Into the Tea Peaks of Kerala by Motorcycle

Words by Steven Goodell
Photos by Steven Goodell

I spit my toothpaste from the door of the train when we slow outside Kochi. Now that the food poisoning is over, I take a minty breath of relief that puking into a helmet isn’t something I’ll have to experience on this trip. After the all night train ride across India’s southern tip, a few hours sleep and a collection of paper cups from the chai wallas are all that’s keeping me going.

I’m headed for Munnar in the Western Ghats, a mountain range that runs north to south along the Malabar Coast in the state of Kerala. The Ghats are a cool escape from the tropical heat, sometimes called the Kashmir of South India for their elevation and greenery. Ahead of me is a three day five hundred kilometer loop by motorcycle before catching another overnight train east to finish my work week on the opposite coast.

A few kms from the station, I lift my duffle from an auto rickshaw onto the back of a 400cc Royal Enfield Himalayan that I found to rent online. The Himalayan is rugged and comfortable. Not a popular commuter bike but capable of whatever India can deal me.

I tighten luggage straps to the bike and debate if the t-shirts and underwear I packed will protect my work laptop in a spill. Not likely. To stay light I didn’t pack very many. The food poisoning hasn’t helped the sour smell of the clothes I slept in either. I’ve accepted it as punishment for eating my first cow in a country that considers them holy. It’s no excuse that Kerala is a state with a large non-Hindu population where beef-fry is a specialty. I’ll take miles to air out.

I slip the bike into traffic. In five trips to India I’ve learned to feel it flow. My thumb flicks over the horn as I squeeze between cars, busses, trucks, more cows. I wonder where particulate cow shit lies on the air quality allergen index.

I reach the outskirts and force myself to map check. Self confidence works against me when the roads are so poorly marked. Occasional English supplements the Sanskrit that dominates rural road markings. Between the dump trucks working to keep the mountain passes open and the tourist busses that ply them, I’m under constant assault from oncoming traffic. Switchbacks inspire less enthusiasm than normal. At least staring death in the face is keeping me awake.

Clouds blow up the hillside and disappear. Suddenly the jungle gives way to mountain peaks and tennis ball bright tea plantations. It’s a landscape to rival Ubud’s rice terraces and Tuscany’s vineyards. Acres of perfectly pruned tea hedges wrap the contour of the landscape like topography lines. It’s a wonder the region’s brief orgasm of real estate development didn’t go further. I follow a dirt road to my hotel. The white, five story watchtower stands like a pagoda in the middle of a tea field. It’s an oasis of comfort after twenty four hours in a train berth and a motorcycle saddle.

In the morning I fill my tank at the last gas station. I’ve got the option to shortcut through the lowlands or press deeper into the mountains. This hill station feels like a staging area for something beyond. The busses pressing onward have more clearance and more dents, a good sign.

The first evidence I’ve made the right decision to go deeper is construction ahead. An excavator works a cliff clearing rubble from a recent blasting. They‘ve moved the road further into the wall after another washout. Something on the other side is worth keeping it open.

I’m the first vehicle to make it through to the next valley. Water runs off the bare stone mountain tops and pierces the switchbacks where the road descends into a ten square kilometer garden of undulating green. Boulders and shade trees poke through the dappled pattern of the tea leaves. Neon terraces make coves in a lake at the valley bottom.

I’m taking pictures when an elderly man in a dhoti, a traditional male skirt, approaches me and identifies himself as security at the plantation. It’s Sunday and the workers have gone home. He invites me to ride the system of dirt tracks that wind through the fields around Anayirankal Lake and points out the entrance.

I don’t wait for him to change his mind. I’ve been thirsting for this. The path is rougher than I expected and perfect for the Himalayan. I splash through mud and bounce down rocky washes until I spot a suspension bridge connecting footpaths between peninsulas of tea. Taking a bike across the old boards suspended from rusty cable and chicken wire is out of the question so I continue on foot.

What looks like another security guard approaches me at a bend. I’m expecting him to chase me off, but he hands me a green ball of fruit. It’s a fresh tangerine. The shade trees that protect the tea are full of them. What might have been a trespassing adventure is now a picnic lunch.

A pile of tangerine peels later, I return to my bike and find my way out of the plantation. I have two hundred fifty kilometers more to cover today and my GPS isn’t working. The map is visible but I have no idea where I’m at on it. After an hour riding blind, a truck passes me piled high with burlap sacks. I get an overpowering aroma of chai and realize I’ve entered the Cardamon Hills, the halfway point on my route. Huge ferns of cardamom stretch all around me under a canopy of jungle hardwood.

Storm clouds loom and I can feel them about to unleash. At dark the infamous Ghat fog is going to take visibility to zero. With English scarce and no GPS, I have to test my progress by pantomiming at every village. School girls in Sunday dresses are able to tell me the name of the town I’m in and if I should go straight or not. Some have even heard of Vagamon, the small country town where my next hotel is.

I’m filthy and exhausted when I locate the place at twilight. My smell is probably ruining the vacation of the family checking in beside me. Running water and bare white tiles in my room are another paradise. Rain thunders outside, right on schedule.

The land is steaming when the downpour stops in the morning. I descend the final hundred kilometers from a plateau into lush jungle. Midway to Kochi I see a laborer and his elephant bathing in a river. I ignore that the elephant is trained for manual labor and this is a break in his workday. I allow myself to enjoy the moment as much as they are and pull over to hand the laborer a bar of soap. At a command, the elephant rinses the duo with the spray of his trunk. It gives them both a kick to see me so charmed by it.

A thought that’s been with me crystallizes. For all its dangers and discomforts, traveling by motorcycle is life served raw. India is a beating heart on a banana leaf and it just tastes better by bike.

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