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Cycling in Kerala

In March 2008, I went on a fact finding visit as part of the EPSRC Interact/India initiative aimed at Understanding Distributed Software Engineering Challenges for the Global Economy. During the Easter break and prior to the meetings for this project I went to Kerala with my girlfriend.

We had booked a one week holiday with Kalypso Adventures in order to see the many different facets of Kerala. Kalypso are based in Cochin and specialise in individual eco holidays and adventure tours. They were extremely professional and the tour was organised to a very high standard. I would recommend them wholeheartedly.

The main part of the holiday was a four day cycle tour through the Ghats that separate Kerala from Tamil Nadu. Our actual track is shown in the Google Map to the right. I recorded the track with my Garmin Colorado 400 and the full GPX track is available from here (1MByte). I also uploaded a public domain map of India onto my Colorado. I was uncertain about its usefulness but it turned out to be quite good. While all roads we used where shown on the map, the coordinates of the roads were often a few hundred metres off. This, by the way, is also true for the Google map to the right because we did not cycle off road but went along the NHs that are shown a few hundred meteres off from our track.

Our guide Jerrin and driver Krishna of Kalypso picked us up at Cochin airport on Easter Sunday 2008 and we drove for about an hour north east to Hornbill Camp. The camp is owned by Kalypso ad used as a base for canooing tours, bird spotting expeditions and also as the starting point of our tour. Following a quick canoe tour and a delicious dinner we dropped dead into a luxury tent (with en-suite bathroom) following our lengthy journey down from Delhi.

Hornbill Camp to Karadi Para

The following morning we got onto our bikes and started the first leg from Hornbill Camp to Karadi Para. The first 12k were flat. We passed Cashew nut and Cocoa plantations and went along extensive pineapple fields. Very pleasant cycling indeed. But once we had reached the base of the Ghats it was an uphill struggle, and quite a streneous one in temperatures of up to 39 degree Celsius. We climbed a total of 1000 metres and it was only in the later afternoon as we had climbed above 600 metres that the temperatures became bearable again.

But it was worth it! We arrived in Karadi Para, which is a spice plantation about 13 km south west of Munnar. Karadi Para is a "home stay", which we would call in Britain a Bed and Breakfast. We staid in quite a few home stays during our trip and genuinely enjoyed the experience. The evening in Karadi Para was very special. We were treated to coffee grown, blended and roasted on the estate in a spectacular tree house shown on the left. What a treat after all the Nescafe nonsense in Northern India! The manager showed us around the estate and explained all the intricacies of growing Cardamon, Coffee, Vanilla, Pepper, Cocoa and Bananas. He then served a wonderful dinner and after having burned so many calories during the climb we enjoyed every bit of it. During the night the temperature cooled down significantly and fell to 20 Celsius which we found very comfortable.

Karadi Para to Talliar Valley

The next day we had to climb further yet. But this time it was more pleasant because the temperatures were a lot bearable at the altitude. We went through Munnar, which is the centre of the tea growing industry in Kerala and it is very much run by Tata Tea. In fact, Tata seem to control a fair share of the Indian life but that only emerged as our stay went on. Pretty much after leaving Karadi Para we entered the tea plantations which was just a spectacular sight; sea of intense and fresh green that groups of predominantely female plantation staff trim once a fortnight. We climbed to about 1,850 metres and Jerrin told us that it was going to be all downhill from here to Talliar Valley, a very large tea plantation where we staid on the third night. He failed to mention that once we had arrived at the plantation there was another 100m climb to reach the manager's bungalow in which we were going to stay!

After reaching the bungalow and taking some refreshments we went on a tour through the tea plantation. All the plantations we visited looked after staff and their families extremely well. In general we had the impression that Kerala was far ahead over the Northern states in terms of education, provision of health care (more about that later) and general standards of living. As part of the tour we went to see the tea factory of the Talliar Valley estate. The tea production was entirely for local consumption in India and not for export. We were surprised to see how different the end product was. While tea in Europe and the US is consumed as tea leaves, Indian tea is a dry powder. The highlight of the day though was a visit at the Estate's primary school. There were about 50 kids in the class and one after the other came to the front, shook our hands and asked us questions in English, such as "how are you?", "what's your name?", "do you like India?", "where are you from?" etc. They were so eager to practice speaking English and show what they have learned.

Talliar Valley to Banyan Tree

The next morning we set out for the longest ride of the tour from Talliar Valley across the border to Tamil Nadu to the Banyan Tree Homestay. The length of the stage was 115 km but as can be seen from the elevation plot above it was an all down-hill affair on the SH 17. It was on this downhill that I did not pay attention and touched the backwheel of my girlfriend's bike. I went over the handle bar and broke the head of the radius in my right arm and that was the end of my cycling. However, Catherine kept going with Jerrin and I read a book in the car with Krishna. What you see on the map above is the cycling route that we should have taken. I have removed the coordinates of the detour to the hospital. Going to the hospital in Udumalpet was quite ane experience. I was seen instantaneously. I had X-rays taken of both my arms and was seen by a consultant, who diagnosed the broken radius. His treatment was perfect and the total cost of the affair was 7 pounds, so that I decided not to claim it on my travel insurance. Anyway after the hospital Catherine continued by bike to Banyan Tree shown above. The homestay is in a 4000 acre coconut plantation. We staid in the owner's bungalow, which was spectacularly beautiful and we had a very nice dinner with stimulating discussions with the owner himself.

Banyan Tree to Stanmore Garden

We started the last stage of our tour by car with all the bikes loaded onto the roof, a sight that caused quite a bit of attention amongst the locals. Krishna drove us to the foothills of the Western Ghats and from there Jerrin and Catherine set out on their bikes. There was quite a significant climb with 40 spectacular hairpin curves (25 or so on the way up and another 15 on the way down) shown to the right. Once we had reached hairpin 9 we had a wonderful view over the lake created by a dam. We then finished the day on another tea plantation, Stanmore Garden where we staid in another bungalow. The bungalow was built by Unilever, the previous owners, in the 1930s and it had all the original furniture and features. We felt like being warped back in time. In the evening we had a spectacular thunderstorm, which was rather un-seasonal for March. The mist the following morning created a fascinating atmosphere amongst all the tea bushes.

Cruising the Keralan Backwaters

From Stanmore Gardens, Krishna drove us back to Cochin, where we staid a night in Fort Cochin. We staid in the Old Courtyard, a 17th century house that was once built by a family of Jewish traders and is now a Bed and Breakfast. It was right in the centre of Fort Cochin and the ideal base to explore the sights. The following day we went to Allepey and checked in to a House Boat, that took us on a cruise through the various kanals that are used to flood the rice paddy fields in the flat area between the Ghats and the Arabian Sea. Our crew showed us around the canals and served the most wonderful lunch and dinner comprising various South Indian seafood curries for us. The following morning we sailed back to Allepey and had a brief visit to the beach before flying back to Mumbai.

In summary, this rather short holiday was very enjoyable, particularly so because it was the first time we had visited India. Cycling, in combination with accommodation in homestays, allowed us to take in and experience India much better than a packaged bus tour would have. We are indebted to Jerrin, Krishna and everybody at Kalypso and for showing us around so well and making this a most memorable experience.

Last Updated: May 2008
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