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One day in the life of East Coast Road
I had been meaning to do this ever since I bought a cruiser after watching ‘Motorcycle Diaries.’ To hit the road and ride far away from the everyday mechanics of urban life.
So when a chance came by for this story, I jumped right on to the bike.
Just the previous week, I had postponed a road trip with a friend because my bike was due was service. I still hadn’t fixed the chain noise that was bothering me. But hey! What’s a road trip without any real adventure?
The fact that I had never done 300 kilometres by bike in a day (to Pondicherry and back) only added to the excitement.
The East Coast Road had earned the reputation of being one of the deadliest roads in the State with high accident rates year after year, after being developed as a more scenic alternative route to Mahabalipuram in the late-nineties.
On December 22, 2000, the Tamil Nadu Government and Tamil Nadu Road Development Company (TNRDC) signed up for the improvement of 113.2 km of ECR from Kudimiyandithoppu near Chennai to Koonimedu on the outskirts of Pondicherry, entrusting the task to TNRDC on a long-term basis.
Thanks to a friend who had once worked with TNRDC, I knew a little about the challenges faced by the authorities in maintaining that stretch.
I set out from Anna Nagar at five a.m., picked up Darshan, a friend who’s always game for adventure, from T.Nagar. By 5.45 a.m., we were already cruising down the I.T. corridor, the quickest access route to Thiruvanmiyur – where ECR begins.
The good thing about taking a bike down that road is that you don’t need to shell out the toll fee at the plaza (the ECR scenic beachway route begins a kilometer before the toll gate) that monitors (with surveillance cameras) every car that passes that way.
The East Coast Road, last year, recorded an average traffic of about 10,830 passenger car units every day. According to my insider friend, the volume of traffic has been growing by about 20 per cent every year.
The scenic part of the ride actually begins only a few kilometres after Mayajaal, a little before Muttukadu as casuarina groves hide the sea from the road, showing us occasional glimpses of virgin beaches – only that there is no visible access route to the stretch but through the paper-plate infested groves with boards that warn you of thieves in the area.
The backwaters at Muttukadu reflecting the early morning hues in the sky made for a perfect canvas. We had plenty of photo opportunities every few kilometres thereon.
The bevy of dancers at a local temple festival en route to Mahabs were only too happy to pose for Darshan, as the drummer got into a head-banging trance, encouraged by the presence of the camera.
After a quick meal at Mamalla Bhavan at seven a.m., we clicked a few more pictures at the rock carvings at Mahabalipuram, lured by the sight of goats lending the sculptures a touch of modern art as they scattered themselves strategically all around the caves, striking poses for the camera.
Intrigued by the sight of the number of saffron-clad travellers we had noticed in the course of the last 20 kilometres, we stopped to enquire. Sathish Kumar, part of the faculty at Jeppiar Engineering College, said that he along with his mates Vadivel and Karthikeyan were on their pilgrimage by foot to Velankanni. “We started on Sunday evening. We will reach only on the 27th,” said Sathish.
The traffic had increased since Mahabalipuram and we realised that the best time to hit the road was early morning. There were many buses and share autos hogging road space during the day. Besides, riding in the night is dangerous given that it is near impossible to spot a restless animal darting across the road. Besides, what if the bike broke down?
The only time the bike made that annoying chain noise was when I slowed down and changed to first gear. Maybe I shouldn’t stop too often, I decided, to ensure we weren’t stranded in the middle of nowhere – especially now, that we were halfway between Mahabalipuram and Marakkanam, the town closest to Pondicherry.
That’s when Darshan pointed out to the TNRDC Helpline posts that we had seen every few kilometres all along. He got down to study how they worked, just in case we needed help. The instructions were pretty simple. All you had to do was press the button three times and speak into box.
With just another 50 kilometres to go before Pondicherry and not all that tired, we decided to find out more about the ruins of the Alambarai Fort and backwaters, about five kilometres off ECR.
It was only on those bumpy roads that we realised what a smooth journey it had been till then.
A brief stopover later, we were back on ECR. The Highway Patrol cars shuttle between the toll-gates outside Chennai and Pondicherry throughout the day and it is rather safe road to drive. Closer to sunset, the traffic peaks with people trying to get home before dark. ECR is a beautiful sight in the night indeed with the glowing neon road markings with thermoplastic reflective paints and cats eye delineators. But it’s the stray animals that could kill with their surprise entry.
Once we got to Pondicherry incident-free, we decided to spend the day there and head back early in the morning. With the rains unleashing their fury on the roads late in the evening, we were glad we were indoors.
But as luck would have it, it rained all night. The roads were wet, a light drizzle accompanied us till Mahabalipuram in the morning. But then, we had asked for adventure, right?
The same night I got back, I hit the road again to head to my office. Ten metres later, the bike chain slipped. Took me a while to fix it and 100 metres later, it slipped again. It was close to midnight and I had no option but to ride at 10 km per hour to get to work and sign in before 1 a.m. I asked for this, didn’t I? I’m glad I got away riding at that speed for 10 kms when it could’ve been worse.