Day 1: Mumbai to Kihim (2-1-12) 118km
A 6am start as a fully loaded Dhanya and I leave the, by now after a 7 day stay, homely Hotel Gemini and head out into the pre-dawn Mumbai chill and spin along the empty streets towards the adventure starting point, the Gateway of India. Arriving at the Gateway of India, with the sun yet to rise, its mass silhouetted against the grey dawn sky I am surprised to see a few other early risers, a couple of joggers, a handful of photo clicking tourists(!) and a small group of Asians doing some form of oriental exercises.
I first decided to do this cycle around India challenge more than a year and a half ago, so I have visualised this Gateway of India moment on many occasions, as such I stand for 20 minutes or so just soaking up the atmosphere and reflecting on the magnitude of what I am just about to embark upon. Just before the sun rises behind the Gateway I shake myself out of this trance like state and decide I better get going if I want to miss the worst of the Mumbai rush-hour.
To escape Mumbai I have to go north to go south, to avoid central Mumbai I skirt the eastern flank of the Mumbai peninsula which is initially lined with naval installations. These soon give way to grimy goods yards, colourful yet dusty trucks and litter strewn sidings. I follow rail tracks which appear to be disused, well by loco’s that is, they are certainly well frequented by men squatting with all their bits and pieces hanging out having their morning ‘muck-out’ – I am not going to be able to get used to this sight and I keep my eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead… For much of the initial 20km I am accompanied by the large under-construction concrete overhead metro supports, as well as passing oil storage depots, tracts of wasteland, rows of power lines heading off into the hazy rising sun, the Bharat Petroleum refinery, occasional shanty villages, and putrid waterways – the usual detritus of large city outskirts – and some! But looking on the bright side the roads are virtually traffic free, just the occasional oil tanker and lumbering TATA bus ferrying people to work, plus those workers making their way on bicycle and by foot. In the midst of all this ‘industrialness’ I pass the green oasis of the Vengsarkar Cricket Academy where the white uniformed groundsmen are out busy rolling the pitch. Dilip Vengsarkar was renown for being a stylish batsman during the 1980s, and one of the few who could put up a good show against the formidable West Indies pace men of the era. Arguably his biggest achievement was scoring three consecutive Test Match centuries at Lord’s against England, and he went on the captain Indian in 1987.
After crossing the almost 3km long Vashi Bridge over a large estuary I feel that I have finally escaped Mumbai’s ever expanding clutches. Soon I turn right and finally head south into Navi Mumbai onto the lovely smooth empty 6 lane highway of Palm Road. In the 3 weeks I have been in Mumbai it has been reported in the local papers that at least 6 youths have been killed in traffic accidents along this stretch of road! Navi Mumbai is home to many of the city’s nouveau riche and it is suspected these deaths are due to youngsters in high performance cars returning in the early hours from central Mumbai’s club scene, tanked up on booze and who knows what else, and trying to impress… I have to admit to being disappointed by Navi Mumbai, I was expecting the area to be lined with plush apartment blocks overlooking the sea with a palm fringed seafront promenade. Not at all! OK, so there are apartment blocks with fanciful names such as, Viceroy Park, Sea Homes, Sun Coast Towers, Beverly Park, but from the outside these new constructions appear aged, run down and dirty. As for the delightful sea front promenade, I could not see the sea! So much for my sophisticated breakfast plans of a coffee and croissant looking out over the ocean… One thing I have noticed of my time in Mumbai is how the modern, new buildings all look jaded and 20 years older than they really are, I’m sure the interiors of these apartments are very swish and personal little havens from the surrounding madness, yet from the outside they really do not look anything at all special.
Not before long the ‘luxury’ apartments gave way to a dust bowl of construction sites, quarries, cement works, container yards and an endless stream of container trucks, luckily the vast majority of them parked up. After about 65km, just as I was getting a bit tired of container yard after container yard and pot holed roads I crossed a decaying concrete bridge which shook rather alarmingly when a truck rumbled over it, I took a right and suddenly I was pedalling through small villages with Mumbai seeming a long way off… Just as I was enjoying the scenery suddenly the decent road surface disappeared and I was cycling along a very bumpy and potholed dirt road. By the looks of astonishment on the villagers faces I doubt they get many ‘whites’ in this neck of the woods, let alone on a bicycle!
Back on tarmac of sorts I approach a junction where there is a dusty makeshift police checkpoint on the side of the road, constructed of hessian sacks and bamboo. A slouched back policeman beckons me over, ‘Where you go?’ he questions in a relatively stern voice, ‘Raigad Fort’ I reply. ‘That way’, shaking his finger off to my left. ‘This way’ I question pointing in the same direction, ‘Yes, yes’, with a head wobble. I was sure it was to the right, but heh bow to local knowledge, especially that from a policeman. I never did find the fort, however I arrive rather timely in Kalwar village as I was running low on water. I pull up outside a drinks store and request, ‘Paneer’, Hindi for water, the vendor automatically thinks I can speak the lingo and babbles away to me with his wife giggling shyly in the doorway to the back room. Once he realises I haven’t got a clue what he is on about word is sent out via the village grapevine and in no time the village English speaker, Jaipesh, arrives along with about 20 curious assistants! With his one missing front tooth he reels out the standard questions, ‘What is your name?’, ‘What country you from?’, ‘Where you go?’, ‘How old are you?’, ‘Are you married?’ etc. Once the friendly interrogation is over and I am mounting my bike Jaipesh informs me, ‘Kihim, follow this road 5km, the big road turn right…’. I get the same info from about 5 others as I cycle through the village, ‘At least they all agree’ I think to myself. About 5km from Kihim I take a narrow bumpy road which takes me off the main drag and through a couple of delightful little villages, very rustic, where once again and I greeted with looks of astonishment from the local kids and bewilderment from the village elders.
I finally check-in to a guesthouse after a couple of previous enquires, guess that will be a regular occurrence, looking for suitable digs each night, and take the short stroll down to the almost deserted wide sandy beach where I relax with a fresh coconut juice straight from its shell, whilst taking in a game of beach cricket and watching the beautiful sunset – the first of many!
In terms of road surfaces I think today was a real wake-up call of what to expect. I was subjected to a wide range from smooth tarmac (very limited), to concrete, to potholes, to bumpy, to rocky, to gravelly, to desperate dirt, to constant patchworks of shoddy repairs, to decaying concrete, to corrugated iron effect tarmac, and my personal nemesis block paving! This range of surfaces means that for the majority of the time you cannot get any sort of rhythm and momentum, and if you are really ‘lucky’ you can experience all of the above within a few kilometres! Some long days ahead I feel…