We started the trip at Kochi. The high point for me at Kochi was chatting up with Padmakar Agashe’s friend from the rope industry – Pramod. One of the biggest sectors that Pramod deals with is the fishing industry. There are different types of nets. There are the ones that are fitted in estuaries – gill nets. These have a kind of one way valve. Then you have encircling nets for shoals. Pramod mostly talked about trawler nets, where the fish net geometry is critical. The net is shaped like a cone – with two planks at the bottom which trawl the ocean floor. This drag creates currents which draw in the fish. The mesh size is typically 20 by 20 mm, though the government mandates it as 40 by 40 mm. There are floats at the top of the net. The mouth of the net has a diameter of about 30 ft.
50% of the fish we consume as a nation (probably also as a planet) now comes from aquaculture. What is the implication of this for the fishing net industry? In India, 95% of the nets are made of polypropylene, which costs about Rs. 80 per kg. In Japan most nets are made of HDPE. Earlier the favoured material used to be nylon.
In Kochi we stayed at YMCA, which is walking distance from Ernakulam Railway station. Good place, decent rooms, and they have a very good canteen. Our first destination was Munnar. The hosts told us that the simplest way to get out of Kochi towards Munnar is to follow the metro pillars to Alwaye. Cycling on Kochi roads, one could get the feeling that Kochi motorists are less horny – or should we say honky – than their Pune counterparts. Is there a correlation between literacy and road noise? Also because most Kerala roads are two lane, traffic tends to be slower and more civilized. Also, Kerala roads are in very good condition. The hill roads actually widen up at curves. Another factor could be that most of the traffic is local. Given its corner location in the country, I found very few non KL vehicles plying in Kerala roads. Also very few cyclists. But a lot of communists – we could hear speech baazi under red banners in a lot of locations.
There is much more greenery after you cross Alwaye. The road to Munnar branches off to the right somewhere after Alwaye and travels along the Periyar river. And then you start climbing. Whenever you do a cycling route the first time, there is always a gradient mystery. The first day did not prove to be too tough – as we ended up staying at MPM residency, a swanking new hotel, which was 6 km before Adimali town. That much less of a gradient to climb on Day 1. The hotel was so new that it did not even have towels in the rooms. And dreaming of tea in rooms was not even to be thought of. Unless you wanted to go to the neighbouring garden and eat some tea leaves.
Thanks to lack of basic amenities, we had a very early departure from MPM residency. The breakfast stop was at the excellent Hotel Arabia – which was two downhills and rest uphill. We had puttu and appam. Day time riding was a bit sweaty, as the tree density in tea garden territory is quite low. Day two ride was quite short at 50 km. We reached Munnar town by lunch time – and lunch was at Saravan Bhavan. The high point being the jaggery payasam – which was made using local hill grown sugarcane. The support vehicle this time was a massive Tatat 608. So we mis-used its size to fit all the cyclists and the cycles and ride over to the Great Escapes Resort, where we had to stay over for two nights.
Any hotel with a resort name in it, apart from higher stay tariff also can be characterized by monopolistic food pricing. Being in a remote location means the only alternate to an expensive meal is fasting. Great Escapes Resort was quite scenic – but we were literally the odd men out. The only non-honeymooners. I had tried my hand at cost cutting here, by ensuring that all of us stayed 3 to a room. The resort did not have any extra facilities for drivers, so there was additional pressure on the loos.
We did the typical touristy circuit in Munnar. Started by galavanting around in the Flower Park. I tried to do a thought experiment of what would happen to tourists if the flower park did not allow cameras inside. Shuddered at the thought. I found the people inside the park more attractive than the flowers. Discovered 70 year old twin sisters amongst the tourists. Was keen to photograph them, but they shot me down. From the flower park, we moved to the elephant park – and the greatest discovery there was to find out that what carrots are to humans, pineapples are to elephants. Saw the Mettakuddy dam – which has a powerhouse at the bottom. It is a straight dam, unlike Idukki which is arched. Sampled the raw mango and pineapple spiced up with red chilli powder – which was sold at the dam site. One of the other luxuries that a non-tea drinker can indulge in in Kerala is Horlicks. Lunch was at Guru Bhavan, which was VFM at 50 bucks. Service was quite fast – as every table already had sambar, rasaam and kaadi dishes. The only drawback of this inventory management system was that all of them were quite tepid.
Next was a visit to the Harrison Malyalam tea garden. This is part of the Sanjiv Goenka group. We discovered that green tea is made of 3 young leaves at the top of the branch. White tea, in contrast, is made only from buds. White tea is high on anti-oxidants. The buds are first dried and then crushed. Any leaf if you crush, changes color within 3 minutes because of oxidation. The normal tea leaves are first subject to withering – where they are left in the open for 24 hours in order to reduce the moisture content. They are then crushed and dried. The stems account for the good color – but they have no flavour. Since Indians are as much fans of color as flavour, stems play an important role. Our guide berated Indian tea drinkers – his view is that we Indians drink Payassam, not tea. Tea is traditionally best consumed without milk and sugar. His recommendation for tea making – heat water to 80 C – this is the time the first bubbles start coming – when the dissolved oxygen starts its departure. At this time, we need to add one spoon – 3 g – of tea – which suffices for 4 cups. After that you switch off the heat – and cover the vessel.
We then went on to the Tea Museum. This was basically about the equipment used in the earlier days. Found myself outdated as I saw stuff in the museum which I had used during my student days – an IBM PC XT. Just to make myself feel better, I instead spent more time on the mechanical calculator – which I definitely had not used as part of my education – though to be honest Patharkar General Store in Kirkee Bazaar, where we used to get our kiranas from, had one!
Tourism done, next day we descended the hills of Munnar to the temple town of Palani. We stayed at the VFM Hotel Ganpat. The next day we started our ascend again to Kodaikanal. Actually there is a way over the hills from Munnar to Kodaikanal, which was built by the Britishers during the second world war to plan for an emergency evacuation by the Brits in case Japan reached Chennai. But they did not end up using it – and the road is now in bad shape, wherever it exists. Both the state governments are keen that it reverts back to forest. Hence we did not have a choice but to go down and go up again. Palani to Kodaikanal is about 65 km, and except for the first 10 km required to reach the base of the hills – is uphill after that. There was a longish stretch right at the start which did not have any roadside shacks. Somewhere around the 40 km mark, you curse the road as it goes downhill for about 5 km.
We had reservations in Holiday Home Resort at Kodaikanal – but they had called us up the previous day saying that they no longer had the cheaper rooms available. The miser that I have always been, I had not paid the advance in any of the places that we were to stay in. So as others did their temple tourism in the evening at Palani, I meditated at the Google baba temple in order to look for options at Kodai. Found a very VFM hotel, whose name is now shrouded in the cobwebs of my memory. It was before Kodai town next to a school. The rooms were functional – no view etc, but the service was amazing. They had a canteen on the terrace – and it was great to have dosas basking in the mild morning sun of Kodaikanal. We hired a bus to take us around the tourist spots – of which what I was looking forward to was a spot where the Escape road starts. It was supposed to be quite scenic, but we landed there when it was totally immersed in fog.
After staying over in Kodaikanal for a day, we started on our return journey. We decided to go direct to Coimbatore instead of stopping, as there were no suitable towns midway. The distance is about 160 km. In order to save time, we decided that we will take a vehicle down the Kodaikanal ghat and traverse a bit of the plains. We started cycling about 50 km before Coimbatore. The stay was planned at Srilakshmi Hotel, which was where we had stayed in when we had done the Mysore-Ooty-Coimbatore Cycling. For once Google Baba played truant – directing us to the wrong Srilakshmi. We had to ditch Google Babas for some ordinary police officers who helped us with the right directions.
The high point in Coimbatore, was the party which had been organized by Narendra’s dermatology conference friends. The presence of even a sole guitartist, with recorded music playing for his support gives a very good effect.
The other high point was a visit to a rope making machine factory, Nandgopal JMW, courtesy Padmakar Agashe again. In ropes one of the important parameters is TPM – or turns per meter. The flexibility in ropes comes because of the elongation that the twists permit. Another thing that is important is balance. Double a rope and hang it, it should fall straight. The bread and butter product of the factory is the single drive shaft 60 spindle rope machine. Rings are used to give the yarns a twist. What I liked about the machine was the alternate gears of nylon and steel – which serve to reduce friction without worrying about lubrication. Use of aluminum pulleys serves to reduce energy consumption further. The finish quality of the castings used in the machine was awesome. This machine is also being exported to Germany, where the old buyers love it – as it does not contain any electronics. Nandgopal’s son also has a German connection – he works in Miami in the US in a German company that makes golf clubs. Found out that all spindle legs and crossbars had punch marks in them. I asked Nandgopal why we could not make them interchangeable. He said that LMW does that – but even then they use punches.