Today was the first day when “events” intervened to change our plans. The day started in a chilly way, which was understandable as we were at 1200m. We were provided with an excellent breakfast, and then we were on the way. We intended to ride to Munnar and then on to Chinnar National Park. However, Satish warned us that the main road was being worked on and there was a “diversion”. We had not quite bargained for how significant a diversion it was!
After 4km we were redirected westwards and continued to follow the diversion signs. The road ran through tea growing country and we wondered about when the climb would start. However the road started to drop, not climb.
The story of the morning was of repeated really steep ups – often as much as 15% – followed by greater downs. By 11am we had climbed over 400m and overall had dropped from 1200m to below 800m . This is dispiriting for cyclists, as we knew Munnar was at 1450m and so each 100m we dropped was yet another 100m to climb (hopefully not all at 14%).
Eventually, after we reached the 4th and lowest “well this must be the bottom” point, we crossed a free flowing mountain river and started to climb. Paradoxically (and thankfully), the real climb was less steep than the smaller ones. We plodded up at about 7% along the side of a spectacular valley. The vegetation changed as we climbed, but this is jungle country which is largely uncultivated in any way.
Trekking is big in these hills, and there was the occasional rather up-market trekking lodges. We ignored them all and pressed on up the hill.
The heat of the day was upon us now and we drank water, ate bananas and (just occasionally) wondered at the ability of the human body to gain fitness reasonably quickly. It was just over a week since we had started this ride and we felt very different to that day we left Kanyakumari. Our legs pushed better, our thighs hurt less and we were getting accustomed to the heat. It is always the same on our trips. For the first week we never feel any better, never feel we will regain fitness and every small slope is a challenge. But we just have to get through it and then it starts to come good.
That is not to say we did not feel “bushed” by the time we hit the tea fields again. The views were hazy but, through the haze, were spectacular. We stopped beside a van where a man was selling freshly roasted cashew nuts – 100g for Rs60 – and indulged ourselves. They were also spectacular but in a different way to the view.
Eventually we hit the main road and had just 8km and less than 300m to climb to Munnar. We had already decided that the 15km extra (and quite a lot more arduous climbing) meant going on beyond Munnar today was not an option. So we found a small homestay with a man who wore his Christian credentials on his sleeve, but was charming and offered a room with hot water (bucket shower-esque) for a very reasonable price.
We showered and then venture out to the local highlight, the tea museum. This was a short cycle up a hill outside the town – but without panniers we hardly noticed the incline. The tea museum was very interesting. The original plantations were developed by the British in the late nineteenth century, and then passed to Tata Teas until 2004 when they largely pulled out and sold the business to a workers co-operative which continues to run the business today. 90% of the workers are shareholders (but some may own more shares than others of course). The film was a bit too promotional, but there is clearly some interesting history. Most of the workers for the plantations came from the lowlands of Tamil Nadu, but there is clearly great respect for the local tribes as well.
We then saw tea being manufactured, but not before we escaped a lecture from an old retainer who was supposed to be telling us how tea is made, but instead told us that green tea was a better cure for just about every illness than any modern medicines and that anyone who told us different was fooling us – and repeatedly told us that we were all fools. It was quite a performance, which the speaker thoroughly enjoyed (possibly more than the audience).
Then back to our room for tea, as the shadows lengthened and the temperature dropped. An extra blanket may be needed tonight!