Chali is the first to skim into the Visitor's Centre, aerodynamically hunched over the sleek handlebars of a light purple and green bike. The others breezily follow. They dismount in style, oozing fitness from every pore, and park their contraptions nonchalantly along the brick facade. From the corner of my eye, I catch sight of several visitors frozen mid-way in sipping their coffees, staring open-mouthed. The sudden descent of cyclists clad in tight blue black bike-shorts and colourful jerseys is a heck of a vision. A gaggle of Auroville's cyclists is ready to embark on yet another dirt-biking adventure - a standard scenario that plays out every Thursday afternoon…
A few weeks ago, a small group (André, Chali, George, Jacky, Pascal, Patrick, and Robi) ventured on a four-day adventure into the Javadi Hills, about 175 kilometres Northwest of Auroville. “The Javadis are easy to reach by bicycle,” says Robi. “And winter is the best time to visit – with cool weather and plenty of water, though this time it was dry.” Located in the Western Ghats in the North Arcot district of Tamil Nadu, the hills reach a height of about 1500 metres. The tough bicycles lasted the cross-country onslaught, while the tougher cyclists magnificently endured the trip. Chali was the lone female among the 7-member crew, and is also the only female who regularly participates in the Thursday outings. “She is GOOD!” opines the team unanimously. “For the group, it has been very good to have Chali,” adds Robi. “I feel that when people see a woman in the team, it creates an impression that the group is harmless and non-threatening. Also Chali's presence has considerably brought down the competition level between us!” Chali smiles, appearing quite unaffected by this display of adulation from the men in the team. “Being a woman, I sometimes get unwanted attention on the roads. And the men are very protective of me, which I appreciate very much. Once two boys on a scooter were tailing me. Then André positioned himself between me and these boys adjusting his speed as they slowed down or speeded up. Finally they got tired and began to drive away.”
This trip was Chali's first foray into an overnight adventure. “I have to admit,” she says, “that there were moments on this trip when I said to myself that once is enough.” So what was her most difficult moment? “It was the afternoon we went downhill on a very small walking path. We reached the top of a hill where the Vainu Bappu Observatory is located, and André had found a narrow clear cut going down to the river bed below. Immediately Jacky, Patrick, George and André went cycling all the way down the hillside. But Pascal and I didn't feel comfortable cycling down such steep terrain that was full of rocks and stones so we walked our bicycles down very slowly holding the brakes to keep them from somersaulting. It was a gruelling one hour.” Jacky cuts in, “But that was the most perfect mountain biking terrain!” For him, it was the dead-end forest path that was testing. He recounts, “Patrick after consulting the map said, ‘Look, a short cut across the hills.'” Snorts André, “Hah- Hah- Hah - one short cut that was! After two hours of slashing through mullus, we had to retrace our steps back to a dependable route.”
Any wild animal encounters? “Apart from us, none,” guffaws André.
And the most memorable moments? “Spending the nights under the starry sky in sleeping bags after hot soupy dinners of watery noodles…The view from the top of the hill with unending fields of yellow rape seed flowers in full bloom...Tasting the best parottas of my life in a little tea shop at the top of the hill...The camaraderie, the experiences shared, working together, figuring things out as a team with no anger and very, very harmoniously – like one single body…”