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5 Sep

Malabar Cycling Diaries: Goa to Kanyakumari – Part II

This is the second part of my solo cycloexpedition from Goa to Kanyakumari. Please do read part I here before proceeding to read this part of the travelogue. 

Day 8: Valiyaparamba to Parimadam

October 25th, 2019

The morning after Cyclone Kyarr had officially been announced, there was mixed news for me. The cyclone was gaining in strength, but had moved north and was now off the coast of northern Karnataka and Goa. The highest level of alert had been issued by the Indian Meteorological Department all along the West Coast and schools and colleges were being closed in many districts. The further south I went the lesser I would face the brunt of the storm. However, I would still have to battle brutal headwinds as the storm sucked all the air in towards itself.

I woke up at sunrise and examined my surroundings. It was drizzling lightly, alright for me to wander around. While the sea on one side was brown and rough, the backwaters of Kavvayi on the other were calm and placid. In the distance I could see the fabled promontory of Ezhimala, 10 kilometres further south.

The backwaters of Kavvayi, with Ezhimala on the horizon

Mala meant hill in Malayalam, linked to the word malai in Tamil that meant the same. Interestingly, there is a theory that suggests Malayalam was a Tamil name given to the region that is now Kerala, alam or eelam meaning land. According to this theory, this is how the land of hills got its name, which then became the name of its native language.

Now, there were two land bridges that would get me off Valiyaparamba Island. I had taken the first one to reach and passed the second one a few kilometres before arriving at my homestay. Immersed in exploration mode, I did not want to backtrack. Examining the geography of the backwaters I imagined there would be a ferry service further south on the island, connecting the hamlets there to the mainland. I asked around, but no one at my homestay was certain if there was a ferry across. Even if there was one, there was no road to get there, they said. I asked a lone passerby, and he did confirm that there was a ferry service to cross over but no road indeed. I then asked if one could get there on foot, to which he replied affirmatively. If a pedestrian could, I was going to take the route to try and cross. In the worst case scenario, I would have to ride back and take the second bridge.

In theory, Valiyaparamba Island connected all the way down to Ezhimala and then to a road towards Kannur but a massive naval academy, INS Zamorin, had blocked off access to the southern end of the island. I had to take the ferry before the naval academy’s territory began.

Backwaters to the left and the sea to the right

Backwaters to the left and the sea to the right

I took off from the homestay, on a beautiful path along the backwaters. But within a few hundred metres the road gave way to a mud path, as I had been warned. The storm had turned everything to slush, making the ride very challenging. I pedalled hard on low gears, over fallen coconut fronds and tiny streams of water. This was the Kerala one would see in advertisements, with clay-tiled houses amongst coconut groves, with backwaters on one side and the sea on the other. These parts were uncorrupted by commercial activities, and unlike the south of Kerala they had not been overrun with luxury hotels and exclusive retreats.

A mud path turned to slush due to Cyclone Kyarr

A mud path turned to slush due to Cyclone Kyarr

 

Obstacles along the route

Obstacles along the route

As I ventured further south along the island, the mud path I was riding along turned into a swamp! Due to the overnight rain, there was about 30 centimetres of water along the path and for about a few hundred metres my cycle proved its amphibious capabilities as it splashed through the swamp. Thanks to some vegetation and grass in the centre it was possible to ride through without getting trapped in the soft mud, although I had to be constantly alert for a sudden drop or invisible underwater crevasses.

Riding through the swamp

Riding through the swamp

A few minutes later, the path opened up to the backwaters and a boat was in sight, about to depart! A small dinghy, it was headed to Kavvayi Island with a handful of locals. Kavvayi Island was on the other side of the backwaters, connected to the mainland by a bridge that would take me to the town of Payyanur and then south towards Kannur city.

The swamp ended and the boat appeared!

The swamp ended and the boat appeared!

I had to wade through knee deep water with my cycle up high on my shoulder and then load it in the front. A short wait for it to fill up with more commuters, and we were off!

Crossing over to Kavayyi Island

Crossing over to Kavayyi Island

We arrived at Kavvayi Island a few minutes later, where I hopped off at a tiny jetty. From here on the roads were splendid, but the cyclone had caused large-scale flooding. My cycle and waterproof gear continued displaying their amphibiousness as I made my way through entire neighbourhoods that were under a layer of water. I was also back into semi-urban parts. As in Kanhangad, all the homes around me were newly built with fancy tiled compounds that had erased all topsoil and greenery from the plots, barring a few coconut trees along the edges. Many of these new constructions seem to have been built with influences from Arabia as house nameplates of newer buildings were exceedingly in the Arabic script over the Malayalam script. It was also evident that there was a strong connection between the lack of natural drainage due to the tiled compounds and water accumulation on the road.

A flooded lane in Kavvayi

A flooded lane in Kavvayi

From Kavvayi I made my way towards Payyanur, taking a narrow cut road through coconut plantations and empty spaces that used to be rice farms. Cut road was a colloquial term for shortcut in Kerala. This road was spectacular. Wherever the soil hadn’t been compounded, there was an absolute explosion of greenery with flocks of migratory birds abound.

Without entering Payyanur town, I turned southwards towards Ezhimala. I continued along another smooth tarmac road and then crossed over a bridge over the Perumba River to arrive at the village of Ramanthali.

Perumba River bridge with Ezhimala in the back

Perumba River bridge with Ezhimala in the back

Ramanthali was a village at the base of the historic Ezhimala, a strange and isolated cluster of coastal hills disconnected from the Western Ghats. They rose over 250 m, and being right by the sea the geography and biology of the area was very unique. With forests, hills, backwaters and a beach all in one place; the potential for a coastal national park or sustainable eco-education setup here was immense. But almost the entire range of hills, forests and pristine beach adjoining it had been taken over by the naval academy.

Satellite data shows that over the years, large swathes of Ezhimala’s lush tropical forests had been decimated for building this naval academy. Sports facilities, training centres, grounds and residential quarters had been built over acres of ancient, irreplaceable forests in this unique biosphere. I wondered how many more times the owners and protectors of this land would change before such forests could ever regrow. I felt like the real victims of modern day human conflict were our planet’s ecosystems.

With the road ahead blockaded by the academy, I turned inland towards Palakode village and rode with the Ezhimala hills to my side. The constant drizzle that had accompanied me since morning was also getting heavier as the skies turned grey once more.

Skies turning grey near Palakode

Skies turning grey near Palakode

The NH-66 or the highway from Mumbai to Kanyakumari was tens of kilometres inland now, and my plan was to take an alternate route along the coast, along a spit on the Kuppam River backwaters towards a town called Matul, and then to Kannur by ferry.

I crossed the Palakode bridge and then turned in from Muttam back towards the coast to take the road to Matul. While doing so, I crossed over a canal that connected the Kuppam and Perumba rivers. I asked a few locals, but none of them knew what it was called. Some references online claimed it was built by Tipu Sultan and hence called the Sultan Canal.

Sultan canal, Kerala

The Sultan Canal

The rain came thundering down now as I made my way to Matul. There were several beaches to the west, but the weather didn’t allow much exploring. It would be impossible to even glance up if I were at the beach. I headed south steadily, riding past newly built white-coloured homes, modern looking supermarkets and shops with glitzy neon signs. The sheer lack of traditional structures made the region appear unlike any other rural part of India I had been to.

Despite the rain, I was questioned by a couple of young adults on a motorcycle who had returned home for a few days from the Gulf and were excited to see an alien like me riding around in these parts. We spoke for a few minutes as I continued riding and they rode slowly alongside. They really insisted I stop by for a cup of tea or kaapi at their home but I had a lot of distance to cover and politely declined. They wished me luck, took a selfie (while riding) and assured me that I was on the correct route.

After this warm interaction, I kept on riding south along the only main road on this spit until I finally arrived at Matul jetty a little before noon. The next ferry to Azhikal, to the south was in 20 minutes and I waited patiently in queue. Although no one could communicate with me in English or Hindi, I could sense that everyone was very calm and disciplined, as I had come to expect of people in Kerala. Instead, I was the impatient traveller who kept asking if the ferry was on time, to which I repeatedly received a relax hand gesture, followed by a finger on the watch and a thumbs up gesture from the locals.

Sure enough, the ferry did arrive on time, even through the rain. The entire ferry was covered, which seemed logical given the length of the monsoon season in Kerala.

The ferry to Azhikal from Matul

The ferry to Azhikal from Matul

In an orderly manner, everyone climbed on to the ferry. I thought about the ferry from Madh Island to Versova back in my home city of Mumbai. It was a route I took often on weekend rides and there always was total pandemonium when the ferry docked and undocked. Here, it took lesser time and was much safer as commuters maintained a single file. Inside the ferry, the front part was for women while the rear was for men. Some commuters opened newspapers and started reading and discussing the news while others were on their phone. No one was shouting or playing videos loudly on their mobile speakers, in contrast to most forms of public transportation I had taken in other Indian states.

The ticket conductor came and promptly issued a ticket from a machine that had a special fixed tariff for a bicycle as well! I was thoroughly impressed by how things worked here.

As I deboarded at Azhikal, the rain had reduced but a slight drizzle persisted. I continued riding south towards Kannur, via a smooth but narrow road that wound through sleepy villages and towns. However, as I got closer to Kannur there was more hustle and bustle around.

A few kilometres after Azhikode, the heavens burst open completely. The rain was now coming down at a 45 degree angle and was so heavy that visibility was less than 10 metres. I was forced to hide under a bus shelter where a few other locals on bicycles and scooters had also taken cover. We couldn’t communicate, but wry smiles looking up at the sky indicated that such weather was not normal for this time of year. Well, this was the second most powerful cyclone to ever hit the Arabian Sea in recorded history after all.

To the right, the bus-stop where I took shelter

 

The rain was coming down in buckets

After about 30 minutes, the intensity began to reduce. It was still heavy enough to drench me within a few seconds, but I could at least somewhat notice the traffic along the road.

I rode towards Kannur along the same narrow road, crossing towns that were under a foot of fast flowing water. Cars had stopped on the road, reluctant to drive through the water, causing long traffic jams. I weaved through the traffic, the flooded streets having no impact on me at all.

Flooded roads before Kannur

A short while later, I reached Kannur, famished and looking for lunch. Near a big junction close to the city’s railway station, I found a rather modern looking outlet offering traditional meals. I ordered the special meals and asked for a table from where I could see my cycle parked outside the glass door. As it was right at the junction, there were hundreds of people walking by every minute. I was quite preoccupied with its safety. Looking at my anxiety, the restaurant manager smiled at me from behind the cash counter and said, “Nothing to worry sir, no one will touch.” And true to his words, not a single passerby tampered with or played with the cycle’s handlebars!

I ordered a traditional malabar style meals, but I was first served a glass of warm reddish looking water. I was confused. What was this drink? Had I ordered it? There had seemed to be no mistake in communication. I looked around to notice everyone was drinking the same reddish water. Was it a special drink that came along with the meal, I wondered?

Upon asking the courteous manager, he replied, “But sir that is how we have water!”

This glass of warm water infused with redwood was my first tryst with Ayurveda in Kerala, a state that still inculcates this form of traditional medicine in everyday life.

How water was served in Kerala’s restaurants

After a big lunch, I decided to take a short detour and visit Kannur Fort. The rain had reduced to a light drizzle now, and I turned in from the coastal road towards St. Angelo fort through an army cantonment.

However, upon arriving at the fort the rain and winds picked up again. It was almost 3 pm and with the weather seeming grim once more, I decided against entering the sea-side fort and just clicked a few images from the outside.

St. Angelo Fort, Kannur

St. Angelo Fort, Kannur

I cycled back up to the road I had turned in from, and back along the coast once again. I passed by Mappila Bay and a heritage structure that used to be the royal darbar of the Arakkal Kingdom, now a museum. Kannur had a very varied and diverse medieval history, with the city passing from Hindu kings to the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Muslim Arakkals and then the British over a span of a few centuries. The area lived and breathed of stories, folklores and unique traditions that deserved a lot more attention than it currently received.

After crossing the colourful and historic Arakkal part of Kannur, I headed back inland towards the NH-66. There were a couple of short yet very steep climbs I had to navigate as I zigzagged through inner roads to arrive at the highway. Just before the highway was a level crossing with the railway line and a massive traffic pileup that I weaved through effortlessly. Along the potholed highway I spotted a distance stone for Kochi – still over 260 km away!

The traffic waiting for the train to pass

Trying not to think about the large distance I still had to cover, I turned in towards Muzhappilangad beach. It was a long stretch of beach where bizarrely, motorised vehicles were allowed to drive on the sand legally. As I arrived at the beach, I noticed that it been cordoned off to motorists due to the cyclone, but I was allowed by a guard to proceed with my bicycle.

The next four kilometres were true bliss. As I was already drenched with the rain I rode along the beach with complete abandon. I rode through 10 centimetres of water as the waves lapped at my wheels. The tide was low, making it a bit easier to ride on the semi-firm sand. There were a few challenges though – streams of water gushing from the land towards the sea, cutting right across the beach. I would have never thought of riding through them in other circumstances, as I could barely gauge their depth. But I was in complete amphibian mode, and sped up to slice through the streams, some of them almost 40 centimetres deep.

Riding along Muzhappilangad Beach

 

Looking north from the southern end of Muzhappilangad Beach

At the southern end of the beach, I found myself back on tarmac, heading towards the highway. This narrow village road wound about with the sea to one side and pretty, traditional homes on the other. The weather was also improving – the sky was blue in patches!

A temporary respite from the rain

As I rejoined the highway, I was entering Thalassery – a town with a rich history of its own, but perhaps most famous for its legendary biryani. The NH-66 through Thalassery was very narrow, as it swept right through the town and along the coast. Through flat stretches and downhills I would cut through the traffic, but whenever there was a slight uphill I would be the one causing a pile up behind me and would get brutally honked at. The lack of a side shoulder made it very difficult to move out of the way.

My destination, Parimadam, was only 9 kilometres away, but the sky had begun to turn once more. I sped up, constantly looking behind to check for trucks and cars zooming towards me and looking up towards the darkening skies.

I zoomed through and reached Parimadam, where I turned in towards the sea and into a tiny fishing hamlet where my homestay was located. I passed a beautiful Durga temple that was gearing up for a puja that evening, with Deepavali only two days away.

Durga temple, Parimadam

 

The Durga temple at Parimadam lit up after the puja

No sooner had I reached than the heavens opened once more, and it poured for the next few hours into the night.

I spent most of my evening fixing a small puncture in one tube and washing and cleaning the salt water off the bicycle. Believe it or not, this was the first ever puncture I had faced in two years of cycling across a variety of landscapes in India, and over 4000 km of riding! The culprit? A tiny shell that I picked up from the beach. Lesson learned. 

Total distance:  77 km

Total riding time: 5:53 hours

Elevation gained:  717 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 2

Total travel costs: ₹110

Districts traversed: 2 – Kasargod, Kannur

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 9: Parimadam to Kadalundi

October 26th, 2019

The next morning the skies were blue and white with a low chance of rain. I had more or less made it through Cyclone Kyarr. I rode up to the NH-66, and arrived shortly at the bridge across a river that also served as a border to Mahé, Puducherry.

Yes, Puducherry here on the West Coast! The smallest district in India, Mahé is one of the four enclaves of Puducherry (and erstwhile French India) spread across Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.

With Kerala’s strict laws and steep duties on liquor, practically every outlet in Mahé was a liquor store. They lined both sides of the national highway as it wound its way through the town, past Saint Teresa’s Church and the baroque facade of the Mahé Municipal Office.

Liquor stores in Mahé

 

Municipal office, Mahé

I sped through Mahé town, and in minutes I was back across the border in Kerala!

With clear weather, I picked up my pace, with a target to reach Vatakara in time for breakfast. As there was no road or path parallel to the sea along this stretch I was forced to ride along the busy highway until a kilometre before Vatakara where I turned off the highway into the town.

A quick puttu-idli-kaapi later, I was riding again, and then back on the highway after a few kilometres. I now had a decision to make. After crossing the Kuttiyadi River I could try to explore a winding coastal road or stick to the highway. Due to the inclement weather over the past few days, I had been cycling slower and covering much lesser distance than I should have. Hence, I took a call to stay on the highway and then exit onto a more linear coastal road after Koyilandy.

At about noon, I reached Koyilandy, and passed through the quintessential chaos of an Indian town near its centre. This is where I exited the highway and turned back in towards the coast. I navigated through a few villages and narrow paths, past a large banyan tree and onto the coastal road once more.

It was a spectacular ride from here on. There was essentially no one else on this stretch of road that led all the way up to Kappad Beach. The waves, still big and violent, crashed onto the right side of the road as I passed groups of children playing football in every other clearing on my left. This stretch seemed completely untouched by time. No commercial establishments of any kind were in sight. The sun was out now, and the skies were still blue with patches of white clouds. For the first time in days, I was also feeling the heat. I could not complain.

Coastal road past Koyilandy

After about 7 kilometres along this desolate coastal road I arrived at Kappad Beach, home to a handful of resorts and what appeared like a newly constructed tourist promenade.

Within Kerala, the northern districts of Kasargod, Kannur, Wayanad and parts of Kozhikode make up a region called the North Malabar while the remaining parts of Kozhikode, Malappuram and parts of Thrissur make up the South Malabar. Judging by what I had seen in Kasargod, Kannur, and now in Kozhikode, it seemed like Kerala’s tourism board was keen to promote the beaches and backwaters of the North Malabar. Connectivity to these northern districts used to be an issue, but with a new international airport in Kannur, footfalls were all set to increase in the region. This new airport makes Kerala the first Indian state to have four international airports, a reflection of its strong global connections.

At Kappad, I found myself at another marker of Kerala’s strong global connections – one from 1498 AD. Kappad was where Vasco da Gama’s fleet had landed in India after sailing past the southern cape of Africa, establishing a direct maritime trade route between Europe and India. The discovery of this route triggered the arrival of the European colonists in Asia, an event that subsequently had a significant impact on the history and power balance of the world.

Vasco da Gama marker, Kappad Beach

I rode on along the coast towards Kozhikode. It was now 1:30 pm and I had still had to break for lunch. I decided to push it and take advantage of the dry weather to cover as much distance as possible.

Upon examining satellite imagery, I noticed that a bridge across the Korapuzha River was under construction. Due to this, crossing over by road towards Elathur by motorised vehicles was not possible but on my phone I could see a small pedestrian footpath parallel to the new bridge being built. I asked around, some locals said I could cross while others refused, assuming I needed a tarmac road. I took my chances and soon enough I arrived at the bridge and its temporary footpath.

Temporary bridge over the Korapuzha River

I crossed over and found myself in Elathur, on a smooth and wide tarmac road built to connect with the bridge after its completion. I zoomed through this stretch, hitting some of my highest speeds of the week due to the flat nature of the road and absence of headwinds.

In the distance, I could see several large apartment buildings, some over twenty stories high. I was fast approaching one of Kerala’s largest cities. Once again, I turned towards the coast and found myself on the Kozhikode Beach promenade, a wide tree-lined road running all the way along Kozhikode’s coastline. To my right, I could see a massive storm brewing in the distance over the Arabian Sea even though it was bright and sunny overhead. I knew the rain was coming in and decided to reach Kozhikode city as soon as possible to break for lunch.

However, tragedy struck and I punctured my front tire a few kilometres before a line of eateries that lined the beachfront promenade began. This made it two punctures in two days! Luckily though, I found a cycle repair shop only a few metres away from where the puncture occurred. The kind man who ran the tiny repair shop patched up the puncture on the previous tube as well, ensuring I still had a usable spare.

In the time it took to fix the puncture and the spare tube, the storm came rolling in. While the core of the cyclone had passed, one of the outer bands of the cyclonic circulation seemed to have effectuated this cloudburst. The water came all the way into his shop and we were drenched within seconds.

Wet anyway, I rode through the storm after thanking my saviour and a bunch of excited children that had gathered around to admire the cycle and play with the gears while we fixed the tubes. I stopped for a quick lunch along the waterfront and rode on, trying to catch up on the time that I had lost due to the puncture.

From Kozhikode, my plan was to take the jhankar ferry boat at Beypore and cross over the Chaliyar River to Chaliyam. For this, I would have to stick to the coastal route. But with the storm lashing down it was really tough to ride with the exposed sea to my right as I kept getting pushed violently by powerful gusts. I pedalled through on low gears and crossed a small bridge that took me inland onto a more sheltered path. Now my challenge was to avoid falling coconut fronds and nuts, one seemed to fall every 10 metres or so.

I powered through the suburbs of Kozhikode, through flooded lanes lined with bungalows on both sides. I was a little worried that the weather would have cancelled the ferry service. I had no option to go on and find out though.

Flooded lanes in Kozhikode’s suburbs

In about 50 minutes from Kozhikode Beach, I arrived at Beypore jetty. The rain reduced to a drizzle with my arrival as I waited patiently with mostly locals on motorcycles and cars. Like the ones on the Konkan coast in Maharashtra, this was a big car ferry and it took a while to load and unload vehicles and passengers.

After 20 minutes of waiting, the ferry departed and promptly took us over the Chaliyar in a few minutes. I covered the next 5 kilometres at an easy pace and arrived at my homestay in Kadalundi.

On the jhankar ferry to Chaliyam

There was a bird sanctuary in Kadalundi I had planned to visit, but with the rainy weather I was severely delayed and only reached by sunset. I spent the rest of the evening drying all my gear out and hoping for better weather the next day.

Total distance:  81.27 km

Total riding time:  5:53 hours

Elevation gained:  573 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 1

Total travel costs: ₹15

Districts traversed: 3 – Kannur, Mahé, Kozhikode

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 10: Kadalundi to Chavakkad

October 27th, 2019

The morning was grey and cloudy, but Cyclone Kyarr had moved far away to the centre of the Arabian Sea and was currently headed towards the Arabian peninsula. By now, I was indifferent to the rain, but was looking forward to calmer seas to swim off the many beaches I was riding past. Strong headwinds still persisted though, as I rode south, away from the cyclone.

As I left Kadalundi, I arrived at a phenomenal bridge over the mouth of the Kadalundi River, built right over the spot where the waves of the Arabian Sea crashed into the river. What was truly astonishing about this location was that I could spot the high altitude Nilgiri Mountains in the distance, more than 60 km away. Some of the highest mountains in India outside of the Himalayas, visible clearly from the sea!

The Arabian Sea on one side…

 

And the Nilgiris on the other!

The sea, the estuary, the river, the backwaters and the high grasslands of the Nilgiris all visible in one frame, this was a sight that would forever remain etched in my mind when it came to the natural splendour of Kerala.

I was now at the gateway to Malappuram district, the only Muslim majority district in all of South India, a district with a rich history and culture of its own. On the bridge I was met by two young cyclists who had come in from a nearby town. They told me that I needed to be careful going ahead. They warned of bad roads and a high crime rate. Apparently, a political murder had just taken place a week earlier in Tanur and tensions were high.

It was a Sunday, a day when Kerala grinds to a complete halt. This was a sharp cultural change from Maharashtra and Karnataka, where one often sees more activity out on certain streets and shops on Sundays. But here in Kerala, everything was completely shut. Restaurants, grocery stores, retail outlets, markets – almost everything was shuttered down.

I had to manage breakfast, so I stayed on a wider internal road despite there being a road along the coast. Somehow I found a tiny outlet serving hot and piping idli-chutney just before Chettipadi. I filled myself up, and headed back to the coastal road.

This road was newly built, smooth and peaceful with the waves crashing to one side. However, while passing through Parappanangadi I noticed the road ahead was cordoned off and a tree had been placed to block the path. Upon coming closer, I was astonished to see that the entire road had been swept away by the waves!

The impact of Cyclone Kyarr

Asking a few locals who could converse in broken Hindi, it seemed this devastation had occurred just over the past couple of days due to Cyclone Kyarr. Water had gushed into many homes that were still reeling from the damage caused by the storm surge. All this even though the cyclone did not make direct landfall. I wondered how bad things could get on the West Coast if a super severe cyclone such as Kyarr struck the coast head on instead.

I jumped over the tree, kept to the side of the broken road and continued down the coastal road, shell-shocked to see in person how brutal a cyclonic storm could get and glad to have made it through without an incident.

The next few kilometres were calm and quiet. With very little activity or traffic on the streets, I raced ahead, crossing a bridge over the Poorappuzha River. The roads after this bridge were in poor shape and at parts I had to divert through coconut plantations as repair and road construction work was on.

I crossed Tanur at about 11 am, and headed down a road parallel to another river-linking canal, the Conolly Canal. My target was the jhankar jetty at Padinjarekara, from where I’d cross over the river that this canal linked to – the fabled Bharathappuzha.

As morning transitioned to noon, I noticed that the only people I’d see on the road were groups of boys. Being Sunday, school was closed, and I began to see loads of children playing and loitering around outside. Just that they were all male. Like in other parts of India, some of the kids would get very excited to see me and a ‘geared’ cycle, running alongside me, while some would smile and wave.

What I did not expect though, was the heckling. Across multiple villages, there were groups of young boys that shouted aggressively, boys that jumped in front to scare me and one group that did stop me and tried to take my belongings, managing to take my sunglasses away. I eventually retrieved them as a police jeep was close by, but this was the very first time I had faced any form of hostility after cycling thousands of kilometres across all parts of India. And the last demographic I had imagined to be heckled by were pre-teen and teenage boys.

This seemingly playful ambush was actually very aggressive

I was more alert now, riding on the main road through Vakkad and Koottayi now instead of exploring the interiors. It was much wider after Koottayi and saw a bit more thoroughfare with everyone seemingly headed towards the jetty. The Bharathappuzha was the longest river in Kerala and fairly wide, which meant there was no bridge over it along the coast. This was also why the NH-66 ran much further inland in Malappuram district. The jhankar boat hence provided an alternative to an almost 30 kilometres long diversion.

Besides the lack of women or girls on the streets, the other thing that was peculiar about this district was the absolute lack of infrastructure for tourists and travellers along the coast. None of the beaches had marked entrances or promenades, and there were no hotels, resorts or homestays whatsoever. Probably the only such district on the entire West Coast.

I took no detours or stops and arrived at the jhankar jetty at Padinjarekara at about 12:30 pm. With dry and cloudy weather, I had covered decent distance, neither the rain nor the sun hindering my efficiency.

After a 30 minute wait, a large ferry arrived, docking to let a host of cars and motorbikes to disembark before letting on the ones waiting to board. The Bharathappuzha River was mud brown, carrying heavy silt and soil from the eastern side of the Western Ghats, flowing west through the only chink in the armour of the Western Ghats from South Gujarat till Kanyakumari – the Palakkad Gap.

On the other side, the NH-66 turned in westwards and returned to hug the coast. After a few kilometres cycling through Ponnani town, I rejoined the highway, where I also found the first restaurant along the day’s route. I stopped for lunch, digging into some delicious parotta and curry.

Post lunch, I rode down fairly fast along the smooth highway. The road was in great condition and dry weather allowed me to foresee obstacles fairly well. In just a few minutes, I crossed district borders from Malappuram over to Thrissur, zooming through at speeds of over 25 kmph. 

By entering Thrissur, I was now nearing the tourism hubs of central and southern Kerala. Homestays were tougher to find, and beach front properties were mostly exclusive Ayurvedic retreats that didn’t accept travellers looking to stay just a night.

Finding affordable accommodation by the sea was quite a challenge and I decided to spend the night in a cheap hotel in Chavakkad. It wasn’t far and I would get there mid-afternoon itself, finally giving me time to enjoy the countryside.

Thrissur district was the cultural capital of Kerala, known for its ancient temples, churches, mosques, traditions and festivals. The Kerala Kalamandalam, a hub of traditional art and culture was located further inland near Thrissur city.

As if on cue, just a few kilometres into Thrissur I could hear loud noises up ahead and large grey shapes moving slowly towards me. Upon getting closer, it was a traditional procession with drums and elephants! Well, it was Deepavali in Thrissur after all.

Deepavali procession, Punnayur

 

Deepavali procession, Punnayur

There were traditional instruments being played, with men dressed in large colourful costumes representing flowers, dancing and spinning. People were lined up on both sides of the street as the procession passed, jumping in and clapping and dancing with the procession that was headed towards a large Shiva temple.

A few kilometres further south there was another procession headed towards the temple, albeit smaller in size.

A smaller procession

I zipped through the next stretch of the highway quickly, arriving at Chavakkad mid-afternoon. I was only a few kilometres to the beach, and headed there after an hour of rest.

It was fairly crowded at Chavakkad Beach, a public holiday coinciding with a Sunday. Moreover, it was a day without rain after what had been one of the wettest Octobers on record on the West Coast.

Sunset at Chavakkad beach

I loitered around and found a spot to see the sunset away from the crowded beach entrance and parking lot area, soaking in the solitude one last time, for from tomorrow I would be in tourist country.

Total distance:  70.4 km

Total riding time:  4:31 hours

Elevation gained:  612 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 1

Total travel costs: ₹15

Districts traversed: 3– Kozhikode, Malappuram, Thrissur

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 11: Chavakkad to Fort Kochi

October 28th, 2019

The next morning, I left a little earlier than usual. There was no rain predicted and I now had to plan to avoid riding under the harsh mid-day sun. There was a lot of construction work on the NH-66 in and around Chavakkad, and I had a few diversions to navigate through. I rode through the bumpy construction sites and arrived at the Chettuva bridge over the Karuvannur River backwaters, from where the highway was wide once again. I rode on south and had a quick breakfast at Engandiyoor, after which I exited the NH-66 once again in favour of a road along the coast. Now, I would not be meeting the NH-66 again until Alappuzha, another 140 kilometres way.

The coastal stretch was a dream, lined with coconut trees on both sides and over shaded canals that linked to sandy beaches. With the sun above my head, the water dazzled with a shade of blue I had not seen for over a week. There was dense green undergrowth in the fields around that sparkled with the sun rays after the past week’s spell of extremely heavy rainfall. For the first time in Kerala, I was riding without my backpack’s rain cover, allowing it to dry thoroughly under the sun’s heat.

Backwater canals

This stretch took me past Snehatheeram Beach, which was home to a number of large Ayurvedic resorts, big enough to have multiple plots in and around the road and all forms of amenities from swimming pools to tennis courts. As I rode further south, I began to see a higher number of such resorts, all of them seemingly exclusive.

A dreamy coastal stretch

My plan was to reach the jetty at Azhikode to cross over to Vypin Island by lunch. I was doing well on time. Without the rain, invisible potholes and falling branches that Cyclone Kyarr threw at me, my average speed shot up and I arrived at Azhikode jetty just before 12 pm.

In front of me flowed one of Kerala’s most famous and controversial rivers, the Periyar. Along my bank of the river, was presumably, the legendary port of Muziris, a key port that facilitated trade between ancient India and Greece thousands of years ago. It was said to be destroyed in a flood six hundred years ago, one which altered the flow of the Periyar along with the silting of the river banks. This caused the seashore to move 4-5 kilometres west over the past few centuries and render the port unusable. Today, the well known contemporary art festival, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is named after it, celebrating Kerala’s link to diverse world cultures.

The Periyar River at its mouth

I waited a few minutes for the ferry, and one similar to the one at Matool in Kannur arrived. It was entirely covered, and I had to enter a short flight of stairs to enter it.

Ten minutes later, I disembarked at Munambam on Vypin Island, in Ernakulam district. I was now well into the southern half of Kerala. This island was long and narrow, with several tidal lagoons and backwaters crisscrossing its length and breadth. I turned towards the coast, passing by a line of Ernakulam district’s famous Chinese fishing nets along the banks of the estuary.

A Chinese fishing net

I tried making some conversation about the catch with a few men operating these large mechanical nets, and despite our language barriers I could gauge that much like in Maharashtra, the catch had reduced significantly in Kerala too.

The day’s catch!

I rode on, soon arriving at Cherai beach, where all of a sudden I was thrown into a commercial tourism setting that was all too similar to Goa. Shacks, restaurants and hotels lined both sides of the road, full of tourists enjoying the sunny weather. The mid-day sun was getting a bit too harsh for me, and I stepped into one of the shacks for lunch, after which I spent some time in the water.

The beach was fairly crowded. What I found interesting was that most tourists visiting these northerly parts of Vypin Island believed they were being adventurous, beating the crowds in Fort Kochi to explore these lesser visited beaches of Ernakulam district. But for me, I had just entered the sphere of the popular south Kerala tourist circuit and was shocked to see so many outsiders.

Crowds at Cherai Beach

Post lunch, I got back onto the road along the coast, and it was not in good condition. There were potholes filled with tidal water on the road and stretches of road under a thick layer of sand deposited by the waves. It seemed like Cyclone Kyarr had had an impact here as well. After about 7 kilometres, the sand was so thick that it was impossible to ride further along this stretch. I got off and pushed the cycle through some particularly thick patches. Eventually, I was forced to turn away from the coast and towards the main arterial road running through the centre of the island.

The coastal road was impassable post Cherai

I then rode through a beautiful path that seemed to be floating on water! This thin stretch of tarmac cut across several lagoons, almost the same level as the water around it. The landscape was surreal, and I passed over several man made canals and arrived at the main road.

Lagoons on Vypin Island

From here on, it was only 12 kilometres to Fort Kochi via a ferry from the southern end of Vypin Island. I rode quickly, the traffic around me getting busier and heavier as I got closer. I reached the jetty a little before 4 pm, with Fort Kochi visible across the estuary.

The ferry was large, probably the largest short-distance passenger ferry I had seen on the entire West Coast. Cars, people, motorcycles and one lone cyclist hopped on and we were off quickly, reaching Fort Kochi in a handful of minutes.

Ferry from Vypin Island to Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi is where I had initially planned to get my bicycle serviced. So I rode directly to Krishna’s Cycle Store in Mattancherry, where their technician fixed up my ride, giving it much needed servicing and maintenance.

Now, just as in Thrissur, I could no longer afford homestays in Ernakulam district. The only type of accommodation that I could afford now was a hostel. I found a cheap and cosy hostel with a yard to keep my cycle safe and spent the rest of the evening walking around Fort Kochi, wandering around its picturesque lanes and colonial heritage structures.

Sunset at Fort Kochi

Total distance: 82.48 km

Total riding time:  5:15 hours

Elevation gained:  584 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 2

Total travel costs: ₹32

Districts traversed: 2 – Thrissur, Ernakulam

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 12: Fort Kochi to Alappuzha

October 29th, 2019

I woke up early and cycled around Fort Kochi, finding myself on the coastal promenade on its northwestern shores. From one of the piers along the promenade, I watched several large ships head in and out of the channels towards Willingdon Island where the Port of Cochin was located.

Fort Kochi Promenade

Fort Kochi Promenade

I also encountered a series of Chinese fishing nets here, just like the one’s on Vypin. Only these were thronged by tourists trying to capture the action on their phones and cameras. The fisherfolk seemed all too used to the attention they were receiving. I then rode back via the inner lanes of Fort Kochi, some lanes washed in white and almost all of them steeped in history.

I returned to my hostel for breakfast, and as I waited I checked the weather for the next few days. The good news was that Cyclone Kyarr was now over its peak intensity. It was both headed away from India and weakening at the same time. The bad news was that another cyclone, Maha was forming over the southern cape of Kanyakumari, which was my destination and the direction I was headed in. If Maha formed before Kyarr dissipated entirely, this would be an extremely rare weather event with two cyclones occurring in the Arabian Sea simultaneously. And by some bizarre fate, I would be thoroughly walloped by both of them.

Now, I had originally planned to take a day’s halt in Kochi. But given the weather forecast I wanted to take advantage of the dry weather until it lasted. So I decided to leave Kochi for Alappuzha, only 55 kilometres to the south.

There were several modes of public transport one could get from Kochi to Alappuzha. Buses, trains, and ferries all plied between the two locations. By road, there were two routes. One was along the NH-66, and the other a calm and quiet coastal road. No prizes for guessing which one I chose.

As I left Kochi, a light drizzle began which gave way to clear, blue skies in a few minutes. This road was absolutely flat, with barely any potholes. To make riding easier, the sun had baked the tarmac dry, which made it easier to spot the occasional bump on the road.

Smooth, flat road to Alappuzha

The narrow road I was riding on was sandwiched between the Arabian Sea on one side and the backwater system of Lake Vembanad on the other. These aquatic surroundings coupled with a lack of traffic helped keep the temperatures under control. I was a bit surprised how this beautiful coastal road that connected two of the most popular touristic sites in Kerala was so unused.

Lagoons of Lake Vembanad

I rode on, crossing several lagoons, lakes and canals linking the backwater systems along my way. To my east, parallel to the road I was on, was the National Waterway 3. This waterway was a network of navigable canals, lakes and lagoons that stretched from Azhikode, where I was the previous day, all the way down to Kollam, over a hundred and sixty kilometres further south. This proximity to low-lying water bodies also puts the entire region at severe risk from a rise in sea water levels over the next few decades.

From a cultural perspective, this entire stretch had a strong Christian presence. Along with temples, there were churches of all colours, shapes and sizes along the route. Women were roaming about freely along the road, with many shops and businesses run by women themselves, a stark difference from Malappuram district up north.

I rode on, arriving at Andhakaranazhy Beach, which meant I had crossed over from Ernakulam to Alappuzha district. There were a couple of rivers that met and flowed into the sea here, each controlled with a set of flood gates that could limit the salinity of the backwaters further inland and hence serve agricultural purposes. One of the rivers was lined with a series of Chinese fishing nets.

Andhakaranazhy Beach

Andhakaranazhy Beach

 

Andhakaranazhy

Chinese fishing nets at Andhakaranazhy

I continued riding, and for the next few kilometres the road ran along the coast with narrow, sandy beaches appearing on my right every time there was an opening. At one such point, it was too tempting and I rode up to the water and jumped right in, cooling off under the hot mid-day sun.

Beaches on the way to Alappuzha

I jumped right back onto the cycle, my polyester clothes and gear taking less than a couple of minutes to dry crisply under the sun. My breakfast was now entirely digested, so I planned to take lesser halts and arrive at Alappuzha by lunch. My pace quickened as the roads were almost deserted.

I passed by a series of luxury resorts at Mararikulam beach, and soon enough, crossed paths once more the NH-66. Instead of riding along it, I took a large underpass that dissected it and found myself in Alappuzha town. The town itself was dissected by a series of linear canals and neat grids of lanes around them. This structured layout was not something I had seen often in an Indian town, credited by historians to Raja Kesavadas’ town planning efforts in the 18th century.

I soon arrived at my accommodation, a charming heritage structure that used to serve as a school but had now been converted into a hostel for backpackers. Once more, the only real accommodation I could afford in the touristy south of Kerala was a hostel.

I grabbed a quick lunch at a local fast food joint and walked around town. What struck me about Alappuzha was how clean it was. The streets were spotless. The water in the canals was clean. Perhaps it was the rain that cleared everything, but I had seen enough examples of Kerala’s effective local administrations and active participation of citizens in politics to know that there were other factors at play.

I walked to the beach, which had the remnants of an ancient pier from times gone by. The beach was being patrolled by two life guards who were politely asking locals and tourists not to enter the water. It seems Cyclone Maha was picking up strength and red alerts were being placed across the region. It was interesting to see how compliant the locals were with the requests of the life guards as opposed to tourists from other parts of the country, some of whom turned confrontational instead.

Alappuzha Pier

I also climbed up the lighthouse, now a popular tourist attraction. The views of the sea and the flat geography all around me were exceptional. I could see some cloud build up in the distance and thought the next few days would be rough if the predictions regarding Cyclone Maha were realised. 

View from the lighthouse

I returned to my accommodation post sunset and then upon the recommendation of the highly knowledgeable hostel manager, Sraddha, I visited a local hole-in-the-wall local restaurant for some lip smacking local currys served with parota.

Before going to bed, I checked the weather forecast again. The low pressure that was set to become Cyclone Maha was intensifying rapidly. It was seated right off the Kerala coast, close to Thiruvananthapuram district and moving north with ferocity, which meant I would be facing it head on the next day.

Total distance:  55.26 km

Total riding time:  2:49 hours

Elevation gained:  254 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 0

Total travel costs: ₹0

Districts traversed: 2 – Ernakulam, Alappuzha

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 13: Alappuzha to Varkala

October 30th, 2019

I woke up to overcast skies and strong winds blowing in from the south. However, due to the short journeys of the past few days, I was rather energised and raring to ride further than I had in Kerala until then. My target was the resort town of Varkala, famous for its cliffside views and surf-friendly waves.

There was a slight drizzle in the air as I left, but the strong winds were what startled me. They were much stronger than what I had faced a week earlier in Karnataka while encountering Cyclone Kyarr.

Grey skies as I left Alappuzha

My plan was to cycle along the coast, and ride through a relative black hole in South Kerala’s tourist circuit through Kollam to reach Varkala, over a 100 km away.

I rode out of Alappuzha town and its surrounding villages, sticking to the coast and criss-crossing with the railway line several times.  The village roads I weaved through were frenetic with the activity of children on their way to school. It seemed like a big and coordinated event. Every vehicle out on the streets seemed to be part of this event. This seemed very urban to me, despite my environs being rural and traditional. Up north, in coastal Karnataka and Maharashtra I noticed that the majority of children went to school by themselves, walking long distances, cycling or taking public state transport buses. 

Eventually, the NH-66 arrived close enough to the coast to allow space for any other parallel coastal road. I re-joined it at Purakkad. To my east were the wide open rice fields of Kuttunad, the rice bowl of Kerala and one of the only places in the world where rice is farmed below sea level. This massive, flat patch of land was reclaimed from Lake Vembanad and its backwater systems over many centuries, using traditional earthen bunds and then canals, spillways and sluice gates.

These systems enable fresh water to run off through Kuttunad towards the sea, allowing the main crop during the monsoon. The sluice gates also keep saline sea waters out during the dry season, when a secondary crop is now sown. Needless to say, the entire system has been under immense pressure due to climate change, with floodwaters from the interiors increasingly breaching the bunds even as the sea water has been pushing inwards with more and more ferocity.

Rice fields of Kuttunad

Rice fields of Kuttunad

I stopped by some of the rice fields, where the horizon was as flat as far as the eye could see. A farmer saw my curiosity, answered my questions about the floods and the upcoming first harvest and handed me two rice stalks, full of grain! I didn’t know what to do with them, so I trapped them onto the handlebar of the cycle.

I rode on and crossed a big spillway that separated the backwaters from the sea at Thottappally. This is where I could divert from the highway once more, as it would turn inland, far away from the coast.

Thottappally spillway

Thottappally spillway

It was still only drizzling but the winds had now become very strong. I kept checking my tyres and derailleurs and everything seemed fine. But I just couldn’t move forward. Just to check if it was the wind indeed, I tried going the other way and I was being pushed forward without barely even pedalling. Fighting the wind was mentally excruciating especially since the previous day I had flown at high speeds.

I cycled past beautiful beaches and sandy strips even as the sky above my turned darker and the sea to my right grew fiercer.

Seas were getting rough

The cloudburst was inevitable and I rode the next 10 kilometres with the wind and rain lashing down at a sharp angle, almost blinding me as I avoided fallen coconut fronds and potholes with water.

Cyclone Maha was here

Somehow, I arrived at Valiazheekal around 11.30 am, battered by the rain. My plan was to take a ferry across an estuary to Azheekal. There were around 10 others waiting for the ferry, none of them able to communicate with me but successfully conveying that the chances of the ferry arriving from the other side were bleak, given the weather.

After an hour of braving the storm under a small shed, some of the locals gave up on trying to cross and left. I had a tough decision to make. If the ferry did not arrive, I would have to retrace my route and ride an additional 20 kilometres. It would likely put Varkala out of bounds for the day.

Intense cyclonic storm at Valiazheekal

It had been 1.5 hours now that I had waited, with no respite in the rain or winds. I had resigned myself to my fate and was adjusting my gear to head back towards the bridge, when a small boat appeared with 20 passengers, who jumped out and ran for cover. Some of the women I had been waiting with gestured frantically for me to return, and two minutes later our ferry was already on its way to the other side!

Completely exposed on the water, the winds were brutal as they rocked the uncovered boat violently. Thankfully, the ride was short and we were across in about 6-7 minutes. The man running the ferry said it was his last trip for the day and he had already taken a big risk to have taken us aboard. 

A wild journey across

The next stretch was also right along the shore, as I cycled through a part of southern Kerala that had no hotels or resorts. The road quality was excellent, helping me push through the winds at a lower gear.

I kept riding on, unable to check my phone or see more than 10 metres ahead of me. Eventually, I couldn’t ride further along the coastal road and had to turn in towards the highway. There was another backwater up ahead but no road or ferry across it. As I turned away from the shore, the winds were still strong but I was less exposed to violent gusts from the sea.

I crossed over a bridge over the National Waterway 3, and navigated interior roads to arrive at the highway near Karunagapalli. I rode on and found a meals place that was open, and grabbed a delicious special meals with 10 different types of vegetables and curries!

The rain had reduced slightly, and despite having eaten a humungous amount of rice I had to get back onto the road, as I had a long way to go. I kept riding along the NH-66, arriving in Kollam after 20 uneventful kilometres.

In Kollam, I split from the highway to make it to a coastal road again from Kollam beach onwards. The waves here were bigger than I had ever seen anywhere in India, with giant waves forming perfect barrels, crashing onto the shore with short breaks.

Huge waves at Kollam

With just an hour to sunset, I had over 25 kilometres to ride. I was exhausted with fighting against the rain and the headwinds, and could not spend too long in Kollam. I had to decide. Either I rode on or found accommodation in Kollam. I promised myself a day’s rest if I got to Varkala and pushed myself to continue.

The roads henceforth, were terrible. I took an entirely coastal route that took me out of Kollam, towards a thin strip of land that was Thanni Beach. With a big backwater lake on one side, and the open sea on the other, Thanni Beach is the last place you would want to be stuck in with a severe tropical cyclone around. Not tough to guess what happened next.

I had no option but to move forward or risk riding long stretches in the dark. That’s when the winds blew even stronger and the temperatures dropped by a few degrees within seconds, sending a chill through my body. I looked to my right, over the sea and saw the darkest clouds I had ever seen in my entire life. From them, I could see thick bands of rain lashing down onto to the sea, rapidly approaching the beach I was on. I knew I wouldn’t make it to shelter on the other end of the beach before the clouds reached me. I spotted a small tin hut, behind which two men on a scooter had already stopped to take shelter. I jumped off my bicycle and took cover just before the clouds hit the shore. What happened next was a haze but the winds were so strong they lifted small pebbles and coarse sand into the air, taking them from the beach across the road onto the backwater lake. We hid behind the hut, sheltered from the rain but with our arms over our heads to save our faces from the flying particles. If I was out there, I most likely would have ended up in the lake.

The darkest cloud I have ever seen

After 15 minutes of pounding us, the winds slowed down and the rain subsided. It was time to move on. As the sky was darkening I rode faster, not taking any halts. I passed another spillway at Pozhikkara and arrived at Kappil Beach, which was also very exposed to high winds. Thankfully, the winds were not as strong as they were at Thanni Beach, and I now had less than 10 kilometres to Varkala.

The sun had set and it was pitch dark as I rode into the tourist town, a bit relaxed now. I found a bed at another backpacker’s hostel, cheap and comfortable, with an open space to park my cycle. It had been a very long day, one of the hardest days of cycling I had encountered on the west coast.

I stretched, showered, had a quick dinner and hit the sack with the sound of the rain crashing down all night long.

Total distance:  112.8 km

Total riding time:  7:10 hours

Elevation gained:  756 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 1

Total travel costs: ₹50

Districts traversed: 3– Alappuzha, Kollam, Thiruvananthapuram

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day indoors

October 31st, 2019

The next morning, I woke up to read that the Cyclone Maha system was gaining in strength and another day of rains and strong winds were in store for the south of Kerala, where I was. Mentally fatigued with the rain, I decided to take a day’s break. I had dealt with over a 1000 mm of rainfall in the past 10 days, and two untimely cyclones. I needed this break.

I walked around Varkala, its cliffside walkaways providing excellent views of the beach down below. However, I was very disappointed to know that there was no local restaurant along the touristy cliff, only European and North Indian cuisine based restaurants that charged exorbitant prices to tourists looking to dine with a view of the Laccadive Sea.

The waves were humungous with short breaks, which meant surfing was off limits. I walked around the old part of the city, host to a beautiful temple and water tank. That is where I found an amazing local restaurant, serving everything from parota to fresh fry’s and Kerala style roasts.

Varkala Beach

As it rained heavily throughout the day, I was glad to not be out on the streets. I spent the day stretching, reading and interacting with the various travellers who were staying at the hostel. I went to bed early, hoping the prediction for clear weather the next day would hold true.

Day 14: Varkala to Poovar

November 1st, 2019

It was a bright and sunny day indeed. The skies were deep blue and the wind had settled. I started riding early because I knew the sun would scorch me later on in the afternoon. 

I exited Varkala from its southern end, where a short but steep climb awaited me as I rode up to Chilakkoor village perched right on top of another seaside cliff. Such climbs along the coast had been rare since Kannur in the northern parts of Kerala. The rest of the coastal terrain I had ridden through in Kerala had been absolutely flat.

I rode past Chilakkoor, and then downslope to find a smooth coastal road that would stretch all the way until Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala.

To my west, the Laccadive Sea dazzled in a myriad of blues under the morning sun. With Cyclone Maha having moved rapidly northwards along the West Coast, the sea conditions had calmed down significantly in South Kerala. The surf was now sparkling white, while the rivers meeting the sea were still greyish brown.

The Vamanapuram River meeting the sea

After about 10 kms, I came across Anchuthengu Fort and a small lighthouse next to it. Once again, I was riding along one of the most predominant features of the Malabar Coast – a sand bar, with a backwater system to the east and the open sea to the west. This British-era fort’s strategic positioning would have factored in these unique natural defences.

Anchuthengu Fort

The fort and lighthouse seemed to be closed for entry in the morning, so I rode on after a few quick pictures.

After another 10 kilometres I was almost in Thiruvananthapuram. Temperatures were rising rapidly and it was tough to keep going. I decided to steer off onto one of the many beaches along the way and take a quick dip to cool me off. The beach was beautiful, but it was still lined with a lot of inorganic waste that seemed to have been deposited with the cyclonic winds.

A beach before Kerala’s capital

I spent some more time walking on the beach staring at Brahminy kites trying to catch fish and the waves crashing into a small shipwreck along the shore.

I passed several large churches, most of them constructed in an interesting blend of European and local architecture, and some churches choosing a modern and experimental setting, resembling space ships.

Churches near Thiruvananthapuram

A few kilometres before the city, I had to take a detour and ride inland as the next coastal strip had been taken over by the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center, through which civilians weren’t allowed to ride. This diversion took me over a canal and then alongside it as I eventually found myself back along the sea shore at Veli Beach.

After Veli, my surroundings became more and more urban as I bypassed Thiruvananthapuram along the coast, one of India’s most important IT hubs. I passed the airport and then headed inland once more to join the swanky new NH-66 bypass that went on until Mukkola near Vizhinjam.

I rode along the wide six-laned bypass for the next 8 kilometres, and after crossing the Karamana river, I could head back to the coast again, towards Kovalam. Of course, there was a road that would take me straight through. But I took a turn earlier, trying to get to the coast sooner. There was no clear road but I could see a trail etched out on the satellite maps.

Always one to experiment, I took this route. After a steep climb the road ended abruptly, but I could see the coastal road on the other side. Between me and the road was a rocky cliff face to descend. I picked my cycle up, locked my arms straight and marched down! I might be the only visitor to have taken this bizarre route to arrive at the popular tourist resort of Kovalam.

With a few pedals, I was in a different world compared to the parts of Kerala I had seen, especially the north. All around me were big luxury resorts, and nothing much else. I knew that the southern part of Kovalam was the backpacker hub, with cafes and restaurants, and headed there for lunch. The only way to get there along the coast was to ascend a flight of steps and then ride along a walkway connecting it with Grove Beach.

Climbing stairs between beaches at Kovalam

I rode through a narrow path and finally, the famous sandy beaches of Kovalam lay in front of me. The rocky outcrops had created bays that were shielded from big waves and perfect for swimming. The water dazzled deep blue, with the surf looking crystal white. After so much rain, I was glad to have witnessed the true glory of coastal Kerala thanks to these gorgeous sunny conditions.

As I stood on the beach watching the waves, transfixed by the certitude of their rhythms, I had forgotten to look around. My bicycle had been hijacked! It had not been stolen, but a large family of tourists from Gujarat had taken it to click pictures with their children seated upon it. One of the bigger children had asked his father if he could ride it, and the father said ‘of course’ and readied his phone to take a video! Shocked, I went and explained to them I was on an expedition and I couldn’t risk any damage to it, and asked the child to step off.

I then tried to explain to them how consent worked, but they just could not understand what the matter was. It was just a cycle, they said, not a valuable. Further, they blamed me for abandoning it, although I was only a few feet away and clearly looked like its owner.

I rode away from them, towards the restaurants. But I couldn’t shake the queasy feeling I got in commercial touristy sites such as this compared to the villages. Somehow, I felt more comfortable and safe around locals I couldn’t even communicate with rather than entitled tourists that believed anything in the world could be purchased.

Just like Varkala, there were no local restaurants along the sea shore in Kovalam, so I stopped at a popular pizzeria instead. I had covered a good distance, and I wanted a site where I could have lunch while looking at the waves and take a swim with my belongings safe. This was also my first meal after 10 days of riding that was not part of the local cuisine.

I had a great lunch, although the restaurant staff refused to serve me tap water, and asked me to purchase a plastic mineral bottle. Eventually, I had to go to a neighbouring cafe and asked them to fill my water bottles from their tap. Perhaps, it was the influence of their foreign clientele, but it was quite surprising that a restaurant right on the sea had such a policy regarding single use plastic.

My destination was Poovar, right on the border with Tamil Nadu, a site famous for the rich avian biodiversity along its backwaters. It wasn’t very far away, so I waited for the afternoon heat to abate a little before departing just before 2 pm.

I climbed out of Kovalam, through a maze of hotels and guesthouses towards Vizhinjam harbour, where a large international seaport was under construction. From a cliff face in Vizhinjam, the view back out towards Kovalam and its lighthouse was spectacular, with the sea dazzling under the afternoon sun.

Kovalam lighthouse from Vizhinjam

I then climbed back out of Vizhinjam, towards Mukkola junction where the new bypass from Thiruvananthapuram reconnected. The next phase of this highway bypass would run through Tamil Nadu, all the way to Nagercoil, taking the load off NH-66.

From Mukkola, I turned back in towards the coast, and there were a few short and steep climbs to navigate. I was also seeing kilometre stones with Kanyakumari less than 100 kilometres away and it was very hard for me to suppress my joy. Just one more day and I could celebrate, I told myself.

After a gentle downhill, I found myself riding along the shore again, on the sandy stretches of Karumkulam. All along the beach were football pitches and goal posts, making it obvious what the most popular sport of the area was.

I then had to head inland to cross a bridge over the Neyyar River, flowing fast and full of muddy sediments due to the rain induced by Cyclone Maha.

The wide Neyyar River

After crossing the bridge, the border with Tamil Nadu was only 4 kilometres away. But I was not to cross it that day. Instead, I cycled down to the backwaters and found a beautiful homestay alongside one of the channels. I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the various forms of fishing activities in the waters and the swarms of storks, egrets and cormorants that called this rich wetland ecosystem their home.

Sunset at Poovar

Post sunset, I grabbed a parotafry meal at a local restaurant, my last meal in Kerala. There would be no time to reminisce, as I had to go to bed for new experiences in Tamil Nadu the next day.

Total distance:  77.5 km

Total riding time:  5:24 hours

Elevation gained:  766 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 0

Total travel costs: ₹0

Districts traversed: 1 – Thiruvananthapuram

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 15: Poovar to Kanyakumari

November 2nd, 2019

I woke up well before sunrise, not just because I was excited to reach Kanyakumari but also because my homestay manager had offered to arrange for a boat ride around the mangroves and extensive backwaters of Poovar!

While Poovar had a plethora of such boats that would take groups of tourists around its unique aquatic ecosystems on any other day, commercial operations were still shut due to the flow of water coming inland towards the sea and subsequent flood alerts.

Sunrise at Poovar

We spent an hour through the narrow channels of water crisscrossing the landscape, with the channels only wide enough to have one boat pass at times. We saw scores of storks, kingfishers, egrets and cormorants. The experience was ethereal, a world of green and brown. These stereotypical backwaters signed off on a fitting end to my travels in Kerala.

A painted stork in the backwaters

 

Through the maze of backwater channels

At about 7.40 am, I started riding, excited to cross over the border to Tamil Nadu. Now, I could ride up to the NH-66 further inland and take it all the way to Nagercoil and then Kanyakumari or I could ride along the coast again. No surprise which route I chose!

I cycled out of Poovar, past a few big resorts, into the village of Pozhiyoor and then across a canal towards the coast. The beach here was rocky and there were several groups of fishermen hauling their catch from the sea back on shore. They hummed together in unison and had a system in which every hauler would rejoin the start of the line once he reached the back. There was no leader or hierarchical structure, yet everyone knew what to do to maintain the efficiency. I wondered if urban communities would ever be able to unite in such a harmonious and egalitarian manner to accomplish anything at all.

A few pedals later, I was still in the same village, but upon asking a few locals, I was in Tamil Nadu! I was confused, there were absolutely no signboards or markers at all, neither from Kerala nor from Tamil Nadu.

However, a few more pedals later, I did see that the more compact Malayalam script had switched to Tamil! This was it, the 5th state I would be riding in on my west coast adventures.

The day was bright and sunny, with only a few wispy white clouds far out on the horizon. But there was something odd. The sun was no longer to my side early in the morning. Instead, it was right on my face. That’s when I realised I was now headed east-southeast and not south, due to the sharp tapering of the Indian peninsula.

Due to the lack of the orthographic influence of the Western Ghats, these were some of the driest parts of the West Coast south of Gujarat. However, this was the rainiest time of the year and a cyclone had just passed, so the landscape was lush green. The greenery helped provide shade, but as the sun rose, the temperatures rose rapidly.

I rode along the sea shore until Valavilai, where the coastal road ended abruptly. The existing road had been consumed by the sea, and a lot of construction activity was ongoing, with attempts to place thousands of tetrapods and reclaim the road back from the sea. I had no option but to ride inland.

This route took me past a compact colony of row houses laid in a neat grid, known as a tsunami colony. Despite being on the western side of the peninsula, these parts too had suffered a lot of damage due to the devastating 2004 tsunami triggered by a monstrous earthquake that originated near Indonesia.

I had seen several such tsunami colonies now and they did not look very affluent or well maintained. Many were built in a rush to rehabilitate those who lost their homes and did not have appropriate sanitation facilities. Worse, they were far from the sea shore making it difficult for fishing communities to commute. It was heartbreaking to see how that one super-wave would affect the lives of these communities for generations.

At about 9 am, I stopped at the town of Ezhudesam for breakfast. And of course, my first meal in Tamil Nadu was a mouth watering serving of idli, sambaar and chutney! In true Tamilian style, I had to wash my banana leaf by myself before eating and then once done, I had to throw it into a special bin that would then be composted. No cutlery, no plastic, no tissues. A truly zero-frills, zero-waste culinary experience!

Breakfast in Tamil Nadu!

Satiated, I rode on towards Kanyakumari on a smooth tarmac road, passing by the stunning 1200-year old Parthasarathy temple at Partivapuram and then back out towards the coast.

Parthasarathy temple

From Thengapattanam, I rode along the coast once more. The Tamil Nadu part of the West Coast was completely non-commercial. There was not a single resort, hotel or homestay in these parts. Nor were there any glitzy bungalows built with Gulf remittances like in Kerala. The population density was also significantly lower than in Kerala, which meant paddy farms and coconut plantations along the coast were back! Agriculture and fishing seemed to be the two pillars of the local economy here.

Coconut plantations were everywhere

As I rode past Enayam, I had another technical issue. My pannier rack snapped! It was not a very sturdy rack, as it was not fixed to the wheel and hence not recommended for such long expeditions. But it had served me well. Thankfully, my luggage itself was a backpack, so I just took it off the rack and rode with it on my back.

My pannier rack had served me well

I continued along the coastal path, past some stunning beaches. As I clicked pictures of my cycle some local fishermen asked me to take a picture of them as well. They were quite excited to see me, and mentioned how the route was rarely used. Most bikepackers cycling from different parts of Indian to Kanyakumari used the inland route via Nagercoil rather than this coastal route.

Cyclo-photoshoot with the local fishermen

Past coconut groves and paddy farms, the route turned inland once more until Alanchi, when I turned back towards the coast and rode downhill past chapels and churches into the colourful coastal town of Colachel. The entire district of Kanyakumari, especially the coastal parts, had a significant Christian influence. About 47% of the district was Christian, with the religion having its roots in the region dating back to the 1st century.

Colourful homes of Colachel

From Colachel, the road was smooth and wide, taking me past Muttom all the way to Rajakkamangalam, where I turned in to ride along another coastal road through sleepy villages.

The sun was right overhead, and the sea to my right was dazzling under the strong solar rays. I clicked a few pictures at Chotavilai beach and rode on along a narrow beachside road towards Mankudy. All of a sudden, the road ahead of me disappeared again, seemingly lost to coastal erosion. Given the condition of the approach road, it seemed like this stretch of road had eroded recently.

Coastal erosion before Manakudy

I could have continued along the beach, but it was far too hot, temperatures had likely crossed 36°C. I decided to back track and ride inland instead. When I finally arrived at Manakudy, less than 10 kilometres from Kanyakumari, I had a positive surprise in store for me this time. In the distance was the southernmost set of hills in mainland India, a small crag off the southern end of the Agastyamalai subrange of the Western Ghats.

The very southern end of the Western Ghats

This was the first time since Kumta in north-coastal Karnataka that the Western Ghats were so close to the coast. Kumta was the very northern end of the Malabar, and now I had arrived at the southern end of this coast.

I crossed a bridge over the Pazhayar river, a rare south-flowing river in the Indian peninsula. From here on, I began to see tourists, homestays and resorts on both sides of the road, although not in the magnitude of the South Kerala tourist hotspots I had passed through.

After a big climb, I had finally reached the town of Kanyakumari. A rusty, nondescript board along the side of the road that marked the start of the town might not have impressed other visitors, but it meant the entire world to me. What had started out nothing more than a wild thought had somehow materialised into reality.

I had arrived

However, there was another 1500 m to go for me to arrive at my real target, the southern cape. I turned off the main road towards the town and headed down a big slope, the ocean inviting me. As I turned onto the wide road and promenade constructed for visitors to see the sunset, there it was in all its glory. The southern tip of peninsular India, with the statue of Thiruvalluvar and the Swami Vivekananda Memorial on two small islands in its backdrop.

My legs pumped the pedals on their own as I stared at the sight and the Bay of Bengal on the other side of the cape. Navigating a sea of pilgrims and tourists, I found myself at the very southern point of the cape, where the waves routinely slammed into the rocks and over a boundary wall.

I pulled out my selfie stick for the first time on this expedition, to get my victory shot. A couple of excited Tamilian tourists just joined me for one of my selfies, no questions asked or answered. Well, I was in a welcoming mood.

At the southern tip of mainland India!

My elation soon gave way to a strange queasy feeling though. I felt I had lost something forever. This marked the end of my West Coast bikepacking escapades and the West Coast would never be as much of a mystery to me. I reassured myself with the fact that there was enough terrain in India for me to explore for a few lifetimes and walked out of the plaza, with one eye out towards the East Coast.

Total distance:  73.2 km

Total riding time:  4:53 hours

Elevation gained:  870 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 0

Total travel costs: ₹0

Districts traversed: 2 – Thiruvananthapuram, Kanyakumari

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Back to Mumbai

I stayed over in Kanyakumari for the night, visiting the Vivekananda memorial the next morning. I then took the 2.35 PM Kanyakumari-Punalur passenger train to Thiruvananthapuram Central and then cycled across the city to Kochuveli to catch a night train to Mumbai. On both trains, my cycle was securely loaded onto the luggage compartment in the brake van. On the long 30 hour journey to Mumbai, I had wedged the cycle into a crack in the compartment, and fastened it to the sides with a cable lock.

Safe and secure!

All along the route, I passed by the various towns and cities I had passed over my journey. I identified the various railway crossings I had waited at for the trains to pass. It was like watching a highlight reel of all my bikepacking journeys along this coast.

When I got back home, it took me a few days to adjust to a life where the land beneath me wasn’t moving constantly. I did spend some time and compile the following video of this expedition. Do have a look, and comment if you liked it!

If you enjoyed reading my cycling diaries, feel free to comment below and share them with others who you feel might enjoy reading them too. If you need help planning your West Coast bikepacking journey, feel free to ask in the comment section! I’ll try to help as much as possible.

Here’s a list of all my other cycling diaries:

Mumbai to Goa : Part I

Mumbai to Goa : Part II

Goa to Kanyakumari : Part I

14 May

Velas. Where I had the best Konkani food of my life and understood what a bad compromise city life is, over a rustic rural life – Shruti Soumya

This is a post written by Shruti Soumya, who had been on our Velas Eco-village Experience. You can find the original post on her personal blog here. Do follow it for more such pieces. 

After endless plans to start my blog, finally my trip to Velas has motivated me to get this rolling. Because it truly defines what I want to accomplish through my blog – share genuine and liberating travel experiences with you.

My love for travel has taken me on many journeys and left me with thoughts of travelling full time. But let’s admit not all of us can afford to pack our bags and fly away. So now I travel on weekends , plan some long vacations in a year and also explore the off beat places in my city. This is my way of keeping my passion alive. Through this blog I want to share my experiences and keep the wanderer in us alive and kicking. My stories would also tell all – who want to travel but put it off thinking we don’t have time – that it doesn’t always have to be a long far journey; delightful travel experiences are just a weekend or a few kms away. Velas happened during one such weekend when I was looking for a offbeat place to escape Mumbai’s madness and embrace nature.

Velas is a small beach village on the Konkan coast. Around 220 kms from Mumbai, it makes an ideal offbeat weekend getaway for someone seeking to escape the city’s madness and feel oneness with nature.

Velas is a place to experience the rustic charm of a village and the joy of simple things in life.

Witness a spectacular sunset, spot baby turtles and go for a rejuvenating morning run on the beach.

Velas beach also hosts the annual turtle festival from late Feb to early April- an ecotourism festival which helps in conservation of endangered Olive Ridley turtles. The forest department protects the eggs laid by the turtles on the beach in the nesting season and upon hatching – releases them in the sea. The footsteps of a baby turtle when released in the sea as captured:

Next day we went for an early morning run at the beach. Running on a clean stretch of beach which doesn’t seem to end, with your feet splashing in the water or pressing against the soft morning wet sand is mesmerising. A workout which I would love to do every single day in my life.

After our morning beach run we all jumped in front of a pump which was gushing water towards the plantations and had a blast. We soon transformed into a bunch of kids having the best time of our life. An unforgettable experience!

We tasted the best Konkani food and explored the local plantations.

Our hostess prepared the food using her traditional recipes, home grown spices and “wood fired chulha”. The wood fired chulha added to the flavors and lent it a smoky flavor. No wonder the food we were tasting was the best we ever had.

Our trek to Bankot fort with the village locals helped us understand the history and appreciate the wild habitat.

Bankot fort dates back to 1st century AD and has a rich history. Portuguese, British and Maratha have ruled it some time in the history. The fort was being reconstructed and shall be soon open to tourists. It stands at a very dramatic location overlooking the surrounding valleys and beaches. Hence offers some bewitching views, we could spot the Harihareshwar beach from some of the windows in the fort wall.

Velas has been one of the best weekend getaway around Mumbai. It was truly immersive experience and more so because its still not ruined by tourism and pollution. We should all pledge to travel responsibly to let places like Velas be the way they are.