A Long walk, Monsoon, Leeches, Wildlife & Railway History.


We went on a trek in the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, over the weekend of 6th & 7th June 09. We travelled in a Tempo Traveller, with a group of friends and friends of friends!

Left Bangalore at around 8.30pm Friday evening and returned back at around 5.00am on Monday morning.

The trek was along the route of a historic tramway called the ‘Cochin State Forest Tramway’. Total distance trekked was around 30 kms over two days [Around 20 kms on day 1, overnight stay in the forest & 10 kms back along the same trail the next day.]

The route is almost entirely alongside a river, thus providing for some amazing wildlife sightings.

Western Ghats is one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots. While considering the abundance of Wildlife and the adorable beauty of Nature, Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary is perhaps the most attractive region in the entire stretch of Western Ghats.

Here one can ensure the peace of mind by engulfing the nature’s enchanting beauty to its maximum, tucked away in the valley between the Anamalai Ranges of Tamil Nadu and the Nelliyampathy Ranges of Kerala, situated on the majestic Western Ghats, this virgin valley is truly a glorious tribute to untouched nature. Thus it is popularly revered as ‘Nature’s own abode’.

It has a total area of 285 Sq. Kms. Three Dams have been built here under the Parambikulam Aliyar Project and the Reservoirs harbour a variety of aquatic fauna including Mugger Crocodiles that are often seen.

The sanctuary is approachable only by road and is 95km from Palakkad (Kerala state) and about 100km away from Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu state).

The nearest town is Pollachi (Tamil Nadu), which is 39km away. As of now the only road leading to the sanctuary is the Ambrampalayam-Parambikulam road passing through places in Tamil Nadu viz., Anamalai, Vettaikaranpudur and Sethumadai including (Top Slip) Indira Gandhi Wildlife sanctuary and National Park.

There is no road directly connecting Parambikulam with the rest of Kerala without having to pass through Tamil Nadu.

* Map – Courtesy Mapmyindia.com

A vote of thanks to Mr.Devan R Verma, Railway Historian, whose research and journal about the Cochin State Forest Tramway turned out to be a very interesting read and an invaluable source of information, text and the black & white photos I have included below. I understand that as a consultant to the Forest department, he shares the credits for turning this piece of railway history into a Eco-tourism venture.

A round of applause for the Forest Department, who made this trip possible! And a big thanks to our old friend Mr.Chandrashekar, who comes up with some very interesting trekking plans and took care of all the logistics.

History of the Cochin State Forest Tramway:
Rama Varma XV, the Maharaja of Cochin (1895-1914) was a visionary, who planned and executed several major projects aimed at the development of industry & commerce in the erstwhile princely state of Cochin. One of his significant initiatives was the upgradation of Cochin port into a major trading point for timber, spices, tea, coir etc. To provide inland connectivity to the Cochin port, the Maharaja negotiated with the British, to extend a railway line from Shornur in British Malabar to Cochin.

However, all these projects required huge financial investments which stretched the Cochin state’s and even the Maharaja’s personal finances to the limits.

One resource that was still left largely untapped was the incredible forest wealth of the state. The valuable Teak, Rosewood and other timber in the interior regions had been left untouched due to lack of efficient modes to transport the logs.

J A Kolhoff, the first Chief Conservator of Forests – Cochin conceived the Forest Tramway which would help in commercially exploiting around 300 square kilometers of the forest. The construction of the tramway commenced in 1901 and was inaugurated by Sir Arthur Oliver Villiers Russell, the Governor of Madras, in October 1905. Regular usage of the tramway started in 1907.

The original plan was to lay around 12 miles of rails, which eventually was extended to around 49.5 miles.

The tramway, which was practically a light railway operated by steam traction, was a very difficult piece of engineering & construction work, for the line had to be taken through an unsurveyed tract of very rugged country interspersed with high ridges and deep valleys covered by dense tropical jungles and cut up by numerous mountain streams.

The tramway used to charge 4 Anas (25 paise) from civilian passengers for traveling the entire distance, which would take around 9 hours from end to end. There were rest houses in Kavalai, Komalapara, Kuriyarkutty & Parambikulam. The line went through lush green forests, crossed streams & rivers and was considered to be a scenic & enjoyable journey. British officers used to travel in saloons attached to the tramway with servants & supplies and spend vacations in the rest houses en route.

By the 1920’s, the tramway had turned economically unviable, mainly due to the increasing cost of maintaining the lines in the difficult terrain and also the depletion of the forest resources. The Government however kept the tramway running all the way upto 1951, when a special committee setup to evaluate the tramway recommended its closure.

In 1953, another commission was appointed to evaluate the possibilities of reviving this engineering marvel. This committee reported that such a monumental venture should be revived at any cost. But this idea did not materialize.

In 1957, the Food and Forest Minister suggested that the tramway could be used for tourism purpose and allocated Rs 5 lakhs for the same. Three diesel locomotives (Benz engines) were brought from Germany for this purpose. But soon the ministry changed and the next ministry did not evince much interest to continue in to the work. Finally in 1963, the tramway was demolished and the staff (around 200) was absorbed in various Departments of Kerala State.

The rails, wagons, engines etc. were sold probably for scrap, the buildings and bridges were abandoned and over the years the tramway path was largely reclaimed by the jungle. Some parts of the tramway were used as a jeep trail Rebirth of the tramway as a trekking trail: As a part of his research into the Mr.Devan Verma trekked along a major portion of the tramway trail along with Mr. Sanjayan Kumar IFS and eventually acted as a consultant to the Forest department in the development of this tramway trail into a trekking path.

From the parambikulam.org website :

To give a fitting tribute to the centenary of this Cochin State Forest Tramway a unique innovative eco-friendly trekking Package is launched along this once existed tramway route.

The foot trail along this rail trail will give an unique opportunity to witness some of the remnants of Cochin Forest Tramway in the form of bridges, rusted wagons, rails, wheels etc. besides sighting hundreds of birds and animals including Tiger, Elephant, Sambar, Spotted Deer, Sloth Bear, Porcupine etc. So explore some of the forgotten mysteries of Cochin State Forest Tramway and stay connected with nature history and heritage.

Dr. Salim Ali did several of his research expeditions in this area and identified more than 100 species of birds along the entire stretch of tramway.

Some interesting pics from the Tramway days… A bridge over the Karappara river, that has collapsed long ago… but remnants of the pillars can be seen in the river when the water level is low.

The ‘Tramway’ was essentially a steam powered light railway with wood burning locomotives…

An inclined section in the tramway…

One of the earliest locomotives used on the tramway. This one was named ‘Rajahgopal’. Manufactured by Orenstein & Koppel AG, a German company…

One of the last locomotives that was used on the tramway. This too was manufactured by O&K AG…

An ingenious switch-back system, where the train would be alternatively pushed and pulled while the tracks were switched and the train would zig zag its way up the hill…

Timber was loaded into the cars using elephants and human power…

To be continued with pics and details of the trek…

As mentioned earlier, this trek follows the trail of the ‘Cochin State Forest Tramway’ and runs next to a river. During non-monsoon months, you can see a lot more animals along this trail, since they’ll come to the river for water. You’ll also come across relics of the tramway, in the form of a few bridges, abandoned buildings etc.

Though the forest department folks do their best to make life a little easier for you by providing sleeping bags and arranging some basic food etc.

If you are halting overnight in the forest, don’t expect any luxuries such as beds and toilets etc. For running water, you have the river and for everything else, there is the great outdoors!

Since the plan was for everyone to assemble near Majestic by 8.00pm, hurriedly left home (old Airport road) at 7.15pm hoping that the traffic would not be too bad. No sooner than we reached Command hospital, we were stuck in a jam…

The auto guy grumbled about how bad the traffic is… and he can take us via some inner roads, but it would be a couple of Kms longer. With not much of an option left, we said ok, and hung on for dear life as he zigged and zagged through some narrow gullies, missing cars, people, bikes etc. by mere millimeters… forget about Centimeters.

Reached by around 8.15pm… met up with the others and waited for everyone to assemble…

Left Majestic at around 8.45pm and hit Hosur road and then onwards towards Salem. Having had a tiring and long day at office, I quickly dozed off. Woke up sometime in the night when the driver stopped for a quick chai break at around 2.00am…

I was wide awake by around 5.00am and being seated right behind the driver, I starting having this ‘involuntary driving sensation’… pressing imaginary brakes whenever the van came too close to anything on the road…

After Sethumadai, we run out of highways and it is only village roads from there on…

Drove through the small but picturesque hill station called Top-slip. In the British days, timber logs from the forests nearby would be ‘slipped’ to the plains below through a narrow canal and this place got its name.

Reached the first check post…

Came across this scene even as we entered Parambikulam…

More peacocks…

The road ahead…

Stopped at the visitors’ center of the sanctuary. There was some training going on and we saw quite a few new recruits into the forest department going through their paces…

We used the restrooms at the place and waited for the paperwork to get completed…

An inquisitive birdie…

The visitors’ center has accommodation in cottages / tents…

Monkey…

A little further into the journey, we came across the first herd of spotted deer and then some more, till eventually nobody bothered to take any more pics since they became such a common sight!

And more peacocks!

And more!

A Kingfisher…

Spotted some more spotted deer…

There must be some reason why every bridge seems to have a peacock on top of it!

Passed through the valley ‘view point’, with assurances that we would stop here on the way back…

Breakfast at Parambikulam. They serve vegetarian fare too… in case you don’t want their frayed chicken…

There are quite a few ‘Things to do’ in this area…

Armed with our raincoats and umbrellas, we headed towards the start of the tramway trail…

Misty mountains…

Backwaters of the Parambikulam dam…

The dam. The tramway trail starts from the foot of this dam…

Continued… Contd…






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