Tour d’Afrique: India
A man selling fish from a box on his bike stopped momentarily to drop a smelt to a cat patiently following him. On the other side of the road an auto-rickshaw driver returning from his chai break shooed two goats out of the back seat of his vehicle and then set off in search of his next passengers. A little further along the street two men sat on their haunches cutting tenon joints for the bed frame they were building while all around the scent of fresh spices from the many spice shops filled the air. This was Fort Cochin but I had experienced similar scenes in more than a hundred other small towns I had passed through on my journey through Southern India.
The complete Tour d’Afrique, India tour, is 4200km long. It is organized in two sections: the first from Agra (starting at the famous Taj Mahal Temple) to Mumbai and the second from Mumbai to Kanyakumari (at the southern most tip of India). Most riders complete both sections, however I chose to do only the second one as I had previously visited many of the towns on the first leg of the tour.
We were 13 riders supported by two vehicles, one for the luggage and one to mark the route with red tape and provide a lunch each day. There were also 8 staff members (two drivers and their two helpers, a trained first aid responder, a tour leader, and two mechanics/sweeps).
This is not a ride in the park: in fact the Tour d’Afrique website warns that riders will be challenged, and for me this was the most difficult tour I have ever undertaken. For a start, I confess I was intimidated by the experience of most of the other riders. Several had completed other Tour d’Afrique tours across Africa, Europe, Asia and the USA. One person had completed a round-the-world tour lasting a full year. So when starting the tour I was unsure whether I would be able to complete all of the stages especially because the last time I cycled on the road was five months prior.
Warnings from the staff indicated that at least half of the riders would probably experience minor illnesses or accidents. This proved to be true resulting in individuals riding a support vehicle for a period of time. My goal therefore was to complete the tour without health problems or accidents. Fortunately I was able to achieve this goal.
The reality of cycling in India is very different from any country where I had cycled previously. There can be pollution of various types. The 2011 census shows that two thirds of households still rely on traditional smoky fuels to cook and less than a third of the population has access to treated drinking water. There are also incongruities for although less that one half of households have toilet facilities, 63% own a telephone connection of which 53% are mobile phones. These facts had to be recognized as we were travelling through some small towns where westerners rarely go so we had to be prepared, at certain times, to eat and sleep like the locals.
The total length of the Mumbai to Kanyakumari section was almost 2300km which we rode in 23 days plus 5 rest days interspersed where there were interesting sights to see. Although this works out to an average of 100km/day some rides were much longer than others and the terrain varied. However the number of kilometres travelled on a given day was somewhat misleading. Other factors proved to be more challenging. For example we cycled 108km on the third day but we also climbed 1870 metres.
Particularly during the first week of the tour we were climbing hills and then descending to cross rivers all day. Add to this the condition of roads which varied considerably from the worst imaginable to some of the best and temperatures that were regularly in the mid thirties Celsius and reached the low forties on a few days. I recall one day around noon I had just reached the top of a hill; a local man was surprised to see me. He reached his arms to the sky and looked up at the sun as if to say, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” However when seeing women by the roadside carrying wood piles on their heads and breaking rocks for road construction I felt my task was manageable!
Traffic can also be a factor with which one must contend. Indian drivers follow no rules known to people from the west. First one must accept that most drivers sound their horns several hundred times an hour (no exaggeration). This is not done in anger but simply as a warning that a vehicle is approaching. In fact all trucks bear a sign on the back saying “horn please” as they want to be notified when a vehicle intends to pass.
The ubiquitous motor cycles, while appearing not to follow any rules, have actually made one of their own: when entering a major road from a side road they NEVER STOP but simply merge with the traffic. This can be unnerving to cyclists at first especially when the motorcycle turns to face oncoming traffic. Motor cycles are to be treated with the utmost caution. One member of our group experienced quite a severe accident when she was hit by a motor cyclist paying too much attention to one of our other riders. One must also adapt to pedestrians as they completely misjudge our speeds and can suddenly step off the curb in front of a cyclist. They are accustomed to cyclists travelling at maximum 8km/hr and our hybrid bikes often travelled at three times that speed.
Animals are tolerated everywhere in India including the roads. While the cow is sacred in most regions in other areas there will be more black pigs roaming the roads. At other times goat herds block the road, carts pulled by water buffalos or bullocks may be lumbering slowly along or monkeys scurry across without warning. And just when you think you have seen it all you will round a corner and encounter elephants on their way to a religious or marriage ceremony.
I am fairly certain that no one reading this article has been a competitor in the Tour de France. However cycling in India may be the closest thing you could experience. Crowds of smiling children will cheer and call out as you pass through the small villages. Motor cyclists will pull alongside either to chat or to examine your gear train. Motorists signal you to stop as they have a question to ask. School children try to pass you on their local Hercules bikes that have only one gear and are so heavy and the frames are so strong that it is rumoured that there are competitions to see if the strongest man can bend a frame: so far no one has!
Regardless of the kilometres we travelled there were often opportunities to visit incredible sites. Those that I visited included:
- The Kanheri Caves built by Buddhist monks from the 1st to 9th centuries in Sanjay Gandhi National Park outside of Mumbai. Each of the caves comprises a stone plinth for a bed and a water supply fed by an ancient system that still works! Many of the caves also have intricate carved reliefs of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. Other members of our group preferred to visit the Elephanta Caves situated on a island near Mumbai.
- The Janjira Fort built by Abissinian Siddis from 1567-1571. It comprises 22 acres and was so impregnable that it was never captured by the Portuguese, British or Marathas. Inside is a palace in Mudgal and Gothic style, a mosque, 19 towers and many cannons (originally there were 572).
- Bedami caves cut from solid rock. This area was the capital of people who ruled much of Karnataka from the 6th to the 8th centuries. The caves include impressive sculptures of Hindu figures including Shiva, Ganapati and Nandi.
The entrance to the Bedami Caves
- Hampi, which was the capital of the Hindu empire from the 14th to the 16th centuries. This site is best described as a vast open museum of giant temples, palaces and market streets.
- Mysore Palace. The original palace was a wooden structure that burned down in 1897 but was rebuilt in 1912 as a stone structure with marble domes, solid silver doors, and the best materials from around the world including glazed tiles from England, stained glass from Scotland and chandeliers from Czechoslovakia.
- Munnar is a hill station in Kerala State. Its elevation (average 2000 metres) gives it a salubrious climate in fact it was the only place on my tour where I felt cool. Three rivers join here to give it a green climate that suits the approximate 30 tea plantations that are situated here.
- Fort Cochin (Kochi) is one of the few real tourist towns we visited. Walking around its streets one can see the influence of early Christian, Arab and Jewish settlers. It is renowned for practising Ayurveda (an alternative system of medicine), spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, the Dutch Palace and the Jewish Synagogue.
- Kanyakumari was our final destination. It is the place where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean meet. It is also a place where one can see both the sunrise and the sunset. To prove that we had arrived our photo was taken facing the twin rocks showing monuments of Swami Vivekananda and Saint Thiruvalluvar.
Entire group of 13 cyclists and the support team at our final destination
However, often it was the small things that impressed me just as much: the police chief in a small town who insisted that three of us, who happened to be cycling together at that point, join him for a drink of chai. Or the couple I met in a small dusty town when I stopped to check my directions: he was dressed simply but his wife was perhaps the most beautiful Indian woman I have ever met. Her dress was red with gold appliqué and her jewellery was of the finest, from her nose-rings to her necklaces.
The final thought I am left with is the smiles, the curiosity and the warmth of Indian people wherever we cycled. Yes, there may have been times when responding to the thousands of greetings we experienced along the route seemed just one too many, but the smiles were infectious and the genuineness of everyone was in no doubt. We learned that there are different ways to see a situation. One member of our group recalled an incident that happened to him. He was awakened during the night by a dog barking so he dressed and went to the entrance to the hotel and threw a stone at the dog to chase it away. The night watchman looked at him and asked why he would want to do that: the dog was simply doing what a dog does!
Me - relaxing after a ride