02 September 2010

On Your Bike - Across India

Rik Turban shares his epic trip across India - on a motorbike!

If India hasn’t shown you 10 remarkable things before lunch, you must be having a lie-in. In order to savour its cornucopia of wonders and oddities, I had decided on a road trip, a drive across the country from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, from Cochin to Pondicherry.

The route would take me through the heartlands of the south, of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, that part of the subcontinent, some would say, that is most purely Indian.

I had a week and I wanted to see how many startling contrasts I could pack into seven days — mountains and coast, backwaters and torpid plains, hill stations and temples, a sensible English driver and Indian traffic. I set off in search of the unpredictable.

Most road trips in India involve the commodious back seat of a comfy air-conditioned Ambassador and a solicitous driver, ever ready with the chilled hand towels and bottles of mineral water.

I had done this a few times and it was lovely, but I felt it was time to break out. March being a season of fine weather, and I being a man of little sense, I decided I would travel by motorcycle, in particular the august Royal Enfield Bullet, an old British model of the 1950s that is still manufactured, and much loved, in India.

In a moment of silent prayer, I relayed to the Almighty how grateful I would be if He felt able to prevent any close encounters with cows

The first hurdle was finding the outskirts of Cochin. It is a smallish Indian city, a market town, really, with a mere 1.5m people. I spent a couple of hours getting lost, while dodging rickshaws and chickens, before I spotted a bus going to Alappuzha — my direction — and followed it to the coastal highway.

Later, at a crossroads, an elderly gentle­man in command of two loose teeth waggled his head inconclusively and I turned inland, following back roads into the backwaters, a water world of islands and low tongues of land still recovering from the Flood. Humpbacked bridges took me over waterways, where men poled low canoes past laundry women pounding canalside rocks with other people’s shirts. I stayed the night at a resort on an island that seemed to float on water hyacinths.

Along the shore, egrets, ibis, cranes, herons, cormorants, terns, pelicans, coots, kingfishers, geese, fish eagles and brahminy ducks all vied for fishing rights. The next day, the Western Ghats loomed. The road began to curve and climb, the air was suddenly weighted with new scents — cardamom, cinnamon and the faint aroma of tea. The palm trees fell away and the landscape was re-dressed, first with rubber and teak plantations, and then with the velvety green of tea bushes.

In Ponkunnam I found the Hindu faithful in a state of religious frenzy. Processions of musicians and dancers were converging on a gaudy temple. Bare-chested drummers pounded furious rhy­thms, temple trumpets blared, cymbals crashed, dancers worked themselves into a sweaty trance, while the surging crowds pres­sed forward to catch a glimpse of the eye of this hurricane —semi-delirious chaps who had pierced their cheeks with metal skewers, a circus trick masquerading as an act of devotion. Bringing up the rear were a couple of dusty caparisoned elephants, which dropped great blocks of dung with an air of supreme disinterest.

A couple of hours later, I was deep in a forest of jack trees, on the veranda of a cottage thatched with elephant grass, listening to the clacking call of a malabar grey hornbill that had appeared in the canopy above, looking like an exile from Jurassic Park. I was on the outskirts of the little-known hill station of Kumily. When I went into town for afternoon tea at a rooftop cafe, the waiter had to stand guard with a broomstick to keep the macaque monkeys from rushing in to nick my carrot cake.

The next morning, I coasted down the eastern flanks of the Ghats on a series of spectacular hairpins to the hot plains of Tamil Nadu. The landscape changed gear again with startling suddenness. In a quarter of an hour, I passed from pine forests and waterfalls to palm groves and rice paddies. The land flattened, the road uncoiled and I reached breathless speeds of 50mph on the smooth tarmac surfaces.

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