India - South India Explorer

India - South India Explorer

Style: TravellerCultural discovery away from the crowds
Duration: 21 days
Type: GroupTravel with a small group of other travellers


Tour Rating

Fitness ●●●○○ | Off the Beaten Track ●●○○○ | Culture ●●●●○ | History ●●●●○ | Wildlife ●●●○○

Tour Pace


Tour Highlights

  • A fascinating and comprehensive circuit of the very best of the southern states of India.
  • Explore Fort Cochi - an amalgam of Old Portuguese, British and Dutch colonial influences.
  • Immerse yourself in the echoes of colonial decadence at Ootacamund, the queen of hill stations.
  • Imbibe the turbulence of the past at the magnificent Maharajah’s Palace of Mysore.
  • Study the spectacular rock temples of Mahabalipuram and Kanchipuram.
  • Visit the iconic Meenakshi Temple in Madurai in all its sumptuous elegance.
  • Encounter majestic elephants, a myriad of birds and other wildlife at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • Voyage through the backwaters of Alleppey aboard a luxurious houseboat.

Tour Essentials

Accommodation: Mixture of small scale comfortable hotels and 2 nights spent on a houseboat
Included Meals: See detailed itinerary (B = Breakfast, L = Lunch, D = Dinner)
Group Size: Maximum 12
Start Point: Cochin
End Point: Trivandrum
Transport: Minibus, local boat, local train
Countries: India

This three-week tour is a fascinating and hugely varied journey through India’s Deep South. Our tour encompasses some of the country’s most elaborate and iconic architecture in the form of vivid Hindu temples and charming old colonial buildings that reveal so much of India’s varied and often tempestuous past. The circuit of this stunningly beautiful region passes through a rich variety of highland, lowland and coastal scenery which truly does justice to the diversity of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. En route, we also enjoy relaxing stays at hill stations, still affording very vivid echoes of British rule; we make forays into wildlife reserves and encounter Indian elephants and a multitude of bird species and other wildlife; we visit some of the most stunning of India’s Maharaja’s palaces and learn much of the fascinating history of the country; and finally we sunbathe on the region’s idyllic tropical beaches. One of the highlights is our stay on a houseboat on board which we explore the picturesque Kerala backwaters around Alleppey. In the process too, we relish some of India’s tastiest dishes, and of course find ourselves immersed in the vibrancy that South Indian society offers.

Tour Itinerary Notes

While our intention is to adhere to the day-by-day itinerary as printed below, a degree of flexibility is built in. Overnight stops may vary from those suggested and on occasions alternative accommodation, of a similar standard to that named below, will be used.

Tour Guide

Our guides are a key strength, chosen for their knowledge of and passion for the areas in which they work. All of our guides are carefully hand-picked, and are not merely passing through these countries, but are usually locally born. Unlike some companies, it should be noted we do not send a guide or tour leader from Undiscovered Destinations in the UK: we have every confidence in our locally appointed representative who is responsible for operating the tour on our behalf. Where possible, you will have the same guide throughout your trip but on occasions it may be advantageous to change the guide at one or more points during the tour. 


Day 1 – Arrive Kochi

Arrive at Kochi international airport. After ‘swagat’, a traditional welcome at the airport, transfer to your hotel.  The rest of the day is at your leisure to explore the waterways and islands of Kochi, perhaps using one of the easily obtained walking maps. Overnight Hotel Casino, or similar. (B)

Day 2 – Kochi

Today you visit Fort Cochin, which dominates the entrance to the harbour; founded by the Portuguese in 1503 it is reputed to be the earliest European settlement in India. A stroll round the Old Quarter will reveal warehouses, lime-washed vivid greens, yellows and blues and bursting with the rich odours of tea and spices.  The narrow streets abound with rickety old bikes and idiosyncratically hand-painted trucks, piled high with goods. In the afternoon you will head into the old pantiled district of Mattancherry to seek out Mattancherry Palace (closed Fridays).  Your will take a tour of the palace, erected by the Portuguese in the mid-1500s as a gift for the Raja of Cochin and view its exquisite murals, early Dutch maps and royal artefacts.  Close by lie two other historic sites you will visit: the Jewish synagogue (closed Fridays & Saturdays), dating from 1568, preserves scrolls of the Old Testament and fourth-century copper plates inscribed in Hebrew script; St Francis church was the first European church in India, and one-time tomb of Vasco Da Gama. You will also explore the town of Kochi, its tumultuously vibrant bazaars and the fascinating old harbour area.   Overnight Hotel Casino or similar (BL)


Kochi (or, historically, Cochin) is set on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas and has one of the best natural harbours in the world.   The islands are interconnected by bridges and copious ferries which ply their trade from the modern city to the pastel-coloured ‘godowns’ or warehouses that fringe the older town. Indeed, the site has evidence of early trade with the Chinese and Phoenicians. The famed `Malabar Spices' were exported from this very port, bringing to Kochi visitors as varied as the Arabs, the Jews, the Portuguese, the Dutch and, finally, the British, all of whom are reflected in the colourful and characterful architecture of the city, making Kochi one of the most unique and fascinating towns in India. 

Day 3 – Kochi – Ootacamund (Drive – 6-7 hours)

In the morning, you bid farewell to the coffees, canals, and coasts of beautiful Kerala and take your first steps into the equally stunning temple-rich and terrace-clad landscape of Tamil Nadu.  The road makes its circuitous way amongst the banyan, neem and tamarind forested hillsides to the cross-roads city of Coimbatore, a key textiles producer for the South of India. The road then head north, up to Coonoor and is reputed as one of the finest scenic drives in South India, affording glorious views both of the plains below and of the endless stretches of magnificent groves of the tall and slender areca nut palm trees which fringe the roadside. When you arrive in Ooty, as Ootacamund is colloquially dubbed, you will checking into the hotel, and then stretch the legs whilst soaking up the serene beauty of this Queen of Hill Stations, nestling charmingly in the verdant heart of the Nilgiri hills. Overnight Fortune Resort Sullivan or similar (BL)


Ootacamund (Ooty) is one of Southern India’s most celebrated hill stations.  An abundance of green, tea-clad slopes and lush pine and eucalyptus forests lend the town a soothing, balmy, fresh air after the intensity of the climate on the coast.  A relatively sparsely inhabited area, home to the Toda tribe, the British, unsurprisingly, given that maximum temperatures hover kindly around the 25 degree mark, made Ooty their summer capital from which they administered the Madras Presidency; indeed the little blue train from colonial days is still a favourite way to approach and the town has lingering reminders of its British past at every turn.  Ooty looks down upon a lovely man-made lake and offers visitors the chance for picnics, pony rides and fishing. The Botanical Gardens, Rose Gardens and the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary are all fascinating venues.  The town also retains its Ooty Club with a very British Raj-era ambience and Nilgiri's oldest Church, St. Stephen's, which again seems to have been lifted straight out of the heart of the Home Counties.

Day 4 – Ootacamund

Breakfast is taken amidst the pleasant, refreshing air of the hills as they awake to the sound of birdsong and bustle.  Your exploration of Ootacamund includes a visit to the Ootacamund Botanical Gardens, laid out at an elevation of 2400m as long ago as 1847: encompassing more than 22 hectares, they are exquisitely planned and brim-full of some 650 species of flowering trees, beautiful shrubs, and rare coloured lilies. Of equal merit is your next location: the terraces, tunnels, pergolas and bowers of the stunning Rose Garden, its 300 varieties being the largest collection in India. Later you will head down to Ooty Lake, artificially formed by John Sullivan, the founder of colonial Ooty, in 1823-25 and then drive up to Doddabetta Peak: at an altitude of 2623m and just 10km from Ooty, it is the highest point in the district, thus providing you with the best vantage point around Ooty – a perfect place from which to indulge in your panoramic photography skills. Overnight Fortune Resort Sullivan or similar (BL)

Day 5 – Ootacamund – Mudumalai – Bandipur – Mysore (Drive – 3 hours)

After breakfast, your expedition heads for Mysore. The route winds down the eastern slopes of the Nilgiri Hills back towards the plains – a constantly scenic journey. The drive passes through the Mudumalai and Bandipur National Parks and crosses the border from Tamil Nadu to Karnataka.  Here you will have the chance to spot deer, such as the rare Four-horned antelope and Chitals, Gray langurs and Indian elephants which emerge from the forest from time to time. After arriving in Mysore and checking into your hotel, there will be the opportunity to visit Chamundi Hill which is home to a temple to the Mysore Raja’s deity of choice, Durga. Take time to pause en route at the giant stone Nandi bull carved from single piece of granite in 1659. Overnight Sandesh the Prince or similar (BL)


Mysore, nowadays more correctly ‘Mysuru’, is the cultural capital of the Karnataka region. A wonderfully revealing place to simply stroll about, soaking up the vibrant atmosphere, there has been a recorded town here at least since the tenth century, though it was originally more of a collective of villages.  Since the 1400s, with only a brief interruption, the Hindu Wadiyars ruled the city as it grew to be the dominant force in the region. The Wadiyar’s momentary fall from power was, notably, restored by the forces of Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, who ousted the Tipu Sultan, whose dynasty ruled from 1761 to 1799. Although independence altered the terms of their tenure, Mysore still crowns its own kings from the Wadiyars. Principally its industry has been sandalwood-carving, bronze-work, weaving and incense and silk production, but nowadays the role of tourism is vital to the city, drawing visitors to its exquisite temples, palaces and gardens.

Day 6 – Mysore

Your morning is devoted to a sightseeing tour of Mysore and its environs. The morning will be spent in Mysore itself and visit the dramatic Palace of the Maharaja (Emperor), a harmonious synthesis of Hindu and Saracenic styles of architecture with a profusion of decorous archways, domes, turrets, colonnades and sculptures. In the afternoon you will embark on a fascinating walking tour of Srirangapatna: the fort town of Srirangapatna is situated on an idyllic island beside the Cauvery River. Infamously known as the place where Tipu Sultan, ‘The Tiger of Mysore’ faced defeat from the British, the site offers visitors an exhilarating peek into the times of his reign. You will visit the famous Tomb of Tipu Sultan, in the place where he breathed his last. His Summer Palace, which still epitomises the bygone days of grandeur, is now a museum where you can gain insight into his story. You will also catch a glimpse of the dungeons where scores of British soldiers were kept as prisoners during the epic Anglo-Mysore wars. Take this opportunity to brush up on your basics of Indian history and fall in love with these spectacular heritage sites. Overnight Sandesh the Prince or similar (BL)

Day 7 – Mysore – Hassan (Drive – 3 hours).

In the morning you drive to Hassan and its plethora of historic sites. After a brief check into the hotel, you depart for an excursion to the fabulous twin cities of Belur and Halebid in order to visit their temples carved with scripts from Hindu mythology. Powerhouses in the Hoysala dynasty, they were founded by Jains and are closely related in symmetry and style. In Halebid you visit the Hoysalesvara Temple, built in 1152, where there is a dual shrine and you will view half-life size statues of Hindu deities with minute details, all around the temple. At Belur the site is famous for the Chenna Kesava Temple, containing profusely ornate architecture and sculptures. Later your driver will return you to the hotel in Hassan. Overnight Stay Simple Riverdale or similar (BL)

Day 8 – Hassan – Bangalore – Chennai (Drive – 4-5 hours; train – 5 hours)

After breakfast your drive takes you to Bangalore.  En route you will make a stop at Shravanabelagola, a city sacred to the Jains and one of the religion’s most important pilgrimage destinations, boasting 8 intricate and enthralling temples as well as an 18-metre Jain colossus. Standing on Vindhyagiri Hill, the statue of Gomateshwara is said to be the tallest and most graceful monolithic statue in the world. Your journey pauses in Bangalore where you make the transfer to the railway station to board your train to Chennai. Arrival will be late evening, upon which you will transfer to the hotel. Overnight The Pride Hotel or similar (BL)


As with many Indian cities, Madras moved away from its British colonially-influenced name and adopted the name of Chennai at the end of the 20th century.  The city is capital of the Tamil Nadu state and blends a unique and rich history with immense cultural, health and business successes in its modern guise. The earliest records date to the first century AD and the city was dominated by the Pallavas during the first millennium AD, eventually forming a key constituent of the Chola Empire.  The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese (1522), followed by the British East India Company who set up the first of their hugely influential colonies in what they called Madras in 1639. This influence over the area remains and Chennai still advocates the right to speak English as a national language and retains a staunchly pro-British area, being home to one of the highest number of ex-pats in India. Fort St George, the first British building, is a key attraction; of equal interest to the visitor are the museums, temples and even a cathedral.

Day 9 – Chennai – Kanchipuram – Mahabalipuram (Drive – 3-4 hours)

After a refreshing breakfast, perhaps trying the famous local dish of ‘Idli’, you head out on a tour of some of the plethora of attractions of Chennai, the fourth largest city in India. Your visit includes Kapaleeswarar Temple, the National Art Gallery and San Thom Cathedral. Next, you drive down to Kanchipuram, one of the seven Hindu holy pilgrimage sites in the country and renowned all over India for its luxurious and beautiful hand-woven silk sarees. Your visit to the Dravidian delights of Kailasanathar Temple will reveal some of the exquisite carvings within the 58 small shrines situated around the central shrine, built over a 20 year period from 685 AD. Next in your programme you will explore the dramatic Kamakshi Amman Temple which houses a statue of Kamakshi, is said to be the Supergoddess, Parasakti, having Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati as her eyes. She reputedly blesses all who dedicate themselves to her. From here you will later drive to down the azure coastal strip to Mahabalipuram and check into your hotel. Overnight Hotel Chariot Beach Resort (BL)

Day 10 – Mahabalipuram

Today you will take a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site monuments at Mahabalipuram where, of particular fame and note, sundry rock carvings can be seen; these are notable for the delightful freshness and simplicity of their folk art origins. In particular there will be tine to marvel at the expertly carved rock of Arjuna’s Penance - the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world. Formerly the main port and naval base of the great Pallava Kingdom, the site was celebrated amongst the early European trading ships who reported ‘seven pagodas’ of great antiquity that formed a dramatic landmark along their route. A key area is that of the Five Rathas – five monolithic temples, each created in different exquisite styles – and also the Shore Temple built on the seashore of Bay of Bengal with blocks of granite. Built again in Dravidian style the temple dates back to the 8th century AD. The monuments are mostly rock-cut and monolithic, representative of the early stages of Dravidian architecture with Buddhist elements clearly visible. Overnight Hotel Chariot Beach Resort (BL)

Day 11 – Mahabalipuram – Pondicherry (Drive – 2.5 hours)

Today’s journey forges ahead down the east coast of Tamil Nadu, as far as the former French stronghold of Pondicherry: the unusually grid-like patterns of the streets, distinctive police uniforms and smatterings of colonial buildings are constant reminders of this past. After you check into your hotel and enjoy lunch, you will we embark on a sightseeing tour of the town to explore its Gallic heritage. Separated from the boisterous and vibrant Tamil area by the canal, the sleepy colonial half has many places of tourist interest, including the Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s yoga-based community, Auroville – a unique peace and unity based community of 50,000 founded in the 1960s, the fascinating French Institute and Colony, its Museum and the vivid earth-red white gothic masterpiece of The Sacred Heart Basilica. Overnight Anantha Hotel or similar (BL)

Day 12 – Pondicherry – Kumbakonam – Thanjavur (Drive – 4 hours)

After breakfast your route takes you to Thanjavur through the wonderfully fertile Kaveri Delta - an area of lush, emerald paddy fields alive with local people working the abundance of the alluvial soils and lending the area the epithet of “rice bowl of Tamil Nadu”. En-route you will have time to visit the renowned Darasuram Temple near Kumbakonam, a superb example of 12th century Chola architecture, where pilgrims flock to bathe in its reputedly healing waters. Continuing along the Kollidam valley, your drive takes you to Thanjavur where you check into the hotel. Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore) boasts the production of high-quality and exquisite handicrafts such as bronze work and classical South Indian musical instruments. Overnight Sangam Hotel or similar (BL)

Day 13 – Thanjavur – Madurai (Drive – 4-5 hours)

In the morning you will visit Brihadeeswarar Temple, a Chola Empire gem, which dates from the 10th century AD. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is a brilliant and vast example of Dravidian temple architecture, being one of India’s largest Hindu edifices. After the visit, your drive continues through to the colourful city of Madurai famous for its intricate temples. One of the oldest and most fascinating cities in Tamil Nadu, Madurai is also a thriving cultural centre with a rich past. After arrival we check into our hotel and relax for the rest of the day.  Overnight  Hotel Sangam or similar (BL)

Day 14 – Madurai

The most famous sight in Madurai is the Meenakshi Temple - an outstanding example of Dravidian temple architecture and was built during the Nayaka period between 16th and 18th centuries. As such, it is one of the oldest and largest temple complexes in India. Shortlisted for one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, the temple is surrounded by ‘gopurams’ (monumental gatehouse towers), renowned for their colourful stucco images of Gods, Goddesses and animals. The most fascinating features of the temple are its colonnade of musical pillars, each of which is carved out of a single block of granite which, when tapped, lets out a musical note and the hall of a Thousand Pillars, part of which has converted into a museum filled with sculptures and antique treasures. Later we visit the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace, erected 1636 in Indo-Mughal style by the Nayaka Dynasty. The main temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, the ‘fish-eyed Goddess’ and consort of Shiva. Madurai is a perfect place to wander around and to experience Hindu culture with the temples and bazaars in the heart of the vibrant city. The evening is free to explore, perhaps taking a rickshaw ride through the fabulous bazaars. Overnight Hotel Sangam or similar (BL)  


Full of colourful bazaars, street tailors, throngs of pilgrims and joyful religious processions, Madurai is a bustling city, attracting thousands of visitors from outside each day.  It has long been so: the city has its origins over 2,000 years ago, as the countless archaeological remains in the natural caves in the locale testify. It was also the capital of the Pandyan Empire for over 1,000 years and traded with all the great empires of the first millennium. Following periods of war and local rivalries, the centre was rebuilt on a lotus pattern – what we see today largely dates from this sixteenth century era.  Nowadays, one of Madurai's main attractions is the famous temple dedicated to the Goddess Meenakshi. Each evening, there is a closing ceremony is accompanied by chanting priests, drummers and torchbearers in which an image of Shiva is carried in procession to Parvati's bedroom.

Day 15 – Madurai – Thekkady (Drive – 4-5 hours)

In the morning your drive will take you to Thekkady as you re-enter the tropical delights of Kerala. The drive is spectacular as the road ascends towards the spectacular heights of the Western Ghats, the north-south ‘benevolent mountain’ range which forms the western spine of Southern India and commands fantastic views across Tamil Nadu. You arrive in the small, bustling forest-enclave of Thekkady and check into your hotel. The whole area is particularly noteworthy for its spice cultivation. After lunch, you will take a short stroll around a spice garden where you’ll be able to see a whole array of spices growing. There should be time later this afternoon to explore the bazaar, where copious stalls and shops sell all sorts of spices including cardamom, vanilla, turmeric and chilli. Overnight Pepper County Home Stay or similar (BL)   

Day 16 – Thekkady (Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary)

With dawn still progressing, you will take a jungle walk in the park, accompanied by local forest guides who will pick out and advise you about the rich diversity of birdlife that can be best seen when the sun’s rays are still low in the sky: amongst the 282 species that exist in Periyar, you are virtually guaranteed to see are Nilgiri wood pigeons, Great Indian hornbill, Blue-winged parakeets and White-bellied tree pies.  More ambitious birders may successfully seek out rarities such as the endemic White-bellied blue flycatcher, Crimson-backed sunbird and Malabar parakeet. After breakfast and some leisure time, in the afternoon you will embark upon a boat excursion on Periyar Lake. This affords an ideal opportunity to get close to and spot a good range of animals, from elephants and otters to wild pigs and buffaloes.  Your trip is set against the glorious backdrop of the forest-clad hills reflected on the lake. On the fringes of the lake, you can best expect to spot elephant, gaur and sambar.  Upon your return, a cultural evening of Kalaripayattu will take place: enjoy live performances of this oldest of martial arts, Kalarippayattu, which originated in ancient south India, drawing inspiration from the raw power and sinuous strength of majestic animal such as lion, tiger, elephant, wild boar, snake and crocodile.  Overnight Pepper County Home Stay or similar (BL)

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

The Reserve has, at its core, a huge artificial lake, created by the British in 1895 to solve the problems of water shortages in the Tamil Nadu region.  As with so many Indian reserves, Periyar owes its preservation as a landscape to the 19th and early 20th century local ruler’s desire to prevent encroachment on his hunting grounds. Also known as Periyar Tiger Reserve, the mountainous altitudes (900-1800m) lend it a relatively cool climate and make for vast swathes of evergreen and semi-evergreen forest.  One of 27 tiger reserves, whilst the location offers only rare glimpses of tigers, its diversity in other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and, most prolifically, birds will keep even the keenest naturalist busy. The modern metamorphosis towards ecotourism in the parklands has ensured that poaching and illegal logging of sandalwood is now a less lucrative proposition than tourism and landscape preservation for the local Manna people who receive employment from the Forest Department. 

Day 17 – Periyar – Alleppey (Drive – 4-5 hours)

After breakfast, you embark on the exquisite drive to Alleppey: along the way, expect a fascinating landscape of hills, clad in cardamom, cashews, cocoa, tea gardens, rubber and coffee plantations. Upon arrival you will be struck by the sheer exoticism of the place.  More formally known as Alappuzha, the ‘Venice of the East’ lies at the heart of a vast network of canals; once merely arteries for local trade, The Kuttanad area has become the focus for cruises through their maze of waterways. Your vessel on which you will embark upon your cruise along these enchanting waterways is a traditional houseboat. Constructed from anjili wood and bamboo, these delightful boats were for centuries the main method of carrying goods. Restored, redecorated and refurbished, they are now comfortable cruise vessels, which will take you on meandering voyages through lush tropical vegetation.  From the sides, you can relax and be on the look-out for some of the prolific birdlife that is on show: from Lesser whistling ducks and Black eagles to Painted herons and Purple-rumped sunbirds, to name but a few. The trip will also provide you with the chance to gain a new perspective on local village life. By the evening you will be anchored in the midst of the serene Vembanad Lake. Overnight houseboat, Vembanad Lake. (BLD)

Day 18 – Houseboat at leisure

Today is left to enjoy the lazy meandering waterways of the Kuttanad area from the comfort of your houseboat.  Overnight Houseboat (BLD) 

Day 19 – Alleppey – Kovalam (Drive – 4 hours)

After taking breakfast against the backdrop of the gently lapping waves, you disembark and drive to Kovalam, where a rocky promontory on the beach has given birth to a beautiful bay of tranquil water, an ideal spot for sea bathing, enjoying the sunshine and reflecting on the beauty of this natural paradise. The beaches are backed by an amphitheatre of precipitous headlands and lined with sentinels of sumptuous coconut palms. Overnight Uday Samudra Leisure Hotel or similar (BL)

Day 20 – Kovalam & Optional Day Tour to Kanyakumari

Today you will take a taxi south from Kovalam to Kanyakumari, the extreme southern tip of India where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The trip takes in the ancient wooden palace of the rulers of Travancore at Padmapuhamban - a marvellous building with fantastic woodcarvings, and the Hindu temple at Suchindram with its amazing stone carvings. Alternatively, if you prefer to relax and recharge, there is the option to have a free day to enjoy the idyllic soft sandy beaches and warm clear waters of Kovalam.  Overnight Uday Samudra Leisure Hotel or similar (BL)

Day 21 – Departure from Trivandrum

Check out from the hotel, bidding ‘vita’ to your local guide and transfer to the international airport of Trivandrum for your homeward journey. Alternatively if you wish to extend your stay enjoying the tropical climes of Kovalam then please contact us for extra night prices (B)

Tour Inclusions/Exclusions

Arrival and departure transfers
All tour transportation
All accommodation on twin/double share basis
National Park entrance fees for excursions listed in the itinerary
Services of English speaking local tour leader with support from other local guides where necessary
Meals as listed (B – Breakfast, L – Lunch, D – Dinner)

International flights
Any airport taxes
Travel Insurance
Services, Meals and Drinks other than those mentioned in the itinerary
Items of a personal nature
Tips (discretionary)

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