My pri­vate house­boat

A cruise through the serene back­wa­ters of Ker­ala

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - RIVER CRUISING - ISO­BEL DI­A­MOND

Aboard a house­boat at twi­light we are float­ing on oth­er­wise empty wa­ters. The last of a rose-pink sun­set turns the vista sepia, the colour of old pho­to­graphs. It’s spinechillingly beau­ti­ful.

I’m a pas­sen­ger on the newly built Honey Dew, travers­ing the serene Valiya­paramba back­wa­ters that thread through Kasaragod, the north­ern­most re­gion of the south­west In­dian state of Ker­ala.

Back­wa­ter cruises on house­boats, or ket­tuval­lam, are very pop­u­lar in coastal Ker­ala. Alleppey, its tourist­thronged port, sees more than 1000 ves­sels de­part daily in sea­son to ex­plore a se­ries of canals, rivers and la­goons. But here, along the 30km Valiya­paramba net­work, only about a dozen house­boats sail. It’s one of those pinchy­our­self des­ti­na­tions, undis­turbed by mass tourism.

On the first morn­ing of our two-day tour, my friend John and I gaze at the ser­pen­tine rib­bon of olive-green wa­ter. Fish­er­men pass by in hand-pad­dled ca­noes and a cho­rus of in­sects strikes up amid the ver­dant co­conut groves on the river­banks. Brah­miny kites glide over­head.

With cap­tain Ja­nard­hanan in com­mand, we are pass­ing Valiya­paramba Is­land, the largest of seven isles stud­ded along th­ese back­wa­ters. A lit­tle girl plays on a swing at­tached un­der a palm; she waves to us en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. A fish­er­man wear­ing a knee-length brown mundi, the sarong worn by lo­cal men, casts a line.

Hun­dreds of mus­sel farms poke out of the wa­ter, ar­ranged in neat rows. This back­wa­ter industry em­ploys 6000 farm­ers and is one of the area’s main economies; the mus­sels are cul­ti­vated on coir ropes at­tached to bam­boo frames.

Honey Dew is de­scribed as “lux­ury” and it is cer­tainly com­fort­able, but ser­vice is where it ex­cels. The food and drinks never seem to stop, from fresh mint juice on ar­rival to a gar­gan­tuan break­fast. An ar­ray of fish and seafood is served on small plates for lunch and din­ner; the por­tions and choices are at times over­whelm­ing.

“Every­thing you’re eat­ing is lo­cally sourced,” says chef Pavithran, who pre­sides over the kitchen at the stern.

We dine at a wicker ta­ble on the open-sided deck, which is kit­ted out with what we re­gard as non-es­sen­tials such as a tele­vi­sion set and sound sys­tem. There are benches, too, cater­ing to lo­cal tourists who use the boat for day trips. The pretty, wo­ven roof is not just for dec­o­ra­tion; it helps keep the in­te­rior cool and shaded.

Ja­nard­hanan steers us north­wards to the mouth of the Ara­bian Sea, source of the back­wa­ters, joined by a con­flu­ence of four rivers. Where the wa­ter­way widens, sand­bars have formed and men are dig­ging, tak­ing buck­ets of sand back to land to con­struct houses.

We dock at Mon­key Is­land, where tribes of macaques re­side in the in­te­rior. On the shore­line, we meet a group of mus­sel farm­ers bring­ing in a catch. They don’t speak English, but the women demon­strate how they pull the bi­valves off coir ropes. The shells glisten like jewels. Live mus­sels are placed in sacks, which the women carry away on their heads.

Next morn­ing the light is soft and even more mes­meris­ing than at dusk. We watch two fish­er­men stop­ping nearby to cast their nets for an abun­dance of river fish.

We end our cruise by me­an­der­ing to the wa­ter­way’s southerly tip. It is pret­tier and more pris­tine, un­veil­ing un­in­hab­ited islets and lush groves of man­groves. The sense of peace is shat­tered mo­men­tar­ily by In­dian pop mu­sic boom­ing out from a pass­ing house­boat. Six young men are around a ta­ble eat­ing, talk­ing and laugh­ing.

We dis­em­bark at the main­land port, where we’re driven to Oys­ter Opera on Thekkekadu Is­land. Mo­hammed Gul owns this rus­tic back­wa­ter re­sort and also man­ages Honey Dew, along­side lo­cal busi­ness­man Kader Porot, who built this ket­tuval­lam out­side his home, in the tra­di­tional method us­ing tim­ber and coir. “House­boat tourism is still new here,” Gul says. “But peo­ple keep ask­ing for the boats, so more and more will ar­rive.”

Our fi­nal af­ter­noon in Ker­ala could have been spent re­clin­ing in a ham­mock, but we opt to ex­plore Valiya­paramba Is­land by kayak and bike with ad­ven­ture op­er­a­tor Muddy Boots. Kayak­ing is stren­u­ous work but we man- age 10km down­stream and come to dock at the shore, where the air is filled with but­ter­flies. “There are more than 400 species here,” ex­plains Syed Me­ha­boob, who leads our ex­cur­sion.

By bike, we speed along rocky path­ways the shade of saf­fron, built from rich earth. We pass wooden-shut­tered shops sell­ing ba­sic sup­plies and houses with gated gar­dens. Other than a cou­ple of sim­ple home­s­tays, there is no tourism here.

We stop to talk to some co­conut pick­ers and lis­ten to the gen­tle thud of the fruit hit­ting the ground as they hack away with cleavers at the trees.

They split one open and I quench my thirst with the cool wa­ter, which trick­les down my chin. The co­conut husk is an im­por­tant ma­te­rial for the is­lan­ders. Aside from food, it is turned into coir in a lo­cal fac­tory and be­comes every­thing from rope to mat­ting.

We end our visit at Sand­wich Beach, which stretches down the side of the is­land.

“This is the only place in Ker­ala where you can ex­pe­ri­ence the sea and back­wa­ters so close to­gether,” Me­ha­boob sug­gests. The bay is a hub for vil­lagers; fam­i­lies and groups of teenagers pad­dle in the shal­lows and sit talk­ing on the sand, along­side scut­tling her­mit crabs.

Kasaragod dis­trict is ge­o­graph­i­cally iso­lated com­pared to other part of Ker­ala. The near­est en­try point by air is 70km away at Man­ga­lore but an in­ter­na­tional air­port is due to open in nearby Kan­nur in 2016, so de­vel­op­ment is loom­ing. Let’s hope it doesn’t ar­rive too quickly.

Along the serene Valiya­paramba, top, and the newly launched Honey Dew, above

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