Water World: Exploring Kerala by Houseboat

June 12, 2019 Updated: June 14, 2019

ALLEPPEY, India—It’s a world of water. Rolling out through the thick, sultry South Indian air, our double-decker wooden houseboat, the Kookaburra, passes long lines of similar craft, tied up, tires lining the sides as bumpers, all along both shores of the narrow harbor—small, big, single- and double-deckers, finished with both thatch, and newer ones, with glass.

“The government has capped the number of boats allowed here at 2,000,” Eugin tells me, adding that it’s an attempt to preserve the natural environment.

This is one of the subcontinent’s great natural marinas—the main base for these backwaters, a destination for vacationers across the region, and a world unto itself, but it remains a place largely unknown in the West. The passage narrowing, we reach a bottleneck, and then a minor traffic jam, as a few houseboats, cruising slowly through the murky flow, stack up at the exit.

canoe crossing kerala
Canoe crossing. (Tim Johnson)

But as we reach the wider waters of the largest lake in the region, the heat and humidity begin to lift. Seated comfortably under a ceiling fan in a triad of comfortable chairs on the forward deck, I’m flanked by Eugin, a friend of my brother-in-law, as well as his brother, Gladvin, a border guard, and his cousin, Binu, a local policeman, everyone friendly and ready for a good day on the boat.

Just as I begin to settle in, enjoying the bit of breeze now blowing, the captain beckons me to take the driver’s seat. Growing up, I was always happy to pilot my family’s little 20-foot fishing boat, hand on the outboard tiller, but this is something else entirely—like I’m being asked to steer Noah’s Ark. Carefully showing me how to maneuver the big boat with what turns out to be an actual wheel—a wooden one, like from a pirate ship—I start to get the hang of it, learning to anticipate the turns well in advance, steering according to what will happen in a few seconds, rather than present conditions, giving the hulking craft enough time to respond.

Perhaps I get a little too comfortable. The captain brings me a cold drink, and I start to feel like a real seafaring man as he tells me that he was once a deep-sea fisherman, but he had to get a special license for this boat, as it has no brake. Within minutes, my hand is draped lazily across the wheel, my body half-turned to make conversation with my new friends on board. And so it takes me a little too long to recognize that I’ve piloted us from the broad lake into a narrow passage, one that’s again filled with boats—to the left, and to the right—and that we happen to be sailing on a heading directly toward the former.

“The captain is sweating!” Eugin calls from behind me, happy, joking, with just a tinge of nervousness in his jest.

kerala houseboat
The author at the helm. (Courtesy of Tim Johnson)

I’m on the backwaters near the city of Alleppey, below Cochin in the South Indian coastal state of Kerala. Formed by a series of brackish rivers, canals (both natural and man-made), and five large lakes, this massive wetland system covers some 560 miles, paralleling the Arabian Sea, and interspersed with fields, villages, and tiny outposts built to service the marine traffic—places to fuel up, have lunch, and head out. Long a tradition, house-boating here has become wildly popular, especially among local and domestic travelers. Joined by these friends, I’ll see just a fraction of the backwaters, just enough to get a sense of this vast destination, jumping off from Alleppey, its main inland port.

As we cast lines and ship out—before I take the wheel—Eugin gives me a little background on the area. Born and raised here—he runs a local rug factory with his father, which supplies my brother-in-law’s company, which is how we came to know each other—Eugin has been out on these waters many times. In the harbor, he points out a man in a small, wooden canoe, poling his way from one side to the other, like an ersatz gondolier—“We’re the Venice of the East,” Eugin says. He points vaguely to the surrounding area, comprised mostly of rice fields, and notes that, until just a decade ago, the cutting and harvesting here was done by hand—“but now, the machine has come.”

And there remains a large population—whole villages and towns—that depend on these waterways, and the boats that ply them, for transportation, and export, and basic supplies. “Right now, the times are good, but later, when it rains, and floods, it can be hard for them,” Eugin tells me. Binu, the policeman, points off the port side and shows me an island used by migratory birds—“It’s very famous!”—and then adds that this whole area forms his beat, which he patrols in a boat. I ask him the most common crime committed out here, in this remote place, but he says there’s very little of that—that the core of his duties involve search and rescue.

After my brief stint at the controls—navigating safely through that narrow waterway with a little help from the captain, who gestured emphatically, this way and that, on how I should steer, and Binu, who grabbed the wheel a couple of times to ensure that I followed—we dock for lunch at a little outpost. We sit inside, and Binu asks the owner, a friend whom he sees on his frequent trips to the area, to make us a special meal of local fish and rice.

And then, when we’re about to sail onward, we acquire some new guests. We are approached by two young women. It turns out that their group of four had taken a ferry here, a place that feels as remote as the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. Told that another boat to their next destination would swing by to pick them up momentarily, they’d been waiting for hours—and asked if we could give them a lift.

lavish lunch
A lavish lunch. (Tim Johnson)

We do. After some initial discussions with the captain, we all pile back on board, and Eugin unveils another lavish spread, a lunch-after-lunch—curries and meats, a South Indian feast. The Germans, we learn, are two couples, all attending the same university, in India to attend a wedding in Goa, a little further north, and here for the express purpose of sailing these backwaters.

The rest of the afternoon passes both lazily, and quickly. A couple of the Germans take a turn at the tiller, and the captain neglects to invite me back to the wheelhouse. We pass dozens of other boats, some loaded with supplies, some packed with people—ferries, probably—and others with a few happy souls, like us, eating and drinking the day away.

view from boat kerala
A view from the boat. (Tim Johnson)

Families wave to us from fishing villages along the shore, and from those little canoes, as we turn further and further into this pleasant labyrinth, palms and rice paddies along the shores. At the moment I completely lose my bearings—we could be a hundred miles away, in my estimation—we’re back, re-entering the marina at Alleppey, the wily captain having navigated us from memory back to his slip.

The heat descends, again. The busy community on shore beckons. I’m sad the day is over, but ultimately glad that our pleasant day on the lake became a bit of a rescue mission, and a voyage of shared experience, travelers from three continents coming together. And—that I didn’t sink the Kookaburra, I was most happy about that.    

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.