Konkan Cycling Diaries: Mumbai to Goa – Part I
“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.
To get to Goa from Mumbai, I had the choice of these three routes at my disposal:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 crumbing church tower and beach-side walls made for a very dramatic setting.
Leaving Revdanda at 12:30 pm I finally encountered the big 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.
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 were 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, as 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.
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.
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.
Waters around Dabhol were clearer than anything I had seen further up north. I might not be correct, but my theory is that this had a lot to do with the sky and air quality. As I got further away from Mumbai, visibility and air quality was improving drastically.
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.
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.
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.
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 the Velaneshwar beach.
The homestay suggested to me by the restaurant owner from Guhaghar – Hotel Kalptaru, happened to 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.