Nov 14 – Coimbatore
Today was a play with two acts. Act One had me leaving Kotagiri, at 1900 m donned in a sweater, my anorak and over gloves, for the first time since Northern Pakistan, even though the day was bright and sunny. The cold wind brought out my serious layers. For about 30 km I didn’t really have to pedal, but I did use my brakes almost continually, but not so that my hands ached. This is considered the gentle road into the Nilgiri, only seven switchbacks, compared to 19 through Coonoor and 36 on the road I came up on from Masinagudi. I passed through numerous villages and had endless panoramas. As I neared the escarpment there were over looks where I could see nothing in the haze except the precipitous drop into the jungle far below. I stopped frequently in keeping with my resolve not to have long days in these last two weeks and to try to savour the last of the Nilgiris, that I will leave in Act Two.
In Act Two, I removed my extra layers and entered Mettupalayam, leaving the peaceful cool world of the hills and jungle for the mayhem of Indian cities.
In the last six days I had lost some of my Indian road skills and was continually stressed by pedestrians wandering into the traffic, being cut off repeatedly by the same bus, the incessant blaring horns. It was basically all city riding into Coimbatore, which I did fairly quickly as the road was gently rolling. I had initially thought of riding on through to the next city, as the distance is not great, but again, I had made my resolve.
Coimbatore is a city of over a million and so finding my way into the centre, where I had a hotel reference was not fun. As I neared what I imagined could be the centre, I let my GPS get me close to the rail station, from where I found a nice but over priced hotel, where I will wait out the day. I hope tomorrow to be in a smaller somewhat more interesting place, possibly in the mountains again.
Today I rode 75 km, dropped 1600 m, and climbed 175 m.
Nov 15 – Marayoor
Leaving Coimbatore, heading towards Pollachi was of course city riding for the whole 40 km. I stopped after about 45 minutes at a bake shop and had tea and sweet rolls, not my favourite kind of breakfast but it did fill a bit of the cavity. Getting out of Pollachi went quicker and I was in country and could periodically see through the haze outlines of the mountains that I was heading towards. I was hoping to get into what my map labels as the Anamalai Hills, if not today then tomorrow.
I hit the turn off to the minor road leading into the hills at 75 km at a little before noon. I was hoping to find a place to stay part way along the road that would lead to the town of Munnar, another 90 km and 1100 m higher. On this road the hills now became increasingly more apparent, but I was still not climbing much. I was also hoping on getting some of the climbing out of the way today. Suddenly I hit a gate and the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary. The guards indicated that there would be no place to stay until Munnar, now 72 km away and still the full climb ahead. A kiosk guy indicated that no, there would be a lodge, I heard him say Marion Lodge, another 30 kms along, and that there was no place to stay close by. So off I went.
The road was immediately the single lane sealed type, with lots of pot holes. The trouble with this type road is that at no time can you go fast, even down hill, because you are weaving all over the road finding un-broken segments, and so it would be slow going, my 30 kms. The climbing began, initially up and down and later a continuous climb for many kilometers. I also began to meet quite a few vehicles, cars, and buses, which meant I was in the dirt or bouncing through the cavities.
About 13 km in, I hit the Kerala border and the road was better from there on in, but that was also when the serious climbing started. I now felt better, because it looked like I would be able to get to my prospective lodging before dark. And so I began to enjoy the jungle ride. I couldn’t stop too much because of my time constraints, but I was drinking a lot. Luckily I had filled up at the entry gate. The climb took me high above a tumbling creek, as it wound through the hills. It was too convoluted for me to figure out if we were climbing to a pass or if it looked like we would gain a plateau, that would continue on to Munnar, still a long way away. I thought about eventualities at this prospective lodge I was heading for, and worried that I might miss it and ride past, or maybe the lodge did not exist or have space. I knew I would not go onto Munnar. I would have to find a porch or something to sleep on. I still have a few power bars to get me through the night.
The kms ticked off slowly, each one indicated by km posts along the road. I was climbing at about 7-9 kph, so I knew it wasn’t as steep as it could be, but I was getting pretty wiped after the long day. I passed two places to stay about 2 km away from the goal, but neither appealed and so I pushed on until I came into the town of Marayoor, with signs for a number of places to stay. It took some time for me to figure out I had been told there were lodges at the town of Marayoor, in fact about twenty, not one Marion Lodge. Once again the poor communication really kills me at times. I chose a fairly nice place, had a great room, got showered, beered and later a nice dinner. I had a couple of hours of grace on the sunlight, but almost no poop left in my legs.
I rode 130 km and gained about 600 m today.
Nov 16,17 – Anachal
Heading away from Marayoor I thought I was facing a 600 m climb, or at least I knew that Munnar, the named hill town I was kind of heading towards was 600 m higher. But I also had 40 km and so knew that there could be some up and down. Well I started with a 100 m drop, which I would had to regain.
The riding was incredible, I knew it would be slow and that I had all day and so I kind of just enjoyed it. The day was sunny but not all that warm. As I gained altitude, slowly but surely the cool air became ever more refreshing. The road wound in and out of the enormous tea plantations. The plants are planted in small clusters, possibly 1 m square, so that the pickers can walk between them. And so you have an enormous checker-board pattern spread out over impossibly steep slopes. There were quite a few pickers out in sporadic places. They have a little metal box that they squeeze to pick the top-most leaves almost individually. When the box is filled they dump it in the big sack they are pulling. When the sack is filled they carry it up to the road and wait under a shade tree for a truck to come along. Given the size of the fields and the number of pickers and their rate of picking it would take years to harvest what I have seen as I ride along. Something must change as the fields need picking. At any rate, the whole scene is incredible, with the flame trees and hibiscus plants adding colour to the glorious green of the tea plants. And so the kms and m slip by as I toil my way up. It took some 25 km to climb to 1800 m, well above Munnar. I then had a fast sail down, still in tea plantations.
Entering Munnar, just before noon, I saw no reason to stop; it is not a pretty place, and I was hoping to find a place in the countryside, either the jungle or a tea plantation. I had the name of a guesthouse and when I saw a tourist office (tourist towns do have some value) they directed me to where I might find out more. I was passed on twice more and finally found out about a little guesthouse, Woods Cottage, in the jungle about 10 km down the road.
I went back to the edge of Munnar and had a wonderful buffet lunch at a high end restaurant. It was possibly the new best meal of my trip. I guess tourist towns have more than one thing in their favour. After lunch I was on the by now very rough steeply down-hill road. I had to leave the main road and got to my rendezvous spot with the guardian of the guesthouse at exactly the appointed time. He took me down the steepest road I have been on this trip. I will be pushing my bike back up here for sure. My brakes only just kept me in control. We had to leave my bike in a house by the road and we carried my bags about 300 m up the hill side to my little place. I am the only client; the manager, his wife and two small boys live in the back. I am fed a beer over looking the trees and up the steep hill to the other side of the road we have come down. While having my beer two golden orioles fly by and the only competition for the bird singing is the periodic beeping of the tuk-tuks on the road.
I will stay two nights here and just sit and see whatever birds fly by the door.
Getting here today I rode 55 k, climbed 950 m and dropped 1050 m.
My second day here, I walked a small amount and re-read the Kite Runner, enjoying it even more than the first time. A group of four young Brits came for lunch at the tail end of a 20 km trek, lead by the guy who booked me into the cottage. They were beat and would be taking a taxi back to Munnar. I continued my relaxing day.
Nov 18 – Thattekad Bird Sanctuary
I left the Woods Cottage early, got a tuk-tuk to take me, my bike and stuff to the top of the hill, and then I had a pretty nice down hill morning. The side road that brought me to Anachal connected with the main road down the valley after 5 km, and after that it was a little busier. The road took me past two nice waterfalls, both littered extensively with garbage. One of the people shepherding the British hiking group pointed out a nicer route off of the main road that would get me to Thattekad. I crossed the Periyar river just before the town I was supposed to find the branch road. I stopped beside a small unmarked road and a local confirmed that I could take the road. It was wonderful. I had worried that it would climb back up into the hills, but it basically followed the Periyar on down stream. I was now down to a little over 100 m, and so the heat and humidity were up, but not oppressively thanks to the deep forest. I began to pass through some rubber plantations, and had a nice stretch of riding with butterflies as my only road companions.
I had the name of a resort, from Lonely Planet, but came to it 12 km before the Bird Sanctuary and so did not stop to check it out. I crossed the Periyar again and there was a sign for the Bird Sanctuary, so I stopped and within a minute a man came out from a kiosk to sell me on a guesthouse in the Park. I was still thinking about the recommended resort, thinking there may be another one close by. In the meanwhile he had called a woman who came down and talked me into walking into the park with her to look at her place, the Jungle Bird Guesthouse. Before we got there, about 300 m into the park, I had decided this was exactly what I wanted. The place was full of birders, an American, a Scots couple who were leaving, and six Indian birders who would leave in the evening. And it costs 900R (~$17) for accommodation and meals. Guided sessions were extra. This was the start of my longest and friendliest stop of the trip. I am now down out of the hills and into the Kerala jungle proper. The hills have been wonderful and I am somewhat reticent about trading in the cool hills for the humid jungle. We shall see.
I rode 65 km to get here and dropped about 800 m.