Sustainable travel

Sustainable India: A secret nature trail

Far from the hubbub of its giant cities lies a quieter, greener side of India. We journey from the beaches of Kerala to the mountains of Karnataka. By JEANINE BARONE

There’s a point, winding along the route from the western coastal city of Mangalore to Kasaragod, when everything changes. The incessant horn-honking on the roads – previously clotted with trucks, cars, buses, motorbikes and tuk-tuks – abruptly ceases, replaced by the sound of waves and a scene of golden sands, perching egrets and teetering sandpipers.

This natural beauty is something most visitors to India don’t see. The beaches of Goa and southern Kerala hold the reputations as India’s coastal beauties of choice, but in between them, these sands at the northern edge of Kerala are only just starting to find their place in the sun, driven by a new eco-appreciation.

It’s on this beach that I meet Praveen Kumar, the secretary of Neithal, an NGO that runs the rough-around-the-edges Turtle Conservation Hatchery. We walk across the sands to a wooden pen where a tub houses two large Olive Ridley sea turtles, a threatened species. ‘They’re 40 years old,’ says Kumar. ‘They can’t go back to the sea because they can’t dive. They each lost an arm after getting caught in fishing nets.’ Next he leads me to a wooden pen with a more optimistic story. Here, sand covers dozens of turtle eggs until they hatch a month or two later. ‘We pay fishermen a small fee for gathering any eggs they may find,’ says Kumar, the goal being to prevent people and animals from taking the eggs for food, giving the hatchlings a fighting chance to survive to maturity. After the eggs hatch, Neithal releases the turtles onto the sand at about 5am. Almost 24,000 turtles have been released here in the past 15 years. If you’re lucky enough to be around when they’re released, you’ll watch them crawl across the sand into the ocean.

The turtle hatchery is supported by Neeleshwar Hermitage, an eco-property just up the beach, which has based itself around the principles of vastu shastra, a sort of Indian feng shui. ‘We believe nature has a soul,’ says Jayan Kattil Valappil, the general manager. ‘You feel the energy from nature once you set foot on the property.’ Spread over four hectares, the 18 cottages – with names such as Sukha (happiness) and Karuna (compassion) – are huddled in gardens lush with foliage. Seeking to maintain a balance with nature, Neeleshwar reduces pollution by following a strict no-plastics policy. Instead of those ubiquitous bottles, water, filtered by reverse osmosis, is available in glass containers and copper vessels – the metal is said to add energising properties, according to Ayurvedic teachings. And Neeleshwar has no place for chemicals: even the bathroom amenities, including the insect repellant, are natural, containing essential oils.

There are plenty of environmental treasures to protect here, too. The nearby Ezhome is a wetland of rice paddies and a major migratory flyway where resident bird species number in the hundreds. And as you head into the Western Ghats, the 1,600-kilometre-long range of hills that stretches along the country’s west, you get an understanding of the rich biodiversity the area supports.

Driving on roads that climb on narrow switchbacks, past ribbons of waterfalls, you’ll see coffee plantations both big and small, where tall silver oak, jackfruit and other trees provide much-needed shade. After almost five hours, you’ll arrive at the family-owned Evolve Back (formerly called Orange County) in Coorg, sitting at about 1,800 metres above sea level in the state of Karnataka. On the hilly slopes, this 120-hectare coffee and spice plantation, with crops including peppers, bay leaf and cinnamon, abuts the 12-hectare resort. Most villas have a private pool and a lily pond frequented by cattle egrets and Indian bullfrogs. Wandering the property’s paved path, you’ll notice custard apple, cherry, mango and other trees, all helpfully labelled.

The ethos of Evolve Back revolves around providing luxury while minimising its environmental footprint. With leftovers transformed to biogas or composted, no food goes into a landfill. In the Granary, one of its restaurants, the stumps from old coffee plants and felled rosewood trees still stand as rustic table bases. Even the rubbish bins on the paths are formed from hollowed-out tree trunks. Nothing is wasted.

‘Our vision is to provide exquisite experiences while preserving the purity of nature and culture of the land,’ says Jose T Ramapuram, executive director of Evolve Back. ‘Our properties are built to leave the smallest ecological footprint. The land, its people and the environment are central to us, both in our guiding philosophy and in our day-to-day operations.’

Adjacent to Evolve Back in the 20,200-hectare Dubare Reserve Forest, Vishwanath, a naturalist, leads guests on a trek. He describes how the Indian laurel tree stores mineral water in its trunk, which can be tapped in this dry forest. The tribal people can also boil its bark as a remedy for stomach ailments. ‘It’s god’s gift to man,’ he says. On the short walk, you’ll likely notice the deep oval footprints of Asiatic elephants, while broken branches on the trail indicate Indian bison have stomped about and piles of soil show where a wild boar has been foraging. Surprisingly, wild coffee plants can be found, thanks to birds and civets disseminating the seeds in their waste. The trail courses beside the rushing Cauvery River, where muddy banks are speckled with the tracks of bison and elephants that have come to drink and bathe.

Back at Evolve Back, on its eco walk, my guide is telling me about how the resort is trying to help beyond its confines. It’s been encouraging recycling in neighbouring villages, and sponsoring wind generators around the state. There’s still a lot to do, but one thing’s clear: its future is intimately tied to the land.

Cathay Dragon flies to Bengaluru from Hong Kong seven times a week

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