New level unlocked
I woke up to that familiar sound and gazed at the clock that read 3.00 AM. Allen didn’t show any sign of being bothered and I thought he was fast asleep. But he quickly opened his eyes the moment I switched on the lights. I took about half an hour to refresh ourselves and spent about fifteen minutes to pack our things. We’d settled everything for the room the previous night, so that left us with just leaving the hotel without much of the checkout activities.
The parking garage was quite dark with only one light for the whole area. The garage doors were also sealed. Allen went in search of the watchman and I strapped on the bags to the bikes. Once the the doors were open, we slowly moved out the bikes and tried to start them. Allen’s bike got itself to life and mine refrained to show up. A couple of tries later, I had a strange feeling something was wrong. Allen came up and tried it the ‘bullet’ way. Bulls generally need to be given throttle on hearing the initial thump instead of being blind about the throttle. Every try showed up some positive sign and it finally came to life in a few shots. “All hail Allen!”
The roads were pitch dark and it was clear nobody wanted to get up so early. Tea stalls opening up were also a rare sight and some areas had no power. We stopped by a junction to ask for directions, when a guy on a motorcycle offered to show us the way. He took us through some diversions that can’t be explained by words and finally led us to the road to Valparai. We thanked the timely help from him, without whom it would have been very hard to spot the road. Darkness prolonged for quite a while before we finally spotted the check post that maked the entry to the hills of Valparai.
The security guard gave us a stern look and asked us a few basic questions. He said that the road opens only by 6 and we will have to wait until then. I parked the bike and picked up a conversation with him. He insisted us on paying for the entry and the camera. I thought has was expecting a bribe to let us in. We walked to a nearby tea stall and decided to pay him off and leave after the quick tea. As we slowly sipped it, we had some people visiting the stall, mostly taxi drivers and companions. One of the taxi drivers was very helpful in giving us information about Valparai and also routes to Munnar and to Chennai from there.
Valparai generally has one road passing through it, that starts from Pollachi, passes through Valparai and ends at Chalakudi. We were told that the roads to the top is very good with animals that can be found rarely. We were more interested in the route from Valparai that takes us to Chalakudi. We already knew that it runs through thick forest with bad roads and the total stretch being about 85 kays long. The previous day, we were strongly advised not to attempt it as vehicle population was very rare, and nothing could be done when things go wrong. The people at the tea stall had a slightly better opinion telling us it wasn’t that bad. We were still not convinced about the idea fearing the worst might happen. We postponed the decision making and wanted to wait to hear what the people at the top of the hill had to say.
We had more time for the clock to show up 6 and waited by the check post. The security guard was refreshing himself and we started talking to him. He has been around for 13 years on temporary employment and was waiting for a permanent job after having applied for it. I was stunned at his patience and dedication in life. He advised us not to stop or venture on the way. At about 6, the gates were opened and he flagged us off with a hint that the ninth hairpin bend has the best view of all. Smiling, we rolled as the guy disappeared in my rear view mirror.
The sun was slowly breaking in that showed us the huge Azhiyar dam on the left, with lights on top of its massive walls giving it the majestic look. The water was sparkling as if it were filled with the rarest gems and I found it very hard to capture them on my camera. We were traveling with the water on the left and the hill’s forest on the right. We were warned that we would see a lot of falls on the way along with deep canals that bring in water, and both of which were dangerous. However, we couldn’t resist stopping at safe areas for photos and chit chat.
As we climbed the hill and were at a considerable elevation, we saw the entire dam and the lovely lake it had created. On the other side was the town of Pollachi eagerly waiting to see the sun. Stopping the bikes, we took a glimpse of the sight below and our jaws dropped. We could see the roads that we’d been climbing on so far. The hill gradually disappeared into the mist on top. About a few minutes from then, we had a group of people in a van, stopping and getting down. It obviously meant that it was time for us to leave. A few bends from there, we shot a couple of photos sitting on a small bridge and lying down on the empty roads.
I was starting to feel cold and the helmet was feeling moist. I opened the visor and was able to feel the minute drizzles on my face. I couldn’t see them though, but they clearly appeared on my visor. Soon, fog was setting in making the climate completely enjoyable. On the other hand, it was getting difficult to drive. Rain was slowly starting as we parked the bikes to slip on the rain pants. As expected, it was raining considerably and our speeds dropped. There were very few vehicles approaching us and that saved us a lot of time slowing down for them. It was getting colder by the minute and I wasn’t sure if I ever had palms. My gloves are not water resistant and they were soaked in the cold rain water which made me feel numb. I wasn’t sure how the gear shift were happening with such numb hands and decided to stop within the next few minutes. To our surprise, we’d just entered the town and went straight in search of food.
Having in mind safe options, we chose a hotel that looked decent and had indoor parking. We had time to take off our gear and let the water to drip off. Breakfast started with hot tea followed by dosas. Nothing was expensive so far and that was great news for us. We inquired the hotel guys about the forest road and they gave us a positive sign. We were also told that a bus runs through it, which means that the roads must definitely be manageable. We made up our minds to do it and was mentally preparing for the worst as well. Eighty odd kays through thick forest without people for help ain’t no joke and we were about to attempt it.
Adjacent to the hotel was the fuel station. We stepped in for a tank up and I lubricated my chain. We almost forgot that it was Independence Day until we saw the local guys with all their pockets pinned with the Indian flag. Allen waited and took care of the bikes as I strolled down the streets in search of the flag. I found a few in a small fancy store and came back with the flags and pins. The two of us celebrated Independence day at the unknown petrol bunk at Valparai!
Filling out pockets in a nearby ATM, we headed towards the forest roads with the local people guiding us with the route. We saw a college with helipad built in a considerable area of vast land. Quickly shooting a few snaps, we proceeded. We saw vast areas of trees that resembled green blankets over the hills. It was our green carpet welcome through the roads to paradise. I couldn’t believe the sight of the hills and we spent some time on the bikes enjoying them.
We passed village after village finally ending up near the Sozhiyar Dam. The sight of the dam was from the side where water was collected. We didn’t want to go further to the entrance after looking at a group of people infesting the location. Staying away, we clicked pictures of the dam and moved on.
On the road, we found kids playing right off school who stared at our bikes in surprise. We were like aliens landed on the planet. Everybody had the Indian flag on the shirts and had come right from their school’s flag hoisting function. I asked one small kid if he was ready to take a picture on the bike. Why would he even refuse? Soon, kids started pouring in and waited for their turn. After a few shots, it was quite unmanageable and the villagers started at us, giving us a strange look. A girl walked to the group and pulled away her brother from the scene and I understood we weren’t doing everything right. I had to apologize to a few kids and quickly moved from the scene. Some of the kids continued to chase my bike trying to run faster than the bike. I slowed down to let them enjoy. At some point, they stopped, running out of energy but continued to wave to me as I vanished around the curve. Allen took a couple of the kids on a small ride to their home and I couldn’t see him anywhere near. It took me about ten minutes to sync up with him and we crossed a check post together entering Kerala!
Houses were slowly becoming rare giving us the lonely feeling. We started seeing more trees and bushes on either side with the roads become worse by the mile. At some point, we were quite clear we had entered forests and it was time to be alert. We had to keep our eyes on the road to avoid sharp objects and keep our fingers crossed when the tyres plunged into water puddles. Deeper and deeper we went and the smell of wet trees dominated the area. We stopped the bikes in the middle of the road and turned off the engines. A moment of silence, and we looked at each other. We heard the forest coming alive. The sound of insects in the background with the birds chirping now and then, that gave us that eerie feeling. The both of us were feeling better to have had support from each other, without which one would definitely turn back at that point. I looked at the odometer and we were just entering the forest land. I understood we had a long way to go. Though this was thrilling, I chanted my prayers to God to help us cross this without having to meet the worst.
We drove further and spotted a jeep approaching. It was a good sign. We heard from the local people only about one bus and there was another vehicle to be seen, which also means that the vehicle density is marginally higher. The types of trees varied when we moved from area to area, but I’m not strong in the subject to clearly identify the kind. Streams were flowing everywhere and in most places, they flowed on the road. We stopped by a stream to enjoy the sounds of flowing water and the jungle.
Fallen trees on the road were a common sight, but the good news was most of them were cut and the road was cleaned to make way. One such tree was placed on the side of the road, which was a good place for some photos. I lied down on that with Allen clicking the pictures. When I got up, I noticed a leech on my knee protector. I’m allergic to these cheesy animals and Allen helped me get rid of it, after which I decided to not get so close to nature. As we moved on, we found a place that exposed the complete forest on the right. We were able to see the water hole as well where animals pass by for water. It was a sight of paradise and I did my best to capture them in the camera.
The trees were becoming lesser on either sides showing us the forest. As far as my eyes could see, I saw forest. I saw the hills one after the other, everything covered with thick green blankets. A sudden rush of algae was the next dose for us. Every stone beside the roads were covered with these making them glow in broad daylight. To add to these, there were tall grasses, about seven feet high, covering the sides.
So far, we had elevations and slopes that didn’t last for long, but now, the road was going down for a long time. I was guessing, we were probably getting out of the hills and I was proved right within the next ten kays. We started seeing people and cars. There were homes on either side and we had entered the village at the border of the jungle. Crossing the village, we ended in a place called as Athirapally Falls. The falls is famous for a Tamil movie called ‘Punnagai Mannan’ having been shot there. The place was overflowing with cars and people and wasn’t our cup of tea. Giving each other the disinterested look, we move on to find a good place to eat.
We were directed to Chalakudi which was about 35 kays from Athirapally. We knew that the highway runs around a river, and that there was a ferry service that could take us across in a shorter route which joins the highway on the other side. When inquired about it, the people said that the ferry service was closed and a bridge was built to compensate for the same. The bridge was easy to spot and we crossed the river to reach smaller roads that passed through villages to catch the highway. We had saved about 20 kays by taking the bridge. But now, we had crossed Chalakudi as we had taken the deviation and thereby headed for the next stop, Angamaly.
In less than half an hour, we found ourselves sitting opposite to each other, in some hotel in the small town of Angamaly. It was close to 4 in the evening and we were lucky to have got food and surprisingly it tasted very good. The taste of Kerala was well present in the food and it was quite different from the artificial flavor of Kerala food provided in most places of Tamil Nadu. After food, we were in a fix whether to visit Thekkady or Munnar. The local people said that the both were quite similar, but that Munnar would be relatively more crowded. The only disadvantage of Thekkady for us was that it was further to the south, which means we have to travel more to go home. We still had some time as we had to travel for an hour after which the roads parts to both destination. We decided to make it until there and then ask some people.
Once there, we made up our mind on Munnar and decided to halt at Adimaly, which is 35 kays before Munnar. By now, we had learnt this trick of staying one step before the final destination, that makes our stay very cheap. The roads to the place was a highway with a lot of twisties and the road’s white line layout was very different. A little before Adimaly, the hilly section started. Only then did we realize that the place was somewhere on the hill, pretty close to Munnar itself. On the way, we spotted a lot of waterfalls and a dark blue Skoda Octavia that was swerved hard and eventually felt into a stream. I fell bad for the driver.
Clicking pictures all the way, we were in the hotel just before sunset. As usual, the place had secure parking and the room rent was cheap with all amenities like TV and heater. Food that night was exceptional. We crashed for the day and I knew nothing at all, except that I bothered Allen through the night by snoring.