A ride through all possible terrains, all possible weather and all possible types of danger. A trip that had so many twists and turns that it became one of the most memorable and adventurous rides that I had ever done. From silky smooth curves of ghat roads to pure off road experience in narrow country paths, from the extreme prospects of human attack to the other extreme prospect of animal attack, this ride had it all.
My friend and colleague Ajith Ramachandran had bought some property in that amazing piece of geography, the Trisillery valley in Wayanad District of Kerala. After excruciating delays he had finally got the appointment for the survey and registration of his land which was to take place on Saturday, the 16th of November, 2013. A fellow rider and motorhead he had also recently got delivery of his much awaited KTM Duke 390 and was raring to really test it out on this ride. There is nothing more depressing for a rider than to be bereft of his steed and having watched the 4 month agony that he went through before he got his bike, and always looking for an excuse to a ride myself, I jumped in at the chance for a group ride with him.
There could not be two such completely different riders or rides. One is the sporty Duke 390 which is designed for the tracks and then there is my Royal Enfield Electra 5S, the gentle giant amongst motorcycles. Then of course there is Ajith himself, a certified speed junkie and me a constant speed cruiser. We knew it would be an interesting trial run for many such rides we had planned for the future and what an interesting trial it turned out to be!
I should have known that the portents were not quite so rosy by the first news I heard from Ajith on the evening of 15th as we met in the office. The ongoing agitation against the Kasthurirangan Report for Eco conservation had turned quite violent in several high ranges of Kerala, particularly in the Wayanad District. Ajith told me that a harthal (blockade) had been declared in Wayanad District on Saturday and there was no chance we could go on our planned route, straight to Wayanad via Gundlupet-Sultan Battery. We had come to the office fully geared up for the ride and going back home to change was not a savory option so we started looking for alternate plans. From plans as wild and crazy as Bangalore-Coorg-Wayanad, finally we decided to head for Iritty in Kannur District where Ajith wanted to meet with an old friend of his Sijo. After confirming with Sijo that Kannur District had been peaceful so far and that there is no blockade there we decided to head there.
We started from our office at around 1:30AM and after fueling up started towards the Mysore Road. The Duke was naturally in the lead, its acceleration could not be matched by my Bullet but I found that I could easily maintain speed with him up to the 90-100’s. However our quest to reach top speeds was hampered by the extreme chill of those hours. By the time of our second stop at around 4 AM near Srirangapatna we were so cold that we resorted to heating our hands by holding our bikes’ red hot silencers through the gloves. Warmed and rejuvenated a little bit we started heading towards Hunsur. Several people had warned me about the deviation from Srirangapatna towards Hunsur through the Krishna Raja Sagara Dam as one of the most dangerous stretches of roads in the area, lots of dacoits and other criminals were known to have operated in the area where even four wheelers are not safe. We were passing through this notorious area in such an unholy hour, us two bikers, that we were on the edge of nerves the whole time. We decided to ride in close formation without too much gap and were already stressed out scanning the dark country side for the smallest sign of danger when lo and behold the road turned into utter mess. For about a kilometer or so there was no road, just piles of boulders of various size. The Bullet came into its element, able to make steady progress as Ajith’s Duke flailed about trying to manage the route. After several more fearful breathless kilometers we finally reached the four lane highway to Hunsur and let it rip. That dawn as the sky lightened up slowly revealing lakes of mist all around was simply magical. As my bike swished its way through the swirling mists I could not help but scream with joy!
We stopped for a mini breakfast at a coffee shop near Hunsur and that is when my troubles started. Immediately as I hit the road I noticed I was getting misfires as the engine rared to the higher RPMs. There was absolutely no way I could accelerate fast nor could I hope to maintain the 90s or 100s anymore. Ajith suggested there may be some clutch issues, I checked for any water logging in carburettor but to no avail. I finally decided to push on anyway and see how it goes. Careful to maintain lower RPMs and slower revving my bike was moving steadily but my mind was in utter turmoil. This was the second time my bike was giving me trouble in the midst of a ride and I was praying to all the Gods I have ever heard of. However, I realized that with a steady throttle I could maintain a fair clip. After Hunsur on the way to Gonikoppai again trouble started for Ajith as we had to ride through a stretch of 20 odd kilometers with absolute pathetic roads. The Bullet, being the most natural bike for Indian roads took it all with equanimity but we realized that the Duke with its stock tires cannot handle such rough roads and is optimum only in well tarmacced surfaces.
However after Virajpet Ajith’s groans turned to cheers as we entered the awesome curves of the ghat roads to Iritty. While he let it rip I took a more sedate approach but still enjoyed riding through the pristine ghat roads riding through swarms of butterflies twinkling in the morning rays of the sun. There were a few scares as while entering an S bend I found myself facing a KSRTC (Kerala) bus coming up in the wrong direction at high speed. There was no space for me to give it side as it was a cliff towards the left, and if I stayed on track I would go under its behemoth tyres. However some rapid last second maneuvering by me and the KSRTC driver ensured my life was not extinguished in those beautiful forests.
Winston Churchill had once said there was no feeling comparable to being shot at without effect. When your life has been spared by the distance of a gnat’s hair length it is the most exhilirating feeling in the world. You are suddenly reminded about how alive you are and it is a beautiful feeling. People who have not experienced will never be able to fathom why a guy who was about to die one second is laughing heartily the next second.
Finally by around 9AM we reached Kerala borders and now our biggest challenge was find the way to Sijo’s home, the village of Chempathotty near Sreekandapuram. We knew that we had to take a deviation towards right at the bridge towards Iritty town. With Ajith in the lead asking directions and me following it turned into a veritable wild goose chase all over the region finding the route to Chempanthotty. Thanks to two dastardly young chaps who gave us the wrong directions we went on a wild and winding route through execrable roads through Payyavoor and Chemperi to reach Chempanthotty. There was a stretch of about 10 kms where there was actually no road, just a road being built at that time. Pure offroad stuff, muddy, sloshy, dusty, rocky, uphill, downhill and all the et ceteras that were worst nightmare for both of us, Ajith because his bike was ill suited to ride slow in those roads and me because I was afraid of revving to higher RPMs. Exhausted and sore we finally met with Sijo at Chempanthotty and we finally reached his home.
After a sumptuous brunch of tapioca and chicken curry we pondered on the further course of action. One plan was that since the blockade would get over by 6PM in Wayanad we could leave Chempanthotty at around 4-5PM and cross the Wayanad border at 6PM. However this plan had the following dangers : we did not know the mood of local populace following the blockade and secondly we deemed it a risk to ride through the unfamiliar mountain pass in darkness. The second plan was that we would visit Paithalmala, a mountain nearby which was becoming a tourist attraction. Ajith finally made the call that we would visit Paithalmala that day and leave for Wayanad early the next morning. Because of the blockade the surveying had been postponed for Sunday, the 17th at 10AM so we had to haul ass next day, for which that day we would rest properly. With Paithalmala plan decided Sijo called up a few of his friends to accompany us.
Since a big question mark was the road worthiness of my Bullet the first thing that we did was to get my bike checked at the local Bullet mechanic. The ignoramus rode it around a while, adjusted the careburettor tuning and declared it as good as new. He proudly told me to pay him when we returned from him. However as I hit the road I realized that nothing had changed, the missing was still there. What is more, my odometer too had failed thanks to his divine touch. I decided then and there that mechanic wont see a single paisa from me. After a couple of wrong turns thanks to my excellent navigator, Jerin, we finally reached the base of the mountain. It was a narrow trail with rough tarmac interspersed with occasional good tarmac and I knew that with the limitations of my bike it would be a tough challenge. I could not ride on 2nd or 1st gear as at higher RPMs that would require bike may stall, and at higher gears like 3rd progress would be slow due to lower power and low RPMs. Agonizing, stressful, and slow, it was much more a test of my skills than on my bike’s capability. After a short photo session midway we finally reached the peak, thoroughly exhausted.
We could see the peak ahead of us about a couple of kilometers of trek away. While our compatriots were quite nimble footed denizens of the hills, we the much more generously proportioned decided that the trek would be something better left to another day. We did make our way up to an abandoned KTDC guest house that was built lavishly a couple of years ago and completely abandoned since its inauguration. Now the beautiful buildings with its excellent furnishings and jaw dropping viewpoint was like a haunted mansion. It did however provide a beautiful setting for a lunch of Porottas and superb Beef Fry, Kerala style with some gooseberry “cool drinks” for refreshment. After the leisurely meal we finally made our way down to the bikes to leave for Sijo’s home. With the Duke 390 attracting quite a lot of attraction and tinkering from the locals Ajith was anyway not very comfortable leaving it unattended.
Tomy chettan, a neighbor of Sijo had accompanied us to Paithalmala and we stopped at his shack at the base of the mountain for some rest after riding down. Nourished with some more gooseberry cool drinks and coconut milk cut by him everyone made their way down to a small mountain stream some distance downhill. I attempted the trek but I realized neither my worn out and ancient army boots could hack it and nor could my tired and clumsy frame. I dozed for a while at the shack and waited for the others to come up.
As they returned it was immediately obvious that something had gone wrong. Ajith was drenched head to toe. Apparently while attempting some stunt by the stream his slippers broke down and he fell headlong into the stream. Even worse than him getting a surprise swim in the chilly waters was the fact that his beloved Sony smartphone too had joined him for the swim. The phone was so wet that there were algae particles wedged even the deepest crevices inside the body of the phone. After managing to comfort him unsuccessfully we made our way to Sijo’s home as dusk fell and after a sumptuous dinner we fell immediately asleep.
Waking up at 5AM we geared up and finally Chempanthotty at 6AM now equipped with the correct directions to reach Iritty. We found the roads to be far far better than the crappy roads we had taken the previous day and we renewed our well deliberated cursing towards those two blokes who misdirected us. After tanking up near Sreekandapuram we crossed Iritty with me navigating through the Here Maps on my Nokia Lumia 720. It was a validation test for both my phone’s GPS routing as well as the new Rynox tank bag I had bought. With the phone placed inside the tank bag I could navigate quite accurately even through the heavy rains that we rode through that day. With my odometer down I found my phone’s GPS an able tool for distance measurement and navigation.
With breakfast done at a small tea shop before the hills we entered the town of Kottiyoor to truly gruesome sights. The roads were full of people going to morning mass and as we slow down we saw on both sides burnt out hulks of several jeeps and buses. With the roads pockmarked ugly several places by scorch marks of fires burnt we realized what dangerous times and places we were travelling through. Entering the curvy passes we saw to our horror recently shifted concrete poles that apparently were laid across the roads the previous day. I had read in news about Police being stoned and chased for some 10 kilometers by the angry riotous mob the previous day and the actual sights of the violence was quite chilling. All the way to Mananthavady we saw several such signs of the blockade that was in place the previous day. From Mananthavady we made our way to Trissilery reaching Ajith’s cousin’s place a few minutes before 9 well in time for the surveying. While Ajith was going to be busy with surveying I decided to relax at the estate of Rajen Warrier, cousin brother of Ajith and brother of my close friend Jayan. It was incredibly quiet and peaceful at the mountainside house.
Around noon I made my way back to Ajith’s land for lunch where I met once again Sijo, Tomy chettan and Jerin who had come by the place on route to Kattikulam. After meeting them I who had gotten quite exhausted by the time was dropped at the estate by Dhanesh, Ajith’s cousin, son of the local District Congress Committee leader Balettan and an upcoming politician himself as a leader of Youth Congress. After a relaxing nap I got a call from Ajith that my bike had stalled for good. Thoroughly worried I made my way to Balettan’s home where my bike was kept. With the bike in trouble there was no way we could make our way to Karnataka on that Sunday night. With a fresh blockade being declared for Monday we realized we would have to extend our leave. Thankfully the director of our company agreed to our sudden leave, but we still had the worry about the blockade and elephant activity in the forest routes to Karnataka to worry about.
It had fallen dark by that time and through numerous contacts of Dhanesh we finally managed to get hold of a mechanic who agreed to drop by and check the bike. An agonizing wait later he finally diagnosed the problem as faulty earthing of the battery. Yet another lesson in my mechanical education I was glad that it was nothing serious, however the triviality of the fault in the end did nothing to reduce the heartburn in the interim.
With my bike finally ready we were dropped at Rajen chettan’s estate. After a short Shiva Puja underneath the bright moon and swirling clouds and mists of Wayanad we finally went to sleep, our worries about our return to Bangalore kept abay for the moment.
The morning saw us trekking to the top of the mountain that Rajen chettan owned a part of. It was an easy trek and musing about the thrills of riding up the mountain on our bikes or a jeep and spellbound by the beauty of the mountains in the morning lights we slowly trekked down and walked on towards Balettan’s house. It was a 5 km walk and we saw an empty landscape with everyone retreated to their homes in fear of the blockaders. After breakfast we started discussing once again various ways by which we could return back. The nearest checkpoint at Bavali was the obvious choice. However the route to Bavali checkpost was through a region of extremely heavy elephant activity with two lone tuskers known to have harrassed several people just a few days ago. The Bavali checkpost would also close after 6PM and opens only after 6AM. This coupled with the fact that blockade would lift only at 6PM made our situation quite tricky. Another alternative was to race towards Sultan Bathery where the Muthanga checkpost was known to close only at 9PM. However that would require us to travel nearly 80 kms further through Kerala through major towns like Mananthavady and Sultan Battery where the rioters were reputed to be in heightened spirits possible even after the blockade hours. Add to that the increased animal activity on Sultan Battery-Gundlupet route after dark. The third alternative through Kutta was also dropped for reasons of heavy animal activity and poor roads.
With Dhanesh and Balettan getting constant updates from their contacts about the blockade situation we decided we had to get our gear back from Rajen chettan’s estate before pushing off through some less travelled country routes. So around noon me and Ajith made our way cautiously towards the estate. At the center of the Trissilery town however our worst fears were realized. The road was blocked by several benches and rocks. After parking my bike we walked to the junction and were hailed by the blockaders. We managed to plead our case to them and they gave us a small margin of respite by letting us pass for the time being. It was scary as hell with those rustic thugs’ hatred towards us people from cities quite obvious, the violence was literally inches away in that tense situation. Through no small amount of diplomacy we finally collected our gear and returned.
If the rioters were this aggressive in a small village like Trissilery we wondered what the situation would be at Kattikulam, a major town on the way to Bavali and an extremely volatile rioters reputed to be enforcing the blockade there. With no small amount of prayers we finally pushed off at around 4:30. We stuck to country roads, true off road pathways , trails barely wide for one single bike. As we made our progress we saw the blockade being lifted at several intermediate points and warily we finally approached Kattikulam. Ahead of us was a white Toyota Innova which had been stopped at the roadblock. Three or four of the rioters were standing in front of the vehicle threatening and harassing its passengers. Me and Ajith silently made our way through the left side of the Innova, waiting at any moment to be hailed by the blockaders. Nobody stopped us. Just to be sure Ajith asked a blockader standing nearby whether we could pass, he nodded and off we went throttle twisted to the max towards Bavali. The next 15 kilometers of forest road before the checkpost was marked frequently with elephant dung in varied stages of freshness. Though maintaining a brisk clip our eyes were pealed to both sides of the roads for any sign of the dreaded wild elephants of the corridor. Finally when we crossed the Bavali checkpost and entered Karnataka it was no small sigh of relief that left our lungs. We had crossed Bavali checkpost by 5:30. The dusk was approaching soon and we had several more kilometers of forests ahead and since wild elephants do not recognize state borders we realized we can properly relax only once we pass the forest. We offered a lift to a forest ranger at another checkpost and about 10 kilometers of rough roads preceded us finally leaving the forests and entering the Deccan Plateau proper. There we celebrated.
Thoroughly wrung out but now peacefully relaxed we embarked on the rest of our return home. Regaled with torrentous rainfall at Mysore and some more pit stops later we finally reached Bangalore at 1AM on Tuesday morning.
A ride thus marked by strange twists I have never taken before. All sorts of worries and dangers had been thrown at us. Moments of uncertainties defined every hour of the ride. Moments of extreme happiness and moments of extreme worry. The full spectrum of human emotions were experienced by us. Having seen the burnt out bikes at Kottiyoor and having known the aggressiveness of the blockaders there were moments when we had no idea what future had in offing. Of one thing I was sure, if somebody dared to destroy my bike, they had better kill me too, because I wont rest until I killed everyone who destroyed my bike or die trying. It cannot be described the psyche of a person who has accepted such a fate and still decided to carry on. However even at the moments of deepest despair I knew, in the deepest corners of my mind I had an inkling that somehow, despite all these obstacles we would somehow muddle through safely. I believe that is one of the principal reasons we ride, being challenged like this affirms our faith. I have always maintained that God is the random probability and faith is an irrational belief that the random probability would come through for us. In hindsight things would seem more rational, but when fighting the tides of time and circumstances logic is often dictated by the information that we have at that moment, and sometimes the situational logic has to be defied and nothing helps us in doing that other than the wild irrationality that is faith. It may be in anything, God , Gaea, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or the Invisible Pink Flying Unicorn.
The other lesson learned was that me and Ajith cannot ride in sync. The bikes were too different, the bikers too were too different. That put a stop to several pet projects we had in mind. A personal lesson for me was that I needed a crash course in Royal Enfield Bullet mechanism. Without knowing at least basic maintenance, repair and troubleshooting some of my longer dream rides would not be possible. But then again that is what each ride is for me, new experiences and new lessons learnt.