How it began in March 2009…
Let me start at the real beginning of this journey!!
Earlier in 2009 I realised a combination of diets and stress were not such a successful mix. Middle age spread sat very uncomfortably with me, especially the middle age bit - where on earth did all those years go? and there is so much I need to do - time is precious, I need to be fit! Especially as I have toddler-aged twins!
Inspired by Fern Britton and her cycling trip to Cuba, I saw a successful strategy. It set a goal, was an opportunity to see another country in a spectacular way, and raised money for charity which was a real motivation for me. Charity work helps put my own life in perspective; even when it feels tough, there are people around me who have much less in either material goods or health. I resolve to put my health first and thereafter life will fall into place….won’t it?
On the internet for research, and – WOW - there it is - “The Rajasthan Tiger Challenge”. This included some of the great things I would like to do with my life: visit the Taj Mahal, see tigers in their native habitat roaming wild, stay in the pink City of Jaipur - this was a must.
The next two challenges: which charity to sponsor and with whom will I train and cycle?
I choose Breast Cancer Care as the charity to sponsor. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK; despite having a high survival rate, lots of people are affected by this disease.
I used Mountain Warehouse products - a fantastic collection of outdoor kit at the most sensible prices.
I practically lived in my lime greenlightweight fleece as we were not prepared for the cold mornings and the cold evenings, I had travelled in this fleece and was very concerned for anyone travelling next to me on the way home, as it had not been washed, but it passed all tests as it still looked great when I got home and washes fantastically well with no need to iron, perfect!
Also a great hit were my khaki zip off trousers, I am not the skinniest girl and have always found this type of trouser a challenge both on fit and attractiveness, but these trousers ticked both boxes and again were worn almost everyday either as shorts or a full length trouser, the colour went well with the rest of the small collection of clothes I was allowed to take.
The lightweight short sleeved coral T shirt took up no space or weight at all, I used it for layering when travelling out to India, wore it in bed and for sightseeing.
A lightweight semi loose top for cycling in, easy to wear with my water carrier - This top can be washed a dried in a matter of minutes with some sunshine.
Time to go!
I meet my fellow cyclists at Heathrow airport for the first time as we were about to board the flight for Delhi. I was impressed by the varied age range!
The flight went fairly quickly, it was a welcome change to settle down to relax for a few hours; we travelled through the night and arrived in the Indian sunshine to meet our escorts for the week.
Excitement, apprehension and the sudden realisation of what I was about to undertake and how would I cope with the very hot weather? A few members of the group who had done this type of challenge several times before all assure me it will be fine, there was nothing to worry about, but I was worrying. I have never cycled 240km in two days, let alone the total of 440km+ over 6 consecutive days in hot temperatures. I have little idea of the terrain or how my legs will feel, but one thing I am completely sure of, getting off my bike is simple NOT an option!!
Arrive in Delhi, and we are travelling to our first hotel when we stop for lunch. Horror of horrors we pull up outside McDonalds - surely we have not travelled all the way to India to go for a burger? No. The chosen Indian restaurant was hidden around the corner!
Here we meet our organiser Sian, and have our first real taste of India with a selection of hot spicy food served in several small pots on large leaves and copious amounts of flat breads. It was delicious and very welcome. Onwards to our first hotel, we see that Delhi is an extremely industrial and thriving city. Its complete poverty contrasts with striking buildings. It is engaged in a huge undertaking to update the infrastructure, complete with a new mono rail, to prepare for the 2010 Commonwealth games. It is incredibly difficult to believe it will be complete in under 12 months’ time. I’m advised there are simply not enough hotels in Delhi to accommodate the number of growing visitors; they plan to build satellite accommodation on the outskirts of the city, such huge ambitions in small timescales! While they are a country of a billion plus people it is difficult to see how this ambitious plan has the time and infrastructure to support or sustain it.
We approach our first hotel and it’s not pretty!
Quick to get to our room, there is little point unpacking as we are to be on the move in less than 24 hours. We want to get out exploring the delights of Delhi shopping; a hope which was short lived. Delhi is seriously polluted - all the crazy streets look alike, crowded and dirty. Tiredness soon set in, the journey back to the hotel beckoned and our credit cards were still intact!! After an early night we had a 4.30am wake up call to ensure we were all ready to leave the hotel to catch the 6am train from Delhi to Agra. The bikes will be taken to Agra in a truck, followed by our support vehicle.
We transfer by Shatabdi express train (approx 2hrs) to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, having breakfast en route. We are now at the start of our challenge getting ready to prepare our bikes for the cycle ahead and meet our support team.
Delhi train station is so busy, full of tourists from every part of the world, Indians, and children - they are called the railway children, and this is where they live. There are no health and safety rules here, people walk across the railway lines and occupy all corners.
We have to pass families living on the pavements, walk swiftly past beggars of all ages, and decipher the many different smells rising from the ground. It’s still very dark, but this city is wakening, the noise levels raising, it would be very easy to lose sight of my fellow cyclists in this chaos. We all look out for each other and are happy to climb aboard the train; it’s on time.
The carriage has 6 seats across and most is reserved. They resemble old airline seats, the train is huge, it’s clean and we are served a light breakfast as we sit.
I meet an Indian family returning to India for a month’s holiday as it is cooler than where they live in Australia! They say the sun is different in Australia, it is too hot and dangerous - this sounds quite strange coming from Indians born and breed in one of the hottest countries in the world. They emigrated 3 years ago, I assume the father must be an international high flyer, but he says no he has a reasonably paid job in security. It affords them a very different lifestyle from that they could have experienced in India. Upon reflection this is easy to understand. Even the lowest level of living as we know it here in the west would be deemed pure luxury by most Indian’s standards.
We arrive in Agra and are taken to our next hotel by taxi. Again we are approached by many young children. They are very curious about us, and are not frightened to offer their empty hands to us. I give them some jelly babies and the four children quickly expand to a group of twelve very excited and crazy children with hands coming from every direction; not enough jelly babies to offer and to start delving into one’s bag seems like a very bad idea!! The children’s toe nails, finger nails and dirty hands reveal their very basic way of life.
We navigate through the winding busy streets of Agra avoiding the numerous cattle and roaming monkeys - these are to become a regular and common sight travelling through India. Cows are sacred and have more authority than any police force or red lights! Monkeys are equivalent to cats and dogs without the leads.
The madness of Indian’s driving skills is difficult to describe, there are no rules and there is a continuous sound of honking horns, which are used more to say hello rather than watch out - everyone likes to say hello in India. Traffic/Red lights are for decoration and roundabouts are opportunities for families to create homes or to park cattle. They do seem to reduce chaos though. Our transport pulls up outside a building with a very misleading sign which says Palace. Although complete with welcome dancers in very colourful costumes creating a very happy welcome, it’s not quite a Palace. Then we realise - we are to stay at the hotel next door, I could not really tell you if it was a finished building or one ready for demolition! But, hey, we are reminded we are on a challenge. Our room has a padlock, the bathroom does not have a light, the grid in the bathroom wall is a wide opening to an upper bathroom, and there is no privacy. Before a few hours of free time, we needed to get acquainted with our provided bicycles and our support team!! Getting back on a saddle reminds us what we are here for. The bikes needs a few tweaks and are quickly fitted with our seats, toe clips etc. I think most of us are pleasantly surprised at the good standard of these bikes and its all beginning to feel real! Supper was served on the roof top terrace, (this is the dining room) we are surprised how cold the evening is, it is dark by 6pm and we are all in need of woolly jumpers. Temperatures in the day are up to 30 degrees. Time for some rest, an early night, tomorrow we visit the Taj Mahal. We are VERY EXCITED to just spot this monumental building from our hotel rooftop through the trees; the air is thick and hazy, smog-like, we hope for a bright blue sky tomorrow. Day 6 Keoladeo Ghana National Park to Karauli – 120km approx / 7-8hrs Bharatpur to Karauli 120kms A 5.30 wake up call, setting the pace by 7am, 5 snack stops later and we are finished by 3.15pm. Our guides are immensely impressed as we apparently have knocked almost 3 hours off the average time of this epic ride! We are all on a high and still not sure we should believe we really are THAT fast! I am still unsure as to how I will cope with the amount of cycling we will do, and I am uncomfortable with the prospect of holding people up or of being in a slow last position. As I push hard for the first 20km, I am uncomfortable and hot as I am working very hard to keep up with everyone. I am last and do not enjoy cycling at the back, I cannot see anyone in front, and I wish I had done more training. It’s only day 3 how am I going to cope? The sun has barely shown itself. We pull in for a snack stop and replenish our water, and I make a point of not waiting too long and set off at the front of the group. I need to keep up with everyone, the social interraction makes the cycling so much easier. By lunch time I was over my confidence wobble and settling into a comfortable stride, made all the easier by the great team I am cycling with. We are 14 people who met for the first time at Heathrow airport only a few days ago. We all have different reasons for being here. It’s one of the most enjoyable elements of the trip to meet everyone and learn a little about each others lives. Most of us have seen a few years, the very youngest of the team being Dougie who at 21 is the youngster of the group - the eldest lady we guess at nearly 70years, and she gives the fastest chaps some serious competition, quite an inspiration. Cycling has NO age limits. Today we see what looks like an animal burial ground by the roadside. It’s raw and an awful sight, the smell is overwhelming. A dog strolls across our path carrying a cow’s leg. There is no effort to hide the rotten carcasses. In complete contrast follows when in one of the many villages we witness an Indian wedding, a colourful spectacular with many, many beautifully dressed local ladies and children in the most glorious shades of reds, golds and oranges. It’s a pleasure to see so many Indian females, there is much excitement, and it provides another great photo opportunity, in addition to this splendid colourful building, we are not quite sure what it represents. We are getting used to the ‘roads’, the village noises, the long quiet rural roads, the straying cows and crazy camels. During snack/water stops we mingle with some of the locals. They are remarkable; we are a complete oddity to them and they are just as curious about us as we are of them. They are proud, colourful and always have a smile. The children are immensely excited to see us. Within the group we have small supplies of pocket toys and sweeties, they are eagerly received, I wish we had more to give! Through each village we are cheered on, is this how it feels cycling the Tour de France, ‘Tour De Rajasthan!’? The local people LOVE to look at our cameras and see pictures of themselves; mirrors do not fit into the daily lifestyle here. It feels alien to us the scatter our fruit peelings and unwanted foodstuffs on the ground around us at each snack stop, here in India it is welcomed as it feeds the animals and the land. Our snack stops are portable and set up in advance of our arrival by our support team; they are very efficient and always have lots for us to choose from! The toilet facilities are as rustic as the scatter ring of the fruit peelings! It’s very comforting as everyone has a common goal and all look out for each other in an unobtrusive way. The grandest gesture was made to me when they graciously encouraged me to be the first person to cycle over the day’s finishing line (my earlier confidence wobble must have been noticed!). We have surpassed the guide’s expectations and arrived almost 3 hours earlier than previous groups. They have now convinced us we are the fittest group they have ever cycled with, it’s fortunate that our group are well matched in fitness. To arrive so much sooner than expected has an added bonus - we have time to roam and discover the grounds of this distinguished palace. This is the most stunning location yet, a magnificent palace. Val and I are beside ourselves with excitement, we have a grand suite complete with matching 4 poster beds! A massage seemed a great idea and well deserved and we had a massage with a difference! Val and I entered a pretty lodge by the swimming pool (yet another empty, non usable pool. Seem to be a feature at the hotels we visit). We were greeted by a young lady and her mother and had a memorable ’massage’, which felt more like a rub over with cooking oil, no dimmed lights or tranquil music, an expectation to lay almost naked uncovered - privacy is not part of the package, and having one’s boobs ‘massaged’ is a new experience and not necessarily one I would like to repeat. With the smell of sesame oil lingering, I am not sure I would recommend this or what benefit it might have. Day 7 Karauli to Ranthambore National Park – 105km approx / 7 –8 hrs Today we will cycle to Ranthambore National Park, one of the prime examples of Project Tiger’s conservation efforts in Rajasthan and a favourite haunt of wildlife buffs and professional wildlife photographers from around the world. We are camping there tonight and we are unsure of what to expect, so we are grateful for the comfy beds last night. At breakfast this morning we are presented with the local/national newspaper and to our amazement we are featured, with a super photograph of Mark, WOW we really have made headlines. This is great for the scrap book! A 5.30am start has become the norm, but today we set off at 6.30am. Yesterday was the longest ride, today, once completed we are more then half way, feeling good and strong, I almost believe I can do this and it’s not too painful! We have cycled on every type of road possible, from rubble to tarmac, each with extreme pot holes through the most awesome national road works India style! Road works and road building is very different to what we see in the UK, here you travel through them whilst work is being done, very little stops progress! India thrives on resource; I have never seen such a convoy of tractors. Christmas garlands wave in the breeze and turbans are abundant; brightly painted lorries join the convoy and we jostle amongst them to move forward and remain upright. Camels with their rickety looking carts carry huge slabs of red stones, these look like a colossal weight. It’s quite a sight and best to avoid stopping. The whole scene is slightly surreal, like something from Dr Who as our location is remote and desert-like reds sand surrounds us It makes a change from the vast rural stretch of green land or medieval villages, with lots of village children looking very smart wearing school uniform - this is pleasing and unusual, Indians take their education very seriously - we are indeed the aliens from another planet! Today was a huge personal boost, as I remain at the front of the group most of the day. I have discovered and perfected the art of slip streaming and what a difference - you tuck into the back of the wheel of the cyclist in front of you, as close as possible, consequently you have less head wind or resistance, and can gain more speed with less effort. It’s great and I say a BIG THANKYOU to Mark and Sean for indulging me. Val joined me and we worked as a powerhouse team - great, great fun, and time passed fairly quickly as I remain focussed. Another record breaking day, we arrive at our destination at 2.45pm (anticipated arrival was to be 5.30/6pm). This was a jaw-dropping fast time, surpassing any of our expectations, even with up to 5 snack stops and an hour’s lunch break. Everyone has done amazingly well and I feel elated, strong and with plenty more to give! We are all delighted with our ‘campsite’; this is not like campsites as we know them! The huge canvas tents are complete with hot showers, hammocks and are surrounded by beautiful gardens. This has ensured a smile on everyone’s face, it is simple fabulous! With such an early finish a spot of souvenir buying is possible in the well-stocked shop depicting many stunning pictures of the tiger reserve. I spy a safari looking hat, perfect for my next morning adventure to see the tigers. Can it really get any better? Seeing tigers really will tick a life box, they are my favourite animal and the prospect of getting close to seeing them in their natural habitat is almost too much to wish for. I already feel enriched, satisfied with what we have seen which is so much more then I could have ever wished for, and I feel very proud and emotional as I have finally accepted that YES I can do this! It was not natural for me to exude the confidence and belief that I could do it, but being here and having come so far, my head is now in a very different place and I am confident that the two days left are going to be a breeze. Time to enjoy a beer around the camp fire. As I snuggle down in my camp bed, the most comfortable camp bed ever, I insist Val takes a photograph of the mosquito net around my bed. Yes I agree it’s a bit sad, but it’s SO exciting to be here in this posh tent, preparing to go on safari and see tigers! It’s tempting each night to read and write diaries to the early hours and I feel wide awake, but we have another 5.30am start tomorrow, and sleep beckons. Day 9 Bhanderej to Jaipur – 80km / 5-6hrs Last Cycle day As we cycle closer to Jaipur we have the opportunity to catch last glimpses of villages and the people as they wave at us passing by. Some of these villages resemble what you might seem in a medieval television series, with extremely poor barefooted farmers and children with a few chickens running around there limited belongings, they are lucky if they have a local stream to provide the water. On the odd occasions some of the children have looked a little bewildered or scared when we have cycled past them, which can be forgiven, they possess nothing and TV/Western world exposure is unknown. We push hard for the final few hours of cycling; the last few kilometers we cycle through can only be described as Mediterranean looking terrain complete with rocky mountainous hills and palm trees, a complete contrast to what we have seen in the last few days. As we approach the finish line up a hill, Val and I sprint to the top through the ribbon, Victory. Indian ladies dressed in orange and lots of loud drum music greets us. WOW, we have do it, we presented with our marigold garlands and refreshments, everyone is elated to be here It’s a beautiful hotel on a mountain top, it feels like Greece!! Cycle helmets off we all chill out in the open air restaurant, the bikes are being rapidly dismantled ready for there journey back, and I am asked to make some presentations to our wonderful support teams and guides, a pleasure! We are taken to the colourful city of Jaipur, where we have our final night, the vibrant capital of Rajasthan and popularly known as the ‘Pink City’; the colour associated with hospitality. Jaipur is surrounded by barren hills surmounted by forts. This buzzing metropolis is certainly a place of wild contrasts and a feast for the eyes. Vegetable laden camel carts thread their way through the streets jam-packed with rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles and pedestrians dodging the crazy traffic. Traditionally dressed Rajput men sporting bright turbans and swash-buckling moustaches discuss village politics outside restaurants and roadside stalls. After a rest we start exploring this fascinating city. For things to see and do, you need at least a lifetime in Jaipur. The city owes its name, its foundation and its careful planning to the great warrior-astronomer, Maharaja Jai Singh II (1693-1743). In 1727, Jai Singh decided that the time was ripe to move down from his hillside Amber Fort to a new site on the plains. In 1728, he built the remarkable observatory, Jantar Mantar, which is still one of Jaipur’s main attractions. Another site is the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds, constructed in 1799. You can climb to the top of the Hawa Mahal for a fine view over the city. In the heart of the old city, is the City Palace, an incredibly well preserved and interesting palace to view with museums and artefacts. Jaipur is the place to shop until you drop, you cannot beat its variety. There are many handicrafts ranging from papier-mâché puppets to exquisitely carved furniture. Jaipur is well known for precious and semi-precious gems, marble statues, costume jewellery and textile prints are other specialties. You can shop in the Johri Bazaar selling local handicrafts, jewellery and sweets. We had some time in Jaipur to explore the city or do some shopping, whilst being renowned for being a die hard shopper, even I was beaten, you are approached from every direction every moment by beggers sellers and their brothers, their sons etc etc etc. haggle haggle haggle, pure headache stuff. I did buy some small handcrafted wooden carvings, used for either fabric or paper printing form street sellers, then I quit We celebrated the completion of our challenge and amazing ride through India, with a Rajasthan Party, with a traditional banquet, folk music and dancing at the Maharajas Old Palace, and yet another early night, tomorrow our journey home starts at 3.30am!!