Kerala's: The height of comfort

To get to bed at Kerala's Green Magic Nature Resort you must first climb 90ft up a tree. But at least you'll be doing your bit for the local Indian environment

Their pretty violet petals were merely a sham, a floral siren luring unwary boatmen into an aquatic trap. Beneath these lovely water-borne blooms lurked a tangle of stems so tough and dense that they strangled our little boat to a standstill. When that happened, the boatmen would form a two-man rescue team, one of them punting maniacally in the heat while the other tugged an oar through the weed-clogged water. Astoundingly, we surged slowly onwards, driving the boat's bow deeper into Kerala's quiet backwaters.

Their pretty violet petals were merely a sham, a floral siren luring unwary boatmen into an aquatic trap. Beneath these lovely water-borne blooms lurked a tangle of stems so tough and dense that they strangled our little boat to a standstill. When that happened, the boatmen would form a two-man rescue team, one of them punting maniacally in the heat while the other tugged an oar through the weed-clogged water. Astoundingly, we surged slowly onwards, driving the boat's bow deeper into Kerala's quiet backwaters.

But the over-abundant plant life around Alappuzha is becoming an obstacle to more than just the tourists. On a sun-soaked day, when you struggle to separate the coconut palms from their reflections, it seems perverse to consider that some of the plants surrounding you constitute an environmental disaster. Yet those tangled stems are a product of increasing pressures on the region's environment - mainly the disruption caused to natural habitats by run-off from chemical fertilisers and illegal land reclamation. As these problems intensify, the effects on the waterways could be catastrophic, as the rest of the underwater plant-life and animal-life is gradually starved of light.

No one who has travelled in India will be surprised by such environmental problems. And, despite its famously high literacy rates, Kerala is just as environmentally apathetic as any other Indian state. From the waterways, to the forests to the beaches, the state is slowly suffocating under a fug of debris and diesel fumes. On the bus back from Alappuzha, the young woman who chucked her rubbish in a plastic bag and flung it casually out through the window next to me was not an unusual sight.

In this gloomy setting, the Green Magic Nature Resort is a great big gust of fresh air. Constructed in a former cardamom plantation, 40 miles from Kozikhode in the Wayanad Hills of northern Kerala, the only things contaminating the atmosphere here are wafts of pepper, vanilla, cardamom and coffee, issuing from the surrounding plantations. The latest project of Indian eco-entrepreneur Babu Varghese (who also pioneered the recreational use of kettuvallam houseboats on the backwaters), the idea was to build a resort that would both appeal to wealthy nature lovers and support the local, displaced Paniya tribes.

"I wanted to get across the importance of the trees, and what damage we are doing to nature," he explained. This meant that traditional techniques, local labour, organic vegetables (from the resort's own garden), supplies of eco-friendly face wash and alternative sources of energy (solar power and "gobar", or cow dung, gas) were in and TVs, telephones, even nails were out.

The result is surprisingly plush. So far, two treehouses have been built and both boast several floors, breezy verandas and flush toilets - the water comes from a lake 1,000ft above the resort.

Getting to Vythiri, where the resort is centred, involves a two-hour drive from Kozikhode, past rice terraces and small market towns to the foot of the Western Ghat mountains. From that point on, the only way is up, for another hour, along a series of numbered hairpin bends, which you can't help but count as you lurch queasily from one to the next, and which have been colonised in equal numbers by boisterous macaques and belching trucks. At a spice shop on the main road you turn off on to the final mile of track.

As soon as we arrived we were ushered into lunch at the rustic on-site restaurant. The chatty staff proceeded to dollop out so many spoonfuls of vivid Keralan food on to a banana leaf that I began to wish I had a second stomach. At the same time they explained what each ingredient did for you. As each little pile of okra, potato curry, fried fish, coconut paste and delicately chopped pink banana disappeared, more was offered.

By this stage, though, I just wanted to get to the treehouse, which was a 15-minute walk away, cleverly camouflaged among the rainforest foliage. Arriving on foot seemed to heighten our sense of astonishment as we looked up at the treehouse - particularly for my sister, Rachel, who reminded me half-way along a rope bridge, 90ft above the ground, that she suffers from vertigo.

Carefully - and triumphantly for Rachel - we stepped off the bridge's swaying slats on to the structure's main floor, suspended vulnerably in the branches of a giant ficus tree. In front of us was a big double bed, which was covered in warm woollen blankets and cool Indian textiles, a water fountain and, beyond a series of flapping curtains, the best balcony in the world.

A large rattan chaise longue rested beneath this open perch, allowing a parrot's eye view of the Wayanad Hills. Looking out down the valley there was, if not silence, an absolute calmness that came from the substitution of bird calls for car horns and cool mountain breezes for car fumes.

"If it's windy it moves a bit," warned Sreejith, our guide, as he left us to explore. "But don't worry, it's quite safe."

It was unnerving to feel a single gust of wind gently shift the floor but we didn't get any real current to test his word. Instead, we settled down to watch the sun melt down into the neighbouring valley, secure in our natural penthouse suite, a nest of bamboo blinds, coir matting, wayward tree trunks and - continuing the natural theme - several large spiky-leaved plants. Below us the floor stretched and creaked amiably in the sunshine and, later on, in the warmth of the structure's kerosene lamps.

Varghese, a trained zoologist, spent a long time sitting in Vythiri's trees deciding exactly which ones to use and what to put where within them: "I was waiting for an opportunity to explore the various moods of nature, the misty mornings, colourful sunsets, sunlight filtering through the leaves and the coexistence of all the animals and plants. I believe you have to live in the forest to understand all these things."

The utterly relaxed feeling you get sitting up in one of the treehouses suggests he understood it well. The wood, bamboo and cane houses are modelled on erumadams, the traditional treehouses of the Paniya people. Each one took nearly five months to build.

Not that it's been straightforward. The treehouses were built by trial and error; it was gradually revealed that they had to be constructed from the roof down to allow them to "grow" with the trees. Working out how to make a lift system work on the first treehouse (the basket is counter-weighted with water from the adjacent river), and how to provide a stable water supply to both structures, took more time. Each year brings new problems. During the last rainy season, much of the resort's organic garden was washed away and had to be rebuilt. And the expense of simply maintaining the resort has put Varghese's plan of building eight other treehouses on hold for the time being. But for visitors to the two existing treehouses, this feels like paradise.

As for diversions, without satellite TV and other urban distractions, you get your entertainment from the surroundings. Guests are encouraged to learn about the native wildlife, and there are reference books for those wanting to find out more about what they've seen during the day. At dinner on our first night a young honeymooning couple staying in the other treehouse remained at the table just long enough to insist we chew on a fresh cardamom pod they'd scavenged on a walk earlier in the day before racing back up the rope to their treehouse.

Which leaves you simply to branch out along guided walks, picking your way out of the shadows and into hot puddles of sunlight, through teak, ebony, jackfruit and ficus trees, accompanied by a soothing soundtrack largely composed of monkeys, squirrels and parrots. Some of the best treks lead to a couple of viewpoints and to a nearby lake, but when you've got a vantage point that's nearly 100ft high, and it features a flushing toilet and a swinging rattan chair, you probably won't want to flee the nest.

Varghese dreamed of living in a tree house as a child. "I used to climb trees and my mother always had a tough time bringing me down. I always found peace on top of the trees." At the Green Magic Nature Resort I saw exactly what he means.

 

Rhiannon Batten paid £319 for a return flight to Goa with Airtours, from Lunn Poly (01926 452245, www.lunnpoly.com). From Goa there are good train and bus connections to Kerala. However, to get directly to the Green Magic Nature Resort, it is quicker to fly to Thiruvananthapuram and travel north from there. Cheap scheduled fares are available through discount agents, on Gulf Air, Kuwait Airways and Qatar Airways.

Tourindia is at 163 MG Road, Thiruvananthapuram 695 001, Kerala, India (www.richsoft.com/tourindia). It can be contacted by phone (0091 471 331507) but email (tourindia@richsoft.com) is more reliable. Treehouses cost US$150 (£105) per night, including all meals. Ground-level cottages cost $110 (£80) on the same basis but they're very dark. To get there, it can arrange a taxi from Kozhikode for Rs950 (£15) each way.

Warning: leeches can be a problem early in the morning when the ground is still dewy so bring stout shoes - and if you're squirmy it's probably safer to avoid the rainy season

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