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When you think of the world’s great cycling destinations, India isn’t a country that necessarily springs to mind. And yet, when you venture beyond the bustling city streets, India has a wealth of opportunities on offer for the intrepid cyclist.
Andy Rogers and Caz Whitehead recently ventured to the Indian state of Karnataka with Exodus Travels to begin a two-week-long journey along the country’s south-western coastline. This is the second and final part of a series about that journey. We pick up the story with Caz and Andy about to tackle the long, tough climb to the town of Ooty.
We awoke with first light. Stepping out on to the first floor balcony provided us with a perfect view of the morning sun hitting one edge of the mountain. We ate breakfast with the mountain sitting over us, both beautiful and intimidating all at once.
The morning air was still as we packed our bikes, left the peaceful farmland behind and headed out on to the road. Smoothly paved roads invited us into the climb; descending first before crossing a small bridge and quickly ascending. The road was steep, especially noticeable on cold legs. This climb had 36 switchbacks, and we were told they’d all be signposted.
It wasn’t until around 500 steep metres into the ascent that the first switchback appeared. Signposted indeed, it also contained a slogan about safe driving, and a large mirror. The next one came quickly afterwards, and we were soon winding in and out, up and up through switchbacks. The view behind, in front and beneath us became ever more breathtaking.
Rocky outcrops were appearing ahead, making it seem like our climb was quickly ending, but they were like heat shimmering in the desert; an oasis that didn’t actually exist. Rather, we climbed up and around these mountains, ever upwards. The standard mountaintop views and tree-lined streets were being replaced every now and then with houses, scattered somewhat haphazardly along the road, and sometimes tiny townships would appear.
[ct_super_feature_blockquote quote=”Kids asked our names on the hottest, barest, steepest stretch of road. We found it hard to reply.”]
Foot traffic also increased, and as we passed entire villages ladies walked by the road, washing atop their heads in baskets, muttering and laughing about our apparently stupid idea of riding up this mountain.
Kids asked our names on the hottest, barest, steepest stretch of road between bends seven and six; we found it increasingly hard to reply. The final few switchbacks were steep and close together, and when the 1/36 sign appeared, the road stretched upwards for a few hundred meters, and ended with tea shops, little tin houses, small temples and most importantly, flat ground.
After a tea refreshment, the ten kilometres of rolling hills carried our group of 13 riders into the bustling township of Ooty, the smell of food and the colourful houses on surrounding hills welcoming us into town. Ooty had life and feeling; it continued well into the evening, as shops kept their doors open late.
After a night’s rest, we were ready for a day quite the opposite of what we had experienced 12 hours earlier. As our group made its way down the long driveway of our hotel, the dense mountain-top village of Ooty gave our senses a solid smack in the face. Streets already buzzed with people; the traffic was comparable to Melbourne’s peak hour.
We snaked our way through the maze of streets, all the while dodging people, wild dogs and stalls. After a short ride back toward the top of the climb we took a left and headed towards our day of winding, forest-enveloped descent through undulating roads, which momentarily transported us away from the India we had become accustomed to.
We had been warned that the first descent would be treacherous and soon we would realise that this was not at all exaggerated. We were ‘treated’ to a little more than 20 kilometres of steep downward road containing deep potholes, tight, blind hairpins and buses. But it was nowhere near as horrible as it sounds.
The whole way we got glimpses of the surrounding land – cities way off in the distance masked by a veil of smog, mixed with the scent of tea and sightings of roadside monkeys as we wound our way through tea plantation after tea plantation.
With one descent out of the way, we still had one to get us to our end point for the day. After pausing for another tea and masala-flavoured snack stop at a local tea plantation, the group rode through the nearby hills for another ten kilometres before turning off on to our final road for the day. It quickly became apparent to us that we were in for a treat. The bitumen was laid out evenly beneath our wheels; smooth and inviting. Tall forest trees quickly surrounded us as the gradient dipped.
For the next while we found ourselves with grins ear to ear. Corners flowed into one another and occasionally exposed breathtaking views of the deep valley beside us. If time is said to fly when having fun, it would make that one of the quickest 20-kilometre stretches we’ve ever ridden.
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Going from mountain tops to the seaside (with the help of a transfer through some busy highways), we started the next day in the temple town of Guruvayur. After two long days in the saddle, it was time for some urban exploring.
Twisting through the streets of the outer suburbs we were able to witness a wealthier Indian lifestyle with large houses adorned with all sorts of statues, sparkles, bright paint and finishings. We saw much of the pilgrimage town before heading to Fort Kochi, taking in the stunningly good food of roadside stalls, watching a procession into the large nearby temple, and travelling through the packed night markets nearby. The world here smelled of delicious things; life moved in every corner of this town.
Long coastal roads awaited us for the final few days, which gave us the chance to take in the small communities along the way. Smooth roads and the smell of the ocean almost at arm’s length made for some very pleasant hours in the saddle. Every town we passed we were greeted with “Hello” and “How are you?” always accompanied with a wave or a smile. As we got closer to Kochi, the quieter coastal roads once again gave way to chaotic busy streets.
With our day almost over and the ferry in the distance, we had time for one last sprint with a young local boy, riding a heavy, rusty, neglected MTB, who had silently jumped on our wheels somewhere along the way. Surprisingly, he put up a solid fight. As we heaved for breaths after an attempt at out-sprinting him, we questioned his end point. “I ride to ride,” he said with a grin, before vanishing again into the swirl of traffic. This was the first person we’d come across that hadn’t just been using their bike for transport. It seems the joy of riding bikes isn’t lost anywhere in the world.
Boarding the crammed ferry, we were given the chance for a rest.
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[ct_super_feature_blockquote quote=”We could have sat there for days but our bikes weren’t going to ride themselves.”]
After a few days of rest in Fort Kochi, wandering back streets, exploring and visiting some of the town’s sights, we were back on the road again and heading straight for the town of Allepey. The pleasantries of beautiful coastal roads, friendly villages and the smell of the ocean returned.
We made sure to take advantage of our location, enjoying food on the edge of the Arabian Sea, as we watched the fishermen cast nets, make a catch, hurl their wriggling bundles on to the shore, and pick through the net to the joy of many local beachgoers.
We could have sat there for days but our bikes weren’t going to ride themselves.
Frequently we passed examples of many different cultures’ ideas and tools still be utilised. Crossing over a Dutch sluice gate, we noticed men riding in canoes filled with freshly dredged sand, who proceeded to squeeze beneath us, pushing their boats down as they sank into the river, only to pop up on the other side of the bridge, sometimes scooping out water their boats had taken on in the process. They’d continue down the river, pushing their boats with sticks, under lines of Portuguese fishing nets.
Rolling into Allepey, we cruised along the canal running through the centre of the city, bustling with boats and lined with trees, and it suddenly felt like we’d been transported to Europe. Treats awaited us at our accommodation; a large local lunch and (somewhat odd) massages were the perfect end to the day. Avoiding the clouds of mosquitoes, we shut ourselves into our log cabin, and slept soundly to the music of the river at our doorstep.
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“Children came running out of class yelling and waving, quickly surrounding us and our bikes.”
The next day our transport would also double as our hotel; after a short trip into the city to gather some supplies we boarded our house boat and carelessly floated down the river. We sat back and ate fruit while being guided through the busy waters by a crew of gentlemen who continued to feed us incredible food, all cooked aboard the boat. Locals on the river banks waved as they beat their clothes against heavily worn stones which were stained white from washing soap.
We woke and set foot on dry land again. Only one day remained before our journey ended. Filled with both excitement and sadness, we set out for one last ride beside the glorious Arabian Sea. After already spending a few days on the coast, the sights and smells were now very familiar. More beach huts, and always friendly kids and high-fives; the smiles and waves of older locals still frequent.
After cutting off the highway and on to some backroads to find our river-crossing point, we stopped just outside a local school. Children came running out of class yelling and waving, quickly surrounding us and our bikes. Fascinated by the levers, disc brakes and pannier racks, they touched everything, talking excitedly to one another.
Other students waved out of the windows in the stories above us as we waited to squeeze on to a small boat that would be our ferry. These boats were small. A crew of about four would have been comfortable. But rather, more than a dozen of us packed aboard, all sitting along the edges of the craft as it swayed with added latecomers boarding. With water welling up the edges, we made a very slow crossing of the stretch of water between one piece of coast and the next.
After a morning of sand-filled roads and rocky paths, we were getting closer to our end point of Varkala. As each kilometre passed the number of people by the roadside grew. Only a couple of kilometres from our lunch break for the day, the relaxing sound of a beach side town was broken by the hissing of air being expelled. We’d finally suffered our first and only mechanical for the whole trip; a cut tyre.
A regretful walk to lunch, a quick repair and some pastries, chips and fizzy drink in our stomachs and we were on the road again. We spent a good portion of the afternoon winding our way along the coast and eventually found the outskirts of the beachside town of Varkala. It was here our trip came to an end.
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Before leaving, we made sure to thoroughly explore the town. Sheer cliffs dropped to a beach many metres below. Large scaly lizards zipped between bushes, and puppies cried from underneath parked taxis. Tourists seemed to be everywhere; English was being spoken like a first language. We saw a lot of yoga, fancy markets and all too many Italian restaurants; this didn’t seem like the country we’d just spent two weeks traversing.
To have a pool was luxury. Air conditioning was even more welcome. We watched some National Geographic channel special about Indian elephants in the reserve we’d been through just days earlier, and prepared for our upcoming flights.
India is a country that constantly surprised us for two weeks straight. Cities bustling with incredible street life, food places offering things exuding incredible smell, colour, texture and, upon further exploration, taste. Mountains to challenge the infamous cols of Europe, without a single other cyclist in sight. Coastline that stretches for hundreds of kilometres, beaches with palm trees. Coconuts and sugar cane.
Southern India was not what we expected it to be. In fact, it was everything we were not expecting. And we wouldn’t change a thing.
Click the links below to see Andy’s Strava files from the second week of riding: