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Hills to the plains

We've run out of hills except for a wild and winding descent back in to Kerala. A bit more of a climb out of Ooty in a southerly direction takes us into a tribal region, where many of the original indigenous people still live. They seem to be mainly employed in market gardening and tea picking.

Cultivated valleys high up in the hills where the soil is good and the temperatures cooler. Lots of carrots being grown here!
(Clicking on the images should open them in full screen).

Out of the back of this small region we come to the long descent through forests and valleys and rugged peaks and ridges. There are wild elephants reported to be living here, and we see quite a lot of old dung on the road, but no other signs. Probably just as well as coming round a bend and being confronted with a small herd of elephants could have unpredictable outcomes. We curl down rapidly through 43 consecutive hairpin bends, dropping some 700m in a few minutes, apart from stopping frequently to marvel at the view.


43 hairpin bends drop us to the valley where it gets hotter and the vegetation changes.




Looking back up.

The next day we make one more attempt to see some animals in the wild by taking a jeep safari into a high nature reserve called 'Silent Valley'. It is an hour and half drive up on a rough stone track in an uncomfortable Indian jeep. The forest gets denser and more diverse as we get higher, but apart from a couple of deer, we still don't see any elephants or tigers.



But the view from the top of the hill across the countryside over peaks covered in what may be the last natural forest in southern India is stunning. There is a one hundred foot viewing tower on top of the peak which provides uninterrupted views.


View across the hills of Silent Valley.

And that is it, the long jeep ride back down and on our bikes, dropping another 600 metres to almost sea level and rise in temperature of nearly 10 degrees. The plain is busy with traffic, and people and we are still 100kms from the sea. But it is green, plantations of coconuts, and other trees, which cast some shade on the road. We stop frequently to drink but find ourselves still quite dehydrated at the end of the day from the heat and humidity.

The following day as we near the coast, we get glimpses of the waterways and canals that criss cross this state, though probably more further south. We are still about 100 kms north of Cochin.


Paddy fields and coconut groves.


Canals and waterways that link out to the coast.

When we finally reach the coast, we have trouble finding accommodation on this stretch and decide to hammock by the sea, hanging out in the trees ate the back of the beach.
Hammock rest place by the beach

Hammocks provide a very comfortable alternative to tents with less risk from snakes.

Going higher

The Western Ghats run from Maharashtra down into Kerala as a high plateau before narrowing and rising on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the Nilgiri hills. Here the hills rise from around 900 metres to about 2300 metres.
In order to make the most of the forests and countryside of the high plateau we decided to take on the challenge of cycling up to Ooty, the highest of the hill towns. From here we are poised for a long descent back towards the coast of Kerala through some of the more remote forests in the Ghats. Reportedly full of wildlife including wild elephants.

The climb up was though a mixture of forests and tea plantations. We started early, it gets light shortly before seven, to make the most of cool of the morning.


Leaving the valley behind in the morning, the haze/smog is already hanging in the sky.
(Clicking on images should open them in full size.)

Riding up steep winding roads through tea plantations and forests, sometimes passed by buses and trucks.

Mixed forests and near the top large eucalyptus trees.

As the morning warms I appreciate the shade the trees cast on the road, even though it sometimes makes it hard to see the potholes and broken tarmac. We pause for breath and a drink every 20-30 minutes, a chance to admire the views glimpsed through the trees and the sounds coming from the birds and occasional troop of monkeys. At one pause we spot a 'Nilgiri Marten', in a tree before it slides away through the branches.



As the climb begins to level out we find ourselves in a basin with small lake and trees which makes it almost feel alpine except for the horns of passing bikes and trucks.

Alpine like meadow.

Ooty is at 2250 metres, but it isn't a straight ascent, there are some dips where we lose some of our hard gained height and then have to reclaim it on the next climb. But around lunchtime we eneter the outskirts of the town. It isn't very picturesque and is in fact very busy with traffic of all types. But we have arrived and, having found a comfortable lodging, not too central, we have awarded ourselves a day off.

Life off the road

So what happens when we aren't cycling.
Eating and sleeping both play an important part in our day. As we are now almost in to the tropics the daylight length is around 12 hours, so whilst it gets light shortly before seven, it also gets dark by seven pm. Land there is a quite short spell of twighlight. Therefore finding accommodation by the end of the afternoon is an imperative, unless we have planned to sleep out. But usually by the end of an afternoon of pedalling we are pretty hot and looking forward to a shower and somewhere to retreat to from the traffic and the congestion of the town.
In India, most 'hotels' are in fact small eating places and offer no rooms at all. We have to look for 'Lodgings'. Most towns seem to have a couple of establishments. The range of rooms is very wide. We have a rating system of 1-10. One being the most awful and 10 the very best. Price doesn't necessarily indicate the lilkley stars awarded. What differentiates most rooms is the extent which they have been cleaned (some look like they may not have been cleaned since they were built, especially the bathrooms), the features that work, i.e. windows, doors, fans. The quality of the wiring, i.e. are we likely to accidentally electrocute ourselves whilst using any switches. The colour scheme, which can bee anything from vibrant gloss green to muddy chocolate, purple and orange and in the higher rated places, white. Many of the lodgings are large buildings but set right on or next to a main road of junction. This is likely to mean a night punctuated by bus and lorry horns as they approach or leave the neighbourhood. Sometimes there is a lull in the very early mornings before it allkcicks off again at 4 or 5.
Photos really can convey the extremes between the better and the worst rooms. As most of tohe rooms do have an 'ensuite', it is this that usually seals the designation. After dodgy wiring, Indian plumbing hasn't to be seen/experienced to be believed. Shower fitments are sometimes present, but the taps may or may not turn. Where taps do turn they will often fill a bucket with a dipper, and a bucket shower is the only option. Hot water is occaisionllay available, but often only in the mornings between 6:30 and 8:30. And whilst we are hot and sweaty at the end of the day, some warm water to mix with the cold is welcome when it is available. Cleaning or lack of is usually most apparent in the bathrooms. I think cleaning consists of pointing a hose into the room, spraying it around a few minutes and job done. So washbasins, mirrors, fittings, windows etc all develop layers of grime that makes one shirk away from any close contact.
Beds vary from being hard and lumpy, possibly coconut fibre mattresses to proper soft ones. The worst rooms don't provide sheets, just a blanket or countrepane and a pillow, frequently stained or showing signs of mould. The better rooms have sheets and clean towels, what a treat! So far the higher ranking 8 and 9 out of ten awarded rooms have been in the minority.
Some really nice rooms are often for only a few 100 rupees more than the really grotty ones, it is hard to know what the criteria is for setting a price. With all the rooms we usually haggle over the price and get at least some discount off the original price. Currently £1 is just less than 90 rupees and we pay between Rs900 and Rs1500 for a room that sleeps three. Most rooms come with resident mosquitos though mercifully only a couple with added cockroaches.


Food
A big part of out day. We aren't doing any kind of self catering, partly becuase food of one kind is widely available and partly to keep the weight down on bikes. All three meals in the day usually consist of some kind of curry/spicy dish. As we have come south what is on offer, as well as the names have changed, especially around breakfasts. Iddly, sort of steamed rice patty served with a coconut chutney and a samba, a spicy red sauce with a little veg and chillis. Dosas, rice pancakes, sometimes with a spicy mashed potato filling and samba. Vadas, which started off being deep fried battered mashed potato and now future south are just deep fried batter, servered with samba. One of these and a cup of 'chai', small glasses of hot milky very sweet tea is the kickstart for the day. Continue reading "Life off the road"

Western Ghats

Inland from the coast of Goa is a plateau and hills rising to between 600 and 1000m. This is an area of lush vegetation, forests rather than jungle interspersed with small farmers growing rice and coconuts, arenca nuts etc. The air is slightly cooler, the roads partly shaded by large trees and mostly in very good repair. A bit of a cycling paradise!

Cycling up from the coast to the Western Ghats. (Clicking on most images should open it at full size)

Our first town was a small place called Yellapur. The whole area of the Ghats is potted with wildlife sanctuaries and reserves.

At times it feels like riding in a Southern European landscape, tall trees, bright skies, warm but not too hot. The northern area was well wooded but as we headed further south we have entered the coffee growing region. Vast areas growing coffee, but in the shade of mature trees, giving at least the appearance and feel of extensive forests. The road is bounded by "Coffee Estates" and a couple of times we have seen posh looking modern 'Planters Clubs' which must be a throwback to earlier times when the British managed the tea and coffee growing estates. We have yet to enter the tea growing areas.


Coffee plants growing as an understory to mature trees.


Coffee beans drying in the sun. They have to be sun dried for three or four days before being bagged and sold on. The next part of the process is hulling and then roasting the bean.

Over the last six or so days we have been cycling around 80kms a day from small town to town in a southerly direction, trying to pick our way on the smaller roads without having to do too many extra hills. I think our max height so far has been just over 1100 metres.


Looking at and photographing the way ahead.


Ken and John enjoying a refreshing coconut.


Continue reading "Western Ghats"

Life on the road


Heavy traffic


Traffic jam



Buses that hurtle along


Slow moving


Ken not quite aware how close this truck was going to end up passing.


Sometimes the loads are almost as wide as the road.


John and Ken, relaxing with a coconut.

On the beach

After 10 days of cycling, we made it to Goa. Initially near Arambol, in the north, but this looked very busy in comparison to the villages we'd stayed in on the way down the coast, so we continued south. This included negotiating our biggest and busiest Indian city to date. Pan Jim, capital of Goa. Multi lanes of fast and slow moving traffic, weaving in and out, of each other changing lanes and in some cases direction. Nerve racking, as bikes are low in the pecking order of vehicle rights of way. It took a couple of hours and some very judicious use of gps and route finding by John to get us through and around the worst of the city.

It took two days to get from the north to the south of Goa. It has a very different feel and distinct history as it was a Portuguese enclave until the early 60's. There are many churches and quite a high % of Christians in the population. Cleaner towns and villages and generally a lot more affluent and cosmopolitan.

We ended up at small beach resort that Ken had stayed at 35 years ago. Not so small anymore.
Not as hectic or youth culture driven as some of the bigger places further north, but wall to wall restaurants and bars along the beach. But the sea was warm, the sand white and clean, and a few cold beers very welcome. (First of the trip).

Palolem beach in the quiet of the morning.

Back on the road

Back on the road and heading south again. Trying to keep close to the coast, away from the main roads and where there is sometimes more of a breeze. The coast is intersected regularly by inlets and rivers and we frequently find ourselves crossing long concrete bridges. The view up and down the valley is usually lush and green.

Ken crossing another bridge.


Coconuts growing along the coast and by the rivers.

But after the valley bottoms we face a hot sweaty climb back up to the plateau which seems to predominate on this section of our ride.


Browned off grass and scrubland, no shade and often little breeze except our own movement.

Sometimes there are small plantations of struggling mango orchards and half completed houses that look like they once aspired to be small gated mansions, but are instead more like concrete shipwrecks on an arid seabed. And acre size compounds surrounded with red block work of burnt grass and rubble. A disturbing landscape.





A day by the sea

Six days south (seven days on the road as we had a rest day). Last night in Ratnagiri, one of the larger towns on fhis section of coast. And we are now 90 kms south of there, mainly because there wasn't anywhere for an overnight that looked reasonable.
Our rest day was in a small fishing village of Velenshwar where life is mostly quiet, by Indian standards.




A hard day on the beach!

There was a local temple which attracted many visitors come to make their devotions, and some other local event that entailed music broadcast at full volume over loudspeakers for much of the day, but starting at 7:30am.

First days on the road

Waiting to catch the ferry from the Gate of India in Mumbai.


So, four days pedalling from Mumbai has brought us to a small village called Velneshwara where we are having a rest day. Hard to know exactly how many miles we have covered, but we are about 120 miles from our starting point as the crow flies. The coast south of Mumbai is mostly small towns and small roads often running along or close to the coast. We caught a ferry across the bay through a thick haze amidst a small forest of laid up oil rigs. Deposited at Mandawa, we set off pedalling optimistically in the late morning heat. Traffic was a concern, but this proved relatively light and pedestrian in pace so not as threatening as feared. What did rapidly become challenging was being beeped at continuously by every passing and oncoming car, truck and motorbike. The motorbikes which proliferte were particularly insistent, often beeping three times as they passed us individually. It was hard to work out whether they were just alerting us to their presence lest we suddenly divert right in to the middle of the road or as a tactic to encourage us to give way. But as we were tucked in close to the verge it and there was little oncoming traffic we decided this was just a form of "greeting"! We'd noticed the horn usage in Mumbai where traffic was obviously heavy but hadn't anticipated in a very rural setting. Happily as we travelled further it ihas become a little less prevalent.

Day one was a good introduction to our subsequent days with roads in varying states of repair, changing without any particular reason from very smooth and quiet to almost rubble and pot holes. Each section could be a few hundred metres to a flew kilometres. When the sections were rough it was very hard going on the bones and the bikes. Slowing right down, trying to weave around the ruts and ridges and find a smoother route, often crisscrossing the whole carriageway. Jarring bumps up through the handlebars and seat post punishing the wheels and bearings. Slow on the uphills and even slower on the downhills braking hard to keep the speed right down to reduce the impact. Having pedalled hard to get up a slope or hill , especially if was rough it felt very cheated to have to work almost harder on the descent to brake to less than a walking pace. This was our experience for much of the first three days and required a lot of attention on road itself to avoid a random hole or speed bump of which there are many to catch the unwary. Trying to watch the scenery rapidly becomes a hazardous pastime.

When it was possible to look at it, the scenery was changeable. Scrubby fields of thin brown grass, small shrubby trees, patchworks of swampy land all made up the first couple of days. Every once in a while we would pass through a greener lusher section of coconut palms, tended gardens and denser undergrowth.


John sand Ken pausing for a drink on a bridge over a river. Keeping an eye out for aquatic life.

Getting over Jetlag





Wandering around Mumbai on our second day, slightly sleep deprived and in awe of all the life on streets. It certainly is a full assault on all the senses, smells particularly. Perfumes and incense, urine and spices, exhaust fumes and charcoal fires mingle to create a powerful mix.
We had a bit of admin to try and obtain SIM cards for our phones for use in India. Ever since the terrestrial attack in Mumbai several years ago, foreigners can only get a SIM card by providing photos, ID and filling lengthy forms. Even then there is no guarantee of having a working phone.
We walked for a couple of hours crisscrossing the small streets and parks to visit one of the main markets, Chor Bazaar.

Arrived in Mumbai

Landing mid-morning on a sunny 1st of January 2018. The view out the window was of hillsides covered in houses and shacks and high rises all jumbled together. Twenty million people live in Mumbai now! The threads of all these lives entwined in of the most crowded cities in the world. All doing what they can to survive and to prosper.
The temp is a balmy 80' F or 28'C, but not especially humid, promising weather start to our trip.
Immigration slow and unsmiling, still as bureaucratic as ever, but with computers now, and scanners. Wondered why they scanned our bags as we left the airport. An anxious wait for our bikes at the oversize luggage dept. People very friendly and smiling......but no bikes. Then finally, three large plastic wrapped items, looking largely intact. Great.

Now how to get out of the airport? A taxi! For three blokes an array of bags and three large wrapped bikes. Cos we decided we weren't going to try reassembling the bikes, redistributing stuff and cycling in to the city after a somewhat broken night on a very crowded flight. No problem we were assured with nodding of heads, smiling and ushering us to the taxi rank where we just about squeezed into a small estate car. One bike on the roof and two wrapped around the rear passenger seats. Being New Year's Day, traffic heading in to the city was light, it wasn't until we entered downtown that the jams started and the driving is done with a unison of horns and dodgy manouevering. But there seemed to be a festive spirit as we passed various temples full of pilgrims or worshippers near the coast.