Its more than couple of months that I could finally sit down, trying to get a narration going on what happened to be a turning point in my biking aspirations. Going solo from Bangalore to Chennai, a distance of 380kms stop to stop on mostly amazing four lane highway, was to give way to something that even I would not have dreamed about a couple of years back.
Fifth September, Friday, happened to be the first birthday of Lipi, my youngest niece. I had got to be in Chennai for that. This meant that if I took leave from office for Thursday as well, I could take a small detour somewhere for two days (Wednesday being a holiday). There was a certain sense of uncertainty about it. Through a series of coincidences, the detour was finalized as Valparai, a small tea country about 100kms south of Coimbatore, and Eravikulam National Park, adjoining Valparai. Uncertain because it was 'planned' way in advance and as you would know by now, planned trips rarely ever worked for me. It however nearly worked out this time...
The day had been happening so far. A series of professional meetings that would have happened later in the week were held today. Those which could not, were pushed to next week. Call it destiny, I was busy answering calls till 8 o'clock the evening and was out on my way at 9.15pm.
Earlier, googling for Valparai had me stumble upon Shriram's blog. What started off as a set of queries about Valparai quickly spurred up into an effort of finding the best possible route for Bangalore - Coimbatore stage. He was a native of Coimbatore and seemed to have a very good idea of roads around the city. In the end however, all effort came to a naught when a change in my program mandated me to take the Mysore route. Following Kalyan's suggestion, I hit back NH-209 (Bangalore - Dindigul) at Chamrajnagar, beyond Kollegal owing to bad roads between Bangalore and Chamrajnagar. This meant that I had about 40 more kms to cover.
If it was the pounding rain before Mysore that had slowed me down, it was the very absence of road surface that was a problem post Chamrajnagar. This Veerappan (late Sandalwood mafia) territory was void of any visible human population, and apparently roads! However, as soon as I crossed over into Tamil Nadu, I could hardly believe that I was on the same road as just a while back. I simply had to come back, make a quick stop and click the marked difference in quality of road right at the border of two states. Only, I could not use my tripod due to lack of time (it is not advisable to stop for a long time in wild). Just before I hit Sathy (Satyamangalam), a small ghat section was encountered. It was time to take the much needed break (only two till then - Ramnagaram and Nanjungud). The view was amazing, with the lights of Sathy glittering down below and the twinkling stars studded in now clear sky.
The first rays of Sun hit me little beyond Coimbatore, a while after I crossed NH-47 (Salem - Kochi - Kanyakumari). Road had been good so far (after entering TN) and things didn't change once I took the deviation in Pollachi, towards Valparai. Just as a mile stone indicated that Valparai was 42kms away, I noticed a billboard depicting the Nilgiri Thar, an avid cliff loiterer and TN's state animal. A break here, and I was away again to be stopped a few kms down, just beyond the Aliyar Dam, at a check-post by a friendly officer. What came next was the most enchanting view of plains and Aliyar Dam down below.
A Costly Miss
It took me a while before I reached Valparai. The route till the 38th hair-pin (yes, there were in total 40 hair-pin bends in total!) was just too good, and may I say, green. As I negotiated the last few turns, the landscape dramatically transformed into a blanket of tea velvet. Now I knew as why this place was called a tea country...
As a entered Valparai, the first thing in mind was to inquire about the entry procedure in Eravikulam and Indira Gandhi National Parks. Couple of not so good news followed. The first one, that bikes were not allowed inside NP was kind of expected, and the reason behind me dropping the idea of venturing into Eravikulam NP. The bigger blow was that I could not take entry pass for Indira Gandhi NP in Valparai; I was supposed to take it from its office around 30kms away, on the route that I'd just covered. This meant, no wild creatures in my collection, especially no Nilgiri Thar :(
As such, there was nothing much in the town, in fact not even a choice in terms of restaurants! There was this small hotel near bus stand that needed some effort to be found. After gobbling down a Masala Dosa and an Onion Dosa, I was out again for the next leg. It would be criminal if I don't mention the most delicious item that I had at this place, TEA :D
The target was Sholayar Dam, supposed to be the second biggest masonry dam in Asia (I think I've visited the biggest one as well, Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in Andhra Pradesh ;)). The roads were all single and though not strewed by potholes, they did not exactly present me a smooth ride. Who cared! Quite often, I would stop over, sometimes to just gaze at streams that flown by, or the landscape in general. One of the stops presented me something different. Just as I was about to start after capturing a landscape, I happened to look back in my rear view mirror. Its content was too serene to describe, so added a 1000 words to my camera's memory - a snap :)
After a while, I could see the back waters of Sholayar Dam, though as it turned out, the dam was still some distance away. Once I reached the Dam, I had a decision to take - whether to continue on this road for 50 more kms or take a U turn. Athirampally Falls (near Chalakudi in Kerela) waited for my third visit. I'd been there twice before with my family. After some dilemma, it was a U turn back; mind prevailing over heart. Coming back to Valparai town, it took little time to find lodging. As I had a late lunch and went back to hotel, the bright whites in sky had given way to dark looming cloud. What followed was an optimal end to my otherwise 36 hour day. For me, night started at 6pm.
The Next Day
As the morning star shown brightly through window, I lazily glanced at my cell. It was 7am and time to get up. 13 hours of sleep had done wonders to my body. One hour later, I was on my way to Nallamudi view point. My Pulsar had already done more than 550 kms since it left Bangalore; it was time for its second refill. The petrol pump lady was generous enough to warn me that I needed to constantly ask for my destination, read Nallamudi, lest I wanted to loose my way and end up somewhere else. As luck would have it, I did take a wrong way briefly; not that I never asked folks on the way, rather neither of us could understand each other. The 'lost' way however was not bad either. In fact, I noticed one of those haunted movie huts, deserted out there, over looking a lake with a distinct over growth snuggling it in!
After covering some good and some not so good roads, I was finally there. This place was bang in the middle of a tea estate, completely hidden from outside and well camouflaged so as to send me again hunting in the wrong direction some 200 meters before it. The effort was more than worth it finally. An amazing panorama waited for me to be captured, and I readily obliged. A perfect place for a night camp. I could see a number of waterfalls, big and small cascading down on the other side of valley. It was time to relish one of nature's best servings. I just stayed there as time came to a stop; the signal going permanently red. This meant that I had little time to go beyond this place in this direction and cut down the other view point further ahead - it actually didn't matter. That is something that I would not do deliberately this time; leaving few places so that I can come back for second time..
I however didn't miss the serene Koolangal river that flowed by on my way back. Finally, it was time to head towards the two lesser known dams, Lower and Upper Nirar Dams. To be frank, the dams actually didn't impress me one bit, though the route was scenic. May be, this had something to do with Nallamudi... Still, something that can easily be given a miss. However, going towards Chinnakallar (little beyond Upper Nirar Dam) wasn't completely a waste.
The Down Pour
The primary idea was to visit the Chinnakallar waterfalls. I was told that Chinnakallar is the second wettest place in India, after Cherapunji in Meghalaya (not sure as I think Agumbe in namma Karnataka has overtaken Cherapunji in the past few years). As I reached what looked like a bus stop, I found a sudden dead end. There was absolutely no way out, except for a typical stone and mud way steep up the hill leading into a private estate. There were few huts around and I decided to finally knock the doors and ask for directions. Again, shocked! Not a single soul around! No one in the huts next to the bus stop and no one in the one up the hill. To add, a strong drizzle came on. As I saw some more huts beyond a small stream and decided to check them out as well, a gentleman crossed me from the opposite direction. He confirmed that I was indeed on right track and about 300 meters from the falls. I again confirmed the same from a person in the hut (it was actually a post office!). The waterfalls was also a damp squib, but the rope bridge across just provided that rustic look. As I clicked quickly to capture the location (quick so as to avoid the camera from getting wet) and headed back, the rain intensified. As if to prove a point or two, rain had really taken off in a big way. So much so that visibility had gone below 100 meters. with big dense drops falling. I had to finally take a break at a bus stop next to Upper Nirar Dam to get into my proper rain gear. I found the same gentleman, whom I had met near Chinnakallar PO. He was waiting there along with few of his acquaintances for the rain to stop. He asked me about my whereabouts and as usual, there were few eyeballs ready to jump out of eye sockets ;)
As I bid them good bye and proceeded little further, I was caught by surprise. This was not a goat, but the Nilgiri Thar on the steep slope about 10 meters from me! Not sure if they are maniacs about clinging to such gradients and not feeding on the same green grass available on plain land 20 meters away! The only glitch was that I could not shoot this guy; it was raining just to heavily for the camera to be taken out. I was starting to get hungry as I rode back towards Valparai. Little beyond a right turn that I took towards Balaji Temple (you can avoid circling through Valparai; this is a good shortcut), I found an empty bus stop (lot of bus stops this area and very decent public transport). I had few left over moffins (that I was carrying from Bangalore as 'sankat mochan' or life saver) that was happy to gobble'em up as what turned into my luncheon. Couple of villagers got down from a bus, looked at me having my 'lunch', gave queer looks, and left. Not the rain; it was persistent. This meant that the very purpose of me taking turn towards Balaji's temple got defeated. The temple was already closed for the day (it closes down at 12:30pm as I was informed in Valparai). Continuous rain meant that my camera remained indoors. Finally, I decided to give the renowned 'Tunnel View', not far from temple and the motive behind taking the turn, a pass. "There's always a next time".
Down the Ghats
2:10pm. As you'd have it, the rain stopped as soon as I left Valparai behind. No looking back, it was time to move on. The ghats ahead provided a much different view. Now, I could associate meaning to the warning boards that I'd seen while coming up, "Caution, Mist Zone". There was this lazy aura that surrounded the area. There I was, cutting right through this living dream, into the hair pin bends down the hill. As I descended down, I could see the very 9th hair-pin turn where I'd stopped over while coming up. It was too good for me to give a pass. Twelfth hair-pin was where I stopped finally, to take a break and get my camera out of its box. As it turned out, this was the last time it was out for that day; Once I reached Monkey Falls (it is right at the beginning of the ghats, not far from the check-post while coming up), I was surprised to see the amount of water that flowed in. I had given it a pass due to lack of water a day before and here I was - a bit too much in terms of spray and yet again it screamed out, "For your eyes only!" Incidentally, I met the same policeman manning the check-post. He could immediately recognize me. "How was Valparai? Wasn't it good! On your way to Chennai now? Be careful, its more than 600 kms from here. Where are you taking night halt, take it in Salem....." Lots of enthusiasm and lots of concern, something missing in a 'general' policeman these days... I convinced him that I'll drive safe, and was off to ...Chennai, via Coimbatore -> Salem -> Chinna Salem -> Villupuram -> Pondicherry -> Mahabalipuram route.
The Last Leg
Little more than 100 kms from Valparai, I took my first tea break. What came back alive was my Airtel cell phone; Valparai only has BSNL (GSM) and Reliance (CDMA) cell phone towers, so any Airtel guy can rest assure that he'll not be disturbed (even if he wants) by a ringing cell phone in Valparai. It was time to update my family about my where abouts, something that has now become customary during nearly all pit stops of a solo riding journey. The road till Salem was expected to be 'not so good', as the four laning work is going on currently. I was really looking forward to reaching Salem, and enjoy the two lane driving. Weel, as it turned out, it was not the case - that route, till Chennai was also in faor laning process :(
As soon as I hit Villupuram little beyond 3am, I was more than happy to take a deviation towards right. A sign said, "Pondicherry, 38kms". That was some relief, no more traffic and more important of all, no dust bowls! 30 minutes later, I found myself near the Gandhi statue on Pondy's Marine Drive. As I soaked in a typical humid air, I just wondered - only a fortnight back, on my family trip from Chennai to Pondy, I'd uttered, "East Coast Road (ECR) is something, some day, I'll love to be on it, on my bike...". I was also in time for a sun rise in Mamlapuram, errr... Mahabalipuram! But as it turned out, I was there a bit too early. One hour wait was just too much. 143 kms, till my sister's place near Medavakkam from Pondy sea front, done just under 100 minutes, not to forget two 5 minute breaks - two lane highway driving at its best. I was knocking at my sister's place just as I turned my headlights off, at 5 to 6. It was Lipi's (sister's kid) B'day and her Mama was on time :D
When I reached Bangalore back after spending couple of days in Chennai, my odometer read 647 kms, presenting a poker face for its limitation to get reset to 000 kms after 999.9! Rest of the photos can be found here.