I’ve been hunched over my handles for ten hours and the last four-hour in pitch darkness but for the small round-red tail light of the Enfield bullet. My headlight serves more as a cautionary light to vehicles coming in the opposite than guide me across even ten feet. It’s like being on a manic ride in a theme park, sudden bright lights, followed by a rush of wind and then sudden darkness. Red and silver spots float around my eyes; little fire flies that die with the first hint of another bright passing light. We grossly underestimated the ride in the dark, made a clerical mistake of choosing a state highway to get to Bangalore from Shimoga, this highway turned out to be a double lane road with trucks and buses hurtling across with blinding high beams and utter callousness towards us nimble two wheelers. Several weeks later, when the euphoria of the ride had died, I looked up the route on google maps and realized a small detour via Chitradurga would have made our lives a lot easier, it was an additional seventeen kilometers and meant we would have ridden the Bangalore-Mumbai Highway back to Bangalore. The difference? Tolled six lane highway, lit up like a Christmas tree all the way to home sweet home with a reduced risk of getting running over and no freakish invisible speed breakers. But the ride was sweet along with learning a ton of lessons.
Learning lessons and drawing parallels, philosophical yes, but those little lessons learnt don’t come printed in handbooks, it’s on the road you learn and relearn. Ride one to Coorg, learnt never to wear briefs on a long ride, bums will be war-torn with red welts and no, Vaseline doesn’t help, boxers is the answer and bums are thankful. Lesson two, never carry backpacks, even if it weighs a feather, after sixty miles, that feather will weigh a ton and your shoulders will be screaming sore. Lessons learnt on this ride, never ever ride into the night fatigued. We started from Bangalore on a cool overcast November evening at seven and rode to Hassan, a ride of four hours in the dark, no challenges. But on the return leg, we took this experience as the benchmark and conveniently chose to forget that we had already rode two hundred kilometers for six hours, four hours into the dark and the fatigue checked in and we were in a constant state of panic. Panic of miss judging a corner, panic of going through a pothole and getting irritated with your riding buddy for no apparent reason and I was rubbed off when Adrian slowed to a stall and pulled over with an ember from the cigarette in his eye.
I still wonder how he managed to get ember into his eye, riding a motorcycle and smoking at the same time and getting unlucky at that exact moment. I go over and check it out; I have fears of seeing a blotch of black where fire made contact to the eye, and fears of Adrian being unable to see the bony finger that I’m pointing at his eye. But the eye seems fine, just the ash from the cigarette finding its way to the eye. Five more minutes and we are good to go and hit the road again. It’s cold, we are tired and hungry and it’s just the two of us on two motorcycles and we’ve got long used to the stares from people in cars. You’d see motorcycles during daylight on highways but not too many on a winter midnight in a remote part of the country.
This ride was long due, we’ve sat over coffee, over beer, dinners and lunch to plan rides. It didn’t need that kind of planning, it wasn’t a cross-country ride into complete remoteness, yes we do discuss those mythical rides as well but this ride to the Western Ghats had been in the making for too long and never seemed to materialize due to work obligations and other excuses. A chance discussion between friends and the holiday took shape. The destination was Marvanthe, a little village on the shores of the Arabian Ocean, a small secluded place made up of pristine beaches and calm waters. Me and Adrian, saw an opportunity to ride it out, other friends would take an overnight bus to Marvanthe. Knowing the relaxed pace we rode, we scrapped the plans of an early start on the weekend and instead chose to ride out on Friday evening with a night stop at Hassan and start to Mangalore in the morning via the infamous Shiradi ghat. Shiradi ghat and two wheelers are normally not spoken in the same context. The sixty kilometer stretch from Sakleshpur to Uppinangadi is notorious for being non-existent, the only vehicles using the road are the locals who don’t have too much of a choice, the occasional bus and a few tourists heading towards Dharmastala. The road is used solely by oil tankers, transporting gasoline from the ports of Mangalore to Bangalore. The government blames the tankers for driving the road to dust but it’s a different matter that whatever little asphalt the road sees is washed away during monsoons. The road is a mess of craters and the sixty kilometer drive ends up chewing three hours, a lot of rubber, occasional axles and bumpers. But why ride this road? As bad as the road is, the road cuts across the Western Ghats and Western Ghats is one of the greenest, scenic places in Karnataka. How awesome is it? It’s got a UNESCO tag as a world heritage center and is one of the world’s eight hot spots for biological diversity. What is biological diversity? The place basically has flora and fauna that is unique to this place alone. That makes the Western ghats a must visit and a road that cuts across it must be traveled on.
The ride to Hassan was uneventful for the first hundred kilometers, we were glad we were riding this stretch at night and didn’t have to look at the endless stretch of asphalt to the horizon. It’s a great road to drive if you’ve are in a car but on a bike, the endless drab gets to you, but the night ride was good, just the portion of the road that your headlight sweeps. I was dressed for the cold, inner layers, Tee, a pull over and a jacket, jeans for the lower limbs and gloves for the fingers. A bandanna and helmet for the head and a scarf to keep my lips and nose warm but Adrian? He was proud of his minimal attire, an inner layer and a shirt. I looked wimpy at the start, with all those layers but then we stopped for coffee after the first hundred kilometers and that upset the rhythm. That little start stop, put out the flames inside Adrian and the minute we re-started he was shaking like a leaf in the cold headwind. The cold descends fast in the open, the dew wets your clothing and the cold finds a way to get to you. I was shivering in all those layers and Adrian’s state was bad. The open face helmet was not helping and I could see him tremble every once in a while and I rubbed it in by telling him “I told you so”. We pulled over more often for smoke breaks, trying to counter the cold in that little tip of red, it didn’t help. The cold finally disappeared after we pulled into a small lodge in Hassan at midnight, haggled over the price and called it a day.
Day two of the ride was what we were looking forward to, we’d be riding the Western Ghats and we woke in a hurry, freshened up and started off and put in a quick forty kilometers to Sakleshpur, a quaint little town, and the gateway to the Western Ghats. We were glad the six lane highway had ended at Hassan, it was now a two lane road lined with trees all the way to Sakleshpur. The ride was easy, occasional potholes and tourist vehicles, we passed small coffee estates and this was a sign of the approaching mountains along with a change of greenery. The short trees and shrubs gave way to slender tall arecanut trees and when we were five kilometers away from Sakelshpur, we could see a great dark shadow reaching for the skies in the horizon. We pulled into a small restaurant and untied our baggage, this constant tying and untying was annoying but it’s so easy to get robbed. We ordered some idlis and dosas, the food was good and the chutney better; we ate like hungry horses and topped it with some great coffee. A call home to update the location, bike rides always bring out the pessimism out but I shrug it off with the thought that it’s care and love speaking, asking us to be careful.
Tied the baggage back and headed out and within a short distance the first switch back and a steep one at it. It is surprising how the terrain changes so fast, one minute you are in the plains and the next, going up a curve into the mountains. You’d expect a gradual change but it never is and it ends just as fast, few seconds you are above the tree line, a single switch back and you are at ground level. We adjusted our riding accordingly, nothing manual as such but mentally took note, watched the corners more, see the edge of the road that bends into the curve a little more clearly and moved our bum around to be sure we could throw in our weight into a corner. The Shiradi road, as dilapidated it is, is equally beautiful in all that ruin. It hugs the mountain side all along and cuts across little bridges over bubbling streams and snakes through the Bisle forest running parallel to a river called kempholle, named after the colour of the river. Red River. The water is tinged red due to the high iron content of the soil and it flows fast cutting the mountains deeper and is a sight to watch. The blur of red in green and the grey of the road as you ride is a memory that will stay with you for a long time. The road has been ground to dust and every passing vehicle kicks up a little dust storm that slowly settles on the trees along the road, they make a ghostly sight and stand sore to the green background of the mountains. We stopped twenty minutes into the ghat road and pulled over to a little clearing that overlooked the red of the river. The mountains loomed over us, an endless green and the minute we stopped, the first thing we noticed was the silence. The thump of the Bullet drowns out other sounds and as soon as the engine stopped all that we could hear was the gurgling river, the breeze in the trees and that occasional bird. We stopped often on this stretch, dragging the ride close to four hours, stopped to listen and soak in the beauty of the terrain.
The road was tougher that we had imagined, we saw several cars struggling to make it, falling from one pothole to another. The drivers looked tired while the passengers were haggard in appearance and looked at us annoyingly we cheerfully waved them on. It was easier for us to ride it out than the cars, we stuck to the extremes of the road where little asphalt remained and aimed our wheels through the few inches of good road. We swung from one side of the road to the other in search of that little tar where the bike wouldn’t rattle and though we were alert Adrian managed to go right through a gigantic pothole and the bike’s front shocks rammed hard into its casing with loud crack, we pulled over and checked the shocks only to see the casing oil seep through. A breakdown on this road could be dangerous with no village in either direction, we decided to ride it out and check into a mechanic in Mangalore, luckily the shocks held up through the trip. The road continued to be a mess till it twisted around the mountain side and parallel to the river, once we levelled out on the plains the road smoothed and we picked speed. I rode ahead and set the pace, we had soaked in enough of the scenery and fresh air, and it was time to add some speed to the mix. The road reduced to a single lane and small trucks stepped on the pedal to make up for the time lost in the mountains, we marked these vehicles and chased them down biting hard into the throttle. No more river, it meandered away to the south, it was just black tarmac cutting through the forest, snaking away to avoid the trees and heading straight to Mangalore. The next forty kilometers we rode hard, Adrian’s thump taking lead after a while and me trailing. The ride was fast and as we got closer to Mangalore , the traffic increased and we made it time for a late lunch of sukka chicken and some beer. It was another hundred more kilometers to Marvante, we estimated a two-hour ride would put us in Marvanthe by 5:30 and we would time the first leg with the sunset, but this was not to be.
The ride from Mangalore to Kundapura was a big letdown after the ride in the mountains. The entire stretch was littered with construction for road expansions and flyovers and people drove rash. It was scary and annoying to ride among such hooligans, getting cut-off and being pushed off the road repeatedly. The dust from the construction didn’t help and the sun went down sooner than we expected, and the road visibility reduced drastically. It was our first brush with serious night riding, if we couldn’t see the vehicle ahead of us, it meant our bikes were not visible to the vehicles behind us, there was no room for error and we rode with a constant alertness and this tired us easily. To add to the annoyance, our baggage kept slipping, the cheap bungee cords were giving away. We wouldn’t find bungee cords on this stretch, we made good with a length of fishing rope that an elderly shirtless grandpa cut us. Fastened our bags and headed out again, the hustle and bustle of the road kept us edgy, I’d make a fast dash and overtake a few vehicles just to feel the thrust of the engine and the wind and fall back again to join Adrian, we squeezed our way through traffic that was as dense as rush hour in Bangalore, definitely not what you want on a fun ride. We just managed to reach Kundapura in one piece and made our way to Marvanthe and checked into the resort. The boys looked fresh and we looked war-torn and covered in grime.
The ride was well rewarded, our cottages faced the ocean and the cool winter wind blowing from the ocean healed us from the last four hours of tough riding. We sat on the verandah, sipped on and dragged on our chosen poison and sat in a circle with Adrian wearing his atrocious looking shorts but he made no qualm about it and strutted around in it like it was a Gucci make. Smoke filled the air and a few sneaked away to sleep. We made fun of those who sneaked away, calling them weaklings and needed schooling in endurance by the two of us who rode 400k and were still kicking hard, a couple more hours and we called it a day as well. The next day we killed time swimming and witnessing the near drowning of Adrian in knee deep water, apparently we were to save him but reality struck him and he managed to save himself. It must have been a long wait for him underwater, with his face to the floor and his bum up in the air buoyed by the water. Early lunch, some more liquor to soothe the night’s hangover, Dire Straits and Floyd hypnotic as ever. The boys packed and left for Bangalore, while I and Adrian sat downing a few more beers only to be interrupted by a bemused guest who had seen our bikes in the parking lot. He was surprised we had ridden so far, double surprised about the route we took and definitely amused that the Honda CBZ made it this far, for the Enfield revered bullet, this was normal business. Nothing new about the CBZ being underestimated, it wasn’t a speed monster or too stunning to look at, but with a 150cc engine, she packed a punch, hugged the corners and was reliable all around the year.
We planned to leave at seven from the resort but rode out only at eleven, four hours late, a delay would come back to bite us towards the end of the ride. The night before, we had routed a new route home with the help of the resort manager, he discouraged the route we had chosen and proposed a new one which he was familiar with. It was a brand new route for us, through the mountains and a non-traditional one to reach Shimoga, this guaranteed thin traffic. Though a late start, we were happy that we were well rested when we started the ride. We rode on the way to Kundapura and took a left turn towards Siddapura and that was the last of the traffic we saw for the next 200 kilometers. This second leg of the ride was marvelously beautiful, a snaking road, undulating through the hills and heavy trucks for company. The road cut across uninhabited plains and thick forests, climbed into twists and cut through thin mist on the mountain tops. We stopped often, shooting panoramas of backwaters at lower ground and as we rode higher, we stopped at clearings to see endless valley floors covered in green forests, valleys flush with tiny streams. The ride was slow; we revved and rode mostly in the third gear, waving out to the occasional motorist and truck driver. The prettiness of the place was a little too much to soak in. We whispered at the stops, not wanting to disturb the forest.
We rode through some amazing scenery, one particular section as we slowed across a bridge, we saw an abandoned road enter the backwaters of some unknown dam, we had to pay respects to a long-lost road, we took a little detour, went off-road for a mile and ended up on the lip of the road where it entered the backwaters. Surrounded by water but the little strip of black, we were good as marooned. We craved a cabana and a beer and we could stay forever. The silence was again stunning; we could hear the wind ripple the lake surface and when we listened long enough we could hear little fish swimming close to the water surface on a shallow end. We just stood and shot a few pictures, hardly speaking but of the little paradise we chanced upon, the next rains would cover this little road in water and it would be lost, we wished the guys were with us and then laughed that the jokers took the bus home. We left forcefully urged by the hands of our watch but left happy, even if we tried we’d not locate the place again, in the middle of nowhere, a slice of life the way it’s meant to be. We rode a little faster, we were averaging 20 km per hour and knew we had a long ride ahead, the untouched beauty of the place was ravenous, we wanted to take it all, but we needed to leave too. The terrain was tough and the area is prone to naxals who have made the region their home, we didn’t want any chance meetings, as sad the fact was the naxals presence discouraged people to venture on this route and this kept the place pristine, just a nice irony. The road skirted the backwaters of the Tunga dam, all the while cutting through forests with canopies so thick, the light hardly touched the floor. We saw mongooses, kingfishers, monkeys and other small animals. From Thirthalli we raced to Shimoga, we were riding on pure fuel, the bikes on gasoline, we on buttermilk. No lunch breaks for any solid food. A small stop in Shimoga for coffee and we headed out to the highway and never did the thought occur that we should head out to Chitradurga to ride on a national highway.
By eight the fatigue set in and I in particular found it tough to ride. Though Adrian bore the brunt of the high beams hitting him first, he looked fine. I was having a tough time riding in total darkness, tracking the little red light and staying alert to vehicular traffic. We stopped for some tea in Tiptur and Adrian layered up in all the Tees that he had with him, once bitten twice shy. I was layered as in the first leg, trying to keep warm and not letting the cold affect me. The ride felt endless and both us were at our wits end. As an afterthought we should have retired for the day at Shimoga, but some insane confidence to ride out 280 kilometers after sunset made it maddening . The constant stops to recuperate, to adjust the fish rope, to wash the grime off our eyes, the annoyance of being forced to ride slow in the dark, all these small things piled onto our nerves. I caught myself half way through snapping Adrian. We were disoriented too about the distance, when we were still a hundred kilometers, we thought we were seventy and estimated an hour’s ride. We rode slow and cautious till we latched onto a speeding truck and rode in its lights.
We finally reached Tumkur and reached the highway, crossed the toll plaza and stopped to wash our faces and brighten up a little. It was midnight and we had been riding for thirteen hours straight. The final sixty kilometers was tricky, the trucks and the bus drive at break neck speeds on this six lane highway and it has always been infamous for fatalities. You can’t ride slowly to be safe, the truckers will not notice you and that is dangerous. We started and it was Adrian’s turn to feel the fatigue, I was bright as a bulb by now, we slowed and stopped one more time and rested it out. Then broke away like caged hounds and chased a few trucks and cars and rode all out, sticking to the left of the carriageway, ever so alert of the truckers and made our way home.
We reached our usual haunt and checked the odometer, we had clocked 980km through the trip and 480 in a single day, it was half past one at night, we high-fived to an amazing experience, we swore we’d start on time and to do the Agumbe stretch again. We bid good byes and Adrian after riding 600km with a delicate fork didn’t notice the speed breaker which he rides across every day, he went hard over it and the shocks slammed into the casing with a loud clang. I looked at him and laughed my ass off, he managed to fall short after being alert for such a long time, we were glad it was over and reached home to sleep to dreams of green topped mountains and a blur of the black tarmac.