South India Road Trip - Entering Kerala
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
“When everything turns green, you are in Kerala,” Vicky, Owner of Chennai Motorcycle Rental.
Highway 49 West from Teni is straight and boring, the only redeeming feature being the encouraging scene in the distance. Peeking in and out of the dust and haze were glimpses of mountains. The land rose gently with each passing mile and the scenery took on shades of green. Suddenly, the air cleared and the Western Ghats loomed above and ahead, like a magnificent green and granite wall.
In the six house village of Munthal, we turned southwest on Highway 85, climbing into the Bodi Hill West Forest. The road rose at a constant incline and just when it seemed we could go no further, there was a 180 degree hairpin. A sign indicated it was the first of 22 hairpin turns that lay ahead, our first experience with a numbered switchback highway. Apparently, the super twisty sections that lead to each hairpin did not count – only the 180s were numbered.
The Switchbacks of Hwy 85
Tamil Nadu, India
Light traffic and a smooth road surface led us to push the KTM Dukes a little deeper into the corners and throttle-on harder exiting the turns. The riding position of these bikes is very comfortable, the 250cc engine delivers enough power (there is always room for more), and the bike is nimble.
The dry plains disappeared into the haze below and the mountains stretched skyward above. Streams rolling down the mountains popped up everywhere and waterfalls cascaded down the granite faces. The haze of the plains gave way to the clear blue skies of the mountains. We stopped frequently to marvel at incredible views and clap our hands at the virtual absence of traffic.
The Western Ghats
Tamil Nadu, India
At a chai stop on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, we were gripped by the excitement. A new segment of the ride was about to begin. Our friend Vicky at Chennai Motorcycle Rental told us that when everything turns green, we would be in Kerala. And he was not wrong. We would be winding through the mountains for the next 10 days.
Border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala
The lush Mathikettan Shola National Park and the Cardamom Hills is a life-sized pantone green display. No need to look at the colour codes, that tree shows it. Tea plantations along the roadside offer another hue of green. Care for more options? Simply turn your head.
In Pooppara, we took a side road, which led to a smaller road and then a section of dirt track before reaching the village of Thookkupalam. Astried had reserved a room at a homestay nearby that appeared to be rural and removed. Appearances and reality often conflict in this country and when we finally located the place, there was nobody about. It was a construction site, only a few meters from the road. Admittedly, it was a quiet road except for the tour buses coming to see the hill station statue at Rammakalmedu.
A monument to Kuravan and Kurathi sits atop the hill and Indians flock to the site. They make the pilgrimage up the steps to view the spot where legend says Rama kept his feet when searching for his wife Sita.
In search of a place to spend the night, Astried followed her instincts and took a left on a narrow road. Cruising slowly she made an abrupt turn onto a steep dirt track. It ended near the top of the hill at Punarjani Ayurvedic Resort. The guys working on the driveway alerted the manager who greeted us with a large smile. He took Astried to see the rooms. When they returned she gave me our covert signal it was nice and I should enter the negotiation game.
I nearly choked at the rate; more than five times our budget. He quickly offered a discount which brought it to thrice. I balked.
“What do you normally pay for a night?” he asked.
“Not more than 600 rupees,” I replied.
“OK,” he said, “how about 900?”
We agreed and rode the wood-lined path to a well appointed roundhouse.
Punarjani Ayurvedic Resort
Atop the hill, alone in the forest with no other guests, we had scored! Ditching our gear, we hiked up the hill. The forest ends, revealing a grassy hilltop with incredible views in every direction. The plains of Tamil Nadu lay open in a vast, hazy expanse below. The ridge to the west had an impressive wind farm. Looking down in the other direction, the last of the tourists were leaving the statue. The sun was setting on another fantastic day.
There was no restaurant at the lodge, so next morning we descended in search of chai and food. A woman swept a small restaurant and Astried asked if she had chai.
“Of course,” she responded, “I have a special breakfast blend with herbs from my garden,” she smiled. “Fresh cinnamon and cardamon. Would you like it strong, medium or weak?”
“Strong, please,” we replied in unison.
We parked the bikes and pulled a couple of chairs to the side of the road to catch morning sun. As we sipped our chai, she asked if we had tried 'puttu' - the typical Kerala breakfast. Being our first morning in Kerala, the answer was 'no'.
“Then you must come to my house for breakfast,” she said. So we did.
She was so excited to have us in her home, her first foreigners. She phoned her husband to decry their good luck and told him to come home from work to meet us.
Breakfast was simple, fresh and perfect. Steamed rice flour rolled into a sausage shape is the heart of it. The accompanying Kadala curry and fresh shaved coconut was scrumptious. She was proud to tell us there was no oil, sugar or salt in her cooking. After breakfast, we were served fresh grapes and alcohol-free wine – “45 days in the container” - to celebrate.
Certain we were full enough, we went for a tour of the garden. Everything in the book was back there, tea and coffee, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, banana, jackfruit, and more.
Her husband returned and they lamented the fact that we had not met the day before. Documents granting a homestay license had arrived and there was a small party of 50. The “Marottickal Homestay” would soon be getting a sign, we were proudly informed.
She told us of a back route that would wind in the general direction of Kootar.
“Please accept our hospitality,” they said.
I noted it was an honour and made a generous offering 'for good luck'. Thanking each other profusely, we rode off on another adventure.
Check out a short video of this segment of the ride!