Pedals and the Pachyderm – Cycling in Wayanad

Harsha’s instructions with the precision of a cabin crew about the two-day long cycling trip in Wayanad feels repetitive to me – keep yourself hydrated, follow the map, tag along fellow riders, it’s Kerala so it will be hot and humid. Perhaps sensing my mild disinterest, he tells me, ‘you’ve travelled with us before.’ I have but this trip was unlike the ones before, I’d realize not too later.

the road

After a long night’s journey that involved detours and navigational complexities – because the driver trusted the lone strangers at bus stops in the middle of the night to ask for directions while a few fervent passengers among us tried to convince him Google maps is a better idea – we reach the town of Mananthavady in Wayanad district from where our two-day, roughly 160kms long cycling trip along the elephant corridor would begin.

Freshening up is followed by breakfast where I meet fellow riders over breakfast – Mike from Texas who reveals that he went on a bicycle trip looping South India twelve years ago starting and ending in Chennai traversing Kerala and Karnataka in the process. Pratik and Anuj are weekend city riders who are new to this kind of trip while Param and Phaneesh seem their sole purpose in coming on the trip is to dwarf every other rider’s efforts by reaching the finish line first in every single portion of the ride. There is also a family of four on the trip with two children, aged not more than 10 who, I would later find, spiritedly finish the trip.

I though, am never competitive but my tactic is to start at least half hour before everyone and reach the finish line at least to avoid being the last one to reach. So I set off, after checking my rented cycle for its fitness into the pleasantly chill dawn of Mananthavady’s roads. We are provided with a printout of a map, though the rider demography suggested that many rather use Google to find their way around. I lay my phone to rest back in the hotel room and seek help from the locals owing to my familiarity with the local language.

The first day’s ride involves riding up to the ancient Thirunelli temple in a thickly wooded area surrounded by the peaks through the north Wayanad wildlife sanctuary. Given how you see it, that poses one problem – at least for me. The thought of wildlife sighting when you are unguarded and on a bicycle already makes me feel jittery. Though I have sighted wildlife while cocooned in the confines of an automobile while driving through areas such as Bandipur, encountering an elephant herd on my own, exposed in all probable ways is never a pleasant proposition.

As if to mirror my contemplation, I hear affirmation of this piece of information from one too many locals I enquired while I pedaled into the road that cuts across the spine of the wildlife sanctuary. “It is an elephant region. Watch out when you ride,” I was told. Upon further questioning, I was also reassured that they won’t harm unprovoked and that I was to be careful. Careful, while exposed to the elements of nature? That I don’t know how.

Though those predictions gather collective fear in my belly and the often recurring signboards in yellow and black exacerbated my fear of an encounter with elephants, none happens. I hear birdcalls, smell crushed forest leaves and persist riding for the fear of elephants push me on. I finish the ride soon enough and arrived at Mananthavady to commence the second section that concludes at the Banasurasagar dam. An important tourist attraction and that being a Saturday, I wasn’t particularly enthused about the dam itself but the ride promised allure.

Banasurasagar dam hosts islands in the midst of its sprawling reservoir – said to have evolved from the submerging of land when the dam was built back in the 70s. Weekend revelers of school kids on excursions, couples and families populate the dam’s premises. The silent waters of the reservoir is ripped apart by speeding motorboats with tourists in orange lifejackets while the sun is a soft yellow in its crepuscular charm, getting to disappear behind the peaks.

The next day’s insouciance was a result of the largely descending landscape. The journey to Kuruvadweep Island from Mananthavady, roughly 20kms, takes all of two hours with good roads in order. But confusion ensues upon reaching Kuruva. Some of us want to take the bamboo raft and visit the island but the boat services do not open until after 10 a.m. The coordinators provide two options – one for people who want to ride back to Sulthan Bathery, the final destination from where our bus would pick us toward the return to Bangalore. I opt for the second, load my bicycle in the truck and board the bus to reach the other entrance of the Kuruva islands – roughly 16kms away from the main entrance.

While at least three fourth of the riders continue on the ride, I walk along the tall trees with barely-there roads towards the Kuruva’s entrance where tickets are sold and take the bamboo rafter ride that lasts all of 10 seconds. Kuruva turns out to be crowded than a mall in Bangalore with Sunday traffic in full attendance. But the walk along the awning of evergreen trees with birdcalls for company by the side of the river where signboards say ‘danger, watch out for crocodiles’ makes me forget the crowds. Entrance to the island is heavily monitored with plastic bottles being numbered before they are allowed to be carried inside. The island is also home to numerous varieties of birds, orchids and herbs.

I amble around for some time and return to the mainland. I find a tiny restaurant shack that sells the famous Kerala staple kappa and meen curry (boiled cassava and fish curry) and top it up with sliced pineapple in brine for dessert – my share of carbohydrates before boarding the bus and getting back to reality.

This appeared in Deccan Herald and can be accessed here.

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