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There’s nothing wrong with over-fifties’ blood, say leeches

When one thinks of certain tour operators aimed at the 55+ range the words safe, comfortable and unadventurous seem to spring to the forefront of your mind. They always did with me until my husband and I visited Kerala, India in November 2012.

The fortnight began well and in some luxury. There were thirteen of us, plus a tour guide, a chef, a masseuse and a doctor on a well-appointed boat on the Backwaters south of Kochi. It was a floating 4-star hotel but giving us the opportunity to see otters, water snakes, fruit bats and a variety of birds close-up. So far, so safe.

A coach then ferried us up into the Western Ghat mountains to an eco-friendly hotel from where we were to visit a famous nature reserve, Periyar National Park. After an early start our coach dropped us off inside the park’s boundary gate along with hundreds of other visitors.

Do not worry, our tour guide said, They are all going on the tourist boat whilst we are going on a trek.

The hoards of noisy people turned right to queue up whilst we walked down to a hut where our rangers were waiting for us clutching forms to sign; the significance of which was not immediately apparent. A sense of apprehension turned into laughter when we were given crudely made, ill-fitting, green cotton socks to put on inside our shoes and tied tightly around our knees outside our trousers. We were told that these were our leech gaiters.

Our ranger, a local and knowledgeable man, then led four of us down an embankment where we could see a stretch of water which we had to cross. We watched in horror as the first four went over. Now we understood what the papers were to absolve the park of any responsibility for us. The raft, our means of transport, was made up of bamboo poles, eight wide and twelve foot long strung together. To travel on it you had to walk, unsteadily, to the middle and balance without anything on which to cling, apart from your equally worried partner, whilst your guide pulled the raft over the river by a rope. Stepping off onto dry land felt like a real achievement and, with an increased adrenalin rush, we set off for our walk.

It was peaceful, beautiful and cool as the sun was unable to penetrate the trees. All around was the smell of leaf litter and of damp earth and above us were the calls of many birds unusual to our European ears. Every now and then our guide would tell us to listen and then he would point out a rare species to us. As the walk progressed so did the number of sightings increase; what seemed like an empty space turned into so much bird activity. He also told us of the animals we could see but apart from fresh porcupine faeces, the paw-print of a tiger and water bison spotted on a far hill we were not in for any dramatic encounter with a wild beast.

Where, in fact, were these famous leeches for which we had to wear totally unflattering protective gear? If you looked carefully on the path you could see them looking like thin, black, smooth caterpillars stretching to fasten onto our shoes as we walked by. However, after pushing or way through some undergrowth we looked down and saw them crawling all over our legs. Whilst brushing them off they would latch onto any exposed patch of skin so we had a manic five minutes helping each other to dispose of these little creatures.

After two hours the walk was over and we had to return to our starting point; once again making the precarious crossing on the bamboo raft. Our leech gaiters were reclaimed by the guides and we were told to check the insides of our shoes, even under the insoles, to see if the wretched creatures had crawled inside. Indeed they had and I disposed of at least four which had taken their chance in my shoes. One leech dropped to the ground where we sat and a man’s foot came down heavily on it and blood splattered everywhere. As it turned out it was my blood. Unknown to me two had crawled up the inside of my top which I had stupidly left loose outside my trousers and they had latched onto me. It was only a little while later, whilst sitting on our coach, that I noticed that blood was all over my blouse and that four little holes were evident on my stomach. They did not hurt but they would not stop bleeding for nearly a day thanks to the anti-coagulant injected by the leeches to make their prize easier. The locals treated them with the root of the turmeric plant and I was told to leave a small piece of newspaper on the wounds until the blood dried.

It was an experience I had never had before nor ever want to have again. However, it did me no lasting harm, although I still have the scars three months later, and it gave me a wonderful story to tell to make people crawl. Would the experience prevent me from returning to India? No, but I would ensure that any harmless trek in the countryside would see me wrapped up against any attack of the leech kind. Has my opinion of the tour operator changed? Yes, 55+ tours are also for those who like to have an adventure.

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