Posted in Forests, Life Travel, Sahayadris, south india, travel, YHAI

First Mountain Biking Expedition at Ooty

Another wish from the list was ticked off this January. I celebrated my 26th birthday biking in the tea estates of Udagmandalam. The mountains and the bike did not just mean a perfect combination for birthday ideas but also the adventure spirit that stays alive even as we grow old.  This piece goes on to detail out what to expect from your first ever mountain biking experience. Know the challenges and the achievements before you set out on your own journey.

Suited for – Beginners

Difficulty Level – Moderate

Prior Preparation – Advisable

Feel free to contact, if you are planning on taking one such route in India.

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“Life is better on a mountain bike!” said someone who literally lives off the two wheels. I questioned it in my head again and again until I got my own bum on the saddle to test it out.

Biking is fun, too much of it. For many, including me, it clearly points towards a happy childhood that once was. It doesn’t matter what is your ride but once upon a time, those two wheels hooked through a greasy chain were everyone’s ride. Once we grew up, the wheels changed, the chains disappeared but the nostalgia stayed back. Nostalgic enough, one day I decided to give it a shot once again. It was some sort of second innings with the bike but with a twist of adventure this time. The twist was in the form of my first mountain biking expedition on the hills of Ooty.

I chose my hills very carefully keeping in mind the altitude, the good roads and the good weather. The hills of Udagmandalam, though a part of Sahayadris are very unlike them but in fact similar to the hills of the North. The altitude is challenging enough but doable for a first timer. The roads are concrete, well maintained and sufficiently curvaceous bringing to us the most gorgeous scenic views of the hills.

In this week long expedition, we explored Ooty like none other. From impenetrable forests to the local tea culture, from the hidden villages to the distant spots visible only from a height, we were seeing it all. The first day was relatively relaxed where I reported at the base camp of YHAI, Ooty. The YHAI Campus is within the main city, and is situated on the top of a hillock, which feels closer to the stars at night. On a January night, this place does become cold and by the morning you may see the frost frozen on the grass.

Not an ideal spot for sunrise, you may choose to stay in the bunk bed, at least until the bed tea arrives. The second day started on a yummy note with a sumptuous breakfast of idlis and vadas and a quick briefing from our group leader Sarvesh about how the coming week is going to be like. There were two thoughts constantly playing on the mind – thrill and fear. While the ups seemed thrilling, the downs seemed scary. Suddenly the nostalgia disappeared and biking didn’t seem to be too much fun. Fortunately this feeling didn’t stay for long.

As the bikes appeared in front of us and the organizing team handed over the necessary gears to us, the excitement and enthusiasm returned in full swing. Aluminum frame, 21 gears, Firefox MTB, covered with dust and yet shining under the sun was going to be our priced possession for one week. Back home, I was practicing on a non geared Kross bike, so Firefox didn’t seem to be a bad ride at all, though some disagreed because of the better brands available in the market. But for beginners, brands do not matter, the will power does.

With a high dose of will power, we set off for the practice ride on the other side of the same hill. To start off, we were required to go down the hill, take a U-turn and then make an ascent towards the other side. This was the first ever mountainous ascent that I was going to make on my wheels and I clearly didn’t think through it thoroughly. Probably it was a good idea to not have thought too much about it because had I done that, most likely I would have just given it a pass. Now that I was here, making my first attempt worthwhile, I realized within no time that I was constantly losing breath. Like a dog, I was huffing and puffing. I was touching the ground more frequently than the paddle. But, was I the only one who was graciously failing all the time? I had to keep moving forward to yet figure that out. The light weight of the cycle was definitely bliss but I did take my time to excel in the art of balancing on a mountain. Moving forward, my fears were withdrawn to a large extent when I saw a few more groupies equally failing. Heavily panting, it wasn’t a good sight at all but at least I felt I was in the right group. These dynamics have the potential to bring back the lost confidence and what prevails is a feeling of belonging. While most of us made it to the top, and it did feel good but it definitely got me thinking for the days to come. My doubts deep down were now floating on the surface. I was determined nonetheless. Each day was going to be different and I said to myself, aloud – Life is only better with the mountain bike!

As it turned out, the coming days were indeed better. The faith in the mountains and the numerous ways to explore them were restored soon as arrived the first day of moving to the first higher camp.

The third day of the expedition, coincidentally my 26th birthday, was much easier than the practice day. We biked through a variety of landscapes, many of them exclusive to Ooty’s weather. There were lush green tea gardens on both sides of the road, sometimes they were too close, other times they were up there, visible at a distance. It all seemed to be in the vicinity, unless we pedaled a bit more and scaled that height. There were villages on the way and the villagers seemed familiar of the fact that bikers pass on these roads, recognized from their yellow reflectors and blue helmets. They waived at us with bright eyes wishing us good luck through their good byes. Perhaps, the little ones were inspired and the mothers were in awe. These are some rare sights in their otherwise simple life. These hamlets making a sudden appearance at times when we took turns never failed to amaze us. The tea gardens grow beautifully under the sensuous foreplay of the sun and its shade. We took our first break of the day at the Chamraj Tea Center, sipped on the local flavors of the tea and slid under the sky before moving any further. The shades of the sky were multiple, it wasn’t absorbing the greens of the gardens but it certainly was influenced.

On many cross roads we stopped and reassured ourselves of the direction that we were moving in. From the Chamraj Tea Center, we biked towards Bikketti, a hamlet that leads to Manjoor. On the way somewhere, we also passed through the Lovedale Crossing of the Nilgiri Railways. By the time we reached our first camp at Manjoor, we had mustered enough courage to keep going. The spirits were lifted high and so was the confidence. In these high spirits, my newly formed friends got a birthday cake for me and the party went on for quite some time. No matter how tiring is the day, camp fires are a must because some of the best stories remembered later are created in these moments. For us, it was the game of Mafia that is most fondly remembered even today. We played and played it to death. Until the city really dropped dead, the God went on and on. Deepu mastered and won everytime and Thakur learnt it way too quickly. And then there was no stopping. But then there was the thought of the next morning and its expectations, which used to show us the way to our bed.

The next day we pushed off towards the higher camp; it was a long day of pedaling. With a fresh start and minimized panting, we were gaining altitude. We were first transported to Yedakaddu via jeep, on the way we crossed a magnificent building of the Good Shepherd Boarding School and finally had our lunch at the Fernhill point. With each passing day, we were getting one step closer to the challenge. In my head, I was drawing comparisons between hiking and biking on a mountain. Personally, I was finding biking to be the trickier one, especially when came the stretch of downhill. Hairpin bends, as they are known in the south, the sharp U turns, they demanded absolute control on both the speed and the direction. They were the epitome of adventure during the expedition. A stretch of 36 odd hairpin bends, one after the other, with only a short straight distance between the two, led our way into the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve. From the 16th hairpin bend, we had entered into the tiger reserve.  Even though we were managing to apply the brakes with full force, the descent was so steep that the bike was still moving at the pace of at least 20 kilometers per hour. I wondered where the friction was! There was thick forest around us and a few vehicles plying on the roads, as if playing around the probability of collision. An alert mind and a control on the direction was the answer to everything at that very moment. The art of lane driving also helps here. The turn should be taken in such a way that the bike does not move forward diagonally, if that happens correctly, we have sorted most of the challenge there itself. It was wrongly perceived by many that downhill will be more fun, in fact it was a lot of extra effort and energy, somewhere compromising on the fun element. I was constantly concentrating on these bends for about one and a half hour. True, I wasn’t pedaling, but my arm strength on which I was thriving, was giving up.  Many bridges were crossed before we hit the straight road in Masinagudi, the plane side of the forest. By this time we had bypassed Ooty and were now in Masinagudi.

As we reached the town of Masinagudi, we were once again transported via Jeep to the Kargudi forest guest house. Sitting in the jeep, we covered about 15 kilometers inside the forest and saw that the forest houses tuskers, baby elephants, peacocks and peahens and not to forget, the tigers who complete the family. We were happy to see that the bikes were also loaded in another jeep coming along with us. It was till now the most tiresome night that we spent in the middle of a forest at the guest house. The beds creaked and the night was nervously dark, tall trees that were playing Chinese whispers with the air were bringing alive the ghost stories from the childhood. But it was no child’s play; it was a reality that we were breathing in. The silence and the calm tends to scare the city inhabitants so much that they do not agree to believe in the simplicity of the darkness, the darkness that is simply empty and nothing else.

A few good men, the care takers of the forest guest house, prepared a sumptuous South Indian meal for us. Even while relishing the food, the thought of next day kept us occupied. In all our tiredness and a head that was still taking virtual turns on those bends, we retired.

The third day and the longest of all comprised an interesting route. From Kargudi, we set the journey towards Gudalur in the same jeep, and from there set forth an uphill journey of 26 kilometers on our bikes. Soon it turned out; the third day was like a test; a test of patience, a different kind of patience, the one that emphasized on not giving up. While the previous day was all about taking control, this day was solely about pushing the limits. The mantra of the day was “Do not stop, keep moving”. Most of the times, the mantra worked. Many a times I found myself cursing the one who designed the route. Why did it have to be all uphill? Is it only me who thinks this road is straight while actually it is not?

Well the road did have an angle, which was only invisible because the buses were passing so swiftly. It was an angle of contemplation which took me back to the day when I decided to put my bum on the saddle. The fortunate part of the day was that nobody gave up. Everyone took to the challenge, some fast, some slow and some very slow. We pedaled, and supported each other on the way, cracked some of the silliest jokes to keep the momentum on but we never gained speed. We moved but slowly. In two words, we were bike crawling on a mountain bike. Not just one, but everyone. The best thing to do was enjoy the shade of eucalyptus trees while passing underneath them. The highlight of these forests was the birds of the Nilgiris who were chirping and chatting continuously. We were fortunate to have a few bird watchers in our group who were able to make the distinction between the birds’ songs. The other big thing to notice was the hopping black monkeys who were restless and unsettled throughout the day. There jumps from one tree to another were huge and always emerged from a green background and grabbing something vegetarian to eat. It was either the carrots or some leaves around it. In fact, we also relished carrots which were being sold in all the tiny markets that we passed by on the way.

We broke our heroic voyage at Tan Tea, for the lunch. We had merely covered a distance of 15 kilometers in about 3 hours. Post the lunch break we were drooling on the front of our bikes, it was only getting harder, until came a quick breather. A miniscule stretch that for once was going straight. The heart beat fastened, the pupils widened, the ray of hope had emerged. Before I could grasp and enjoy, the moment had passed. Within a single pulse of joy, we were back to our uphill regime for the day. Another 6 kilometers to go before more such pulses of joy. Someone at the base camp had told me that the last phase of day 3 would be worth the effort. Well, clearly, the last phase was far from reality. I was only wishing to stay alive to witness it. Today, I wonder what was it that was making me take that push, why wasn’t I giving up. I guess it is the feeling of accomplishment that we all grow fond of. Surely, the tea at the next Chai shop was helping.

It took me thirty minutes to hit the road again. Biking towards Pykara falls via Naduvattam, I was happy to see the sign boards. In approximately an hour or so, I had hit the straight road. Between the forest and the hill, the view of the road was fantastic. I was screaming, I was laughing, I was weaving, I was singing. I was living. I did not want to stop for anyone. As a matter of fact, I did not even want to be with anyone. In my solitude, I wanted to stand while biking, be loud, be swift, be carefree that I once used to be. Even as I write about it, I recollect the memories of the butterflies that were dancing inside my belly, shaking my breath. The air talked to me while I was having my fun ride. An element of fun ride in the mountains is like a reward. Finally, we were at the last higher camp, the one by the Pykara Falls. The forest behind us was both, dense and intense, making it extremely cold in the night. The fall however did not have much water due to no monsoons since a few months now. The landscape however was nothing short of a web shot image.  The tall trees were reflected in the stagnant black water. There was a pond somewhere far, the eagles floated over it. There were rocks orange in color which seemed to be painted into the picture. It was surreal. Serene.

The last day of the biking happened to be a Saturday; perfect day of the week to party. And today, the reason was going strong. There were enough reasons to celebrate. The last day was a little more than a joy ride. We rode freely. This was going to be one of the last sights of the tea gardens. There were white shining stallions on the way as if coming down from the sky to greet us. The magic was rolling. There were endless stops that we all took. Once we stopped to click funniest of the selfies at the shooting point, another time it was in the background of a lake only because all of us wanted to sing a song in our vernacular languages; the Indianness never runs short, and then some pointed at the coconut cart on the way and so it was declared as time for some coco water; in fact once it was merely out of nostalgia of the past one week.  The driver of the support vehicle was almost irritated for he could not wait to reach the base camp and we did not want to be back yet. It was 25 kilometers of pure joy, showering happiness. The whole group stuck together on the last day for they knew that this time is not going to return and is definitely irreplaceable. All 25 of us, on the two wheels, in a forest, this company and this view will not coexist ever again.

From new accolades to new resolutions, new milestones to new stories, everything was shining brightly in front of us. We all had our experiences to share, to spread the vibe of two wheels; we were now the victims of two wheels that rolled up and down the hills.

 P.S. The photographs put up on this page are contributed by dear friends Saurabh Patil and Davneet Singh. Special Thanks goes out to them 🙂 

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