Thoughts of cycling in India probably conjure up images of intensely congested streets, teeming with all modes of traffic and sharing limited space with free range animals- a reasonable or enjoyable holiday activity? India is the world's second most populous country, where bicycles are frequently the only available transport for people and produce, often over laden with both. Rarely is cycling for recreation or sport and helmets are hardly used.
Like many experiences in India, realities emerge far from common misconceptions. Our adventure in south western provinces was a delightful and unforgettable experience, providing rich appreciation of life away from the cities.
We chose two back-to-back 6-day guided tours, offering a variety of upper quality accommodation, distance options to suit our abilities, our own all-time support vehicle and on-road cycling guide.
Two 60-plus kiwi cyclists provided a rare sight for locals and bikes stacked onto the SUV roof also attracted much interest.
Our first outing in Goa had temperatures soon into the 30's, although cycling in idyllic countryside past mango farms and through quaint little villages, fortunately close to the coastline with many opportunities to cool off in the surf.
Drivers around us sound horns incessantly, typically assumed by tourists to be in defiance or annoyance. In reality "tooting" of horns is most frequently for safety, used to heighten awareness of other traffic, which for cyclists is civilised by comparison to unpleasant experiences amongst aggressive motorists in New Zealand.
Fort Tiracol, an eighteenth century Portuguese bastion set high on a remote wide river mouth headland, was our first overnight. Converted into a boutique hotel, it commands breathtaking views along the coastline. Our spacious room was furnished traditional Portuguese style and we dined by moonlight on the roof-top terrace enjoying delectable brushatta, light-fried kingfish with rice and curried prawns, cabbage and beans, Goa-style quite unlike typical Indian fare at home.
Next day our 80km route started gently but finally climbed for 12km to Wilderness Eco Lodge in the Chorla Ghats, a mountain range stretching through several provinces. The winding incline was through native bush with occasional spectacular views of valleys, lakes and mountains. Here the SUV provided a welcome travel option.
Day 3 ride over 60km descended onto quiet roads through undulating countryside and small villages towards Casa Sausugad, a superbly refurbished colonial villa, with authentically furnished spacious rooms and a swimming pool terrace amongst lush tropical gardens.
We began to appreciate the historic wealth of India which attracted aspiring invaders centuries ago, bringing soldiers, scholars and merchants, influences which remain obvious today in a sophisticated tapestry of colours and styles.
Each day brought new sights and experiences. Standout was a 400 year-old countryside Portuguese-influenced mansion, still in the ownership of its original aristocrat family, steeped in rich history, decorated with impressive artworks and intriguing artefacts. Another was sightseeing in the Old Goa section of Panaji, visiting the sombre Basilica de Bom Jesus, housing the sacred remains of St Francis Xavier.
This tour ended on a ride that swooped down into the coastal settlement of Bogmallo, where the wide sandy beach is dominated by impressive headlands and our imposing beachfront hotel amongst a forest of palms. From here we flew south into Kerala, the southern-most coastal province. Arrival was in Kochi and our first night on the second tour was at Tower House, another elegant Portuguese-style former residence, located in a quaint historic suburb bordering the outer fringe of the harbour.
From here we rode south for 45km alongside continuous beachfront, shaded by coconut palms in the morning sun. Roadside onlookers were very friendly, calling hello and waving, asking our names and ages.
This day finished at a traditional Keralan home stay, a 300 year-old homestead with single-story chalets. Meals were home-cooked to perfection- lunch was rice, curried shark and vegetables and the afternoon included a local cooking lesson. Dinner was chicken marinated in a paste of ginger, garlic and chilli, accompanied with fresh sardine curry.
The next day we headed to Emerald Isle, a 150 year-old villa, accessed across an inland waterway in the Kerala backwaters. Tourist houseboats chug past and later we canoed along a canal amongst jungle-like surroundings which abruptly became rice paddy fields stretching to the horizon.
Final highlight was Kumily, a town 1400m up in the mountains, beyond tea plantations that drape like sculptured bright green carpets over the hills. Our hotel was adjacent to Periyar Tiger Reserve amongst forest clad surroundings and a tranquil sprawling lake. For most who visit India, tigers are now rarely spotted.
India is a vast and varied land of remarkable contrasts- natural and built environments, scenery and wildlife, history and traditions, beliefs and cultures, cuisines to savour. Our India adventure exceeded all expectations and regularly dispelled misconceptions. Cycling though the natural environment heightened the unforgettable experience.