I switch on the video camera with bleary eyes for my last video diary. The usual red light flashes to let me know it is recording. I’m sitting on the edge of a checked mattress with the usual stains I’ve come to expect engrained within the fibres. A couple of mosquitoes are circling me with intent. There is a commotion outside as a man selling pots and pans is escorted away by police. I look back at my camera and still the light is flashing. I get as far as “This is my last…” before emotion dries me up. I couldn’t speak. Choking down a sob I grab the camera and sweeping the room I notice the fact that I’m starting the last day in the same manner I did my first. Surrounded by kit. Just like me it looks a little older, sun blemished, and in need of a deep soak but it’s made it 14,900km half way across the world crossing 14 countries, in six months and two days.
There are only one hundred kilometers to go, meaning I’ll be in Chembakolli this afternoon. I should be celebrating tonight. I wonder whether in the heart of the jungle I will be able to? Who will I celebrate with? I don’t know anyone and who would be interested anyway? Passing through the jungle I haven’t been able to contact anyone for over a week. I worry about interrupting the schools education program and wonder how I will introduce myself if I visit the classrooms. What will I say? I can’t speak one word of the tribal language used in the area. I begin to question my motives for doing the ride. What it has achieved? Does anyone care?
For the 188th time I ram the kit into my panniers and drag my bike down the stairs.
Sitting outside the hostel with Shirley by my side I felt I needed to talk to her; let her know how I’m feeling. Will she and I find ourselves in this position again? Will she forget me now the adventure is coming to an end? I casually flick a bit of dirt off her handle bars, she looks so pretty cloaked in flowers. “This is our last day together. Our last adventure.” I run a finger along her top tube. I know every dent, every scratch, every curve, we have been through so much together, Shirley and I. She says nothing but I know she is listening. Her lack of outward emotion does nothing to deaden my own as I swung my leg over her for our last assault; the final leg of our journey.
The air in Mysore is rich with the smell of spices and herbs of the street vendors setting up shop. All creatures great and small came out to see us on our way. Workers knee deep in road waved and cheered as we cycled by. A gaggle of monks cheer and bow as the wind from Shirley makes ripples in their robes. Boys on their way to school on single speed bikes that are far too big for them race along side. “Mr, Mr” before dropping back. My constant companion, the swift, returns to surf my slip stream for a few hundred yards before flying off into the Maharaja’s Palace under the radiant blue sky.
After thirty kilometers a car stops and in faltering English a lady with a pea green and luminous pink sari says, “From Chembakolli” before draping a flower reef made of yellow marigolds round my neck. For the second time today I’m struck dumb and can’t say a word. I fumble to push emotion aside to allow the words out and eventually manage a pathetic, “Thank you,” but she has already jumped back in her car and is driving off in the direction I’ve come from hooting her horn and waving in the rear view mirror.
A few hundred meters on a group of monkeys sitting in the road show their teeth and hiss as I come closer but as I drive by they break out in a playful game of chase through the trees above my head. A large male sits with his knuckles on the floor shaking his head watching the white man cycling a bike looking like a horticultural show on acid through the open jungle. “Is this how people behave in Europe? How very uncouth.”
I’m beckoned over for tea by a group of men who take the opportunity to down tools and get some much needed rest and entertainment. As we sit on hand made stools round a table with each leg different lengths causing our tea to slosh from cup to saucer I imagine I’m Alice in Wonderland, or am I the Hatter? And who’s the March Hair? I saw no Dormouse; only a rat the size of a small dog. The men don’t speak English but this doesn’t stop them telling me their life stories in Kannada and me thoroughly enjoying the accounts.
I finish off my cup and sup what remained in the saucer. I’m torn; I want to stay and chat and savour the taste of tea on the road because I don’t want my journey to end, but at the same time I have the utmost desire to complete my task, get off my bike, and never cycle again.
I’m also worried about the next leg of my journey through the Kalakad Mundanthurai tiger reserve. Do I want to see a tiger or not? Of course I’d love to see the fiercest animal of them all, the most intricately beautiful, my favourite creature. All those people that have rubbed my nose in it for not having seen one yet when they have come across two or three still bugs me. I’d love to post a picture home of a real one after dressing as a tiger at the party in Goa. But now is not the time. Probably best to see them through a jeeps window rather than up close and personal.
I begin to see signs advertising the reserve. I’ve read that it has the highest concentration of tigers in any part of India, and that it’s common to see them prowling by the sides of the road that pass through the park. I start imagining what I would do if confronted by the two tonne beast. What if it has cubs that are hungry? Shirley shudders beneath me – I know she can feel it too.
With my heart beating and dry mouthed I make my way up to the park entrance. A very kindly spoken man with a well groomed white beard and kaki uniform instructs me that it’s too dangerous. I say I don’t mind and that I have to go through. A shake of the head and deep sorrowful eyes say, “No way”. He follows this up with “Tigers, elephants. Too slow” pointing at Shirley.
I look at my map and there is an alternate route. It’s about a 160km diversion. I’ll never make it too the school today. I hang me head, and let the exhaustion flow through my body. My hopes of arriving today have grown wings and disappear off with the parquets that are disturbed by the motorbikes revving their engines in the distance.
The motorbikes are driving through the park at a tremendous pace kicking up a dust cloud that follows in their wake. As they get closer I can make out four men – all riding in black leathers, with black helmets, tinted visas on black Royal Enfields. I’m not the biggest fan of motorbikes but these classic machines turn my head. They are sleek and curvy and exude testosterone. The most popular motorbikes in India and every westerners choice of machine for engine powered touring. They tear past and I return to analysing my map whilst spitting dust and expletives. The screeching of rubber grabs my attention as the bikes turn and accelerate back towards me. The scream of the engine subsides to a low chug as they pull to a halt by my side. The dust clouds catches up with them blinding us momentarily before passing on to trouble someone else. A visa is opened and a dust encrusted face is revealed. As he smiles his dust mask cracks and pearly white teeth light up his face.
“I’m Stan and this is your Royal Escort”.
I’m stunned, I can’t believe it. Who? Why? Where? What?
My questions have to wait.
Baksheesh is handed over to the park guard who takes it with the practiced flick of the wrist that has you questioning whether a transaction actually took place. With one bike on my left flank, one on my right, and two behind guarding the rear they guide me into the park.
My pupils are dilated as I search every inch of the undergrowth looking for Tigers. Stan pulls along side me and above the roar of his Enfield he asks why I look so concerned.
“How often do tigers kill humans?”.”
He replies that I don’t have to worry about tigers, I sigh with relief, “It’s the elephants you really need to worry about.” I remember the story of the tourist killed in Chembakolli one month previously. “But you won’t see them at this time of day.” With only slightly less anxiety I carry on.
Two minutes later the motorbikes hit the breaks and I run into the back of Stan’s making his already loose number plate fall to the floor. As he leans over to pick it up and pop it into his pocket I notice why we have stopped. Ahead of us in the distance they point to the herd of elephants by the side of the road on the left hand side.
“Problem,” he says wobbling his head from side to side. His three colleagues all mirror the wobble of the head enthusiastically – that pretty much means it’s serious. Great!
They form a huddle and I wonder if they are talking about there insurance and risk management policy towards cycle tourists.
Stan walks calmly up to me and states, “We’ve decided, you need to stay right and go fast”.
Motorcycles go fast, cars go fast, jeeps go fast. Shirley is a plodder, she doesn’t go fast. That’s one of the reasons I care for her so much. I bend over and ask if she thinks she can make it. Stan stands patiently and waits for me to answer. After a moment I respond, “I’ll give it a go.” Stan smiles again and flips his visa down again.
As we set off towards the elephants they look up and notice us, I imagine we’ve locked eyes and take up the challenge, like a completely skewed boxing match weigh in. Keeping to the right I put the pedal down. My lungs and thighs screamed in a harmony that would have been beautiful had I not been in excruciating pain. I passed by the elephants so closely that I could smell a freshly laid dung the size of a football that lay at the feet of one of the larger elephants. I imagined them turning and charging, small saplings crashing to the floor, stones jumping as the ground rumbled under their weight, the thunder as their rounded feet pound the earth. The motorbikes had accelerated on. I didn’t want to die, not this close, not now…..
As the undergrowth flew by a familiar noise caught my attention and as I look to my left I see four motorcyclists in hysterics. I look back and the elephants are still calmly grazing on the finer tips of the fresh bush.
“You should have seen your face,” they snigger.
“I wish I could have seen yours,” I retort.
As I leave the park and continue I am joined by more cyclists and motorcyclists, our number is increasing as is the number of flower wreaths round my neck. I am surprised by how heavy flowers can be as they pull me towards the earth. Gudalur is generally a very quiet area and the commotion brings people from their houses some of whom without reason grab there own bikes to join the procession. Poking fun at each other the convoy drifts on at a steady tempo only the motorbikes accelerate and brake rapidly showing their status amongst the other bikers.
Shirley is the centre of attention. Everyone wants to touch her, to flick the switches of her gears, stand on her pedals, stroke her flowers. But she is mine for now, I’m savouring every last moment.
As we pass an opening in the bush I can hear a regular drum beat in the distance and wonder if it’s my heart in my ears or the fast approaching monsoon? Within weeks this road could be like a river, the houses flooded, stock washed away.
I’m told there’s about a kilometer to go as we round a sharp bend. We pull out of the turn and I can see in the distance a huge crowd gathered. Children, men and women all dressed in colourful traditional dress, singing and playing drums. Another festival. It makes me smile as I wonder what it is in aid of this time. As I get closer the noise increases and I can see the drummers become more frantic in their efforts.
I can see their faces now. They are made up of mostly tribal people but there are others in western dress. When I get close enough to read the signs I see it is some sort of birthday they are celebrating. It seems strange to see them using the Roman alphabet. ‘Happy Birthday’, ‘Congratulations’. A little closer and I can make out my ‘Velo Love’ logo in the hands of every child. Some held it upside down, others on its side but there was no mistaking!! These people were here for me!!
In all the excitement of the journey I’d forgotten it was my 31st birthday – twenty years since I had first dreamed up the idea of cycling round the world to help people. I was greeted by a carnival of thronging bodies. School children danced and weaved, tribal leaders waved flags, local journalists shot pictures as mothers, fathers, visitors and workers drummed, sang, cheered, and held banners. I picked up a boy no older than six and placed him on the seat of my bike and we danced all the way up the red clay road through the tea plantations to the local school where cake was to be handed out to one and all.
As we arrived I could see the simple school has been decorated with more posters, signs and well wishes. I wanted to be articulate, to thank them for everything they have done, to tell them of my adventures, and to pass on messages from the children in England. All I could do was crouch down beside Shirley and cry. Tears of joy were rolling down my cheeks. I’d done it. I’d cycled fifteen thousand kilometers from England to India. I’d lived my dream.