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Tour of Andaman_19 - An epic cycling tour from Port Blair to Diglipur, 337 km (209 miles) over 6 day

Updated: Dec 2, 2019


Suresh refused to wash off the mud, sportingly posing for photographs! :) (PC:Suresh)
Suresh, the mudslinger! This photo sums up the road conditions on this tour superbly! -

Day 1 - Tour of Andaman (Port Blair to Baratang): Carb Loading Day

Sunday September 15, 2019

The Andaman and Nicobar islands are an archipelago of about 572 tropical islands,set far to the east of mainland India in the Bay of Bengal, with the Andaman Sea separating them from Thailand further east.

Andaman islands are a group of Indian islands in the Bay of Bengal

Aerial view of the beautiful coral fringed Andaman islands

Emerald Andaman Sea

A Social Enterprise called Team Parikrama from Bangalore, consisting of a group of idealistic young men and women in their early twenties, decided to organize a supported cycling tour in these islands for the first time in the islands' history!This team generally promotes outdoors activities among the youth and contributes towards education of girl-children. Having lived here for quite a while, my husband Partha and I decided to sign up for this as soon as we heard about it on Facebook. The tour was being supported by the local Andaman Chamber of Commerce & Industry which helped with the riders' accommodation, and the Chennai based Probikes, which provided rental bikes that they shipped over all the way from Chennai as there is not much of a cycling culture in the islands yet.


Hotel Diviyum Manor in Port Blair - the assembly point for all the cyclists (P.C. Neeraj)

The inaugural session of the Tour of Andaman, with the president of the ACCI as the Chief Guest (P.C. Neeraj)

Dhiraj, the brains behind the Tour of Andaman, and Rajkiran, the present President of Team Parikrama(P.C. Neeraj)

So, on 15th Sep, 17 cyclists and 8 volunteers from the organizing team set off from Port Blair, which is the capital of Andaman & Nicobar, to Baratang in Middle Andaman, in a bus!! The reason being, this route passes through a highly restricted reserve forest for the indigenous Jarawa tribe, and nobody is allowed to pass on bicycles or two-wheeler through this reserve forest. Even 4-wheeler are allowed to pass only in convoy,four times a day, with police protection. Everyone is forbidden to interact with the tribals or take their pictures.

The bikes were loaded on a truck, and there was an additional SUV as a support vehicle.

One of the three support vehicles, with our bike carrier. My hybrid has already been loaded while Partha's Trek is being seen to.(P.C. Neeraj)

We started from Port Blair at 12.30 pm and caught the 2.30 pm convoy from Jirkatang. There was much excitement in the bus as we spotted some Jarawa men and children in the edges of the dense forest. Then we took a vehicle ferry over to Baratang island and reached our hotel (Coral Creek Resort) by 5 pm. Riders assembled their bikes and did pre-ride checks, in preparation for the next day's ride.

 

Day 2 - Tour of Andaman (Baratang to Rangat): Rainy day with slushy and gravelly roads!

Monday September 16, 2019, 73 km (45 miles) - Total so far: 73 km (45 miles)


Rainy morning at Baratang

We woke up the next morning to a continuous steady rainfall - the type that can go on and on! The start time was supposed to be 7 am, after a sumptuous breakfast at the hotel's restaurant, but it was slightly delayed in the hope that the rain may stop or slow down at least. After consulting the riders, a decision was taken to start the ride in the rain instead of waiting indefinitely. Most people had some kind of rain jackets or ponchos and we started off!

Starting the tour in the rain(P.C. Neeraj)

Half the riders didn't bother with rain protection!(P.C. Neeraj)

The route was very simple - there is only one Andaman Trunk Road (ATR)! So in case of confusion at a bifurcation, the riders were told to ask any local which the ATR was. The three motor vehicles were distributed such that one was in front, one behind the last rider and the SUV was used to provide any assistance to riders, in case of injury or fatigue.

The road was full of gravel, and potholes, because the highway is being relaid and this is a long-term plan. Right now, most of the ATR has been dug up for this, all the way to North Andaman, making the road journey a nightmare for the local people. But cyclists being crazy, everyone on the team rode ahead with full enthusiasm!The terrain is rolling, which many of the riders from the mainland did not expect, with long stretches of steady ascent followed by rapid descents. But due to the potholes, we had to be very careful in the descents. The road may have been bad, but we hardly noticed it because the of the lush greenery surrounding us everywhere! Green paddy fields, tall padauk and other tropical trees, verdant shrubs, and the call of the hill mynas and drongos accompanied us. There was also very less motor traffic on this road, which was a pleasant surprise to the mainland riders. The local villagers and children were amazed to see so many people on bikes, and waved happily!(though I suspect privately they may have been laughing at us for riding in the rain on bad roads for no reason!)

Surrounded by greenery!(P.C. Neeraj)

It was 23 km to Uttara jetty at the other end of the island, which Partha and I reached in under two hours. There, we discovered to our surprise that most of the riders who reached earlier than or with us, were all above 40 and experienced long distance cyclists, while most of the youngsters in the group were novice cyclists. So we had a good break while waiting for the rest, and everyone indulged in a lot of photography!

Uttara jetty - waiting for the rest to catch up

Having fun at the jetty (P.C. Neeraj)

When all the riders had reached the jetty, we climbed aboard the next vehicle ferry (operated by the government) and went across the Middle Strait to Kadamtala in about 15 minutes. The Middle Strait is a narrow channel, fringed on both coasts by beautiful mangroves, and is crocodile-infested! A bridge is being built across this channel, which will make the vehicle ferry a thing of the past very soon.

All cyclists and volunteers aboard the vehicle ferry, crossing Middle Strait from Baratang island to Kadamtala (Middle Andaman)

Before deboarding onthe Kadamtala side

From the other side, we rode into and past Kadamtala, for a distance of 7 km. The road was marginally better than in Baratang. The last 500 mts was a steep gradient, which I managed to ride without getting off the saddle. Here again, we had to load our bikes onto the truck, because we were about to cross another reserve forest for the Jarawas. The police officer in charge gave us a briefing on the dos and dont's while transiting the reserve. No convoy system is followed here, but two-wheeler and cyclists are not allowed.

Gate no.3 of the Jarawa reserve where we had to load up our bikes onto the truck.

The Police officer in charge of the check-post giving us a briefing on the dos and dont's inside the Jarawa reserve. He was sweet enough to suggest places to visit as he knew most of the riders were visiting the Andaman islands for the first time! (PC:Suresh)

The whole team of riders and volunteers at the Police checkpost at Gate no.3. (PC:Suresh)

The reserve ended in another 25 km. Ironically, this segment of the road had good tarmac! About 5 km after the reserve forest gate, we got down to have lunch in a village called Kaushalyanagar. Team Parikrama had packed lunch in reusable hot-cases, and we used steel plates and spoons to eat, thus reducing the amount of trash generated. Water and electrolyte sports drink were also being carried in reusable 20 ltr cans, and not single-use plastic bottles. Since all the riders and volunteers had their own bottles and sippers, this was a very smart thing to do, environmentally speaking.

Water and sports drinks in reusable large cans. No single use plastic bottles were used during the tour. (P.C. Neeraj)

The local villagers told us that the road ahead was really really bad, and could not be ridden on. Since it was a big task to take down all the bikes from the truck and then have to load them up again after only a few kilometer, it was decided that Partha and I would ride ahead (because we were carrying our bike carrier attached to the SUV, so unloading and loading our bikes was much easier than for the rest of the people) and a couple more experienced riders would follow in the SUV, to see how bad the road was. We managed to ride another 5 km to Bakultala junction before the road turned into a river of mud! We called up the waiting people at the lunch point, and asked them not to bother taking down the bikes. The two of us squeezed into the SUV along with Thanmaya, Shailesh and Srini and went on ahead to our hotel in Rangat town which was 8 km from Bakultala junction.The night halt was at Priya International (it is just a transit motel and certainly is not 'international' in any respect!), where the older set of riders bonded over beer and food!

Bonding over beer in a seedy bar!


 

Day 3 - Tour of Andaman (Rangat to Mayabunder): Ride along the coast!

Tuesday September 17, 2019, 72 km (45 miles) - Total so far: 145 km (90 miles)

Today's ride was something everyone was eagerly looking forward to, as the route took us along the coast! The day dawned bright, with no rain and Rangat town's top police official flagged us off. A couple of kilometers down the road, the road disappeared! We were once again facing slushy roads, but since most of the riders were on mountain bikes, it was not an issue. I was on my hybrid, and another rider from Bangalore (Rahul) was on a roadie, albeit with thick tyres. The two of us took inspiration from each other and kept cycling!

Roads, where the going was very slow. The previous day's rain had made it worse.

(P.C. Neeraj)

Soon we encountered the most beautiful vista imaginable! The blue ocean with waves crashing upon black rocks on the right side, barely 5 meters from the road, and on the left side, was the usual lush green of the tropical forest!

The beautiful stretch of ATR along the coast, after Rangat, Middle Andaman (P.C. Neeraj)

Me riding along, trying to see the view while balancing on the slush! (P.C. Neeraj)

A small fishing boat moored near the mangroves(P.C. Neeraj)

Bad roads, but who's looking? All eyes on the fantastic coast!(P.C. Neeraj)

Everyone stopped to take photos and selfies, and soon we reached a picturesque picnic spot called Morice Dera, maintained by the Forests Department. More photos followed, and a group of tourists from Nagaland (in northeast India) wanted to take photos with us, whom we happily obliged. Many of the younger riders took a refreshing dip in the freshwater stream there.

Morice Dera - a picturesque picnic spot, near Rangat

A refreshing dip in the freshwater pool at Morice Dera!(P.C. Neeraj)

Partha, Rahul, Abhishek and Thanmaya at Morice Dera

The tourists from Nagaland with whom we clicked pictures! (P.C. Neeraj)

A beautiful Kerala style temple at Padmanabapuram

We were on our way soon, passing beautiful Kerala-style houses in Padmanabapuram, and a quaint temple.At one of the waterstops, Srini and I heard a sqawk very close where we were standing, and looked at each other, thinking the other one had made that sound. Then we noticed a snake with a frog in its mouth and realized that the sound had come from the surprised frog! We were thrilled to see such live action, and Srini went across the road to tell the others about it. I was watching the snake, and suddenly the frog jumped out of the snake's mouth and leaped away!! It was indeed a NatGeo moment! :)

Lunch was supposed to be served at Billiground, which was approximately the halfway point in the day's route. It was very hot and humid by now, and we wondered why we had prayed for no rain the previous day! About 7km short of Billiground, we had a choice of either taking a diversion (which would mean a longer but smoother road), or taking the main road where a bridge was under repair apparently. The forest guard at the diversion point told us that cycles could manage to go over the bridge which was being built/repaired. So seven of us (the over-40's gang) decided to take the latter option, and soon came across a mound of mud across a beautiful stream, which was completely occupied by a large land excavator! The roadwork foreman was very friendly, and stopped the work for enough time so that we could roll our bikes across, just about managing to squeeze past the excavator and not fall off into the stream. This was one of the most scenic places on the route, which we could enjoy thanks to the delay.

This was the so-called 'bridge', which was supposed to be passable on cycles! We had to squeeze under the right side of the excavator, hoping that we do not slide off the embankment. (P.C. Srini Swaminathan)

The over-40's club,trying to figure out how to get past the excavator! Or would we have to cycle back and take the diversion? (P.C. Srini Swaminathan)

The scenery beside the unfinished bridge! (PC: Srini Swaminathan)

We rolled into Billiground town, and stopped for lunch right opposite the Panchayat (local government council) office. Everyone washed the caked mud off their legs and felt human again! It was another great lunch, packed from the hotel, along with bananas. We stretched our legs well, and soon left to tackle the next 35 odd kilometers.

The road condition improved greatly, with smooth tarmac for most of the stretch. Suddenly clouds rolled in and it started drizzling, bringing great relief to the riders. The rain did not last too long, but it was enough to cool down the temperature

The stretch after Billiground had a lot of paddyfields and hamlets before the forests started. (PC Suresh)

Then the climbs started! There were short stretches of 8-10% average gradient, but thankfully the tarmac was better. It was bumpy at places, but by now we were happy to get anything other than slush! The scenery had changed to dense tropical evergreen forests on both sides, peppered with small hamlets and paddy fields in places. After passing Betapur and Nimbudera, we came across three of our friends Abhishek, Shailesh and Thanmaya resting at a culvert, next to a market place. We must have been about 15 km short of Mayabunder. We also stopped, and soon Srini also came along. Rahul, having found ride-able tarmac after two days, took the opportunity to finally make some good time on his roadie and had already gone on ahead. The six of us decided to have tea, and Srini managed to persuade a small tea-stall owner to make tea for us. He was reluctant as it was not yet time for them to start making tea, apparently! Faced with the prospect of selling six teas, he relented. While his wife was making tea, all of us took our mud-spattered bikes across to a manual car-wash facility across the road, and got our bikes washed!

The mud and slush got everywhere!(P.C. Neeraj)

After this longish rest stop (around 30 minutes), we proceeded towards Mayabunder, passing the Karen tribal settlement of Webi on the way. The road to Mayabunder forks off to the right, away from the ATR, and at the turn there is a steep incline! Another 5km on a fairly flat road took us to Hotel Sea and Sand - our halt for the night. The rooms are basic, but clean, and the food served is really good.


 

Day 4 - Tour of Andaman (Mayabunder to Diglipur): 50 shades of green!

Wednesday September 18, 2019, 94 km (58 miles) - Total so far: 239 km (149 miles)

Today's ride was one of the toughest, with distance being about 94 km , and a lot of climbing! On the other hand, the legs were feeling good by now, and we were used to the terrain and the rain and the humidity.The start was a little delayed, because the Police official who was supposed to flag us off reached a bit late. Started by about 7.30 am, and rolled out of Mayabunder to get on to the ATR again. Mayabunder is in Middle Andaman, and is separated from the North Andaman by Austin Creek. A bridge called Chengappa Sethu had been built across this creek years ago, so there is no need for a ferry. Most people stopped at the bridge for selfies and photographs but Partha and I rode on, for we'd just been to this place barely a month ago.

Chengappa Sethu bridge over Austin creek - crossing from Middle Andaman to North Andaman (P.C. Neeraj)

About 10 km into the day's ride, soon after crossing the Chengappa Sethu, Partha's chain broke! Much to his chagrin, we had forgotten to get the tools with us, and hence was forced to wait for the mechanic who was following somewhere in the back of the group. All our friends who had stopped for photos caught up but we asked them to move ahead. Srini refused, and stuck around to give company. It was a beautiful place to get stranded, surrounded by green tall trees, and small streams next to the road. We saw small minivets, scarlet minivets, racket tailed drongos and many kingfishers. Another rider Pavan even managed to get a lovely photo of the Andaman treepie, which we have not got a photo of yet!

The place where Partha's bike chain broke.

A tall lone padauk tree (also called the Andaman redwood), at the chain-break point.

A small minivet! We could see them flitting about in the trees while cycling. (P.C. Partha)

The volunteer bike mechanic Rajashekhar (from Probikes), was also riding that day, and stopped when he saw us. But unfortunately his tools were in the truck which was following the last rider! Anyway, the chain repair was done but it had cost us almost an hour of riding time.

Very soon, the road deteriorated again into deep slush, where we had to get off the bikes and push, even that was difficult as our feet were sinking into the mud that was 4-6 inches deep in places. Partha had been riding the entire tour in his flip-flops and many of us who had sniggered saw the wisdom in his decision!

I know this is repetitive- but the road was slushy!(P.C. Neeraj)

Partha rode the entire tour in his flip flops! :) (P.C.Neeraj)

No need for a caption! (PC:Suresh)

One of the riders Suresh fell onto the mud, and proudly did not wash off the mud from his face, hands and legs for a couple of hours! Srini, Partha and I caught up with Suresh, and Richard at Mohanpur, which is a small village that serves great vadas (deep-fried blackgram dumpling) and tea!

Suresh, the mudslinger! This photo sums up the road conditions on this tour superbly! (PC:Suresh)

Suresh refused to wash off the mud, sportingly posing for photographs! :) (PC:Suresh)

So after a refreshing break, we all took off again, hoping to catch up with the rest at least by lunch time. Another 30 km of slushy roads interspersed with some good tarmac, and lots of climbs, and we finally reached lunch point which was more than halfway across the day's ride. I fell gently to one side once, while negotiating a slushy road as the friction was too much for the tyre! Most people were exhausted because of the bad roads coupled with the humidity, and many riders decided to pack it in for the day. I felt like packing it in too, but wanted to ride till Diglipur town at least. Our stay had been arranged in a beach side resort involving a further 18 km of riding beyond the town center. After an hour of riding post-lunch,it started raining. At first it was a mild drizzle, but soon increased in volume till we couldn't see more than 5-6 meters ahead, and could not hear anything above the sound of the rain. We didn't want to take out our rain jackets as we would cook inside them, and anyway, the rain increased so fast that we were already wet through! As there was hardly any motor traffic on the road, we could keep riding in spite of the low visibility. The next stop we took was at the junction where one road leads to Diglipur while the other veers off to Kalighat and Rampur beach (which was the next day's planned ride). Most of the organising volunteers were waiting there with refreshments. There were a couple of teastalls selling hot sweet tea, which was very welcome to the wet and bedraggled lot that we had become. There was a public restroom too. The rain had petered out by now. After a 15-20 min break, we decided to tackle the next 25km up to Diglipur town.

Some nasty climbs!(P.C. Neeraj)

The remaining stretch had a few more short ascents and descents, and we encountered more traffic on the road than we had seen in the last 3 days. This segment is peppered with small villages, and townships, hence the increased traffic.On the way on one of the climbs, Partha's Trek's gear slipped while changing gears, and he sat down hard on the seat! He managed to ride despite the pain. As we rode into Diglipur, we were accosted with loud Bollywood music blaring from loudspeakers - it was the day of Vishwakarma Puja, a festival when people worship the God of technology. So we passed a lot of decorated tents with the idol of Vishwakarma, and each one trying to outdo the other in the decibel level!

Partha and I knew that the next 8 km from Diglipur to Aerial bay has smooth tarmac, and we did not want to miss out on smooth riding after the full day's suffering on bad roads, so we decided to ride all the way to the resort. Again we stopped at a teashop just at the outskirts of the town, and we called out to Suresh and Richard who were passing by. We had tea, and then the last leg was done with a sense of accomplishment.

Yay! Tarmac from Diglipur to Aerial bay!(P.C. Neeraj)