Since the only impossible journey is the one never begun, putting together the outline of this gargantuan 45 day cycling expedition was simply the first step of a magnificent journey. Commencing from the beaches of Goa and finally ending at Chennai – was there a destination in the midst of all this? Confucius said roads were meant for journeys, not destinations and this tour brought those words to life. For Jacques Carriere &Therese Masson from Canada the seamless flow of landscapes, cultures and people all along this journey was an eye-opener and a definite once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The journey itself
Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher said the journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. And so we did. But our tale of the incredible journey that Jacques and Therese undertook will also take you pedalling down memory lane, driving off-road into nostalgia and wonder.
Goa and Karnataka
Goa, where the tour began …the allure of its stunning beaches, its susegad attitude, its lip-smacking cuisine…a foretelling of the days to come or a collection of precious memories to be stored away carefully…for its ancient temples and majestic churches, wide gushing rivers, colourful fishing villages and gentle hills were lasting images that even the lingering thoughts of the long ride ahead could not erase.
Jacques and Therese set out from Colva for Gokarna in the south. Reaching Karwar an ancient trading port frequented by Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese, French and the British, the ruins of a mighty fort on the banks of the Kali River reminiscent of a glorious bygone era and viewing life as it passes by from the decks of the ferry while crossing the vast Kali – the tour had begun on the right foot indeed. Gokarna and its pristine beaches can make one wish to linger and after the overnight stay it was on southwards again along coastal roads with the Arabian Sea and the imposing Western Ghats on the other. Past Kundapura and Koppa and their energetic rivers, thick rain-forests and endless stretches of tea, coffee and spice plantations, it is on to Lakkavalli and a jeep safari at its wildlife sanctuary in the hopes of sighting the great tiger, this is Tiger Conservation area after all. But not before the couple were bestowed with blessings at a local temple – a bit of divine intervention to urge them on. And then it’s on to Chikmagulur the coffee capital of the state of Karnataka on the gentle slopes of the Sahyadri Mountains and the iconic hotel on the hilltop. Mudigere, the next point awaited with its mist enshrouded hills and unspoilt country side. The unexpected came in the form of a working day at a coffee plantation …traditional and authentic coffee processing methods still in use…here, coffee is life…and nothing comes in the way! En-route to Hassan the architecture of the Halebidu temple is astounding. Built in the 12th century dedicated to the Lord Shiva, it is a perfect amalgamation of the limitlessness of human endeavour and imagination. The onward ride to Hassan is through peaceful country roads lined by the ‘flame of the forest’ trees and the occasional banyan. On the following day the ride to scenic Coorg involved a stop at the home of a farmer engaged in sericulture. The tradition of rich silks in India may have found its origins here. The lustrous yarns of handmade silk surely had tales to tell. Coorg is impossible without a detour to Bylakuppe and the Namdroling Monastery one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in India, with a population of about 5000 monks and nuns – a surreal moment in the midst of wilderness and close encounters of the pachyderm kind at the Dubare Elephant Camp! Contrasts of the sublime! The city of palaces, Mysuru waited next with its quiet elegance, frenzied markets and stately universities.
Tamil Nadu, Kerala and back to Tamil Nadu
On day 16 of the tour, it was off from Mysuru to Mudumalai crossing state-borders past sunflower fields and hill roads. The Bandipur Tiger Reserve and jeep safari were the temptations of the day. The renowned hill-station Ooty is perched prettily amidst the Nilgiri mountains, but the ride there from Mudumalai was a true challenge with 36 hair-pin bends on 12 kilometers of consistently uphill road. The tough stretch did sometimes bring the six decades of their lives into focus, but Jacques and Therese also discovered their indomitable selves through this. From Ooty to Coonoor on the UNESCO Heritage train, the next phase of the tour was like an enactment of a fairy tale! The beauty of nature and a magical man-made locomotive – could there be a more poignant merging of concepts? From Coonoor to Mettupalayam and then it was still onwards to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary that sat on the borders of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Pushing forward to Munnar, and then onward to Vandanmedu, Periyar and Kulamavu, past some of the highest tea-plantations in the world, the winding hill roads are a challenge but the sights alongside them are worth every huff and puff. The tea museum and the traditions of tea, the cardamom hills and Vandamedu the largest cardamom plantation in India, village roads and spice-plantation walks, wayside shrines and Asia’s largest arch dam at Kulamavu, the boat ride on the Periyar and Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial arts display in the evening, even the steaming hot chai at the roadside vendor has a dream-like quality it.
Day 27 and 28 ventured into the wonderland of Kerala’s backwaters, Alleppey. Going past pineapple farms and backwater villages after leaving the hills and heading to Alleppey where the famed houseboats–rice boats converted into luxurious lodging – waited to be embarked. The other-worldly charm of an overnight stay on board a house-boat was enough to rejuvenate some tired legs and then it was off along coastal roads and coconut groves, a brief peep into a coir factory with the sea and the backwaters on either side of the flat roads to the bustling city of Kochi. This ancient port that traded in tea, coffee, rubber and spices still continues to do so and has an almost eclectic feel with its chaotic traffic, old bazaars, modern shopping malls, Chinese fishing nets and gorgeous sunsets. The guided tour around Fort Kochi included the unique Dhobi Khana, the laundry collective owned and run by generations of a particular community for almost a hundred years. Charcoal heated irons, hand-washed and sun-dried clothes, almost an anomaly in modern times, but a way of living for the 60 odd families involved in the business. In the evening, the kathakali performance – Kerala’s traditional dance form which depicts stories from mythology – made for an evocative end to the Kochi stay. The next day saw Jacques and Therese head out of Kochi through village roads pedalling past rubber plantations towards Athirapalli and its cascading waterfalls, the largest in Kerala and a magnificent sight.
Day 32 meant Kerala was now left behind and it was onto Tamil Nadu for the last phase of the odyssey. Valparai at 3500 meters above sea level was the next stop and this green haven threw open uninterrupted vistas wherever the eyes landed. Riding down the 24 ‘hairpin’ bends on the Anamalai Hills towards Pollachi in the great plains of Tamil Nadu and then the next day through the Palani Hills past sugar cane fields on to Athoor and its thriving farming community displayed landscapes of mindboggling diversity. Next were the temple towns of Madurai, and Tanjore with the architectural marvels of Chettinad in between. The Meenakshi Temple at Madurai, a port dating back to the pre-Christian era and its 14 gate-towers, the palatial bungalows of chettinad, Tanjore’s streets displaying 9th to 12th century stone sculptures, stretched the boundaries of the mind. The eighteenth century Saraswati Mahal Library housing ancient palm-leaf manuscripts and the museum were surely one of a kind!
Day 40 took Jacques and Therese eastwards past the River Cauvery delta and fertile paddy fields to the Coromandel Coast and Tranquebar a tiny coastal town colloquially known as Tharangambadi or the land of the dancing waves picturesque and peaceful now, it was once a busy Danish trading port.
Pondichery with its quaint charm, its French and ‘native’ quarters and Auroville an experimental community and universal city was like the cool breeze that wafted across from the Bay of Bengal. Pleasant and making you want more of it. But as journey’s end is nearing, the undying spirit of the traveller that kept them going all these days urges our intrepid duo and it’s on to Mahabalipuram, its stone temples, the largest rock relief in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. Day 44 found them transferred to Chennai, where they took the day to let their memories settle before boarding their flight back home on the following day.
Some thoughts to conclude
The best of journeys happen as an expression of an inner urge. This 45–day odyssey too was one such. A shocking family tragedy made Jacques and Therese reassess their life-goals and re-arrange the numbering on their bucket-list. When they contacted Kalypso to enquire about the feasibility of a 2 – 6 week cycling tour it was a long cherished dream. The itinerary whiz-kids of Kalypso offered them a feast in the form of a 6-week tour of south and central India that had till then never been attempted and which promised to be not just unique but also exhaustive. Combining and tweaking shorter existing tours they drafted this comprehensive foray into peninsular India that turned out exhilarating and enriching for our guests. Kalypso hopes they complete their bucket list and wishes them the very best in all their future journeys. And of course we certainly look forward to accompanying them on a few.