Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ooty to Pondicherry and many adventures in between

So, I have finally arrived in Pondicherry, without losing any parts of me on the road. I have had many more adventures along the way but have been too tired to write about them in the evenings. I shall try and catch up a little now before it is too old to be news.

Ooty to Coimbatore

The ride from Ooty to Coimbatore was great. I meant to plot my route out on a google maps to highlight all the roads that I took that were not on the map, but now I don't have time. I tried to take the most direct yet most "off-piste" route I could find and was actually heading to Palakkad but never made it. The mountain roads were tiny and the only traffic for most of the way was the occasional motorbike. The scenery was stunning, particularly when I headed off the map into what appeared to be national park and I had the impression I was going places I was not supposed to be. I conveniently picked up a hitch-hiker just before I passed through a check point and they probably didn't stop me because they thought my passenger was my guide. My passenger warned me that there were elephants about. Although the roads in the park were very good, the last 200 meters leading onto a main road was just a dirt track that passed through a badly maintained fiord. I had the impression that the badly maintained section served to protect the tribal communities within park from tourism or something. The route that I took was actually a great short cut and could shorten someone's journey from a couple of hours to just half an hour. I had asked in Ooty if there was a pass through the mountains there but no one seemed to know about it and only found it by studying my google satellite images.

I next attempted a short cut through some mountains that I had not identified on my maps but it unfortunately fizzled out to a track after 20 km, just 10 km from Palakkad. A local told me I could go no further and because it was getting dark in a couple of hours I thought I'd take his advice. He offered me a place to stay for free and at first I accepted but then I realised that he had been drinking and didn't feel I could trust him. When I drew out of him that he would be expecting a Rs. 500 donation I told him that was not acceptable to make such demands after being told I was a guest, so took my opportunity to escape before it got too dark to leave.

Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC)

I learned about this NGO in Mysore from another guest at the youth hostel I was staying at. I found them very welcoming and they even offered me a room for the night and I ended staying for two. The place has a positive feel about it, which has much to do with that many people, young and older, live on campus so that care is taken to provide a pleasant atmosphere with seating, plenty of vegetation for shade and the buildings are artistically designed. As the name suggests, the institute focuses on improving rural lives with the application of science, in similar way to ARTI, which I visited in Phaltan. Its campus is extensive, with departments for every discipline. They also believe in organic agriculture, although I had the impression that bringing money into the countryside took presidency over issues of sustainability and the environment. An example of this is their animal breeding department. I felt that their rabbits and pigs were kept in too cramped and dull conditions and reflected too closely practices of intensive meat production, which I consider unsustainable and unethical. Questions of sustainability arise from the inefficient use of land and energy if the animals are fed on crops grown on land that otherwise could be used to directly produce food. There is also an increased risk of creating new diseases due to cramped breeding conditions. I feel such practises are mainly unethical due to the level of boredom experienced by the animals being deprived of their natural activities.

One area of research they are undertaking that interested me is in the use of bacteria to help in the uptake in phosphates and minerals by plants. Enabling plants to be grown in lower nutrient conditions sounds like a good thing, however, it does not get around the problem that if you remove nutrients from a farm that you have to bring them back again. Perhaps the research will help in understanding how organic composts can be improved. Other areas they work on is teaching local people how to make soap, how to grow a popular variety of mushroom and how to improve the value of locally produced pots with colourful glazes. They also take part in a government watershed project, that is, to create a database of the available water and its current use so that the government can make recommendations about what crops are better to grow in which regions so that water is shared more fairly to improve productivity.

Further South

From IRTC I travelled through Eravikulam National Park in which I was told I wouldn't meet any more elephants. However, only after about 5 km into the park I spotted movement in the bushes and quickly stopped when I realised it was another herd of elephants lurking by the road side. I waited at a safe distance on a bridge for 10 minutes for them to go. I imagined they were waiting to ambush me, but after a short trumpet they disappeared into the jungle and I slowly and, as silently as my motor allowed, slinked passed.

The ride up to Munnar was again stunning. Partly, in fact, due to the tea plantations that created many views and an interesting patterns. At a tea factory museum I met my first lone motorbike traveler and we decided to travel the next day together. He was an experienced motorbiker from the UK and was riding an Royal Enfield Bullet. The next day was also a stunning ride to Thekkady, which is the most South I reached. It was nice to ride with someone else for a change, but his speed, mostly because he had better acceleration than me, was somewhat faster than I liked and I also felt a bit restricted, being slower, in stopping too frequently to take photos. Thus, although it was nice to have some company for a change I was quite happy to go separate ways and headed off down the mountains to the exciting sounding place of Cumbum. It was not actually a pleasant place and I couldn't even find any budget accommodation. To make things harder, all the places that said "hotel" were in fact just restaurants - unless they were keeping a different side of their business secrete. I eventually found a place to rest for Rs. 120 out of town on Cumbum Road.

An unexpected break

The next day I tried to make some progress and hurried North-East towards Pondicherry but after an hour or two I was tempted to go exploring by mountains I was passing. I followed a small road into the foothills, pretty sure that it would be a dead end yet amazed at the quality of the road, including road signs warning one of sharp bends despite that there didn't seem to be any traffic. Low and behold the road suddenly ended in a small path which I didn't feel like following any further considering I was running on my reserve tank.

On my way back to the main road I was, unusually, hailed by a woman in a field. She seemed very keen to talk to me so I guessed she probably spoke English and I obliged and stopped. She spoke English well and asked the usual questions as to where I was going and where I was from. She then offered me a coconut to drink which she knocked from one of her trees and invited me back to her house. I agreed and also agreed to wait for her to cook some lunch. She didn't want any payment and just seemed keen to practise her English and for the company. I learned that she was 58, was a widow having been divorced because (I think) she could not have any children. She had been an English teacher in a college when she was younger and had plenty of money at the time and even built a house. But for whatever reason she seemed to have lost most her money and the rest was tied up in the house she had given to her brother. She had returned to a farming life, partly to save money, partly to experience the simple life she had known as a child and partly as financial security because she had no children. She had just planted some coconut trees, which, within five years will provide her with a steady income. All she has to do is turn on a switch to irrigate the trees and employ a local lad to pick them. She also had two cows and a calf, a number of chickens and a cat. Both of the cows look like Jerseys (but are probably not) and are producing milk, which provides a daily income. They are milked twice a day by a milk boy that visits on a moped on which he carries two milk urns, a milking bucket, a measuring jug and a sieve.

Time passed as I walked with her to move her cows to a new grazing area and she told me the uses of different plants on the way and eventually I had to make up my mind if I should leave. She invited me to stay a night in her one room house and I decided to take up her offer with the promise of more tasty food. It was a lazy pleasant evening with intrigued neighbours dropping by to visit. The night was a little uncomfortable sleeping on a wooden board but I slept well and didn't notice when the women lay down to sleep her on usual mat on the floor, or when she got up. In the morning I learned that not all neighbours were so friendly, with the neighbour opposite apparently accusing us of stealing another neighbour's coconuts and for having an affair. She told me she was often having arguments with the neighbour, because, she claimed, that he was jealous and particularly now that I was visiting her. He thought, as did other neighbours, that I would be sending lots of money to her when I got home. It is a pity, but I guess it is expected. She was upset by the neighbour and that I was leaving after a brief moment of pretending that I was her son. Since she did not accept any payment I guess I am obliged now to send something.

River crossing

My next adventure was when I tried to follow a minor road that was clearly marked on the map but turned out to be missing a bridge. Perhaps the old one was washed away because they were building a new one at a different location to that marked on the map. I managed to find a local that could talk English to ask if there was another a bridge that I could cross. There was not, without extending my journey by three hours or going back and neither options sounded appealing because I did not know if I had sufficient petrol. However I was told that the river was only shin deep and that some people did manage to take their motorbikes across. I decided to have a look to see if it was as deep as they said. I was instructed how to make the crossing - that was to run next to my bike with the engine running. I tried this at a walking pace across some shallower water to a sand bank a short way across, but found the water in fact in the centre of the river was knee deep. I was about to turn back when a local confidently said that he could take my bike across. I decided to risk it and swapped my bike for his bag of rice. He did an impressing job, splashing through the water with my bike's engine racing and the water coming well over the exhaust and up the engine. If he had made a mistake and stalled the engine I don't think it would have been possible to start again and I don't know what would have happened to it and my bag. It was a big crossing as you can see from the picture. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the heroic moment because I didn't dare drop his bag of rice to remove my camera.

The rest of my journey was quite uneventful and I arrived in Pondichery on Wed 17 February and arrived at Sadhana Forest, Auroville, the following morning. It is really quite a special place. I no doubt will write a lot about it shortly.


  1. I was reading further into the phosphate depletion issue, particularly how it will affect organic farming. It will have less impact than on intensive farming, but it will still result in a decrease in yields. I was interested to learn that the soil association are pushing for recycled human waste to be allowed as fertiliser; they say that sewerage treatment has developed to the point where harmful metals can be safely extracted. What do you think? I don't know about removing hormones etc.

    Glad you have arrived safely - in spite of the heffalumps that were planning to ambush you :)x

  2. We will always need crops that are not used for eating such as trees. If we use sewage/night-soil for such crops we can then use the leaves from the tree crops to cover the soil of food crops. :) I have read that covering naked soil with leaves can be more effective in keeping nitrogen in the soil and attracting micro-organisms than compost. I expect that tree are pretty good at filtering out the junk from the soil. I hope I can find out more about this. :)x