The entire event moved with clockwork precision but for surprises on day 1, necessitating a change of plans for day 2. We reached Cochin by air, on time and set off for Munnar in a Tempo Traveller with the cycles and luggage following in a Tata 407 truck. KV Chandran of Kerala Tourism Solutions had made excellent arrangements for us right throughout the expedition; the hotels were good, the courtesy and accommodation of the staff wonderful, the vehicles in excellent condition and the drivers helpful and of the right temperament .Could you ask for more? There were ten of us cyclist and three others, including my wife Deepa, playing a support role.
At Munnar we stayed at the Tea County, an excellent property with superb ambience; a place you would like to spend a few relaxed days .The hotel staff made available a well lit play ground for us to unpack and assemble our cycles. This was the first time I was doing this but managed quite comfortably .Vijay misplaced his front and rear wheel quick release axles and we had to make arrangements for it through the Cochin Firefox outlet. This would reach us only at Thekkady ,so Vijay was quite disappointed at not being able to ride on day one .We planned however that he and I would take turns riding my bike on day1 and that perked him up no end.
One of our riders had done the Munnar -Thekkady route some years ago and inexplicable under estimated the time and effort needed .He told us it would be a “Cake Walk “ and we needn’t set off as early as 6.30 am , the original plan .He said it would take just about five hours and after an initial climb for 10 kms or so it would be mostly downhill with gentle slopes .He suggested we even leave at 10am and still reach Thekkady before 4pm .We eventually left at 8.45 am .
The first 15 kms was a pretty tough climb and then as our friend had suggested, there was an easy descent for another ten kms or so .So relaxed were we ,that we took an assembly break just after the summit and once again a little distance later for coffee and purchases of homemade chocolates!! The “cake walk” lulled everyone .Then started the climb and an increasingly difficult one at that, which would go on all the way till the 70 km mark or so .It was a mix of climbs and descents with more than 50% climbs .Team members who had Garmin devices said the route had a 1.7 km climb! The going was really slow and being conscious of the need to reach the Thekkady Forest Reserve before 6 pm we decided to abort the ride and clamber onto the Tempo Traveller, except for the top three lead riders who kept relentlessly riding on .Even the strongest riders of the team took all the way till 6.00 pm to reach the Forest Reserve gates, a gruelling ride of over nine hours covering just 107 kms .So much for the five hour “cake walk”!! Gagan, Yogen and Tirath, the strongest of our riders were thoroughly exhausted after the days ride.
Nevertheless the Munnar-Thekkady route is truly beautiful, at times breathtaking .With better planning and preparation this would be both a challenging and a beautiful ride. We should have set off at 6.00 am and cut out the leisurely breaks, taken on the climbs resolutely and aimed to finish the ride by 4.00pm. I managed only about 25 kms on day one and Vijay did another 25 kms or so on my cycle before a bee got into his ear and caused considerable pain before finding its way out .Talk about having a bee in your bonnet !!.Vijay did the tougher parts of the ride and me the easier ones .I didn’t do well on the climbs at all and do need to tighten up on technique and build on strength if I am to successfully do mountain cycling . I do aim to do so for sure .My next effort will be far better.
We stayed at KTDC’s Arinya Nivas , again another wonderful place to spend a relaxed holiday .The tough first day had got us thinking about the 200km plus journey from Thekkady to Varkala .We didn’t have a clear idea of the route and anticipated navigation and traffic delays .We planned therefore to just ride for a few hours on day 2 and travel by bus the rest of the way to reach Varkala before sunset .Pradeep, the GM of the hotel, made arrangements for a night safari from 10 to 1.00 for six of us and a cruise on the Periyar River from 7.30 to 9.00 the next morning. The mood now changed to a desire for a relaxed day 2 .Most of us decided to just travel by bus the whole way, while some decided to ride for a couple of hours. Those that did cycle on day two faced a tough climb of 30 kms that took the strongest of our riders almost two hours to complete before they too joint us in the bus.
We drew lots to decide who would go on the night safari!! A good experience it was for those who went for it , though you are unlikely to see any sort of wild life .It was more the experience of trudging through a jungle path in the middle of the night accompanied by armed guards .The next day’s cruise was a great experience .It was an extremely scenic and serene cruise around the Periyar River .We got to see several wild hogs and the rare sighting of a pack of wild dogs who had just killed a sambar and were stalking another .It was quite an experience .It was serenity of the cruise that was so very enjoyable.
After a leisurely breakfast and a spot of shopping for spices, we set off by bus for Varkala .The journey turned out to be longer than we thought with several crowded towns slowing progress .Couldn’t help feeling that this wasn’t a good track to cycle on at all. It was long after sunset and after 7 pm that we finally drove into Krishna Theeram Ayur Holy Beach Hotel, another fine hotel we stayed in during this trip. The Varkala cliff is an interesting place to stroll around with many restaurants catering for foreign tastes and quite a happening place.
One thing we decided was to set off early the next day on our cycles and to stay reasonably close together and set off around 6.20 after a light breakfast .The roads continued to roll with ups and downs and some fairly long climbs but not like what we faced on the ghats. It was a Sunday and hence less traffic but the traffic built up later in the day and so did the scorching heat .I was a little apprehensive at first of the longer climbs and took it slow and easy .My cycle kept giving trouble all the way through .The brakes made a moaning wail every time I pressed them, the kind you hear from busses all the time, attracting attention and stares. The gears also gave me a lot of problems; I couldn’t move to gear 3 on the front sprocket and had to keep going at gear 2. The gears kept slipping and I struggled every time I needed to change gears .I completed the 60 km journey to Kovalam comfortably, finding only the heat and traffic a drawback .But then when we embark on such an expedition we have to accept all that goes with it, including the heat and traffic.
We stayed at KTDC Samudra on the beach .This too is an excellent place to stay with the family on a holiday .We enjoyed the two night stay here and were impressed by the courtesy and helpfulness shown by the front office staff. We had dinner at a very unique spot just outside the hotel. Spot I would call it, as it was on a thick wall (!!) facing the Arabian Sea. The wall was just about eight feet or so in width and had place for only one row of tables along it. The waves crashing against the rocks below added to the atmosphere.
The next day would be an 85 km ride to the southernmost part of India, Kanyakumari .Traffic and heat was a concern and we decided to set off at 6.30 am .We were all up and ready on time in spite of a fair amount of liquor and a late night .The hotel staff were helpful enough to provide light breakfast at 5.30 am and just around 6.30, on schedule we set off for the last ride of this expedition.
If day 3 was hot and the traffic heavy , it was nothing like day 4 .The traffic was much higher being a Monday .Also as we neared the Tamilnadu border, the traffic increased a lot more with a corresponding decrease in the quality of the roads .The heat and humidity was also very high .It lead to two of our team halting on the way and getting on to the bus .I was determined to finish and did so quite creditably .The only minor hiccup was a fall I took a short distance away from the finish as I swerved to avoid on rushing traffic and took a fall getting a minor bruise on the left leg in the process .Thankfully there wasn’t more serious damage .I was lucky here.
Gagan and Raman kept close to me right through the ride and that was reassuring ,as one of them was always within sight or a shout away. That’s the good thing about riding together as a group. We finished in good time averaging around 20kms per hour .We then walked along the pier at Kanyakumari and had an enjoyable time relaxing on the rocks.
The expedition was over .We loaded our cycles on to the truck and drove back to Kovalam to KTDC Samudra .On the way, we saw an awe inspiring movie that Gagan had brought along .It was an account of the 24th addition of the Race Across America .The gruelling 3000 odd miles cycling race across the USA , from East to West ,which has to be completed in 12 days and two hours and is considered to be one of the most gruelling and brutal sporting events. We stayed glued to the documentary all the way back to Kovalam.
We had a great time on this expedition .The big difference from earlier ones was that we had more luxurious hotel stays and more leisure activities .God’s own country ensured that .In our earlier adventure in Rajasthan we stayed in spartan accommodation provided by the Army and had simple food the mess cooked for us .There is a fine balance that needs to be maintained between the adventure and the leisure parts of such trips .Both have a place ,just as it was so good having Deepa around and participating .
Gagan and Vijay are quite insistent that I should now sell off my cycle and get a new one .Gagan has promised to help and so I will soon be getting rid of my rattle trap and riding on a new swanky cycle. God willing!!