The river holds a mirror image of the sky so accurately in its glassy surface that, save for the occasional insect skittering across the skin, it’s hard to distinguish between reality and reflection. A delicate net of wispy clouds stretches across, reining in the hazy outline of mountains wrapped in mist and the emerald green rainforest dipping leafy fingers into the edges.
In the early morning light, my kayaking guide Praveen bobs patiently on the Periyar river, while I cackhandedly negotiate my way out of a tangle of water hyacinth – the weed that is currently the bane of Kerala’s backwaters and rivers. Secretly, I think he wishes I had just opted for the tandem kayak rather than huffily insisting on my own, but no chance. I want to savour this tranquil scene solo – it’s one of those rare moments when it feels as if the earth has been freshly made overnight, emerging from a crisp dawn.
There’s no one else on the water and that could be because the most popular way of exploring Kerala’s waterways – specifically the backwaters in the Alleppey district 50km away – is by lodging on a houseboat: large, converted rice barges. They used to be the only way to reach isolated villages or transport goods, but with the collapse of the coconut farming industry and the modernisation of roads and ferries, it’s a godsend that they’re popular with tourists.
Apart from reviving an ancient form of boatmaking that might otherwise have been lost, their construction provides work for hundreds of local craftsmen. After a trip on one last March, however, I decided I wanted a slower, more intimate way of exploring the tiny fishing villages en route, and one that – for all the houseboats’ ethical benefits – didn’t involve belching out motor oil; which, after journeying through Kerala’s idyllic yawn of coconut groves, made me feel a guilt akin to throwing fag butts at dolphins.
The start of the four-day kayaking trip begins at the Hornbill Camp, some 45km from Cochin airport. Set in 80 acres of rainforest, 10 canvas cottages sit squatly on fat blades of grass. There are no qualms about waking up for an early start – Hornbill is twitcher paradise, being mere metres from the Salim Ali bird sanctuary and a pristine swathe of rainforest. A jabber of hoots, squeals, squawks and creaks fills the air at sunrise, and after a quick sip of sweet spiced tea, it’s time to hit the water.
As houseboats are only allowed on the major backwaters, river kayaking is a good way to begin an introduction to Kerala’s waters. With virtually no traffic to contend with, I have time to learn that reversing the blade in the water makes it turn sharply – perfect for tight corners. The best times for kayaking, Praveen tells me, are early morning, or after 4pm, otherwise the sun is too harsh. “Also no crocodiles,” he states, “but lots of elephants in the forest.”
We continue downstream and then take a left into a small, quiet cove. Overhead, kites wheel from tree to tree and kingfishers leap in lightning strokes between branches and the water. Fronds from overhanging trees weave a green canopy against the sun.
Being this close to the water is incredible. Along the edges of the river I sense a dark, quieter world. A closer look at leaves bobbing on the surface reveal they haven’t fallen at all, rather they’re attached to an underwater forest moving in slow, soothing waves beneath the depths. We emerge to see a fisherman paddling by. Praveen stops to talk to him, in turn he shows us his catch – a catfish, wet, shiny and smooth, jerking energetically on a piece of rope. When our kayaking comes to an end I feel exhilarated. Ha! I could give Praveen a run for his money. Then I get stuck on a tree root and he has to bail me out.
The next afternoon, Das, my escort and driver, takes me along bumpy roads to a meeting point in Alleppey, the start of the backwaters. Praveen’s older brother Unni is going to be my guide, and I feel very privileged – he sports an impressive moustache, is ex-navy and won the Asian kayaking championships in 1989. We putter along in a motor boat to Punnamada, to bypass a giant sea of water hyacinth, and from there we’ll kayak to Akkarakalam Memoirs, an old family homestay along the Pampa river.
The stream of motorised ferries and houseboats makes it apparent that kayaking in the backwaters is not going to be as tranquil as Hornbill, but it offers a glimpse into a different world. Houses line the banks of the river in varying shapes and sizes: crumbling tiny stone buildings flanked by palm trees, larger sprawling estates with gleaming white walls.
All the tiny gestures you miss while chundering past in a houseboat unfurl at a natural pace while you are in a kayak. We pass inches away from old, wizened men in small wooden canoes and tiny children dressed in starched whites being ferried from school. A strong-armed woman, skirts hitched up, beats her washing into submission against a stone. Women wearing powdery make-up hurry along in crisp cream saris, but have just enough time to stare at me – good Indian girls do not gallivant around in kayaks.
Fried pomfret fish and hot dal greet me at Akkarakalam, the 150-year-old homestay built in the Keralan Tharavad style of architecture. Dark knotted wood and tiled roofs have been restored, and the back courtyard opens onto the river, dotted with antique lamps.
The next morning, Unni arrives to lead the way to our next homestay, Emerald Isle. I’m worried about the state of my arms on day three; after two days of kayaking they begin to throb.
The water is a deep muddy brown and smells heavily of people (I pass a man half-submerged, having a scrub at his privates), as we pick our way through the tinier canals. The sun at 11am is not kind. Breaking free from a mesh of clouds, it bears down heavily on our skin, cooking us in our kayaks. Cool spots of shade lent by coconut trees offer bubbles of respite but even Unni looks pooped.
I rub my eyes to make sure they don’t deceive me. In the distance a line crosses the vast stretch of the river, but it appears to be flapping. As we near, a giant gathering of ducks pulls into view; hundreds of them. If they don’t move out of the way this could be the beginning of a new phobia, but, valiantly deciding Unni should be the guinea pig, I wait till he crosses the line well before I make my move. They instantly disperse and Unni yells by way of explanation: “Duck farm.”
Exhausted, we crawl to Emerald Isle, the ancestral home of Vinod, who greets me with a beaming smile. The homestay employs around 15 local families, and is formed from that same beautiful Tharavad architecture, designed to keep the house and its four rooms cool. As I pick my way past the murky pond, home to Pearl Spot fish, a vast jewel-hued paddy field stretches out before my eyes, punctuated by small, lush islands mushrooming from the watery soil and tiptoeing storks. I sink into one of the hammocks and let the peaceful scene wash over me.
After a good night’s sleep, it’s a hot and sticky three-hour ride to Dewalokam, a 10-acre organic farm where wild swimming awaits. Rubber trees herald our arrival to the plantation, as we drive through shafts of light to the heart of the house. Dr Jose and his wife Sinta, the owners, greet me with a garland, and explain that most of the food they serve is grown on the farm – even the meat, as Jose points out the calf ear-marked for Christmas dinner. I can’t look it in the eye. The surrounding garden is like a miniature Eden – papayas, bananas, pineapple patches and spice trees all co-exist on the same soil, as well as Ayurvedic herbs.
A crystal clear river, which is filtered through the forest, runs in front of the main house and is great for shaking off the soporific heat. Tiny fish swim underfoot and the river floor is shallow and spongy. As I dive in and taste some of the sweet, pure water, I feel things have finally come full circle – Kerala’s waters are most definitely a thing of beauty, inside and out.