They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Mine was a journey of half a thousand miles and it began with the most inauspicious of happenings. Nevertheless this would turn out to be one of the most memorable bike rides of my life.
I have had a passion for traveling – the wild way, to wild places, often taking the road not traveled. And when the journey is on a bike it adds to the fun. Wanderlust is part of my DNA I guess!
It had been quite sometime since I joined The Chennai Trekking Club and I was eagerly awaiting my debut. It wasn’t easy to come. I had registered for two treks and both of them were cancelled due to rains. Every time I registered I would announce it to my friends with all the enthusiasm in the world and every time it got cancelled, I would be the subject of ridicule for my friends. So here was it was – an invitation for a bike trip and trek to Yelagiri, organized by Vikram, the only person I knew in CTC. I just responded to the stimulus by registering for it. Natural isn’t it?
The registration happened and I would check the groups from time to time for news about the trip. The stats coming in were mind boggling. There were 80+ registrations and the organizers were expecting a huge convoy, forget the nightmare of arranging the logistics. The day before the trip the confirmed number of participants stood at around 60. By afternoon clouds had gathered and it started raining. The forecast was not encouraging either. “Not another cancelled trip” – I said to myself. I found Vikram online and I asked him, “Hope you are not calling off the trip due to rain.” The answer was quick and heartening, “No way.” I was glad. The adventure was supposed to start the next day but it started way too early the evening of the day before the trip. I did not have the necessary equipment for the trek and wanted to buy it that evening. So off I started braving pouring rain and maddening Chennai traffic. My first stop was T Nagar. I bought a bag after much haggling. I needed a sleeping mat now and the place to buy it was Royapettah. I scouted the rexine shops to find the right material and finally found it in one shop. It was 10PM by then and all other shops were closed. Bond who had been roaming around with me in the rain for no reason or fault of his had to leave to the office for a call. Just as he left I asked the shop keeper to get me the mat. The lazy bugger was reluctant because the mat was deep inside among others in the shop and it was too late in the night to re arrange it. After trying in vain to convince him I walked all the way to the office without the mat. Guess I will have to do this trip without it.
I started from the office at 11.30 PM reached home packed my bag and tried to get some sleep. My enthusiasm got the better of me and I couldn’t wink an eye, forget sleeping. Before long it was 3 AM and I got up. Had a bath got ready and left the house on my ever reliable bike wondering what the day had in store for me. Just as I started from home, it started drizzling and I thought it was just a passing cloud. But as I was nearing the ‘rendezvous point’, the drizzle was getting stronger.
The first pick up point was Tidel Park. Since it was close to my house I went there and finding no one there I got restless. I decided to move on to the next pick up point – Le Meridian Hotel. This place was also devoid of people. All sorts of thoughts were racing through my mind now ranging from the rest of the crowd leaving me behind to the trek being cancelled. I called Vikram on his mobile. He picked up and I learnt that I had reached the picked up point way too early. He would be coming to the second pick up point soon. Relief at last! Waiting there I notice a figure with a backpack approaching me. It was Suresh a member of CTC and he would later be my pinion rider. Shortly after, we were joined by Karthik, Krish, Sanjay and Charu. I was feeling far better, but it was a short lived feeling. Following suit was the most unwelcome member who would accompany us all along this trip – The Rain. I have always loved the rain and I still do. Bu the fact that the trip may be called off due to rain was making me feel uneasy. Soon it was raining cats and dogs and we took shelter under the bridge at Kathipara Junction.
A while later we saw a motorcade stopping at the junction. They were the other members of the trek. It so happened that most people had dropped out due to the inclement weather and the final number was 30. What followed was a series of hectic arguments on whether to continue with the trip or not. And then Vinotha, one of the organizers comes up and asks how many of you think that this trip is not risky. Just two hands went up. One was Vikram’s and no prizes for guessing the other person. After thinking for a moment it was decided to go ahead with the trip and all of us decided to adhere to the speed limit strictly and not to overtake Vinotha’s car which would keep a check on the speed. We also decided to stop at Porur for breakfast (which would turn out to be another point of argument putting the trip’s fate in the balance again). Off we started with a roar of excitement. We reached Porur (after waiting in Kathipara for two bikers who went astray). We gathered in front of a closed shop to have breakfast. Yet again we start debating whether we should continue with the trip with the rain showing no respite. It turned out that one of the bikers (Rajmohan) had already reached Yelagiri and two others from Bangalore (Arun and Anala) were close to Yelagiri. Attempts were also being made to contact Arun and ask him to return back. All this was happening while we were munching a breakfast of chappatis. I was finding it difficult to swallow the chappatis though they were good and even more difficult to swallow was the fact that the trip was very likely to be called off. I stood there weighing the options I had in front of me.
Option A: Go back home or join the gang if they had an alternate plan. Become the subject of ridicule yet again.
Option B: Just be myself. Go to Yelagiri braving all odds even if I were to make this trip all alone.
I had read somewhere that when you want something wholeheartedly the whole universe conspires to get it for you. Something of that sort happened that day. All of a sudden there was a change of mood among the people gathered and it was decided for one last time that we would go ahead with the trip and not look back. From then on it was all fun and excitement.
We rode our bikes in the rain and made a brief stop after crossing Sriperumbudur to click some photos and tie CTC flags to the bikes. The riders stuck to the speed limit and it was a joyous ride all along. The scenery all along was beautiful. The rain had added to the beauty. The people in the cars took turns riding bikes as well. The scenery was breathtaking as we neared Vellore. Lush hills on both sides of the road and thick fog and clouds floating over them were just awesome. I was so taken in by the beautiful scenery around me that I drifted from the rest of the gang and rode away from them at a faster pace. I realized this after sometime and pulled over to the side of the road to wait for them. They would arrive a few minutes later and we proceeded on our way to Yelagiri. Just as we left the highway and turned left on the road to Yelagiri we founf Arun and Anala (who had made a beautiful bouquet in her waiting time) waiting for us. And further down we were joined by Rajmohan at the foothills.
We rode up the ghat road and stopped at the telescope house to click a few photos. Somebody had said this would be a good view point. Just as we were about to leave this place a few good friends of Balaji showered their love on him by presenting and forcing to wear a t shirt with the words “Boys Love Me” written on it. We made our next stop at a shop to buy water bottles and have a cup of hot tea. A few hungry souls managed to gobble in parotas and chicken curry in the meantime. From there we rode on to the base camp, parked our bikes and collected water bottles. Our local guide for this trek, Velu was waiting for us and we started the trek. It was 4 PM. As instructed by Vikram I accompanied Velu in the front while he himself fell back acting as a sweeper ensuring no one was left behind.
Soon we were trekking through a reserve forest area with thick vegetation and thorny bushes in some places. The most exciting stretch was when we walked along a narrow canal with the hill on one side and the valley on the other. We had to negotiate some slippery rocks on the way and the whole team helped each other at places like these. Following our reliable guide we reached a rocky area where we stopped for a photos and a gulp of water. This would be the final point for this trek and we were supposed to go back to base camp from there. It was already getting dark and it also started drizzling when Velu gave us this news. We had lost the return trail and we would have to discover our own path to return to base camp. Wow it couldn’t get better than this – I thought to myself. With Velu leading from the front clearing bushes with his machete as he walked, we followed one behind the other with our torches on. My torch was dim due to low battery and Arun had dubbed it “The Candle”. I would fall back along with Vikram for the return journey. There we were lost in the middle of this forest following our guide, putting all our faith and trust in him. At one point all of us felt we were climbing further up the hill rather than climbing down to the base camp. But our guide kept reassuring us that we were heading in the right direction and true to his word led us safely back to base camp where a pack of barking dogs welcomed us.
Reaching base camp we took our bikes and headed off to hotel nigress for dinner. Being hungry and tired we attacked the dinner plates like animals. After the sumptuous dinner we headed back to base camp. After losing my way for a while in the dark I managed to get back to base camp and settled down for the night. We were fortunate enough to find flat ground to sleep for the night. I was totally wet and couldn’t sleep throughout the night. The next day we woke up early to start the next trek to Jalagamparai falls. We rode our bikes to the rendezvous point and started our trek from there after collecting snacks and glucose for the journey. We trekked through muddy and rocky terrain with beautiful scenery all along. The Jalagamparai falls was close to a temple and there eas not much water falling in the falls in spite of the rains. But it was good to stand in the falling water after an arduous trek. After spending sometime at the falls we headed back to the rendezvous point. It started raining on the way back and trekked again in the rain. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the rendezvous point and headed to the hotel for lunch. Thanks to Vinotha, she had reached the hotel ahead of us and ordered lunch for all of us. By the time we reached the food was hot and ready. Again we attacked the plates with the same ferocity we showed the previous night.
By the time we finished the lunch and the core members settled the accounts it was around 5 PM. We started our journey back to Chennai. Riding downhill on the ghat road was an exciting experience. It was like controlled free fall. In no time we had descended the hill and were back on the plains roaring towards Chennai on our bikes. It was already dark when we neared Vellore. After stopping for a while to fill fuel we resumed our journey. Just when it seemed that things were coming to a smooth end it started raining cats and dogs and we rode on in the rain without stopping. As if the rain was not a hindrance enough 15 km before Kanchipuram Vikram’s bike broke down. After trying in vain to revive it we decided to park the bike at some nearby place and proceed to Chennai. The plan was to come back the next day and take the bike. Gopi and I went looking for a suitable place to park the bike for the night but could not find one. We thought we would have to tow the bike all the way to Kanchipuram where Gopi could find someone to take care of the bike for the night. When we came back to the spot where the bike broke down Ram was giving a go at the bike, trying to start it. All the while the other trekkers where cheering in the rain keeping the mood and morale up. Just as we thought we were nearing the breaking point Ram’s magical touch worked and the 500 cc monster of a bike roared back into life.
Thrilled by the experience we continued on our journey excited as we were throughout this adventure. By the time we reached Sri Perumbudur I was feeling sleepy and for a while I was riding the bike half asleep. Suddenly I realized I was loosing control and fought off the sleep by keeping my eyes wide open and breathing deeply. At times I sang to myself to stay awake. Finally we regrouped at Porur said goodbye to each other and went on our way home. It was 12.30 AM by the time I reached home. I quickly got into some dry clothes and lay down to sleep. I had not slep well for the past two days and in no time I was sleeping like a log dreaming of more treks and more adventure.
Yelagiri (250 kms from Chennai, 180kms from Bangalore, off Chennai-Vellore-Bangalore highway) was on my wish list for some time and when a bike trip to Yelagiri was planned more than a month in advance by CTC, I instantly registered. It was executed with utmost professionalism last month (Nov 22, 23) though heavy rains did play spoilsport. There were more than 80 registrants, of which 62 people had reconfirmed their participation the previous day. 3 cars and 30 bikes were expected to join this trip. (Which is almost like a rally and makes great photo feature) However heavy rains during Friday night and Saturday morning discouraged many participants and more than half didn’t turn up. Probably they felt it risky to drive in rain or were instructed by their family members not to venture out.
I reached the meeting point at the assigned time of 4.45 AM, expecting a huge gathering of bikes. To my surprise there were none. For a moment I thought everyone were punctual and they might have left on time and I may have to speed and catch up with them. But the Hyundai Verna that was parked there looked familiar (Selva’s car) and few people sitting under the bus shelter made me have second thoughts. I slowed down and when I looked back Bala was waving me to come back. Few more bikes joined in little later but the downpour made everyone think if we should proceed or abort. After some thoughts and hesitation we started, met some more participants at Guindy, another round of discussions on to go or not to go, went further ahead and assembled in Poonamalai. It was around 8 AM now. Rain didn’t seem to ease, but there was hope that it may either calm down soon or 50 kms from city it may not be raining at all. While the city roads were water logged, the Golden Quadrilateral was better equipped to deal with water. But riding a bike in rain is more risky than driving a car and risk factor seem to supersede the fun and adventure part of it. We came close to calling off the trip couple of times, but with half of Chennai knowing that CTC is going on a bike trip, going back home and telling “we came back fearing rains” was just not an option. No better alternatives could be worked out and by taking calculated risks, organizers finally decided on a GO.
The group of 28, in 9 bikes and 3 cars, thus started off towards Yelagiri. Vinodha (Akka as she is fondly called by others) lead the way, ensuring that no biker speeds ahead while Selva swept from behind, ensuring that no one is left behind. A very moderate speed of 60-70 kmph was maintained. Sun was nowhere to be seen and even at 11 AM the cloudy sky gave an impression as if it is just 7 in the morning. Rain gave us company most of the time, but its intensity was significantly low and was manageable. Scenery along the highway was photogenic, specially, the clouds forming a ring around the mountain peaks. But I couldn’t risk my camera to water borne infections, hence entire day 1 I hardly took any snaps.
There’re clear signboards on the highway indicating exit for Yelagiri- keep watching for it once you cross Katpadi. Arun and Anala who came from Bangalore joined us here, taking the total to 30. Nearly 14 hairpin bends on the uphill drive made the final stretch was exciting and different from monotonous highway drive. We moved very slow and finally reached our base camp (some 5 kms from Yelagiri town, I guess it is a village named Puttur) by about 3.30 PM. (That’s more than normal time, but can be attributed to rains, need for staying together as a group etc. My earlier experiences: Chennai-Bangalore-by bike, Jan 2006: 7 hours (5.30 AM to 12.30PM), -by car, June 2008, 5 hours (1 AM to 6 AM)). Trek to Swami malai was the original plan for Day 1, but was abandoned as we reached late. A small trek into the woods, from 4 PM to 8 PM kept us busy for rest of the evening.
My backpack was supposed to be waterproof, but clothes inside got wet- I guess water seeped in through the zip area which consists cloth material and can allow decent amount of water in, if we travel for several hours in heavy rains. We went back into the city for dinner and came back. This was my first 2 day trek and had with me my recently bought sleeping mat. But didn’t have clear idea where and how we’ll be spending the night. Organizers identified an unused building in the village which was good enough for us to spread our mats and sleep. So there was no need to set up tents. There are several ‘house-turned- guest houses/cottages/hotels’ in Yelagiri city where visitors can stay for few hundred rupees a day. Day 2 luckily didn’t start with the rain. It was cloudy in the morning but turned sunny soon. By 8.30 AM everyone were ready to leave, after having morning refreshments and bread, jam for breakfast. Didn’t know that some Jam makers have started selling jam in toothpaste like packets-just squeeze and jam will come out- no need to struggle with a spoon to get the jam out from the cup. Nice and convenient innovation, though that jam is more diluted and expensive.
We drove to another part of the village to start our day 2 trek, which involved a descend to a temple downhill and back. There was no need to carry entire backpack, hence it was a rather easy walk, though return uphill journey commanded few stops. Jalagamparai waterfalls exists near the temple where devotees and others can refresh. Trekked uphill on the same trail and took some rest on a big rock. The hitherto sunny sky started turning cloudy and we were about to leave the rock and return to base, rain gods poured down on us heavily, re-drenching the clothes and shoes which had dried properly by now. Rain sustained for rest of the day, in varying intensities, with few gaps. Lunch at Elagiri city, the same restaurant where we’d dinner last night and departure to Chennai. Nearly 5.30 Pm when we started return journey. Of the bikes broke down on the way as water entered inside. It took several dozens of kicks to expel the water and get the engine running again. Reached home by midnight. The trip did cost around 1k directly in expenses and another 1.5 k as a business continuity investment- servicing the bike, buying spares as a backup (Clutch cable, accelerator cable, headlight lamp, spark plug, chain connector, a spare tube and a footpump). My bike didn’t give any trouble during the 500 kms ride and is fairly experienced in long rides now- It has done Chennai-Bangalore, Chennai-Pondy, Hyderabad-Bidar, Hyderabad-Parigi (a village 100 kms from Hyd). Regular servicing, courtesy Castrol BikeZone and Bajaj Service have kept it ever ready for rides.
Other than trekking there isn’t much you can do at Yelagiri, popular primarily because it is a hill station. Punganur Lake and few temples are another tourist attractions I believe. Recently paragliding was introduced in Yelagiri by Yelagiri Adventure Sports Association(YASA). But after the inaugural paragliding festival during September this year, there isn’t much news of this. Out guide told us that Paragliding basic training costs Rs 15000 for one week- not everyone can afford that amount of money and time. Simpler and economic versions of adventure sports could have been good to start off with.
Honey and jackfruits were on sale by the roadside. I was tempted to buy a jackfruit but the burden of carrying it all the way to Chennai made me decide against it.