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Sunday, Nov 18, 2001

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The essence of eco-tourism

India's first planned ecotourism destination, Thenmala, is reassuringly eco-friendly, say HUGH and COLLEEN GANTZER.

The walkaway ... a canopy experience.

WE have stopped for a cup of tea. Or rather, our driver and attendant are having tea at a wayside tea-stall; we stopped because we saw something interesting happening near the tea-stall. Two men were pouring out a yoghurt-like liquid into pans, traysize pale yellow sheets, had been hung out to dry on a line. They were rubber tappers, and the liquid and the sheets were latex — the sap of the rubber tree. We are in the damp foothills of the Western Ghats and rubber plantations spread like dark forests all around.

We are moving on now so we will have to stop writing.

* * *

We are back at our table beside the picture window. Trucks and cars swoosh past us occasionally, otherwise we are cocooned in the subliminal hum of the forest. Which is as it should be because we are parked just outside the reception building of the unique Thenmala Ecotourism, which claims to be India's first planned ecotourism destination.

For us, both the destination and the journey to it were fascinating.

This morning, when we stepped out of Thiruvananthapuram's Mascot Hotel, we saw our temporary home for the first time. We were impressed. The Kerala Tourism Development Corporation's Caravan is a white luxury coach converted into a mobile home: two air-conditioned bedrooms with attached chemical toilets and showers, a living-dining room with a gas cooker, a portable generator for emergencies and facilities to plug in to an external power source when we stopped for the night. We covered the 72 km in a shade less than two hours and 45 minutes with two stops in between. It was a comfortable and very interesting journey.

Our companion during this drive was the knowledgable and enthusiastic K.G. Mohanlal, IFS. He is the Director of Kerala's Eco Tourism Department and Chief Executive of the Thenmala Eco Tourism Promotion Society. Clearly, Kerala has decided to pay more than the customary lip service to this new discipline.

As we rose out of Kerala's green plains to its forested uplands, Mohanlal spoke about eco-tourism and his project. "Eco-tourism," he said, "must be nature-based, ecologically sustainable, have education and interpretation as its major component, and its activities must benefit local people." Definitions, however, are not enough: if they are not followed by a viable action plan, they remain stillborn. This project, however, seems to have developed appreciably further than pious thinking. The operational heart of the project has already been built around the Thenmala dam. Happily, it is not a replication of the illuminated artificialities of the usual dam gardens, the ones that tend to confine nature into a Public Work Department (PWD) straightjacket. Here, apparently, they plan to promote three distinct types of eco-tourism: eco-friendly general tourism with the emphasis on outdoor activities, ecotourism in the nearby Shenduruney Wildlife Sanctuary and an eco-pilgrimage circuit connecting the three Ayyappa shrines of Kulathupuzha, Arayankavu and Achankovil while ensuring that there is no environmental degradation.

Nevertheless, while all this planning is very impressive, we wanted to see what had come up on the ground.

T.U. Uthup, Wildlife Warden, became our authoritative friend, philosopher and guide. The Reception Complex is a well-planned building with features drawn from Kerala's traditional architecture. On the left, at a slightly higher level, is a broad parking area. Beyond it a semi-circular amphitheatre had been cut into the slope of a hill, crowned by a projection booth. They faced a wide and deep stage. Both the amphitheatre and the stage were unroofed. Returning to the reception building we walked up a laterite path to the raised and open- sided restaurant giving horizon-spanning views of wooded hills. Both the reception and the restaurant areas had a very open, uncluttered, look about them. They were, also, reassuringly eco-friendly and merged with the ambience of these forested hills, unlike the block-like dam buildings in their ruthlessly cleared grounds.

The sculpture garden ... a different reality.

We drove past the ostentatious gates of the dam complex and headed into the eco-friendly tourism area. Here, again, tourist facilities had been built to blend with the trees. Offices and ticket booths were raised on decks. Mountain bikes stood in one of these buildings and a mountain-bike trail wound through the forest: challenging and appropriately rugged. A nature trail crossed it and vanished into the fastnesses of the jungle. And we looked down into a forest pool with a "river-crossing" cable strung high above it. Everything was designed to pit the visitor's will and physical skills against obstacles that any outdoors-person might encounter. Sadly we did not have the time to test our Himalayan-conditioned bodies against these stimulating challenges, but we did climb up the elevated walkway: a wooden stairway that climbs, at tree-canopy level, to the old Thiruvananthapuram-Shenkotah Road. Short of swinging like a latter-day Tarzan through the trees, this is an excellent way of getting a forest- creature's perspective of its high habitat.

Presumably, in time, the Interpretation Centre will identify interesting features on this walkway, the nature trail and the mountain bike path. There can be no better ways to appreciate the intricate web of life that is a living forest.

Clouds were building up so we had to hurry over the boardwalk that looks down into the gorge cut by the Kallada, fed by the spillway of the dam. Boardwalks are, generally, laid to make pathways over wet-lands and, possibly, this area does get soggy when it rains but, even when it is dry, the boardwalk is a good introduction to a feature that would not normally be encountered by tourists in our land. We did not quite agree with the concept of the so-called Sculpture Garden.

Home on wheels ... the caravan to Thenmala.

Here, they have made a path that winds, through the jungle, past some rather outré sculptures. They are supposed to revolve around the theme Nature and Man but some of them are so esoteric, like the busts of four elongated figures sitting around a candle, that we could not relate them to the theme.

But then, artists do have their own perspectives of the world and it is often difficult for the ordinary person to see creation through their eyes.

Thenmala's lake is as contemplative as a prayer.

If the Sculpture Garden is meant to entertain mere mortals like us, then we would much rather opt for their excellent musical fountain. We have seen musical fountains in other parts of the world but none with such a perfect seamless melding of music, lights and dancing water. It is superb.

Dusk was rising out of the valleys when we headed for our last encounter with Thenmala. We drove through the jungle, approached the backed-up waters of the dam spreading around rising, wooded, hillocks and stood on a headland in the silence. The lake spread like a sheet of blue glass, mirroring the mountains, an island, a hazy frosting of clouds above. It was all as unreal as a painting, as contemplative as a prayer and slowly, we began to feel ourselves vibrating with the unheard but deeply felt chords of Nature, resonating with a holistic harmony that, for a long moment, lifted us above ourselves. It was, in all ways, a spiritual experience. This, clearly, is the true essence of Thenmala.

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