South India Road Trip - The Final Chapter
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Hogenakkal Falls is popular with Indian tourists who come to view the cascade, bathe in the freshwater pools, and buy tacky souvenirs. We were here to do the same – minus the souvenirs. Amusingly, Hogenakkal is also referred to as “the Niagara Falls of India.” The name “Smoking Rocks”, its literal translation, may apply, but at 20m height – and given our previous experience - the “Niagara” claim was suspect.
Checking in at the lodge, we were directed to motorcycle parking near the back of the property, separate from the car park. A pack of monkeys lurked ominously nearby and we wondered how long it would take for them to climb all over the bikes.
An eager boatman had spotted us eating lunch and claimed us for a tour. He waited patiently and the second we emerged, lead us to the official registration desk. Dozens of others were desperately trying to woo us, but we stuck with our guy.
The hour long tour in a traditional bamboo coracle – a 2.3m round basket - started with our boatman paddling us under the falls to cool off. The Cauvery River divides Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states here and we floated downstream watching fishermen and admiring the rugged scenery.
Back at the lodge, the monkeys were all over the bikes, scattering as we approached. They had discovered batteries in Astried's tank bag which were chewed and strewn about the ground. There was a hole in the seat that was likely the result of a fight over the batteries. Facing the disappointing prospect of paying for repairs, we moved the bikes out front to the car park, away from the monkeys and further damage.
Indian parks are an interesting dichotomy. At the gates, signs declare “no plastic” and “do not throw trash”. However, inside, plastic is everywhere: single-use water bottles are scattered all over the street, as is every other item that would normally find its way into a trash can.
Over an evening chai, a young man started a conversation. He was an engineer and waiting for his work visa and seemed quite progressive, so, we brought up the issue of trash. Asking why the signs say plastic is prohibited but lies everywhere, his proud response floored us: “That is the beauty of my country, we are free to throw things wherever we want. You cannot do that in your country.” So much for progressive....
Time was running out and we pointed NE toward Yelagiri Hills, sailing along empty roads to Tirupattur where a colossal traffic jam ensued. Horns blared and tempers flared as everyone pushed forward going nowhere. Astried got squeezed out inches behind me and I had to wait 15 minutes for her to get through.
The Bank of India had an official exchange rate posted but did not change money. We were directed to the local jeweller who did. $100 US bills get a better price than smaller denominations and the usual back and forth over the rate ensued. I pulled out the money and the manager scowled, telling me they were not the new bills and were worth less. Go figure. We eventually agreed and he reached into a drawer, pulling out a mountain of bills in a big show that caught the attention of every customer in the shop.
Getting out of town was no small feat, but we finally made the Yelagiri Road and headed into the hills. “Valentina” lead through the 14 marked hairpins at a furious pace. At 1,100m, the air is much cooler than on the hot, dusty flats below.
We decided to spend a day exploring and ended up on a classic Indian debacle. We wound our way to what appeared to be the starting point of a walk to a waterfall pinned on the map. After wandering aimlessly through fields in search of a path, we admitted defeat and returned to the bikes. A man loitering nearby told us there were no falls here, they were on the far side of the hills. Laughing at having been lured by an incorrectly pinned photo, we spent the remainder of the day cruising narrow roads and taking in the scenery.
Final days on the beach; that was the plan, and we made the push east. Being New Years Eve, the traffic was insane. The back road option was terminated in Vellore, the fourth town everything ground to a halt as revellers blocked traffic. We settled for the toll road in an effort to blaze toward the coast.
What a fiasco! Bad drivers racing to wherever, mixed with freight trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, ox carts and pedestrians – none following the 'normal' rules of the road. Riding close together to block cars from squeezing us out and dodging motorized and human obstacles, we eventually made Kanchipuram late in the day.
The hotel was on the highway and not close to anything. A restaurant 5km distant served an overpriced, under-flavoured, highly forgettable chicken dinner. Exhausted from nearly 200km of fighting traffic, it was an early night. Happy New Year!
At midnight, the dull roar of celebrations lasted a few short minutes before the hotel returned to silence. Astried got up to go to the bathroom and bumped a small glass shelf perilously perched below the television. It came crashing to the floor and shattered. Immediately, an anxious staff member wanting to clean it up was pounding at the door.
As I cracked the door open, he started to pushing on it. Astried scurried back, hiding under the protective cover of the sheets, but I was naked and the door ajar. A second staffer came to help and now they were both pushing. They would not give up and I could not close the door, so I opened it wide exposing my natural self. They quickly turned away, leaving the broom so I could take care of it myself. Hilarious.
The final ride to the coast was much better along quiet country roads punctuated by small villages. We had booked a beachfront bungalow for our final three nights in Mahabalipuram. The online presentation was a far cry from what we discovered. Drunks were passed out on the tables, surrounded by an array of whisky bottles. The manager lay comatose in one of the rooms, and had clearly urinated at the foot of the mattress. The place stank, literally, and we went into town in search of an alternative.
Beachfront rooms were mostly booked and overpriced, but we found a great spot with a brilliant host one block from the ocean. Her smile was magical and she welcomed us like family.
My name is Bhavani,” she said, shaking our hands.
“Like the river?” I asked.
“Like the river goddess,” she replied, with a mischievous grin and twinkling eyes.
After check-in, Bhavani returned to creating an intricate design from colourful powders on the floor. Every day for this one month period, she explained, Tamils make a 'rogaan'. Thinking they had special spiritual meaning, I asked where her inspirations came from. “The internet,” she replied with a beaming smile.
I found a surfboard the next morning and rode some long slow waves. Astried was feeling out of sorts and declined surfing. Back at our lodge, an ayurvedic massage and some naturopathic treatment set her right and we chilled for the next days, recounting our amazing adventure, eating in a local restaurant and walking the beach.
And so, in the blink of an eye, 28 days of riding came to an end. The ride to Chennai was uneventful until we reached the sprawling city. Astried was on it and navigated flawlessly through the tortuous tangle to Chennai Motorcycle Rental.
Vicky was waiting for us and his staff checked the bikes. When we were given the thumbs-up, I asked him to come see Astried's bike. I needed to point out the hole in the seat so he could charge for it accordingly.
“You will never guess how this happened,” I said and proceeded to explain about the monkeys. It sounded all too much like 'the dog ate my homework'.
“We can never control nature, especially the monkeys,” Vicky said with a smile and a shrug, “don't worry about it.”
Returning the Bikes
Tamil Nadu, India
Over a cold beer with Vicky, we felt we had truly made a new friend. As time drew to a close, he arranged a ride to the airport. With a big hug and a radiant smile, he told us to visit him any time. And you know what? I think we just might.
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.