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Part 4: South India road trip

The hill country of Tamil Nadu and Kerala

A peaceful morning motorcycle ride through the countryside concluded with a hectic, horn-honking, light-flashing, crazy-yet-exhilarating burst to Palani.

My travelling partner Astried Huebner led the charge, boldly splitting lanes and shooting every possible gap in traffic. I was glued to her rear tire.

Palani marks the beginning of hill country and is famous for Murugan Temple, dedicated to the Hindu war god Kartikeya. Hordes flock in worship, accompanied by endless rows of trinket and trash stalls, and blaring music. A few hours of beggars, touts, and temple madness are more than enough.

Next morning, stopping to oil the chains was another reminder of how kind people are here. When I asked how much, the man turned his hands down. I insisted. He smiled ruefully and said, “10 rupees, firm”—a few cents. I said: “two bikes,” gave him 20 and we took off.

Palm plantations and rice paddies lined the road approaching Palani Hills. The climb twists and turns and the vegetation grows dense. A pack of monkeys on the road fight over freshly fallen fruit. A misty cascade tumbled down a granite face in the distance. We paused at “Relax Corner” chai stall to admire the view.

Kodaikanal, literally “The Gift of the Forest,” is the Princess of Hill Stations, a place where Missionaries and British bureaucrats retired during the hot season. There are plenty of lodges, but the freedom that comes with riding allows broader choice. Quaint stone cottages on the edge of town offered a view northeast over the hills. The night guard offered extra blankets and informed us he would make hot water in the morning between 8 and 10 a.m. only. “Very much work, sir,” he added.

At 2,133 metres above sea level, the weather is fresh and Astried bought two sweaters at the Tibetan shop at touristic Kodai Lake. Nearby Coaker’s Walk and Pillar Rocks are unimpressive. The real highlight is Mother Nature herself in the forest reserves outside town. Extensive pine and eucalyptus groves create a lovely aroma, enhancing the winding roads and great views. We passed several small groups of women half-jogging down the road, their heads loaded with wood. A daily task for these stalwarts who keep the fires burning for cooking and warmth.

Road construction stopped traffic in the middle of nowhere, so we drank chai. As the woman pounded fresh masala, we noticed small bottles of eucalyptus oil. Fifty metres away, we poked our heads through a narrow door to view the extraction process, and Astried promptly purchased the 100-per-cent pure oil.

My bike developed a rattle and I discovered a bolt had worked itself out. A nearby shop upended the magic bucket of hardware and we found a suitable bolt. The boy screwed it in and—voila—no more rattle. We shook hands, smiled, and carried on.

Heading down the other side of the mountains, a second rattle started, and I found another bolt loosening. At a prospective shop, I said “Allen key?” He stared blankly. The steel door adjacent rolled up and a guy stepped out saying, “I am a mechanic.” I borrowed tools, examining all the rack bolts, and finding a third bolt missing a lock washer. As the mechanic searched, a glimmer from the ground identified the perfect washer in the dust.

It was a long, slow descent to Teni, but I spotted a hand-written sign to “Periyakulam” and thought, “Shortcut.” The ubiquitous chai stall owner assured us, with an enthusiastic circular nod, we could ride through. The dirt road was under construction, but we were up for an adventure.

The first construction crew said we could make it through, and an engineer further along said “yes,” so we carried on. The dirt road varied from bad to worse, but the views were amazing. The original track terminated at a village six kilometres onward, but they were punching through to access the coffee plantations ringing the mountain.

We saw three motorcycles and two Jeeps over 25 kilometres. I can confidently state we were the first foreigners on this road, confirmed occasionally when we waited for the crew to complete sections and continue.

At a cluster of shacks, the rough track dropped steeply, and progress was slow. Astried was challenged by the conditions, but we finally reached the plains below and drove into the heart of massive mango, coconut palm, and rice plantations.

Longer time, fewer kilometres to Teni, but what an adventure! We found a quiet lodge, the owners going out of their way to ensure our comfort, proudly noting we were their first foreign guests.

 

For 28 days and more than 2,600 kilometres, Tim and his companion explored rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala (in 2017). Few foreigners ride the back roads of southern India and they certainly attracted a lot of attention. From chai-stall stares to schoolchildren’s cheers and even newspaper coverage. For more on Tim’s adventures, go to  piquenewsmagazine.com and timmorch.com.