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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.