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Dan Linsted takes three generations in search of grandad’s tales of youthful high jinks in rural India and beyond
If there is a more exciting way to spend the hour before breakfast than lurching through an Indian forest in a battered jeep, searching for tigers, then my family has yet to experience it.
A few days into a multi-generational trip through the south of the subcontinent, we had arrived in Mudumulai Tiger Reserve, a landscape of scrubby bush and whispering trees backed by the imposing Nilgiri Hills. Our accommodation was a cluster of tin-roofed bungalows which troupes of langur monkeys delighted in dancing across, and herds of chital deer grazed by the swimming pool. We were advised, quite sternly, not to leave our rooms after dark in case we bumped into an elephant. So when we rose at 5am after our first night and headed to the jeeps for our first foray into the reserve proper, the mood was giddy with expectation.
We were a group of ten, aged from 10 to 76, and we had come to discover my father-in-law’s roots. Born into an Anglo-Indian railway family in 1941, Ronald Pharoah grew up in the hills of Tamil Nadu, came to England on the RMS Strathmore in 1958, forged a successful career in IT, and had two daughters – the younger of whom became, a generation later, my wife. Our own thoroughly English children – Barnaby and Suki – have grown up with their grandfather’s tales of youthful high jinks in rural India, as have their cousins. The time had come, we decided, for them to see the country for themselves.
Our trip ran north to south, beginning in Bangalore, a Raj-era garrison town which has boomed into a technopolis of 12 million. A thousand metres above sea level, its mild climate provided a gentle introduction to Asia for our kids – even if the honking, swerving traffic and occasional cows on the road delivered a thrill of culture shock. “Dense,” was Barnaby’s verdict.
One of the joys of back-to-your-roots travel is finding personal connections in such unfamiliar places. Within a couple of hours of arrival, we were in the fan-wafted calm of Bangalore’s Catholic Club, and a distant Anglo-Indian cousin, Kevin, was showing us a family tree connecting him – a nut-brown retired Indian navy architect – to our pale and amazed children.
Kevin was our guide to the city over the next couple of days, easing us into the kaleidoscope of Indian life. We learned about Ganesh, the elephant-headed “god of obstacle removal” whose blessings are sought before every journey, and visited the surreal Big Bull Temple – a giant boulder dressed up to resemble a sacred cow, and tended by priests who dabbed a bindi onto the children’s foreheads. “It looks like I’ve got a really big spot,” complained Suki, not quite in the Hindu spirit.
Soon we were travelling on, aboard a pristine aircon bus christened ‘True Way’, and driven by our devoutly Catholic driver, John. A dashboard Madonna presided over our journey through Bangalore’s teeming suburbs, leaving us to enjoy the endless delights of an Indian road trip. A motorbike carrying 80 watering cans! A row of giant psychedelic teddy bears! A bus called Jesus! An elephant in a truck! Who needs in-car-entertainment when the view out of the window is so extraordinary?
True Way carried us safely south to Mysore, home to a lavish Maharajah’s palace and an elegant colonial-era hotel, the Royal Orchid Metropole. The palace – an Arabian Nights extravaganza of columns and courtyards – is a hotspot for Indian tourists, and we were soon being asked to be in everyone’s selfies. Sightseeing slowed to a halt as ever-larger groups of Indians struggled to get into the frame with our children – who were bemused, but delighted not to have to look at yet more Edwardian murals. Eventually we escaped, jumping into a tuk-tuk for the kids’ first time (“why don’t we have these in England?”) and haring back to the hotel for a restorative curry banquet.
And so to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, a few hours’ drive further south, and that dawn patrol in search of wild things. Before the trip, we had done a fair amount of expectation management, so everyone knew we weren’t likely to see a tiger. But when you’re in tiger country, well, there’s always a chance, isn’t there? And even from the coach, driving into the reserve through the woods, we’d seen Bambi-like spotted deer, baby monkeys hanging from their mother’s bellies, and a trio of elephants grazing the verge. The kids were electrified, leaping from one side of True Way to the other (forget seatbelts), taking snaps on their phones and comparing the results like wildlife pros.
That excitement was doubled when we crammed into the jeeps – which we did several times over the next few days – at dawn and dusk. Eyes trained on the bush, straining in the half-light, we roamed the park’s backroads high on adrenaline. “Is that something?” someone would whisper, and we’d all swing to make out a shape in the foliage. A deer? A monkey? A peacock (we saw so many, we stopped counting)? Had the jeep in front seen something? Did that deer alarm call really mean a (gulp) leopard was in the area?
In the end, of course, we didn’t see a tiger. Or a leopard. But we did see elephants, ghostly-quiet amidst the trees, giant squirrels, buffalo, a wild boar and – the pick of the bunch – a big, black, furry real-life Baloo: a sloth bear. Everyone was elated, and for the kids, it remains one of the two biggest highlights of the trip.
The other highlight came next: visiting Grandpa’s old school. From Mudumulai we continued south to Ooty, “queen of the hill stations” and where my father-in-law Ron spent his boarding school years. Laidlaw Memorial School (motto: Self Reliance) is the setting for most of his childhood memories – sneaking out of his dorm for sweets, especially – and we spent a nostalgic morning meeting current pupils and sharing their chicken biryani lunch. For our kids, the shared experience of school bridged the divide not only with today’s bright-eyed Indian students, but also with their grandfather, whose wonderful stories now exist for them in a real setting.
Ooty sits at one end of one of India’s great train journeys, the heritage ‘toy train’ which winds through emerald tea plantations and then descends the eucalyptus-flanked Nilgiri Hills to the plains. Like an Indian Hogwarts Express, this dinky blue steam train took us from a rather magical school back to present-day reality. We passed quaintly English stations – Wellington, Hillgrove, Lovedale – where magnificently saried ladies mingled with chai wallahs and thieving monkeys in the lowering sun. It was mesmerising but, in truth, it was also hot and cramped, and at the end of a long day it was a pleasure (and only a little bit of a guilty one) to be back in the aircon embrace of the Radisson Blu in Coimbatore.
From Coimbatore, another train journey – a more conventional inter-city – took us a few hours south into Kerala, for the most relaxing part of the trip. A few of us had been to this lush, laid-back state before, and knew it would be a hit with the kids. Palm trees and colonial towns, fish curries and rice boats – Kerala is an easy place to love.
We spent a few days in Fort Cochin, the atmospheric old harbour town which still looks out over giant freighters plying the Arabian Sea. The city’s iconic Chinese fishing nets are still operating, though money from tourists provides more of an income than fish these days. We ticked off the other must-sees too – the old Synagogue, a mercifully brief Kathakali performance – but the real pleasures of Cochin are strolling at random, browsing handicrafts (adults) and splashing in the hotel’s rooftop pool (kids).
If Cochin’s hotel pool was a hit though, it was a mere puddle compared to our final stop. The Aveda Kumarakom, on the backwaters of Lake Vembanad, boasted an infinity pool fully 150m long. “My life is complete,” murmured Suki on arrival. The resort was indeed tranquillity defined, with its lake views of cormorants drying their wings on wooden posts, kingfishers flitting, and traditional shikara riceboats gliding back and forth.
It was a lovely spot to reflect on our journey, from cities to jungle, the hills to the sea. We’d introduced our kids to a wonderfully strange new world, India, but we’d also shown them places and people that are part of their own DNA. As the sun set over the lake on our last day, though, we all agreed on the greatest miracle of the last fortnight. We hadn’t had a single row.
How to get there:
First you need a visa – either pay an agent, or expect to spend hours on the official visa site. Fees are $75pp. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Bangalore (Bengaluru) in around 10 hours. Flights back to the UK from Cochin (Kochi) are all indirect; we flew via Doha with Qatar Airways. Our trip was a tailor-made itinerary arranged by the excellent Southall Travel, and included private transfers between most hotels. Indian rail journeys can, with patience, be booked online but you never really know you have a ticket until you’re on board.