The Kerala Backwaters are a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, a labyrinthine system formed by more than 900 km of waterways. The network includes five large lakes linked by canals, both man made and natural, fed by 38 rivers, and extending virtually half the length of Kerala state.
In the local Malayalam language Kerala means “land of coconuts”, but the slogan “God’s Own Country” is the one you’ll hear the most from tourist offices the length and breadth of the world. Along with the sights of Ladakh in the far north of India, it was the Kerala Backwaters that all my friends in India said I must visit.
It took 18 trips to finally get down to the south of India and sample for myself what the backwaters had to offer. My expectations were high, the actual experience most definitely mixed.
Let’s start with the houseboats themselves. Once used to transport fish, rice and spices, they have enjoyed a new lease of life after resourceful craftsmen began converting the vessels for use by foreign tourists in the 1990s.
They are amazing vessels, well equipped and quite spacious, it’s a fascinating introduction to south India’s largest wetland ecosystem.
Alappuzha (Alleppey) is the houseboat hub. The boats offer a glimpse of just how much locals depend on the marine environment for their own livelihoods and well-being. Besides rice farming, fishing, washing clothes, cooking and bathing, over 70% of households are engaged in tourism-related activities.
And then of course we have the food. The meals served up on the boats is both delicious and fresh, but if you want it accompanied with a beer or two you will need to buy that ahead of time and bring it onto the boat with you.
Having boarded the boat we set off mid-afternoon and gently cruised around some of the larger waterways near to Alleppey. I was keen for us to get to a more intimate setting, perhaps narrower waterways where the bankside activity was a little closer to observe.
My desire to get away from the large expanses of water started to leave me disappointed. Instead we headed for Vembanad Lake and dropped anchor for two hours. All you could see was a vast expanse of water, a calm ocean if you like, surrounded by other boats that seemed to be doing the exact same thing.
There are over 1,200 houseboats plying the backwaters, it is estimated that about a third are unregistered. Unsurprisingly, a recent environmental-impact assessment found that houseboat operations on Vembanad Lake exceed its carrying capacity.
This has of course had an impact on the environment, fish stocks are depleted due in part to spilled fuel and boatmen who discharge human and other waste directly into the lake rather than pay to use designated sewage-treatment plants to flush clean their bio-toilets. Locals claim the water has an oily sheen and tastes of petrol, even after being boiled.
It’s hugely ironic that in a state where annual rainfall is almost triple the national average, some lakeside dwellers suffer from a shortage of clean drinking water. This does of course have inevitable consequences – incidences of ill health are blamed on prolonged contact with polluted water and cancer rates are on the increase.
The problem is compounded by the farmers who live close to the shores of the water network. Pesticide residues from paddy fields seep into the backwaters, and dangerously high levels of heavy metals have also been detected.
Water hyacinth is choking up the backwaters, denying fish the oxygen they need to survive. It gets entangled in fishing nets, clogs boat propellers and is a breeding ground for mosquitoes. As the backwaters get blocked up, it restricts where the houseboats can go. Perhaps this explains why we were sticking to the main thoroughfares.
As the evening approached we moored up for the night and I got the chance to explore the landscape on foot. This was possibly the highlight of the entire experience for me, finally I could immerse myself in what I was previously only seeing from a distance.
On my return, half the crew were already asleep on the deck. I had looked forward to sitting out and listening to the sounds of nature, but gentle (and some rather ungentle) snoring was the resulting soundscape. The evening meal was absolutely delicious, thereafter the only real option was to mirror the crew and retire to sleep myself.
By 10am the following day the boat had returned to Alleppey and my tour of the backwaters was done. I’m glad I finally got to experience the Kerala backwaters, maybe the choice of company or boat restricted what was possible Although judging by the hordes of other boats that were around us the entire time, I think this may have been quite typical.
The landscape is of course beautiful and very peaceful, perhaps my expectations fuelled by years of tales about the backwaters raised my expectations just a little too far.
You’re welcome to ‘Like’ or add a comment if you enjoyed this blog post. If you’d like to be notified of any new content, why not sign up by clicking the ‘Follow’ button.
If you’re interested in using any of my photography or articles please get in touch. I’m also available for any freelance work worldwide, my duffel bag is always packed ready to go…