“ One of India's best rated national parks, in the mountains of Kerala „
On the afternoon of our second day in the Kerala hill town of Munnar, we were in the mood to take things easy after a morning spent being bounced up and down a mountain to see a tea factory and then bounced all the way back down again. If we'd been eggs we would have been totally scrambled. We'd had a rather average lunch and quite fancied just going back to the hotel and being lazy, but our driver had other plans. This was a man with two customers in the back of his vehicle and a neatly typed itinerary from his employer. We were going to 'do the itinerary' whether we wanted to or now.
As easy-going souls who'd more likely than not put themselves through all sorts of torture in order to avoid upsetting a driver, we decided to shut up and 'get with the programme'. In this case that meant we were off to look for goats in the Erivakulum National Park. Not just any goats though - you can see those all over the place. These were special goats, a protected species called the Nilgiri Tahr. If you ask me what makes them special I would say they're a bit bigger and hairier than your average Indian goat and they have really cool curly horns. It's not exactly the difference between a zebra and a horse.
The park is about 15 miles from Munnar and is open from 7 am to 6 pm daily but keep in mind that you have to be out of the park before 6 and need to build in the time for standing in a long line waiting for the bus. Don't get stuck in the park - it wouldn't be fun. Our driver dropped us off at the far end of the line waiting to buy tickets. When we saw how long it was we had second thoughts about giving up and going back to the hotel but told ourselves it would probably move quickly and our driver had disappeared and we didn't know where to find him so it made sense to just get on with it. Indians seem to enjoy the social aspects of a good queue almost as much as we Brits do so even though we waited nearly an hour, we didn't get bored. Frustrated perhaps, but not bored. We watched the buses coming and going, we watched the people trying to jump the queue, we even observed a small smartly dressed girl squatting down for a pee in full view of the hundreds of waiting visitors with her parents standing by approvingly.
As we progressed along the queue a group of what I guessed to be business men started trying to push in. The 'line manager' caught my eye and sent them back. They tried again and again - each time he pushed them away. The line was a mess because the passengers with tickets were waiting for the next bus and blocked the access to the actual ticket counter. The line manager tried to expedite the sales by sending forward one person from each group to get the tickets - the queue jumpers pushed by us, trying to hoodwink the man in charge. I tutted judgementally as only a true Brit can, he wobbled his head in that way that says everything and nothing at exactly the same time.
During our wait we had ample time to ponder the unfriendly pricing policies of Indian attractions. A ticket to get into the park will cost you 15 rupees (about 20p or 30 cents) if you are Indian. If you are a foreigner it's 200 rupees. To slightly mitigate this sense of unfairness, the other fees are fairer - the bus is 25 rupees for everyone and there's another random blanket fee of 5 rupees. So in total an Indian visitor pays 45 rupees and a foreigner pays 230. Hey ho! If you can afford to go to India you can afford to pay more to see their goats.
~Here we go(at)~
After about an hour we finally got our tickets and hopped onto the bus. The journey up the mountainside to the park is pretty though a little scary on the hairpins. Since the only vehicles in the park are park vehicles, you can assume the drivers are used to taking blind corners at speed but that's not a reason to relax.
The bus drops you at the end of the road where there's a visitor centre, a snack bar and some fairly clean toilets. There's no need to worry about where to go next since there's only one way you can go - along the road for about half a mile. At the end of the road you turn round and walk back again. How exciting! Signs tell you in terms not seen since the great film 'An American Werewolf in London' to "Stay on the path". There are no werewolves if you stray but an irate security guard with a whistle will pursue you and give you a good telling off.
As you can imagine, with busloads of visitors arriving every few minutes and only half a mile of road, there's quite a bit of congestion. I'm the type of person who thinks the purpose of a national park is to get away from people so I found this more than a little bit irritating. However, by varying our pace to keep away from large groups we managed to create our own little pod of 'aloneness' though the racket created by visitors shouting at each other did convince me we hadn't much chance of seeing the goats.
I had pretty much convinced myself that there would be no goats but none the less I kept scanning the horizon in hope of a mighty horned beastie standing on a rocky outcrop like Simba in the Lion King. The views alone mean it's worth taking a visit to this park and even though hundreds of square miles of other mountainsides exist in the area, rather a lot of them are covered in tea bushes. Whilst these tea plantations are gorgeous to look at, they aren't exactly what nature intended. The large display board near the entrance had informed us that the park is a fine example of the shola grasslands ecosystem which is typical of the Western Ghats area of India and contains diverse plant and animal species which are endemic to the area. Some of them - most notably the goats which everyone goes there to see - are also endangered. The total area of the park is a smidgen less than 100 square kilometres and the highest point within the park is mount Anamudi which stands 2695m high, making it the highest Indian peak south of the Himalaya range. In addition to the goats there are allegedly also Nilgiri Langur, leopard, tiger and Indian bison but I wouldn't suggest you hold your breath in expectation of seeing any of those except possibly the langur (a type of monkey). All the rest have more sense than to go looking for tourists.
In effect, the admission of tourists to a tiny part of the park probably raises a large part of the money needed to look after the rest of the area so I can't get too worked up about how restricted it is. If herding all of us into one corner means that the goats and other beasties can frolic in the rest of the park, that's OK by me.
~Father, Son and Holy Goat~
I will admit that after 15 minutes of trudging up-hill I started to wonder what was the point of this silly park. Then we spotted a guy with a large camera coming towards us and I asked him if he'd spotted any goats. He told us that he had, that there was one right by the end of the path and that we should hurry over before it went away. So we picked up the pace and kept plodding on. Most of the people around us seemed to have got fed up with the walk and the awful weather and were already turning back and heading towards the bus stop. We passed them, happy in the knowledge that there was a sniff of a chance of a possible goat sighting.
Sure enough we came to the end of the road where a security guard was standing and in the field beside him was a goat. The only other people there were a father and his son with a bunch of cameras. The coincidence of the goat being there seemed rather suspicious - I wondered if it had been tethered to the spot or lured there with food but I could see no evidence of either. For a minute or two we were the only humans there - me, my husband, the guard, the father and the son - all completely focused on a rather ordinary, fat, goat with curly horns. We took some pictures, made a rather dull video, and whispered in our best 'David Attenborough watching gorillas' voices. And then, just as we were getting into the goat-vibe of the place, a large family came round the corner, spotted the goat and came running up to the barrier where we were standing. I don't know what language they were speaking but I would translate roughly as 'Goat, Goat, hurry, hurry, let's go and shout at the goat. The goat was unimpressed, turned her tail expressively towards the crowd and wandered away. I raised my eyebrows and shook my head at the guard. He wobbled his head in a 'Hey, what can you do?' kind of way and then we plodded back down the road.
~The anthropology of the bus line~
The queue for the bus when we reached the entrance was shocking. We joined the end and 20 minutes later despite lots of people arriving we were still at the end. I can only assume that everyone had someone in the line keeping a place for them. Two poor foreign tourists who don't know the queue etiquette of an Indian bus line had no hope. And indeed we were the only foreign tourists, and hence a bit of a minor attraction ourselves. Not as fascinating as a goat but nonetheless tethered to the queue and so accessible. We had some pleasant chats with the people in front of us - they came from Gujarat and told us about wild tigers walking through one of the towns. I tried to hide my disbelief with a polite head wobble of my own. It took nearly an hour before we finally made it onto a bus and then only because the group in front of us wanted to stay together and all take the same vehicle back to the entrance.
As a wildlife experience it wasn't terribly memorable. As an 'at play with the locals' experience, it was rather more interesting. The scenery was beautiful and offered a very great contrast to the tea plantations of the previous couple of days. But was one goat and a few birds really worth nearly two hours standing in lines and 500 rupees? I'm not completely convinced. My top tip, if you want to go, please try to avoid weekends - it's quite possible that our biggest error was going on a Sunday.
Note: There are signs at the ticket desk saying goat views cannot be guaranteed and that no refunds will be given. This generally means I have as much chance of marrying George Michael as of seeing a goat. Don't be TOO disappointed if you don't see any.