KOCHI: A few rupees and some time to spare are all you need for a remarkable journey which is bound to leave you transfixed. Express takes you aboard a KSWTD boat for a two-and-ahalf- hour ride through the backwaters on the Kottayam- Alappuzha stretch at a throwaway price. Rub shoulders with commuters and globe trotters and soak in the countryside vistas as the vessel chugs past islands, paddy fields and moveable bridges
Ever heard of any form of entertainment lasting two-and-a-half hours and costing less than onethird of a dollar? Believe it or not, it can happen only in Incredible India. You can enjoy an enchanting journey through the ravishing backwaters of Kerala at a throwaway price of just Rs 18 a ticket. The 33-km-long dream ride on the Kottayam-Alappuzha stretch is operated by the Kerala State Water Transport Department (KSWTD). As they say, appearances can be deceptive. Travellers may tend to be put off by the sight of the boat as there are no fancy trappings or luxury facilities save for a TV screen inside. The wooden seats with their rough coir-stuffed upholstery can be a tad annoying.
But, do not get upset as a warm reception from the crew awaits visitors. For the 11.30 am trip from Kodimatha in Kottayam on a week day, most of the seats are occupied. It is a mixed crowd: Tourists, both local and foreign, as well as commuters from the islands dotting the waterscape who depend on the boat to reach the mainland. As the vessel chugs through the meandering channels, visitors can unwind and soak in the picturesque settings and get a feel of the life in the countryside. “It is a very slow ride, as it stops at more than 40 places before reaching Alappuzha,” boat driver M S Rajeev said.
“This has a maximum speed of 10 nautical miles. But we are not in a position to clock that as we have to stop and pick up all the passengers, even if there are only one or two, as they do not have any other mode of transportation. So, it takes more than two hours to reach Alappuzha.” It takes 30 minutes to reach Kanjiram, which is two-and-a-half km away from Kodimatha (by water).
That’s because the boat stops frequently to pick up people on both sides of a narrow canal. However, the lush green vegetation and its shade make up for the slow speed. On this stretch, there are five bridges which can be lifted - four of them manually and one mechanically - to allow the boat to pass through. “The Kottayam-Alappuzha boat service was disrupted for five years after the work on a bridge commenced at Kanjiram,” said Rajeev.
“So, the services from Alappuzha ended at Kanjiram. Now, there is a night service from Alappuzha which concludes at Kanjiram due to the inability to lift the bridges at night. The boat which reaches at 9.15 pm will make a return trip at 5.15 am.” For most of the travellers, the lifting of the bridges is a not-tomiss spectacle and a novelty. “Though we travel a lot, this is our first trip by boat,” said travel enthusiasts George Mekkalloor of Kanjirappally and Anish Shyam of Erumely, who make most of their trips on motorbikes. “We wanted to experience this when we learned about it. We reached the jetty with the help of Google Map. This is an entirely new experience.”
After reaching Alappuzha, they plan to head for the beach, a distance which can be covered by bus. For many like Vasumathy of Daivatinte Moola, a stop on the route, there are no other means other than the boat service to reach Kottayam. In her late 70s, she travels to Kottayam, where her children reside, to buy essentials. “Though the children invited her to stay with them, she is not in a mood to leave behind her poultry and cattle. So, she stays alone in a small house in this remote place. She is happy with the place where she lived with her husband,” said Kuriakose, one of the two lascars in the boat, as an elderly woman stepped out at one of the jetties.
“There are stops even for a family or a single person, like Kamalamma of Pathinalayiram,” he added while the boat passed through vast stretches of Marthandam, Chithira and Rani paddy fields which earned the Kuttanadu region in Alappuzha the sobriquet of the ‘state’s rice bowl’. It would take only 80 to 90 minutes to connect these towns which are 49 km apart by road. There are two main roads and it would cost between Rs 45 and Rs 60 in the state-operated buses.
However, the stress-free travel and enticing scenic ride skimming through the backwaters are twin advantages coupled with the cheap rate. “There is a considerable increase in the number of passengers and collection after the service resumed from Kottayam. For example, till October 4, when the service stopped at Kanjiram, the daily collection was below Rs 3,000 with nearly 800 passengers. Now, it has increased to Rs 13,000,” said Najeeb, the Station Master at Kodimatha.
However, there are some complaints about the timings of the service. “At present, there is a gap of nearly four hours between the first and second trips from Kottayam. It would have been better had there been a service during the office hours or in this gap. Also, a facility to take passengers in a limited stop boat on holidays would also help to meet the big rush,” said an officer.
Kottayam-Alappuzha boat service timings
Three boats operate on this stretch. There are five services from Kottayam, each with a return trip. The boat leaves Kodimatha jetty at 6.45 am, 11.30 am, 1 pm, 3.30pm and 5.15 pm. The boat services from Alappuzha are at 7.30 am, 9.30 am, 11.30 am, 2.30 pm and 5.15 pm. The final service, beginning at 8 pm, halts at Kanjiram at 9.15 pm. The service resumes from Kanjiram at 5.15 am with a trip to Alappuzha.
There are five bridges whose spans can be lifted for boats to pass using a pulley and cables. They
are situated at Cherikkathara, Pathinaril Chira, Parechal, Kanjiram and Chungathu Muppathu.
While Chungathu Muppathu is a mechanised bridge, the rest are lifted manually by daily wage labourers arranged by the Kottayam Municipality. The bridges were made of wood initially and later they were replaced by steel structures. However, SWTD officers say these bridges are unacceptable under the national waterway norms. They say houseboats too could have reached Kodimatha had there beenno such bridges