The river Kaveri is one of the 5 great holy rivers of India, revered by pilgrims for centuries. From its source amongst the coffee and cardamon plantations in the cool hills of the Western Ghats, the river flows 500 miles across southern India towards the hot plains of Tamil Nadu and the Bay of Bengal.
I walked from one coast of southern India to the other, following the river from the coast all the way up to its source, then dropping down through the mountains to the Arabian Sea. I did no more planning than that.
“I could walk to anywhere on Earth from here, if only I choose to make the time. The road is free and open and waiting.”
If you love the Beatles, at some point in your life you will have to visit Liverpool. Elvis fans have Graceland. Baseball has the Yankee Stadium. And, if you love travel and are curious about the world, then you need to experience India before you die.
I call myself an “Adventurer” and a “Travel Writer”. I had visited almost half the countries on Earth. But I had never been to India.
That needed to change.
But I didn’t care about the Taj Mahal. I didn’t want to see the Lake Palace or a tiger. I wanted to see normal India. I know that “normal India” sounds like an oxymoron. One of the chief joys of travelling is that whenever you visit a new culture, you leave “normal” behind. Going to the market or catching a bus become bewildering, fascinating adventures rather than mundane and forgettable chores like at home. I wanted to see the India away from the tourist spots and Lonely Planet guidebooks. So I decided to go for a walk.
I would walk across India, from one coast to the other. I didn’t have enough time to cross the enormous north of the country, so it would need to be somewhere down in the narrower south. I would walk alone, for that is the best way to immerse yourself in a strange and foreign land. I would walk because walking is slow, because walking is cheap, and because walking is hard.
I wanted a journey that would be physically difficult. Because I also wanted it to be mentally challenging and spontaneous, I deliberately did as little research as possible. I decided to follow the course of a river, Googled “Rivers Of India”, found myself a river, and bought a cheap flight. I knew no more than that, planned no more than that. I didn’t need to know any more than that.
Plane lands. Tired passengers. Passport control. Luggage carousel. And then out you go, out of the airport doors and you’re launched into a strange new world. The first thing that hits you is the heat. That wonderful, warm, tropical night time air envelops you, filled with smells, the sounds of crickets and car horns and adventure. My heart started thumping with excitement.
I found a bus to take me to the ocean. Through the night and into the morning we hurtled, through every cliche of travel in India. Crazy drivers and dodging potholes, cows on the road and temples in the mist. Terrible toilets, sweet tea and a delicious, spicy breakfast served on a banana leaf. Conversations about cricket and a boy riding an elephant. I could almost have returned to the airport and gone home immediately claiming to have “done” India already.
Instead I climbed down from the bus beside a quiet beach on the Bay of Bengal. Unusually for India, I was all alone. The River Kaveri – my river – flowed gently into the sea. The water was slow and brown. It mingled gently with the still waters of the ocean. Palm trees lined the river bank. The morning was dazzling bright and very hot. It was not a particularly remarkable spot. It was perfect.
I was scared. In all of my travels I find committing to action to be the most daunting act. I was not a travelling novice. I could make a decent educated guess about what the next 600 miles were going to be like. But it is the uncertainty, and beginning something new which I find so nerve-wracking. I was surrounded by a billion people who did not know me, whose lives were very different to my own. I felt small and lonely.
If I’d thought about it much longer I might have just chickened out, climbed onto the next bus, and gone in search of the reassuringly well-worn backpacker trail. Instead I gave myself a quick talking-to, dipped my toe in the ocean, and started walking. I followed the riverbank away from the sea, and towards another ocean. The hardest part of the journey was over: I was in motion.
Walking through India is a permanent swirl of stimulation. Of colour and noise and smells. It’s hard to distil it all to just a few impressions.
My strongest memory of that walk comes from endless chai stalls and roadside food shacks. I remember them because they fuelled my journey and because I looked forward to them so much as I slogged and sweated and suffered beneath the fierce Indian sun. But I also remember them because they seemed to sum up much of Indian life. At any time of day or night, people are gathered together to natter and share the news, to enjoy sweet tea or the local spicy delicacy. India is a very relaxed, social, community-oriented country. Coming to India from London, the contrast between the two way of lives was very apparent.
Next, I remember the people. A billion of them. I met every single one of those people along my walk. Twice. I have never felt so continually on show, so surrounded by people.
“What is your good name? What is your native place? Why are you not taking the bus?” I answered these questions hundreds of times every day. People were so curious to meet me, curious to talk to me. And that was brilliant because I was curious too. Travelling slow and travelling alone are the best ways to engage with a country.
The rhythm of the walk was a strong feature. Every day I began an hour or two before dawn, making some quick miles before the sun became too hot. I walked as far as I could each day, my march broken by chai stalls, wedding celebrations, funeral processions, refilling my bottles from clanking village wells, and snatched rests in any scrap of shade I could find.
Night times were my favourite part of the adventure. The sweet smell of jasmine, the chirp of crickets, the gentle temperatures. If I was in a town I stayed in cheap truckers’ guesthouses and strolled the evening streets until bedtime. Brightly-lit stalls and restaurants touted for business. Families and friends meandered around, enjoying the atmosphere and sizzling samosas. In villages I often stayed with families, invited by kind strangers to spend the night in their small, simple homes. These evenings were uplifting and fun and the best possible insight in my search for “normal India”. But they were exhausting too, for word would spread and the windows and doorways fill with crowds of people who came to stare and laugh and ask me a million questions.
When I was away from towns I slept out in the open. I strung my mosquito net between two trees and lit a tiny fire of twigs to cook my rice. I pull off my sweat-wet shirt and sit with my back to the tree. My legs and feet are sore. My head thumps with dehydration. I listen to the sounds of the night and smile. Nobody in the world knows where I am. I could walk to anywhere on Earth from here, if only I choose to make the time. The road is free and open and waiting. This adventure is so simple (pick a river; follow it), so cheap (£500, including the flight), so pure (no sponsors; no convoluted world-first claims). Adventure is out there, anywhere, everywhere. You just have to go and find it. All your life you were only waiting for this moment to arise.
The hills are behind me now. Ahead of me are just palm trees, a strip of empty white beach, and the ocean. I can walk no further. The journey is done. I take off my pack for the last time, and walk down into the waves. The End.
If you’d like to read more about this journey, you can get There Are Other Rivers here.
This piece originally featured on Adventure.com.