South India Road Trip – The Niagara Falls of India
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Pre-dawn silence was shattered by the cacophony from the temple next to the guesthouse. Shocked into consciousness at 5:45am, we joined in prayer ... that it would end. This is our first experience with anything other than light chanting at this hour. Prayers were answered and it stopped at sunrise, allowing a few more minutes of shuteye.
Over breakfast chai, we discussed route options. India is highly connected, making it easy to search attractions along the way. One that piqued our interest was Athirapilly Waterfalls. Eloquently described as remote, natural and free of tourists with comments such as 'well worth the effort to get there' helped shape our route down the mountains.
Today, I learned a valuable lesson. Leading out from Valparai, Astried took a left at a fork in the road, heading in the wrong direction. I slowed to confirm on the map before chasing her down. Rounding a corner, I was shocked to find her struggling to pick her bike off the road. Dismounting as fast as I could, we righted it together and I asked if she was okay. Thankfully, she was fine and there were no visible wounds on Astried or the bike. She had lost her balance at a standstill when turning around.
We sat in silence for a while as she regained her cool and I gave her a big hug. We remounted and carried on. Later, Astried told me that I had been too slow in hugging her. Lesson learned: hug first, question later.
Tea Plantations near Valparai,
Endless tea plantations lined Highway 78 carpeting the hills on the way to Upper Sholayar Dam. Walking along the top of 66m high dam, I peered down at the homes below and couldn't help but wonder why so many people lived there. I had a morbid mental flash of the disaster a breach would create.
At the bikes, a guy appeared with two 20 liter plastic pails strapped to his motorcycle. He spoke one word of English – honey - and opened a pail, offering a delicious taste of fresh, wild honey. I love these random encounters.
The Kerala Department of Forestry requires each vehicle to sign in and record the license plate before being permitted to ride the 55km stretch through the Parayamkulam Wildlife Sanctuary. The Sholayar Forest is dense, with trees overhanging the narrow, potholed road. It was easy to imagine the various animals hiding out in there and the elephant dung carpeting the road added to that impression.
At a viewpoint over a lake, we met three guys on KTMs from Bangalore. They were IT professionals and we had a lively conversation while stretching our legs. They said “ see you at the falls” and took off.
Exiting the forestry department gate, there seemed to be a lot of people in the roadside food stalls. Rounding a bend, the notion of Athirapilly being remote and removed was suddenly shattered by the throngs of Indian tour groups and buses lining the road. A seemingly endless lineup to view the falls did not appear to be moving at all.
We found a spot for the bikes and contemplating the next move, bumped into the KTM riders. They told us not to even think about the lineup as it would take forever. In fact, the best view of the falls was from the second floor of the restaurant we were standing at. Up we went to view the falls. Athirapilly Falls is billed as the Niagara Falls of India. At 80feet high and 150 feet wide, it is definitely not and we were happy not to have waited hours and endured the crowds to be disappointed.
Winding down to Chalakudy and civilization, we decide over lunch to push on to Thrissur. Entering the crazy traffic of the three lane highway, the ride was exciting, to say the least. Dodging rickshaws, squeezing between buses, cars and every manner of vehicle, we managed to reach our destination unscathed, high on adrenaline.
Finding a room in this pre-Christmas holiday season was next to impossible. The day was ending and patience getting thin, so we sucked it up and took one of the only rooms available in an expensive hotel. After a long day, it was worth the extra comfort.
It took some time to shed the urban wasteland and associated traffic next day. Eventually, quiet roads led to Perinthalmanna for the night. The family that owned the lodge was pleasantly surprising. We were received like returned heroes and shown to a clean, spacious room overlooking a palm plantation. In the restaurant below, the knowledgeable and entertaining hosts shared local lore, chatting with ease and making us feel right at home.
There are three route options to Ooty and, naturally, we chose the most circuitous through the Attappadi Forest. The poorly surfaced road wound into the hills past Silent Valley National Park and into some spectacular scenery. Chai stalls are everywhere, but we chose the one with the best views of the Nilgiri Mountains for a break. The enthusiastic owner introduced his daughter and granddaughter while we sipped and snacked, telling us his good fortune in receiving his first foreign visitors.
The road narrowed, winding through farms and villages before reaching the Kerala-Tamil Nadu State line. This is our first police check and they ask for passport, driver's license and motorcycle papers, all the while questioning our route and why we were there. Thorough, yet friendly.
A few hundred meters of rocky trail lead to the paved road on the Tamil Nadu side, where a pair of soldiers sat with rifles in hand, casually motioning us onward. This section of road climbing into the mountains is void of traffic and absolutely breathtaking. Out of the blue, we pass a foreigner on the roadside taking a photo. He catches up and we stop to chat.
Originally from the Black Forest in Germany, Dieter is excited to speak to Astried in their native tongue. He is on his way back from a village in Kerala where a local pastor is trying to find him a wife, he tells us with a wry smile. He has retired to the hills above and applying his expertise in reforesting the land with indigenous species that have all but disappeared. We ride together to the next checkpoint. Dieter knows the guard and he waves us on with a smile. Across the gorge we spot Canada House Power Station and Dieter explains that the extensive hydroelectric development in this remote region is the reason for the security.
A spectacular 43 marked hairpins on Manjur-Mulli Road combined with an excellent road surface and zero traffic lead us push the bikes a little harder. There is a certain rush from diving into a corner and throttling on that only a motorcycle can deliver. Over a chai in the hilltop village of Onikandi we are stoked from the awesome ascent. Back on board, we were delirious to discover another 18 marked hairpins twisting along the ridge into Lovedale, just outside Ooty.
Tamil Nadu, India
Mountainside Cottage, above Lovedale, had impressive views. It is remote and we have the place to ourselves. At an altitude of 2300m, the air is clear, nights are cool and the scenery spectacular. The caretakers met us with hot chai and through sign language and some basic English we learned they would cook meals whenever we liked. Astried was so happy with the place that we paid for an extra two nights on the spot. Perfect for a few days off the bikes. What a fantastic Christmas present!
from Mountain View Cottage
Tamil Nadu, India
On the morning of Dec. 7, 2017, we set out from Chennai, India, aboard a pair of KTM Duke 250 motorcycles. For twenty-eight days and more than 2,600km we explored rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Few foreigners ride the back roads of southern India and we certainly attracted a lot of attention. From chai stall stares to school children cheers and even newspaper coverage, here are a few tales of our experience.