Golden beaches, unique animals... Janet Wilson finds competition for God's Own.

It was the manic driving that not so much eased us into our trip, as delivered us, wild-eyed and exhilarated.

Kumar, our driver, picks us up late on a Saturday night and drives us to our Kochi hotel through a tortured tangle of roads. It seems the centre-line is only an arbitrary guide and the car horn and lights an essential tool for every driver's constant morse-code communication with his fellow travellers.

Then in the headlights, a crash that happened moments earlier; a truck lying on its side in the road, spewing diesel, the mandatory crowds caught in the headlights.

Which would be of mere passing interest to most folk - except if you're a phobic about driving - which I am.

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This phobia, which over the years has emasculated my husband, means I can never be the passenger in a car, always the driver.

So we sit in the back of Kumar's immaculate Suzuki Swift, beautifully maintained with white linen slip-covers with blue piping, the two of us, Kathy and me.

The Misses Daisies on our first trip to India - to the state of Kerala - me, in a state of palpitating anxiety, Kathy, calm, in control taking in the G-Force effect that is India.

Keralans are justifiably proud that they have a 97 per cent literacy rate, the highest in India.

This state, which faces the Arabian Sea, boasts coconut-fringed beaches, hill stations with neat patchworks of tea and cardamom plantations as well as quiet backwaters where you can linger and watch life proceed at a slow crawl.

They call it "God's Own Country" - a heresy surely? It's a big title to live up to - one that New Zealand proudly boasts.

We head for the hills - literally - to the hill station town of Munnar, high in the Western Ghants, set at the confluence of three rivers.

Not only is this tea country, it's also home to the mascots of Munnar - the rare Nilgiri tahr (a species of wild goat) - which Kumar is keen for us to see.

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He drives us to the Eravikulam National Park, a former hunting preserve of British planters, in search of these elusive animals. The tahr was all but poached into extinction in the 1950s before an NGO stepped in and declared their mountainous habitat a sanctuary.

We're driven up a steep mountain in a rickety bus through tea plantations. Then it's a 3km walk to the summit.

We're above the cloud-line, the air is crisp and our fellow walkers, other Indians from places like Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, greet us and politely ask where we're from.

At the summit, there's a sighting of some tahr, on a distant hill, their horns silhouetted against the sky.

Our descent is slowed considerably, when the sightseers become the sought-after. Kathy and I, the only white people on the mountain, are stopped time and again and asked to have our photos taken. They're always polite, sometimes shy and giggling. I'm slow to come around to the fact that we've been sought after because we're so different looking than them.

Writer Janet Wilson (fourth from left) and Kathy Cunningham (second from right). Photo / Janet Wilson
Writer Janet Wilson (fourth from left) and Kathy Cunningham (second from right). Photo / Janet Wilson

It becomes a theme of the trip; on a backwater trip around Poovar, not far from Kovalam, we're dropped off at a golden-sanded beach where the Arabian Sea thunders.

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Suddenly, out of nowhere, a family of middle-class Indians, approach. The women, in their jewel-like saris ask for a photo. We politely smile and oblige, feeling and looking awkward.

They're waiting for the monsoon to arrive and puzzled that we would visit at the hottest time of the year. We tell them that any time is a good time to visit Kerala - especially if you manage to get in a trip to the backwaters.

The most famous are in the Alappuzha District. Set on Vembanad Lake, the backwaters are inter-connected rivers and canals through which glide kettuvalloms, or rice paddy boats.

Comfortable, ambling vessels, they are rentable for an afternoon, as we did, or for several days. Watch life on the riverbank emerge and disappear from a variety of pastel-hued houses, temples and schools, perched on the backwater.

But our time in Kerala has come to an end; Kumar drives us to the airport in blinding rain. The monsoon has finally arrived and we're headed back to winter in New Zealand.

If you've never visited India before and are wary of the challenges it can present as first-time visitor, then Kerala is the place for you.

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And it does deserve to be called "God's Own Country" - although it has stiff competition from this part of the world.

The writer travelled courtesy of World Expeditions.


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Getting there: Emirates flies to Kochi via their hub in Dubai.