Adventurers from a variety of cultures have passed through India, writes Tim Roxborogh.

"Don't tell me how to bowl an off-spinner, I know what an off-spinner looks like!" Suddenly I was telling off, albeit jokingly, an 11-year-old whose cricket game I'd crashed. Amid Fort Kochi's oversized tropical trees, 500-year-old churches and gorgeously refurbished colonial buildings, there lay a big patch of dirt and untamed grass.

India being India, kids were playing cricket.

Joining in a cricket game in India was a promise I'd made myself and for a couple of overs, including coaching an argumentative young chap about what constituted off-spin, I was actually doing it. Playing cricket in India! Though sensing my novelty was wearing off and that the lippy lad wanted the ball back, it was time to park the excitement and say goodbye, having ticked off an India-must-do.

Historic, almost genteel Fort Kochi - part of the city of Kochi (population 2.1 million) - is just one island in metropolitan area encompassing several. Cute in comparable ways to Luang Prabang in Laos, Fort Kochi is all narrow lanes with boutique hotels, restaurants, galleries and churches. One of those, St Francis, was built in 1503 and is the oldest European church in India.


Though the beach at Fort Kochi is fighting an uphill battle against litter, the shoreline is redeemed by the line-up of photogenic Chinese fishing nets. Dating back to the 14th century, the image of the nets - particularly at sunset - has long been an icon of Kerala. The nets are emblematic of how many cultural influences have reached these shores, also including English, Dutch, Portuguese, Jewish and Arabic.

After a couple of days exploring and speculating which colonial mansion, now hotel, I'd like to stay at next time (the chic Spice Fort or the old-world opulence of Le Colonial?), it was aboard a six-hour bus for the highlands.

Still in the state of Kerala but bordering Tamil Nadu, Periyar National Park sits 900-1800m above sea level, giving its lush hills a reprieve from the lowland heat. The 777sq/km park is home to about 1000 elephants and approximately 35 elusive tigers.

The leeches (not to mention wild boars, monkeys and langurs) proved less elusive during our three-hour trek through the jungle. Guides top and tailing the group in case of a tiger sighting ensured we were well looked after, though it was never really made clear what we'd do in such an event. Would the guides point where to look? Would they save us? Would they yell, "RUN!"?

Regardless, it always feels like a privilege walking through protected equatorial jungle and I pray it's still something we'll be able to do in decades to come.

The actual town of Periyar (confusingly also called Kumily and Thekaddy) sits at the edge of the national park and is filled with luxury and midrange resorts, as well as some questionable massage establishments: "Whereabouts are you from?" "New Zealand," I answered. "Spain?" "No!!? New Zealand!"

Perhaps the masseuse had asked if I was in "pain?" rather than the reasonably uncommon New Zealand/Spain mix-up. It was hard to say. What was certain was that all four of us who had the recommended Ayurvedic health massages remained unsold as to the benefits of having your hair oiled, your eyelids tickled and your temples pummelled while wearing a see-through thong.

Better fun was had watching traditional local sport. There was kalari, a live martial arts performance in a gladiatorial-style pit.

With the crowd perched above, we winced as very lean blokes ducked, weaved and clashed swords into shields with spark-showering force.

The following day, while tuk-tuk-ing to a waterfall, we spied a smallish stadium packed with people watching a curious game none of us had seen before.

Kabaddi is not only big in India, but also places like Bangladesh, Nepal, Japan and Iran. A ball-less cross between rugby and wrestling, we were treated as honoured guests while locals vied to explain the rules.

Farewelling the milling crowd who'd earnestly asked for our "good names" and where we were from, we returned to the tuk-tuk. And 20 minutes later we reached our spot. Perched high above a valley and framed by mountains and a waterfall, a patchwork of greens spread beneath us for dozens upon dozens of kilometres. Simply put, the view was one of the best I've ever seen. Even in this most chaotic of countries it was a reminder of the never too-far away natural beauty.


Getting there

Etihad Airlines connects Auckland to Thiruvananthapuram and Goa via Abu Dhabi.

Student Flights and Intrepid Travel have a 16-day South India Unplugged Intrepid Tour from $1310* per person, twin share. Depart Thiruvananthapuram and take in the sights of Varkala, Kerala, Kochi, Periyar National Park, Madurai, Mysore and Hampi before finishing in Goa. Valid for sales until March 15.
• Prices are subject to availability and apply to low-season departures on selected dates between July 15-August 12. Other dates available. Airfares are additional.