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Riverboat cruise in Allepey, Kerala
Green green Kerala
We set sail at about midday. It was my first full day in Kerala and that morning we had left the city of Kochi with its multicultural architecture and river lined with vast Chinese fishing nets and fish stalls selling the catch of the day. As our houseboat left its moorings on the backwaters near Allepey, the bustle of the city was far behind us. The greenery in Kerala is striking for its intensity and abundance. The river is lined with lush grass and trees ablaze with vibrant foliage. Kerala has its own shade of green which can not be isolated in a square on a colour chart or accurately conveyed in these photos. It is not simply a vivid hue but a living colour which saturates the landscape.
Toddy – Coconut milk with a kick!
A houseboat cruise is the perfect way to wallow in this verdant paradise. I travelled in a group of four including our Keralan guide, Sreejith, who sourced a boat in one of the quieter areas which not only offered outstanding scenery with fewer crowds but was cheaper too.
As we set off along the wide tranquil river the crew served us coconuts fresh from the tree. We sipped the sweet milk before eating the tender fruit straight from the shell. Before long we stopped to pick up some toddy, an alcoholic drink brewed from coconuts. It has a smooth sweet flavour with a yeasty edge and an alcoholic kick that varies in strength depending when you drink it. The drink ferments in the bottle meaning it becomes stronger and acquires a different flavour over the course of the day. We also sampled a few local dishes including fish fry in a spicy sauce. There was no need to buy any food though, there was more than enough served on board.
After a few hours cruising, we moored on a bank lined with coconut palms near rice fields. Some farm workers shouted greetings from their riverside hut. After stretching our legs on the riverbank, it was time for lunch. The table was filled with a Keralan banquet – two types of fish, curry, salad, poppadoms and mountains of rice. When we set sail again it was lucky there was nothing much to do except sit back and watch the scenery because with our full stomachs we couldn’t do much else.
Life on the river
The sun was strong but the movement of the boat created a cool breeze. From the upper deck we watched life passing by. The bank was dotted with simple houses and locals out working, bathing or washing clothes. We passed people paddling in canoes, fishermen casting their nets and a group of children being rowed home from school. They called out and waved when they saw us, as did many people. Life in the area is probably not so easy when you are not relaxing on a houseboat but everyone seemed very happy and it was hard not to envy their simple lives.
The human population was sparse compared to the birdlife. Cormorants, egrets, kingfishers, parrots and other species large and small could be seen all around. We also saw a huge bat swoop over the boat in broad daylight.
As afternoon turned to evening we moored again. It had been a lazy afternoon. How were we going to work up an appetite before dinner? Go swimming, of course. We plunged into cool waters as the sun set. Getting into the river proved easy enough, getting out was more tricky as the boat was quite high in the water and there was no ladder. Fortunately Sreejith had stayed on board and hauled us out when we were done splashing about.
We were moored by a veranda where we whiled away the evening playing cards and the Indian game carrom. This involves flicking a plastic disc at smaller discs with the aim of getting them into pockets in each corner of a smooth board. It’s a kind of cross between pool and shove ha’penny. It is easy to learn but incredibly difficult to master.
We had a late dinner as large and filling as the lunch with more spicy curries, and more bread and rice than we could stomach. The air was thick with croaking from the local frog population. A few came and joined us on the veranda, their eyes bulging as they hopped in and out from under the tables and chairs.
We spent a comfortable night on board. The cabins were small but comfortable. The beds and bathroom facilities were superior to those in some of the land based accommodation we stayed in. I slept well and got up before sunrise to take in the predawn stillness and watch the colour slowly return to the grey riverside as the sun rose.
It turns out they don't believe in having too much of a good thing in Kerala. After curry and rice for lunch and dinner we had more for breakfast, which was served after we set sail. There was also fresh fruit, toast and jam. It would have satisfied the most hearty appetite. I was still full of dinner.
We could have easily spent the rest of the day in a stupor, wallowing in the beauty of the area as we continued cruising back and forth but after another hour or two we found ourselves mooring next to the car park where we had set out the previous day. We said our farewells to the crew, got in the car and travelled a few yards along the bank before boarding another boat, this time a car ferry, for a much shorter and less comfortable ride across the river to further adventures on the other side.
There are many operators offering houseboat tours. Prices vary from season to season and operator to operator, so it pays to shop around. Our houseboat in November cost about 16,000 rupees for four people. It helps to bargain or find someone local who can negotiate a good deal. If you are travelling in Kerala check out my guide Sreejith's Facebook page.
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