Apparently, according to some ‘Bucket Lists’, the backwaters of Kerala are a must-see before dying. Indeed, the National Geographic Traveller places the backwaters in the ‘top 50 destinations of a lifetime’. Having now ticked this off my own bucket list I can honestly say I agree with the sentiment. This log entry counts as a proper log entry, what with it being a two-day trip on a boat, so in old school style I’ve put together a words-and-pictures account of this most incredible place, which includes a video clip. Also we thought we’d show you on Google Earth where we are talking about. this link The blue is our route in a clockwise direction and the little red bit is the canoe trip, mentioned below.
Before reading our account, check out our little video clip.
The famous backwaters are a group of lakes, canals and lagoons that sit on the coast of Malabar, in the state of Kerala, India. There are five main lakes, all connected by 38 rivers and both man-made and natural canals. They amount to around 900km of waterways in total. Most of the water is brackish but because the fresh water is used for irrigation there are sustained attempts to keep the Arabian Sea from entering the rivers. The wildlife found in and around the waters is prolific, from kingfishers, terns, cormorants, frogs and fresh water shrimp, to otters and turtles. Many of the canals we motored through were elevated up to 4m above the surrounding paddy fields, demonstrating an age-old infrastructure of sustainable farming which covers both fishing and growing of crops.
Liz and I were joined by recently married Mike and Gabi and we had arranged to take a kettuvallam through the waterways. A kettuvallam is a particular type of houseboat. Traditionally these vessels were grain barges and although they are now used to cart us tourists around, they still boast thatched roofs and wooden hulls. Our boat, m/v Safe Botel, was quite unique in that it had an open-sided top deck, allowing Mike and myself an advantage to snap the passing scenery. We had two double bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, plus aircon and fans, a swing chair at the bow and plenty of look-out spots to take photos and admire the local people busying themselves along the waterways.
We also had a skipper, Captain James PV. I wouldn’t have minded helming the thing myself but after climbing aboard for the first time and mistaking the bow for the stern I thought I should take a rest from navigating (as if eight months isn’t long enough). The skipper was accompanied by two deck-hands, one of whom doubled up as the chef, Mr Kunjumon.
We began our adventure after a two hour drive from Kochi to Alleppey (find it on Google Earth under Alappuzha), which is one of the 14 districts of Kerala. We were dropped off in a pretty busy area of Alleppey where many of the houseboats begin their trip.
The kettuvallams were moored up three boats deep and we didn’t start our journey until 11am. This involved the deckhands allowing other guests to walk through our boat to the boats moored behind it. In fact it seemed as if most of the boats left around 11am but despite the busy start it never felt too busy on the water. I guess you’d feel differently if you were a local, or were worried about the impact all these boats are having on the fragile ecosystem.
As soon as we left the main launch area it was clear that we were sharing the backwaters with working people.
Fishermen and farmers all use the waterways to get around, whilst the homes of the local people are all connected by a single track that runs along the canal. Along the way we saw many women washing clothes and dishes in the waters, whilst it was not uncommon to see men washing themselves first thing in the morning too.
Shrimps and Kites
Our first ‘tourist’ sight was the world’s longest steel dragon boat. These boats are known as Chundan Vallam and every year during Onum (religious celebration in Kerala in September) a big dragon boat race is held on the backwaters. The boat we were eyeing up was the longest steel boat of its kind. Called ‘Aries Punnamada Chundan’, it is 144ft in length and I have seen photographs of it with over 130 people aboard!
Further up river the skipper decided to tie the boat up for ten minutes, allowing us the chance to purchase some fresh water ‘shrimp’. The bodies of these things were about 10cm in length but their pincers and legs more than doubles the size of these things. They are huge!
The vendor was a local fisherman and his kids were playing in the well brushed, clean mud entrance to his house. Behind it were paddy fields stretching a good 20 acres back. I went for a quick wander to snap the workers in the field, turned a corner behind his house, to find myself 2 meters away from a Brahman Kite, sitting on a branch! We’ve seen so many of these birds of prey, they really are majestic swooping in circles, sometimes in packs, and they’re as common here as the blackbird is in the UK. He posed without fear as I snapped away at his beautiful plumage, though with hindsight I suspect that perhaps his wings had been clipped.
Back on the boat and the deckhands and skipper pulled off the strangest manoeuvre. Next to our prawn vendor was a small hut with a large, operational belt-driven pump, presumably to empty the adjacent paddy fields of water. It created quite a wash in the canal and the skipper used this to his advantage, springing off the side with one line and using the wash to push the back of the boat round. He explained afterwards that the tide had turned and that this was the only way to get the boat pointing in the right direction. Nice job.
Just around the corner was our first stop, a lake with entrances and exits off each corner. I think an anchor must have been dropped as we spent the next two hours gently pirouetting in the centre as we feasted on ‘black fish’ a backwater speciality. It was rather bony but delicious lightly fried and served up with all manner of Keralan side dishes. Mr Kunjumon very definitely deserved his tip, slaving away to bring us snacks, dinner, breakfast, tea and coffee whenever we wanted.
Into the Mangroves
We continued our journey, catching children playing in the late afternoon sun, as mums prepared dinner, washed dishes and chatted whilst the men worked the fields and the nets. For the last eight months Liz and I have been one of the sights in Cochin as the day-tripper boats bring hundreds of tourists every day past the marina. Frequently they scream, shout and generally try to attract our attention as we go about our routine, hanging up our washing or sitting on the dock supping a cold one. Now the tables had turned and it was our turn to ogle the locals going about their business. Not once did we shout at them and even a wave seemed to a bit much, but it didn’t stop Mike and I pointing our lenses wherever we could.
The day ended as we pulled into a little bay, just big enough for a couple of boats.
It overlooked more paddy fields and palms and made a great spot to rest for the night.
The adventure wasn’t over though. I’d read somewhere that to really appreciate the backwaters one should hire a local to take one out into the backwaters ‘proper’, where the tourist boats can’t go.
The skipper was quick to find a willing local stupid enough to take Mike, Gabi and myself off-piste. This man looked about 80 but he was fitter than a fat English bloke half his age (me) and our notion of a romantic, gentle paddle by this chap was soon broken when he handed Mike and myself an oar each!
The canoe was a dark, hardwood affair, the sort I see paddle past Esper back in Cochin. They are really heavy and Mike and I quickly pulled muscles and broke our backs as we paddled into the mangroves. Our coxswain thoroughly enjoyed himself as we did ourselves damage and him blowing his whistle at us whenever we took the boat in the wrong direction. I think he was supposed to be steering but I couldn’t be sure. Despite the tough paddle, made difficult by our ridiculous seated position, we were finally getting under the skin of the backwaters and experiencing true life by the river.
The canals were no more than a few metres wide but there were still some wonderful houses in amongst the thick palm, mangrove and undergrowth. Invisible children hidden behind flowering hedges shouted “What’s your name?” and “Where are you from?” as we paddled past their homes. The jaunt seemed to go on forever and by the end of it Mike and I were aching in places we never thought existed. Gabi, meanwhile, was lapping it up. Hey, she was on her honeymoon so fair dos!
The evening ended with those wonderful fresh prawns purchased earlier. I had the foresight (greed) to buy three instead of the recommended two, which was just as well because the amount of meat on each one was quite inconsistent. Still, the chef had excelled himself once again with an excellent marinade. We went to sleep to the sound of chanting from the near-by temple we’d canoed past earlier.
I got up with the sun next morning, and went for a wander along the river bank. By the time it was light a group of kids was playing badminton in a field. Seemed like a sensible time to do anything remotely physical and they were joined by their father and other friends.
By ten we had returned to our original mooring spot where our trip ended.
The last 24 hours had been a tiny insight into life on the river, but it left me wondering about the damage all these boats are doing to the local ecosystem, and to the water that these people cook, clean, wash and swim in. Still, for the time being the Keralan backwaters is place where adults work hard, the children have freedom and where everyone appeared very happy with their lives indeed.
Above you saw just a few of the photographs taken over these two days. Below is a flickr slideshow of the best shots, which paint a nice picture of the backwaters. Just click on it to begin the slideshow and use the button in the bottom right to go full screen.