A few weeks ago I bicycled from Pune to Kanyakumari. This was a solo ride of over 1600kms, spanning over 3 weeks and I did this entirely along the Western coastline of India. Here is how it went down.
Preface : This took me 20 days and I’ve split this narrative describing each day. Needless to say this is long and feel free to scroll down to catch glimpses at random. If you’re still not so inclined to read this, maybe you’d be interested in just watching the mini movie I made with my GoPro. A few who watched it said they were thrilled by it. Here is a link to it —
Premise : Bike a rough 100km each day to get to the next spot. Average speed — 20km/hr. The Google Map route for reference is http://bit.ly/2mvM6pi
This started out as an idea since I felt listless in early January this year. Frustrated with other potential trips not working out, I decide to chase this one on my bike. A friend recommended I consider going down as south as possible and I did some basic research to figure if this was a thing that people did. It looked logistically doable and that’s all that mattered. Before I changed my mind, I got down to planning it. That included a Decathlon visit for gear, some reading online and procuring a GoPro to document this. On the eve of Day 1 though, I got cold feet. I recall getting baked with a close friend that night and he did a fine job giving me a pep talk.
So, the real Day 1 — I’m up by 4.30am and on the road by 5.30am. A neatly packed pair of compact looking Decathlon pannier bags, earphones playing the new Bonobo album and I’m out on Nagar Road,unsure of what the hell I was really undertaking. But having spent some time biking long distances and doing other related stupid things, I knew auto-pilot mode was what I needed to switch into. Ignoring cabs ferrying party people, I decided to pedal on and I reach the Pune-Bangalore highway. Didn’t experience a lot of head wind, but I felt the drag on my trustee Japanese Hybrid. Maybe I was running in my new Continental tyres, I thought. I cruise through some tunnels, stop by for breakfast and other snack points and look out for Bhor Ghat. I’d previously met with a guy who did a similar ride last year and he appraised me of the mighty Ghat that I might find on Day 1. And I’ll confess, I wasn’t prepared for it. It was a ridiculous climb in the scorching heat and I was making rookie mistakes of not refilling enough water at stops or carrying enough nutrition or carrying any Electral! Anyhow, I make it past that mighty climb up and down and find my final halt for the day. I reach Mahad by 4pm and I feel extremely relieved for having gotten through my first day. I spent the evening visiting the local market place to pick up some fruits and Electral and made a quick stop at a computer to see what I was capturing on my GoPro. Having had a pooped yet successful Day 1, I hit the sack watching some Bollywood films on TV.
Day 2 — Its 10AM. That’s right. It is 10 frikking AM, an entire 4 hours later than what I should have been up by. The alarm went off, but my exhausted body clearly refused to acknowledge it. A quick contemplation over whether I stay put for the day or head out and I made the wise call of making moves. “This is what the trip is about, Abhishek!”, I tell myself, happy that I am going to be winging it when things don’t go as expected. A quick ride onto the highway and I find myself on Ghat roads again. Another steep one and this one in particular seemed arid. Hardly any tree cover for shade, and at this point in the ride I begin having serious thoughts — “Why am I doing this on a bicycle? Also, haven’t these guys heard of tunnels? I’m such an idiot.” I’m also not doing the best job carrying enough water. Either I felt too full to empty my bottle at a filling spot or I’d empty it in me at the wrong times. I had to figure out a better way to do that.
After having lost 4 precious hours on the road that morning, I knew there’s a good chance I was going to have to cut short the day’s trip. I decide to halt at Chiplun, another bust town, as opposed to Guhagar, a seemingly nice beach town which would already bring me to the coastline that I’d be following all the way to Kanyakumari. I find a half decent hotel, have a mini breakdown in my room wanting to give up and I head downstairs to the lobby to catch the WiFi. Cleveland was playing Golden State a second time that season and I dodged spoilers all day to catch the highlights. I upset myself some more with LeBron’s loss and I call it a night.
Day 3 — I’m up early and I feel better here. I limber up, set my bike up for the day’s journey and I’m on the road in dark hours. Make my way through relatively flat roads, make good speed and I’m on time to Pawas. I remember feeling curious about Ratnagiri en route and this guy slows down on a scooter next to me to have a friendly chat. He was enamored that I was biking around aimlessly and wanted to join me if he could. He also gave me information about an Ashram that I should stay at if I were on a budget and happy to slum it. Said our goodbyes and I get atop this never ending plateau right before Pawas. Riding noon on wards was getting tougher and it didn’t help that I had water troubles. A couple of happy down hills were followed by immediate high climbs. I passed by a crowd that gathered around a ditch. I learnt later that day that a guy crashed his bike there that afternoon and passed away on the spot. That shook me up a bit and I felt cautious.
I get to this Ashram which was pretty basic with a mattress, a pillow, a window and a pay-what-you-want deal. Post a quick nap I take an auto rickshaw to this beautiful beach called Ganeshgule. I remember being in awe when I got there. Not because I hadn’t been to beaches before, but because this one had just 2 other people on the entire beach! With exponentially cleaner sand than Goa and clearer water, this felt like victory ground to me after 3 days of struggle on the road. I mess around with the GoPro in the water and head back to my Ashram. Bump into 2 more cyclists there who biked it from Bombay and were headed to Goa. You’re sure to get excited when you see fellow idiots and we exchange notes. Cap my night with a spicy homemade Malvani Chiken Thali and a light up a doob later to unwind.
Day 4 — Me and the other guys meet downstairs to pack up. With them carrying extra load like tents and sleeping bags, I felt pretty glad with what I was travelling. Also, they were on Mountian Bikes and we parted ways shortly after realizing that we weren’t going to keep pace. Today seemed like a beautiful ride, I remember thinking. Stunning views bang along the coast, heading south and I felt my happiest during my ride thus far. I make good time again, stop by for Poha and Misal Pav for breakfast and made further headway over gently rolling roads. Sometimes averaging 30km/hour as opposed to an even 20. Stopped at what looked like a maize field to fill air and was finally on home stretch to Mithbav, another pretty beach town. Like I learned from the previous days, the last 20 can be a bitch. And this one complied, with its sudden drops and immediate climbs. It made no sense! Why not even it all out, chimed a frustrated me.
Spoke to local folks along the way and asked them to convince me that Kunkeshwar, a holy town a few kilometres earlier than Mithbav was a better bet. I found a similar Ashram at Kunkeshwar with a similar deal. I was looking forward to catching the Thunder play the Warriors and although they lost miserably, it always wakes up the Westbrook in me when I see him drive in and hammer a dunk. I spend the evening getting some footage inside the temple and then later on the beach to chat with the fishermen. They were getting ready to head out for the night’s catch and were evidently not interested to entertain a tourist. Later at the Ashram, I bump into my cycling buddies from the previous night who arrived just in time for dinner! We talk shop for a bit and say our good nights.
Also, shout out to the folks at Lifecycle, Pune who had spray painted their Tour of Deccan markers all along the way. #idontneedgps
Day 5 — This one turned out ridiculous. Started out alright riding along the coast, stopping at Malvan for breakfast and pedaling through a tiny forest area. I did have the option here to take the relatively straight forward highway via Sawantwadi, but clearly didn’t have the heart to take the shorter boring route seeing nothing but cars and cement roads. What started out smooth slowly turned into a nightmare, passing by winding roads through Vengurla to eventually get to Goa. I distract myself looking at a few Maersk containers passing by wondering if I ever carried those exact same ones when I was on board. Fatigued, I reach Shiroda for lunch and ambitiously ordered myself a Fish Thali that didn’t go down too well for my liking. The hotel owner handed out words of encouragement saying it was all flat from there on out and I trudged on. I finally cross the Maharashtra-Goa border near Querim passing by the police check post trying to look “normal”, since they were cops and of course I usually feel as if I’m up to something wrong if I see them.
I’ve made it to Goa! I contain my excitement till I reach my friend Nikhil’s place in Assagao. 20kms away from home though, my back tyre gives away, losing its alignment and wobbling out of control. I’ve either got to ride without back brakes on or lose speed expending energy overcoming friction. Slowly yet steadily, I make it to Assagao. I stop for a postcard picture and head over to Nikhil’s cool apartment. Meet his mum and girlfriend and call it an early night after doing traveler things like laundry, noting down journal entries, looking up bike repair options and figuring out if I wanted to head any further. Smoke that joint, and slept like a child.
Day 6 –Not much to report this day. Took the day off to re calibrate myself and my bike which had taken a beating thus far. Woke up to a delicious fruit salad and I spent my day outdoors looking for a trusty bike repair guy. With less of a choice, I hesitantly hand my bike over to a dude in Mapusa. I bide my time at a computer with my GoPro and was partially disappointed with my day off in Goa and not having done Goa things. To be honest with myself though, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Goa anyway. Met some close friends for dinner and called yet another early night in this series of routine days.
Day 7 — Slept great and bid adieu. Excited to be on a bike that just got serviced and to top it off was this beautiful flat ahead of me to Palolem. Made great speed and do a final climb just before Agonda. I remember noting this climb having a great amount of tree cover that lessened the exertion. Finally on the down hill and I get to Palolem, checking myself into a Road House Hostel. INR500 a night for a bunk bed arrangement, a locker to yourself and a towel. I meet Khaled here, an Arab dude who just quit his job and was there to do some yoga. We decide to meet at some point that evening to toke at Colomb beach. I meet RJ for lunch, someone I spent some time at a Work Away with, and spend the afternoon biking around trying to cover touristy ground. I reconnect with Khaled later and we swap stories. Get some banana pie to treat our munchies and call yet another early night.
Day 8 — Catch sunrise on the beach for a work out on it. Pass by Karwar, a port town, which offered yet another beautiful ride along the coast and it’s famous blue-waters. Bike trouble surfaces again and I get it fixed at Ankola. Losing a good couple of hours with this and having difficulty communicating with locals for directions, it’s another exasperating time. Just 20kms further on the right track again, and my back wheel is just not feeling into it today. Scrambling on with my make shift arrangements with it, I find a cheap lodge near the main bus stand at Kumta. There is a frog in the bathroom but I’m too pooped to care and I pass out by 5.30pm. I’m officially in Karnataka now!
Day 9 — Knocked off for 12hrs! Maravanthe is supposed to be my next destination. I pass by Honnavur bridge and the famous Murudeshwar temple with the ginourmous Shiva statue. Left my bike with the watchman downstairs who said was happy to watch it for me. Meanwhile I rode the elevator 19 storeys high up the temple to get some cool shots and capture the view. I couldn’t feel more like a tourist, amid large devotee crowds. Gokarna was about 40km to the west, but that’s essentially 2 hours one way, so it was best to have skipped.
I make a pumped up entry for myself to Maravanthe listening to Porcupine Tree’s Deadwing album. Maravanthe is a beautiful beach on the highway that passes right though it, shouldered by the Arabian sea to the West and Sauparnika river to the East. This, has got to be my favourite spot in retrospect. Found a home stay there opposite the beach and bang on the highway. With no electricity all afternoon, I headed straight for the water and tried a couple of failed attempts at a time lapse. The owner of the home stay, Mr.Srinivas, apparently held the world record for having been the oldest family to have lived in one place for 1248 years and counting. Him and I chatted at length and he was curious about my caste and why I wasn’t married already.
I stepped out late evening for my usual walk about and played pick up volleyball with some folks. What I realized earlier that day though, was that I’d seemed to have lost my front lights. Seemed like a slick theft job considering it was in a pouch under the saddle with other stuff in it. :/
Day 10 — I’m up at 6am to go through Google maps for the day and realize Manipal is right next to Udupi. Quickly pull up my Contacts to text Kartik, who was studying dentistry at Manipal and was pleasantly surprised to find he was up and on his way for basketball practice. We decide to meet at Udupi for breakfast and I was looking forward to this impromptu meeting. I get into Udupi earlier than scheduled and I bike around the temple areas of the city. Took me back to times when I was in school and I’d visit relatives in South India and temple visits were default. We met at Woodlands for Udupi breakfast and I decide to take my 2nd buffer day off with him and his girlfriend at Manipal. I figured it might be interesting to see what a day in a big university like Manipal would be. Needless to say, Manipal was also famous its greenery and I don’t just mean tree cover. *wink wink* They spent their day with me giving me a grand tour of the University and we drove over to Delta Point in the evening. Grab dinner at a new quaint cafe in this college town and retire for the night.
Day 11- I coerce Kartik into a quick game of ball followed by scrumptious eggs for breakfast at their college hostel canteen before I get back on the road again making my way toward Managalore! But first, I thought I should perhaps take that ferry ride from Malpe to St.Mary’s Island. Footage from the ferry would be great, I thought. Bikes weren’t allowed on it though and I went without it anyway. A disappointing little visit though, to be honest, to see this tiny island and having lost 2 hours of my day to get there. I get back to the main land and now I’m on this FANTASTIC ‘’back’’ road all the way to Kapu beach and the light house on it! This ride along a tiny 50m wide road with like a 2m bike strip had the sea to one side and backwater to the other. This was easily the most spectacular ride and I couldn’t get enough of it. I remember high-fiving myself a thousand times in my head for having decided to set out of Poona on this ride and come across this inconspicuously located gem. Passed by the film set of a South Indian movie in the making and I made my way back to the dull highway toward Mangalore. Hints of a tiny drizzle as I entered the city limits but nothing hampered the ride to Mario’s Grandmum’s place. She is 82, runs a mill business and lives in this old Mangalorian style villa with a gazillion rooms inside. She cooked up delicious Pompfret for dinner and it was cute seeing her gorge on some local ice cream which she sweetly pre-ordered as dessert. We chatted about her past, her family and about how the business came into being. I felt like I knew more about the Andrade family then than my own Grandma’s.
Day 12 — Entry to Kerala! Felt so enthusiastic for this leg of my ride and was looking forward to getting there on my own two wheels which had begun feeling like an extension of myself by this point. First thing I notice about Kerala highways are just how narrow they are! Trucks and cars whizzing by a whiskers distance and what seemed like country roads in between villages was actually still just NH66! I get breakfast at Kasargod and decide to make my final stop for the day at Kanhangad. To my shit luck though, a Medical Conference took over town that day. All hotels seemed booked out and I spent a couple of hours grumpily moving from one to the next, looking for that single occupancy room. I eventually find this hidden hotel and I step out to sight see that evening.
Missed out on seeing Bekal fort by an hour due to visiting hours but I did chance upon a crowd of people getting a few Transgender people ready for an annual temple function that evening! A local guy was kind enough to stick around and answer my questions, but Malayalam isn’t my language and I had to infer most of what he was saying. Fascinating to see them in face paint and their colourful, bulky outfits. Each one telling a story and having cultural significance. Post dinner, I follow their procession around town and with no electricity back at the lodge, I couldn’t be happier with my time amid the loud and happy celebration with flame throwers and flamboyantly dressed dancers. All in all, a fantastic show to witness while I’m chomping down on the best banana chips in the world. #munchieattack
Day 13 — Basketball podcasts! I wake up realizing I had to catch up with the NBA season and podcasts seemed like the best way to. Met some friendly Doctors downstairs at the hotel lobby as I was getting ready for the day ahead and they wished me luck. The road ahead today had a bit more character than the previous few days since Goa. Some more rolling roads and several tiny bridges to keep things interesting. I also notice that Kerala probably has a predominantly Muslim population in its Northern parts. My destination for the day was Kannur and I was supposed to be syncing with a friend of a friend who owned a bicycle store and was happy to host cyclists passing by. After a treacherous ride in the blistering heat, I meet him at his BSA store and he very generously hands me the keys to his Bungalow. I meet his adorable 6 month old black Labrador pup named Idli and that cute bugger just made my day, man. I never had dogs around me while growing up and spending just one day with this guy reminded me of how awesome life could get with a canine in it. I spend that day hanging out with Manish and he was being a great host, checking in constantly to see if I was doing alright. We got some fancy Biryani at a famous hotel for lunch, some beers at a shady bar in the evening and pigged out on the tastiest chicken curry at a road side stall. He said he had something in store for Idli and I, the next morning and we hit the sack.
Day 14 — I’m up at 7.30 and Idli is up and about earlier than the both of us. I go ahead on my bike while Manish and Idli trail behind in his car and we rendezvous at this spectacular Drive-In beach called Muzzhapilangad. We grab breakfast, I say a heart breaking goodbye to Idli and Manish and I’m off to Kozhikode, via the beautiful Thallaserry and Mahe. Pass by some “Cool Bar”s and some “Hot and Cool Bar”s named appropriately for the kind of beverages they were serving. As I’m getting into Kozhikode, an SUV slows down near me with two gentlemen in it telling me how happy they were to see someone biking across their town on a mission and then recommended a few budget hotels I should stay at. I eventually didn’t get much done there in Calicut except eat the recommended Biryani at Paragon.
Day 15 — Uneventful ride for the most part. I did notice some more Kerala things en route, though. Highways being flanked by massive and gorgeous villas, a consistent whiff of coconut oil in the air and I noticed a lot more working female demographic than I’d seen elsewhere in the country.
I eventually get to Guruvayur while catching up with the NBA world with Zach Lowe’s podcasts. Find myself a room for the day and head on over to the inside of the very popular Hindu Temple. The complex is huge inside and I stop by at one of the many halls there to watch some local children perform Bharatnatyam and Kathakali. Someone recommended I come in again at night to see what the temple looked like from the inside. With no photography allowed and nothing but a mundu(local sarong) for a dress code, I get access inside. And as soon as I do, I am mesmerized. It makes you feel disconnected from the outside with the beauty of the on goings inside. The four walls around decked with a more than a 1000 lit diyas, a few adult size elephants adorned with jewellery and atop them teenage looking boys waving flags and participating in the worship rituals. And of course a group of a hundred devotees trying to sneak a peek into the inside of the temple where a more “special” idol was supposed to be have kept. I’m no religious person, but I must confess, that felt peaceful. Happy having decided to witness the rituals, I walk back to call it an end to a simple day. For the record though, this would go on to be my second favourite day from my three weeks along the coast line.
Day 16 — I slap on tonnes of sunscreen and I’m back on the saddle making my way to Kochi. I’m off NH66 now and riding neck to neck with the coast. I’ve got to board a ferry at Vypin to take me to Fort Kochi. A cool backpacker hostel named The Happy Camper is just a few hundred metres away from the Fort Kochi jetty. I check in for INR500 a night and the staff was super hospitable. Clean beds, air conditioned pods and fellow back packers. Bond with a Belgian guy Max over 420 by the Chinese fishing nets and we explored a bit of Fort Kochi on foot. Weirdly enough, I saw 2 flats on my bike after we got back and as puzzled as I was to see that to have happened while my bike was parked, I felt grateful that I hadn’t encountered any flats as yet on the road.
While that was being attended to, Jitin from the staff and I went on a long bike ride on their Trek 3700s passing by the Fishing Nets, the Synagogue, Jew Town, Spice market and finally Kochi MMD via Old Thoppumpady Bridge which was built during the British era actually and is movable to allow ships underneath to pass through. One hell of a ride passing by these historic spots and finally getting onto India’s largest man-made island named Willingdon to find some merchant ships pass by. I recall feeling nostalgic waiting on the ferry to bring us back as I could hear the Engine Room alarm go off on a Container ship at the jetty nearby. I get back to The Happy Camper to find Girish hanging out looking forward to having a few drinks. Courtesy of the existing liqour policy in Kerala, I stood in a long and winding queue to procure a bottle of Bacardi Black. A sip here, a puff there and it lights out for me.
Day 17 — I take this day off to catch bits of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, a contemporary arts exhibition held across various parts of Kochi. Max and I wake and bake before exploring bits of Anand Warehouse and Aspinwall House. I spend the afternoon sorting out my laundry and lying horizontal before heading out on a date that evening. She seemed nice and let’s just say the Bacardi from the previous night did come handy ;)
Day 18 — ALRIGHT! I’d been eager to see Alleppey and it seemed like a short 60km ride for the day. I get in comfortably by noon to another back packer hostel called Art-Packers.Life. Cool white and blue building that used to be a nursery school at one point and an All India Radio building before that! Similar deal for INR500 and you’re amid travelers from around the world. Had a disappointing ride that evening trying to explore the backwaters and I later headed toward Alleppey beach. Seeing a pretty run of the mill beach over there too, I snack at Kerala’s Indian Coffee House chain and head back to the hostel. I chat with the owner about this 2 month new establishment of his and he gave me a good low down on it. Turns out the other owner is a young Captain in the merchant navy and that got me more interested in his conversation. I had a super early morning planned out with a kayaking session on the backwater so I couldn’t partake in any of shenanigans the folks were having downstairs. But I knew this trip wasn’t about that. So I caught up on the sleep I lost the previous night.
Day 19 — Samson comes to get me at 5.30am. My plan for the day was to kayak for 4 hours roughly and then bike a 100km to Varkala. I was warned that this might get too strenuous but hey kayaking was more of upper body work, I thought to myself. That logic was enough for me and I went ahead. Samson and I pick up a British couple and 2 Canadian women en route and we head over to his kayak station. We hop on and get paddling. A few hours of sheer bliss in the early morning serenity of the backwaters and narrow channels and a lifetimes worth of spotting different types of Kingfishers, Cormorants and Egrets. I left feeling convinced that this was hands down the only way to experience the backwaters of Alleppey. I rush over back to the hostel to wrap up and get back on the road to reach Varkala before sundown. I had lost my front lights at Murudeshwar earlier and I didn’t want to take chances riding in the dark.
Wanting to switch things up a bit from the usual playlist of NBA podcasts or my music on shuffle, I download Serial — an investigative journalism podcast about a true murder mystery set in Baltimore in 1999. It was apparently all the rage in the US when it released in 2014 and I was eager to listen to some good story telling on what was seeming like a long ride ahead of me that day. If you haven’t heard it, I am not going to spoil it for you. But I will say it was hella engaging and I spaced the entire season out over the remaining 2 days of this already epic journey. Moving on, I see this dude ahead of me on a bike carrying some bags just like I was, across my pannier. I turn my GoPro on and speed up to catch up. We chat while riding along side and I learnt that this dude was 36, had his 4 yr old at home and was riding solo from Pune to Kanyakumari too. Of course we stopped to get a beverage on the way and swap experiences from our ride thus far. But it had to be brief since I had a longer way to cover that day than he did. Bums back on the saddle, hit “play” on Serial and I get to Varkala just in time at sunset. The ride along Kollam was also set on breathtaking narrow beach roads for a good 30km and I realized a camera was never going to do justice covering it all. A day closer to my final destination, and there I was smiling ear to ear cruising on these roads. :) Pass by a massive cargo ship that grounded nearby a few months ago and I get in to Varkala by 7pm. I don’t have much to report from Varkala, though. I grab quiet dinner at a peaceful hostel and thanked ODOMOS for my night.
Day 20 — This is home stretch, man. :) I head over to the beach to get a quick work out in and I’m back on the highway to enter Tamil Nadu. It was yet another taxing day and I thought to myself, of course my last day had to get challenging. A 130km ride with up and down hills all over again, I overshoot 20km which equates to an hour and a half of lost time excluding effort and the ever shining sun in all its glory as if it to welcome me to the Southern most tip of India. I passed by Trivandrum, Neyyatinkara and Nagercoil to get to Kanyakumari. Manish, from Kannur had told me about the last stretch at Kanykumari. It was a bit of a climb, he said, with the last 500 odd metres being a downhill into the sunset.
My music shuffles to Arcade Fire and I think “Why not!”. I was eager and ready to throw my fist in the air in the silhouette of the setting sun as I make my way to the top and then down hill. But what was I expecting. It was a Sunday evening at the busiest tourist place in the southern most part of India, essentially feeling like a fish market. And there I was wheeling my bike on foot, trying to get hordes of people to move away from my GoPro shot all while trying to communicate to them somehow that I was having a moment here. :/ Jaded and disappointed, I move over to a spot further away to just soak it all in. Felt anti-climactic and hilarious to say the least. I smoked my first cigarette of the day there and patted myself on the back mentally -“Well done, Abhishek.” Funny thing is, I then felt auto programmed to think “What next?”, as if to figure next moves.
But this story ends here. A close friend came over to pick me up in his car, we spent a night drinking beer marveling at the ridiculousness and awesomeness of the last 3 weeks and I board a 24+hr train back home with my bicycle being shipped home by Blue Dart.
I guess the most common thing I was asked during and after the ride was, “But why did you do it?”. Well, that and of course “Is this gear cycle?”. You can guess the answer to the latter but I’ll answer the first by saying it probably was a mix of three things — Wanting to be different, Wanting a challenge and Wanting to prove myself to the world.
Platitudes aside though, there are lessons I take away from the ride for a life time. I feel more comfortable with myself and I feel better equipped at dealing with the lemons of my life. If you’ve come this far reading this, I implore you to go on a solo journey of your own. There is a better version of you out there waiting for you. :)