It’s over 300km from Agonda Beach to Hampi, which, according to the optimistic sat-nav is going to take nearly seven hours. With only a quick BB (banana break) for lunch and a petrol station it takes just over eight, and I’m not hanging about, often the best way to deal with these roads and drivers is quickly and by the scruff of the neck! Over the last week of day-tripping around Goa I’ve become a huge exponent of the BB. Bananas are the best fast food here; quick, nutritious and safe to eat from any vendor as they have their own sealed biodegradable wrapper, so they’re ecologically sound too, and most stalls seem to have them delivered by oxcart so zero carbon footprint! The trick is to find a vendor who is not in a built up area, unless you want to spend the next 30 minutes fending off children who want to poke, prod and play with everything on the bike, whilst answering questions to the throng of Indian guys who always immediately surround this new exciting arrival with the same questions: “It’s a KTM … made in Austria … no, not Australia, Austria, near Germany … no I’m not German … I don’t know how much it would cost to buy in India (too much) … It’s got a 23 litre tank … average fuel consumption is 5.2 litres per 100km … it’s displacement is 1190cc … yes I know that’s 10 times most Indian bikes … it’s top speed is not possible on these roads … etc”. It’s fun to stop and chat to locals if you’ve got the time, but with at least four hours riding left at 2pm, the sun setting in four and a half hours and no accommodation sorted it’s best to find somewhere quiet and uninhabited for a quick BB. A long lunch today will mean trying to find Hampi in the dark.
The road inland is particularly uninspiring here, a vast plain stretching in flat semi-desert to the horizon on both sides. The cross winds are ferocious, as clearly noted by the Indian electricity generating companies; there are huge turbine wind-farms springing up every few kilometres. The purpose built articulated trucks transporting the vast blades are a menace to everything, including themselves. The blades are, I reckon, over 50 metres long, each on a huge trailer with rear steering axles, something these truck drivers don’t seem to have got the hang of yet. I came round a corner to find a very expensive looking truck with a very, very expensive looking turbine blade on its trailer parked at a jaunty angle with the trailer’s rear wheels having steered themselves off the road and down a ditch. In true Indian-roads style they were trying to rectify the situation using some wooden logs to lever the enormous load back onto the road, I didn’t fancy their chances for success. They’re probably still there! This wasn’t an isolated incident, I saw a petrol tanker driver scratching his head having reversed into a ditch and got his rear drive wheels stuck in a 4-foot hole, grounding the rear axle, and the ubiquitous overloaded truck which had literally toppled over into a ditch at the side of the road, probably having swerved to avoid an opium / testosterone-high bus driver (yes, they really are that crazy).
Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site spread across about 20km² with Hindu temples and monuments dating back over 700 years. In that time a lot of tourists have come through, a fact not lost on the monkeys, organ-grinders, street traders, local “guides”, tat-merchants and vermin. The ancient buildings are spectacular, especially at sunset when the deep red sun catches the stone structures and changes their colour to orange-crimson – amazing. The village of Hampi is full of quaint bazaars that create the sort of charm and honesty that you expect from a cottage economy that relies on rich tourists (mostly from Indian cities such as Bangalore and Mumbai) turning up and buying authentic puzzle boxes, wooden back scratchers and hand-stitched leatherwear. It is full of trinket stalls and cheap guest houses, mostly in a fairly disagreeable state. I had run out of daylight when I arrived and having been dragged by some helpful locals “guides” into a couple of totally unpleasant corridors of doom with no lighting, hot water or proper toilets, I found the Balancing Rock guest house and restaurant. Two out of three isn’t bad, I can cope with hot water in a bucket and a jug to chuck it around the “en suite” wet room. And it has WiFi, and it’s opposite Hampi Roof Restaurant – I’m home!
The Balancing Rock management were good enough to order up a family of monkeys to have a fight / game of chase on the corrugated metal roof at 3am, shortly after the dogs had finished howling and just before the stray cats turned up in the alley outside my room to whine, meow and scratch around hoping to be fed on yesterday’s curry or to be cooked in tomorrow’s. And the black army of ants (for anyone who’s played Risk) invaded my washbag, continually. I’m not sure what they’re mission was other than to really annoy me! The combination of Hampi’s menagerie and the hardest mattress / pillow I’ve ever known ensured that sleep was out of the question. The next day I walked the full length of the Hampi shrines, temples, monuments and rock formations. Got some great photos, some enlightening views, an insight into rural Indian living, and two big blisters on my feet!
Indian culture can be a bit, how should I put this … weird. They are very proud of their remarkable heritage and ornate ancient monuments, they have spectacular natural forna and flora and stunning vistas, yet across the whole of this site at Hampi they have not a single litter bin. They discard anything and everything into the bushes, rivers and roadsides, it looks revolting but most people don’t seem to care. When I stopped for a BB I stood next to the little roadside stall, ate two small bananas and finished a bottle of water. I tried to give the empty water bottle to the shopkeeper, assuming he’d have a bin. He looked confused and threw it on the ground next to his stall with the other litter. Weird. I took a photo next to the stunning river Tungabhadra which runs through Hampi with local people communally washing themselves and their clothes in the river with a couple of cows grazing on the vast pile of stinking litter that had been discarded on the river bank. Weird. At the end of a long day hiking around Hampi I was the last person left in the Balancing Rock restaurant at 11:30pm. The two young waiters / kitchen hands / general dog’s bodies who actually sleep in the restaurant every night by piling a load of the cushions on the floor to make a nest were involved in one of the most unpleasant part of their job description. They had lifted the cover to the drains in the middle of the stone floored restaurant, the drain seems to serve as the outlet for the kitchen waste, and the waste from the guest rooms’ bathrooms and toilets which run off the alley behind the restaurant. Clearly the ancient Hampi drainage was not designed to deal with flushing toilets, toilet paper, kitchen grease (they fry a lot here) and food waste. So their regular late evening task is to lift the drain cover and manually decant the stinking, fetid contents of the blocked silt trap into a bucket using a jug (and no gloves). Then they carry the revolting bucket of bile down the ancient cobble paved street to the natural rivulet gully which runs to the Tungabhadra river and … weird.
I now have two promises to fulfil, one to visit Vasco da Gama’s tomb and house in Fort Kochi, the other to visit an orphanage on the way through Kerala. From Hampi to Fort Kochi is at least 1000km if I’m going to go via Kalpetta in Kerala to visit the orphanage, which is going to be 3 days riding on these roads. I take the scenic route South via Jog Falls. Apparently the longest / tallest waterfall in India used to be really impressive, but the Indians built a dam upstream to create a hydro-electric power station so there’s little more than a dribble coming over the rocks now, but lunch is good, some very nice policemen are fascinated by the bike, and the roads up through the hills to and from Jog Falls are amazing. Rich dark green foliage surround the tiny winding road, the diesel fumes from the main highways have been replaced by the sweet damp smell of monsoon drenched forest …Oops, sounding like a travel show again, but it really is that good! After Jog Falls I plot course for Udipi, I don’t know why, I saw it on some advertising for gold merchants and jewellers so I’m hoping it’s a reasonably nice town and I’m likely to be in that area by dusk. And talking to a group of well-spoken middle-aged Indian gentlemen in Jog Falls who hail from Udipi they assure me it’s a good place for a one-night stop over.
Hmm … Back in 2007 Leigh and I learnt to our cost that one should never assume what a place is like, always check the guide book. We were driving an old Fiat Uno across Morocco and on Christmas Day 2007 the Rif Valley seemed like a good idea, it was a direct route to the coast and looked like a scenic route with lots of countryside and mountain passes on the map. But the map doesn’t tell you not to go there without a guide, or maybe even not at all. The map doesn’t mention that the Rif Valley is the notorious Hash growing region of Morocco, the whole area being controlled by drugs gangs; there is no law enforcement to stop the crazy armed men in big Mercedes from trying to run two English guys in a crappy Fiat off the road at gun point. That poor Fiat never knew it could take mountain passes so fast. We survived, just. At least Udipi didn’t try to kill me, and the thirty-three million Hindu Gods were still doing their thing with the bloody insane truck drivers.