Cycling in Goa, Day 3: Into the Western Ghats to Dudhsagar Falls in Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary
The day before, we’d hopped back on our bikes and headed out to the nearby and utterly stunning Savari Falls. We stepped across the clay thresholds of villager’s yards, over zen-like babbling brooks, and around round boulders. The water fall was modestly tall, and fell into an emerald pool surrounded by shady forest.
How would Goa’s famous Dudhsagar Falls compete?
On paper, at 600 metres it is India’s second highest water fall and – since it is located in the southeast corner of Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary – is not accessible by private car or tour bus. Instead, visitors can view the falls from a monkey-habited railway bridge that passes over the top third of it; pay for a ride in an over-sized tourist jeep (that thrashes across stream beds and chews up 12 kilometres of delicate dirt road); or ride a bicycle, as we did.
According to The Rough Guide to Goa, the Sanctuary “encompasses 240 square kilometres of semi-evergreen and moist deciduous woodland, peppered with clearings of parched yellow savanna grass and the occasional mud and palm-thatched tribal village.”
To reach the sanctuary and the falls, we’d cycled increasingly rolling roads that separated the hardy cyclists from the less experienced. I (addressed as “Madam” by the group, even though I kept telling them to call me “Uli”) rode with the two “uncles,” Pravin and Tapan. We were slower than the Pune quartet and a few others half our age, but ahead of a trio of Mumbaikars who hadn’t quite mastered their Grip Shifts on the uphills.
Pravin had become “Hardcore Uncle” as the news of his 550-kilometre solo bike journey in Kashmir spread. Tapan became “Dancing Uncle” the previous night, after he’d jumped to the dancefloor during the live entertainment, assumed the pose of a cobra, and challenged all the other men to a dance-off. Tapan rode slower than myself (due to a ten-year old heart attack, a cigarette habit and repeated cellphone conversations with his family where he reassured them – falsely – that he was not cycling and had climbed on the back of the the support scooter).
Together, we pedalled and coasted, stopping frequently for chews of fresh-cut sugar cane; candy hand-outs to road workers’ children; and plenty of photographs.
Pravin and I often rode two abreast on the quiet country roads. He didn’t speak much English, and I don’t like to chat while I’m cycling, but every now and then we’d look over at each other and smile with the beauty of it all.
“Like prayer,” he said as we pedalled a meditative cadence, our wheels rolling over the smooth asphalt, the warm air blowing scents against our faces.
Baby heads and bored-looking passengers
It was mid-afternoon by the time we gathered on the stony shores of the river that separated our group from the entryway to Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary. The water was clear and not deep, and the Pune cyclists put on a good show when – with rucksacks on their backs – they attempted to cross it by pedalling. I knew from experience that you can’t cross a body of water on a bike unless you throw it into your granny gear, pick the shallowest section, and keep pedalling. They didn’t.
I kept my Airwalks on, hoisted my bike’s saddle onto my shoulder, and waded across. One by one each cyclist used his own methods to get across and we paused for congratulations and more group pictures on the other side. Then, a “whoosh” made us turn around.
An over-sized tourist Jeep packed with day-trippers slammed down the bank, into the clear water and out on our side, dripping wet and churning mud. The passengers looked cramped and slightly bored, and I guessed they were also congratulating themselves – for the eco-excursion that they’d they were enjoying after driven for several hours to get here.
After they passed, another all-terrain vehicle entered the river, and then another, then another. A few stragglers in our group got a soaking, and one vehicle even honked a cyclist out of his way, as if he were navigating a tight turn in downtown Mumbai.
Once the vehicles had passed, I felt that the road to our camp was – as we say in MTB-speak – a little gnarly. Those sections that the SUVs and Jeeps hadn’t chewed into sand, were deeply creased with hardened ruts. Sometimes gravel competed with “baby heads” (round stones) to throw our tires off, and often the steep slopes barked under our tires, refusing to give them grip.
With my background in mountain biking, I was feeling a little cocky and self-important on this off-road component of this ride. I pulled out my camera to attempt a rolling self-portrait when the “ding dong” of a bicycle bell made me look up. A young guy in a white shirt and flip-flops coasted by with a friend straddling the hard metal surface of the back carrier rack. He gave me a smile, rang his bell again, and pedaled past. Humbled, again.
Singing and dancing in a moon shadow
Our night’s accommodation was humble but exclusive. Similar to “base camp” in Panjim, we were to spend the night in military-style canvas tents with thick wool blankets carpeting the ground, but we were a mere kilometre’s walk from the famous falls.
At our campsite, cooks squatted beside small fires in the burlap-walled cook tent, and we riders squatted over dug-out holes in the canvas-walled latrines. As usual, my primary concern was my skin. I had a seriously bruised bottom from the hours of riding, but more importantly, I was covered in an oily, dusty layer of sweat, suntan lotion, and road dirt.
Dipti and I looked around. “Where do we wash?” I asked our camp leader. He motioned past the cook tent. The river.
We grabbed towels, soap and flashlights and followed a trail towards the sound of water. We were far away from a city and so a dark drawer of sky shook stars out across the tree tops. The moon shone bright and clear over our heads and when I looked down I could see my shadow as clearly as if it had been cut out of black paper.
“I’m being followed by a moon shadow,” I sang to Dipti, “Moon shadow, moon shadow.” She probably didn’t know Cat Stevens, I thought – too young and too long ago. We reached the bone-white boulders and positioned ourselves out of sight of each other. From the corner of my eye, I watched to see how her outline managed the task. She stepped into the shallow river in her t-shirt and tights and lowered herself in the soft water. I did the same, but without clothes.
After dinner, I snuck down to the river to catch another glimpse of the moonlight. As I got closer yelps and songs and laughter mixed with the burble of mild water cascading over stones. A half dozen men were there, taking their turns at a bath. They wore only their underwear and shrieked as they lowered themselves belly-down into the water.
Unlike the reflective silence that we two women observed, they splashed and played. From the first night of our trip, I’d noticed the instant camradarie that they all shared. Because they were Indian, they were like family. Their playfulness, laughter, music and lightness set the tone, and I thought how unlike they were from groups of men I’d been with in North America . Here, the men of all ages were – boyish. They unselfconsciously loved to dance and sing and hunt snakes and chase fireflies and play. It was pure and joyful.
At lights out, Dipti and I spread out in our roomy tent while the men joked and tussled in theirs. Someone turned on a radio and sad, thoughtful Hindu songs joined the sound of cow bells and crickets in the warm night air. A few voices sang along with a refrain, and I thought how empty the night would seem without their songs to fall asleep to.
< Day 4 (coming soon)