Cycling the South of India. The ride, the road, the facts.
The South of India: Chennai to Goa around the coast.
South: Background, culture, concepts etc.
Arriving: Anna (Chennai) International Airport is efficient and friendly and used to handling bicycles. Your bike will get wheeled out by the bike guy in the arrival lounge. Should be no problem.
Once you roll out of the airport expect to be swallowed up by buses, trucks, cars, cows, bicycles, people and toxic fumes - ah, welcome to India! This is probably the worst traffic you will encounter on the whole trip, so chin up! it's all up from here.
The Lady Di Affair
If you are arriving after dark it might be best to overnight in a hotel near the airport and head into Chennai in the morning.
Two OK hotels close
to the airport are Hotel Mars (Tel: 840 2586) and Hotel Mount Heera
(Tel: 234 9563 Fax: 233 1236). Both will send a bus around to the airport
to pick you and the bike up free of charge. Rooms cost about Rs.400
The other option is to skip Chennai altogether (If Mr Pumpy had his time again, this is what he'd do!) and head straight down to Mahabalipuram, about 4 hours cycling away (see Mahabalipuram below).
The route in detail: Chennai is a big, sprawling, dusty city of 6 million people with no real outstanding attractions. On the scale of things Indian, it's a very hassle free city compared to big, bad Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. A day or two is probably enough though before you head off on your big adventure.
Heading south out of downtown Chennai, it takes about 2 hours of cycling through dense traffic to clear the city.
Once out in the country the traffic thins out dramatically and this pattern is repeated throughout the whole ride; heavy traffic coming into and out of the bigger cities, and quite thin traffic in the country areas.
Nestled beside the Indian Ocean, Mahabalipuram is a funky tourist town servicing both Indians and Westerners. If you require somewhere to stop and get your "Indian legs", this is the place. Cheap guest houses and cafés abound.
There is also a nearby temple complex built into the rock bluffs overlooking the town and a local stone carving community a few of kilometres out of town. (see The Lady Di Affair at left.)
A few kilometres before Pondi you'll pass the Sri Aurobindo Ashram where it's possible to stay. You can't miss it - it's on your right and there's Westerners in white robes wandering about. The ashram might be a good overnight option as Pondi itself is nothing special and the famous French restaurants are overrated. Thirty years of Indianisation has left the escargot barely recognisable.
Crossing the Karveri (Cauvery) River you will arrive at at Sirkazhi (100 km south of Pondi).
South of the town, take the turn off to Tharangambadi and the coast (30 km further on). About 5 km before Tharangambadi town you will pass the very pleasant "Garden Restaurant and Lodge", springing out of nowhere on your right hand side. If you can't make it all the way down to Karaikal, then you might consider an overnight here. At least stop for a tea and soak up the silence.
Karaikal (17 km south of the "Garden Restaurant and Lodge") further down the coast has a couple of Internet Cafés, but not a lot else of note. It's an OK stopover. You can visit the Tirunallar Temple 5 km west of town which is untouristed and welcoming.
From Thanjavur the road heads 60 km due west to Tirichuppalli (Trichi), and apart from a few annoying potholed sections the road is first class, if a little thin. The traffic picks up in intensity as one approaches the Trichi suburbs.
Trichi is an interesting town with a jolly great stone fort rising out of its centre. Well worth the climb up through an carved tunnel network of caves. From the top you can see across the mighty Karveri (Cauvery) River to a network of enormous Hindu temple complexes within easy striking distance of the bike.
Cutting further inland, Dindigul is 100 km south west of Trichi along the main arterial road. Strangely, this road doesn't appear any different than the B roads one has traveled so far, and varies from poor to excellent, with minimal traffic and a few slight inclines thrown in.
Heading down to Madurai (70 km south of Dindigul) along a first class road with very little traffic, you are now skirting the Varushanand Hills and Southern Ghats, part of the rugged range of mountains that runs north-south down the centre of southern India almost all the way to it's southern most tip. The traffic picks up as one approaches Madurai.
Madurai (pop. 1.3 mil.) is a bustling regional Indian city, full of historical Hindu sites, modern day pilgrims and the attendant sadhus (holy men), beggars and hangers on. Quite a mix, and worth a day or two's exploration.
160 km further south, with the traffic and road conditions unchanged, is Tirunelveli and another day's hop of 100 km will get you into Kanyakumari at the southern most tip of India.
Congratulations! You made it to the very southern tip of India! Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) is quite a site.