Friday, March 28, 2008

Leech Trekking in Periyar

Yes, that's a picture of a dead fish floating in a pond. And with the exception of a troop of monkeys, that was all the wildlife available during a full day safari in Periyar National Park, India.

The differences between here and Africa were profound.

While Africa receives most of the press about endangered wildlife, I walked away from every park I visited filled with awe and optimism for the future of species at risk. Periyar felt dead, and even though it apparently boasts healthy populations elephants and tigers, there were few signs of life. Meanwhile, the wilderness experience was compromised by the carnivorous appetite of the jungle's overwhelming leech population.

The Lonely Planet guidebook (which now borders on useless thanks to some key format changes, I'm switching to Footprint) advises that "leeches may be present following rain". That's sporting of them to pass on the tip (Rough Guide failed to do that much), but any review of the park falls short without an precise explanation of what this means...

The tour began at 5:15 am on the heels of week long rains from the nearby town of Kumily. By 7 o'clock we were squinting at a shadowy dot on the horizon that was meant to be a deer (I'm still not convinced) and noticed a few leeches scattered on the roadway. Unlike the slug-like variety you've seen around your local swimming hole, these creatures spring across open ground like Slinkys down stairs, and as we were to find out shortly, nothing short of the tightest woven fabric will halt their march to bare skin, and these few roadside specimens were the first in a plague of near biblical proportions once we reached the jungle proper.

Once at the park's headquarters we donned our 'leech proof socks' - a kind of canvas gaiter worn like a knee high sock inside your shoe - and were rowed across to the far side of the lake for the start of a three hour trek. Twenty feet down the path each of us had a half dozen leeches on our shoes. One hundred feet the ground crawling with, not a handful, not a dozen, but hundreds of marching, swarming worms. The jungle floor was alive and everybody's legs were covered up to the knees, with more disappearing through the leather and canvas of each available shoe.

We turned back then and there having seen no more than a hundred feet of forest and a single troop of monkeys in the canopy above. The downside of the retreat was looking like colossal cowards for calling it quits after a mere five minutes. I'm not worried. The intrepid explorers that kept on enjoyed three hours of soaking rain and annelid infestation to see no more wildlife than we did in the first hundred feet. I'm calling it a victory for our hides and our nerves.

Later that day we headed deeper into the forest via jeep, but the story was the same. With the exception of a few more monkeys and the dead fish expertly framed above, the jungle offered no wildlife while the leeches continued their assault, appearing inexplicably in our covered jeep, on our sleeves, and pasted to our faces.

Granted, I'm more than a bit squeamish of the creepy crawlies of the world, but in addition to the abysmal wildlife experience, the concerted lack of information on trekking conditions bordered on negligence. Periyar is India's most visited national park. I doubt this would be the case if park officials, and tourist guide books, ponied up valid information about the Periyar experience.

I'm interested in other's experiences here. For now, I recommend it to no one. Head to Ranthambore instead where two years ago I saw a tiger and an array of other Indian wildlife.

8 comments:

WesternGrit said...

Indian Parks claim a lot of visitors, but one has to keep in mind that most local visitors simply visit the "guesthouse", and the giftshop, take a few pics near roads, then head home.

Bharat said...

Are you coming through Bangalore by any chance?

Odiyya said...

unfortunately, it doesn't look like i'll be through bangalore. I'm in mumbai now, and though i was originally going to head back down south, it looks like i'll be heading through Orissa up to Calcutta now.

Bharat said...

All the best and have fun...

Looking forward to reading more of your posts...

Keren Blankfeld Schultz said...

I just discovered your site and immediately subscribed. I look forward to reading future posts and following you through your travels!

Invisible G. said...

Jesus Murphy, I'm impressed you went that far into the abyss.

Now you know what hell might be like. I intend to score the corner office :) When the heck are you back?? Oh, and I hit Brazil April 11th, all in the midst of a Dengue and Yellow Fever outbreak!

Odiyya said...

Thanks Karen, and welcome aboard!

IG - April 11th is right around the corner. I can hardly wait to hear about it. As for me, my plane ticket says june 8th, but who the heck knows ;).

hubiquitous said...

I was just in Periyar a few days ago and had a slightly more pleasant experience. We did encounter leeches on our boots and shoes, but only in the range of a dozen or so per person. We too saw little wildlife beyond monkeys, birds and squirrels. We did encounter a king cobra that was safely on the other side of a river.

One thought on guide books, I too gave up on Lonely Planet a long time ago, but liked Rough Guides. I'll have to give Footprint a look too. Any one else's thoughts?