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Malabar Cycling Diaries: Goa to Kanyakumari - Part I – Swadesee Experiences | Mohit Bagadia
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Swadesee / Travel  / Cycling  / Malabar Cycling Diaries: Goa to Kanyakumari – Part I

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

Mohit Bagadia

Comments:

  • Rushit Jogani
    March 28, 2020 at 12:50 am

    This is one of the best travelogues I have ever read. I hope to visit some of the beaches and homestays mentioned by you very soon and cannot wait for Part 2 of this adventure.

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