Bicycle tourism is making steady inroads into the international travellers’ Kerala itinerary
At nine on a summer morning, life in Cherukunnam’s irrigation canal is in full flow. Boys swoop in for a quick swim, women scrub clean the day’s washing, and fishermen await their daily catch. They all pause, stare for a second, smile and wave as our little crew of a British family and tour guide cycle past. Rigged in helmets and armed with sunscreen and water, we’ve forgotten grumbling knees and aching backs, to soak in the sun and life of rustic Kerala. The narrow road winds up to the Bhoothathankettu dam, twists along the Periyar, swings past Thattekkad bird sanctuary and climbs up the Ghats into the Aluva-Munnar highway. Conversations over lunch by the river, pit stops at points of incredible beauty, potholes, garbage and some rain have made our 40 km ride. “That’s the thing about bicycle tours,” says our host, and founder of Kerala Bicycle Tours, A. Thomas, “You can’t hide anything on two wheels. You see the bad, and the good.”
Bicycle tourism is making steady inroads into international travellers’ itinerary these days and Kerala looms large on their map. Kochi-based tour operators have branched into cycle tours over the last couple of years and bicycle-only tourism agencies have fast arisen. “Everyone’s looking for a different travel experience these days. People want to interact with the environment and meet local people on their tours, and there’s no better way to do that than on a cycle,” says Dibin Devassy, regional head of Art of Bicycle Trips, which organises several one-day Kochi tours and a 10-day Kerala tour. “Bicycle tours also let people determine the pace of their travel and their routes. It’s for those who love a little adventure,” says Ridhi Patel, who manages the international organisation Urban Adventures’ Kochi branch.
Most clients who opt for bicycle tours are from the UK, the US or Australia and are tourists who’ve done bicycle tours in several countries and now want to explore India options, observes Commander Sam T. Samuel, managing director of Kalypso Adventures, one of the earliest to start Kerala bicycle tours, back in 2002. Sam says his average clientele is over 40. “Our oldest was an 85-year-old man who cycled 500 km in five days and an 84-year-old lady who averaged 60 km a day.” Kalypso specialises in large groups, from 60 to 150 cyclists at a time, going on “experiential tours” that combine kayaking, trekking, bird-watching and camping with cycling. “Kerala is perfect for cyclists because each day the terrain and landscape changes from the seaside, to plains and uphill, through forests and plantations,” says Sam. Many of Kalypso’s tours have also been fundraisers for international or Indian NGOs, called “charity challenges”.
Another approach to bicycle tours looks at it as a personal, intimate experience of Kerala. “I take a minimum of two people, at most eight, at a time,” says Dibin. Their tours are designed to interact with locals and offer unusual, offbeat experiences. Their one-day Passage to India tour, for instance, cycles from Fort Kochi to Vayalar along the backwaters, and stops at a boatman’s family home. “The husband takes the cyclists from island to island on his vanji , and the wife makes us lunch. Tourists understand our lifestyles better this way,” he explains. Thomas’ bicycle tours, on the other hand, are themed tours. His most popular one has been the 10-day Spice Trail tour that serves both as an introduction to the State, as well as an understanding of spices.
The route goes through spice plantations, with plantation tours, stays or meals at plantation resorts in Munnar and Thattekad, down to spice-scented rooms for cyclists. A key factor in bicycle tours is the tour guides. While Ridhi finds local knowledgeable guides for her one-day trips, Dibin says he particularly trains his guides in the culture, history and local specificities of each route. Thomas believes that anyone who loves Kerala and its people could work as a tour guide, but his primary selection criterion has been humility. “If guides are humble and hospitable to guests, helping them out with their bikes and luggage on the road comes naturally.”
The other challenge has been finding routes with little traffic, for cyclists are often the least respected on busy roads. Sam is thus now exploring off-roading bicycle tours, while Thomas and Dibin say they’re looking for more off-beat ways to re-discover Kerala on two wheels.