South India Road Trip – Into the Hills
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
After a peaceful ride through the countryside, the final 35km to Palani was a hectic horn honking, light flashing event that was as crazy as it was exhilarating. Astried lead the charge, boldly splitting lanes and shooting every possible gap in traffic.
Palani marks the edge of hill country. It is famous for the Murugan Temple dedicated to the Hindu war god Kartikeya. As with any holy site in this country, hordes flock in worship. With the people come the endless rows of trinket and trash shops selling the same shoddy products. Music blares constantly. Astried had her first experience of being completely surrounded by beggars of every age with hands extended and desperate pleas for money. Indians don't pay particular attention to women, so it was only when I let out a strong “no”, my hand extended in a chopping motion, that they relented. Fortunately, this pales in comparison to spots more frequented by foreigners.
A few hours of late afternoon temple madness is more than enough for. Returning to our lodge not far away, we welcomed the relaxed, friendly neighbourhood vibe, enjoying dinner and chai before turning in.
Town quickly disappears and palm plantations and rice paddies dot the landscape as we approach the Palani Hills. Not far from town, we stop to oil the chains. The repair shop owner did not want to charge us, but I insisted. “Ok, 10 rupees,” he says with a smile. Joke's on me.
The climb is full of twists and turns and the vegetation is dense. I am jarred from staring at the views of Palani Lakes and the surrounding hills by a pack of monkeys covering road. They fight over freshly fallen fruit and completely ignore vehicles. Driver beware.
A misty cascade tumbles down a granite face in the distance. Not far on, we pause at “Relax Corner” chai stand to admire the view. Two couples from Kerala introduce themselves. Young and educated, they were curious about our impression of their country. We kept bumping into them in different places on our way up to Kodaikanal.
Astried at "Relax Corner"
Palani Hills, Tamil Nadu
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 places to stay within our budget, but we are selective. The freedom of riding is that you can stay anywhere; no requirement for proximity to public transportation. The quaint stone units at CVN Cottages on the edge of town offered a view northeast over the hills. The friendly manager supplied extra blankets to ward off the nighttime cold. The night guard informed us he would make hot water in the morning between 8-10am only. “Very much work, Sir,” he added.
At 2133m above sea level, the weather is fresh and Astried needed more sweaters. Conveniently, she found the Tibetan shop at Kodai Lake and bought two. The tourist sights like Coaker's Walk and Pillar Rocks are fine, but the highlight is Mother Nature herself in the protected forests outside town. Extensive pine and eucalyptus stands create a lovely aroma, making the winding roads and great views even better.
We passed several small groups of women half-jogging down the road, their heads loaded with wood. This seems a daily task for these stalwarts who need the fuel to keep the fire burning all day long for chai, cooking and warmth at night.
We were getting rural and, not far from Munnavur, road construction had traffic backed up so we stopped for chai. As the woman pounded fresh masala, we noticed the family made eucalyptus oil. Fifty meters away, we poked our heads through a narrow door to view the process. Finishing our chai, Astried purchased a bottle of 100% pure oil.
My bike developed a rattle on the back left side and I discovered a bolt had worked itself out. Vincents Auto Line – Jeep specialists – was near the lodge and I stopped to see if they had parts. The magic bucket of bolts was upended on the floor and after some sorting, we found a suitable bolt. The young boy screwed it in and I gave it a shake. No more rattle. We shook hands, smiled and took off.
Heading down the other side of the mountains toward Periyakulam, a second rattle started and I found another bolt was loosening. At a prospective shop, I said to the owner: “Allen key?” As he stared blankly at me, the steel door just next rolled up and a guy stepped out saying “I am a mechanic.” Indeed, he had the tools to repair the problem. I examined all the bolts on the rack and a third bolt appeared to be missing a lock washer. The mechanic was looking for one when I noticed something shining from the dust. It was a perfect fit and we were good to go.
The route to Teni was somewhat roundabout. A few minutes beyond the mechanic, I noticed a small sign that said “Periyambular” - a shortcut, perhaps. Checking at the ubiquitous chai stall, I was assured with an enthusiastic circular nod that we could ride through. The road was dirt and under construction, but we were up for an adventure. The KTMs could handle it. Had we been on the much lower Enfields, there would be no chance.
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. Originally, it was a track that terminated at a village about 6km on. They were punching this new road through, it seemed, largely due to the coffee plantations that ringed the mountainside.
We saw a total of 3 motorcycles and 2 jeeps over the next 25kms. I can, with confidence, say that we were the first foreigners on this road. This was confirmed in a couple of spots where we had to wait while the road crew actually completed a narrow strip to allow us to continue.
And then, all of a sudden, the road went down. And very steeply. It was dusty and we met the occasional dump truck creeping up or down. Progress was at a snail's pace and Astried was not enjoying the conditions. But finally, we reached the plains below and drove into the heart of massive mango, coconut palm and rice plantations. An awesome juxtaposition.
In Teni, we turned off from the main road that rolls through the centre of town and found Sivas Regency. The couple at the front desk, clearly the owners, went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. We were their first foreign guests and they were honoured. A wonderful, hot shower after a dusty day was our reward.