In search of somewhere a little more adventurous and lot less travelled than the famous backwaters of Kerala? Head to the Godavari Delta on the eastern coast of Andhra Pradesh, where you’ll find a rich area for exploration says Nick Edwards, co-author of The Rough Guide to India.
The mighty Godavari, second only in length to the Ganges, traverses central India from its source near the holy city of Nasik in the Western Ghats, finally issuing in the Bay of Bengal after its almost 1500km journey. As it widens and then divides into several distinct mouths, not only does it create a highly fertile basin but it also offers a number of delightful hideaways that are only just opening up as tourist destinations.
So far such visitors as do make it here are almost exclusively domestic tourists, meaning that it’s a great place to get an authentic experience of being the only foreigner for miles around.
Drop anchor at Rajahmundry
The best base to start investigating this fascinating region is Rajahmundry, which sprawls along the east bank of the river just at the point where it makes its first major split into the mouths that constitute the vast estuary.
Although Rajahmundry is a good eighty kilometres from the coast, the river is so wide at this point that it takes five to ten minutes to cross by road or train. It’s well connected, lying on the main east coast transport route, roughly halfway between the better known cities of Vijayawada and Vishakapatnam.
The city itself is busy in a typically Indian way and doesn’t offer any particular attractions but is far from unpleasant, with plenty of greenery and a lively riverfront. As you would expect for the last major town on India’s second holiest river, this area is lined with all sorts of temples, shrines and bathing ghats, making it a splendid spot to take in Hindu practices at work.
As many of the places that are worth visiting are quite difficult or impossible to access under your own steam, Rajahmundry is also the place to organise a tour with a dedicated agency such as Konaseema Tourism.
Head for the hills upriver
One excellent tour that is well worth considering is the trip north up the main trunk of the Godavari to the hills of Papikondalu. This can be done as a lengthy day-trip but it’s far better to make it into an overnight stay.
Having been transported some 50km by road along the west bank of the narrowing river to a small jetty at Polavaram, you board a double-decker motor boat and are fed a typically South Indian breakfast of idli, vada, sambar and coconut chutney. This vessel then chugs upstream at a sedate pace, as the river snakes through a mixture of agricultural and wooded land, fringed with more thickly forested hills.
The trip is very much geared towards locals, with speakers blaring out extremely loud music, ranging from devotional temple chants, through Bollywood hits to Indian reggae (yes, reggae not raga), interspersed with a rapid rap-style Telugu commentary. There are a couple of stops, one for puja at a small riverside Shiva temple and later a quiet Ramakrishna hermitage. A tasty veg lunch is also provided on board.
If you choose to stay overnight, there’s a choice between the very basic Kolluru Bamboo Huts, only accessible by boat, and a slightly more comfortable hotel at Bhadrachalam, which has an impressive Sri Rama temple and is connected by road, so the tour can actually be used as a means of transport, much like the famous Kollam to Alleppey trip in Kerala.
There’s is no doubt the more romantic option is to stay at Kolluru. The huts certainly have no frills, or even doors, but the location on a hillock between the Godavari and a picturesque side stream, surrounded by the high Papikondalu Hills, is exquisite. Try local specialities such as bamboo chicken, where small chunks of meat are roasted over coals in a thick hollowed-out section of bamboo, and take in the unforgettable night sky.
Explore Konaseema and Koringa
The other rewarding areas to explore are to the south and east of Rajahmundry.
Konaseema is the palm-rich region in the flat delta of large islands created by the seven mouths of the Godavari, dotted with grassy marshes, fishing boats and small motorised ferries. Fairly upmarket waterfront resorts are beginning to appear, mainly around the villages of Dindi and Razole, both of which are accessible by bus.
There are also the early signs of houseboats becoming available, although there is nothing like the choice of Kerala yet. This is the part of Andhra Pradesh where the purest form of Telugu is spoken and its vibrant cultural heritage is evidenced in colourful festivals at the many temples, such as Sankranti in January.
Finally, occupying a large swathe of coastline just north of the main mouth of the river, between the small Union Territory of Yanam, an old French colony, and the busy port of Kakinada, lies the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary. The area is densely packed with mangrove swamps, second only in surface area to the Sunderbans, and a host of other water-loving plants, shrubs and trees.
There’s a boardwalk set up through the muddy groves and a tiny jetty for boat trips when the tide allows, plus a concrete viewing platform for a splendid overview. Among the birdlife you can spot here is the ubiquitous egret, the open-billed stork, kingfishers and even the Brahminy kite, while the elusive otter is the most notable resident mammal. The surrounding bay is also a major breeding ground for the Olive Ridley turtle.