Cycling Goa to Ooty through the Western Ghats is a pleasure. Especially if you ride the route in winter. I rode this scenic route self-supported on a Fuji Touring in Feb-Mar 2019. The route is a foodies’ delight!
Cycling Goa to Ooty…
Ultra Spice Race. An ultra cycle race conducted by Inspire India which starts in Goa, heads to Ooty and returns to base. This race and route caught my eye. I of course am no racer, especially when a word like ultra is attached! But inspired by these fantastic folk, a humble tourer ended up cycling Goa to Ooty solo.
Day 1: Mapusa to Canacona
Goa for most is a party state, with a healthy dose of alcohol, beaches, sun and sand. When in Goa I go for the electoral option of NOTA (None of the Above)!
Roads and Traffic
The best bit for the avid cyclist in Goa are the roads. Narrow serpentine roads which climb sharply to get your heart in the red and yet aren’t long enough to force you to stop.
Dense vegetation enveloping the road will suddenly break open on to a hilltop which is brown and barren. Every strand of grass burnt under the scorching sun.
Bridges which go over tiny creeks with coconut trees on either side make for a picturesque route.
But the best part of the roads of Goa is the traffic! Even on these narrow steep roads no vehicle will honk behind you. There were multiple instances where I would be climbing at 5 kmph and the vehicle behind waited patiently. Even buses which are generally in a tearing hurry!
This is where the state shines. Especially if you enjoy seafood and meat. There is lots of coconut in the seafood dishes, which makes it perfect for a hungry cyclist! The beef and pork don’t get the coconut treatment generally but are delicious.
If you are vegetarian your options are limited to the Konkan fare which is similar to what you get in coastal Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The same named Pav Bhaji is very different from what you would get in Maharashtra. Here the vegetable is made from white peas and has coconut in it. The ubiquitous pav remains constant though.
If you are in Goa, it is imperative that you try out the poi, a coarse grain bread. It is delicious with butter and tea or with curry or with practically anything you find!
Expensive and Dogs
The two downsides of travelling in Goa. It is ridiculously expensive for a bikepacker. The state is tailor made for tourists who come there with fat wallets and little time.
The other terrible thing about cycling in Goa are the ridiculous number of dogs. Every house seems to feed one dog inside their house and five outside! As a result you will find 4-5 dogs on every 100 metres of road. The statistical probability of being chased by a dog every single kilometre is bloody high.
I blame the overly zealous animal lovers. Thanks to them, the street dog population is out of control. Putting everyday road users at unnecessary risk.
I started from Mapusa and took the highway till Margao, there are interior roads which take longer. Since I had previously ridden those inside roads, the highway was the fastest, if not the most scenic option.
Lunch was in Margao at my aunt’s house, where I spent quite a few hours catching up on stories.
Post Margao I got off the highway and rode along the ghats and coast. A beautiful bit of asphalt. By sunset I had only managed to reach Canacona beach, where I found an expensive hostel. The hostel was much shabbier, yet more expensive than stuff in Ladakh. The downsides of excessive tourism.
With an earlier start and not such a long lunch break at Margao, I could have ridden straight out to Karwar. But what is the joy of rushing, whilst holidaying!
I spent 450 rupees on accommodation and zero on food.
Day 2: Canacona to Honnavar
On the second day of cycling from Goa to Ooty, I finally managed to get out of Goa and into Karnataka, which was still far away from Ooty!
Canacona to the Goa-Karnataka border is around 20 km along the highway and much less as the crow flies. There is one small ghat climbing section before you drop down into Karnataka. The road passes close to Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary and even on the main highway the dense foliage is apparent.
Huffing up a climb on a cycle left me with a lot of time to ponder. Long before roads were built, the thick forest and steep ghats must have been a major deterrent for the movement of goods and people. The lack of interaction then, means there is a marked difference in culture on either side of the border now.
Of course going back and forth by boat would possibly have been significantly easier.
Roads in Karnataka
As soon as you cross the border, the road goes from being a narrow ribbon of tarmac to a big broad four-lane highway.
Fast highways come at a cost. Trees. Where in Goa I could have stopped anywhere and would be assured of a shady tree, in Karnataka that luxury didn’t exist. Shady trees are irrelevant for people in air-conditioned cars, for a cyclist it is invaluable.
In Karnataka, along with the trees, traffic sense also goes out of the window. Trucks and pick-ups hurtling in the wrong direction on the four-lane highway makes for risky cycling. The irony of being less safe on better roads was not lost on me!
Large sections of the highway in Karnataka are bang on the coast. You get to pedal along with gorgeous views of the Arabian Sea. The view is incredible and the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks is unimaginable.
Well, actually you have to imagine it. The sound of heavy traffic on this arterial Kochi-Panvel highway drowns out any feeling of mystique from the ocean!
On this stretch, what the ears cannot enjoy, the eyes must appreciate.
While the culture changed rather markedly between the two states, the change in cuisine is subtle.
Breakfast was in Goa, which included poi. Lunch and dinner was fish thali. It was the beginning of the rice belt. On that day, the rice was accompanied by fish curry, fried fish, a vegetable (which I steadfastly ignored), a salad (which was given the same treatment as the vegetable) and pickle.
All my meals are always in the tiniest dhabas available. The food is good and compared to Goa, much cheaper. Eating in Goa is simply losing weight from your wallet.
Another thing I noticed, the eating joints in the south are significantly cleaner than what I am used to in the north. More often than not, you will find women in charge of dhabas here, unheard of in North India.
“India is my country, all Indians are my brothers and sisters…“
A pledge children around the country take every morning in school in a variety of languages. This unity of India is amazing as is the game of one-upmanship in microcosms of the country.
In this part of Karnataka, every board states that you are in Uttara Kannada or North Karnataka. A subtle message to remind you that they are different from those ‘not in’ North Karnataka! On conversing with a few, the tone is, “Yes, we are all Kannadigas. But, we are better than them!”
Since there are no shady trees to stop under on four-lane highways, I found a temple.
As I sat in the shade of the temple, a middle-aged gentleman walked up to me. He smiled, I smiled back. He grinned, showing off a couple of missing teeth, I grinned back. Then he asked me if I knew Kannada, since unfortunately I didn’t, he switched to broken Hindi.
Then conversation flowed. 5 minutes prior to this conversation, booze must have flowed, because he was reeking of alcohol.
He started off with the history of the village where I was sat. Then extolled the virtues of Karnataka culture, food and heritage. After getting warmed up, he praised the women of the place. With some, erm, inappropriate hand actions, he told me the women are very nice. *Nudge nudge wink wink*
As a parting shot, he told me to pray in the temple there to get a Kannadiga wife!
The ride from Canacona to Honnavar is along the arterial Kochi-Panvel highway. As such there is quite a bit of truck movement, especially in Karnataka where the roads are broader.
Honnavar is the town where you turn off from the coastal road and enter the ghats. It is prudent to enjoy the coastal cuisine before heading east!
I learnt something new. Expensive hotels have drivers quarters which can be had for quite cheap! I stayed in one such bit of accommodation.
I spent 300 rupees for accommodation and 215 rupees for food.
Day 3: Honnavar to Sagara
The third day of cycling Goa to Ooty climbing through picturesque forest reserves and eating delicious food.
Jog Falls. If you are passing through this part of the country, do visit it.
That is what I was told. When I was 5 km from the place, the locals told me there were more tourists than water in the falls! I turned around and went home… It’s best visited during the monsoons.
One tiny village. It is the gateway to a forest reserve with a fantastic climb. I loved every painful minute of struggling up! What I didn’t like was that in my excitement, I forgot to switch on Strava.
At Gerusoppa I stopped for a drink of water, where some helpful villagers told me that a steep climb lay ahead with nothing en route. The owner of the shop gave me a glass of spiced buttermilk to drink. The smell of the dosas he was making was so inviting, that I plonked my bottom on the chair to feast.
In my gluttony, I forgot to switch on Strava for the climb!
Lion Tailed Macaque
The Lion Tailed Macaque is an endangered species of monkey found in the Western Ghats of India. The forest reserve had numerous boards reminding one of this fact.
As vehicles trundled past me I wondered if anyone was going to be lucky enough to spot one. Near the top of the climb, there was a sudden lull in traffic.
I pulled out my phone to check Strava only to find a monkey staring at me. There were tons of them, hidden away in the woods from fast moving vehicles. But easily visible to the slow moving cyclist.
Finally the monkeys and the monk met!
A lesson I learnt on this trip was to not eat in towns. Get onto the highway and grab some grub. The second lesson I learnt was in South India, you need to have two breakfasts!
Traditional breakfast is very light, mostly made with rice. You cannot hog on it, and a couple of hours later, your stomach is empty. So the first breakfast would be half an hour after leaving and the second breakfast would be around noon.
Breakfast on this day consisted of poori bhaji and dosa. Lunch was another humongous plate of fish curry rice. Dinner was in a restaurant where they told me ‘north Indian food’ was their speciality. It was too late to go anywhere else, so I settled for parotta and a coconut vegetable curry. The mild spiced curry had an aroma which would wake up the dead!
Eating copious amounts of coconut is fantastic for a long distance cyclist. As it burns slow, lasting longer than most foods.
Elevator Ride and More…
Riding in the western ghats is like being tied up in an elevator or with an exceptionally passionate lover! The entire time it is up and down. There is never a dull moment where the world is flat.
Thankfully once past Honnavar, there is barely any traffic all the way till Sagara. The real joy of cycle touring is experienced on this stretch.
Advertisement hoardings alongside highways tell a lot about a place. And this part of Karnataka was filled with ads of cement, steel reinforcement bars and other building construction material. Typical fare in a growing economy. The only other thing being advertised was gold, jewellery and other bridal items. People here are either building houses or getting married!
My Experiments with Air
After the first couple of days, I decided to stop experimenting!
I had read online, that people pumped up their road touring bikes to 50-60 psi in search of comfort. That experiment didn’t pan out as planned. The cycle handled like a boat and barely rolled up a hill.
On the third day of cycling Goa to Ooty, it was time to pump it up. 80 psi and the world seemed good again. I could actually go around a corner without the feeling of falling over, damaging the rims and with reduced rolling resistance.
The hotels in Karnataka and the south in general have a few peculiarities.
None of them are called hotels. Hotels are where you eat food! If you enquire for a hotel, you will be sent for a meal.
Accommodation is provided by lodges. Lodge is a very loose term, it could mean bare bones basic sleeping quarters or 3 star comfort.
What all these lodges have in common is hot water. All of them provide hot water. They advertise the fact that they provide hot water. The receptionist will tell you that there is hot water available for bathing.
None of them quite get the irony that it is 30 bloody degrees outside. At night! After steaming myself the entire day on a cycle, do they really think I look forward to being boiled like a frog in hot water.
The interesting sections of cycling Goa to Ooty started after Honnavar. The road immediately starts climbing out of Honnavar. It is entirely rolling terrain, till you hit the base of the 12 km forest reserve climb.
The rest of the day is back to rolling terrain.
Food is available everywhere except on the climb. Accommodation is also available in plenty of places along the route.
I spent 500 rupees on accommodation and 220 on food!
Thanks to Mohit Gena for editing these ordinary looking pictures and making it look a thousand times better!
Thanks to Deepak for helping me out with details of the route for cycling from Goa to Ooty, before the ride and to Niraj, Chandana and Nithin for the help during the ride. Cheers people!
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