I was getting restless and irked over every passing minute. It was a kind of tied up feel and every thought over it made my revolutionary views stronger and stronger. I felt as if my fundamental rights were being violated. I was at Kumily, on my second day of the four-day trip to this part of Kerala and my destination for the day was a remote hamlet perched atop the hill in the wilderness of Periyar Tiger Reserve. The entry into this village or even driving through the roads that passed here was restricted. I tried every possible way of requesting that I knew, tried every possible language I knew, but in total vain. My agony grew every passing minute and so did the anger against the Kerala Forest Department. Before I tell you how my weary state continued, let me give an insight into why did I want to get to Gavi so badly?
Gavi, which means a cave in the local language, is a tiny hamlet in the rain forests spread along the border of Kerala & Tamilnadu. Nestled deep within the evergreen forests of Periyar Reserve forests, it is a part of the unexplored, untouched woods of Western Ghats. The forest around Gavi, like any other part along the Western Ghats region, is rich in flora and fauna. An untouched, virgin rain forest makes it a perfect abode for wildlife and thousands of plant life. This area is certainly the typical Indian jungle that we read in books were wild pachyderms roam in herds, streams and rivers splatter the pearl drops, tigers and leopards walk around with the wild ghetto, hares and deer sneak around, reptiles coil up in the branches and bushes, fox and wild dogs wander patiently for a hunt! In simple words, Gavi is a land raw and fresh that hides umpteen secrets within.
With a fair number of mountain streams and couple of big rivers flowing through this forest, the government decided to put the water to better use and Shabarigiri hydel power project was launched. Eight dams were built at strategic locations and one of those happened to be at Gavi. The dam gave birth to the village of Gavi around it. The water that was contained by the dam or the catchment formed an artificial lake around the forest patches and made it a mesmerizing sight. In all, the river flowing out of the deep, green jungle and then curving around another patch creating an island added up with the catchment area made an extravagant sight. The climate up here on the hills, given the height from sea level at which Gavi was seated, made sure that the little village was blessed with foggy mornings to wake it up and blankets of mist passing through the sleepy village all day.
When the cardamom revolution took place in the early eighties, the Kerala government chose this land to grow cardamom. The refugees from Sri Lanka who flowed in during that period became the laborers at these cardamom factories and eventually Gavi became their home. Today, Gavi has a population of little less than thousand of these cardamom workers who are the permanent residents here. They even have a school and a temple in the village. Tourism boom soon hit the God’s own country and Gavi was again in prominence for its evergreen forests and wildlife. The make shift shed which the dam construction workers used underwent renovation and became a resort run by KFD for package tours. A road now connected the secret land of Gavi to the town of Kumily in the north at 50kms and the town of Pathanamthitta in the South at 80kms. A KSRTC bus that shuttled between Kumily and Pathanamthitta became the lifeline of Gavi.
I was at Kumily, waiting for the permission to drive through this forest stretch. To witness the wilderness and wonder called Gavi. But that never happened. I was strictly denied permission at the Vallakkadavu Forest Check post at 15kms from Kumily. The 15km stretch between Vallakkadavu and Pachakkanam forest check posts forms the heart of this tiger & elephant corridor. Private vehicles are strictly restricted on this stretch and the only option remains to be either buying the KFD daily package tour or reserve a room at the KFD resort in Gavi. The daily package costs you a minimum of INR 1500 and includes an open jeep at your service for the entire day, a jungle trek, breakfast & lunch at the KFD resort and a guide. If you opt to spend a night at Gavi then you could shell out approx. INR 2.5k that includes all of the above plus a night safari. But what about the common man who did not have so much money to spend or shoe string travelers like me? We had no option but to drop the plans of visiting Gavi!
It was this fact that was irking me! I was not going back without visiting this forest village. The KSRTC bus was the rescuer. I boarded the bus at Kumily on that misty morning at 5.30AM and soon was passing through Kannimaara tea estates after taking a left at Vandiperiyar. The foggy morning reduced the sight and all that visible around was white haze and I could spot few houses by the road in the morning gloom. After entering the details and number of passengers at Vallakkadavu check post register, the conductor whistled indicating the bus to go ahead. It is here that we have to pay the KFD charges if you are on the previously mentioned package. But since I was like a traveler on a regular bus, I just had to pay the bus ticket of 60 bucks. It was thick forest thereafter, where wild life roamed at their will.
I got into a conversation with the bus conductor on outsiders being restricted into Gavi. My argument was how any citizen could be restricted to a village that is not dangerous to the civilians or doesn’t house a critical building like a nuclear reactor. The answers what him and then later joined by few fellow passengers gave me was a literal eye opener, A change in perception!
Gavi is raw nature at its best. In a struggle to keep it intact and to preserve it, the Kerala Government declared it as a restricted entry region, 150-200 tourists per day and that’s it. Every person is accounted and the tickets are limited for a day. No extra tickets would be given even if you get a recommendation from the Chief Minister himself. The results of this strict measure is an evergreen and ever clean Gavi that remains the abode of more than a thousand different species of flora & fauna, including few endemic types that are unique to the Western Ghats of India. Every tourist entering Gavi was instructed not to carry any plastic even if it is a chocolate wrapper and they would be monitored by the guides against littering and being eco-friendly & environment responsible. They made the tourists realize that Gavi is not our land and we are just guests there who should be kind to the hosts.
As the bus snarled through the narrow road, I was filled with questions on my take about being restricted to drive through this road. The cause was noble. The forest was so thick and dense that some tender branches of the bamboo trees came right inside the windows of the bus. Though we did not spot any animals, Elephant dung by the road had become a common sight as we moved further in that bus. The actual ascent into the hill starts after sometime and soon we are engulfed in fog. At the end of this wonderful stretch, we arrive at another check post where the vehicles need to register again.
Finally the transport bus arrived at Gavi! There it was; the dam that had enticed me; the forest village that had drawn me! A pristine, blue lake that looked like being held in the palm of wilderness and few boats anchored on its shore. I got down at the stop after the KFD resort along with few villagers and saw the KSRTC bus move ahead towards Pathanamthitta. Soon after the noise of the bus faded away, the entire place became blissfully quiet again, the intriguing silence of the forests. Soon came the tourists on package tour jeeps of KFD. Another group that had spent the previous night at KFD resort here seemed like returning from the early morning trek and few of them gathered around the dustbin that was kept near the gate. All of them grabbed some packets and pieces of paper from their pockets and put it into the bin. I had a thought of respect towards the KFD.
There were tourists being guided for breakfast and the jeep drivers gathered around in a small shed to open their parcels of breakfast. The return bus was at 11AM, a good 3 and half hours from now. I had nothing to do and there was not a single hotel around even to have a coffee. One of the jeep drivers enquired about me and asked if I had carried any food as the return bus would be only after 3hrs. On knowing that I was empty-handed, they offered their parceled breakfast to me which I politely denied.
Time seemed to have stood still and I had walked across the Gavi dam at least ten times by now, other regions were restricted. The tourists on package were now taken for the safari and trekking. Visitors who are not on the package are strictly prohibited from entering any part of Gavi forests hence I did not have much to do. All that at my sight was the misty landscape formed around the catchment area of Gavi dam. It drizzled and rained sometimes, the misty clouds passed over and around me on the dam, the Sun shone bright every time he could peep out of the cloud cover and I was killing time waiting for the bus.
Finally at 11.15AM came my joy in form of a KSRTC bus with bags of vegetables tied on top of it! The bus had more vegetables and fruits than passengers making my hunger grow worse. The return journey was eventful, I spotted a couple of elephants grazing down the grassland, and there was another herd that was walking up the hill and another tusker in the bush by the road. The forest had revealed all that it hid on my onward journey. As I sulked into the seat of the transport bus, my questions were being answered. Forest is one of the first abodes of life after water. It sustains and nurtures life. Was I right in being judgmental about the restriction before I boarded this bus? As questions reeled in my head, I was woken up by the blazing horn. I was back in Kumily, the town where I had started.
Gavi is definitely one of the many wonders that nature has gifted us. Its wilderness had to be preserved intact and as we tread through these forest patches, every step should bear a promise of being kind and responsible toward mother earth.