Ooty Cyclog

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Bhushan Apte is India’s answer to Peter Parker – the Indian superman: Academic star – IIT Madras, IIM Ahmedabad, Consultant to leading Indian corporates, Visiting faculty at leading B Schools, Competitive Badminton Player and Cycling Guru – and all this at the grand young age of 60.

The only hole in Bhushan’s blue cape of superstardom had been one small incident that happened a decade ago. On one of his first long distance cycling trips he was to climb the 12 km torturous Ooty Ghat – with its 10%+ gradient and 36 hairpin bends. He gave up at bend no. 30. 10 years later it still hurt – even after having cycled to Khardungla, the world’s highest road. He still would lament about how he could not have finished the Ooty Ghat. So in Feb 2013, the cycling guru’s shishyas decided that it was time for their guru to make amends – and a trip was organized from Mysore to Ooty to Coimbatore.

Given that there were only 3 of the shishyas participating with the guru, Atul Gopal, Ravindra Joshi and Giri Sakharani, it was decided that unlike other trips, there would be no support vehicle in the trip. Not having a support vehicle makes you realize how it is possible to live with less. Everything that you want to take along has to be carried around by not petroleum but human power. Think again: Is that razor really important? Why should the house keys be carried?

On Tuesday morning, the gang of 3 met at Pune railway station to board the Nizamuddin Mysore Express. The cycles had already been trucked in earlier to Mysore. On reaching Mysore on Wednesday morning, we checked in at Hotel Dasprakash, quite near the railway station. Giri, the fourth gang member, had driven down to Mysore from Bangalore the previous night.

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Mysore Jugaad – A desilting machine to remove solid waste stuck in gutters.

Wednesday morning was spent in trying to fathom out which of the bathroom taps delivers hot water. Most hotels with their centralized solar water heating systems are quite eco friendly. But this also means that there is a buffer of cold water running in pipes which has to be exhausted before you get to the hot water. The amount of water utilized to aid this discovery would be enough to feed millions of our country folk their daily rice.

You toss a mental coin to check if it is the right tap is the right tap or is it the left one? Then you let that run for 5 minutes and try to remember from memory whether the water is any warmer than it was when you first touched it. The colder the day, the more difficult it is to make that judgment. The timing is important – too soon and the cold water buffer is not exhausted, too late and you feel that you have just pushed the country closer to drought. In case of confusion, stop the tap, and reverse the process with the other tap. At that point of time, suspicions about the hotel service quality start creeping in: maybe their solar systems are out of service; was it not cloudy yesterday? So you call the hotel reception, and lo and behold, the waiter turns out to be much smarter than you. He lets both taps run!

Adventures done, and with much water down the drain, we were now ready to inspect the cycles that came down from the transporter. The shishyas were happy that the only one cycle that was punctured was the guru’s. Out came the puncture repair kit. By 1100 hrs the gang was ready to roll. The best time to start is always early morning – the sun is low on the horizon, there is light but not heat. A few degrees of latitude up North, 1100 hrs would have been pleasant, but the Mysore-Gundlupet road was heating up. The terrain is rolling, as it is in most of the Deccan plateau. It always is more interesting to ride in rolling terrain unless the rolls are really rocking – as it can be in serious mountainous terrain. Then in downhills, the wheel’s kinetic energy is being matched continuously by the thermal energy being generated in the brakes.

3Burnt down tram-bus encountered enroute to Gundlupet

That’s not the case in Mysore – where for the first 25 km we were traversing through what seemed to be a huge coconut factory. Coconuts coconuts everywhere and all the water to drink. Hydration stops were made every 10 km and you marveled at the 10 Rs. wonders which cost double the amount in Pune. Adding to the scenery were traffic-less overhead bridges – which one later realized were irrigation canals maintaining their gradients, as traveling water does not quite like rolling terrain.

Lunch was at Udipi restaurant Guruprasad in Gundlupet. Over lunch the war team thought that it would be a good idea to have a support vehicle for the next day’s climb – as a per capita weight reduction of 10 kg in a vertical climb of 1.5 km would be most welcome. Accordingly negotiations were done and a contract was fixed with an Indica to be with us next day morning till we reach Ooty.

Ever the value conscious customer, yours truly went in for the Rs. 50 unlimited Thali at Hotel Guruprasad. The result of all that extra weight was a puncture 10 km down the line. A spare tube being included in the meager luggage proved to be a wise decision and with some help from the Guru, we were back on the road in 30 minutes time. We had been instructed to cross into the Bandipur reserve forest gate by 1700 hrs – and we were only 30 minutes late. On enquiring we found that the gate is actually open till 2100 hrs and we could have had a late night tete-a-tete with our elephant friends.

Forests and hills have a very high correlation. What is not fit for agriculture, is fit for forests. Our hotel was located in the middle of the forest reserve and it was about 6 km from the gate. But the roll started rocking and it took almost an hour, with photo shoot breaks thrown in, to reach Ambuja Farms. In our negotiations with the Hotel management, we had asked for a tariff which did not include dinner. On reaching we realized that being in the middle of nowhere with big ghat ahead the next day, meant that negotiations had been done with wrong assumptions. Request was made for dinner for 4 hungry souls, staff acquiesced, and we sat down to a sumptuous buffet at night. The hospitality repeated next day morning at breakfast. To top it all, the hotel management, decided that they are not going to charge us for the same. Wow!

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Giri Cycling into Ambuja Farm

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Solar electrified fence Watering hole

to deter elephants Note the deer tracks near water edge.

The Indica arrived at 0700 hrs and having loaded our bags into the vehicle, we hit the road again. A support vehicle serves three functions: one, it carries luggage; two, it carries drinking water and three, if at all a cyclist backs out during the ride, it carries the rider and the cycle. The driver was not acquainted with any of the functions except the first one. He took it upon himself to warn all the langoors on the way of a band of crazy cyclists who were on their way.

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Tree Langoors watching their cycling brethren

It took quite some speeding over speed breakers to tell him that his place was more at the back rather than at the front, so that in no-coverage territory, he could at least be aware about cyclists who need hydration or support. After 15 km of cycling the forest decided to change its name – from Bandipur to Madhumalai, as we switched states from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu. Think that it is called Wayanadu when it meanders into Kerala, which is also close by.

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Madhumalai village is where you take a left over a bridge to get on to the shorter road to Ooty.

By the time we reached Madhumalai we had actually lost altitude. But from Madhumalai onwards the climb was steady. In anticipation of the 36 hairpin bends climb, heavier than normal breakfast was done at Masanigudi.

10 km after the breakfast point, the gradient started to go up. One of the things that a cyclist does is to ride in the highest gear that the legs permit, so as to increase average speed. Decided to do a 1-3 (For the uninitiated cyclist, 1 is position of the chain on front sprocket, and 3 – the position of the chain in the rear sprocket. The lowest ratio is 1-1 and the highest is 3-9).

The first hair pin bend takes quite some time to come. Note time, not distance, because from now on gradient was always in excess of 10%, which meant that for every 10 m of cycling you were gaining at least 1 m in height. After reaching the first hair-pin, down geared immediately into 1-1 – and stayed there for the rest of the climb. For those of you who have visited the Sinhgad fort road in Pune, 1-1 is what the amateur cyclist requires to be in, in the last 1 km of the climb to the fort.

Another thing which is generally avoidable in a high stress ride is heavy food. So unlike the previous day, lunch was replaced with a power-snack. Influenced by Giri, I also added three power-naps to the cycling itinerary of the day. The best place to have a power-nap is on a shaded culvert wall on the side of the road. Progress was counted in terms of hair-pin bends – and joyful were the occasions where you found two of the hair-pin bends together. But with experience, you also knew that after that you would not find another one for at least the next half an hour L.

On a hair-pin you always take the outer road, even if it means going against the traffic. The slope is always lesser on the outer side. In fact I remember once while driving back from Srinagar to Pune, we came back via Indore, somewhere close to Mhow, the trucks also use a similar strategy. I remember being warned by dhaba wallahs to keep the car on the inner side – even if it required imagining that you were on American roads!

We celebrated Guru ji’s ascenscion to hair pin bend number 30, where promptly a mandir made its appearance – and Guru ji sat down to meditate about the next six bends.

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Meditation Point

Must confess that the inclination to go reduced as the inclines actually became steeper. My friend at General Motors, Mukesh Bhat, tells me that all their new models are tested at Ooty – and that particular stretch is where the clutch failures happen. So heeding advice from Guru ji, one pedal at a time, the slope was climbed. Celebration was again due at hair pin bend no. 1 – it was 1500 hrs and the end of the reverse hairpin countdown.

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Finally Hair Pin # 1!

The road continued a small way up and then you come down to join the road that you left at Madhumalai which meanders up to Ooty winding up 20 km longer. All had not been hunky-dory: our cycling speed was that of a walking person, tempers were short, the sense of humor vanished with the drudgery of the climb – but reaching the summit makes you forget all of that. Sweaters were got out from the support vehicle and we continued the journey into Ooty town. Google Weather had been giving us false data. Ground reality in Ooty was that the minimum was only 4 C. Having done a weight reduction exercise of eliminating sweaters and track suits, was looking forward to move into a blanket asap.

We checked into a guest house which required 100 m more of climbing and were pleasantly surprised to find a cosy house which allowed us to park our cycles in the dining room, had a great living room with a view of the valley and comfortable sofas to sink into.

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View from Guest house

The unpleasantness started soon enough though, when we found that we were probably the first occupants of this guest house. There was no pantry, no chai, no food, no towels and worse of all – no water. Vishwas, the Man Friday of the guest house, turned on the pumps and we were treated to water which was the dream of pregnant mothers – laden with nutrients like iron. After 1 hour of trying to clear pipelines and waiting for Vishwas to make an appearance with the towels, we decided that we should celebrate Holi in Ooty and had our baths with brown water. There were some feeble attempts to move into another hotel, but fatigue and outside cold made sure that all these discussions were restricted to only the armchairs sort. Next day morning walked around the hill. Farms on the hills are always terraced – I guess for water to settle down and reach the roots. What if we do not terrace but use drip irrigation?

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Hill Flora

By the time I finished my walk, the gang was all packed up and ready to check out. We had cycled past a few hotels the previous evening, and we decided to check in to Hotel Ponmari, who had a 4 bed room on offer, with complimentary breakfast. We bargained for two breakfasts and hotel management agreed. Cycles were parked at the hotel and being a rest day we decided to exercise a few other muscles as we sauntered to the railway station for a ride on the famed Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Enroute we sampled famous home-made chocolate of Ooty. Going by the number of shops selling home made chocolates, I could imagine that all that housewives in Ooty do all day long is to make chocolates.

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Charing Cross, Ooty

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Udhagamandalam aka Ooty Station

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Train chugging in to Ooty from Conoor. The Engine is at the rear end.

The timetable indicated a train to Conoor at 1210 hrs. We would take a bus back from Conoor to Ooty. The ticket counters open only 45 minutes before the departure of the train. Having reached early we were amongst the first in the queue. The first class ticket to Conoor is only ` 85, but there were none available, so we settled for the second class, saving ` 80 in the process! The difference between first class and second class only seemed to be in the color of the seat rexin and the position in the train. The first class is the last coach and had brown seats.

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5 Rupyaa main paisa vasool

The train is a meter gauge one and is quite interesting. Each row of seat has its own two independent doors. There are attendants outside of every coach, who will lock up these doors from the outside when the train starts moving.

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In addition these attendants also apply the coach brakes in steep descents, and look at engaging the pinions on the coach with the racks which are mounted on sections of the track with steep climbs.

Cellphone Cameras were continuously on as the scenery and stations shot by.

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Tea Garden

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Lovely Station

On reaching the third station, a brainwave happened. There was a 1240 train from Conoor to Ooty, which we should be crossing somewhere on the single line. We checked with our attendant and he said that this train was just going to cross at Aravankadu. He magnimously opened our door as the train stopped short of Aravankadu station and indicated that one of us could actually run ahead to buy tickets for that train. The gesture was appreciated, the run and tickets happened, and we switched trains to start our journey back to Ooty.

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On way back to Ooty

We reached Ooty station at 1330 hrs and after a quick light lunch hired a Tavera for some local sight seeing. First stop was Dodabetta peak, the highest point in the neighbourhood. The road was bad, the view good.

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View from Dodabetta

Next stop was a tea factory. Understood what is meant by CTC tea – Cut – Turn – Curl. The first machine is used to cut the tea leaves. Then you turn the tea leaves around to help them dry and then you curl them up in a fluidized bed dryer. The processed tea is then segregated through vibrating belts into various grades and sent for packing.

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Dryer at Tea Factory

Final stop was the botanical garden, which had a ticket which was valued at 6 times that of our train ride! Admired the flora on display.

Another observation was about our fellow tourists: cell phones are being replaced by tablets for photography. I guess there is better instant gratification of being able to see yourself in full bloom instead of the small buds that a cellphone has on offer. On the subjects of tourists, I asked our hotel wallah about the states that have the highest tourist share – and the reply – Maharashtra and Bengal.

We returned back from the sight seeing for dinner at the hotel: Guruji went in for a Kerala massage, Giri went to attend a meeting of the local Rotary club and yours truly tried out the complementary hotel gym. Post massage, we needled Guru ji to try the Thai-Land-Bang-Cock massages next time J. Sleeping next to the window in Ooty was not the best of choices, even with a blanket. I realized on waking up that one bed sheet on top of the blanket would have provided for added insulation. Everyone had used that strategy, and I realized that should have scored better in thermal engineering in third year to have learnt this application better.

The last day was what everyone was looking forward to. Who does not enjoy gravity assist mode? Started with a climb for about 2-3 km from Charing Cross.

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End of the climb stop for Bhushan and Ravindra

Then started fun. The photographer inside you sees more opportunities on downhills.

 

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We had a leisurely ride down – passing Wellington, home to Defence Services Staff College, the General-Admiral-Marshal factory of the Indian Defence Forces.

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Moved on to Conoor, where we managed to catch a glimpse of the steam loco driven train chugging into the railway station.

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Caught up with the racks on the tracks.

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Saw the infamous ‘urinating’ falls…

To cut a long ride short, took a leisurely 3 hours to come down 14 hair pin bends and 36 km. Celebrated the descent with butter milk and coconut water..

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Tak (Butter milk) at the end of the Ghat

We reached Mettipalyam, the starting point of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. The steam loco runs only between Mettipalyam and Conoor with a diesel loco being used for the Conoor-Ooty stretch. Lunch was at a restaurant in Mettipalyam and we had a guess-the-age-of-the-waiter competition. You can trust 67 year old Ravindra Joshi, to identify the 75 year old waiter’s age correctly. I think we are going to see more of this happening. The future will see all of us working at 75 – which given actuarial data, we have a 75% probability of reaching.

Afternoons are bad times for cycling. We made our lunch into a 7 course meal by ordering sequentially – but still after having outgrown our welcome we moved on at around 1400 hours. Giri saw an empty bus stop and looking at a closed shop on the other side decided that the shaded verandah was the perfect place for a power nap. Yours truly had a nap on the bus-stop itself. On waking up found Guruji and Ravindra Joshi had already left. Refreshed by the power-naps and comforted by a sun which was lower on the horizon, sprinted at 20 kmph and managed to catch up with Guruji in an hour. Coimbatore’s industrial area start well before the city starts. We passed a lot of textile mills, Pricol (Precision Instruments Coimbatore) which manufactures speedometers et al. Tirupur – the garment capital of India – is relatively close to Coimbatore. From then on there was a gradual descent so we reached Coimbatore by 1700 hrs. Srilakshmi Hotel, where we stayed, is located on the MG Road equivalent of Coimbatore. Found a sale of Tirupur manufactured export rejects, and bought 600 grams of T shirts at ` 460 per kg. Visited Banana Slices, and bought 4 varieites of chips. Visited the local market and bought 4 varieties of Banana.

Coimbatore railway station is a very well designed one. There is a single underbridge which leads to all platforms. Underbridges are always the better options for pedestrian traffic in railway stations. It is easier to climb down 10 feet than it is to climb up 20 feet – but it beats me as to why this logic does not appeal to the railways.

We booked our cycles at the luggage office for the journey back to Pune the next morning. More adventure was in store as we reached the hotel: Ravindra Joshi’s pouch containing his train ticket, credit card, cash and PAN card got lost somewhere on the journey to the railway station. Something similar had happened with my father-in-law and the TTE had advised us then that if we had a Police FIR we would have saved ourselves a penalty. So Ravindra saab spent an hour at the police station – and with the help of Guruswamy – Giri’s business associate in Coimbatore – he got issued a receipt of the complaint – but not an FIR.

Next day we reached Coimbatore station. The same train which starts from Mumbai immediately returns back. The train was late by half an hour. The coach staff closed the doors and got on to the cleaning job right on the platform. We said our good byes to clean Tamil Nadu and its paid toilets. I remember coming to Coimbatore in 1988 as an engineering student, and being surprised by the fact that you had to pay to give. But as they say in the hospitality industry – it’s all about the ambience!

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And gentlemen, this… is a public toilet..

The FIR strategy worked partially – the TTE allowed the seat to be reserved for Ravindra, but he had to buy a new ticket. An enterprising catering staff member managed to get it from one of the stations – and the TTE upgraded the ticket to a reserved 3A one.

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Back to Pune!

On the way back Giri became my Guru and Coimbatore-based-Jaggi-Vasdev style discoursed on life. Giri’s own company, Ferrocare, is today a world leader in electrostatic oil cleaners Most of the world’s pump, turbine and engine manufacturers use mechanical filters in order to clean the lube oil circulating in their sumps. But particle sizes that can be filtered out using mechanical filters are still large enough to impact clearances between piston and cyclinder or turbines and vanes. Result is high wear. Using electrostatic cleaners the engine life can easily double. I wonder why cars so not have one?

As we passed another spiritual destination enroute to Pune – Prashanti Nilayam – Giri shared with me what his dad had shared with him: Always marry your daughters into a family whose standards are higher than yours and vice versa for your sons.