sights. Lemon tea is served there to freshen everybody up. The next programme is a bath in the stream flowing nearby. By that time, lunch is ready.

Food and camp fire

Only tasty vegetarian food is served during the trek. After lunch, the walk resumes by 3 pm and covers around 12 km. If the participants are willing, they will be taken further into the forest. By 6 pm, everyone returns to the camp site.

The supper follows. Rice and chapatis will be available as per demand. While supper is served, the camp fire, too, will be lit on the river bank. The setting in the forest is magical, with the warmth of the fire making everybody comfortable as the temperature dips in the woods at night. Many feel that it is a time for celebrations.

After a tight sleep, the morning trek starts at 7 am next day to an area where a large number of tigers reside. It is a thrilling walk as chances of sighting tigers are high. This walk lasts till 10.30 am and at the spot where it concludes are several natural swings. One swing made of vines can seat up to 15 persons.

By 1 pm, the trekkers can return to the starting point, winding up the package.

Two nights, three days package

This longer trek takes participants further inside the forest, which is its most interesting aspect. According to the guides, if the trekkers are willing, they would be taken to any part of the forest. The walk lasts 3-4 hours.

After the morning trek, breakfast is readied. After some time relaxing, a sumptuous meal is also by 1 pm. It comprises seven dishes prepared in traditional style.

The next trek is from 3 pm to 6 pm.

The stay has been arranged at Nellikkapetty, which is on the banks of a stream which is part of Mullaperiyar.

On the second day too, there are morning and evening treks.

After the morning trek on the third day, breakfast is served and the trip concludes by 1 pm.

Things to remember

Though Vodafone, Idea, Jio and BSNL telecom services are available intermittently, it is BSNL that has the best coverage in the area. So, it is preferable to carry a phone with BSNL connection during the trek. Travellers may also take a power bank with them.

The trip is 100% safe and there is no reason to fear a tiger attack even when the region has 48 of the feline species as 4-5 forest officials accompany the trekkers.

The fare for the two nights and three days package is Rs 8,400 and for the shorter trip of one night and two days is Rs 6,000.

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