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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

26 Mar

Malabar Cycling Diaries: Goa to Kanyakumari – Part I

In late 2017, an odd thought drifted into my dreams, one of exploring and documenting the Konkan Coast of Maharashtra by bicycle. Not one to make bucket lists, I paid instant heed to my impulse and curiosity and went on to cycle the entire route from Mumbai to Goa in the early months of 2018. I’ve documented the ride in two parts here: part i and part ii.

For the second part of the Malabar Cycling Diaries, click here: Goa to Kanyakumari: Part II

Whenever people heard of my adventures, a variety of reactions such as awe, bewilderment and outright confusion followed. These reactions would then be accompanied by a barrage of questions ranging from safety concerns to route technicalities. Eventually they would all ask, directly or indirectly, the question that mattered most – “but why?”

Some who thought they understood wondered if I embarked on these journeys to endorse a brand or if I was some sort of professional cyclist. The truth was that I was cycloexploring just for me while I would never consider myself a cyclist. In fact, it would bother me to be compared with those who cycled for ranks and statistics. Besides, I simply don’t have the kind of discipline that a cyclist should have. I was cycling across India for reasons I didn’t fully understand myself. Maybe only fellow cycloexplorers and adventurers might relate to what I really wanted. What I seeked.

Which was to feel the wind on my face. See the land beneath my feet move constantly. Not know where I would end up seeing the sunset. Spend nights in places I’d never heard of. Wake up and fail to remember what my world view used to be. Absorb opinions of complete strangers on the road. Forget how I should behave to maintain my societal personality. Realise how little my tiny bubble of acquaintances mattered when I was all alone. Live an entirely new life, as dictated by the road.

After the Mumbai-Goa expedition, I wasn’t sure which route I wanted to explore next. I just wanted to dive back into the countryside, with no expectations and endless possibilities.

After carefully studying trails in Northeast India and understanding I’d need at least two months to cover the route I designed, I decided to pick things up from where I had left them in Goa. The plan was to head further down the coast into the Deep South. I thus began my research of the Malabar Coast, which basically involved hovering over and carefully examining geographical features and terrain profiles of the coastline night after night on Google Earth. 

The Malabar Coast

The central and southern coastal districts of Karnataka, all the coastal districts of Kerala and the southern most district of Tamil Nadu make up the Malabar coast. Based on geographical, cultural or administrative outlooks there are three different borders between the Konkan and Malabar, which I will end up discussing in more detail as I come across them.

Geography of the Malabar

The emergent Malabar coast is very different compared to the submergent Konkan coast. In the narrow and undulating Konkan, rivers practically crash from the hills straight into deep estuaries. In the Malabar they arise from the same range of mountains, but due to wider and flatter plains they wind their way around, often terminating in saline backwater lakes along the coast.

This results in a lot of coastal lagoons, spits, tidal inlets and sand bars along the coast. Due to its flat terrain, the Malabar is also well connected by roads, railways and some of India’s most popular inland waterways. These factors have resulted in a relatively high population density. This is in stark contrast to the isolated valleys and densely forested cliffs and mountains of the Konkan.

Climate

Thanks to the moisture trapping Western Ghats that run all the way along peninsular India’s West Coast, both the Konkan and Malabar coasts receive incredibly heavy rainfall during the monsoon even as they are shielded from the harsh summer heat and cool winter winds of the hinterland. Despite it being a rather subjective and complex statistic to measure, the entire West Coast of India is a top contender for the world’s rainiest coastline.

The big difference with the climate of the Konkan and the Malabar is that the southern end of the Malabar is influenced by storms in the Bay of Bengal as well as the Arabian Sea. Being close to the equator, occasional convective rainfall also occurs outside of the monsoon. Thus, much of the dense forests in the Malabar qualify as genuine tropical rainforests, contrasting with the moist deciduous forests of the Konkan.

In simpler words, unlike the strictly seasonal Konkan, I could expect rain in the Malabar at any time of the year.

Preparations & gear

The monsoon of 2018 in the Konkan was miserable. Even as Kerala down south in the Malabar was being ravaged by historic floods, it practically stopped raining in the Konkan post August. October was dry as a bone in my home city of Mumbai and I knew it was time to get back on the road.

My equipment included a new hybrid cycle – the Scott Sub Cross 30, a cheap suspended cycle pannier rack that could support 8 kilograms of luggage, one set of bungee cords that came with the pannier rack, one cycling helmet, one spare tube, one screwdriver tool kit, two pairs of riding clothes, one pair of pajamas, one pair of shoes, two reusable bottles of water, one portable charger, my cell phone, DSLR camera, GoPro and regrettably, my laptop and charger. I was still freelancing and needed to work at least 3-4 hours every day to fund these bikepacking expeditions. All my gear somehow fit into the same old top tube pouch and small 20 litre backpack.

The plan for this phase was to reach Mangaluru, 400 km from Goa, and then decide how much further I wanted to ride. If everything went well, I would attempt reaching the southern tip at Kanyakumari in one phase.

I continued with my strategy of taking an overnight Volvo bus to reach the start point. It ensures that your cycle is with you at all times and while its large and vaulted storage compartments are one of the most convenient ways to transport a cycle, without any need of dismantling. Passenger trains are faster, cheaper and more comfortable but offloading your cycle on time gets tricky if your destination is not a terminus.

Day 1: Mapusa to Palolem

November 4th, 2018

One issue with private bus operators across India is they always move contraband and packages illegally along the routes they ply. So even though I caught the earliest possible bus that left from Mumbai to Goa the day earlier, I arrived three hours late at my start point of Mapusa. All because we got stopped by the Goa border police over some narcotics being transported on the bus.

Finally arriving at the bus stand in Mapusa by 8.40 am, I was in no mood to freshen up or have breakfast. I had changed on the bus into my cycling gear and was terribly anxious to hit the road. The sun was already high up in the sky and the temperature was about 28°C as I set off from the very spot I terminated the ride from Mumbai to Goa.

Over the next twenty five kilometres I had to traverse the very core of Goa, and across the deep and wide estuaries of the Mandovi and the Zuari rivers. The state capital Panaji was nestled right in the middle of these historic and commercially important rivers.

For the first 10 kilometres until Porvorim, the road was both wide and bumpy but lined with coconut trees on the sides. This meant a cool and shaded route until a medium sized climb just before Porvorim.

Downhill from Porvorim, I arrived at the Mandovi river crossing, the lifeline of Goa state. There were two perpetually jammed bridges – one was rebuilt after it collapsed and fell into the river a few decades ago. A third, enormous cable-spanned bridge was under construction, scheduled to open in early 2019.

Because of the heavy and impatient traffic and lack of shoulder space to stop on the bridge I couldn’t stop even for a second to take images. I frantically pedalled on and stopped at a dusty junction on the other side of river. There was a lot of construction activity on the highway and it was difficult to breathe through the clouds of dust.

I decided to bypass both Panaji and the highway as I took a country road through Merces and Maina villages to meet the highway again before the Zuari river bridge. This inner route had very light traffic and was lined with dense greenery, allowing me to cover the distance rapidly. Remembering that I hadn’t slept much or eaten breakfast I forced myself to chug a few glasses of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice in Maina.

Like the Mandovi, there was a monstrous new bridge under construction over the Zuari. I took the existing bridge and thanks to a sidewalk, I managed to stop for a few seconds, getting my first images of this expedition.

The Zuari bridge

The Zuari river splits the two districts of Goa, and upon crossing it I found myself in South Goa. My first district crossing came in just an hour and half of riding, and thats when it hit me that I was well and truly back on the road again. I snapped out of the fatigue from the bus ride and the cycloexporer in me woke up!

Along the entire route from Mumbai to Goa, I didn’t have to cycle on the Mumbai-Kanyakumari highway (NH 66) at all. Now, the highway was unavoidable in parts even though the idea was the same – to explore village roads and stick to the coast as much as physically possible. After the Zuari bridge, I had to ride another two kilometres on the highway before I turned in towards Cansaulim.

But I was not prepared to face my first challenge – infernal heat that emanated from the tarmac and the cars and trucks moving slowly in heavy traffic. Worse, due to chaotic and large scale construction activity there were dense and thick clouds of dust browning me from head to toe. The sun now right above my head, I was burning and choking at the same time. I was feeling extremely dizzy but if I slowed down, traffic behind me would honk at me aggressively. There was no place to stop, only mud and dust all around. I was on the verge of breaking down mentally when the turn finally arrived and I rolled off the highway into the lush green fields of South Goa.

The north-western part of South Goa district from Cansaulim all the way down to Betul is flat as a pan, much in contrast to the rest of Goa. It is bordered on the west by one of India’s longest stretches of continuous sandy beach (over 27 km!) and on the east by the Sal river. An absolute anomaly on the West Coast where rivers normally arise in the mountains, the Sal river originates in the north of this flat coastal plain and slowly meanders parallel to the coast, forming shallow backwaters at its mouth near Betul.

These parts were very quiet, with little tourist infrastructure in the interiors and large luxury resorts by the beach. I chose to take small country paths through calm and idyllic villages, crossing the railway line a few times via level crossings. There was almost no traffic except for the occasional SUV ferrying tourists from the airport to the big resorts. Goa is a small state with India’s highest GDP per capita, but it didn’t seem like much of that had trickled through the big hotels and industries to the villages.

At 12.30 pm my body signalled that I had to break for lunch, and I stopped at an authentic Goan restaurant in Colva recommended by a friend. I had covered about half the day’s target distance and in decent time. After 24 hours of the land beneath my feet constantly moving, it was finally time to take my first real break.

Post lunch I continued to head down south, riding through the quiet villages of Varca, Orlim and Carmona until I arrived at Cavelossim. Within a few pedals the landscape changed dramatically as the leafy Mangalore-tiled villas with plantations gave way to a big white concrete jungle of luxury hotels. I realised I’d missed a turn and was headed towards Mobor Beach. While it was the right direction, there would be no practical way to cross the Sal river from there.

If this were any other state, the end of the sand spit at Mobor would have had a small jetty or local fishing boats that could take me across. But in a part of India where the price of a room for a night would cost more than my entire expedition, there were no locals living along the coast anymore. I remembered how someone in Sindhudurg had once told me that Goa imports a lot of its fish. Given the lengthy coastline, tropical rivers and rich estuaries I had found that tough to believe. Now I understood the problem.

Near Velim, my over-reliance on using satellite view on Google Maps for directions took me through a dilapidated viaduct that looked exactly like a road, but wasn’t! It was fun to ride through this short-cut for about half a kilometre, although I was petrified of puncturing a tyre with the thorny bushes along the path.

Viaduct near Velim

Getting back on the main road, I continued riding as I crossed one of the tributaries of the Sal. Water levels were low, reflecting the poor monsoon in the Konkan as well as the lack of post monsoon rain in Goa. Now, this is where this flat coastal plain ended abruptly and one of the most hilly stretches on the West Coast began. From South Goa until Karwar in Karnataka a big spur of the Western Ghats moved westward to meet the sea. And as if to say goodbye, the Konkan presented me with its biggest climb on the route.

A tributary of the Sal river

The climb was relentless, however, due to dense greenery and very light traffic I kept on, past the turn towards Cabo de Rama fort and peninsula. I covered the climb of 220 m in a single go, without stopping even once or taking in a sip of water. As soon as I reached the top I realised my mistake. I stopped by a temple where the descent began and as soon as I got my leg off the pedal and onto the tarmac my right quadricep contracted and cramped. The pain blinding me, I threw myself off the cycle and lied down by the road stretching and massaging the muscle to stop it from spasming.

With only an hour to sunset, I jumped back on and enjoyed the 7 kilometre long descent that followed. I could’ve torn through it at high speed but with my muscle still tender, I chose to ride calmly as I arrived at the golden sands of Agonda Beach.

The well trodden sands of Agonda and the hills I had climbed in the distance

With my destination of Palolem less than 10 kilometres away, I spent a few minutes lying down and stretching on the beach. It was clean and peaceful compared to North Goa, but still had far too many people compared to the isolated sands of the Konkan in Maharashtra.

I carried on until I arrived at Palolem, the hub of tourism in the extreme south of Goa. Not ideal to explore local culture, but a location where I managed to find cheap accommodation at a hostel for backpackers. In the night, I went for dinner and a stroll along the beach. Although it wasn’t noisy, it was disorienting to see bright neon-coloured shacks serving continental and North Indian cuisine while lighting up the bay and confusing the intertidal ecosystems. I returned to the hostel and laid down on my bed, anxious and excited to cross the border into Karnataka the next day.

Palolem Beach at night

Total distance: 93.8 km

Total riding time: 6:25 hours

Elevation gained: 844 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 0

Total travel costs: ₹0

Districts traversed: 2 – North Goa; South Goa

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 2: Palolem to Gokarna

November 5th, 2018

I woke up early and was out on the road a few moments after the sunrise at 6.50 am. I wanted to have something typically Goan before I left the state and stopped within a few kilometres at a tiny roadside place to have a steamy plate of paatal bhaji with pao, a staple Goan breakfast.

The route ahead would take me past Rajbag, Talpona and Galgibag beaches. Now, because of the Talpona and Galgibag rivers the highway in South Goa is forced to take a circuitous route, heading 10 kilometres inland. Which is a major reason why these beaches are still calm and pristine. Except for a massive luxury hotel and golf course right on the mouth of the Talpona river, likely built by massacring and clearing acres of native trees and mangroves. Why one would want to play golf on a sandbar, one of the country’s last reserves of untouched coastal biodiversity was beyond me.

To shorten the long and winding highway route, the government was actively constructing a bypass with three big bridges over the rivers of South Goa. This meant these quiet coastal parts would soon have a busy six lane highway running right through them. Olive ridley turtles are said to come and nest on Galgibag, but after the bridges are built it might be the last time they ever lay eggs in South Goa.

To cross the Talpona, I headed inland just as rural Goa was awakening, past quaint and picturesque villages. Unlike most of coastal Goa, the locals in these parts still fished and farmed, and their dense green yards reflected their connection with nature. Further on, there was a small intersection where a big dog was sitting right in the middle of the road. Unfortunately a scooter came from the opposite side at the exact same time as I passed by, because of which I had to ride within a few feet of the dog. Triggered, it chased me for a good hundred metres, jumping and snatching at my heels before giving up the chase.

I’ve learnt to spot aggressive and territorial dogs from afar and ride at a distance from them or wait for a car or scooter to come along in my direction and then strategically ride beside them so the dogs cannot attack me directly. In this case I was riding fast and had no time to react.

My breath back, I continued on and crossed a narrow yet beautiful bridge over the Talpona at Sadoxlem, after which I turned back in towards the coast. The next few kilometres past Galgibag Beach were very peaceful with not a single car or scooter in sight. There were a few cottages for tourists on the beach but I couldn’t believe I was in still in Goa!

The beautiful Sadoxlem bridge over the Talpona river

Up ahead was the Galgibag river which didn’t have any road bridge near the coast. I would have to head back inland to take a 10 km long diversion. However, this time satellite view on Google Maps served me well as I could see a temporary pedestrian bridge existed to the side of the big highway bridge that was under construction. Turned out it was just wide enough for me to cross. Many of the locals were shocked to see me taking this route and asked me how I had found it, to which I could only point at my phone and say we probably have a new God to worship now!

The temporary pedestrian path over the Galgibag river

I carried on, joining the national highway for a kilometre before turning into the interiors of Loliem, one of the last villages of Goa before the border with Karnataka. These parts were hilly, green and very isolated, along the border of the Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary. Protected wildlife sanctuaries ensure Goa remains peninsular India’s most densely forested state, with about 60% of its territory under thick green cover. They are also a crucial wildlife corridor for big mammals such as elephants and tigers, while connecting national parks in Karnataka with those in Maharashtra.

I reconnected with the highway just before I arrived at the border with Karnataka. This was not just any border, it was the gateway to South India, a region where I could not speak any of the local languages and where speaking in Hindi or Marathi wouldn’t help me blend in. And this, was the first of the three borders between the Konkan and the Malabar – the administrative border.

The Goa-Karnataka border at Pollem

As soon as I crossed the border, I turned in towards a parallel village road to get my first glimpse of culture in coastal Karnataka. At first, everything seemed different. The signboards were in another language, the way school children dressed wasn’t the same, temple architecture was of another style, and of course, the ubiquitous red and yellow Kannada flag was everywhere. However, upon closer inspection I noticed that the locals were still speaking Konkani – the official language of Goa.

The route reconnected with the highway again and now I had no option but to stick with the highway for the next 40 kilometres. In Karnataka, the highway was four-laned and was being further widened. Trees had been cut for a good 20 metres on both sides of the road. Due to the poor monsoon, there was very little grass along the road side, further amplifying the heat.

I rode on, reaching the wide estuary of the Kali river. The views were spectacular, with clear blue waters and several dense green islands jutting out of the sea. This is one of the few places on the West Coast where so many islands are located, much to do with the spur of the Western Ghats coming close to the sea.

Kali river estuary and islands in the distance

Crossing the Kali river bridge I arrived at the port city of Karwar. The wide highway here ran right along the coast, crossing a narrow pass at the city’s southern end. I couldn’t help but turn in towards the beach which was spotlessly clean. Spending a few minutes there I noticed my right knee making an odd sound whenever I bent it. I ignored the noise and walked it off on the soft golden sands.

Karwar Beach

Still only 10 am, it was getting warmer as I got back on the road, hoping to cover as much distance before the mid-day heat set in. To the south of the city the highway was narrow and wound through several bends, with short and steep climbs. On the other side was a humungous naval base, one the Indian navy claims to be the largest in Asia! As coastal views were entirely fenced off for kilometres on end, I kept riding until I saw a juice centre up ahead.

I ordered a cold and delicious chikoo-banana milkshake and rested in the shade for a while. Even though I had completed half of the day’s journey, I had a big challenge up ahead as the temperature had crossed 37°C and the hottest part of the day was yet to come. In the months of November and December, Karwar is consistently India’s warmest region as it is entirely shielded by the mountains from the cool northern and moist southern winds.

A lifesaving chikoo-banana milkshake ahead of Karwar

The next few kilometres were on the same highway, with truck traffic and naval complexes on both sides. Most villagers seemed to work in and around the naval centres. There was a lot of road work on as the highway was being widened, and it was extremely dusty. I kept riding on. With the naval base on one side and the mountains on the other, there were no opportunities to bypass the highway. What kept me going on was seeing the distance to Mangaluru reduce on the milestones every now and then.

At 1 pm I couldn’t take the heat anymore and found an air conditioned Cafe Coffee Day just before Ankola, where I rested for about two hours. My idea was to discover and explore local culture and not spend time in a coffee shop, but the highway had sapped all the energy out of me. But this is where I finally heard Kannada! I spoke to the staff who were from Ankola as well as the locals around, and all of them spoke Kannada and not Konkani. This meant I had just crossed the second border between the Konkan and the Malabar – the linguistic border.

Konkani is an Indo-European language, which meant I could grasp quite a few words being a native Hindi speaker. But Kannada is Dravidian, an entirely distinct language family. Even English and Russian are closer to Konkani than Konkani is to Kannada!

Back on the road, I turned off the highway and through the charming but busy town of Ankola towards Manjuguni jetty on the Gangavali river. There were a few clouds in the sky now, and just getting off the highway reduced temperatures by at least 5°C. A light breeze blew in as I picked up speed, riding through dry and bare fields as I arrived at the jetty.

Manjaguni jetty

While I waited for the boat I tried to communicate with the local fishermen and not even a word was understood by either me or them. Someone who had worked in Mumbai earlier joined in our conversation and helped translate. I asked them how their catch was, to which they replied it was depleting drastically, mirroring the situation in Maharashtra. They asked me the usual, where I was from and where I was headed. Then the inevitable – “but why alone?” – question followed. I told them if I was riding with someone else, I would have been speaking to them instead and this interaction might have never happened. That’s why I was cycloexploring alone.

A big ferry came in soon enough, and cars, autorickshaws, scooters and my cycle all clamoured aboard. In a few minutes, I was on the other side of the Gangavali, less than 10 km from Gokarna.

I had identified another ferry route from Tadadi port in Gokarna across the Aghanashini river estuary. This would save me 24 kilometres of riding along the highway and instead give me 24 more kilometres of exploring local villages and pristine beaches. Deciding to skip the highly touristy stretch along Gokarna Beach and the backpacker hubs of Kudle and Om beaches, I rode through small hills along the outskirts of Gokarna and arrived at Tadadi port.

It was 5 pm, too late to cross over to the other side and look for accommodation. I decided to ride a bit further out to Belekan Beach, one of the least visited beaches in the Gokarna region. I found accommodation in a rustic hut at the very end of the beach, at the only place that was open to host travellers.

Belekan was only 20 minutes away from Paradise Beach, the toughest-to-access beach on the Gokarna peninsula. The only other way to the beach was a long trek from Om Beach in the west. With only 45 minutes to go for the sun to set, I quickly changed out of my cycling gear and ran towards the beach through a narrow and unmarked jungle path, losing and finding my way until I finally descended onto the beach where I dove in to let the waves sooth my pains.

Paradise beach from the cliff above

It was all mine for 10 minutes, when a bunch of tourists who had trekked from the other side decided to celebrate life by drinking whiskey in plastic cups and then tossing them into the water right there. After I politely requested them to keep the beach clean, they did pick up their trash and even offered me a drink. I had to refuse, since I had a long way back to my accommodation.

The sunset from the water was stunning. It had been a long and difficult day under the sun and I finally got a few moments of peace with my mind absolutely blank, eyes focused on the golden fireball being eaten by the sea.

Paradise Beach at sunset

The hike back to my hut wasn’t the easiest as it got dark. There were a lot of rocks to climb and descend. I came across a family that had tried to reach the beach with infants and had lost the way. With deadly cliffs and dense jungles, this was certainly not a place to bring children who could barely walk. They were there due to online articles and lists that touted Paradise Beach as a must visit place in Gokarna. I guided them back to Belekan, where they got into their vehicles and headed back to their hotel in Gokarna.

Me being the only traveller in Belekan, I had a lovely conversation with Darshan, the owner of the beach hut and café, who told me how the erstwhile hippie heaven of Gokarna had changed over the years. He mentioned how farming was becoming difficult to sustain as hotels were coming up. He told me that just to the other side of the hill was a luxury villa whose owner had purchased and fenced a huge parcel of land, making it difficult for locals to reach their own land. Darshan spoke a whole bouquet of languages, which made me realise how incredibly diverse coastal Karnataka was.

I was served with a lovely local dinner with the famed spices and flavours of the region. Half an hour of star gazing later, I went to bed with the sound of the timid waves washing ashore a few feet away.

Total distance: 88 km

Total riding time: 6:02 hours

Elevation gained: 1026 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 1

Total travel costs: ₹20

Districts traversed: 2 – South Goa; Uttara Kannada

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 3: Gokarna to Murudeshwar

November 6th, 2018

I woke up and hobbled out of bed, my right knee not opening fully. It felt like something was wrong with my ligaments. I knew I had not been hydrating well in the harsh weather, and was annoyed at myself for not taking care and stretching post ride.

After a quick breakfast and chai at the café I made my way to Tadadi to catch the ferry at 7:30 am. I was on time as the ferry arrived within a couple of minutes. The scenery was dramatic, the wide Aghanashini River in front of me, the Arabian Sea to my right and the jagged mountains of the Western Ghats to my left. Geographically, I was still in the Konkan.

Tadadi jetty at sunrise, the ferry arriving

The ferry was small and could accommodate around 20 people but also had a ramp for motorbikes and cycles to be taken across. The ride across took about 15 minutes. On the other side a medium sized climb awaited me, waking me up and testing how my knee was faring. Full of excitement to see the view from the top, I climbed quickly and rode back down towards the coast again.

From the top of Aghanashini hill

I passed by villages where children waved and screamed as I rode past. Mothers waiting with their kids for the school bus smiled at me. Homes proudly mentioned the degrees obtained by their owners on their nameplates. I was now well and truly into the heart of coastal Karnataka, a highly educated and very wealthy rural region.

The route here was entirely flat as I rode parallel to the sea and made a short stop at the Gudeangadi Beach, where I could not see any fellow human for kilometres on either side. The beach was lined with a thick grove of Casuarina trees and the solitude reminded me of the beaches in Maharashtra.

Gudeangadi Beach

The plan was to ride to Kundapura, another 110 kilometres away and then try to reach Mangaluru the next day. Reminding myself of the length of the impending journey, I reluctantly left the beach and got back onto the village roads, reaching the busy town of Kumta.

After Kumta, I was forced to rejoin the highway. There weren’t any opportunities ahead to bypass it or take alternative village roads. The highway traffic was in absolute chaos as the road was being widened from two to four lanes. At many places four-laning had been completed but the road was still barricaded. This caused a lot of confusion and multiple bottlenecks when traffic from both sides converged on two lanes. If I got stuck in one of these bottlenecks, I would be pushed to the very edge of the dusty road by impatient trucks and vehicles.

My knee was becoming problematic, and I felt like it was making a small ticking noise. I couldn’t hear or understand what was causing the pain on the noisy highway so I kept drinking water and rode slowly on lower gears until I reached Honnavar. A medium sized town by the Sharavati River, Honnavar had a medical shop where I purchased a pain relieving muscle spray. In retrospect, a big mistake.

I applied the spray and rested for an hour, deciding to have a light and early lunch. Kundapura was far and there was no way I’d make it at this pace. I decided to keep riding and take a call later in the afternoon. The spray worked like magic for a short duration, with the heat numbing the muscles around and making me oblivious to the pain.

Leaving Honnavar, I crossed the long Sharavati River bridge. The Sharavati is famous for the impressive Jog Falls that crash down the Western Ghats about 60 kilometres inland, close to its source. Here by its mouth, temperatures were very high and my phone had heated up to the point where it was malfunctioning. I kept on going slowly, reapplying the spray every 20 minutes. There was a small stretch of ups and downs that I traversed and arrived at the town of Manki where I figured I could bypass the highway through the coast.

I turned in, trying to make my way towards a small coastal path I could spot on satellite view. The idea was to take this coastal path all the way to Murudeshwar. Once again, turning off the highway reduced the surface temperature drastically and I was greeted by shade and a cool breeze.

The road quality wasn’t as smooth as the highway and jerks due to the uneven and potholed path and constant speed breakers made my knee very sore.

I found the path – a mud road, which took me through quiet seaside villages, surrounded by farms and casuarina groves. My mind was only on the scenery and not thinking of the pain. But I knew my knee couldn’t go on much longer. I passed by some gorgeous village temples, all of which were designed in the Dravidian style of temple architecture. This was the Karnataka I longed to see and understand.

Crossing a beautiful bridge, I arrived at a beach right before Murudeshwar where the mud road disappeared into the sand. I crossed a small stream flowing on the beach and rode on the sand towards a giant temple gopuram and statue of Shiva that I knew was Murudeshwar. I was stopped by a couple of local kids cycling on the beach for a selfie. The beach itself was spotless, marked only with sand bubbler crab designs and footprints of birds that fed on them.

Murudeshwar Beach

Closer to the temple, the beach became filthy with crowds and stalls selling all kinds of plastic packaged products. I wondered how those who came to worship a temple in such a scenic location would keep its interiors clean out of reverence, but merrily destroy its immediate surroundings with litter and not that an insult to their God.

It was only 3 pm but I was done. I couldn’t ride any further. I found accommodation along the beach, a bit further from the main town. As my body cooled down, I realised the problem was worse than I thought. I could barely walk now, and lied down and tried a few stretches. I couldn’t visit the temple either and just sat on the beach for the next few hours watching the fishing boats in the distance.

Murudeshwar temple and Shiva statue in the distance

Murudeshwar is also a great site to go scuba diving to Netrani Island, 19 kilometres away. I could see its faint outline on the horizon. Another day, I thought. My concerns were all on my knee. If it did not get better I would soon have to abandon the expedition.

Total distance: 64 km

Total riding time: 4:25 hours

Elevation gained: 609 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 1

Total travel costs: ₹5

Districts traversed: 1 – Uttara Kannada

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 4: Murudeshwar to Arehole

November 6th, 2018

I got some well needed rest as I woke up and hit the road early right around sunrise. I felt much better and after a generous dose of muscle spray, I was very positive that I would shake off the soreness and fully recover by the end of the day. When I would be fully fit, I’d cover up the distance I failed to complete the previous day.

I rode south from Murudeshwar right along the coast, with dense coconut groves on one side and early morning fishing activity in the sea on the other. The route was very scenic and the road quality was excellent. After an hour of slow riding by the waves, I reached the Venkatapura River backwaters and turned in towards the highway at Shirali.

The morning sun through coconut groves

I kept on riding along the highway, knowing well by know how important it was to cover as much distance as possible during the morning hours. A small climb brought me to the town of Bhatkal, one of the bigger towns in the district of Uttar Kannada. Riding into the town, I noticed it had a strong Islamic presence, with almost all women wearing full length burqas and men dressed in traditional white kurtas. The Kannada script gave way to the Persian script. I stopped for a chai and was surprised to hear the locals speak with me in fluent Hindi.

I had a pleasant conversation with a middle-aged man having an idli next to me. I learned that the Muslims of Bhatkal belonged to a highly entrepreneurial community called the Nawayaths. They have historically had deep connections and trade links with Arabia and Persia, and their unique language Nawayati, is a mix of Marathi, Konkani, Arabic, Persian and Urdu. They’re but one example of the cultural diversity that makes India’s West Coast so utterly fascinating and worth conserving.

Unfortunately, some youth from Bhatkal were recently indoctrinated into terror organisations, giving the town a reputation it doesn’t deserve. To make things worse, the influence of relatively regressive and patriarchal Arabian culture has been gaining ground in Bhatkal, further alienating the community as it moved away from its unique and indigenous roots towards Arabian and North Indian culture.

I continued riding, with my the pain in my knee reignited now. I rode along the highway, still over a 140 kilometres to Mangaluru. My morale low, I pushed on, sometimes pedalling hard with my left leg and letting my right leg rest. It wasn’t an effective technique at all.

At about 10 am I crossed over from Uttara Kannada district to Udupi district near Shiroor. This was where the Western Ghats began to drift away from the coast and the coastal plains widened significantly. It was the start of the Malabar plains. I had finally crossed the third and final border between the Konkan and the Malabar – the geographical border.

From Shiroor I turned in towards the coast, trying to discover a coastal path. There was no real path demarcated but as I could see a few bridges over rivers on satellite view I took my chances. I crossed a narrow bridge over a creek and then arrived at a tiny fishing village with no roads. Riding through the courtyards of a few homes, I found the beach and a mud path parallel to it, on which I rode the next few kilometres.

Bridge close to Shiroor

The path connected to a bumpy tarmac road ahead and I rode through quaint little villages to reach the Someshwar temple at Baindur. The temple was located right on the edge of the ocean and I spent some time outside the temple, resting and staring at the waves and the sandy beaches in the distance.

Someshwara Beach, Baindur

With no bridge across a rivulet, I was forced to head back inland towards the highway. Just before Baindur town I crossed one of the most beautifully painted temples I had come across on my journey. The Panchlingeshwari temple was coloured sky blue, and even though I knew that the paint wasn’t organic or traditional, it was just incredibly soothing to look at.

Panchlingeshwari temple

As I got back onto the highway I set myself a target of reaching Kundapura, 35 kilometres away. I would then decide if I could ride any further. But my knee started throbbing again. I rode slowly along the undulating highway, pushing hard with my left leg up the gentle slopes and resting on downhills.

After another 12 kilometres on the highway, I had pushed myself too far. My knee gave way. The pain was so intense that I didn’t even feel it. I couldn’t move my leg voluntarily. Somehow, I hopped off onto my left leg and lied down by the side of the road, sipping water until I could slowly stand up again. I knew this was the end of the expedition. Luckily, there was a rickshaw right across the highway that I flagged, fit me and my cycle inside of and was off to Kundapura. 

I found accommodation by the backwaters and as I hobbled around I hoped I hadn’t done everlasting damage to myself. I’d never failed at achieving such a target before and my morale was rock bottom.

But as I took a train back from Kundapura to Mumbai the next day I promised myself that I’ll return there as soon as I had recovered.

Total distance: 50.4 km

Total riding time: 3:28 hours

Elevation gained: 536 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 0

Total travel costs: ₹250 – rickshaw ride to Kundapura

Districts traversed: 2 – Uttara Kannada; Udupi

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Recovery

As I returned to Mumbai I got a CT scan done to ensure I hadn’t damaged my ligaments in any way. Turned out I had severely inflamed my iliotibial band, a band of muscle that connects the thigh bone to the shin bone, keeping the knee in place. After multiple visits to physios I slowly healed over the next few months. I diagnosed the cause of the inflammation to be a lack of proper cycling shorts. I have very muscular quadriceps, and the cheap mountain bike shorts I had worn weren’t skin tight or flexible. The fabric had restricted my movement, effecting intense strain on my iliotibial band.

It was the end of June when I had recovered fully, a whole 8 months later. It had already began raining in the south. I would have to wait for the monsoon to set and retreat to continue my ride.

Preparations, again

The Southwest Monsoon of 2019 was truly historic. Even though it arrived a few weeks late, it crashed down upon the West Coast in apocalyptic fashion. The Konkan overtook Meghalaya to become the world’s rainiest place, with some parts receiving a mind-boggling 12,000 mm of rain in just three months! By October, most of the Konkan and parts of coastal Karnataka had received their highest ever annual rainfall amounts in recorded history.

There are many factors that impact the intensity of the monsoon, and due to climate change these factors are getting increasingly amplified. The Arabian Sea had been super active and warm in 2019, and a record number of cyclones passed through its waters during the monsoon season.

Due to these active sea conditions, the weather forecast for October and November was light to moderate rain predicted all along the Malabar coast. Since the Southwest monsoon had passed, I didn’t consider the light rain predicted much of a threat to the expedition and planned to depart in the latter half of October. I had no clue of what actually awaited me.

In terms of equipment I purchased a good quality skin-tight pair of cycling shorts, a better set of bungee cords and with an eye on the weather I left my laptop at home, using the space created with a water resistant bag cover and wind-cheater instead. I also carried another spare tube, a small portable air pump and a chain lock. The rest was the same as before.

Day 5: Arehole to Padukare

October 22nd, 2019

As I had abandoned the previous year’s effort right on the Mumbai-Kanyakumari highway (NH 66) at Arehole, the only practical way to restart it from the very same spot was to take a bus from Mumbai headed to Mangaluru. On October 21st we had state elections in Maharashtra and I cast my vote before hopping onto a bus that departed from Mumbai just after mid-day.

Even though I had securely tied the bicycle to the columns in the luggage hold using ropes and the chain lock, I was still worried about the constant bumps it kept receiving and kept checking how it was holding up at every halt at night. Due to this excessive preoccupation I barely slept for an hour during the night.

At about 10 am, I got off the bus on the highway exactly where I stopped pedalling a year ago. Five minutes to fasten my luggage and a few quick stretches later, I was off!

The highway looked very different compared to the previous year. Due to the prolonged monsoon and record rainfall, its sides were green and sparkling clean. All the plastic waste had been flushed into the ocean.

The weather forecast for the next few days was bleak. There was a deep tropical depression along the coast of Karnataka, threatening to turn into a cyclone over the next four days. The highest level of weather alert – red – had been issued by the Indian Meteorological Department for all three districts on Karnataka’s coast.

However, when I started pedalling the sky was blue with only a few clouds. I pedalled towards Kundapura, until when I would have no option but to ride on the highway. In just twenty minutes, I arrived at Maravanthe Beach, a popular spot where the NH-66 comes right up to the sea.

Maravanthe beach

Maravanthe Beach

After a few pictures, I began to leave from the beach and looked to cross the road. This is when two men on cycles passed by me. They were headed in the other direction and also had their luggage on pannier racks. I had no time to react or ask questions, just a few seconds to quickly high-five them both. They would end up being the only other cycloexplorers I would come across on the entire expedition.

The highway headed inland from Maravanthe, with a few small ups and downs. The road quality was excellent and I rode through without any struggles. A year later, it seemed like most of the highway construction was now complete.

As I crossed a bridge over the Souparnika River, a patch of dark grey clouds appeared in the sky above me, threatening to burst open. Luckily, they blew over to the side and blue skies appeared on the horizon again. I rode further, crossing a whole lot of bridges over the Panchgangavali River backwaters. This was the first real network of backwaters I came across on the West Coast, which meant I was well and truly in the Malabar. These backwaters were full of flat riverine islands, locally known as kudrus.

Grey clouds before Kundapura

From the main bridge over the Panchgangavli, I could see the Western Ghats in the distance. Even though they were now over 30 kilometres away from the coast, they were much taller now. The impressive Kodachadri range stood out in particular and because of the sun’s reflection, I could see giant waterfalls cascading down its sides even from such a distance!

I rode along the main bridge that took me over another kudru, and on the other side was Kundapura, the cleanest and most prosperous town I had visited on the coast thus far. As I had spent half a day in Kundapura the year before, I had learnt that the dialect of Kannada spoken in this town was unique and quite different from standard Kannada.

Exiting the highway I rode right through the town of Kundapura, heading for the coast. Through calm, traffic free roads lined with trees I crossed over a small bridge and reached Kodi Beach.

Here is where my real challenge began. The storm that was predicted was moving up the coast from the south to the north due to which there was a strong headwind that I was headed right into. With the open sea to my right, there was nothing shielding me from this brutal wind as I rode with the waves to my side for the next 18 kilometres. The journey was past idyllic villages and traditional temples surrounded by acres of rice farms ready to be harvested.

Paddy fields by the sea

I rode on until I reached the Sita River backwaters. There was no way to cross the main estuary along the coast and I had to head inland for a few kilometres where I planned to take a ferry from Hangarcutte over to Kodi Bengare back on the coast. This is when the sky turned dark grey and strong winds started gusting. A big frond of a coconut tree fell only a few feet away from me, after which I was riding in perpetual fear of being hit by a coconut or a coconut frond.

Sita river

Sita River backwaters

It only drizzled lightly and as I reached Hangarcutte I realised it was past 2 pm and hence stopped for lunch at a local place serving meals. Across South India, meals refers to a thali or a plate with a variety of items served with rice, which are often unlimited. I’ve also observed that regardless of your social or economic class if you waste food while eating a meals, you will be reprimanded by the person serving you and rightly so.

As I looked to ask for another serving of rice I noticed the owner of the establishment, also the cook and the server was busy trapping a small snake that had entered the store next door. He managed to catch it, and while I pulled out my phone to take a picture, I noticed that it had switched off entirely. It was not charging either and I had to take it to a mobile store. This meant changing my route. I could no longer take the coastal route via Kodi Bengare and would have to continue riding along the highway towards Udupi.

Udupi is the second largest city in coastal Karnataka after Mangaluru and I was not very keen to enter it. Fortunately I found a mobile store within 5 kilometres at Bramavara, where they replaced my battery and fixed the phone. This took almost an hour and the skies turned greyer above me.

I had to continue along the highway to cross the Suvarna River before entering Udupi, since I was no longer taking the ferry from Hangarcutte. 15 minutes later I crossed a bridge over the Suvarna and turned right towards the coast before the city of Udupi began. I was riding towards the popular beach of Malpe, also a huge centre for fisheries.

The fishing port at Malpe was full of hundreds of colourful boats. I rode past, crossing a bridge as I arrived on a long and narrow sand bar wedged between the sea and the Papanashini River. I increased my pace as the skies were getting darker and rain seemed imminent. There seemed to be some validity to the weather forecast after all.

The port at Malpe

The port at Malpe

I was now only 5 kilometres from my destination, a traditional homestay on Padukare beach. The sand bar I was on extended for almost 15 kilometres and was so narrow that at all times I had the sea to my right only a few feet away and the backwaters within my sight on the left. The only kind of tree that could survive the saline soil here was the coconut tree, of which there were hundreds along the route. Such a landscape is a highlight of the Malabar coast, and how a lot of Kerala would be like. I had arrived in the Malabar, I reminded myself again.

At around 5.15 pm I arrived at my homestay which had two access points. One from the beach and the other from the backwaters, both less than fifty metres from each other.

Padukare

The homestay at Padukare

Just 10 minutes after my arrival, the heavens opened. The rain was truly torrential, and the way it was crashing down I was certain I would be stuck there in Padukare, surrounded by water on all sides!

I bathed outside in the rain, with all the grime and dust from the road being washed off by the merciless storm. The caretaker of the homestay came in somehow a while later to bring me a scrumptious dinner of neer dosa and ghee roast. Finally, I was in the land of the famous ghee roast!

I slept right after as the rain pounded away the entire night.

Total distance:  70.9 km

Total riding time:  4:35 hours

Elevation gained:  498 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 0

Total travel costs: ₹0

Districts traversed: 1 – Udupi

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 6: Padukare to Uchila

October 23rd, 2019

I woke up to heavy rain. It hadn’t stopped at all during the night. However, as I put on all my waterproof gear it suddenly reduced to a faint drizzle. The sky was a lot brighter now, yet full of clouds. I quickly checked the weather forecast which told me the tropical depression was about to turn into a cyclonic storm called Kyarr. It was right off the coast of Karnataka, however it was slowly headed northwards.

Cyclone Kyarr’s arrival was imminent

Taking advantage of the slight reduction in rainfall, I started riding. The goal was to reach Mangaluru, 50 kms away, for lunch. I rode along the sand bar for the next few kilometres, full of coconut groves interspersed with traditional homes and temples. There was a lot of activity on the beach as fishermen were pulling their boats on to the sands in anticipation of the incoming cyclone.

I rode on as the drizzle got a bit heavier and arrived at the lighthouse at Kaup Beach. Despite being a popular beach it was spotlessly clean and well maintained. Around me, there wasn’t a soul in sight. After all who would be crazy enough to visit the coast in such weather? The lighthouse only opened in the evening, so I took a few pictures and looked around to find breakfast.

Kaup Beach and lighthouse

I found a man sitting outside a small shop near the beach. In stereotypical South Indian fashion, he had a shirt, glasses and lungi on and was reading a newspaper from end to end. I asked him if he had anything to eat and he was serving my favourite breakfast combination – neer dosa and chutney! I could probably eat neer dosa for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of my life.

As I ate, the rain got heavier and the man asked me what I was doing in those parts at this time of year. He told me how despite ample warnings by the government, fishermen were venturing out to sea and risking their lives. They wouldn’t really be compensated for not fishing on those days.

After waiting for a bit more, the rain came down in full force with visibility down to less than 10 metres. I had no option but to move ahead if I was to reach Mangaluru on time. I put on all my rain gear and started pedalling along the coastal road. I was drenched to the bone within 3 seconds, after which it didn’t matter at all.

I rode until I reached a junction where I knew I had to turn left towards the highway. As the highway ran parallel to the coast from here to Mangaluru, the coastal route wasn’t really developed and was just a series of dead ends.

I got onto the highway and rode on the left shoulder, getting sprayed by water every time a car passed me. If I was next to a big puddle and a truck came along in the outside lane, the spray might be strong enough to throw me off the shoulder entirely, making this stretch even more challenging! I had to constantly look ahead for puddles and behind to observe the traffic coming in, so as to preempt and avoid such a scenario.

I also had my eyes wide open for potholes and fallen branches along the road side. The road quality was excellent but I couldn’t afford to relax in these conditions. The hardest to navigate however were autorickshaws plying illegally in the wrong direction along the shoulder. As they would stick to the side I was repeatedly pushed onto the main lanes where vehicles sped inches past me at speed of over 100 kmph.

I rode on, unable to check my phone or open my bag due to the barrage of water falling from all sides. All I knew was if the rain was blowing into my face and the headwind was pushing me back, I was headed south.

On the shoulder of NH-66, getting sprayed by traffic.

An hour and a half from Kaup, I reached Padubidri where the rain lessened, but only slightly. I rode on and crossed the Shambhavi River to reach Mulki, which meant was in Dakshin Kananda district. Mangaluru wasn’t far away now! I had coconut water by the side of the highway, and cross checked with the kind man who served me if I was indeed right about the district borders. He said he didn’t care about the district, but rather the identity of the area, which he called Tulu Nadu – the land of the Tuluvas.

Tulu is a distinct language of its own, and the most spoken non-official Dravidian language in South India. The heartland of the Tuluvas is the coastal parts of Dakshin Kannada and parts of Udupi district, however there is a large and influential Tuluva diaspora in Mumbai and in Bollywood.

I rode on along the highway, crossing a big toll gate at Surathkal and its famous NITK engineering college. The rain had now stopped entirely and I was able to pull out my phone and find a route parallel to the highway, right along the coast.

This stretch was perfect. I rode entirely along the sea with a long sandy beach to one side and tiny village homes on the other. I rode past Surathkal and Hosabettu beaches until I arrived at Panambur Beach when I had to turn inland due to a monstrous port complex ahead. I turned in and rode past the international cruise terminal and under a coal conveyor belt where the air was barely breathable.

I mused about how my way of travel was diametrically opposite to luxury cruise travel, especially in terms of liberties and costs. From my perspective as a cycloexplorer, cruise ship travellers were people who would pay a whole lot of money only to be confined to a small space and be forced to breathe toxic air while they remained docked. Add to that an immense negative environmental impact and high carbon footprint.

I made it past the suffocating New Mangalore Port Trust complex and arrived at a big junction before the Gurupura River. The city of Mangaluru was just beyond it, and big high-rises loomed on the horizon. The highway into the city was choked with traffic that was aggressively manoeuvring each other and honking loudly. Choosing to skip this entry into the city, I turned towards the sea again, riding towards Tannirbhavi Beach.

It started raining again, and this time I was on a narrow tree-lined stretch and not the highway. Which meant twigs and branches were falling all around me. Dodging them, I rode past another gate of the port, arriving at a tiny Christian hamlet by the sea. The Christians of Mangaluru generally speak Konkani, most of them having migrated from Goa a few centuries ago, either brought by the Portuguese or fleeing from Portuguese persecution.

The rain stopped again as I arrived at Tannirbhavi, where there was a big grove of Casuarina trees. To my left I saw a ferry terminal and turned in towards it to head to Mangaluru. I could have taken another ferry from Bengre, a few kilometres further ahead, but as I could see the boat had just arrived I chose to cross over from Tannirbhavi.

Ferry from Tannirbhavi to Mangaluru

I threw myself and the cycle onto the boat and 5 minutes later I was in the narrow lanes of Mangaluru. I was starving and made my way to Shetty Lunch Home in the centre of the city based on a friend’s recommendation. The city was very hilly and for the first time since Kundapura, I had to drop gears to navigate climbs. I also noticed how wealthy Mangaluru was – the luxury sedans and fancy apartment buildings around could easily confuse one to think they were in an upmarket suburb of Mumbai or Delhi.

Mangalore-tile factory in Mangaluru!

Through a light but steady drizzle, I arrived at the restaurant where I treated myself to a delicious Mangalorean style thali, with neer dosa of course!

It was now 3.30 pm and I had moved slowly due to the rain. My target was to reach Kasargod in Kerala, another 45 kilometres away, for the night. But it seemed a bit risky considering I wouldn’t be able to ride at night if it started raining heavily again. So I decided to stay on the Karnataka side of the border where there were more homestay options.

I had an interesting chat with the owner of the restaurant, and then rode out of the city until I arrived at the highway again, right at the banks of the fabled Netravati River. Getting back onto the highway I crossed the Netravati bridge and rode on until a junction at Ullal, where I turned in towards the coast again.

I was very close to the border with Kerala now and almost every other vehicle had a KL number plate. I was desperate to cross over but told myself I would have to wait until tomorrow morning.

A few more kilometres down the coast and I reached my homestay at Uchila, right on the beach. As if to reward me, the sun had now come out for the first time in the day!

A break in the rain at Ullal

I jumped into the waves, however the sea looked very rough so I didn’t go deep in. The caretaker told me how all the sand had been taken away by the currents over the monsoon. They were planting tetrapods into the ocean to reduce the impact of erosion and protect the sand banks. I’m not sure how well that would work in the future though.

After I watched the sun set, I stretched my limbs and then read up a few words in Malayalam I thought I might need to know.

Post 7 pm, the storm was back and this time it had truly arrived. The rain was coming down in sheets now, in such a manner that memories from the 26/7 floods in Mumbai came back. It was so severe that within 15 minutes, the entire compound of the homestay was under a foot of water!

I slept to the sound of water crashing down from the sky so hard they were drowning out the sound of the waves that were only a few feet away.

Total distance:  76.2 km

Total riding time:  4:45 hours

Elevation gained:  430 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 1

Total travel costs: ₹14

Districts traversed: 2 – Udupi; Dakshin Kannada

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Day 7: Uchila to Valiyaparamba

October 24th, 2019

I woke up to a light drizzle, and rode back towards the highway. I had to cross the train lines and waited patiently at a level crossing for a train to pass. Once it opened, I was off towards Kerala!

The road climbed up to a small hill near the Talpady toll plaza. Upon crossing the toll plaza the highway abruptly went from four lanes to two. The signs on the highway, which were in English, Hindi and at times in Kannada until now, were only in Malayalam and Kannada up ahead. I was at the gateway to the Deep South. I was at the border between Karnataka and Kerala. I couldn’t believe I had reached there on two wheels, but there I was, at the portal to God’s Own Country.

At the Karnataka-Kerala border!

Unlike Karnataka, where the highway was wide and treeless, the highway in Kerala was lined with trees. However it was also full of potholes and giant craters. They were full of water because of the storm and difficult to navigate. But for a change, instead of having cars and trucks zooming past me, I was zooming past them!

More craters than road

The rain was now steadier, yet not too heavy. Enough for me to look around and see what was new. Of course, the first thing that I noticed was the Malayalam. Despite the Tulu influence spilling over from Dakshin Kannada, Malayalam was still the state language and was everywhere. It was also much greener, with the dense vegetation reminding me of the isolated valleys of Sindhudurg in Maharashtra.

The other thing that was impossible not to notice was the Gulf connection. There were boards only in Arabic, and all the restaurants along the highway had big flashy signs claiming ‘Authentic Arabian Shawarma available’. They were all new, swanky and modern in appearance but strangely none of them were open. I rode on further towards Uppala to find breakfast.

Thats when I noticed the extent of the damage done by the rains around me. Almost all low lying land was flooded, and rivers had swollen to thrice their normal size. They water had turned dark brown, with heavy flows of mud coming down from the Western Ghats only thirty kilometres away. And that’s when I noticed the biggest difference between coastal Karnataka and Kerala – there was almost no one farming in Kerala!

Swollen rivers in Kerala

It was bizarre, because in the northern parts of the West Coast, farmers are desperate for water to grow paddy. One crop per year is all that most paddy farmers manage. And here in coastal Kerala, where water was so abundant, there was barely any rice cultivation around. I also noticed how there was no open land left – every inch of land along the highway had been compounded into a home or a commercial entity. This was despite Kasargod being Kerala’s least densely populated district.

I stopped at Uppala for a lovely breakfast of puttu with curry and a hot cup of chai.  The rain had now stopped and the sky was getter brighter. I took advantage of this window and got out on the road quickly, pedalling towards Kasargod town.

I covered the next stretch swiftly, riding along the narrow highway past the town of Kumbla into Kasargod. The road quality was getting better but since it was a two lane road I was riding alongside and weaving traffic. My biggest challenge however, was navigating the ubiquitous Kerala State Transport buses that stopped frequently on the road in front of me. Overtaking them from the right as they stopped was dangerous as they could start moving anytime, sandwiching me between them and oncoming traffic. At the same time it was frustrating to wait for passengers embark and disembark on the left. I soon developed a strategy to observe how many people were waiting to get on at the stops and the number of people on the buses looking to get off. Collecting all this data allowed me to make split second decisions and strategically overtake the buses without slowing down.

Right before Kasargod was a small climb, which ended up in a big junction with the left branch going up the Ghats towards Kodagu and Mysuru and the right branch towards Kochi. I turned right to find myself at the first red light I would encounter in Kerala and then took a left again to quickly exit Kasargod town. From here on the road was four laned and in excellent condition!

I stopped a few kilometres outside of Kasargod as the winds picked up and the skies got dark once more. I pulled out my poncho and covered my bag, something I had become accustomed to doing on autopilot as the weather deteriorated. After a short but steep climb, I reached the top of a small hill where I could see the storm roll in. It was exactly noon and the sky was nightmarishly dark. Under the clouds, I could spot the sea in the distance and made my way quickly towards Bekal, with a plan to visit the historic Bekal fort on my mind.

The rain began shortly thereafter, and took almost no time to start crashing down. I rode on through very poor visibility, hoping my flashing tail-light was visible to vehicles behind me as I tried to survive the onslaught. About a kilometre before Bekal beach, all hell broke loose. The rain was coming down extremely heavily, with tin sheets from roadside shacks flying in the air and tree branches falling all around me.

A Kerala state bus and the apocalyptic rain

I pulled in for shelter near a shop on the roadside and also decided to break for lunch in the same village. Luckily I found myself near a traditional meals place, to have my first proper meal in Kerala. I walked into the restaurant with a stream of water flowing across every inch of my body but dried within minutes thanks to my dry fit gear.

A traditional veg meals in Kerala

As I ate, I noticed how almost no one around me was on their mobile phone and everyone was focused on the food, from the patrons to the sharp and observant servers. Such polite eating manners coupled with respect and regard for others in a public dining space were a bit overwhelming for me as I wondered if I was still in India. Risking social judgement, I removed my phone while eating to click a picture and also check on the weather. It turned out that this tropical storm had achieved cyclone status and had been named Kyarr as was predecided. The cyclone was now moving closer to the West Coast of India, although it was expected to boomerang and head towards Oman in a few days. Overall it was moving north, which means I would have to continue battling strong headwinds as I headed south.

The rain was still pouring down relentlessly as I finished lunch. As I would get soaked in seconds trying to stay dry didn’t matter at all. I hopped back on, without even bothering to put on my rain jacket and began pedalling towards Bekal fort. In a kilometre, the open sea was to my right and powerful gusts of wind began pushing me backwards, making this stretch doubly hard. Sand, grime and raindrops flew into my eyes at warp speed as I rode through the storm.

Cyclone Kyarr was here

About 10 minutes later, I was outside the monumental Bekal Fort. The intensity of rainfall had reduced slightly so I considered entering the fort. I had to park my cycle outside the fort and as since was no tourist in sight I left my luggage on and tucked it behind a wall. I went in, past the well organised ticket counter and ran towards the other end to get an understanding of this massive seaside fort.

Bekal Fort

The rain kept coming down as I grabbed a few images of the fort walls by the sea and then quickly ran back to the cycle. The waves were humungous, larger than anything I had ever seen on the West coast before. But the rain was so intense that I could barely hear them.

The rough Arabian Sea from the fort

I rejoined the NH-66 and rode along its shoulder for the next 10 kilometres, when I arrived at the largest city in the district – Kanhangad. At first I assumed it would be just like any other small town, but was astonished to see how built up it was.

The highway running through the centre of the city was multi-laned with a divider and a service lane, reminding me of the highways in Mumbai or Bengaluru. Every inch of land was concretised and very few traditional structures remained. Flashy electronic signs and displays were selling saris, gold and visa services to go to countries across the Arabian Sea. Many signs were in Arabic. There were barely any trees along the road.

Somehow, it felt like the entire city pulsed with an influx of money coming in from the Gulf. I had heard a lot about how a significant amount of India’s remittances came through the Malayali diaspora in Gulf countries, but I could only comprehend the scale of it as I rode through Kanhangad.

Fifteen minutes later, I was out of Kanhangad. The rain was not as heavy now but was still constant enough to ensure I was drenched. Around me, there were still no paddy farms. Just concrete homes with walled compounds and no trees. The Gulf connection seemed to be so strong that home architecture that used to be in sync with the tropical rainforest climate now seemed to complement the dry and arid desert climate of Arabia.

I continued on the highway and crossed a bridge over the Karingode River, just before Nileshwar. Here I exited the highway and turned into the countryside of Kerala, for the first time since I entered the state. My destination was Valiyaparamba Island, a thin strip of sand sandwiched between the backwaters of Kavvayi and the Arabian Sea.

As I went into the villages, I was entirely prepared for the road quality to worsen – as one generally should in India. But to my utter amazement, the road quality was somehow ever better than the highway – a flat polished top, neatly painted lanes, a wide and unobstructed path for pedestrians and reflective lights all along the sides. Neat, clean and clear signage was present at every junction. The only issue for me was that most of them were just in Malayalam.

Village roads in Kerala

As the rain was still heavy for me to pull out my phone and navigate at every junction, I stopped under a bus shelter and memorised the next 7-8 turns and how the names of villages appeared in Malayalam. I continued, crossing several bridges which were also in fantastic condition and eventually arrived at Valiayaparamba Island. The rain had finally relented and I was able to look around and notice that the only type of tree that seemed to exist on the island was that of the coconut.

I rode down south along the only road on this narrow sand bar, past another bridge that went back to the mainland and arrived at my destination – a homestay with an exit to the beach to one side and the backwaters on the other. I took a few images on the beach and watched the sky turn dark bluish-grey instead of pink as the sun set. As I headed inside, another spell of torrential rain came crashing down from the skies. I was quite literally surrounded by an immense wall of water in every possible direction!

My homestay in Valiyaparamba

I read more about Cyclone Kyarr and according to reports it was set to become a Super Cyclonic Storm – the strongest ever cyclone classification set by the Indian Meteorological Department – and the most powerful cyclone in the recorded history of the Arabian Sea!

I then had a lovely chat with the man running the homestay, who prepared a scrumptious dinner with specialities from the North Malabar region.

After dinner I slept once more to sound of the rain crashing down.

Total distance:  93.9 km

Total riding time:  6:50 hours

Elevation gained:  1168 m

Ferry/boat crossings: 0

Total travel costs: ₹0

Districts traversed: 2 – Dakshin Kannada; Kasargod

Plastic waste generated: 0 grams

Click here for the second part: Goa to Kanyakumari: Part II

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 my other bikepacking diaries:

Mumbai to Goa : Part I

Mumbai to Goa : Part II

3 Aug

Konkan Cycling Diaries: Mumbai to Goa – Part II

This post is the second part of my solo cycloexpedition from Mumbai to Goa. In case you haven’t read Part I, you may do so by clicking on this link.

Day 5: Ratnagiri to Vijaydurg

February 19th, 2018

It was 7 am when I disembarked from the overnight bus from Mumbai. I loaded my gear on to the cycle and rode towards the city centre of Ratnagiri, in order to restart from the very same location I had paused my journey one month earlier. I exited the coastal city from its southern end as it was still waking up. And once I crossed the bridge over the Kajali river I was instantly back out into the countryside, with no sight of man anywhere.

My target was to get to Pawas, 17 km away, and then plan my day over breakfast.

After a kilometre of flat and smooth road along Bhatye beach I arrived at my first climb of this leg of the journey. Full of energy, I raced up the slope and a hairpin bend and effortlessly climbed up to a small plateau.

I had been on the road for an hour when the descent to Pawas began. And in that hour, I had completely forgotten that it had been a month since I was continuing my journey. As the wind hit my face, I felt as though I was in a dream where I was always on the road, without any idea about where I started or what my destination was. A sweet, sweet dream it was.

I found the only place open for breakfast in Pawas at that time as I sat down and began to plan my day. My plan was the same as before – ride as close to the coast as possible, as long at the route kept going towards Goa. Even if this meant making unconventional water crossings instead of using inland road bridges.

The huge peninsula of Vijaydurg was hampering my plan. This thumb shaped peninsula was only connected to land from the south, with the Vagothan river shielding it from the east and the north, where I would be coming from. Accessing it from the southern end would mean another 31 km of extra riding. So, I decided that if I could somehow manage to cross over to Vijaydurg by boat, I would spend the night there. If not, I would ride on further towards Kunkeshwar.

Being Shivaji Jayanti, it was a state-wide holiday, which did not seem to make a difference in the daily lifestyle of the people in these sparsely populated parts. I did pass a couple of bikers with their pillions waving saffron flags with Shivaji Maharaj’s face emblazoned on them, but not much more. At the same time, Maharashtra Tourism signboards along the way pointed towards Purnagad Fort, and I decided to visit it.

Another medium sized climb later, I was at the base of a hill atop which was Purnagad Fort. Leaving the cycle behind, I found my way through a maze of stone steps, sometimes going right through tiny settlements. The fort walls came appeared after about 5 minutes of climbing. It was more of an outpost than an actual city-fort, but the views of the sea from its bastions were incredible.

Purnagad Fort

The rising temperatures reminded me that I needed to get going. I hiked back down, found my cycle and gear just as I had left it, and crossed a big bridge over the Muchkundi river. On the other side was one of the densest groves of Suru, or Casuarina trees I had ever seen, hiding and protecting Gaonkhadi beach which had zero manmade structures along its entire length.

Suru grove on Gaonkhadi beach

After leaving from Gaonkhadi beach, I climbed up and down several hills and plateaus as I reached Jaitapur. There were settlements in the valleys and on the plateaus. Geography had a very big part to play in the professions of the inhabitants of these settlements. The valleys and their slopes were green and dotted with rice, mango, jackfruit and supari plantations. The plateaus were barren this time of year but as they were better connected with the bigger cities further inland they had more trade and commerce activity. I was getting hungrier but settled for an icy glass of limbu sharbat to stay hydrated.

Jaitapur is the site of the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant, which will become the largest nuclear power generating station in the world once operational. Despite being mired in controversies and facing strong opposition from locals and environmentalists alike, the project is going forward as India’s insatiable power needs keep increasing. As consumers, we are shielded from the fact that the electricity that we take for granted in our urban homes and offices often has a very violent, bloody and unjust background. On that day though, there were no protests or lathi charges as I rode through the area.

It was 2:30 pm and the sun was getting unbearable when I pushed myself a little more and arrived at the small fishing village of Dandewadi. This is where Strava records had shown previous cyclists crossing over to Vijaydurg by boat, but they had been very few compared to the number of cyclists taking the inland route and skipping Vijaydurg entirely. I was hopeful, but not very.

I asked a man pulling his nets out of the creek if anyone could take me across, and he said that it seemed really unlikely since such boats must be booked in advance. As I was about to leave he came up to the road, spotted a boat harboured in the bay and gave me the number of its owner – Avinash Pangrekar.

I called Avinash and he asked me to enter the village, which was fast asleep on a mid-afternoon siesta.

He said the tides were favourable and since fishing season was low, he had the time to drop me to Vijaydurg. His boat had taken up to 10 cycles in the past, but since I was alone I would have to pay for the entire boat. We agreed at a price of ₹400, a hefty sum but one which saved me another 3 hours of riding in the hot sun.

Mr. Pangrekar's boat at Dandewadi

Mr. Pangrekar’s boat at Dandewadi

I climbed into the boat with my cycle after Avinash’s father as they started the engine. We left the sheltered harbour onto the estuary where the Vagothan river met the Arabian Sea. The sea breeze and panoramic vistas quickly negated the searing afternoon heat. They told me that dolphins, olive ridley turtles and even octopuses were abundant in these waters, but catch of commercially important fish such as surmai and pomfret had reduced significantly in recent years.

Crossing the Vagothan estuary with the Pangrekars

15 minutes later the massive multi-tiered fort walls of Vijaydurg came into view, jutting out of the peninsula directly into the sea. I had never seen a Maratha fort of this size in its entirety, with the sea offering an unhindered view of the sheer size and magnificence of the fort. The Pangrekars dropped me right at the base of the fort, where two hotels/homestays were located.

After getting a good deal at Hotel Suruchi, I had a quick shower followed by a scrumptious coastal thali. The flavours in the fry were intense, quite different from anything up north. I then realised I had now crossed over into Maharashtra’s southernmost and least populated district – Sindhudurg, and the dialect and cuisine here was the legendary Malvani.

At 4:30 pm, I went to visit the fort. At its entrance, there was a small counter where one could hire a guide. I signed up for the service and met Sanket Rahane.

The next couple of hours were extraordinary. Sanket, all of 23 years, was one of the most eloquent storytellers I have ever come across in my life. Not only did he have all his facts and timelines from over the past millennium spot on, he could make the walls speak for themselves as we walked through the fort.

Sunset from Vijaydurg's second tier of fortification

Sunset from Vijaydurg’s second tier of fortification

Spread over 17 acres, the gigantic Vijaydurg is one of the best preserved forts in Maharashtra and speaks volumes of the glory days of the Marathas and Angres. Sanket showed me all the different tiers of fortification the fort had, cannon marks on its walls, secret chambers, hidden tunnels crisscrossing the fort, as well as its strategic defences and booby traps. All this while, he continued the story of the fort century by century. He added context by cross-referencing relevant historical events that unfolded in Pune, Delhi, Kolhapur and London that impacted the power dynamic of the rulers of Vijaydurg.

Sanket told me that legend had long dictated that a massive underwater ridge had been constructed to foil attacks from the sea. This had been recently proved by scuba divers carbon dating the rocks on the ridge.

The mighty Vijaydurg from the beach

As the sun set, I thanked Sanket for his time and walked out onto the beach. My mood changed as I came upon the carcass of an adult olive ridley turtle, stuffed with and surrounded by plastic. Even as megacities such as Pune and Mumbai have shockingly inadequate waste disposal facilities, the rest of the country is further behind. It is important for us to understand that most of our plastic waste while visiting smaller towns and villages flows directly or indirectly into the sea. The only way we can save our oceans from choking is to drastically reduce, if not completely stop, our consumption of single use, non-biodegradable products.

Lunch was so good, I had the very same thali again for dinner and went to sleep under a star-filled sky.

Relive ‘Ratnagiri to Dande Beach’

Total distance: 74 km

Total riding time: 6 hours

Elevation gained: 923 m

Water crossings: 1 – Dande to Vijaydurg

Total travel costs: ₹400

Districts traversed: 2 – Ratnagiri; Sindhudurg

Avinash Pangrekar’s number (to cross from Dande to Vijaydurg): 08806888357

Sanket Rahane’s number (historian at Vijaydurg): 09168316179

Day 6: Vijaydurg to Tarkarli

February 20th, 2018

160 km away from the border with Goa, I was now in the southern reaches of the Konkan. This meant that the hills and climbs were now shorter, but more frequent. My average speed shot up as I cruised along the only road out of Vijaydurg and reached the junction with the SH-4 at Padel. The tree cover was getting denser and I could feel the slow transition from a subtropical to a tropical climate.

Mango trees were everywhere. Some were bearing small fruit, and some none yet. I was well and truly in the heart of the most famous mango producing region of the world.

Just as it began to get warm, I reached Devgad – famous worldwide for its exemplary Hapus mangoes. I parted with the SH-4 as I saw that a newly constructed coastal bridge connected Devgad with Kunkeshwar along the coast. As Devgad Fort was situated on the other end of the city, I would have to climb down and then up a big hill to get there, and repeat the same on my way back. I decided to skip it as I raced downhill towards the bridge.

For some reason, I was riding right in the centre of this bridge. It had high concrete walls and all I could see were the golden sands of Mithmumbari beach on the other side. Something told me to take a picture of the beach from the side of the bridge. This is when I happened to look backwards and my eyes were blinded by the clearest water I had ever seen. Different hues of blue and turquoise shaded the river as it collided with the Arabian sea. Schools of multi-coloured fish and eels roamed around in these sheltered waters, clearly visible from over 30 feet away. A calm fishing village rested by its sides. There was not a speck of trash anywhere in sight. I hope that future visitors to this pristine location will respect its natural purity and sanctity.

Devgad-Mithmumbari Bridge

I pedalled on and arrived at the beach. The windmills of Devgad were visible in the distance. The sands were spotlessly clean, the road had next to no traffic. I sat down and watched migratory gulls prey on small fish with no sound other than that of the gentle waves lazily caressing the beach.

Mithmumbari Beach

I reminded myself that it was 10:30 am and I hadn’t even had breakfast when I forced myself to get back onto the road again. The road towards the temple town of Kunkeshwar now hugged the sea as it climbed steeply up for around 40 m and then descended straight past the temple, onto the beach.

A lot of construction activity was going on in and around the temple, with concrete structures and a road having been constructed right in the middle of the wide sandy beach. I stopped for breakfast at a fast food joint right behind the temple.

Kunkeshwar Beach

Relive ‘Vijaydurg to Kunkeshwar’

It was only 11:30 am, and I was full of energy. With good road conditions and shorter hills, riding another 50 km to Malvan was very achievable. I just had to be sure to keep hydrating myself under the afternoon sun.

Just as I left Kunkeshwar, I was greeted with a big climb, the last 100 m climb of the route until Goa. I kept riding through sparsely populated villages until I reached the village of Munage. Here, I had the option to go forward and try and make a river crossing to Achara Beach, or turn inland with the highway and cross the Achara river over the bridge. Most villagers I asked said that a jetty did exist, but it would be very difficult to spot an operating boat on this side at that time of the day. Furthermore, I couldn’t find any record on Strava or the internet of any cyclist having taken this route. If I didn’t get a boat to take me across, I would have to climb all the way back up to Munage in the torrid heat. This deterred me as I turned inland, and I chose a stony off-road trail instead of the highway. I probably chose this trail just to feed my adrenaline, which was more than satisfied as I navigated steep drops and a narrow bushy path until I re-joined the highway right before the bridge.

Coconut grove along the Achara river

It was now 2 pm, but the road ahead was wide, flat and of excellent quality. On the flip side, I was accompanied by light truck and bus traffic on the route for the first time since Mumbai. As I had a nariyal paani, I thought I could push myself until Malvan and have a big meal there instead of breaking for lunch near Achara.

The road was getting flatter as I got closer to Malvan and was lined by trees on both sides. I zipped through and rolled into the town of Malvan at 4 pm.

The town was entirely flat and I was finding this topography rather bizarre after being accustomed to constant undulation since Mumbai. There were also crossroads and some light traffic congestion to deal with, but thankfully no traffic lights.

What struck me was the number of people on bicycles. From elderly women to school kids, everyone in Malvan appeared to be casually riding a bicycle. I decided to head towards the southern beaches of Tarkarli, which seemed to have more homestay options.

I checked myself into Shree Ganesha Home Stay, got some chai and bhajiyas into my stomach and walked onto the golden sands of the beach with my book. There were a few tourists further down the beach, mainly around the official MTDC resort, but I was surrounded by nothing but golden sands and a few curious and friendly beach dogs.

Tarkarli Beach

Once the sun set I dusted myself off, left the beach, had a shower and joined the family running the home stay for dinner. The high culinary expectations I had of the region were surpassed, if not shattered.

I had really pushed myself with the day’s ride, and could finally afford to wake up a little later the next morning.

Relive ‘Kunkeshwar to Tarkarli’

Total distance: 92 km

Total riding time: 8 hours

Elevation gained: 986 m

Water crossings: None

Total travel costs: ₹ 0

Districts traversed: 1 – Sindhudurg

Day 7: Tarkarli to Vengurla

February 21st, 2018

With the Goa border only 67 km away, I decided to spend the morning by visiting Sindhudurg fort or a dive site around it. I would return for lunch to the homestay, and then ride to Vengurla, the last town before the border with Goa.

I woke up at 8 am, and rode back up from Tarkarli to Malvan’s Dandi beach. The first thing I noticed was the number of trucks on the beach. Instead of taking the road, trucks transporting fish seemed to prefer to cruise along the length of the beaches of Malvan.

Besides the small shacks offering water based activities mushrooming all over the beach and the frenetic truck activity, the beach was pristine. Forming quite a dramatic setting, Dandi beach and Wayari beach merged into a narrow isthmus that jutted out towards the island fort of Sindhudurg.

Sindhudurg Fort from Dandi beach

I approached one of the shacks, and asked if could rent a kayak and paddle out and around the fort. They said they had stopped renting out kayaks for security reasons.

A bit disappointed, I decided to settle for a tandem dive at a site next to the fort walls. I knew it would be commercial and would have preferred to dive freely at one of the highly-acclaimed spots further away. However, with my time constraints, this was the only way for me to discover the marine life that inhabited these waters.

I waited for 10 minutes as the men working at the shack opened a bottle of liquor (it was 10:00 am after all, a perfectly acceptable time to start drinking in the Konkan), when a boat approached the beach. I was ushered in with a bunch of excited tourists from Pune and we were taken to a larger boat that was harboured by the fort walls.

The divers took turns escorting the tourists on tandem dives. No lessons, tips or instructions were given of any kind. All we had to do is breathe and not move. While we waited, we were free to put on snorkels and float around the boat. As I had my first glimpse, I saw that the waters were teeming with life! Fish of every shape size and colour were abundant in and around the boat. The dive itself was brief but interesting as we saw some old stone idols and a lot of marine life in and around the bleached corals on the bedrock.

Sadly, I did not have time to visit the inside of the fort as I would have to return to the beach and take another boat to visit it.

I cycled the 6 km distance back to my homestay, and wolfed down another Malvani-styled thali. The delicious food was making it difficult for me to leave, but after half a day without riding to explore I was itching to get back onto the road. I bid my lovely hosts goodbye and was on the road by 1 pm.

Tarkarli beach was shaped like a long extension jutting southward, with the Arabian sea to the west and the Karli river to the east. This meant there was only one way in and out by road. Taking the inland bridge over the Karli would be a 22 km long diversion from the coast. Again, Strava’s heatmap told me that cyclists had previously crossed the Karli river from Tarkarli itself instead of taking the road bridge. That was all I needed to know as I rode towards the end of Tarkarli’s peninsula, towards Devbaug.

But when I arrived at the jetty next to the Mahapurush Temple, it seemed like the entire district had chosen to hibernate indoors, away from the afternoon sun. I looked at all the empty boats anchored by the riverside, hoping for someone to show up. An old man appeared dramatically, making clouds of smoke with his beedi. Looking at me stare at the other side of the river with my cycle, he was a bit confused at first. Once I explained, he offered to take me across for a hundred rupees.

Cycle in hand, I followed him as we hopped onto a large motorboat. He continued onto a smaller, rickety rowboat. As I wondered if it would float, he bent over and pulled a rope and the smallest boat on the river drifted towards us. I realised that this crossing was going to be interesting.

After about 15 minutes of rowing, we reached halfway across the river. The tidal current was quite strong and he masterfully used the oar as a lever against the tiny mud islands to navigate. The small landing of Korjai jetty was finally in sight on the other side. But he wanted to smoke another beedi right in the middle of this intense physical exertion. I held the oar for him as he lit up. Sensing the opportunity, I asked if I could row. He laughed and told me I could try. A few strokes later I realised it was far more technical compared to the two oared boats I was accustomed to. I rowed until he finished smoking and returned the oar to him.

Crossing the Karli river

He dropped me at Korjai jetty, from where there was a steep climb right up to Chipi where a new airport to serve Sindhudurg district was under construction. Clouds of dust rose all around the site as truck after truck dumped debris, making it difficult to breathe. It was so dusty that the harsh afternoon sun rays were almost entirely blocked out.

After the airport, I was back in isolated country. I passed through the towns of Parule and Mhapan, where traffic was sparse. Life seemed even more laid back and relaxed if that were possible. Mango trees and plantations were far fewer than up north.

After a stretch of relatively flat terrain until Mhapan, there was now a series of big climbs before Vengurla. Road conditions were excellent, and with the heat subsiding, it was only getting easier to climb. Children returning from school cheered me on, giving me all the energy and motivation I needed.

As the sun got lower, I was passed by several cavalcades of foreign travellers on scooters. They were on their way back to Goa after a day spent in Maharashtra in pursuit a peaceful and isolated beach. Going by their sheer numbers I was already dreading the chaos on the other side of the border.

I reached Vengurla by 5:30 pm. As the length and breadth of Goa’s coasts are approaching total saturation, a spill-over of tourism from Goa is slowly creeping into Vengurla. This meant fewer homestay options and more resorts. The prices at some of the resorts were atrocious. I headed to the southern end of Vengurla beach, where it was a bit a more isolated. Somehow, I managed to find a lodge offering makeshift beachside huts less for an extremely reasonable price.

Once again, I head out to the beach for a sunset swim. Due to the lack of rocks, Vengurla beach was excellent for swimming. I made friends with a couple of beach dogs as they protected my bag from strangely aggressive crows, expecting to be rewarded. I gave them a banana each and returned to my hut.

Dinner at the was a slight disappointment as compared to the high standards set by Malvan, but satisfying nonetheless. I booked a bus ticket back from Goa to Mumbai for the next evening and went to bed.

Vengurla Beach

Relive ‘Tarkarli to Vengurla’

Total distance: 42 km

Total riding time: 4:30 hours

Elevation gained: 516 m

Water crossings: 1 – Tarkarli to Korjai

Total travel costs: ₹ 100

Districts traversed: 1 – Sindhudurg

Day 8: Vengurla to Mapusa, Goa

February 21st, 2018

I woke up to see the sunrise on the beach. A cool northern breeze blew over as the sun peeked through the wall of casuarina trees shielding the beach. Brahminy kites and seagulls soared high above, trying to spot a meal in the morning light. Crabs of various colours and sizes scurried in and out of their holes on the beach. Since I had left Mumbai, I had motivated myself by the very thought of arriving in Goa successfully. After every pedal, I had told myself that I was closer to my target. Reaching Goa was a dream I was sleeping and waking up to. But in that moment on the beach, all I wished for was another 500 km of unexploited, pristine coastline before I reached Goa. There was only 25 km.

I left Vengurla at 7:30 am, and rode southwards. There was one big climb out of Vengurla, after then the terrain would be much flatter. I gave it my all as I tore through the descent past the small village of Mochemaad. As I passed Naichiad I spotted a church on the road, for the very first time since Mumbai. I rode past Shiroda and arrived at Aronda junction within an hour.

From here, I could either ride down to the Goan exclave of Terekhol and then take a ferry across the Terekhol river to Querim, or turn left and cross over the Aronda bridge into Goa. Terekhol was famous for its 17th century fort overlooking the river, but since the fort had been recently converted into a luxury hotel, I decided against visiting it and turned towards the bridge instead.

A few kilometres later, the border checkpost at Aronda appeared and I could see the bridge and Goa on the other side. 8 days of cycling and 561 km later, here I was. A message left in 2016 by a cycling group called TOD (Tour of Deccan) welcomed me to the state.

Maharashtra-Goa border

While the bridge had taken me to another state in the same country, it felt like I was in another continent. Signboards and roadside advertisements that were in Marathi, were now all in Russian. I knew that Russians controlled much of the land and trade (both legal and illegal) in these northerly parts of Goa, but I was taken aback by the profundity of their presence.

It was only 9:30 am but the roads were packed to capacity with tourists on scooters whizzing around in every direction. And these roads were considered the most isolated in North Goa. Funnily, I was the only one on two wheels wearing a helmet. I had to deal with yet another change – instead of respect and space offered by fellow motorists, I was now being pushed to ride on the side of the road by impatient tourists in jeeps.

I rode on south towards Arambol beach, as the rice plantations slowly disappeared and hotels and resorts sprung up on every inch of land. At 10 am, I reached at a beach shack at Mandrem beach where I got a celebratory beer and breakfast.

Celebratory beer at Mandrem

Celebratory beer at Mandrem

Relive ‘Vengurla to Mandrem’

Mandrem beach was beautifully located with a clean tidal river flowing towards the sea. The beach itself was surprisingly clean. I spent the rest of the morning and the afternoon at the cafe as I watched the tide change directions in the river. My bus back to Mumbai was at 8 pm from Mapusa, 23 km away.

I left Mandrem by 5:15 pm, and rode through crowds at Ashwem and Morjim on my way to Mapusa. As I crossed over the bridge from Morjim to Siolim, the signs and advertisements in Russian switched to English as I was well and truly in the heart of India’s most touristic parts.

I arrived at the bus stand an hour early, and waited by the side of the road until it was time to board. I took a mental picture of the bus stand and promised myself that I would return to that very spot on a bicycle.

There was another 1100 km on the western coast between Mapusa and Kanyakumari.

Relive ‘Mandrem to Mapusa’

Total distance: 58 km

Total riding time: 4:30 hours

Elevation gained: 592 m

Water crossings: None

Total travel costs: ₹ 0

Districts traversed: 2 – Sindhudurg, Maharashtra; North Goa, Goa

Afterword

Finally, after 584 km of riding through the Konkan, I had an answer to the question I had before I set out on this journey. Was it worthwhile visiting coastal Maharashtra?

Yes, and I now consider it to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world! I hope that through my words and pictures, I was able to share with readers some of the incredible cultural, environmental and historical wonders that lie along Maharashtra’s Konkan coast.

But why is tourism in coastal Maharashtra is not marketed as much as Goa?

Of course, a direct comparison would be unfair to both regions, but a major factor in my opinion is the relative isolation of coastal Maharashtra. Due to the hilly nature of the terrain and lack of major entry points, arriving at any beach destination on the Konkan coast from Mumbai or Pune still consumes the significant part of a day.

Things are changing rather quickly though. Tourism is growing exponentially in and around a few pockets such as Dapoli and Malvan, as more roads and bridges are built in the region. The airport being constructed in Sindhudurg is expected to open by the end of 2018. Sensing the potential, some politicians have even made comments about constructing a wide, commercial highway sticking to the coastline – a potential environmental nightmare.

An increase in the number of tourists brings in more opportunities for big hotels and resorts, many of which have bought large amounts of land and have begun to clear large sections of forest and mangroves to construct their facilities. Rarely does the influx of tourist money trickle down to the locals when big hotel and resort chains are set up in a developing area. The worries don’t end there. Dolphin sighting tours are often harmful to marine life. Waste disposal facilities do not exist anywhere, while shops selling plastic products are everywhere. Many reckless tourists find it adventurous to drive their vehicles on the beach, causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem.

Tourism cannot be stopped. But the thing visitors to the Konkan must learn is that most of the locals already live a very peaceful and ideal life. Hence, tourism has to be beneficial to their lives, and not disruptive. If we allow tourism to grow unchecked, we risk losing the invaluable heritage of the region forever.

For a sustainable model of tourism development to be applied across the region, the government does not need to look further than the Konkan’s very own Velas village. All of Velas’ accommodation options are homestays run by locals, while the village has evolved into a hub for eco-tourism where every local understands and appreciates the value of protecting and preserving their heritage. Our collective heritage as a species.

Thank you for reading this far. I went on to continue this journey and ride from Goa to Kanyakumari. You may read about my journey from Goa to Kanyakumari here:

Goa to Kanyakumari : Part I

Goa to Kanyakumari : Part II

For part I of the Mumbai to Goa ride, click here:

Mumbai to Goa: Part I

23 May

Konkan Cycling Diaries: Mumbai to Goa – Part I

This post is the first part of my solo cycloexpedition from Mumbai to Goa. Once you have read Part I, you may access Part II by clicking on this link.

“I’ve never been to a beach destination in Maharashtra despite living here for most of my life. On the other hand, I’ve been to Goa over 15 times. How did that happen?”

I had been pondering over this question much more in the past few months than I did in my adolescence. Was coastal Maharashtra’s allure affected by a lack of infrastructure, was there an absence of marketing efforts or was it just that Goa had more to offer? Since Maharashtra’s coastline was seven times longer, I knew that the last possibility could not be true. I realised that in order to seek answers I would have to explore the coastline of Maharashtra by myself.

Now, during my time living in global megacities such as Santiago de Chile or Paris, I’d been commuting by bicycle for reasons including health as well as time and money saved on transport. So as soon as I moved back to Mumbai half a year ago, I bought a bicycle to explore routes in and around the megapolis. Many thought this was a terrible idea. If not the traffic conditions, the weather isn’t ideal they said. But I found that except for the two months of April and May, weather on the tropical island of Mumbai is very agreeable in the mornings and evenings. Perfect for riding and far better than many Northern European nations where large percentages of the population commute by bicycle. Rain is strictly limited to the monsoon months and with the right gear it’s not much of a hindrance either.

But to cycle while travelling across a region? Over the years, I’ve found that cycling is an excellent medium to connect with a region as it relentlessly compels you to employ all your senses which themselves are spiked to their maximums with adrenaline. From an explorer’s perspective, it’s cheap and easy to stop and take diversions with. And in coastal Maharashtra, a cycle goes almost everywhere a person can walk. If I was to explore the coast, it was going to be on a bicycle.

After a few clicks on the internet, it seemed like a decent number of cyclists been on this route previously. Most had done it in groups. A few had done it by themselves, as I planned to. To be honest, I had no idea what would come across my path or what path I would take on the expedition. Perhaps this wanderlust, this desire to lose myself within my own home state was the single biggest motivation for me to embark upon this journey.

If you’ve read this far, you might have noticed the use of the words explorer or expedition. This is because I strongly believe that all of us can be explorers. Also, expeditions don’t have to be in remote and uninhabited lands. The thirst to explore and learn something new is all it takes to make one an explorer or go on an expedition. It doesn’t matter if others have explored the same region before, because every expedition will conjure up unique, emotions and perspectives.

Read on as I plan this solo cycloexpedition in order to seek answers and discover what the coastline of Maharashtra had to offer.

The terrain of the Konkan

Two brief, but very relevant geography lessons.

The first is etymological. The coastal districts of Maharashtra, Northern Karnataka and all of Goa form a region known as the Konkan (Sanskrit for corner piece). The Konkan’s culture, language and people are all named such, especially in Maharashtra.

The second is more technical. Coastlines can either be submergent or emergent, formed by the relative submergence or emergence of the land with respect to the sea. And all of peninsular India’s coastline, barring the Konkan coast is emergent. Common features of emergent coastlines include sand bars, spits, coastal lagoons and river deltas. These generally make for a flat ride.

On the other hand, the submergent Konkan coast is filled with cliffs, mountains, inland plateaus and many many short and fast flowing rivers that form deep estuaries. In fact, the terrain is so rugged that the Konkan was the last major stretch in sub-Himalayan India to be connected by the railways, in an incredible feat of engineering that connected Mumbai and Goa by rail only as recently as 1998. This train journey is now considered one of the most scenic routes in India.

Route planning

To get to Goa from Mumbai, I had the choice of these three routes at my disposal:

The three land routes from Mumbai to Goa.

The three land routes from Mumbai to Goa.

1) National Highway 48 (in red) – Running from Delhi to Chennai via major cities such as Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, this road witnesses a lot of high speed traffic. In Maharashtra, it mainly runs through the rain shadow of the Western Ghats, on the relatively high altitude of the Deccan Plateau. The best way to get to Goa from Mumbai by car, and the worst by bicycle.

2) National Highway 66 (in green) – This infamous highway winds through coastal Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, all the way from Panvel on the outskirts of Mumbai to Kanyakumari. Formerly NH 17 before all National Highway’s in India were renumbered, this hilly two-laned highway is characterised by many ascents and descents, sharp turns and heavy truck traffic. It’s high fatality rate made it a certain no-go for me.

3) Maharashtra State Highway 4 (in blue) –  also known as the Sagari Mahamarg (Coastal Highway) –  The existence of this road is a bit obscure but most maps display a road from Mandwa Jetty near Mumbai all the way to Vengurla, the last town in Maharashtra before the border with Goa. Even as it hugs the shore, it is regularly broken by deep estuaries. The authorities have built many bridges over these estuaries in recent years. But in many cases, the only way across is by boat. This was the road I planned to take.

Preparations & gear

I decided that I would require 7-8 days to complete this cycloexpedition, with some time to visit and explore each destination. As I couldn’t take more than 5 days off work in one go, I decided to break my journey in two phases of 4 days each. The first phase would take me from Mumbai to Ratnagiri and the second from Ratnagiri to Goa.

Physically, I had been training regularly. I had been on a multi-day cycloexpedition only once before, a 128 km long circumambulation of Pawna and Mulshi lakes that had taken 2 days. But I had been completing 40-50 km long rides on a weekly basis through the islands of North-western Mumbai, and was feeling fairly fit, especially on climbs.

My equipment included my mountain bicycle – a Fomas MTB 3.0 King – known now as the Coastslayer, a cycling helmet, one spare tube, one screwdriver tool kit, two pairs of riding clothes, one pair of pajamas, one pair of shoes, two bottles of water, two portable chargers, my cell phone, a DSLR camera, a GoPro, a book and lots and lots of homemade health bars.

All my gear fit into one top tube pannier pouch and a small 20 litre backpack.

Day 1: Mumbai to Diveagar

January 14th, 2018

On the morning of Makar Sakranti, I left from my Vile Parle home at 5:30 am in the morning. A few minutes later I was at Vile Parle Station where I got onto the luggage compartment of a refreshingly empty suburban local train. 40 minutes later, I arrived at Churchgate Station from where I rode another few kilometres to get to the jetty at the Gateway of India.

Of the several companies that ferry passengers from the Gateway of India to Mandwa, Ajanta is the only one that operates in the early hours of the morning. I paid ₹85 for my ticket and another ₹100 for the bicycle on board the Ajanta ferry, which departed promptly at 7 am.

About halfway through our 40 minute long journey across the Mumbai harbour, something magical happened.

Just as the sun rose above the morning mist, we saw two dolphins spin out of the water on the horizon. I had seen leopards and flamingoes in Mumbai before, but I never fathomed that the city’s murky waters were also host to these highly sentient aquatic mammals!

This short-lived moment was followed by something equally disastrous. Some tourists who were already enticed by the hungry sea gulls surrounding our boat, hesitated no more as they threw plastic packets of chips and cups of chai straight into the sea hoping that it would attract the dolphins. Of course it didn’t. I spoke to a few of the people who took part in this act and they believed they were committing a noble act by feeding the marine creatures. The fact that they were causing irreparable damage to the environment never crossed their minds.

Enroute Mandwa from Mumbai

At 7:50 am, I was out of the orderly Mandwa jetty and on the road to Alibaug, short on sleep and slightly annoyed due to the incident on the ferry. A sip of water, a health bar and a banana later, I was off towards Goa, with my heart-pumping and the only thing on my mind being the road ahead of me.

It only took ten minutes for disaster to strike. I had been warned before purchasing my basic, entry-level mountain bicycle that it could break apart any moment, but I had hoped that moment wouldn’t arrive during its first year. Bizarrely, the screw that connected the seat rod to the seat just snapped in half, which meant the seat was completely dislodged. I walked on with the cycle by my side in a futile hope to find a repair shop that would have the exact spare part, even as I contemplated the harsh reality of having to abandon my plans and return to Mumbai.

A few minutes later, I came across a hardware store that was just opening its shutters. I guessed that a regular 10-12 mm screw might just work and it did! Not just that, it was far sturdier than before. These repairs cost me a total of ₹8.

My plans back on track, I swiftly made my way through the town of Alibaug until I reached the town of Revdanda. This was the flattest section of the entire journey and I clocked over 20 km/hr despite moderate traffic and the usual morning chaos on the roads in and around Alibag.

After a quick vada-pav-and-chai breakfast in Revdanda town, I went to quickly glance at the ruins of the Portuguese-built Revdanda Fort. I didn’t spend much time there, but it looked like its centuries-old walls had many stories they’d like to tell. From a photographer’s perspective, the fort’s crumbling church tower and beach-side walls made for a very dramatic setting.

Revdanda Fort

Revdanda Fort

Leaving Revdanda at 12:30 pm I finally encountered the real challenge of the expedition – an uphill climb under the mid-day sun. Fortunately, this one wasn’t too hard as the green cover of Phansad Wildlife Sanctuary provided me with shade and refreshingly cool temperatures. I rode on and the golden sands of Kashid beach came into view an hour later.

Being a Sunday, the main entrance to the popular Kashid beach was extremely crowded. Famished, I headed straight for a khanaval to the south of the beach and rewarded myself with a delicious Konkani thali.

Relive ‘Mandwa to Kashid ‘

My energy replenished, I made my way towards the jetty of Agardanda where I had another ferry to catch. It was 2:30 pm and I had to catch the 4:15 or 5 pm ferries. Taking the one at 5:45 pm would mean riding the last stretch in complete darkness. As I had around 27 km to cover until the jetty I wasn’t very worried. I should have been.

The journey south from Kashid was excellent as I climbed hill after hill, with each descent rewarding me with panoramic views of pristine beaches and picturesque fishing villages. The road was smooth and a nice sea-breeze had set in. Just a few hours from Mumbai, just being here was very liberating.

As the imposing island fort of Janjira came into view, it struck me that I was in the erstwhile land of the Siddis. The Siddis were an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) people who had set up their own kingdom right here on India’s Western Coast, one of the rare instances where sub-Saharan Africans have set up their empire outside of the African continent. This intermingling of races, religions and cultures in the same town was a microcosm of the incredibly diverse history and culture of India’s Western Coast.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to visit the fort of Janjira, but I knew that I would be back to explore it properly due to its proximity to Mumbai. Now, because of the numerous photo-breaks I had taken, I was now racing against the clock to catch the 5 pm ferry from Agardanda. I had 15 minutes left and a little under 5 km to go.

Going past the town of Murud, just before the enchanting Khokari tombs where many Siddi Nawabs are buried, I crossed a set of ancient African Baobab trees. These trees most probably had been brought in and planted by Arabian or African traders many, many centuries ago. That the Western coast of India had historically witnessed high and significant volumes of sea trade was a known fact, but to see so many diverse relics of its splendour at the same spot was truly mesmerising.

I began to see how unfair it was for me to stereotype and compare coastal Maharashtra with Goa when every town and village in this region had so many of their own tales to tell.

An ancient Baobab tree near the Khokari tombs

An ancient Baobab tree near the Khokari tombs

Somehow, after being on the absolute verge of giving up the 5 pm ferry, I arrived at Agardanda jetty with no breath and 3 minutes to spare. I paid ₹47 for me and the cycle for the 15-minute-long ride to Dighi. The ferry departed right on time as I fuelled up with another health bar and mentally prepared myself for the last stretch of the day.

The jetty at Dighi was a gateway to another world. Very few tourists that thronged Kashid and Murud came this far south. I was now being greeted and cheered on by many locals who seemed quite excited at seeing an Indian citizen cycling alone on this route. As it got darker and my energy drained, this constant encouragement was a big motivation to climb the hill south of Dighi – the biggest climb of the day.

A few minutes past 7 pm, my wheels rolled into Diveagar. The entire village was filled with homestays and guest houses which were all entirely empty at the time. I had planned my journey in a way that I would avoid the weekend rush, but I hadn’t expected deserted resort towns. Upon asking a few locals, I ended up getting a good deal at Soham Guest House.

I had another scrumptious Konkani thali for dinner at Patil Khanaval and went straight to bed. It had been one of the longest days of my life.

Relive ‘Kashid to Diveagar’

Total distance: 110 km

Total riding time: 8:30 hours

Elevation gained: 788m

Water crossings: 2 – Mumbai (Gateway) to Mandwa; Agardanda to Dighi

Total travel costs: ₹232

Districts traversed: 3 – Mumbai (suburban); Mumbai (city); Raigad

Day 2: Diveagar to Murud Beach (Dapoli)

January 15th, 2018

I left my guest house at 7:30 am with a plan to reach the ferry crossing from Bagmandla to Veshvi before the afternoon heat set in, at which point I would establish my destination for the day.

The cool morning air was a bit hazy with the locals sweeping leaves off their courtyards and setting small mounds of them on fire to get rid of them. I exited Diveagar on a part-mud, part-cement road parallel to the beach. I then went past the fishing village of Bharadkol as I faced my first big climb of the day.

For the first time since Mumbai I faced bad, bumpy roads.

These potholed roads made the descent almost as painful as the ascent as I cursed myself for not having invested in cycling gloves or handlebar grips to sustain the shocks my hands were receiving. However, the cliff-side views of the sea right before Aravi beach took all thoughts of pain away.

Aravi beach is a 3.5 km long stretch of sand with relatively very little human habitation or resorts around. In my opinion, the closest truly isolated beach to the south of Mumbai.

The isolated Aravi beach

The isolated Aravi beach

After spending some time on this pristine beach, I rode on towards the popular coastal towns of Shrivardhan and Harihareshwar, but decided to skip visiting them as I was already behind schedule. As I approached Shrivardhan, the road quality went from terrible to excellent as I effortlessly climbed small hills while maintaining a steady pace.

I stopped for breakfast right before the road turned in towards Harihareshwar. Upon checking the map, I saw that there was a much shorter route via Kolmandale if I bypassed Harihareshwar altogether. In my haste, I didn’t check the elevation profile of the hill in front of me. As it became terribly hot around 10:45 am, the climb became more and more relentless. I absolutely had to get the 11:30 am ferry across, as the next one would only be an hour later and I hadn’t even stopped for lunch yet.

Coconut groves near Srivadhan

Coconut groves near Srivadhan

The most draining part of this climb was that even after a series of switchbacks, the ascent didn’t end. I kept climbing under the scorching sun onto an open plateau. This was the village of Kolmandale. I now had less than 10 minutes to get to the ferry and the descent was finally in sight! The road opened to a wide view of the Savitri river and I could see passengers and vehicles slowly boarding the ferry. I let go of my brakes entirely as I tore through the slope and made it to the ferry with a minute or two to spare. This was the second time I cut it close with the ferry crossings.

Relive ‘Diveagar to Bangmandla’

As my heartbeat calmed on the ferry, I realised I had a big decision to make up ahead. I had studied the map extensively via Google Earth and I knew I had to cross the Bharja river before I got to Kelshi. From Kelshi the road was rather straightforward on to Murud Beach, my target destination for the day.

The route suggested by Google, the only plausible one, was to take a left and then go further inland where a bridge existed. I really wanted to take the coastal route via the village of Velas, famous for its annual turtle festival. Visiting Velas and then taking the bridge would have meant at least another hour of cycling through very hilly terrain. This would have certainly resulted in me not reaching my day’s destination.

Now, sometime during the end of 2017, Strava, a popular software used to map rides had compiled all its user information in a compiled global heatmap. What this meant was I could now see every ride made on Strava in the world.

Out of curiosity, I checked to see what route the riders before me had taken. While almost every rider had chosen to take the long and winding land route, there were indeed a few that had taken the coastal route via Velas and crossed over to Kelshi by boat!

So as soon as I got off the boat at Vesavi jetty, I asked around if there was any chance of getting a boat to get to Kelshi. Most bus and lorry drivers said there was no such service, and I would have to come back the same way if I headed towards Velas. Some said that at times a service exists, but you need to call the fishermen in advance to arrange for a boat to take you across.

Dejected, I was about to take the inland route, when one of the lorry drivers got off the phone with someone and told me there was a possibility of a boat being there to take people across! This one semi-endorsement of my route was enough to get me racing towards Velas.

Turning right from Vesavi, I went on through the fishing village of Bankot, and onto one of the most dramatic roads I have ever been on in my life. It was a thin stretch of dirt road wedged between high cliffs to the left and the sea and river crashing into each other on the right. By now, there was little doubt in my mind about the coastal splendours that the state of Maharashtra offered.

Fifteen minutes later, the village of Velas appeared, cradled between the sea and the mountains. There was no activity on the village streets and no one in sight. The only I found open was Uphadhye Homestay. I asked if they could serve me lunch, and they said they could only offer me basic chapatti and bhindi. After a few heavy Konkani thalis the previous day, this was just what I wanted.

Lunch amidst the family and their son was an incredibly humbling affair. Food was absolutely delicious, particularly the freshly made coconut chutney they served me.

Over lunch, it took us less than ten minutes to become friends.

Omkar, who runs the homestay along with his wife Mrunal, told me about the village and its famous turtle festival. He went on to tell me about their love for the environment and the commitment of the villagers to ensure tourism is sustainable. The owners of the homestays help each other and organise regular village and beach clean ups. Hearing about such ideals and morals in this tiny village made me realise that it is a complete fallacy to assume knowledge and progressive development are only restricted to big urban centres.

Regarding the route, Omkar told me that he could not guarantee there would be a boat to ferry me across but there was a chance of one. He said that the road ahead was densely forested and was where he had been attacked by a leopard when he was younger, but during the day there was nothing to worry about.

Going past the beach, which had informative boards teaching visitors about the local flora and fauna, I climbed a hill filled with mango trees from top to bottom. An obvious indication that I had now crossed into the famed Ratnagiri district.

As I crested the hill, Kelshi beach and the river I had to cross came into view. Below me, I could see a small bauxite mining operation. I rode down and asked if there was someone who could take me across. The only man there pointed to a boat and told me that once they were done with work for the day, they would go back across the river and would take me too. Even though my wait could be anything between 15 minutes and an hour, it was much lesser than the alternative. I was relieved.

Relive ‘Bagmandla to Sakhari ‘

Surely enough, after about 30 minutes an old man and two children appeared, pulled the boat out of the low tide and called me over. I hoisted my bicycle into the tiny boat and hopped in. Five minutes later, I got off onto a sand bar on the other side and rode through Kelshi village, which felt like a strange welcome back to civilisation.

The boat that took me across to Kelshi

The boat that took me across to Kelshi

From here I had a relatively flat ride to Murud beach through mangroves and small coastal villages. After passing by Anjarle, approaching Harnai, I began to see advertisements for hotels and resorts everywhere. The proximity of these beaches to the popular getaway of Dapoli has resulted in an abundance of resorts and homestays cropping up, especially in recent years.

Too late for me to visit the glorious sea fort of Suvarnadurg, I visited Harnai beach to see its fish market – one of the most incredible sights I have ever witnessed.

This is how the market works. The day’s fresh catch is transported onto smaller boats from the trawlers anchored down the bay. Bullock carts then enter the waves to bring the fish ashore and dump them right onto the beach to be sold. As a result, fish purchased by customers is as fresh as it can get. There are no fixed structures, no organisers or support staff. This massive popup market appears by itself every morning and evening, and disappears just as quickly.

Harnai Fish Market

Harnai Fish Market

I rode on a few more kilometres to Murud Beach and settled into a beachside homestay. I spent the rest of my evening reading on a hammock as the sun set and stars began to fill the night sky. In the distance the outline of Survanadurg and Harnai bay could be soon. Just a few hours from Mumbai by car, life here seemed to belong a completely different planet.

Dinner was again an excellent coastal affair. The solkadi served at my homestay was the best I had ever had, and I couldn’t stop myself from taking 3 additional refills.

Relive ‘Kelshi to Harnai’

Total distance: 79 km

Total riding time: 6:45 hours

Elevation gained: 836m

Water crossings: 2 – Bangmandla to Veshvi; Sakhari to Kelshi

Total travel costs: ₹90

Districts traversed: 2 – Raigad, Ratnagiri

Day 3: Murud Beach (Dapoli) to Velaneshwar

January 16th, 2018

The next morning I left my homestay once again at 7:30 am as I made my way along the coast, crossing Karde and Ladghar beaches. I avoided a long and very hilly detour via Dapoli by taking this route, even though most of the route was just a bumpy dirt road.

Through dramatic coastal scenery – the sea to my right and cliffs to my left, as always when heading south, I made my way to Ladghar beach without crossing a single car, lorry or motorbike. The only noises were the chirps of hundreds and thousands of birds waking up and the waves crashing onto the cliffs and beaches. It was one of the most serene mornings I had ever spent.

From Ladghar I had to take the SH-4 again. Looking at the map of the area, I saw that the route took a diversion to meet the highway because a small river separated Ladghar village from it. It made sense that a small pedestrian bridge should exist for the villagers to cut across, and upon zooming in onto Google Maps, I found one. Asking a few school boys on their way to school how I could get there, they provided me with perfect directions. I soon found myself riding through a narrow ridge between two paddy fields, across the bridge and onto the highway. This shortcut saved me around 4 km or 15 minutes of riding.

Shortcut from Ladghar to Tamastirth

Shortcut from Ladghar to Tamastirth

This incident made me realise how important it is to view mobile maps on satellite mode, not just while travelling, but also in everyday urban life. If we try to see and observe the terrain around us, who knows what we might encounter?

Now that I was unquestionably in the heart of the Konkan, today’s ride also had the most climbs in store for me. The terrain ahead involved a series of plateaus sliced by numerous small and large rivers, shaped such by high volumes of rainfall in the monsoon months. Typically, the slopes of each plateau were lush green and densely forested, while the plateaus themselves were mostly barren as trees had been cleared for farming. Valleys were filled with coconut, betel, banana and mango plantations, amongst others.

My average speed dropped from around 15-17 km/hr to around 10 km/hr as I climbed on endlessly from Tamastirth. What stopped me from giving up was me repeatedly telling myself that the descent would only be more enjoyable the higher up I went. It took me the greater part of an hour to get to the very top, from where a very enjoyable 15-minute-long downhill section got me to the tiny village of Panchanadi, almost at sea level.

I took a small break on the bridge crossing the river that sliced the valley to fuel up and then look for a source to refill my bottles of water. The two litres that they could hold had been completely exhausted for the first time on the expedition.

Looking around, I noticed the water of the river was incredibly calm and crystal clean! An egret looked to feed on small fish by the banks, populated by crabs of various sizes. The water itself was filled with multitudes of fish, the like of which I had never seen before. The road I was on was indeed the same state highway – SH-4. But there was no sign of a vehicle anywhere in these parts.

The crystal clean river flowing through Panchanadi

The crystal clean river flowing through Panchanadi

This made me wonder if this is how rivers in and around Mumbai must have appeared before construction activity and non-biodegradable waste became a big part of our lives, until Sameer appeared on his bicycle. A resident of Panchanadi, he saw me looking amazed at the water. With a proud smile on his face, he explained how the residents made efforts to keep it clean and discouraged settlements on the banks of the river. He invited me to his home and helped me refill my bottles of water. He even asked me to have lunch with him, but as I had the ferry to catch from Dabhol, I had to politely decline his invitation.

Having lived in big cities all my life, the pace of life in these parts was nothing like I had experienced before, but something felt strangely familiar.

As I learnt by now that the ferries departed almost exactly as per schedule, I could not make the 11.15 am ferry, but could manage the one departing at 12 pm easily. I climbed on for another 25 minutes until the SH-4 connected with another road coming in from Dapoli and the descent began. I was accompanied by light traffic all the way down to Dabhol.

Relive ‘Murud to Dabhol’

Dabhol was the biggest town I had come across after leaving Diveagar the previous day. Strategically located at the junction of where the Vashishti river met the Arabian sea, Dabhol was one of the biggest ports in the Konkan in the medieval era. Today, its erstwhile glory can only be seen in the stunning ruins of an ancient mosque built during the regime of the Adil Shahis.

As the town provides the only organised crossing of the Vashishti river after Chiplun – 50 km inland on the Eastern boundary of the Konkan, it has retained some of its importance in the region. The river itself is one of the biggest in the Konkan and hosts a population of muggers or riverine crocodiles further upstream.

I realised I had become accustomed to the solitude of the journey when I felt strange navigating through the maze of people near Dabhol’s bus stand as I finally arrived at the jetty at 11:50 am. I quickly drank a nariyal, grabbed a vada pav and rode onto the ferry.

A fishing boat crossing the Vashishti river; on the far right you can see Dabhol and the dome of its ancient mosque

A fishing boat crossing the Vashishti river; on the far right you can see Dabhol and the dome of its ancient mosque

Waters around Dabhol were clearer than anything I had seen further up north. A lot of factors contribute to this, but the blue shades of the water are of course dependent with the sky and air quality. And as I got further away from Mumbai, visibility and air quality was improving rapidly.

I disembarked at Veldur jetty, still early for lunch, and rode on towards Guhaghar. I crossed the massive and highly controversial Dabhol Power Plant, once partly owned by the infamous American power company – Enron. I later learnt that this was the site of India’s largest foreign investment at the time, and had witnessed many protests due to allegations of corruption and environmental hazards generated by the plant. It was as calm as it could get when I passed by.

I had one big and long climb before Guhaghar and it was difficult. A heat wave had just set in and the region was seeing the hottest temperatures of the year – in January! With the thick smog that had followed me within a few 100 km of Mumbai no longer shielding me, I felt the brutal impact of the direct sun like never before in my life. My phone told me it was 38 degrees, but it was certainly more on the heated tarmac.

Finally, around 10 km later, the road began to descend from the plateau down towards the sea. I zipped past mango orchards and as the descent ended, I found myself in the coastal resort town of Guhaghar.

Relive ‘Veldur to Guhaghar’

I had a massive lunch in a beachside restaurant and found sockets to charge my portable chargers. I had made good time and could afford to take a break. As I lay on the beach, with my sore body being massaged by the warm and golden sand, I was tempted to make Guhaghar my destination for the day. I decided to continue riding to make it easier to get to Ratnagiri the next day.

A cool sea breeze began to set in around 3:30 pm, my cue to leave if I had to reach Velaneshwar before sunset. Once again, I had two routes to choose from. The main SH-4 would take me inland, while a slightly shorter route ran along the coast. I could see the coastal route on the map, but Google refused to suggest it. I asked the owner of the restaurant about the best route by bicycle. It turned out that he was an avid cyclist as well!

He looked at my bicycle and its condition and was doubtful that it would make it via the shorter route. He warned me that the climb up on this route was extremely steep and the road on the other side was in bad shape. He also mentioned that the views of Guhaghar beach on this route would make the climb worth it – and that’s all I needed to hear! He was also kind enough to share the contact details of a homestay in Velaneshwar, in case I decided to spend the night there.

Guhaghar Beach

Guhaghar Beach

Going past the southern end of this narrow coastal town, I suddenly found myself in the wilderness again. As I headed further south the vegetation was getting denser and greener. The kind man from the restaurant was correct, this climb was hard. Burning every calorie from lunch, I somehow managed to ascend without getting off the bicycle – as I had conquered all climbs until now. Views of Guhaghar beach were stunning, as promised. I paused to take pictures, my only company being three Brahminy Kites gliding a few metres overhead.

His advice about the descent wasn’t correct though. He told me that the road was in bad shape, but in reality there was no road! The tarmac suddenly disappeared and a stony dirt-track took its place. It was time to test the suspension on my bicycle. A few exhilarating hairpin bends later, I was back down to sea-level with the glorious Palshet beach in front of me.

Palshet Beach

Palshet Beach

I had passed over 20 beaches in the past few days, but every new beach seemed to amaze me. Palshet was entirely deserted, with no hotel, hostel or homestay anywhere in its vicinity. A fleet of fishing boats was anchored just off the beach. The waves were so calm it felt like I could hear the entire bay breathe slowly.

A few minutes later, I saw a few local kids walking towards the beach with a football and cricket bat. Extremely jealous of them and their playground, I went on towards Velaneshwar.

The dirt road soon re-joined the highway, making the rest of the ride to Velaneshwar comfortable and smooth. Another big hill had to be climbed, and I climbed it quickly, motivated by the fact that it was the last bit of riding for the day. A smooth downhill section later, I found myself directly on the main entrance to Velaneshwar beach.

Velaneshwar Beach

Velaneshwar Beach

The homestay suggested to me by the restaurant owner from Guhaghar – Hotel Kalptaru, happened to be right behind me, wedged between Velaneshwar’s temple and the sea. Its location could not have been more convenient.

After checking in, I spent the rest of the evening swimming in the sea. Due to the shape of the beach and the lack of rocks, I was able to venture much further into the water than elsewhere. It was the best way to relieve my sore muscles.

Due to their affiliations with the temple, this homestay only served vegetarian fare. Managed at the time by a young boy and his grandmother, the food cooked by them filled my not only my stomach, but also my heart. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try the famous modaks made by them. Just like every other place I had stayed at, I was the only guest. The three of us spent another couple of hours post dinner exchanging stories from our lives.

Once again, I went to sleep under a starry sky, with only the sound of the waves in my ears. This was the only thing that remained constant on my journey.

Relive ‘Guhaghar to Velneshwar’

Total distance: 75 km

Total riding time: 7 hours

Elevation gained: 1057 m

Water crossings: 1 – Dabhol to Veldur

Total travel costs: ₹40

Districts traversed: 1 – Ratnagiri

Day 4: Velaneshwar to Ratnagiri

17th January, 2018

I left a little later than usual as I spent the morning watching the sun rise from the beach. My destination for the day was predetermined – I had to reach Ratnagiri by 5:30 pm to board my train back to Mumbai. However, I had around lesser kilometres to cover than the day before.

Leaving Velaneshwar at 7:55 am, I took the road leading out of the south of the town towards Hedavi as I climbed towards the SH-4 again. I had to catch a ferry from Tawsal after only 20 km, but to get there I had 4 moderately sized climbs to conquer.

This part of my journey was wonderfully isolated. In a flurry of morning aviary activity, I saw various species of kingfishers, the Indian roller bird and lots of Brahminy Kites. It was particularly refreshing to see elegant raptors such as the Brahminy Kites feeding on prey in the mangroves instead of scavenging on human refuse on the edge of towns and cities.

From left to right: A Kingfisher, Indian Roller and Brahminy Kite

From left to right: A Kingfisher, Indian Roller and Brahminy Kite

Out of sheer contrast, the massive towers of the JSW Coal Power Plant at Jaigad came into view as I crossed Rohile beach – another isolated beach with no sign of any human activity in and around it.

Just past 10 am I arrived at Tawsal jetty, surrounded by a grove of Casuarina trees with a clean and green creek flowing by it. Ferries from here across to Jaigad ran only once an hour and I had to wait for the 10:40 am ferry. I drank from an extremely sweet and refreshing coconut and had another vada-pav-and-chai breakfast. Soon enough, the ferry staff called for everyone to get on board.

As I glanced into the water from the ferry, something seemed strange. There were lumps of orange every 10 metres or so. The lumps seemed to be moving. At first I assumed there were some form of plastic waste, but upon closer inspection they were jellyfish! Hundreds of large, orange jellyfish were present all over these waters.

Mesmerised, I spent another 15 minutes on Jaigad jetty observing these beautiful sea creatures drift and move about with grace, their outstretched tentacles ready to grab any prey that came their way. In a few hours, I had seen some of nature’s most incredible creations, of colours one could only imagine. I had never seen or heard anything of this sort of bio-diversity existing on Maharashtra’s coasts.

Jellyfish at Jaigad Jetty

Jellyfish at Jaigad Jetty

Reminding myself that I had to get closer to Ratnagiri before I halted for lunch, I started climbing up from Jaigad jetty, past the JSW Coal Power Plant and a large township for its employees. I was taken aback seeing such a staggering amount of concrete. Then I realised I was headed back to Mumbai that evening.

An hour later, the road descended through mango orchards and I found myself by the coast again. I cycled along another isolated beach before the fishing village of Warwade came into view. Sheltered in the creek yet facing the open sea, this village was dramatically situated.

The fishing village of Warwade

The fishing village of Warwade

Life seemed so idyllic here, I wondered what large luxury hotel chains could bring to the local inhabitants of this region besides inequality and divide. Just as that thought crossed my mind, hoardings advertising 5-star resorts further down the road in Ganpatipule began to appear. The very same model of luxury tourism that had taken me to Goa in the past, now deeply repulsed me.

A few kilometres later, I arrived at the northern end of the relatively popular temple town and coastal resort of Ganpatipule. This part of the beach was called Malgund. After another splendid lunch at a local khanaval, I spent the afternoon gazing at multi-coloured crabs and translucent fish in the pristine tidal rock pools on the beach.

Rock pools, Malgund Beach, Ganpatipule

Rock pools, Malgund Beach, Ganpatipule

Relive ‘Jaigad to Ganpatipule’

As the mid-day heat began to subside, I left Ganpatipule at 2:30 pm and cycled towards Ratnagiri on what was to be the most dramatic segment of my journey yet. The road was almost always parallel to the coast, with a series of climbs opening to sweeping views of Ganpatipule, Aare and Waare beaches. A coconut water vendor on one of these panoramic lookouts told me that this coastal road was relatively new, laid after a bridge linking Aare and Waare beaches was constructed.

Looking down upon Aare Beach

Looking down upon Aare Beach

The forthcoming impact of this connectivity to some of the best preserved beaches in peninsular India scared me, but my fears were slightly alleviated upon seeing constant boards in various languages reminding travellers to respect their natural surroundings.

At 4:30 pm, I rolled into Ratnagiri town. I rode to a spot closer to the centre from where it would be convenient for me to restart my journey. As the railway station was far from the city centre, and up a big hill, I chose to get there by rickshaw as a reward for having made it this far.

Me and the Coastslayer on our way to Ratnagiri station

Me and the Coastslayer on our way to Ratnagiri station

After boarding the train, all I could think/dream/fantasise about on my way back to Mumbai was the moment I’d be back in Ratnagiri, and back on the road again.

Relive ‘Ganpatipule to Ratnagiri’

Total distance riden: 64 km

Total riding time: 6 hours

Elevation gained: 1057 m

Water crossings: 1 – Tawsal to Jaigad

Total travel costs: ₹38

Districts traversed: 1 – Ratnagiri

Read Part II by clicking on this link.