What piqued my interest in the area was a visit to Malampuzha dam during a weekend family trip to Palakkad. During this trip, I spotted a few majestic looking hills in the region. I was soon trying to gather information about the hills around Malampuzha, Dhoni and Siruvani - which generated enough interest to make a full trip to Palakkad. The rough plan was to take a drive around the hills between Malampuzha and Siruvani dam area - also going for the eco-tourism program of Kerala Forest Department, which takes visitors around the Siruvani dam. The question mark was only on the mode of transport!
Since a 2000+ km bike trip to Vishakapatnam in December 2004, I had hung up my biking gear. But, then I sold the ailing CBZ and got myself a new Avenger DTSi 220, which quickly went for a few test rides - a ride + trek to Savandurga and a ride to Mandya, en route Mysore. Ever since the bike completed its run-in period of 2000km, I was seriously considering a longer ride and this looked like the perfect occasion.
I did not have any leaves left so the trip had to be completed within the weekend. This created some time constraint - as I have avoided night driving in bike as much as I could. But, then I had been driving the Versa around in the night for a while now - including some very difficult terrains. Also, the roads were not the same - the 4-lane highway between Bangalore and Coimbatore did give an option of covering some of the distance in the night and saving time. So, I chalked up a plan which involved covering the 4-lane highway during night. I could start on a friday evening and travel till Avinashi, near Coimbatore. Next day, I could roam around the Palakkad and Siruvani area to finally take a stop at Mannarkad. Sunday morning, I could visit Silent Valley and reach back at Avinashi before its dark and then head to Bangalore on the same day.
Preethu wanted to join, even though the plan was a bit too hectic for her. Eventually, she could no come along because of some other assignments and I decided to do solo. To save time, I packed up in the morning itself and left for office with the backpack - so that I could leave directly. The day turned out to be relatively free at office and I managed to start as early as 3.30. Soon, I left the Bangalore city traffic behind and took the elevated toll highway to Electronics City.
I kept my speed below 60 to avoid getting caught by any speed guns. Still, the ride was smooth and I managed to reach e-city in just a few minutes. The toll for 2-wheelers is Rs 15 but I ended up paying Rs 20 as the people there thought that I wanted a multiple ride ticket and printed a ticket for the same. Even after the elevated highway, the road was in very good condition with flyovers constructed across every junction. I crossed the border by 4 and reached Hosur by 4.15. The last two times I took Avenger for a test ride, the bike was in its run-in period and I had a speed limit of 60 - 70. So, in effect, this was the first time after a very long time that I was riding a bike on a highway! I took my time to get used to the wind blowing on my face and gradually increased the speed to about 90.
Beyond Hosur, 6-laning work is in progress for the Golden Quadrlateral (Mumbai - Chennai leg via Pune and Bangalore) and I could not speed up further. I was riding at a speed of about 80, slowing down occassionaly when I see traffic. I could not help remember the 1st time I took the CBZ on this highway - that was about 10 years back during a bike trip to Palakkad. Since then, I have driven (and travelled) through this road so many times. 10 years back, it was a 2-lane highway without any divider and 4-laning was in progress for most part of the highway. I was amazed watching road being carved out of hills. Now, the road widening is still in progress, but to a 6-lane :) Small hills that were carved out once to make way for a 4-lane road was again being carved. Looks like, every time I buy a bike NHAI will widen this road!
But, 4-lane to 6-lane was not that bad - atleast compared to the 2-lane to 4-lane conversion. It was really tough for a 2-wheeler back then and I had to jump out of the highway many times just to stay alive. This time, things were much better and I could comfortably move - even though not at full throttle! An advantage I had - as a 2-wheeler driver - was that I did not have to stop at the toll booths, which saved a lot of time. On a busy day, these toll booths usually have long queues and takes up a long time. It was fun taking the 2-wheeler line without stopping while the 4-wheelers and other bigger vehicles waited in frustration :)
|Short break from the first full-throttle lessons
By 5, I was at Krishnagiri - where the Golden Quadrilateral forks off to the left. The highway I was riding on - the NH7, which is now renamed as NH44 - is also the North - South corridor and continues till Salem. The road was 4-lane and in good condition, with very little traffic - making this stretch a dream to drive on. My speed increased to about 90kmph and occassionally touched 100 whenever the road was empty. Few years before, 100 was normal speed, but now I found it hard to keep the bike at full throttle - reducing the speed at first signs of traffic. Is this what people refer to as getting old?
In spite of not going full throttle, I still managed to keep a good average speed - thanks to the lovely road. With bypasses to all busy towns and flyovers at major junction, I could maintain a good average speed - in spite of a few photo breaks. There is an alternate (and shorter) road connecting Thoppur to Bhavani via Mettur, but I ignored it and continued on NH44 / NH7. The initial target to reach Salem by dinner was comfortably beaten and I reached the NH44 / NH7 - NH544 / NH47 intersection before 7, where I took the loop towards Coimbatore (formerly NH47, this highway is now renamed as NH544). Just outside the town, I located a small roadside restaurant and stopped for a quick dinner.
When I restarted the journey, by 7.30, it was already dark. Subsequently my speed came down a lot, even though the road was quite good and 4-laned for another 100kms past Salem. I managed a consistent 70+ speed on this 4-lane section and reached near Chengapalli bypass by about 9. The 4-laning is in progress beyond this point - bringing with it an uneven road surface, potholes and many diversions - making it an extremely tough ride. Going was a bit tough here as I took almost half an hour to reach Avinashi - just 20kms away. As I had enough time and did not find any road-side lodges at Avinashi, I decided to go ahead a little more.
Few more kms ahead, I saw a couple of lodges and stopped to enquire. There were two lodges here and one of them looked posh. So, I enquired at the 2nd hotel, where the guy at the reception told me that he did not have any single rooms. The double rooms would cost Rs 520 and he also suggested me to check the other hotel. So, I went back to the 1st hotel, where I was told that their cheapest room would cost me Rs 700 :) Since, all I needed was a place to rest for the night, I decided to go back to the 1st hotel. But this time, the guy went inside and checked to tell me that they do have a single room free - for only Rs 315. It was a small room with a TV and a fan, which was more than enough for me and I readily accepted. They also had a parking area for bikes, where I kept the bike before heading back to the room and crashing.
The sleep was not very good - thanks to the heat and humidity, in spite of the ceiling fan. So, I decided to open up the windows - only to invite a brutal assault by a swarm of mosquitoes. I resisted closing them back for a while, but when I felt that my haemoglobin count is going down, I had no choice :) The rest of the night - till about 4 - was spent scratching the bruises caused by the mosquitoes! When I got up and switched the light on, I could see dozens of mosquitoes sitting lazily on the walls after a seemingly delicious meal.
By 5, I was out of the lodge, on my way towards Coimbatore bypass. The road was in bad condition for more than half an hour, until I reached the Coimbatore bypass. This is a 12 year old 2-lane road constructed by L&T - the road is still in good condition, but awaiting upgradation to 4-lanes to match with the new standards set by NHAI. A frequent irritant in this bypass road is the six toll collection points in a small stretch of 28kms, which will nullify any time advantage due to the bypass.
The daylight was out by the time I covered the bypass stretch and I could see the silhouette of hills to my right. These are hills belonging to the Elival Mala (Elival Malai in Tamil) ranges in Western Ghats - a prominent peak in this region being Velliangiri, the rest of the hills are relatively unknown. By the time I crossed over to Kerala at Walayar, the sun was out and the hills looked clearer. I stopped a few times for photographs hoping to identify the peaks later. By 7, I reached Kanjikode and stopped for a petrol break. Soon after this, I spotted the Malampuzha road to the right side, which will eventually connect me to the Palakkad - Kozhikode highway (earlier NH213, now renamed NH966).
I took this road, so that I could avoid Palakkad town and head directly towards Malampuzha / Siruvani. I stopped at a railway crossing for photographs before enquiring to a man about the hills seen to my north - west. He said that the one prominently visible from here is the Ayyappan Mudi, while the taller peaks of Elival Mala is further westwards. He suggested me to take the Anakkal road and enquire people there, if I wanted to know further. I looked at my watch, decided that I had enough time and started off!
About 5kms in to the Kanjikode - Malampuzha road, I spotted the right towards Anakkal / Kava. Malampuzha was just about 2-3kms from here, but the road to Anakkal looked beautiful with trees on both side, especially eary morning. As soon as I took this road, I was rewarded - first I spotted a peacock at one of the roadside houses. Apparently, the peacock is their pet and I followed the beautiful bird around to take some pictures. I waited for a while for the peacock to spread its feathers, but the bird did not oblige. Since, I did not have a lot of time, I had to continue. Soon after this, I spotted a Grey Hornbill and just when I was feeling happy about having taken this road, the real treat appeared - a male Paradise Flycatcher!
By the time I could take the camera out, the bird flew off to another tree. But, I was happy to have got a glimpse of this beautiful bird, even though the photo I managed to take was blurred. In the next couple of kms I did see a few more interesting birds, but the focus soon shifted to the majestic looking hills to the west. Apparently, this road lies between the Malampuzha dam reservoir and the hills to its west, thereby offering the best views of these hills. I stopped a few times for photographs and asking people about the hills. The tallest hill visible from this road - with a pointed summit - is called Adumala and a lot of people apparently go in to the forest, even though its a reserved forest area. I would love to come back here for a trek, but that had to be another day.
Treading Uncharted waters
I had passed by two villages - Anakkal and Valiyakadu - and was told that I can reach Malampuzha if I follow the same road. It sounded more fun than going back to the Kanjikode - Malampuzha road. I did as suggested and soon reached the end of the road - a broken bridge and a hilly ridge ahead of me and the banks of the Malampuzha dam reservoir to the left. I drove on the banks of the reservoir for a while to get some pictures with the Elival Mala hills in the background. But then, I was sure that this will not take me to Malampuzha - so I headed back towards the broken bridge. Thats when I realized that there is a road on the other side of the river, going by the side of the hilly ridge. The hill - apparently called Koompachi hill - looked like a natural wall on one side of Malampuzha.
Banks of Malampuzha
To get to the other side, I had to take the bike across the river - only a thin strip of water as of now. It was not so shallow either - so I did not think much and headed straight ahead. The wet sand was slippery, but, it did not pose much trouble. I had to avoid a few rocks around the stream, but the stream itself was alright. Once the stream was crossed, the road was in good condition. It went right next to the banks of Malampuzha dam reservoir area, offering good views of the Elival Mala ranges behind the reservoir.
By 9.30 I was at Malampuzha and stopped for a few pictures. It was already quite hot and I started feeling hungry. Instead of looking for hotels, I decided to call my cousin sister at Olavakkode, which is very close to Malampuzha. I could not help remembering the Palakkad Trip in September 2002, when I ended up surprising my cousins after arriving in a CBZ. When I landed at her place, once again, I could not stop grinning after seeing her surprised face!
After some nice family time and a good breakfast, I was back on the road - in the NH966 / NH213, connecting Kozhikode and Palakkad. It was about 11.30 by then and the sun was out in its full grandeur. I passed the towns of Mundur and Kalladikode and spotted boards talking about Atla and Meenvallam water falls. It was tempting to take a detour, but my immediate target was Mannarkad Distric Forest Office.
Soon, I saw the road to Siruvani Sagar towards right. It was almost noon by then and Mannarkad was just about 12kms from there. So, I decided to come back to Siruvani after going to Mannarkad. I stopped for lunch in a roadside hotel (which only had Biriyani) at Karimba and was soon searching for forest office in Mannarkad. The visit did not go very well - DFO was out of town, Silent Valley Wild Life Warden was out of town too and the people I met instead were not very encouraging. The real bad news was that, according to them, the DFO and Wild Life Warden would not help at all! Silent Valley core zone is off-limits for 'tourists' and going to some of the places I wanted looked like a distant dream. All that I could do was a little tour for tourists - which I had done once many years back. Even that was fully booked for tomorrow! A little disappointed, I was soon back at Karimba and Siruvani Sagar road and headed towards Inchikunnu forest check post. This is where the eco tour to Siruvani begins.
I checked with the two forest guards who told me that private vehicles are not allowed inside and I had to take the eco tour in the forest department vehicles, if I wanted to go inside. The drivers of the tour vehicle had gone down to Karimba and I should wait for them to come back. There was a family already waiting for the tour - a middle aged couple with two children. They wanted to stay in Pattiyar Bungalow near the Siruvani dam, but did not seem to have got all the permissions for doing this. The head of the family sounded 'influential' and was wondering to the forest guard why it is so hyped and difficult to stay in the middle of the forest!
While we were waiting for the drivers to come back, the family went back to Karimba for lunch. I parked the bike in a shed near the checkpost and started a conversation with one of the forest guards. He told that I can opt to take a separate vehicle for myself. He also offered to send the more knowledgable guide cum driver with me. Obviously he was not very happy with the 'influential' people - neither was I keen to tag along with them. So, in spite of the higher cost (Rs 800 for the full vehicle), I opted to follow his advice.
I could see the Elival Mala hill range towards south and felt that the portion of the hills visible now could be the tallest in this range. The forest guard seemed unsure about it - he suggested that the hills further up could be taller. He told that the hill visible from here is called Karimala - the name was justified as the hill was a monolithic black rock (Kari = black, Mala = hill, in Malayalam). He also showed me a view point from where the Kanjirapuzha dam reservoir could be seen towards north.
|Siruvani and Elival Mala hills
By 3.30 or so, the driver - his name was Asokan - arrived and I was on board the vehicle to take the tour of Siruvani hills. We had small stops at Singappara Forest station and later in a tribal colony, before heading towards the Siruvani dam. The dam looked beautiful with the Elival Mala hills forming a beautiful backdrop. Asokan confirmed that the hill on this side is taller than what I saw from Inchikunnu. Infact, the actual peak is not clearly visible as its hidden behind one of the flanks.
The blue waters of Siruvani
We took stops at various view points before heading further up towards the Kerala - Tamilnadu border. As we approached the border, I could spot a tall hill further east of Siruvani and the hill looked quite familiar. Asokan confirmed that this peak is Velliangiri - approachable from Coimbatore side and a majestic peak by itself, but not as tall as the main peak of Elival Mala range. The two peaks were separated by a grassland (known as Keralamedu) and the Siruvani road which passes next to this grassland.
We were soon at the Keralamedu check post and parked the vechile there for a small trek to a view point which offered a good view of both the hills. The view of the Velliangiri hills was beautiful, but the Elival Mala peak was covered with fog even with the sun shining brightly all around. I could see the main peak hiding behind the flank directly visible from here. We spent about half an hour sitting there and enjoying the views before heading back to the vehicle.
Sun is still bright ...
On our way back, we took another stop at the Singappara Forest station and I got to talk to some of the forest guards there. I wanted to confirm the names and locations of these hills and heard the names of many more hills in the vicinity. Apparently the side flank visible from Siruvani is called Palamala and there is yet another tall peak somewhere behind Karimala called Kunchiyar Mudi. It was so exciting to talk about all those hill ranges and I desperately wanted to go there once. While heading back towards Inchikunnu, I promised myself to try my best to get the required permissions and come back for a trekking expedition here.
Water intake tower and Elival Mala ranges
We spotted a very majestic bison further down the road. When we stopped the vehicle for a better look, it stared right back at us and we decided to leave without offending it. Asokan stopped again briefly at the dam for me to take a look at the water intake tower and also the Pattiyar bungalow. Apparently, another family has booked the bungalow for the day in advance and staying there, which explained why the 'influential' family could not manage the permissions.
It was dark by now and I was soon on my way back to Mannarkad. Once there, I had to check couple of lodges before getting accodmotaion in one. The first two lodges (Sastha and IMB which were the apparently the better ones) were full because of a marriage party, but I managed to find another lodge, called KPM, which had rooms. After a quick dinner at a nearby hotel, I switched off the lights early. The night was hot and humid, forcing me to repeat the mistake of the last night - opening windows to keep the heat and humidity away, only to get swamped by mosquitoes.
Road to Silent Valley
The next day started a little late as I did not wake up until 6.30. But, I managed to leave Mannarkad by 7.30 and took the Silent Valley road - the plan was to go till Mukkali and then continue towards Coimbatore via Agali and Attappadi / Attappady. The ride to Mukkali along the ghat roads was beautiful. Trees covered the area and road was lined on both sides with fallen leaves and flowers. It was much cooler too compared to the heat at Mannarkad town.
Malleeswara mudi and Bhavani river
At Mukkali, Silent Valley road goes towards left from the Mannarkad - Agali road. Since I could not go to Silent Valley, I had ample time to reach back Bangalore. Post Mukkali, there are two roads towards Agali and I chose the one going towards Attappadi, by the banks of Bhavani river. At Attappadi, apart from Bhavani river flowing on the left of the highway, the landscape is dominated by a majestic peak towards north. On checking with people, I could learn that the peak is called 'Malleeswara Mudi' (or 'Malleeswarar Mudi' in Tamil), believed to be an abode of Lord Siva. The peak is considered sacred by the tribals and there are special rituals en route the peak during 'Sivarathri'.
While enquiring about the peak, I got to talk to a local person who was also an ex tourist guide. He told me that there is a very short route from here to get to Ooty, via Manjoor. The road apparently turns left at Thavalam from Agali road. Even though, it was quite tempting to take this road and go back to Bangalore via Ooty, I did not have enough time for this adventure - so I had to postpone it for another time.
Avenger and Malleeswara Mudi
The sun was out by then and I was very hungry. There was a small roadside hotel which served Kerala Parotta and Omlette, which I gobled up even though it is not my favorite. Post breakfast, I stopped by for some more time to admire the beauty of the peak. I even hauled up the bike on top of a bridge to get a clear view of the peak.
By 9.30, I was at Thavalam, where the the main road turned away from the Bhavani river. A small road - apprently, the one to Manjoor - continued along the river. Soon after Thavalam was Agali town. I was in to plains already and with the views gone, I started to feel the heat again. By 10, I was at Anakkati, a small town at Kerala - Tamilnadu border and stopped for another food break.
The ride from Anakkati till Coimbatore town was the toughest part of the trip, especially as I was nearing Coimbatore and the traffic went up. It was past 11 when I reached Coimbatore and another hour by the time I wriggled through the city traffic and reached a 6-lane highway towards NH544 / NH47. Once, in the 6-lane highway the movement was smooth - until I reached NH544 / NH47 which was under construction here.
Zooming back to Bangalore
In another half an hour I was at the completed stretch of the highway and zooming back towards Bangalore - long before I originally planned it. Post a lunch break at Perundurai, I was at Sankari by 3 and Salem / NH44 / NH7 by 3.30. Even with a slight drizzle after Salem and slow moving traffic around Thoppur ghat, I managed to reach Krishnagiri by 5.45. This being a Sunday, the traffic was mad after Krishnagiri, with everybody in a rush. Being in a 2-wheeler I could atleast avoid the long waits at the toll booths - that was quite an advantage. Infact, some fast moving cars I noticed around Salem, which looked like they are in a hurry where seen waiting at each toll booths - until I left them behind at Krishnagiri toll booth!
After a final coffee-break near Hosur, I was soon past the Tamilnadu - Karnataka border in to the elevated toll highway. Beating the initial estimate of returning by midnight by a long way, I was home for an early dinner and sharing the pictures and anecdotes with family. Thats when I realized that I did not have a single picture of mine form the entire trip! But, it hardly mattered - what mattered is that I was back in the highway on a 2-wheeler - with wind blowing on to the face - after so many years and I had thoroughly enjoyed clocking about 1000km in the Avenger. Monday, when I was back at office, a colleague of mine asked me if I 'felt like god' :) - not yet ... but it was surely a good beginning. The Avenger is here to stay!