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Travel
June 24, 2020

Switching Gears

All Images by EFly Tours Team

Providing visitors to Hampi with alternative sightseeing opportunities, EFly Tours arranges low-carbon-footprint electric bicycle rides through the UNESCO World Heritage temple town, including diversions to lesser-frequented spots in the surrounding villages. The company’s founders, Vinay Manohar and Arun Varma, talk ecotourism with Aalika Mahindra as she recounts her serendipitous experience of venturing off the beaten track

My presumably garden-variety tourist persona falls squarely between the overachieving hyperactives and the mellow leisure seekers. As much as I take pleasure in checking off every item on an itinerary, I also find it intensely frustrating that this triumph seems to be preconditioned by the tensions of racing against the clock.

From the time-crunched tourist’s perspective today, Hampi could strike one as having been sadistically engineered to set in motion that dreaded FOMO. As the transcendent ruins of its ancient empires fan out over almost 42 square kilometres from the central Virupaksha Temple, to organise a three-day trip there requires considerable premeditation and a fair grasp of the art of elimination. When travelling, however, chance can become an accomplice of order, not an impediment to carefully laid plans but an instrument to soften the demands of perfection.

It’s the second evening of our stay at the Heritage Resort Hampi during early, pre-coronavirus February. My partner and I are trudging back into the hotel, clammy and dust-laden after hours of exploration, when an energetic young man brandishing a pamphlet blocks the way. My fatigued protests are no match for this suspected shill’s persistence — and genuineness, I shortly have to concede. Nazmi informs us that he represents EFly Tours; it’s a startup that organises electric bicycle excursions around Hampi’s popular monuments and the surrounding villages, which range from three to eight hours and promise to lead you away from conventionally taken routes. His imperative, delivered multiple times with unswerving confidence: we must not miss the “Chase the Sun” tour, departing at 5:30 a.m. Following a brief brain-versus-body skirmish over sacrificing sleep and schedule at the altar of adventure, I agree to sign up. Yielding to serendipity is admittedly a turn-on, a cheap thrill suffused in rebellion. The less self-serving and much more significant after-effect of my choice, though, would be the lower carbon emissions of this journey relative to the same one if made by car.

One ‘morning’ later, the tour group, which comprises the both of us and two pre-teen boys from Hyderabad, is rounded up at the designated meeting area on our hotel’s property. We each pick one from a line-up of acid-green e-bikes with complex-looking buttons and dials. They all have lightweight aluminium frames and are equipped with 21-speed Shimano gears and rechargeable lithium batteries. Vinay Manohar, the chattier co-founder of EFly Tours, steps in with a detailed run-down of the features and the dos and don’ts as his partner, Arun Varma, silently looks on. In a reassuring moment, Manohar sternly refuses to continue until the boys redirect their wandering attentions to the safety briefing. I learn how easy it is to familiarise myself with the mechanism, only recalibrating mentally to place greater trust in a vehicle that does the majority of the work — these models have a pedal assist in addition to an electric throttle, so the motor is efficiently powered up for cruising by using the pedals rather than a thumb throttle.

The 20-kilometre tour takes a little over three hours and is organised around a selection of untravelled spots: a tranquil sunrise viewpoint; a surreal teak forest where the trees grow in remarkably symmetrical rows, as if reflected in an infinity mirror (and where wild peacocks often appear); a visit to a silkworm farm to watch thousands of delicate larvae feasting on mulberry leaves in preparation for spinning their valuable cocoons; a tour of a sugarcane field and a jaggery-making unit that has, absurdly, a turkey darting around goldenrod slabs of the finished, crystalline gud. It’s a straightforward and strain-free ride apart from a short, off-roading detour where the uninitiated might take longer to find their feet. Besides the eminently patient Varma, a trained “EFly Guru” also follows at the rear and keeps an eye on the group in case anyone requires assistance. Our ‘off-site’ expedition winds up with the longer scenic road back to the starting point, allowing us to glide alongside lustrous rice paddies and over a glinting olive-toned canal.

Was this deviation worth it? I asked at the vacation’s end, recalling how I briefly wilted under a haze of regret over lost time while having to rush through the extraordinary Royal Enclosure and eventually skip the anticipated visit to the Kishkinda Trust store. My memory then drifted back to the climactic moments in which we were perched on a mighty boulder and the sky was yet unlit. To when the concept of seconds and minutes and hours fleetingly disintegrated as a burnished sun materialised in the same rosy blue vastness inhabited by the crescent moon — and the question itself was rendered meaningless.

MISSION POSSIBLE

What were you doing before you started EFlyTours?
Vinay Manohar (VM): We also own an event management company based in Bengaluru. Arun handles the technicals and production, and I handle the sales, marketing and the execution. We have a lot of experience with events but have always been looking forward to doing something new.

What inspired you to venture into ecotourism? What do you hope to achieve?
Arun Varma (AV): It was our long-term plan to venture into the EV [electric vehicle] tourism industry, and we wanted to introduce a new way of connecting to or exploring places through an enriching experience of the local culture, history, food and so on. We also hoped to bring all that’s unseen into the limelight in an eco-friendly way. And, electric vehicles are going to be the future of transportation.

Why Hampi?
VM: The main reason is that Arun is from Hampi. But it’s also one of the top destinations on our list because of its significant history, magnificent architecture and the many hidden aspects to explore and discover. Our curated itineraries are perfectly suited to showcase Hampi to travellers.

What would you say is missing institutionally, as far as facilitating sustainable travel is concerned — both on a large scale and for smaller businesses like yours?
AV: The Karnataka government has taken several steps to improve and promote sustainable travel. But, the most important factor is the need for the government to increase the usage of electric vehicles by using renewable resources. This would drastically reduce pollution and will not endanger public health or the ecosystem. The government should also support EV tourism startups like ours by providing funding for expansion and should grant permission to access properties for tours.

In your opinion, what is the biggest hurdle for the ecotourism industry?
AV: The lack of economy growth, technological skills and innovative implementations, as well as not enough usage of renewable resources and low-emission technologies.

Do your customers care about sustainability?
VM: Most travellers look for their own comfort zones and are taking baby steps to contribute to the environment. But yes, we do come across a lot of people who travel with a light carbon footprint and are responsible, which is very inspiring. They always take the opportunity to leave something good behind by taking the proper environmental actions, protecting the culture and natural heritage of the places they visit and practicing good social and economic actions.

How do you incorporate mindfulness for the environment in your personal lives?
AV: We care deeply about our environment, and it requires mindful attention to our daily habits such as avoiding single-use plastic, saving water, using public transportation, renewable resources, local produce and energy-efficient appliances, recycling and repurposing, planting trees and involving like-minded people in discussions.

What’s been the biggest lesson while setting up an environmentally conscious travel company? And what has been the most exciting achievement?
AV: Each step of success has been a victory for us in the course of this journey — from planning and executing every single itinerary to the property acquisition. But the most exciting achievement is when guests return from the tours and share their joy in participating, which truly keeps us going.

Who are your role models when it comes to sustainable practices?
AV: We respect every single individual across the globe who has been playing a role in saving this planet.

Do you have an ultimate personal travel goal?
VM: I want to travel around the world and learn about how other countries are being environment-friendly. I also want to further educate myself about the ecotourism business, so I can implement those learnings here.

How did your views change as your involvement in this business grew?
VM: Well, I have realised that merely trying to reduce our carbon footprint is not enough. Problems like the lack of water conservation, improper waste-disposal systems, excessive energy consumption, non-recyclable consumer products that lead to more waste and so on, all work like a puzzle: each piece needs to be fixed at the earliest to save the environment.

What are your plans for expansion?
AV: Our major focus will be on major tourist destinations in Karnataka. Next, we are targeting Mysuru, Coorg, Gokarna, Chikkamagaluru and a few more cities. We definitely hope to expand into other states because we want to make this planet a better place for the generations to come.

Things must be challenging, given the recent pandemic. Is it hard to stay positive during times like these?
VM: The pandemic is shaking up all businesses and consumer behaviour on a massive scale, and it has affected us as well. The hard part is that we had to temporarily shut down even before the lockdown was declared, to be on the safe side. While we know that this situation will come to an end, we need to pay attention to the news reports, stay at home with family and make our plans of action for the future accordingly — and just stay safe.

*At the time of publishing, EFly Tours had shifted base to Mysuru and is on a hiatus until the lockdown is lifted. E-bike tours will resume once there are no more travel restrictions — first in Mysuru and, eventually, Hampi. But due to the recent Supreme Court-ordered demolitions on ‘Hippie Island’ (Virupapura Gadde), only two excursions will be on offer in the latter.

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