It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.
Today, sitting in my chair, exhausted but content, I can vouch for it wholeheartedly. This weekend was amazing, a test of endurance and an overwhelming experience into itself. From Bhagamandala in Coorg, Karnataka to Bekal Fort in Kerala and then to Jalsoor in Karnataka, we travelled around 150 KM along the Western Ghats through hills, ravines and countless towns and villages, a sojourn in timeless awesomeness.
Two friends of us went on a bicycle trip with Cycling and More and came back with rave reviews and great photographs. So when the next notification came, we took no time in lapping it up. Most of the 35 who signed up for this journey hadn’t experienced riding a bicycle for past 10 years or so, leave alone in a mountainous terrain. This was precisely why we were generally excited about it, knowing that this experience will be something very different from what we had been doing so far.
The trip started with the six of us, all Great Lakers, taking half day’s leaves to board a train to Bangalore in the afternoon. The journey was hot and sweaty, the train was over crowded despite it being a reserved compartment and a very restless kid at my side did not help either. When we reached Bangalore, it was raining. All six of us crammed into an Omni cab and reached the place where the CAM bus was waiting to pick us up. Some briefings and introductions later, we were on our way to Bhagamandala.
The Chennai Gang: (From the left) Siva, Aswin, Kartik, Omkar, Shakhi, Sayan and Sathya
We reached the KTDC rest house at Bhagamandala at around 5 AM to freshen up and get some rest. By 7:00 AM we were ready with our bikes and the cycling gear. The bicycle I got was a Merida with lots of gears and even had disc brakes in both wheels! It was drizzling slightly and the morning seemed just perfect, the road ahead hidden by mist hiding what lay ahead. And so, down the first slope, we started. The first 15 KM were like a breeze. Since most of it was a downward incline, we raced on narrow serpentine hill roads flanked by rocky walls on one side and deep ravines on the other. The Jungles were green-wet with precipitation and the greenery was vibrant. Even the rails of the bridges were covered with dark green moss. We came across numerous waterfalls on the way, some of them breathtakingly beautiful. A rider would most probably be alone for the visible stretch on the road, with no sound other than those of the jungle and that of the wind passing by the ears. But at every water fall one would find other riders frolicking in water and taking snaps, no mortal would be able to resist them anyway.
After the first 15 KM of Honeymoon along the valley, the roads started worsening up. They became pockmarked with potholes, making the ride bumpy and uncomfortable, and upwards slopes became more frequent. It was then that we started struggling. Huffing and puffing, we kept going, trying to keep the clouds of self doubt away from our minds. To make matters difficult for me, the bottle handler in my bike broke and the bottle fell down. So for a larger part of the journey, I was pretty much dehydrated.
The original cyclist looking at us with skepticism
After some two hours of pedaling, we reached Karike, our first target on the Kerala border. No need to mention that we were very happy by this interstate achievement and indulged in some photo shoots. From here we started towards Kanhangad passing along some villages once in a while. People were usually curious, especially by our swanky bikes and colorful helmets, kids would wave at us and adults would think we were another pack of town folks gone crazy.
Rubber plantation on the way
Now fatigue started creeping in. I was not much used to cycling and started feeling the cramps in my thighs and constant breathlessness. Along the way, racing cyclists became less frequent and here and there we would find stragglers struggling hard to continue. To top all this, the Sun came out from behind the clouds, sucking the energy out of us. Till now I was riding almost alone, but from here I joined the group of Sathya and Karthik, further joined by Sayan and Rahul. Although getting on a support vehicle was an open option, for pride and honor we kept the struggle on. We had to change the tactics. There was no point in wasting the energy riding uphill, so we would trek on those ramps and ride only when there was a slope or at least some flatness of surface. The only solace through this ordeal was the beauty lying around us. The tall mountains, beautiful valleys and lush green forests were too gorgeous to be wasted by a drive down in a vehicle. When you are on a bicycle you tend to soak in the blessings Mother Nature has spread everywhere, instead of just vrooming by in a motored vehicle.
The Five Palms
The place where we were supposed to get lunch was by the time almost an El Dorado. People would give the estimated distance varying from 5 to 12 KM and we were not very confident that we had that required amount of energy left in us. The rests became more frequent. By the time we finally reached the place, we had done 51 KM and were totally exhausted. Earlier we were in the middle of the line of riders, but now it seemed we were the last, because those behind us gave up and hopped in the support vehicle. The destination from here was the Bekal Fort. Since very few of us were in a condition to carry on, and since it was impossible to reach Bekal in time if we rode, we took as Jeep and asked him to take us there.
The Bekal Fort in the town of Kasargod is a large coastal fort overlooking the Arabian sea, made famous by Mani Rathnam’s movie ‘Bombay’. For a fort, it is very beautiful, covered with greenery and with waves splashing on its ramparts. It has tall watchtowers with wide steps leading to them and walls standing tall. A famous part of the fort is a watchtower in a keyhole type projection going almost into the sea. We spent quite some time at this beautiful place and then left for Kasargod, our last destination for the day. The town turned out to be pretty well equipped with modern amenities; I even managed to find an ‘American Fried Chicken’ offering yummy chicken. Back at the hotel, it was time to sleep.. went to bed and was oblivious of the world within minutes…
Day 2 started early in the morning. Sathya and I were contemplating whether to ride or not. The damned pride and honor came in between so at the last moment we decided against quitting. I changed the bike and took one which had a bottle stand attached. Our first stop was a place where breakfast was to be served- 12.5 KM away. This time it was a highway, smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks. The ride was much easier than the day before, either due to the road or the fact that we were used to it by now. So we covered the distance pretty fast and reached the breakfast joint on time. Post breakfast, I found that the gear system of my bike was damaged and had to change the bike, loosing precious time. Started riding again and met others who had slowed down due to considerable up-hills. We treaded along for another 20 KM across the Highway amidst similarly beautiful landscape towards Jalsoor, a town in Karnataka. Today there were no waterfalls, but rubber, coconut and palm plantations galore. We covered 32 KM before the time got over and the Support vehicle came to pick us up. So the last 18 KM had to be traveled in the back of a small truck; wasn’t too happy about it but there was not much to be done. On our way, we saw a river flowing along the road, most probably Kavery and a beautiful hanging bridge over it. When we reached Jalsoor, by 11:30 AM it was raining heavily. Siva and Omkar managed to finish the journey along with some others. We relaxed in Jalsoor with everyone assembling for photographs and small talk. Afterwards we loaded the bikes in the trucks and ourselves in the bus and started for Bangalore. Our return journey took us back through Madikeri in Coorg and breathtaking mountains rising above clouds. Too bad I could not take good pictures from the bus. This is the difference between being on a bicycle and being on anything else…