The Mother Tour — Return Leg

Following up from Kanpur to Pench Tiger Sanctuary, it was time to turn back. This time around things were different with a possible bad transmission and a hellish 20 km. road stretch going back into the valleys of the Reserve. Predictably inquiries from roadside motels confirmed my guess that they were not budget-oriented. So, I chugged back on my bicycle negotiating the hellish road. On the wayside I did see one or two motorbikes which had simply given up, their owners were clearly panicking as they wanted out of the forest that was teeming with wild animals. Unfortunately, I could be of no help to them. 

Just when I was about to give up on finding a reasonable motel, an inquiry at a local bicycle mechanic shop netted me a good roadside Dhaba. The mechanic disputed my version of the blown transmission and advised me to go on, which turned out to be wrong later on. The Dhaba itself was run by a Maharashtrian gentleman and had good facilities. I was given a cot and had a hearty lunch. It was the 23rd of December 2017. We had a leisurely chat and I decided to attend to my MTB.


The beauty at the roadside Dhaba, Pench Tiger Reserve Forest

Servicing and cleaning the MTB confirmed that the transmission was going to blow, and I decided to take it slow while trying to exit the hills and valleys of the Reserve. The local mechanics were not good in my opinion and I rued the fact that I had not brought along the complete kit to change the bicycle chain and gear flywheel.

The night was the same liquor-soaked shouting and loud convos; the local lads and truckers were at it again. It was late night when I could sleep and then took off very early in the morning. I stopped for a quick snack at a roadside sweet shop and then started negotiating the uphills. The settlements were at the bottom of the hills while the hilly forests seldom had any human presence. As it turned out the gear flywheel was wobbling bad and I had to keep stopping in between to keep the transmission floating.

In the middle of the hilly forests, I saw deer crossing the highway in a panicked hurry and my heart skipped a beat. Very soon, I heard a tiger roar from the valley below and that gave me wings, my MTB rocketing away from the scene. The predator was herding the deer and would have crossed the highway in their pursuit soon after I left. The speeding stint wrecked the flywheel a bit more and soon I was making regular stops along the way. Tiger or no tiger there was no way out of this. Trucking traffic was zooming up and down intermittently.

The transmission gave up as soon as I crossed the Reserve area with the gear flywheel spitting out shiny steel ball bearings. There was no option but to head to Seoni, the nearest town, and replace the gear flywheel. Somehow the MTB hobbled on about 40 km. to Seoni and I was directed to a small but able bicycle repair shop. 


In case you didn’t know, the above is a geared flywheel that screws on to the back wheel hub of a bicycle, the chain wraps around the various sprockets of the flywheel with the help of a derailleur ( not shown in the pic ). It’s from my other roadie bike.

I had a spare chain and gear flywheel but not the flywheel unscrewing tool, the repair shop people replaced the transmission ( flywheel and chain ); and handed me a spare tool all on a nominal charge. I was offered lunch which I had to decline because this repair had cost me precious time. The repair shop owner also gifted me with a nice diary and some fancy stuff. India is full of nice people! I took off in the afternoon and doubled my speed but had to make small stops to fine-tune the gear system. 

Again, it was some tough uphills and an inquisitive gentleman on a moped caught up with me as I was huffing and puffing up the slopes. He guided me to an outhouse maintained by a local Dhaba. The funny thing is that the outhouse was guarded by about half a dozen Pomeranian mutts. They were smallish but acted aggressively by feigning a charge. It was enough to scare any local who tried to venture near the outhouse! The nights were cold and I managed to sleep a bit, taking off early the next morning.


The outhouse where I stayed for the night.

I crossed into the Lakhnadon region and made good speed stopping only for tea-samosa and lunch. Stopped to take in some breathtaking scenic views too.


Nearly dry lake/river bed. Near Lakhnadon.


This river bed was completely dry. But, it was hauntingly beautiful.

Stopped at a roadside hotel, about 120 km. from my previous location, it was on the North-South corridor. There was a scenic pilgrimage site before the hills leveled out, called Barman on the banks of the Narmada river. Made a halt there to soak in all the beauty and record it on my mobile cam too! The hilly region gave away to plains a bit further on, it was smoother cycling and I stopped for a quick food break.

Barman pilgrimage site on the banks of river Narmada.

Started again early morning and made good speed to cross into Damoh district, encountering gradual uphills along the way; stopping just 20 km. short of Damoh town, again in a Dhaba. My bottom was too sore at this point to care for any more smartphone pics and there were just towns/settlements and zooming traffic to see. More importantly, I was beyond Damoh town and the surrounding small settlements as quickly as possible. The hilly forests of interior Damoh district restored my spirits somewhat although it was quite hot. There was an incident of my chain wrapping itself all over the gear flywheel which took about an hour to restore.


Yours Truly with the world-famous MTB, at a chai-samosa stall in hilly forests of Damoh. The white garment is called a ‘safa’ and is standard wear amongst these parts.

My clothing was deliberately chosen to make myself appear as local as possible. It’s best to blend in rather than stick out when traveling alone. The run was now getting enjoyable and I was tending more to slow down and soak in more of the greenery and forests. Made a halt at a known Dhaba near Batiyagarh and started the next morning, making a stop shortly after seeing a couple of foxes foraging around in dense forests.


Dense forests near Batiyagarh, with the beast aka MTB in the background.

The forests around Batiyagarh had a good population of wild monkeys and foxes, locals told me that there were bears and leopards in the interior parts of the forest. The ubiquitous road repairs further down the hills had the same irritating results plastering me and the bike with dust. After this, I managed to make good speed and crossed Chhatarpur, M.P., and kept on going until I reached the outskirts of Mahoba, U.P., where I lodged up in a roadside motel. It was the 26th of December, 2017.

The route back to Kanpur, on the 27th of December, 2017, was quite familiar, Mahoba-Kabrai-Hamirpur-Kanpur, and I remember lazing around Hamirpur, trying to take in all the greenery and fresh air before entering the stale, toxic air of Kanpur. Heavy trucking traffic starts about 60 km. from Kanpur after evening hours and it becomes very difficult to cycle through it all. This is also true for most highway traffic in India. I made it to my residence in Kanpur at about 8 pm.

Evening and night cycling should be avoided at all costs since there is negligible traffic rule enforcement on our highways. Truckers regularly stock up on booze and sleep on their steering wheels while driving in the night. Road driving in India is on average extremely rash and risky, with the highway roadsides littered with carcasses of smashed vehicles. Most heavy vehicles use high beams while driving on highways and make sparing use of dippers, this can disorient cyclists. Another aspect to be remembered is that there is an abundance of debris on the highway lanes used by cyclists. I had encountered numerous instances of glass debris, making sure that I avoided them as best as I could to save me from a tire puncture. Overtaking buses and trucks give out a special horn signal here and one has to be very alert to heed the call and leave the road or be knocked down since there is no lane discipline here. The overtaking vehicles mostly hog the whole road, in which case the only option is to hit the dirt track next to the road. A rearview mirror is a must.

The whole journey was unimaginably rewarding to me, as I could for once escape the toxic aired concrete jungle that my city had become. Viewing all that greenery and wildlife gave me hope that some parts of my country are still untouched by the so-called development here. Although vehicular traffic and blaring horns followed me up the forests too, I did negotiate patches where there was fresh air available. It was good to be out there. I think my MTB would agree to this! 

P.S.:- Have edited the Barman pilgrimage part, as I had mixed up its location as post-Damoh earlier while posting, whereas it is much before Damoh district by a good distance. Made some additions in the Damoh part too. Apologies for the Barman mixup.

The Mother Tour — Onward Leg

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 over all 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 long the way, including the famous Pench Tiger Reserve bordering Maharashtra. 

* kilometres

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 woollen 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/country side 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.

Kanpur to Pench National Park Google Map

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.  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. 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 hill top town.


My beauty aka MTB resting in the roadside dhaba near Batiyagarh. 

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 down hills, 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. Experienced the same din and noise but slept through most of it. Took off next morning and then hit the North-South Corridor also known as the Srinagar-Kanyakumari highway, one of the longest highways in my country. I lodged up in a roadside motel on the highway. Started off early, the next morning.


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 woollens 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’s not 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 labour 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 next morning. It was the 20th of December, 2017. Incidentally, the whole area is a forest reserve, but I could hardly spot any wild life. 

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 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 criticising 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 Wild life 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 wild life. 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.


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 checkpost. 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 wild life. 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 travelling 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 !