It was in August last year that we set out to explore this vast country of ours astride the Honda CBR 250R. Over the ensuing 11 months and about 10,500 kilometres, we were able to cover the upper half of India. So, come, join us on the fifth and final leg of our journey as we head southwards to discover coastal India.
Photography: Rommel Albuquerque
Riding gear, rain wear, woollens and shorts. The items in our clothing list were easily indicative of what we would be facing over the next 11 days as the southern States of India are diverse not only in terms of terrain, but climate too. In keeping with our earlier such expeditions we had a trusted steed: the Honda CBR 250R, which had served the Bike India team for almost a year as our long-term bike. During that time we had ridden it from Pune to Chennai in less than 20 hours, only to ride it harder on a racetrack the next day. Later on, it had also managed the 4,200-km-long western India ride with ease, before we bid her farewell. And there she was again, ready for yet another adventure, looking as good as new!
It was on a dull, grey morning that we started from Pune, but our spirits were high with the anticipation of exploring a new region. We rode down NH 4 towards Kolhapur, home to some of the last remaining academies of traditional Indian wrestling (kushti), leather footwear and spicy cuisine. Just after Kolhapur, though, we had our first encounter with rain. Fortunately, respite came after Nipani as we veered off the highway.
Upon entering the Amboli Ghat, we came across a breathtaking vista. There was a dense fog on the winding road and thick forest cover on both the sides. The fog cleared away as we made it to the top and the forest opened up to offer a view of the valley on one side and numerous waterfalls on the other. Soon we were at Sawantwadi from where we reached Panaji in the estimated time.
Nature’s beauty, serene beaches and a comfortable, laid-back ambience have led to heavy commercialisation of Goa. However, in spite of the thriving tourism industry, the southern part of Goa has managed to escape some of this commercialisation. As you travel towards the east, it gets even better. Narrow rustic roads with colonial houses and beautiful churches speak of the Portuguese influence on Goa. In the evening we went to the Colva beach to have an authentic Goan dinner dominated by fish, with the sound of the waves forming an apt background music.
The next day we entered Karnataka just before Sadashivgad and rode along the coastline the whole day. Konkani changed to Kannada now and along with the language changed the way of life. Hinduism replaced Christianity, saris replaced dresses and fish was replaced by pure vegetarian comestibles like idli-sambar and dosa.
But the food did not come as a surprise. After all, we were at the place from where it made its way all over the world! Udupi is a city about 60 kilometres north of Mangalore, where dishes like idli, dosa and rasam, together termed as ‘Udupi food’, were first prepared as offerings to Lord Krishna and went on to become one of the most popular cuisines all over India.
We reached Mangalore in the evening and visited the temple dedicated to Mangaladevi, after whom the city is named. St Aloysius chapel is another shrine worth visiting for the century-old paintings on its inner walls, done by Italian painter-missionary Antonio Moscheni.
Reign Of Rain
From Mangalore we turned eastwards towards Kodagu (formerly Coorg) with the aim of reaching Mysuru (formerly Mysore) by afternoon. The rain gods, however, had something else in mind. Our day began with heavy downpour that lasted for about six hours and the road too was in a bad shape, which reduced our pace to mere crawling speeds. It was almost evening by the time we reached Madikeri, a small hill town and a thriving market for Kodagu’s coffee and spices. The decision to spend the night there didn’t need much discussion as it is always wise to give in to nature.
Riding On ‘The Best Road In The World’
The road from Kodagu in Karnataka to Munnar in Kerala, which goes via Udhagamandalam (formerly Ooty) in Tamil Nadu, won the title of being the best riding road in the world in an international contest held last year. And fittingly so, for there were some of the best experiences of this trip in store for us over the next two days.
Our first halt was at a place called Bylakuppe, about 40 km from Madikeri. Bylakuppe has two settlements of Tibetan refugees, who sought asylum here back in the 1960s. Since then the Tibetans have established a few monasteries and are living in harmony with the local populace.
Thanks to the improved road surface, sparse traffic and the absence of rain, we reached Mysuru by noon. The Mysuru Palace belonging to the royal family is the main tourist attraction here, but the city is also home to many other palaces which are worth visiting. The Chamundeshwari temple, located atop the Chamundi Hill opposite the Royal Palace, is a famous shrine while the Mysuru Zoo is one of the best in the country.
We left Mysuru after lunch and headed south for Udhagamandalam (Ooty). En route we passed through a part of the Bandipur National Park and Tiger Reserve. We came across a herd of deer grazing about freely by the side of the road and also saw a wild elephant feasting on bamboo shoots. The forest changes its name at the State border between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to Mudumalai National Park. Here we saw a couple of bison just off the road, who, mercifully, took no cognisance of our presence.
After the forest began the climb towards Udhagamandalam, which has no less than 36 very steep hairpin bends. However, all our CBR needed was just a downshift and up we went, with no sign of fatigue from the bike. As we neared the final bends, the weather became quite chilly and soon my riding gear proved inadequate to keep me warm. Once at the top, the road passes through tea estates and leads you towards this post-card town. Beautiful houses, tall eucalyptus trees and wide open grasslands make Udhagamandalam look as picturesque as the Swiss countryside. After a cup of hot lemon tea we moved on as we still had about 90 km to cover to reach our destination for the day. The ride down the mountain in darkness was even more enjoyable than that while going up and it kept me alert in spite of the exhaustion. By the time we reached Coimbatore, it was almost midnight. The city was asleep and all the restaurants were closed. So our dinner that night consisted of a few bananas and biscuits.
The next day we had our CBR serviced at the Honda dealership in the city and set out again for another hill station in yet another State. Rain threatened us with a few drizzles until Pollachi, but the clouds cleared away by the time we reached Udumalaipettai. We turned right from the town and headed for the mountains, passing the Anamalai Wildlife Sanctuary on the way. The State border changed ahead and we entered the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. Although we couldn’t spot much wildlife apart from a few monkeys that day, the road itself was exciting enough: a winding strip of asphalt going through tea estates that stretch from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley below. There were waterfalls on the way and the smell of tea was everywhere in the air.
We reached Munnar at dusk and went for a walk round the town. It is a rather small town, concentrated round the market place. Batter-fried bananas are a delicacy here and the town has a church and a mosque worth a dekko. We also noticed that the language had now changed from Tamil to Malayalam, we being familiar with neither.
We started from Munnar at 4.00 am the next day as we had about 400 kilometres to cover, with breaks scheduled at Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum). It turned out to be a good decision, because we were able to reach Kochi by 8.00 am due to minimal traffic. Kochi is an island city, including the part known as Ernakulam. It has been influenced by imperial powers like the Portuguese, Dutch and British, all of whom had their settlements in the city once upon a time. The Fort Kochi area bears testimony to these cultures in the form of the Dutch Palace and the Bastian Bungalow, whose architecture is a blend of Dutch and Portuguese styles. There is also a Jewish settlement and a synagogue while the famous Chinese fishing nets can be found near the beach here.
We left Kochi after breakfast and took the road that goes parallel to the coast. However, since the road was in a bad shape, we switched to NH 66 only to find ourselves in a similar situation due to heavy traffic. Therefore, we switched back again to SH 1 and were finally able to reach the State capital of Thiruvananthapuram before dusk.
After a quick snack, we continued southwards and re-entered Tamil Nadu. The 90-km stretch between Thiruvananthapuram and Kanyakumari was one of the hardest sections of our whole trip. One has to fight for survival on these narrow roads where bus drivers seek to fulfil their grand prix dreams. After a three-hour struggle, during which I had to often step off the road to make way for the charging buses, we reached Kanyakumari, the southern-most tip of India.
Kanyakumari is situated at the junction of three water bodies: the Indian Ocean to its south, the Bay of Bengal to its east and the Arabian Sea to the west. The Kanyakumari seashore has many tourist attractions but the most famous ones are the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, established in honour of Swami Vivekananda, and the 133-foot statue of the renowned Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar, both located on independent rocks just off the mainland.
After a visit to the shore, we geared up for the day’s ride. It was time to head back, but from the eastern side. Our destination for the day was the ancient city of Madurai, 250 km away. We covered the distance in about three hours, thanks to the excellent six-lane highway.
Madurai is a 2,500-year-old city, situated on the banks of the River Vaigai. It is known as the temple city of south India, the Meenakshi Amman temple (also called Meenakshi Sundareshwar) being the most noteworthy of them all. This 400-year-old temple is dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi (Parvati) and it is certainly one of the greatest Hindu structures in India. The temple is located at the heart of the city and built in an area of about 15 acres. It is one of the finest examples of Dravidian architecture with as many as 12 gopurams (temple entrance tower) and 33,000 sculptures within its precincts. A complete tour of the temple requires half a day, but then a visit to the city is incomplete without it.
We left Madurai to head for the coast again, this time to the Union Territory of Puducherry (formerly Pondicherry). Puducherry used to be a French colony on Tamil Nadu’s eastern coast, about 100 km south of Chennai. The French rule has long become a thing of the past, but the town shows a strong influence of their culture even today. We reached ‘Pondy’, as it is popularly known, by afternoon and soon started sweating profusely owing to the hot and humid weather. In the evening we went for a walk on the Promenade and had tea at le café snack bar facing the sea. There are many French eateries in Pondy and it is also famous for restaurants serving firewood pizzas. The area near the coast is called the ‘white town’, which resembles the small towns in France itself. The streets here have French names and the old buildings and villas too have French architecture. The extraordinary blend of the French and Tamil culture makes for a unique experience in Puducherry.
Running Behind Schedule
The 150-km-long eastern coastal road (ECR) that connects Puducherry with Chennai is a popular weekend gate-away in that region. We covered the first 100 km at three-digit speeds before making a detour for the ancient port city of Mahabalipuram.
Mahabalipuram was a flourishing port in the seventh century with strong commercial links with the western world. The historic monuments in Mahabalipuram like the stone chariot, shore temple, wall carvings and a few others date back to its days of glory and are truly a national treasure.
Our visit to Mahabalipuram took more time than we expected, which delayed our schedule for the day by a good three hours. We rushed to Chennai, had a quick lunch and were back on the road, because we still had 350 kilometres to cover. However, our speed dropped considerably, what with darkness reducing visibility, ongoing road work and, worst of all, fatigue. After struggling for about 100 km, we decided to call it a day and stay over the night at Vellore.
The next day we started early and covered the remaining 200 km to Bengaluru in just over two hours. But it took us more than an hour to get out of the city due to heavy traffic. Once on the highway, it was a race against the sun. We managed to cover the 200 km to Chitradurga just before sunset, but we now faced the task of riding the remaining 130 km to Hospet in the night. The distance wasn’t much of a challenge for us, but low visibility and traffic certainly were. We finally reached Hospet at midnight and so a long and tiring day came to an end.
Back Home Via Hampi
The mediaeval town of Hampi is just a 10-km drive from Hospet. Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire and an important trade centre in ancient India. Horse traders from Persia and Portugal were frequent visitors to Hampi, where they traded their horses for Indian spices. In AD 1565, the kingdom of Vijayanagara was attacked and defeated by Muslim rulers, who destroyed the city, leaving behind the present ruins of Hampi.
The town has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO on account of the 500-year-old monuments found here. The most famous ones are the stone chariot in the Vitthala temple, Zanana enclosure and the Hazara Rama temple. Apart from these, there are numerous other temples and edifices in this planned city with beautiful carvings and sculptures depicting life in that era. There are purpose-built markets and even water pipelines, all made from the local stone.
After leaving Hampi, we rejoined NH 13 to reach Hubli. Here, we came back to NH 4 for the final 430 km of our ride and made it to the Bike India offices in Pune by midnight.
The southern States of India are blessed with a great variety of terrain and climate, but, more importantly, the local populace appreciate and have preserved their natural resources. All the three States that we travelled through have a long coast-line with serene beaches and clear waters. There are mountain ranges, lush green forests and outstanding religious shrines and monuments, influenced and enriched by a mix of local and foreign cultures. With almost 4,300 km on the odometer, this southern leg was our longest trip on the Honda CBR 250R and a fitting end to our 15,000 km pan-India ride.