As someone who had never visited Goa, I always thought of it as a beach paradise straddling wild parties on one side and quaint Portuguese-style houses on the other. But when I finally made my first trip to the state last year, it was completely devoid of Goa clichés. Instead of vegetating by the beach, I was going to be a part of the Goa Biking Expedition, a cycling tour organised by the Youth Hostel Association of India (YHAI). I knew the itinerary was designed to explore the relatively tourist-free areas of the state, and the prospect of exploring its forest trails over eight days clinched it for me.
On the morning before the kick-off, a friend and I reported to the Panjim campground by the Mandovi River, where we met our group of eight other riders. We spent the next day riding around camp and to nearby spots to get used to our 21-gear mountain bikes. It was only on day three that we set out towards our first campsite, the village of Assolna, 40 kilometres to the south of the capital.
We rode along smooth tar roads sighing at the beautiful fields of golden grass. Later that evening, we crossed over the River Sal on a ferry to reach Assolna to camp in a football field. The Goan love for the sport was on full display here. The evening was spent cheering the local team and dreaming under starry skies. If the day’s ride was an indication of how the rest of the trip was going to unfold, this was going to be a breeze.
Get a first-hand glimpse of the state’s love for football. Photo: Neelima Vallangi
My enthusiasm took a reality check the next morning when we took a tortuous, dusty ride along Sanguem, the mining belt of Goa. Dodging trucks was like a game along this route, but we soon found serenity in the embrace of rubber plantations, sugarcane fields, and finally, the moist deciduous forest around Netravali in southeast Goa.
Having reached our campsite, Tanshikar Farms, earlier than expected, two fellow riders and I snuck out to a nearby mess to gorge on local delicacies—rice with fried fish, kokum curry, and Goa’s favourite alcohol, feni. Sampling local brews is my preferred way of forging a friendship with a new place, and with every sip of the spirit I warmed up to this tiny state. Later that evening, we headed to Savari Waterfall located in the middle of the jungle. I went up to the top of the two-tiered fall and watched my friends frolic in the pool below. I was in Goa but the sound of the sea was completely obscured by the rumble of the falls. The serenity of that moment was soon lost: on my way back, a pack of dogs chased me, and my only thought was how to avoid falling off my cycle.
On the fifth morning, we were at the sacred Budbudyanchi Tali or the Bubble Lake at Gopinath Temple in Netravali. The lake derives its name from the mysterious bubbles that surface on the pond whenever someone claps. Sceptical, I clapped my hands; but to my surprise, the lake’s surface started bobbing. I clapped harder in disbelief, and more bubbles appeared.
Riding across southern Goa, participants get a chance to admire the state’s coastline on long ferry rides. Photo: Neelima Vallangi
Later that day, we pushed our cycles through a knee-deep stream just before the entrance of Bhagwan Mahavir National Park. A nine-kilometre ride on a stony, uneven jungle trail pushed our bikes’ suspension to the limit, but it also ensured that I fell in love with the mountain bike and off-roading. Deep inside the forest that evening a melodious whistle echoed through. Minutes later a new tune, eerily similar to a human whistle, filled the air. Could this be a bird? It wasn’t until a few hours later that I discovered that it was the call of the Malabar whistling thrush. I lost a bit of my heart to Goa, every time it threw me a surprise like this.
Over the next two days, we rode through more jungle trails, marvelled at the 13th-century Mahadev Temple at Tambdi Surla, the oldest in Goa, and camped next to a stream exchanging ghost stories after dark. The last day, however, put an end to this dream ride in the most brutal way possible. Searing heat, heavy traffic, and blaring dance music from a cruise boat on the Mandovi River welcomed us to Panjim.
Yet, I was elated that Goa had let me in on its little secrets. Enamoured with its forests, I took the train back to Bengaluru from Madgaon—it passes through the national park and right over Dudhsagar Falls. As the train chugged through the dark tunnels of the Western Ghats, I gained an important insight. Sometimes the most obvious destinations have the best surprises.
A large part of the cycling expedition passes through the forests of South Goa. This leg of the journey, with muddy trails and knee-deep streams, is quite taxing and puts riders and bikes through their sternest test. Photo: Neelima Vallangi
Arrival and introductions. Quick lesson on how to use a mountain bike. Practice ride and a trip to Panjim.
Flat route with minimal elevation
Ferry ride from Dona Paula jetty to Mormugao Harbour. A short, steep ride to NH17. Cycle along the coast. A ferry-ride across the Sal River to Assolna.
Ride towards Netravali in the Sahyadris. Part of the route goes through the Sanguem mining area. Final stretch is lined with beautiful sugarcane fields and rubber plantations. Savari waterfall, (10-km ride and 30-minute hike) in the middle of the forest, is close by.
Netravali-Dudhsagar Falls (60km)
Steep climbs with uneven terrain
The route goes past beautiful country roads and forests. Hike three kilometres to see the majestic Dudhsagar Falls.
Dudhsagar Falls-Dhargem (35km)
Mix of uneven and flat terrain
A trail inside Bhagwan Mahavir National Park. After the initial 20km of rolling terrain, the last 15km is flat to the campsite at Dhargem. The 13th-century Mahadev temple is nearby.
Steep climbs and heavy traffic
The route goes via Bondla Forest Gate to Marcel town. Then, a ferry to Old Goa to visit the Basilica of Bom Jesus. Finally to Panjim through heavy evening traffic.
Final goodbyes before heading home.
The Goa Biking Expedition is an eight-day, 250-km trip through the interiors of Goa. The ride is organised every year in December and January by Youth Hostels Association of India (www.yhaindia.org), and costs ₹3,600 per person. Book well in advance.
YHAI provides geared mountain bikes, helmet, rucksack, and tents at campsites. A local guide and mechanic accompany the group of 10-15 riders, on a motorbike. Meals are simple but delicious. Toilet tents are provided where possible. Don’t expect anything beyond basic facilities at campsites.
It is important to be physically fit, as there is 40-50km of cycling each day. Prior experience with a geared bike is helpful but not mandatory. The tour is open only to YHAI members; however, membership is easily obtained for a ₹150 fee.
Appeared in the September 2014 issue as “It’s About The Bike”.
is an itinerant freelance travel writer and photographer who enjoys purposefully getting lost in the mountains and going to faraway corners where Google Maps fail. She tweets as @i_wanderingsoul.
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