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One Gear, One Continent, One Hero

01 March 2012

by Tim Mulliner

Hero Cycles is the world's largest manufacturer of bikes, spitting out a whopping six million a year. You're unlikely to find one at your local bike shop but as any seasoned traveller can attest, they are the 'people's car' of India.On previous trips I had mused about touring local-style around the sub-continent. Eventually I ran out of excuses and abandoned my quiver of bicycles in New Zealand in favour of a sturdy Hero.

I found mine in Kathmandu, seduced by its shiny white 'n' green paint job, gleaming cromoly handlebars and endless list of accessories. The complete package included long-curving mudguards, a solid rear carrier, loud bell, fully enclosed chain-guard, built-in wheel immobiliser and a rugged stand that could support its hefty bulk when not propelling me through the countryside. The price? NZ$70, brand new. I added a front basket to hold important documents and my camera, and was good to go.

The vague idea was to strap on a pack and cycle to Cape Comorin, the very southern tip of India. The biggest initial challenge was getting into northern India from Nepal. The Himalaya are seriously steep hills and this was a heavy bike, with just a single tortuous 68 inch gear. Over the next month I struggled my way through the extremely poor states Bihar, Jharkand and Orrisa. Eventually I arrived in Bangalore and was joined by my girlfriend Tina. From there, we headed into the increasingly insipid heat of the south.

After an hour, lungs choking and heads thumping from Bangalore's pollution, we slowly began to escape the chaos, until we foundourselves on a relatively benign dual carriageway on the outskirts of town. At the first opportunity we unceremoniously dumped our bikes outside a dhaba and celebrated with a breakfast of masala dosa. This thin, usually pancake shaped, savoury of rice and black lentils is stuffed with spicy potatoes. Dipped in sambar and chutney they're the Indian equivalent of the big cooked breakfast. They were to instantly become our morning ritual.

Refuelled and reunited with the road, the morning's stress dissipated along with several thousand tons of traffic fumes and a masala dosa induced sweat. We swept past limestone outcrops, coconut and sugar plantations... and as a reminder that we had just spent the best part of a week in India's richest city, a multitude of amusement parks and golf courses. I relished being on the move like this. There was the master plan, of course, to head south until we ran out of road. And within that plan were milestones, but these were mostly destinations... finite entities. They came packaged with expectations that were inevitably spoiled by my imagination. The journey however was peppered with unexpected encounters... the possibilities were infinite. I could never be disappointed with something I had never thought of... the sight of a camel being led down the road, two-thumbs up from a motorcyclist, the passing of a tiny parade, the shade of the bayan tree or the cheering of boys playing cricket ina nearby field. This was India at its rawest and most unpredictable.

We bumped into a colourful Hindu procession while cycling through a small village. The men wore black lunghis with yellow turbans and tassels tied to their biceps. The women, in an explosion of colour, wore their best saris. Offerings of incense, fruit and cocktail umbrellas balanced atop their heads. They greeted us with inquisitive smiles. As Hindu civilisation is the only classical culture to survive intact from the ancient world, this same festival is likely to have been recurring every year for millennia, although I sense the cocktail umbrellas may be a modern addition. As the days wore on and we ventured further south, it become surprisingly cool. So cool it was officially declared a 'cold spell'. Temperatures were 'coldest of the past decade' according to a local paper. Temperatures had plummeted to 10°C. Doctors reported an increase in respiratory problems. Occurrences of thecommon cold were soaring. We revelled in the early morning respite while the local population wrapped themselves in woollen jumpers and thick balaclavas as if preparing for imminent snow - or a bank heist. By 10 o'clock the mercury regularly exceeded 30°C. It was still rising as we threaded our way through the streets of the provincial capital Mysore late one afternoon. That evening we dined at the Parkland Hotel where the menu advised 'Disposable vomit bags are available on request in case of need, as a consideration to fellow diners'. Astonishingly, we stayed and ate. No vomit bags required.

Ahead lay the Western Ghats, separating the steep hillsides of the west from the broad Deccan Plateau on the east. They are the geological spine of a catchment system that empties into nearly half of India's low lying lands, providing water and with it life. The road twisted, turned and arched over ever heightening humps, like crenulations eminating from the approaching Ghats. Bayan trees lined the road offering shade. Twisted and contorted roots tied them to the ground, lest one should uproot and run away. Others hung like fishing lines, waiting to catch passing prey. Coconut wallahs were plentiful and we shed our small change every hour or so, sucking the refreshing juices through a straw. There are always people in India, everywhere and in numbers. We were invariably greeted as friends, sometimes excitedly as if celebrities. On every corner or bridge, at every chaishop or adobe house, we 'celebrities' rolled through their lives, collecting smiles as souvenirs.

From the crest of a hill, we free-wheeled down a narrow road to the border post at Bandipur National Park. The rich montane forest oozed peacefulness, shade and a rich green curtain of solitude. One of the last frontiers for the asian elephant, we were unsure whether we would be allowed into the park on bicycles. A large articulated barrier blocked the way. A couple of bored looking rangers sauntered out of a small hut and eyed us interestedly. The more senior looking one spoke. He had a demanding manner that matched his station. Just as we thought he was about to order us back, he rather meekly suggested that we might be inclined to give him and his friend a pen each. Relieved and surprised in equal measures, Tina and I ducked under the rising barrier and burst out laughing as we sped off into elephant country.

For the first time in India there was peace and solitude. The odd truck or car whizzed past but gone were the houses, the workers, the randomroad wanderers, the screaming children, the staring villagers, the roadside vendors and the endless acres of flat cultivated fields. It was anything but a quiet peace though. Birds darted about and called from above the tree tops. Monkeys swung noisily from branch to branch and the cicadas were deafening. Not the chirp of your average cicada, rather the long high pitched, high decibel, ear piercing sound of the chibre, reverberating in all directions. Despite the noise, it was idyllic. Our destination that day was the small town of Masunigudi, where Karpa, a good friend of ours, was studying elephant behaviour. We spent a week with her, recharging our batteries before the final push south. India is an amazing country to cycle in, but it drained our batteries like no other trip I had done. It was always a relief to arrive somewhere quiet and put our roots down for a few days. However, the allure of the road and the unpredictable always nudgedus on. Playing these opposites off against one and other, we leap-frogged our waydown the coast to Kanykamurai - the southern tip of India. The Hero, as ever, performed flawlessly.

Nitty Gritty

  • Southern India is not the easiest cycling destination with horrific roads, suicidal drivers (a bit like New Zealand) and constant in-your-face poverty. Idyllic camping spots are rare outside of the mountainous north. However the people engulf you with their warmth, the diverse and colourful culture is intoxicating, the food is fantastic and cheap, and the accommodation is... well it's cheap. 
  • The sub-continent is subject to a complex alpine, monsoonal and tropical climate. It pays to research the weather patterns when planning your trip. We travelled north to south from October to January, and managed to dodge the worst of the cold and heat. I wouldn't want to have missed the monsoon downpours in the south for anything. 
  • Local bikes are cheap and bulletproof. I clocked 3000km on the Hero, pumping up the tyres only twice, and tightening a few bolts as they rattled loose. I even followed the locals lead and allowed my chain to turn golden with rust. The bike was no worse for wear. After a dousing of monsoon rain, it gleamed like the day it was purchased.