This one has a special ring to it. I mean I never knew that I or my MTB could do it. The to and fro journey was to be over a whopping 1400 km.* and overall kind of terrain, including hills and valleys. There would be dirt tracks and granite blasted towns like Kabrai in Uttar Pradesh ( U.P. ). To top it all there would be forests all along the way, including the famous Pench Tiger Reserve bordering Maharashtra.
I had already been to Khajuraho and that would be the same road to take down to Pench Tiger Reserve, in Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh (M.P.), Central India. The time to start would obviously be in the winters. My plan included strapping in all the spares I could muster for the MTB, some woolen clothing, and the usual clothing requirements. The stay would have to be mostly in roadside dhabas or if none could be found lodges and hotels.
Dhaba :- A unique Indian roadside night halt motel, usually catering to truckers. The food is good and you get a cot to sleep under some kind of shelter. Bedding may or may not be provided. They don’t charge for lodging as most guests depart the next morning.
The idea was to avoid town noise and pollution and soak in the forest/countryside aura. On the plus side, dhabas don’t charge any money for stay, but you have to keep up with the din created by liquor-soaked raucous truck/lorry drivers in the evenings and nights. This was not the case about a decade back, but successive State governments in India have caved in to the liquor lobby and most roadside dhabas are now like roadside bars. Besides lodging, the cycling itself would be restricted to daylight hours, with evenings and nights being rest hours. After daylight traffic becomes dangerously rash in the highways here, and it’s best to avoid it altogether.
My journey started on the 15th December 2017 and my first dhaba stoppage was near Kabrai, the nights were unusually cold around 2-5° C. Cycled fast through the granite town of Kabrai next morning but had to stop to clean the bicycle again. The road was brutal as there were repairs being carried out on it, with diversions going through some very rough tracks. Zoomed on beyond Chhatarpur to reach a roadside dhaba 20 km. after crossing Chhatarpur. I was offered a cot and had a wholesome dinner, but there was that familiar whole night liquor-soaked din, was too tired to care and slept through it. The next morning I had chai ( tea ) samosa at a roadside shack.
Sorry about the picture quality, my smartphone isn’t actually world-class. Roadside chai samosa shop with the owner’s son and his help bending to clean the utensil.
I had a nice chat with the shack owner, and am posting the pic cause I do fondly remember our convo. The trip onward had some pretty steep hilly tracks and irritably there were the familiar road repairs; I was completely plastered in red sand that was all over the roads being repaired, spitting it out as it seemed to fill my innards. To make matters worse there were wild monkeys at the roadside baring their fangs if I strayed too close. The hills were full of dense forests. The gradient of roads was around 50-60° in some parts. This stretch is not for the novice cyclist. Finally, I did make a stop at a roadside dhaba just ahead of Batiyagarh, a hilltop town.
My beauty aka MTB resting in the roadside dhaba near Batiyagarh.
The next morning, the road from Batiyagarh branched off into forest hills of Damoh district, M.P.. The journey was more relaxing as there were no wild animals to be seen throughout the hilly forest stretch of Damoh. Which in retrospect was a bit of a mystery?
Roadside chai samosa shack in Damoh, it seems to be on a plateau.
I had to climb somewhat after this but it was nothing compared to what I had gone through, and on this leg, there were some pretty steep downhills, with one particular section where I went like 60-80 kmph.* using the brakes intermittently. All in all, this was a good leg. There is a lot of mining and quarry work in this district but I found little traces of pollution spilling on the roads. Damoh has a big industrial cement plant which goes by the name MyCem.
* kilometres per hour
Ore being carried in suspended containers, they make some noise as they move. They go into the cement plant of MyCem. Damoh district, M.P.
The town of Damoh itself turned out to be a disappointment, as it was the same dusty smoke-filled traffic chaos as any other town I had gone through, I crossed it in the afternoon and stopped at a roadside dhaba about 20 km. from Damoh town. I experienced the same din and noise but slept through most of it. I took off the next morning and then hit the North-South Corridor also known as the Srinagar-Kanyakumari highway, one of the longest highways in my country. Covered about 110 km. and put up in a cozy roadside hotel Gagan Palace, Rajmarg, Kareli. Took off early morning, the 20th Dec 2017 for Lakhnadon, a dry forested hilly region.
This is the hilly shrub forest track near Lakhnadon town, in Seoni district, M.P., it’s a dry region but roadside dhabas have enough beverages and food to last one by.
Here, it is hotter than the previous route and I had to take off my woolens to make myself comfortable. There are some pretty steep downhills on the way. You can easily clock 60-80 kmph on your bicycle, with intermittent braking. It may not be advisable to reach 100+ kmph if the bike is loaded down with luggage and you are clipped to the pedals.
However, the downhills didn’t last long and had to labor up hilly inclines again. The area was not safe for late evening travel, as there were hardly any villages or lodgings in sight, and I decided to take up lodging in a dhaba, 20 km. from Lakhnadon town.
Talabs or lakes near Lakhnadon.
Dhaba near Lakhnadon where I lodged up for the night.
This area had a dicey reputation and the dhaba was full of some very loud and very drunk locals as well as truckers even in late night. I didn’t get a good sleep and was relieved to get up early and leave by 5 am the next morning. It was the 20th of December, 2017. Incidentally, the whole area is a forest reserve, but I could hardly spot any wildlife.
The route was marred by road construction even on steep hilly inclines and the heat made it somewhat tough. I huffed and puffed on to reach the outskirts of Seoni town, did a quick reservation using the internet on my smartphone, zeroing in on a budget hotel in Seoni. The town is small and chaotic, as usual. However, the traffic police there was trying to enforce some discipline which was encouraging to see. People in my country keep criticizing the police for being ineffective but they themselves are quite unruly when it comes to keeping traffic discipline.
Seoni town also hosts the Chief Conservator office of Pench Tiger Reserve, the Reserve is 50 km. on towards the Maharashtra border. If anyone needs special permits to tour the reserve they can get it from this office. Hotels and lodges in Seoni offer tour services to Pench Tiger Reserve but they are quite expensive in my view. I had been to Kaziranga Wildlife sanctuary in Assam, a North East state of my country and the rates there were reasonable. The Pench Tiger Reserve suffers from exorbitant lodging rates, offered by private hoteliers and operators; and an off-the-track location. Locals told me that not many tourists come to visit Pench. The most popular tiger reserve in M.P. is Kanha Wildlife Sanctuary.
This was good news to me, any part that was not buzzing with camera-wielding tourists was going to be a relief as I would not have to worry about dodging crazy SUV drivers on my bicycle, once inside the reserve.
A prominent road sign about 40 km. from the Pench Forest Reserve. This highway goes all the way to the last town in the Indian peninsula i.e. Kanyakumari, 1761 km. from this spot.
The Reserve itself was breathtaking and teeming with wildlife. Roadsides were packed with wild monkeys. You can meet deer, wild monkeys, foxes and bison on the road itself. There were warning signs against feeding wild monkeys but truckers would do it anyway and hordes of wild monkeys sat by the roadside. Further up, there were road signs that warned of big cats straying on the highway which starts snaking through some steep valleys. Traffic was minimal and there were no cyclists on this road, except for the occasional crazy ones from Kanpur.
Pench Forest Reserve in the morning. The lower parts have some tribal villages. Higher up the hills, it’s all valleys and forests.
The lower part of a hilly incline. Notice that the forest is denser here.
The superb highway soon gave way to a hellish scenario, as I entered the Maharashtra border check-post. The road became so bad that it was almost non-negotiable for cyclists. This 20 km. stretch till the Turiya Gate of Pench was a killer and to top it all, it was a busy segment with trucks, motorbikes and wild monkeys snapping at my heels. The language spoken in these parts was a mix of Hindi and Marathi. I could make out that my chain had gone for good on this bad stretch and it was, in turn, screwing up my gear flywheel.
Stopped for breakfast in a roadside stall and learned that the Reserve has a good tiger population which often spills into adjoining villages and towns. There was also a tussle going on between the Forest authorities and the Highway ones. The Forest Department did not want the road repaired as they claimed that the traffic often kills stray wildlife. Hence, the hellish road. This was all bad news to me as I could make out that my entire transmission could blow up taking heavy punishment on this road. Learning that there were bicycle mechanics just next to the Turiya gate of Pench gave me some hope. The outlook for a budget lodging in or near Pench also looked bleak, there were just a few hotels and they were quite expensive.
Pench Tiger Reserve, Turiya Gate, you have to keep traveling about 10 km. inside the gate to reach the core area of the Reserve.
There was a buzzing bazaar next to the gate. I did show my MTB to a bicycle mechanic but he did not have the tools to open and service the gear flywheel. He told me the chain was OK, which was doubtful to me.
Inside the Reserve, expensive hotels and most importantly NO ENTRY for cyclists. Had to turn back.
The return leg of this journey will be posted in another blog, Mother Tour — Return Leg. Do check it out!