The last section of the blog of riding from Goa to Ooty. Cycling in the Nilgiris sees you climbing gorgeous hills till the highest point, Ooty.
Cycling in the Nilgiris
Day 7: Madikeri to Irrity
A day of descending into a sauna.
A day of culinary delights. It started off with a staple of the state. Sewain bhat, which was basically salty sewain with loads of coconut chutney. Once again, breakfast was for 50 rupees. I believe the laws of the state stipulate as such!
This area is famous for its pork. Coorgi Pork is a delicacy of the region, which is a slightly spicy and dry dish. At least that is what I had been told, as I unsuccessfully went in search for it.
I saw shops selling raw pork along the highway, but not one restaurant advertising it.
If I were serving pork, it would be plastered across the city on big banners in ‘Impact’ font, with the text bold and underlined. The eleventh commandment states, one shall not be subtle with pork!
Eventually in Virajpet I had to ask a vegetable vendor to point out a ‘good’ restaurant. ‘By the side of the alcohol shop‘, he told me. Ah! That made perfect sense. The pork was as advertised and not one bit over-hyped.
Tea was egg pakodas and chicken samosas on the Karnataka-Kerala border. The food was so good, that I forgot to have tea. The reason for which I had stopped!
Dinner was in Kerala. And when in Kerala, eat beef! Beef fry with parotta is my go to food in the state. If I want variety, I order appam. The beef remains constant!
All that glitters is gold!
It was a Sunday morning in Madikeri as I was pedalling out of there. People in town were decked to the hilt. Men and women alike were submerged in gold. Not just the jewellery, but the clothes as well!
People were swimming in gold in the ultra-cheap lodge I stayed in. Not for a moment could I imagine what the rich and mighty in 5-star resorts looked like. You would probably need special Ray Bans to protect yourself from their ultra-golden radiation!
Reliable sources state that these Sunday revellers are visible from outer space.
Kerala, here I come!
From Madikeri to Virajpet, you ride through scenic roads. Enjoying the countryside, the curves and the descent.
Suddenly you are hit by insanity. Vehicles from Kerala are headed in the opposite direction.
Now, no matter how much I love the food of the state, the traffic makes me want to avoid the place.
I blame the stuntmen bus drivers.
The Kerala bus drivers are the worst in the country (and I have ridden in almost every state of the country!). Their anger is rubbed down to lesser mortals like trucks, who in turn push it onto cars, who in turn push the auto-rickshaws. Two-wheelers become coconut chutney in this road grind.
I hadn’t seen an iota of aggression for 6 days on Goa or Karnataka roads. Then in half an hour I saw almost 3 accidents right before my eyes.
Take a guess, which state these vehicles belonged to. Go on, don’t be shy, guess!
Going down isn’t fun!
Post Virajpet, the road descends steeply through a forest reserve. The reserve itself is gorgeous and thickly forested. But the road is too steep to descend happily with a fully loaded touring road bike.
While going down, the only thought in my mind was, ‘how much fun would it be to ride up this!’
Unfortunately, the Himalayas do that to a person. After cycling for 3 months there, I now love climbing a hill. No matter how slow and painful it is.
From Madikeri to Kerala, you lose about 1100 metres of altitude.
Which translated into real terms is, taking your head out of a freezer and shoving it into a sauna.
Mother and Child
The tea shop where I hogged on egg pakodas and chicken samosas was run by a young mother and her 15 year old son.
The both of them spoke to me in impeccable English. On enquiring, the young boy told me his mother was from Trivandrum and so he was Malyaali.
But what about his father, who was Kannadiga, I asked. Didn’t he relate to his father’s land of birth and his own residence.
Kerala is better than Karnataka the young man told me emphatically!
As I was chatting with him, I showed him photographs of my cycle ride from Ladakh. Immediately his eyes glassed over as I spoke. He couldn’t imagine the Himalayas in the same manner that the Ladakhi children couldn’t imagine what an ocean was!
The name of the town where I stayed the night. Contrary to popular (okay, my) belief, Iritty isn’t a shortened version of irritable.
Though it could very well be.
After cycling through Goa and then Karnataka, Kerala seemed unfriendly.
Actually, unfriendly isn’t the correct word.
It is just that people don’t smile there. It is as if the government taxes smiling and as such everyone has a permanent stiff upper lip!
I wasn’t smiling, but for a different reason. I was looking forward to staying the night in Iritty, a beautiful place according to the photos on the interweb.
But it wasn’t. It was a hot, dusty, humid bowl of humanity from where beauty had packed her bags and left a millennia ago!
Apparently, the place I had seen on Google was Idukki! Bloody autocorrect…
Language generally isn’t a problem anywhere in South India for me. Hindi or English helps me get by without too much trouble. Not in Kerala. No one seemed to know (or speak) a word of either language.
Which seemed kind of strange considering the state has a supposedly 100% literacy rate. Maybe they need to focus on quality now, not just on quantity.
All things aside, I love the state. They have beef fry available everywhere and commies who will protest if anyone tries to ban it!
This day of cycling in the Nilgiris was almost entirely downhill before it flattened off in Kerala. The temperature rises along with the humidity as you move closer to the coast.
Food is available everywhere except in that short stretch of forest reserve between Virajpet and the Kerala border. If you are going in the opposite direction and climbing towards Virajpet, then it would be prudent to carry enough water and a bite to eat as well. Since it is a 5% 15 km climb.
Accommodation is available in Virajpet and Iritty.
I spent 400 on accommodation and 200 on food.
Day 8: Iritty to Sultan Bathery
All that descending to sea level, ensured a climb back up to the top while cycling in the Nilgiris!
Kerala doesn’t disappoint when it comes to food.
Breakfast is a different beast entirely out there. There is a veritable blitzkrieg which happens in your stomach as you hog on a variety of succulent treats.
Even with my limitless cyclist capacity of being an undignified glutton, I couldn’t do justice to all that was on offer.
As such, I settled on multiple plates of pazham pori, a banana fritter. Puttu, a cylindrical steamed rice cake, eaten with some curry. If you are smart, you eat it with beef curry! And a type of poori which was more of a standalone snack, than a fried bread.
One Tamilian friend once told me, the worst filter coffee of the south you will get in Kerala. I thought it was just regional bias behind that statement, apparently he was right!
Lunch was a grandiose affair with loads of rice on a banana leaf, sambhar, papad, salad, fried fish and more. The food was excellent and hospitality which even 5-stars cannot match.
Dinner was more beef, this time accompanied with appam. The great thing about beef in Kerala is that you can never go wrong with it. Big or small eatery, it will always be delicious.
The Left Turn was the Right Turn, while the Right Turn was the Wrong Turn
Mistakes are the spice of life. Can you imagine how boring life would be if we didn’t make mistakes! This held even truer when cycling on the spice route.
Just out of Iritty, there was an option. Go right with the rest of the world or go left. When in Kerala, be a leftist. So left it was!
Instead of following the Ultra Spice Race route towards Mananthavady, I turned away on the recommendation of a passerby.
And what a mistake it turned out to be. I loved every moment of it!
I passed a signboard which said, Boys Town 6.27 km.
Who in the world gives highway distances to the decimal point and who is crazy enough to name a place Boys Town.
Clearly someone who had spent too much time in a ‘toddy parlour‘. Yes things such as toddy parlours exist in Kerala!
But I digress.
The climb. It was brutal. A 7% climb, which made life, erm, interesting! The last 6 km was at 9%, just to liven up the party. That is when I realised why they had written the distance in decimal points on the signboard. You are going to count every single metre.
The final pitch of it had a bit of broken asphalt which made it worse. All the power in my legs was sent for a meeting with the pedals. The wheels in turn weren’t impressed with the power point presentation and snapped a spoke.
A broken spoke in the rear wheel meant I needed to pussyfoot my way till the end of the trip.
Children of the State
The state of children is more or less the same wherever you go in India. They crowd around you, they babble, they touch the cycle and ask a million questions a minute.
That wasn’t the case in Kerala.
As I washed up, the kids stood around the cycle inquisitively, not one of them touching the bike. They then waited for me to sit down have water and grab a cup of tea. Only then did they sit around me like the audience in a mini-amphitheatre and started the questioning.
In the most polite manner imaginable. They took turns asking questions, waited for my response before asking the next question.
The conversation was in English. The smaller kids who couldn’t speak the language, would ask the older kids to translate. And the ‘elders’ among them obliged.
It was ridiculous how civil those kids were. I am far more used to children being as delightful as a raging cyclone!
As I was riding through Mananthavady, I spotted an upmarket cycle store. One which sold ‘imported’ bikes!
A store of that calibre could easily repair the broken spoke on my cycle. Getting it repaired there would have been the smartest thing to do.
One broken spoke weakens the wheel, which leads to another broken spoke and before you know it, the spokes persons have left your party.
So I stopped in front of the store and contemplated getting the repair done. But where is the joy in life if you aren’t making foolish decisions. So I rode on hoping that my wheel wouldn’t destroy itself.
Post Mananthavady, I once again rolled the dice. A helpful fellow told me to take a back route to Sultan Bathery rather than the highway which I was headed on. What a lovely piece of advice it turned out to be.
Everyone loves their sleep. People in Kerala more so, apparently. There were innumerable roadside hoardings for mattresses. I clicked a picture of one of the most amusing ads on offer.
The other constant ad in the south is for gold. Jewellery ads for brides litter the landscape. Amusingly most of the models in the hoardings look like East Europeans. The fascination with fair skin women pervades every corner of India.
As I was approaching Sultan Bathery, a car from the opposite direction stopped bang in front of me. That morning they had been going in the opposite direction and had seen me near Boys Town. They were shocked that I still hadn’t covered any significant distance, whilst they had driven to their destination, got their work done, and were headed home.
Not everyone can comprehend how slow a cycle is!
The lodges in Sultan Bathery looked really shady. I went to the least shady looking lodge and took their least shady looking room. Yet it looked like a low budget Bollywood movie.
Since no parking was available, I left my bike in the adjacent petrol pump. The manager of the lodge assured me of the safety of my bike, ‘this is Kerala, no one is going to steal a cycle’, he said!
I couldn’t sleep the entire night. Not because I was worried about my cycle. But because there were a million bed bugs. I could see them crawling all over. Eventually I slept on the cold hard floor.
All the altitude I had lost the previous day from Madikeri to Iritty while cycling in the Nilgiris, I gained it back while climbing towards Sultan Bathery. Most of it was in a 6 km stretch of the Boys Town Climb!
Post Boys Town, the road continues climbing but it is a gentle climb, which you wouldn’t even notice. Especially after having finished off that brutal climb!
There’s accommodation available in Mananthavady and Sultan Bathery. Food is available throughout the route.
I spent 400 rupees on accommodation and 280 rupees on food.
Day 9: Sultan Bathery to Ooty
The final push while cycling in the Nilgiris, almost literally!
Food (or lack thereof!)
I got out of Sultan Bathery without grabbing breakfast. Assuming that I would get food along the way.
‘Along the way’ happens to be through a forest reserve without a single shop. Food wasn’t my biggest problem though. I didn’t have any water either!
At long last my famished mind spotted a dhaba a few kilometres before the Tamil Nadu border.
The only option for breakfast was, beef fry. I for one wasn’t complaining!
I didn’t stop for lunch at Gudalur, once again hoping to get food further up. Again my stupidity prevailed and I didn’t get anything to eat and once again proceeded to run out of water!
Eventually lunch happened at 5 in the evening and consisted of a stale tooti-frooti bun with a cup of tea.
In Tamil Nadu I did spot a few beef shops and was quite surprised. Beef was supposed to be a Kerala speciality, right? According to some Tamilians who I asked, Tamils don’t know how to cook beef properly. Beef in Tamil Nadu tastes like a mixture of luke warm water and sandpaper apparently!
Dinner was a bit of a redemption with a spicy mysore masala dosa and buckets of coconut chutney!
This ride from Goa to Ooty, which otherwise was a food carnival, turned out to be a damp squib on the last day.
This section of forest reserve is a treat to ride through. Because on the other side of Ooty, they don’t allow cyclists. No such problems in Kerala for us humble pedal pushers.
A village dog chased me while I was riding through the reserve. It was a pleasant reminder.
This was the first dog to get on my arse since I had left Goa. The dog menace is restricted to Goan borders only. Everywhere else, leopards eat them I presume!
The road from Sultan Bathery till Gudalur has a number of pretty sections. But at no point are you doing any crazy climbing. It is all easy peasy.
Once past Gudalur, the climb starts. The third climb of this trip. The first was before Sagara, the second was to Boys Town and then this.
This was arguably the toughest of the three, yet it isn’t all that difficult. It only took me four and a half hours to climb the 21 kilometres!
By the time I reached TR Bazaar, the end of the climb, I was exhausted and resembled monkey poop.
T R Bazaar
T R Bazaar has accommodation I was told. Splendid, just when I needed to stop for the night, a lodge appeared out of thin air.
Except it wasn’t quite so magical. A room in the lodge was 4000 rupees for one night. The entire trip’s total accommodation cost wasn’t that much.
Thus I moved on!
Just outside the gate of the TR Bazaar lodge, I asked a guy for a cheaper place to stay. He told me that the next place was Ooty and nothing in between.
As he spoke I noticed he had blood on his forehead. He had crashed right there some 5 minutes before, while riding his scooter. After wishing him good health, I moved on.
Rain rain go away
There is something about Ooty and me.
9 years previously when I had ridden to Ooty on my motorcycle, it was raining like crazy. When I looked up at the same sky after a decade, the clouds were bunching up to start chucking it down.
Fortunately the road after TR Bazaar is an easy climb and I gunned it. From 5 kmph to 7.5 kmph. Now the ‘glass half empty’ people will pooh pooh that as a miserable increase of just 2.5 kmph. Even the country’s GDP grows faster!
I looked at it as a 50% increase over my previous lazy speeds. And just like that I was impressed with my tortoise self!
The skies promised a downpour and the heavens opened up.
I was sad about having to ride in the rain, but happy that finally my rain gear was going to be used on this ride!
All electronics had to be speedily dumped into the waterproof bags. To compound matters, my phone discharged while stored in my saddlebag. And thus Strava couldn’t record my glorious (or not!) ascension to heaven, aka Ooty.
The last day of cycling in the Nilgiris might sound like quite the downer.
But, there was something which continuously lifted my spirits, no matter the rain or the brain drain.
The smiling faces.
Once I crossed over the border from Kerala into Tamil Nadu people once again started smiling, waving and generally being cheerful.
Old ladies in the plantations cat-called after me while checking out my legs. Young children ran alongside my cycle as I struggled up climbs. Truckers tooted in acknowledgement of my suffering and the cycle touring world seemed normal again.
The stark contrast between morose Kerala and happy Tamil Nadu is felt very deeply when touring on a cycle.
The bloodied man who had given me directions in TR Bazaar caught up with me some 4-5 km before Ooty.
The persistent rain had slowed a bit. Enough to discard the rain gear and soak in the tiny droplets.
It was 8 at night and pitch dark.
The gentleman offered me a lift on his scooter till Ooty and promised to drop me off at an affordable lodge.
I jumped at the opportunity and on his scooter!
He kept the saddlebags on the footboard of his scooter while I sat pillion holding my bike upside down on my lap. The teeth of the bike’s large chainring inches away from my neck as we jostled along the broken road towards Ooty.
I was hoping and praying not to hit a big pothole, else I would be decapitated by my own bike, just miles before my final destination!
As we rode along, he told me that he was a fruit seller in Ooty and had a few fields near TR Bazaar which he had been visiting during the day.
I thanked him when he dropped me off at a lodge. He said, “Just remember me in your prayers, help someone else in need and most importantly, pray for our country as the elections loom!”
Once in Ooty and the exhaustion wore off I cursed myself. It would have taken me an extra half hour for those last 5 kilometres. I shouldn’t have accepted that lift, instead ground it out to ground zero.
As I was describing my journey to the lodge manager it struck me. This is a cycle tour, not a race and surely not proving a point to anyone. The beauty of touring is accepting whatever is thrown at you; the good, the bad and the ugly.
And thus, it was Ooty finally!
The ride from Sultan Bathery to Gudalur, while cycling in the Nilgiris, is a pleasant and reasonably easy section.
Immediately after Gudalur the massive climb starts. If you are crossing Gudalur anywhere after 12 PM, it makes sense to just stay in town and start the next morning.
It takes a loaded cyclist four and a half hours up the climb and a long way still to go.
After the climb from Gudalur to TR Bazaar, the road continues gaining altitude, but not so dramatically.
Food is available almost throughout the route, with just the climb missing some nutrition.
Accommodation is available in Gudalur, TR Bazaar (though that is expensive) and Ooty.
I spent 400 rupees on accommodation and 225 rupees on food.
Read Chidambram’s travel tale as he rides 1775 km from Mumbai to Kanyakumari!