Day 4: Veshavi to Harnai (5-1-12) 53km
Last night Nilesh insisted on driving me the few kilometres to nearby Bankot Fort, ''First it is not in the direction you will be going, and secondly the road is very steep!''. Whilst Nilesh got himself ready his father and I watch the coverage of the third day of the second Test Match between India and Australia in Sydney and applaud as Michael Clarke scores his 300th run. With a shaking head his father laments “Now India not good at Test cricket, now they win the One Day World Cup they not care about anything else, this is the wrong attitude…”.
As we near Bankot Fort the crumbling road suddenly becomes cliff like and I can understand Nilesh’s insistence as he looks over to me and smiles whilst changing into first gear, “You think you can cycle up this?” my reply is a resigned laugh. As we wander around the dilapidated ramparts of the fort looking out of the confluence of the river and sea Nilesh explains that this was the first residency of the British Raj in Southern Konkan, “It is a shame the local government do not spend any money restoring and caring for it” he sighs. Indeed it has had a turbulent history, no one is exactly sure when it was built but it was captured by the Portuguese in 1548, it was then later captured by the local Angres and renamed Himmatgad. There was a rivalry between the Angres and the Peshwas who with British assistance defeated the Angres and it was renamed Fort Victoria. At the eastern edge of the fort Nilesh waves his arm out in the direction of the nearby tree covered hills, “They want to build a power plant here, but we locals are against it, now we have clean air, we do not want any pollution. The company claims there will not be any, but we do not believe them…”. We continue wandering and chatting when suddenly “Ah yes Mark, I must show you this” he leans over the inner edge of the ramparts and points to a small arched opening at ground level, “I do not know if it is true but people say that this leads to a tunnel under the sea over to Harihareshwar, an escape route”. I am sceptical, we are about 100m above sea level so that is a long way to dig down through rock just to get to sea level, let alone the few kilometres they then have to dig below the sea floor – but heh, stranger things have happened…
As we drive back to his home along the narrow winding lane Nilesh explains that he may not be in Veshavi for much longer as he has been offered a World Bank job working on water sanitation which is based in Mumbai, “The money is good and my brother lives in Mumbai. My wife will also be happy as closer to her parents who live in Pune”. Over breakfast of pancakes I explain my plan for the day and Nilesh just laughs, “Do not even think of trying to get to Guhagar today, the roads are bad and steep, it takes 5 to 6 hours in a car! I suggest you stop a Harnai, it is about 50km and it is a nice place next to the beach”. As it is already 10:30am I agree that sounds like a good plan. I load up Dhanya and after paying the bill, 350 rupees (less than 7 bucks all in!), bidding our farewells and being given initial directions I climb the dirt bumpy road out of the village, passing the police station on the way.
It doesn’t take long at all to understand Nilesh’s laughter at my plan of reaching Guhagar (about 100km), today’s first 10km included 6km of steady uphill from more or less sea level to 170m above on a fairly shoddy road which I achieved at a blistering pace of 13kph! However, the reward for the climbing is the views and every now and then I would catch glimpses through the shady trees of the glistening blue River Savitri below and the tree covered hills off in the distance. As I was sweating up this prolonged climb a guy on a Honda Hero motorbike who had passed me a couple of times asks me to stop. “Not here” I pant, “At the top of the hill”. He pootles along side me and asks the usual questions, “Where you go?”, “Where you from?” etc. At the top of the climb with sweat pouring off my brow, as I dismount Dhanya the guy says, “I need your help. Excuse my English but I want you to help me”, “What help you need” I enquire. “I need to study in your country”, “OK, so how can I help”, “Anything”, “Such as…”, “Money”. “Oh yer!” I laugh, “Why I give you money, I don’t know you!”. Looking him up and down I go on, “Look you have nice clothes, a good haircut, and nice new motorbike, why I give you money?!”. As I remount Dhanya my parting shot with much sarcasm is “You a very good person heh, you stop me just because you want my money – very good!!!”.
The following 3km downhill was bliss as I drop into another valley and switchback my way down to the river below with views of fading ridgelines off into the distance and the greens of market gardening on the valley floor. The ride following the river down to the sea was a delight despite the constant rolling up and downs, including a few short but steep climbs. I pass through a number of charming shady hamlets with mainly single story homes topped with terracotta tiles huddled closely together, seeing laughing women slapping and scrunching the laundry in the river, and uniformed school kids wandering and playing. I arrive in Kelshi and take a small detour to the pristine wide sandy beach where I sit and relax staring out to sea for a while. I am shaken out of my trance by a couple of barefoot young lads shouting “Hello!” as the run past clutching a cricket bat and three stumps, off to the firmer sand nearer the sea for a knock-about. I leave Kelshi via a different route and the route I chose would not have been out of place on a mountain bike course!! With much relief after a few kilometres I re-find the tarmac and the short ups and downs continue as I follow the coastline. About 8km from Anjarle the single lane road smoothes out and literally hugs the deserted beach – excellent!!
I coast into Anjarle and as one of the restaurants I am involved with in Cambodia is named Anjali, of course I have to stop for a quick spot of lunch and refreshments sat on the step outside a drink store. No sooner had I sat down than Dhanya and I attract the attention of a bunch of inquisitive school boys all clad in matching khaki shorts and white shirts – none of whom spoke any English so it made for some interesting communication. Although I think they were more interested in Dhanya than me… I pootle through the shady twisting lanes of Anjarle taking in the rustic architecture when suddenly the rear tyre feels a bit squidgy. Sure enough I have a slow puncture!! It is still sufficiently ‘full’ so I cycle around and find the village bike shop which is an old wooden barn and shares its premises with a mooing cow. Outside the courtyard is beautifully shady so I sit back and let the vest wearing bike man get to work… However, it appears I have chosen the only cycle repairman in the whole of India who does not have a pump!! He mounts his own rusty, squeaky Hercules cycle which has a badly buckled rear wheel (not a great advert) and disappears for 5 minutes, returning firmly grasping a pump and wearing a big smile.
All done, I hand over the 10 rupees (20 cents), re-load Dhanya and re-connect the Rohloff hub and I am off, yet all too soon confronted with an incredibly steep little climb out of the village. Just as I am enjoying the smooth downhill on the other side pppssssssssshhhhhhhhh – rapid pressure lose in the rear tyre!!! I pull over underneath the shade of a roadside tree cursing the Anjarle puncture repair man! Once again I un-load Dhanya, unclip the V-brakes, disconnect the Rohloff hub, turn her over and remove the rear wheel and get to work on changing the inner tube. Checking the inner tube I have just removed I notice that Mr Anjarle’s repair patch is actually still intact, however there is a new hole nearby, I curse him once again for not checking whether the sharp object was still in the tyre or not. As I check the tyre for the said sharp object I have to guiltily take back all my curses – there is a small 4mm tear in the tyre!! “Ummmmm, this is going to be interesting to fix” I think to myself. Racking my brain I try to think of all the cycle magazines I have read in the past where people write in with their ‘on-trail’ bodge job repairs and it suddenly comes to me. Looking around I find a discarded ‘foil’ crisp packet and fold this over a few times and place it between the new inner tube and the inside of the tyre covering the hole, hoping this bodge job will last the 10km to Harnai… Whilst I am doing all this a young closely shaven Muslim chap attired in a topis and a pristine white thobe had pulled over and stood watching me. Seeing the effort it was taking to pump up the rear tyre with my small ‘Pocket Rocket’ pump Fahim very kindly offered to help. With his assistance I was soon back on the road, my heart missing a beat each time I went over a bump.
There was one final sting in the tail before reaching Harnai, a climb up over a headland which included 7 back to back switchbacks! An old red school bus passed me on its way down with the school kids waving their arms out of the glassless windows and screaming with delight as the lumbering old thing swung round each hairpin – guess it’s the closest thing these kids get to a rollercoaster. My prize being an exciting switchback downhill on a great smooth surface all the way into the small fishing town of Harnai, thankful that my bodge job tyre had survived! There didn’t appear to be a great deal of accommodation on offer as I cycled along the narrow and bumpy main street so I opted for the Bhavani Residency above a couple of shophouses selling clothing and hardware goods. After checking in the owner, bespectacled Ashok with thinning silver hair and matching moustache which turned up at the ends, asked if I would like to have dinner prepared, “What’s on offer?” I ask, “Fried fish, pomfret and curry, my wife make, cheaper and much better than the restaurants in town. It will be ready about 8 o’ clock” he sang, Ashok spoke in a very sing-songy manner with a constant smile, “OK, but I need a lot, I cycle a long way today and I am very hungry” I add, “No problem, no problem!” I was to realise that this was his catchphrase. I take a look at my watch, 5:30pm just in time for sunset and then a couple of Kingfishers in a small bar I had spotted earlier.
The tiny dimly lit bar was a busy little spot with people coming and going mainly for take-outs wrapped in newspaper. One old soak who spoke no English came and sat opposite me with a small bottle of the local ‘hooch’ which was the most popular beverage being wrapped and insisted on me trying some. Expecting the worst it wasn’t actually that bad, for sure it was strong yet it had a tinge of pineapple to it and I guess at 35 rupees (70 cents) for 250ml it does the job. A curly haired, beer bellied bloke on the table opposite spoke some English and we struck up a conversation, he was a truck driver delivering fish to places as far away as Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, “Sometimes I drive 2,000km in one day, that is why I need to drink” he says pointing to his small bottle of cheap Bagpiper whisky, “Yes, I cycle from Mumbai that’s why I need to drink” I reply pointing to my bottle of Kingfisher as we both laugh.
Back at the Bhavani Residency Ashok invites me into his front room where dinner will be served. I take in my surroundings, the walls are a pale shade of green with peeling patches of paint here and there, a couple of curl-edged pictures of Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity standing in a pink lotus flower are haphazardly stuck to the wall with pieces of black electricians tape, and like so many front rooms around the world the TV takes center stage. After finishing the final touches Ashok’s sari wearing, shyly smiling wife brings out dinner on the now expected large silver tray with various accompaniments in separate small silver bowls. I was treated to silver pomfret fried in various spices, a piece of fried bangra (mackerel), a prawn curry, a small side salad and chapattis and rice, it was quite a feast and a delicious one at that!