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Friday 10 August 2018

Nilgiris Cycling Tour || 3 Days Bikepacking through North Nilgiris

Cycle has always been my companion from childhood days, had all kinds of cycles  in school days and numerous experiences surrounding Gudalur hills in the Nilgiris. Today cycling through the Mudumalai forest requires permission from the forest department and riding solo is banned but I have done it all alone when I was in 9th std.. a ride from Gudalur – Masignagudi – Mavanallah through the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and weekend rides to Needle viewpoint with friends all stays very fresh. Like most life moved on from the hills to the city so as the choice of vehicles. After 16 years I once again decided to buy a Road bike to cycle around Chennai. Past 8 months I have been doing 50km rides at least 3 times a week around the city and bypass. Even though my cycle was not designed to ride in the hills  with a 7 speed single chain ring set, I decided for a 3 day bike packing around Nilgiris with my Cousin Sreejith.  There is a lot to explore through the inner roads, villages and valleys. I have mapped our first trip between the northern side and Gudalur. Weather was extreme as kerala was flooding but we did not back out. I was in Kerala a day before and reached Parapanangadi at sreejith house. Packed his cycle in my car and reached Gudalur late night by 2pm and our ride was to start next morning by 9am.

Day 1 - (10 – 18- 08)

Gudalur – Thalakundah – Kadanadu – Dhenad kombai - Anikorai – Marakal – Thoraihatty- Thangadu Near Ebbanadu

All set with waterproof dry bags, top and down tube bags and other essential spares including pump and clothes both our cycles weighed more than 20kg. ‌The weather was cloudy and perfect. This was my first hill ride and even before the body could warm up started the steep climbs from Gudalur. Sreejith had prior experience doing bike packing but both of us were panting within two kms. Took each stop without rushing and reached needle view point.  Met my friend Kumar a forest watcher there. After a small chat we had one more stop before reaching the ancient jail below naduvattom. Such was the slopes the altitude has raised nearly 1000 meters above Gudalur within this 10 km.

 Our stay tonight at Thangadu was arranged by my friend Mr. Gopal who works for Nilgiri Forest Dept. Traffic and tourists was low either side due to heavy rains in Kerala. The roads were freely left to us to be in Zen mode. It was all about pedaling with silence because we lacked an extra burst of oxygen to talk. With a brief break over a tea and snacks at the tan tea outlet we continued. 
It started drizzling after naduvattom and a steep push of 4 km drained the remaining energy out of us. Had breakfast there with coffee. The next 1km till TR bazaar was a breeze but the uphill up to hanumapuram was again tough. My cycle isn’t moving and it was a puncture. Pulled it near a roadside tea shop and sreejith started fixing with the spare tube. With heavy rains and mist pouring a 10 min work had turned into a 30 min affair. In between the winds had pushed down both our cycles twice. The next stretch of 4 km up to pykara was fairly straight and easy on the muscles. Rode past the overflowing pykara dam and the next 8 km was all uphill till the wenlocks down hill. We had several short breaks and refilled bottled water whenever available. We purposely avoided flowing stream water this time because catching a cold flu was the last thing we wished for. Next stop was at the tree park and stopped for a much needed bread omelet it was already 3pm. Still 26 km to go sreejith had doubts whether we would reach ebbanadu  today by 5pm. I said we will reach no matter what may come. Because of wild animals like bears and guars roaming around plantations It’s highly dangerous around nilgiris after dusk as the Nilgiri biosphere recorded an average of 3 deaths each month by wild animal attacks. The last 20 km had more downhill and I was sure we could reach there before 6pm. After 3 km crossing kamaraj sagar dam the remaining was mostly downhill and by 4pm we reached talakundah. After a small shopping took left onto the kalhatty road again taking a u turn to the kavarraty road. The route map from here were entirely village roads or off road tracks. Time was less but the beauty around was scintillating.
 Had to deviate some roads because of  mud slush and found new roads with the help of villagers till we reached kadanadu. It was all downhill and after pedaling up to 2300 meters from morning, riding downhill was the happiest thing at that moment. After kadanadu the villagers showed us Dhenad kombai on top of a small hill. Riding down some 6 hair pin bends a forest officials on their jeep guided us. The uphill gradient slowly gained more than 20% we had no choice but to get down and push the cycle towards the last stretches and u turns finally reaching Dhenadcombai village. Bought 2kg chicken for the night camp and called up cherietan who owns the little eucalyptus shed at thangadu was waiting for us near the ebbanad tea factory. Next 6 km through Anikorai , marakkal and thoraihatty were a bliss to ride and we were cruising at 40kmph downhill. While enquiring about cheriyetan and factory, villagers were amused with the cycle setup we have got. Within 20 minutes we reached near the factory and cheritan appeared through the mist. We greeted each other..actually he couldn’t believe we rode 70km from gudalur to thangadu. Locked our cycles at the top shed near the road and packed our bags and started walking down through the farmlands and reached the shed which was bordering the forest and a river nearby. 

The hut resembled like warzone shed and we were just too thrilled as cheritan and ponrasu welcomed us to their place. Wild Animal sightings are very common from this hut and elephants passes through this way from and to the river below. Cheriatan and ponrasu were wonderful hosts that night. We cooked chicken curry and rice, shared stories and experiences of each others lives. He demonstrated how eucalyptus oil is produced. Inside the house there is a huge 500 liter boiler where the eucalyptus leaves are boiled and the vapor is sent through the pipes which is cooled down by cold water which produces drops of raw oil mixed with water. It’s once again filtered to pure oil. 1 liter of oil is produced each day with lots of hard work by these two men. Past 30 years cheriatan whose family lives far in palakkad does the same thing for a living. Sreejith prepared tea with his personal stove and by 9 pm we had one of  the best camping dinner. Even though we had sleeping bags the boiler inside the hut generated enough heat and smoke all day and night which could be another reason of wild not attacking their place. Slept peacefully that night till morning tea arrived from cheriatan.
 My body was so refreshing sleeping inside the eucalyptus shed and there wasn’t a slightest of pain or ache. The boiled leaves are pulled off from the boiler and dragged outside by ponrasu. Sreejith applied those leaves onto his body and had a warm bath. After breakfast we packed the stuffs assuring a longer stay in their hut some other time and walked back to the top shed. Wonderful memories as we ride into our second day with heavy mist and rain.

Day 2 - (11 – 18- 08) 

Thangadu - Agalar – Kothamudi – Iduhatty- Ajjoor – Kattabetu- Ellithorai – Wellington-  Aravankadu Station – Kethorai- Ketti Palada – Ketti – Ooty

‌Today was the longest and toughest in terms of steep hills. There was nothing called downhill in today’s map as our starting point in thangadu was 4800 ft and ooty was at 7350ft. Took right from ebbanadu tea factory through the tea estate roads we were pushing it very slowly for a warm up.  Refilled water from some houses and once the fog cleared up we were in a treat with all round views but for the next 8km it was steep and we reached kothamudi via lower thuneri. 

On the way showed Sreejith eucalyptus trees and leaves and he picked up some leave and crushed to feel the aroma. The road ahead was no different as we reached iduhatty and ajjoor. At times getting down and pushing relaxed the upper muscle groups. School children's cheered us as the villagers. Everyone wanted to know something or the other. Today's plan was to pedal upto 4pm and find a resort to pull over. Ajjoor to billicombai had more u turns so the no of water breaks increased. We met a cyclist riding down from kotagiri named Raghul from Chennai. He was also an Ironman training for some event. We exchanged greetings and reached pedaling slowly to ajjoor. Our next snack break was at kattabetu and the ride was dead slow. Second days Zen mode was activated here and we were pushing silently to the extremes of what our legs could handle. Kattabetu on Ooty kotagiri highway was visible on top of the mountain and by 11:45 am we reached kattabettu to have a mini breakfast. 

After a break took the coonoor road upto ellithorai and diverted right onto Wellington road. It was an easy ride filled with varieties of eucalyptus trees blue gums and valleys filled with tea leaves. After 8 km, the landscape transformed into a military base called the Madras regimental center. It is one of the oldest regiment centre of our country. Even though civilians are not permitted inside the campus we took permission for some selfies around the area.

Next we reached the black bridge and took the Ooty main road again turning left to the aravankadu railway station and found the teaneer plantation roads it was 2pm. Parked our cycles on the gravel estate roads and both of us climbed up a swinging eucalyptus tree to rest for a while. Further riding up I spotted a group of 10 guars on the next hill. Sreejith wanted a closer look but time was limited we had a short stop near an old British church and next 4 km till kethorai was a gradual incline but I was struggling to push my road bike on those gravel roads with rains. 
After kethorai  had a small hill to climb down but villagers were flocking to and fro in-between those muddy roads as their Amman temple had festivities. Upon reaching ketti palada we were hungry so fuelled up with whatever was available on the tea shop. Next stop was ketti and we decided to find a place to stay there.
The next push was much harder than what we have done from morning. To cover 3km to ketti we took almost 30 minutes with several breaks. Sreejith wanted to settle down for the day but there wasn't any stay option. We had to pedal at least 3km more to a resort on top of the hill. I told Sreejith we will push till the resort and if the rooms were full Ooty is only 3 more km from there we would check in on the first hotel we see near Ooty. It was mentally very tough to say yes to the situation for both of us but we had no other option as well as energy. The 3 km upto the resort was the toughest of all. We got down and pushed our 20 kg cycles slowly to the top. In between took some pics on the rail track and while reaching the resort all rooms were full. No problem we kept pushing the remaining steeps till we reached the ooty highway. 3 more km we had two uphill’s and two downhill’s checked into the first cottage near ooty. It was 10 deg cold. Both of us started stretching for the next 30 minutes because we just completed one hell of a hill ride. By 9pm we walked through Ooty and had an awesome dinner and slept the night cold fully.

Day 3 - (12 – 18- 08)

Ooty – Kundekodumund – Anger board – 10th mile – Pykara – Gudalur

Ooty was drizzling with heavy winds in the morning. By 9 am vacated the cottage and had a lavish breakfast nearby. Since we had plenty of time today I deviated from the main road to gudalur for the first 20km to experience some off roads, deep Nilgiri forest patches and the Age old Toda tribal settlements. Took the lake road and passed the Jss international school to Parsons valley. Had to deviate after 2 kms but Google maps showed us a new road from kuruthukuli village which was 5 kms ahead and all downhill. It was a beautiful valley road with thick forest but upon reaching there Google map failed and there was no road to our destination. Villagers told us we have to climb 3 km back and take left. Anyways we enjoyed the valley and pedaled back to the gravel off road my cycle had a second puncture. Took in inside a bus stop and tried inflating the tire without changing the tubes.

 After chatting for a while with the villagers we started our off road adventures wished I had a mountain cycle here. After 3 kms once again inflated the tire continued till we reached the forest check post junction presently inactive. Had tea and we started fixing puncture. Villagers joined the party. Such was the welcoming gesture of Nilgiri people. They have been always encouraging and friendly towards adventure crazy people like us and I am proud of my people. I have experienced such positive people only in the Himalayan regions and Nepal. From here on the roads was slushy and slippery till we reached Kundekodumund settlement of Toda tribes the first inhabitants of Nilgiris. When I passed here last time there was a group of enormous dogs guarding the area. This time I asked Sreejith to buy a packet of biscuit to befriend them. As we parked our cycles and walked up to the hamlet it was quite without any barking. Clicked some pics and continued our ride passing thick sholas.

 We heard a barking deer and as the forest ended the tea estates of anger board opened up. The beauty was a sight to behold. Our energy was automatically boosted by the sceneries. Parked the cycles at anger board and walked through the tree lines to show Sreejith an old English bungalow which is in a dipalated stage. We spent more time admiring the beauty around. Alas through the well designed plantation roads we again entered the forest for the next 4 km to reach 10th mile near shooting mattom on the gudalur main road at 2pm.

We thoroughly enjoyed our ride from Ooty by this route and would advise anybody passing by to try this route once. From 10th mile through the rains we reached pykara and stopped for lunch at hanumapuram. While riding, rains and cold doesn't matter but stopping somewhere makes the body to shiver. Within 3 km we were forced to stop for one more coffee break as Sreejith was more prone to handle cold than me. Our excitement increased as we reached Tr bazaar because this was the last uphill climb and once it was over we had a moment of sigh and laugh because technically we knew this 3 days bike packing is turning out to be a success as we planned. The last 15 km is downhill till gudalur but both my brakes gave up. We had a hard time changing just the front tire spare brake pads with shivering hands and limps. Next stop was at needle view point where watcher Kumar enquired us about the trip. In the next 15 minutes we reached Gudalur my hometown. Our Northern Nilgiri bike packing ends here but we still have south, west and east to explore.
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Do watch Our Nilgiris Cycling Videos ( Vlog )

Day 1

Day 2
Day 3