From Trichy it was a long days ride to Madurai, around 130kms and all slightly uphill, not steep but just enough to notice. Madurai has a few sights worth a visit, a museum about Ghandi and the independence movement as well as the standard temple. I also managed to find a game of street cricket and was invited to play by the locals! My next stop was to stay with a couch surfing host in the town of Kovilpatti, I had a day off here and it was great to spend some time with a local family and hear about what life is really like here in India. I was now two days from Kanyakumari which is the southern tip of india, after a stop over in Tirunelveli I made it to the small town. There was again a lot to see here, two small islands a boat trip away had an important temple and a huge statue dedicated to a famous Indian poet. There was also the sunset off the beach which was the most spectacular yet and drew a large crowd of locals an tourists to see the sun set over the ocean. It was impossible not to have days off all the time to see all the sights!
I had now run out of India heading south so it was time to head north. After I left Kanyakumari I entered the next state of Kerala, the instant I crossed the border the change hit me. The landscape changed massively from open farm land to the dense foliage of the backwaters and open rice paddies. Kerala is now the most visited tourist location in India after having overtaken the Taj Mahal a few years ago, this meant there was another big change, on the plus side a fledgling Indian hostel scene brought cheap accommodation, the down side being more expensive food. The hostels also meant that I wasn’t short of company in the evenings and as I passed through then next few towns, Varkala, Aleppey and Kochi I met backpackers and travellers from the UK, America, China, Finland and all over India.
In Aleppey I met a backpacker from Delhi who persuaded me to take a boat tour of the backwaters, this was a good choice and we spent a great couple of hours being paddled around the sleepy channels with a tasty breakfast and lunch at each end. We shared a boat with two travellers from Canada also, we would also all be heading to the next town of Kochi the following day. I met my first cycle tourists on my ride from Aleppey, unfortunately all heading the opposite way though! A couple from Sweden who were towing a two year old in a trailer, what an adventure to have at two years old. And a guy from England who had been in India for only a couple of days. Around half way I stopped in a shady spot to have some water and a bit of food, three or four school kids appeared and started asking the usual questions, where are you from? Where are you going? Then a girl came out of a nearby house and insisted I come in and have lunch with her family! She was studying English at a local university and wanted to travel to thank U.K. to study for a masters eventually so was keen to chat about what its like in England.
I arrived in Fort Kochi, the older part of the town and quickly found my accommodation, another great hostel in the perfect location to explore the town. I had another day off to see the sights with the Canadian and the Indian backpacker I had met in Aleppey and one more to do some route planning for the next part of the route. I wanted to head inland and across the mountains towards Mysore and then up to Hampi, too many people had suggested Hampi as a plan worth a visit and also I had some friends there who were on a climbing trip, Hampi is popular for its bouldering.
I had found another blog from a cyclist who travelled the same route but in reverse, after a couple of modifications I had my route decided on. It was impossible to avoid a big climb up into the mountains unfortunately, leg 1 to Thrissur was relatively flat at least. I had another couch surfer there to stay with, a doctor which turned out to be useful as when I arrived I was a little worse for wear. He put it down to a mixture of my malaria tablets and the heat which had gone from 30ish degrees to 40ish in the last week of riding and it was getting hard. From here on it was the beginning of the climb towards the hills that would take me over into the Indian interior. I passed through the small towns of Shoranur and Nilambur after a few days rest to recover.
From Nilambur the climb started more seriously, the climb wound its way up through the jungle and seemed to be going on forever. As I was now inside a national park there were no shops to buy cool drinks, I had plenty of water with me but it was nice to have some cool every now and again. There were signs everywhere warning about elephants and the locals would also warn me I had to be very careful whenever I showed them my route through the hills. As I ground further up the climb it was beginning to get too hard, slightly cooler with the increase in altitude and the tree cover but the hill was unrelenting. With the weight of my bike it was beginning to be too much, I was on the side of the road and had basically given up, I though the best plan was just to head back down the hill and find another way round. All of a sudden a group of local cyclists our for a ride came down the hill and stopped for a chat, I told them I had basically given up and my plan was to head back down. They decided to cycle back up the hill with me for a few kms, I was near the top they said. Without this kind act and the moral boost it gave me I wouldn’t have made it for sure, they even phoned me that night to check I was ok and had found some accommodation. That day I didn’t make it to my target for the day but got a huge chunk of the climbing out of the way.
I was looking forward the next days ride and it was totally worth sticking out the previous day, after a little more undulating terrain I arrived at the entrance to the Mudumalai tiger reserve. This was the part that people had warned me about, it was elephants I needed to watch for but there was also wild dogs, buffalo and of course the tigers. The gate guard waved me through no problem and I cycled into the reserve, the tarmac was really nice and riding through the forest was am incredible experience. My ears were wide open listening for any noise though! Thankfully it was mostly down hill, I got to a small village in the centre of the reserve and tried to find some food with no luck but was told there was a place to eat further down the road. I cycled on, half way through the reserve you cross a state border and therefore technically you enter a new tiger reserve, the gate guard at the new reserve entrance was having none of me riding my bike. Apparently the elephant movements on this side were much more frequent and there was no way he was letting me ride my bike through. I pointed at their jeep and asked for a lift across, there was no way I was cycling back! Eventually they flagged down a trucker who was heading across the second half of the park, threw my bike and luggage in the back and off we went for a bumpy ride out of the park. I never did see any elephants….
It turned out that the truck driver was heading the same way as me all the way to Mysore and offered me a lift the whole way. It was hard to turn down as I still wasn’t feeling 100%, this turned out to be a good call as the road was in terrible condition and wouldn’t have been a fun ride at all. Although the truck option wasn’t that fun either and I was pretty glad to get out when he dropped me on the outskirts of the city, as I was heading towards the city I bumped into a guy who invited me for a coffee. It turned out he had walked 830 kms from Mysore to Kanyakumari back in 1985 in just 22 days! I was impressed and he was always keen to chat to other travellers. Mysore had a lot to see so I had planned to have a day or so off here. The next day over breakfast a Canadian guy said he wanted to fly his drone over the huge palace of Mysore to get some footage, something which the police and security staff were not happy about at all. He needed help and I volunteered, we found a piece of scrub land and his ourselves behind some cows hoping not to attract too much attention. The bike was left running while he flew quickly over the palace and as soon as it touched down it was grab it, jump on the bike and make our escape. Trying to hold onto the bike, the drone, the case and make sure the drone didn’t get hit by any passing traffic was a little scary!
The morning’s excitement over I headed for a look around the palace from the inside this time, it was beautiful, lots of carved teak and rock and full of paintings. I had decided to try and take a train from here to Hampi, I was still feeling a little weak on the bike and also a train seemed like it would be an adventure in itself! Thankfully one of the guys who I met cycling up the hill had a cousin who lived in the city and he was a great help getting a train ticket, no mean feat in India! He then spent the day showing me a few of the other sights of Mysore too. Soon enough it was time for my 12 hour train journey to Hampi, I cycled to the station and booked my bike onto the cargo part of the train, I said goodbye to it not 100% confident we would end up in the same place and grabbed a porter to take my luggage and show me to the right spot on the platform. My friend Simon’s top travel tip, learned from first hand experience, is “if you think you have shit yourself on a train, don’t check with your hand” useful advice to remember! Unfortunately I was a little to sick to appreciate the train journey and was asleep for most of the trip, I was worried about missing my stop so was awake and packed a little early probably. I was so glad when I found my bike waiting for me on the end of the platform, loaded up my luggage and headed for Hampi itself, about 10 kms away. I plan to stay here for 10 days or so to get better and think about the next part of the journey, I have about 3 weeks left in India before I will fly to Burma next month.
For those that like a fairy tale ending, my friend Simon did end up marrying the girl he was travelling with at the time of the train incident so it all turned out well!