South India Road Trip – "Chasing Valentina"
Updated: Mar 17, 2019
There are adventures around every corner in India and with a few days off the bikes, we had the opportunity to relax, read, and walk. One afternoon, a small village across the fields caught our attention and we decided to walk in search of chai. It turned out to be so small there was no chai stall, so we continued toward the next village.
In Search of Chai
near Lovedale Station, Tamil Nadu
The thump-thump-thump of Tamil pop music grew louder and a car pulled alongside. The young driver smiled and, shouting over the music, asked where we were going. “Chai,” I said. He jumped out, shook hands and invited us to climb in. So we did.
Around the corner, the narrow dirt road was blocked by a pile of gravel and construction. We were about to get out and walk when, in typical Indian fashion, the driver started honking the horn frantically. Nothing happened so he got out, screaming at the lowly labourers to move the gravel. After a few minutes of hurried shovelling and bucketing, a narrow opening was cleared.
Advancing into the gravel, the car got stuck. Wheels spun and rocks flew. This time he shouted at them to push the car out ... which they did. Thankfully, the loud music muted our fits of laughter in the back seat as the comedy unfolded in front of our eyes.
He drove past the next village, we asked him to stop. We wanted chai, but he wanted to take us to his home somewhere in the hills. I guess we were the first foreigners in his car and he wanted to show us off. We politely declined and started walking back. People were shocked to see foreigners walking through the fields. They waved, called “hello” and stared at the aliens.
Rising into a eucalyptus forest, the path branched in several directions. Pausing to consider our options, a woman appeared, motioning us to follow. I said “post office? train?”, making the 'choo-choo' chugging sound. She smiled and pointed uphill. A second woman emerged and, after a short conversation, the first disappeared into the forest. Continuing with the second escort, the train station eventually came into view. We smiled and thanked her, making our way back to the lodge for that elusive chai.
Tamil Nadu, India
Back on board the KTMs, we followed the main road from Ooty down to Mettupalayam. Beyond Coonoor, it dropped out of the sky through a series of 34 marked switchbacks. Traffic was thick and Astried, in the lead, was tearing up the tarmac, using every opening to pass.
Heavy trucks were difficult to get around, but when we threaded the needle, they were accommodating. Car drivers, on the other hand, were terrible. Indians seem to have a poor sense of space so they drive in the middle of the road and swing unnecessarily wide in the corners. This made the hairpins more hazardous than need be.
My new nickname for Astried is 'Valentina' – as in Rossi. I chased her down the mountain, following her aggressive lines and daring passes. I gasped as she entered a corner too fast, went wide, and stood the bike up on the dirt shoulder against the cliff. Fortunately, it was on the upside of the mountain.
On another attempt to pass, the truck ahead hammered the brakes. Once again, I held my breath as 'Valentina' locked up the rear tire, fishtailing to a stop. But the move that will go down in my personal history book happened when we came into a right hand switchback behind a truck. The truck swung wide left to make the tight turn, there was a brief break in oncoming traffic, and Astried dove underneath him blasting past. Naturally, I had to follow or risk being lost in her dust.
The descent, over 2000m in 40km, ended in a colossal traffic jam. With motorcycles, it is easy to skirt, and we found some back routes leading into the dusty flats of Tamil Nadu. Sailing along empty roads, we reached Mettur for the night, home to the longest dam in the state. At 1700m in length, it is one of the largest dams in all India and Stanley Reservoir is larger than all other reservoirs in the state combined.
People were clearly surprised to see foreigners in town. The hosts at the lodge said we were their first foreign customers and, in the market that evening, the chai man and the food vendor said the same. Everybody shouted “hello” and we were stopped on countless occasions by curious people. As has been our experience in these off-the-track places, the welcome is warm and genuine.
Tamil Nadu, India
There are three routes to Hogenakkal Falls and, as usual, we chose the least direct. This was largely because it involved a ferry ride across the Cauvery River at the top end of Stanley Reservoir. North of Mettur, we stopped at what we thought was the turnoff to ask the way. A man confidently pointed straight on. It turned out to be the wrong direction but I chased 'Valentina' for 20km before we figured out the error.
Waiting for the Ferry
near Kolathur, Tamil Nadu
Back at the same intersection, there was quite a bit of discussion about the ferry, or “boatee”. Finally, we were directed along a dirt track outside the village of Kolatur. It lead into a surreal lunar landscape that seemed an unlikely place for a ferry. Google Maps clearly showed a ferry crossing and we were surprised to reach the end of the track and see little evidence. There were some fishermen about but nothing else.
Fortunately, a couple on a motorcycle were waiting for the “boatee”, so we sat with them. Soon enough, it appeared and it was obvious we were about to embark on a river crossing adventure not unlike to those in Laos the year before.
Two dozen people sat in the boat. It towed two baskets filled with 10 motorcycles in each, drivers standing beside holding their bikes upright. A narrow ramp connected the basket to land and the bikes disembarked one by one.
The Ferry across the Cauvery River
Tamil Nadu, India
We loaded and stood by our bikes along with 8 others who were shocked to see westerners. The boatman said that in 8 years he had never seen a foreigner. After 30 laughter-filled minutes, we reached the other side. The boat hand assisted us down the narrow ramp, through a little water and onto terra firma. What happened next was hilarious.
Astried fired up her bike and took off along the wrong track, ending up buried axle deep in thick mud. Three men calmly waded in drag her out and proceeded to wash her bike. It as comical and touching at the same time. Rural people are always so friendly.
Clean and back on solid surfaces, I chased 'Valentina' to Hogenakkal Falls on the border between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka States ending two days of wild riding.
Watch a video of this segment at www.timmorch.com/video.
View photos at www.timmorch.com/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.