Mark’s exceedingly good south India trip

South Indian biking basics

Summer temperatures, in the period before the monsoon starting in May, have been hot on the plains of South India this year; low 40s Centigrade, above blood heat and causing cows to die and Indians to be hospitalised. Retreating to the hill stations like the Brits of old, getting up early and drinking litres of water made biking a practicable proposition.

Although I had always intended to do some biking in India, I had forgotten my padded bike shorts, essential with Indian saddles looking like arm chairs but certainly not feeling anything like that comfortable. My first ride had not gone well and I had severely shredded my bum. Not a pretty sight, I promise (no photo)! My search for ‘tight shorts with padding on the bum’ had caused hysterics in a department store in Mysore. The assistant had tried to keep a straight face as I described what I wanted. Even the thought of anyone actually wearing tight padded shorts in unbearable temperatures proved too much. Her face cracked and she was soon explaining with disbelief to her co-workers what this crazy foreigner said he wanted!

Some improvisation was called for.

Yes, a pair of stretchy boxer shorts would hold padding in place, but what to use for padding? Brigid, my wife, to the rescue. Apparently, there are bath mitts used by some for exfoliating their skin. Why these should be padded I still don’t know, but clearly some are as the photo shows.

070505: Essential biking bum protection

Virtually all the bikes I rode in India were rubbish. Most easily obtained are your average town bike with curious 28 inch diameter wheels. They weigh a ton and have only a single gear and are cycled along at a very stately pace. Generally they don’t need brakes that work and having very limited rod operated brakes makes coming down hill ‘interesting’. Balanced against this was the later find of the trip, a Firefox up in the mountains of Kodagu.

Not only were the temperatures on the plains excessive, town traffic has its own ways of doing things and bikes and pedestrians are most definitely the bottom of the pecking order. Any pretence that there is a highway code that is actually followed would be considered a joke by Indian road users. It is better to think of the road as a free-for-all where powerful users can do what they want. As a lowly cyclist, it’s a matter of what motorbikes, cars, buses and lorries will let you do; while you do your best to stay alive. Turning right at roundabouts is ‘interesting’, but not too dangerous when you’ve got the hang of it. Traffic drives on the left in India – OK, that’s optional! But don’t expect a bike to have any priority just because you are already on the roundabout – . traffic will simply cut in front of you!

Keeping moving at even a stately speed means that you have a cooling draft of air. But the moment you stop, the lack of any breeze results in a ‘waterfall’ of sweat breaking out on your body from your forehead down. This reminds you that you are actually losing vast quantities of fluid even though you don’t notice it too much while riding. In the UK you may well have a Camelbak to keep you hydrated. Without one in the heat of India, every time I stopped it was best to aim to drink a litre of water. Periodic lime juices with added salt also prevented me from suffering too much from dehydration.

Thrills in the mountains – Kodai, Tamil Nadu

After town and city riding on the plains, biking at an altitude of 2,100m in Kodai was a relief. Kodai, a hill station in the Palani mountains in Tamil Nadu state, is part of the massive of the Western Ghats that stretch from north of Mumbai almost to the southernmost tip of India. Out on the bike before sun up on my trusty steed ‘Thriller’ (I jest not, that was its model name). OK, it’s not a ‘mountain bike’ as we know it. With just a single gear, made of all steel, as solid as a tank and about as heavy, the term ‘mountain bike’ is being somewhat stretched.

070503: My trusty steed, ‘Thriller’, complete with subtle ‘frame tape’ protection

Kodai is unusual as it is the only hill station in India set up by the Americans when missionaries founded a school for European children in 1901. This legacy lives on as the Kodai International School, giving the small town a very cosmopolitan feel, and while I was there they staged an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. Kodai is also a very popular with Indian tourists who take out cycles round the lake or, more popular, pedalos on the lake. More popular still are the ear muffs on sale. These are bought and worn with obvious joy by boys visiting from the stifling temperatures of the plains. The reason? Because they can – making a bizarre sight in blazing midday sun!

The rental bikes are not intended for serious biking and it pays to test out thoroughly before leaving town. I hired my bike from Kumar and had to take it back after I quickly discovered that the direction of the handlebars bore little relation to that of the front wheel. But nothing that a quick tighten of the headset wouldn’t cure!

07501: Palani mountains, Western Ghats

A quick spin out to Pambarpuram on the road, turn left at the Hindu Temple and then follow the river down a track to Vata Kanal. Vata Kanal is perched on a thin finger sticking out from the mountains and the track follows the sides of the finger taking hairpin curves with precipitous drops down. Best not to look. So far so good, downhill mainly, but then the uphill kicked in and this is where my trusty steed was proving more difficult to keep going. When the track turned to rock, smoothish slabs of granite, with a sand top-dressing, it was clear that if the journey was to continue on the bike was going to be parked up. It got pushed about as far as the of Vata Kanal’s ‘shop’ where I met the owner. As with most people I met, she was very keen to have her photo taken. Her head barely came up to my chest and it makes you realise just how tall we Europeans are. The journey continues on foot. Up the granite slabs and into woodland.See the use of bike transport to deliver quality food!

070504: Mark with friendly local shopkeeper.

07502: shola – woodland/ forest – Vata Kanal, near Kodai

Next day was more on-road: out to Pambarpuram again, but turn right up Fairy Falls Road and past more evidence of English and US hill station houses of old – Carlton House, River Cottage and Merton Lodge. On to Observatory Road and see the observatory itself on top of a hill above a Hindu temple with its riot of technicolour figures, deities, major and minor, lewd and more conventional. A hotel on the other side of the road is blasting out Bollywood pop music. I feel as though I’m in a film with the soundtrack on loud. Why the hotel is blasting out music, I don’t know – maybe a wedding celebration later in the day? Nobody else seems to be finding it strange or as totally surreal as it feels to me. I cycle away reluctantly. It’s hard to leave the pull of what feels like my scene in the film with its own Bollywood music soundtrack.

I am high above Kodai looking down on the town and its lake. I come down the road at a fair lick, but manage to limit my speed to 40–50 kph and brake further as I come behind a woman walking on my side down the road with her back towards me. She could do anything or step out at any time. The road bends sharply to the right and immediately I’m glad I braked. As I go round the bend a bus is revealed steaming up the hill in the middle of the road. I’m able to keep hard over to the side and get out of its way. Buses do not even consider giving way to bikes! There but for the grace of somebody’s god! Even though I’ve left the Bollywood soundtrack behind me, I still feel I’m in someone’s film. Not so much surreal this time, more very connected.

Coming up the hill into town I race a bus. I hold level even though my lungs are fit to burst as I pedal my very heavy bike up the hill. Slowly, I manage to gain on the bus, drawing up to its front. The conductor hangs out of the door and is enjoying the race very much. The bus beats me to the top of the hill, but has to slow down to a snail’s pace to go over speed bumps. I could easily have caught and overtaken it here, but what sort of a victory would that have been? I let him drive off ahead of me feeling a warm glow of superiority.

Mark finds a Firefox in the Kodagu mountains, Karnataka

3160: A far more trusty steed

I hired bikes throughout the whole trip, mainly standard town bikes which were uniformly rubbish. Undoubtedly, the find of the trip was the aluminium framed Firefox Cyclone with working V-brakes and gears! A room in the middle of a coffee plantation is normally a relatively expensive. Luckily, I had found myself one at a reasonable price and was already enjoying walking in the mountains. Imagine my surprise to see a collection of Firefoxes lined up and my delight when I discovered they were not to be used for the next week and I could have one for a few days!

So started my early morning 20km before breakfast rides and my post-breakfast longer rides of up to 50km. Without a map, navigation is a matter of guesswork and trial and error. It doesn’t matter that many wrong trails are taken as the aim is to travel and see the country. And what amazing country it is: early morning mists before the sun breaks through; forest and open mountainside trails; views across endless mountain ranges; woodland paths with flowers and plants we would only ever see indoors as pot-plants in the UK; rivers with waterfalls and swimming holes.

070510: Early morning mists before the sun breaks through 070508: Ideal trekking country

I cycle up through the plantation to the major junction from where all the higher trails fan out. Hammer down to a river and find, fortunately, the crossing is more than the log crossing I’d been told about. After exploring several valleys my hotel prepared packed-lunch – cucumber, tomato, boiled egg, bread, cheese, and jam – seems distinctly strange after two months of excellent Indian meals based on dhals, rice, paratha, dosas and so on.

Kodagu is only really opening up now. It is close to Bangalore and the middle class incomes of the IT workers which enable them to take holidays. Or, even more middle class, send their kids to a summer camp (that’s what the Firefoxes were for). Until recently the roads were so poor that they were regularly washed away by the annual monsoon. At this altitude of 1600m, the monsoon is 24 hour rain during what is euphemistically called the ‘rainy season’ lasting from June to November!

Kodagu is a relatively wealthy part of India. I was asked how many properties I owned. I had to confess to only owning one and no land – how humiliating! But it does import its cheap labour from all over the rest of India and ‘No child labour’ signs were a stark reminder of the poverty still common elsewhere in India. Some of the lanes and paths looked like an exotic version of Kent and the coffee estate names – ‘Honey Valley’ and ‘Green Acres’ – sounding more home counties than than south India!

So, would I recommend biking in the Western Ghat mountains? Well, in answer, if I could cover my fare out there, you wouldn’t see me for dust! I hope the photos give some idea of why.

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