Western Ghats – ‘Me & MY ENFIELD’

In life, there may be over a thousand valid reasons why not to do something, usually relating to risk, danger and the potential negative consequences.  When you bring a motorbike into the equation and decide to ride it solo in a country such as India, the dangers become heightened as does the risk.  However, there may only be one legitimate reason why you should do something, and that may only be a desire within your own heart, a passion that only you can fulfil.  For me, personally, that’s enough. If you’re not willing to follow your heart, then what’s the use of it beating, for you’re already dead.  This is my story of riding a Royal Enfield Bullet 350 through the Western Ghats of Kerala and finishing on the coast at Alleppey.

Day 1 – Fort Kochi to Munnar

A jet black tank, with the words ‘Royal Enfield’ printed in golden across it.  The bike had attitude representing basic mechanics, a classic style and that grizzly, roaring sound.  I had nothing in my small backpack except an extra long sleeve shirt, tooth brush and pair of shorts.  Riding out of Fort Kochi at 8am, the temperature was still relatively cool but the roads were starting to get busy.  I was aware that this first section of riding would be tricky as I had to ride over two main bridges and through a section of the city before reaching less congested roads.  I was also aware that India was one of the most dangerous places to ride in the world and after just twenty minutes of riding I could see why.  It was a little lawless at times, with larger vehicles such as buses and lorries bullying their way through and forcing sharp actions on the bike.  I stuck with the crowds and avoided the outskirts of the traffic, there was a constant beeping which creates even more confusion.

Indian traffic!

I must be honest here, and after riding in these conditions for about forty five minutes I started to question my decision to ride here in India.  It was high risk in this city traffic and I started to wonder when it would clear.  However, mindset is of significance, for if you let doubt or fear slip in, it will cloud your judgement and decision making, so you have to be bold, trust in your ability, stay alert and continue the ride.

Within an hour I had reached Muvattupuzha, the roads were less congested; riding was smoother and more enjoyable.  Munnar is a hill station, world famous for its tea plantations at about 1600 metres above sea level and as the roads started to climb so did my soul.  Twisting inclining bends through greenery and dense fauna, the accelerating Bullet started to growl.

Tea Plantations, Munnar

Kerala is one of the most politically active states in India and Che Guevara posters and graffiti prints are a regular occurrence along the route.  He’s an icon here for the Leftist parties, but before his days as a revolutionary, he was simply a biker on a quest for freedom and adventure on the road.  But the road changes people; it opens your eyes and at times can make them bleed.  If you travel extensively enough, expose yourself to new cultures and experience the poverty and hardship that exists within our world, then you gain perspective.  You obtain empathy and I can see how Guevara’s original quest for freedom and adventure became bigger than him, it became a pursuit for fairness in the world.  He wanted to help those who needed it the most, it’s very admirable.

An Enfield Bullet & Guevara; from a time when motorbikes were real and leaders were worth following!

I’d arrived at Munnar.

Day 2 – Munnar

The tea plantations are well cared for, trimmed and in the rolling hills they look extremely striking.  Riding through the meandering roads, one cannot help but notice how green the surroundings are and as the sun beats down the plantations look almost illuminated.  The air is fresh and it carries the scent of tea within it, workers farm the land and chai (tea) is sold at roadside.

Plantation workers

The hostel where I stayed the night is perched within the plantations, neighbouring a small village.  At the bottom of the path there’s a blue building, inside a traditional fire lit stove that continually boils selling chai and Indian meals.

A gang of us wander the plantations and climb the hills to find a waterfall where we can bathe.  It’s peaceful here, a prolonged stillness exists within this region and at dusk the temperature begins to sharply drop.

Day 3 – Munnar to Thekkady

The morning air is fresh at this altitude and a mist is yet to have moved.  The Enfield takes a minute to spark up but when she does her growl pierces the early morning silence.  Thekkady is 110km away and the ride there is rather spectacular, undulating roads through plantations with regular viewpoints of valleys and mountains.

Local chai

I stop along the way, usually for a chai and to share a smile with locals.  The motorbike brings a new dimension to travelling, it allows you to wander further, enhances the experience of adventure and as the pull of the throttle opens the engine, so does it open the heart to new horizons.  Life can surge past at such a speed at times and we sometimes forget to appreciate the moment.  We can get caught up in the fishing net of everyday reality that we fail to recognise the constant magic in the world.  Riding that Enfield solo through those mountains of Southern India, not knowing what is next in life, whether over the coming months I’d be in the northern or southern hemisphere; I was free in ways most people dreamed of and I was rich in the greatest currency of all, I was rich in life.  One today is worth two tomorrows, so it’s essential to make it count.

At Thekkady I find a homestay that overlooks Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and a cold shower provides a new lease of life.  Vegetable curry, a garlic naan and litre of water is followed by bed.

Day 4 – Thekkady to Vagamon

Walking through Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, there are a few interpretation boards explaining about the different wildlife.  There are King Cobra, Rock Python, Tigers (although very rare chance of seeing them in the wild), Gaur and Sambar.  I’m alone, on a self-guided trail and after reading such boards you do experience a raised awareness.  I mean, what the hell should I do if I encounter a King Cobra?

All of a sudden I hear some rustling in the leaves to my left and on turning I jump and then hear an animal yelp and a huge Sambar anxiously disappears into the trees.  It seems that I had scared him, and then in turn he scared me.  Later in the day, one of the Sanctuary guides takes me to a spot where I can see them from a more relaxed distance.

Sambar – over 5ft and 300kg

On leaving the Sanctuary a few Indian lads start talking to me, they see my motorbike helmet and are bikers themselves.  They had ridden 500km overnight from Bangalore to spend a few days exploring the Western Ghats of Kerala.  They invite me to ride with them and it’s not long before the four bikes are gliding along Kerala’s roads chasing the sunset.

Top of the world with the bikers from Bangalore – Amal, San Dy, Me, Subhash and Sarath

With the four bikes parked up on the rocky surface, we watch sunset at Parunthumpara.  We exchange travel and biking tales, they explain that some of their friends and family think they’re crazy because they travel thousands of kilometres all over India on their motorbikes just for the thrill of it.  They work hard in the city and at every chance spend their last penny on petrol.  I don’t think they’re crazy, I think they’re awake in a world where most are asleep.  The future is not promised to anyone, play the hand you’re dealt, make your life an adventure, fill up the tank now, fire up that engine and ride that bike wherever you can because tomorrow may never come.  They’re great company, their local knowledge is invaluable, they introduce me to some wonderful food and they laugh at my complaining about Indian toilets!

Off roading in the dark

That night we rode until gone midnight on an off-road track through the mountains, it was dark, misty and the bikers from Bangalore were convinced it was haunted.

Day 5 – Vagamon to Munnar

The day was spent touring the Idukki region and the following landmarks.

Sunrise above the clouds at Vagamon

The mosque and religious rock at the top of a mountain near Vagamon

Idukki Dam, one of Asia’s biggest that provides hydro energy to the region of Kerala

Coconut breaks to rehydrate

Day 6 – Munnar

A day resting in Munnar, wandering through the plantations and meeting the locals.

Day 7 – Munnar to Kodaikanal

I was told that the climb to Kodaikanal was a pretty special road, spiralling up the mountain to above 2000 metres with over fifteen hairpin bends.  The Enfield would never forgive me if I didn’t let her growl there.

I agreed to let Melissa from the hostel in Munnar become a pillion for this leg of the trip.  In hindsight, it was a bad idea as the bike was heavy enough without an extra passenger and bag.  We declined down from Munnar and then headed on a straight road to Udamalpettu and after that to Palani.  On the lower ground, the heat intensifies and land becomes a little more barren lined with tropical trees.  We joked that the road resembled something from the Jonny Depp film ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ as we crossed from Kerala and into the state of Tamil Nadu.  We’d covered about 100km before the mountain emerged signalling the start of a 60km weaving climb.  Caution was needed especially when coming into contact with the large TATA lorries transporting industrial materials.  But the roads were pleasant and as we climbed higher you could see the flat grounds that we had ridden previously.

Start of climb, notice the flat land below where we crossed.

We approached a sweeping corner, it was clear and as I accelerated around I could feel the back wheel slide on gravel (parts of the road were in poor condition), the bike slipped and we were off.  Luckily it was a minor fall and we only suffered from a few grazes and bruises.  After checking Melissa was ok, I picked up the Enfield and immediately noticed that on sliding the back peddle brake had snapped off.  Approximately, 12km on a mountain climb in Southern India with a snapped back brake pedal; it’s all part of the adventure, the journey is the destination, take a deep breath and execute your next move.  A car with two locals from Kerala stopped and agreed to take us to the nearest town, Palani to see if we could get the bike fixed.  Melissa jumped in their car and I rode the bike.

It’s fundamental here, to highlight the generosity and kindness of strangers.  The two locals didn’t only take us to Palani but they also helped us find a garage and translated between the mechanics and I.  This is a common pattern throughout the world; most people are compassionate and are willing to help you in their country.  The media creates this whole illusion of separation through cultural differences and religion, but they fail to recognise that we’re all human, wanting to reach out to each other.  The goodness of humanity will always out shine the bad.

Enfield getting treatment!

It was a long wait in Palani and they were unsure if they’d get it fixed.  Melissa caught a bus to Kodaikanal because at that point the bike trip was in jeopardy.  Finally, without access to an official Enfield back brake pedal they welded on one from a Honda Hero.  It worked, it was secure and within fifteen minutes I was back taking on that Kodaikanal Mountain.  There’s a specific point while you climb and after you pass it you can feel the temperature drop immediately, almost like the flick of a switch, I guess it’s something to do with the air pressure.  I didn’t care much for the scientific explanation, it felt good; I was riding an Enfield into the heavens and every cell in my body was alive.

Day 8 – Kodaikanal to Munnar

Sunrise

Pure tranquillity, over 2000 metres up overlooking the mountains of Southern India just as the sun is starting to rise.  The clouds are below us and linger beneath the mountain peaks; a magnificent bright orange light signifies the start of a new day.

Many trail India’s path in search of spiritual enlightenment.  Don’t overcomplicate it, spend a week riding solo through the Western Ghats, engage your mind in the sunrise, the heavens are there for you to see.

On advice of a hiking guide I took a six hour ride to Periyakulum, Theni, Bodinayakkanur and back to Munnar for sunset.

Day 9 – Munnar to Marari Beach

A 200km day setting off in the mountains along snaky roads, a stretch along the National Highway to an industrial port called Wipin (cops pulled me in but that’s another story!), a ferry across the waters to Fort Kochi and just over an hour’s ride along beach rode to Marari Beach.  Within a day I had descended from the greenery of the tea plantations to the seaside fishing town of Marari.  I parked up my Enfield, looked out at the sea and watched local fishermen untangle their nets.  What a contrast within one days riding; from the tea plantation workers in the cool mountain air to the warm, tropical beach with fishermen and boats.  The Indians refer to Kerala as ‘God’s Own Country’, I now understand why.

From over 1600 metres up in the tea plantations to the tropical beach in a day.

On meeting up with my girlfriend and her parents, it was time for a cold beer (or two!)

Day 10 – Marari Beach to Alleppey Beach to Fort Kochi

Ten days on a Royal Enfield Bullet across the Western Ghats and to the coast.  Riding solo I’d met many great people who were now friends, seen amazingly diverse landscapes and been introduced to a wonderful culture.  The end of one road is simply the beginning of another, let that Enfield roar and live a life with no regrets.