For the first time in our four years together, I’m philandering. And I have no excuses. She’s been good to me, faithful companion and helpmeet through good times and bad. She’s never been one of those greedy, high maintenance lasses, she’s always been there when I needed her. But, I have to confess, there have been times when I thought she was a trifle, well, staid. And that, I try to tell myself, can cause a man to stray.
Still, as I back my 800 into the shade of the awning of Shama and Guido Bothe’s workshop in Karlekhind, near Alibag, I cannot help but silently apologise to her for my brazenness.
But when I walk over to the sleek, powerful creature that will be my ride for the next few days, all decency is left behind.
She is the Chinkara 1.8 S roadster, and I have known her all her life. Her creators are dear friends: Shama I know since she was five; and Guido I got to know when they were courting. The Chinkara is, in a manner of speaking, the first child of their marriage. I was privy to the first sketches; watched her chassis being welded together; had long encouraging chats with Shama as they scrimped and saved and borrowed time from his original business, boatmaking, to put her together; helped create their logo and sales literature. And I watched like a proud godparent as she made her debutante entry at the Mumbai Auto Show last year, and continued to steal hearts at expos in Goa, Bangalore and Delhi. The metaphors are getting incestuous, so I’ll cut to the chase.
This is the first time I’m going to be in the driving seat, and I am intimidated.
I’m not one of your vastly experienced drivers who hare off cross-country at the drop of a long weekend. I only got my driving license three years ago. And I’m a cautious, safe driver. Or as less automotively-challenged friends put it, I’m a wimp behind the wheel.
And this is a lot of car. Her pared down body is powered with a 1,800 cc Isuzu engine, the same one that hauls the Ambassador’s bulk around. While her road clearance is as high as a jeep’s, the seat of your pants is just a few inches of the floor. She has a small racing steering wheel, and wide tyres. She is open to the skies, with a roll bar rising above the driver’s head.
We load up the Chink and the Bothes’ Nissan pick-up, and Atul Loke, the photographer, and I slide into the low seats. If Guido is apprehensive about me driving his baby, he doesn’t show it as he helps us adjust the three-point racing seat belts. This is his personal test vehicle, and all his cars are custom-made to the owner’s body and preferred driving style. The distance between the pedals is just enough for his size eight moccasins. My size ten sandals overlap the gaps; so I resign myself to driving barefoot for the next three days.
I turn the key, and am rewarded with a powerful roar. It’s amazing what that Isuzu engine can sound like when it’s out from under the hood of its usual home.
Our first stop is Alibag, 10 km away, to fuel up. As we drive through its crowded lanes, Atul and I have our first taste of what it must feel like to be part of a celebrity’s entourage. In your heart you know the attention is not for you, but you can’t help basking in the reflected glory.
I am now beginning to understand why sports cars play such a large role in a mid-life crisis.
The attendants at the petrol pump are proudly possessive; this is, after all, her home pump. Children gawk unabashedly. Even blase city slickers fuelling up for their drive home to Mumbai after a weekend at their beach houses cannot conceal their curiosity and power down their tinted windows to steal a wistful glimpse.
Rather than backtrack to Vadkhal Naka to catch NH17 to Poladpur, we have decided to take the scenic route to Mahabaleshwar via the coast. So we head off South to Murud. At every street corner we hear words that will be repeated countless times by onlookers over the next three days: “Thé bhug! Gaadi bhug!”
When we reach the open road, I tentatively step on the gas. And she leaps forward, free at last from speedbreakers and narrow by-lanes. Within seconds, my eyes are streaming despite my dark glasses. For, while the Chinkara does come with a windshield, Guido think they are effete things, and has taken it off the test vehicle. The wind, as a result, roars in at you, almost drowning out the engine. This is just like riding a bike - if the bike had a 1.8 litre engine, and the stability of four wheels.
The road twists and turns, so we can’t really give the Chinkara her head. Even so, she seems to be straining a bit, and in the middle of the next village, the engine shuts off and refuses to start up again. We dig out cellphones and SOS the Bothes, and they backtrack to us. We, meanwhile, have been surrounded by a curious throng, who loudly exchange theories about the car’s provenance.
Guido hasn’t been having a great week. Busy with the launch of a client’s boat for most of it, he had been reluctant to make the trip. Our Chinkara had been up on blocks; he had to pull his mechanics off another job to get her ready. Now, his face turns beetroot as he finds that while he was at the pier, one of his boys has taken a shortcut and stretched the radiator hose to fit rather than add a join. The pipe has worked loose, and the radiator was dry. My inexperience has almost lost them a brand new engine. A shopkeeper gives us buckets of water, and Guido fills up the radiator, showing amazing forbearance in not cussing me out.
We set out again, and the beauty of the wide curves of the coastal road wipes away all the stress of the last hour. In the twilight we stop off at Kashid beach to breathe fresh sea air, pluck a few aloe plants and check the car. The engine temperature is higher than it should be, and Guido is sure there’s a leak somewhere. We decide to press on to Murud anyway – the car uses two Maruti radiators in tandem, and our ad-watching tells us we’ll soon find a Ladakhi lad who’ll tell us where the nearest service centre is. It is dark now; I have to doff my glares. Not anticipating night driving, i have no clear lenses. Insects on steroids aim unerringly for my face; despite the cooler air, I am sweating at the thought of being unsighted and losing control of the car. Somehow we do not wrap ourselves around any trees, and a couple of radiator-replenishing stops later, we pull into a guest house at Murud. We dump bags and immediately head out in search of service centres. Alas and alack, the nearest radiators seem to be back in Alibag. But Shama has friends here, members of the extended royal family of the former Nawabs of Murud, who introduce us to their bespoke mechanic. Who finds nothing wrong with the radiator.
Baffled, but relieved, we go in search of dinner and beer. At a sea-side restaurant, we feast on prawns, curried and fried, while Atul, the only vegetarian, wolfs down a fried rice.
Early next morning, Atul and Guido head off to the beach to take some photographs. When they return, the frown is back on Guido’s face. The engine is overheating again. He departs in search of another mechanic. Several hours later, he returns, and confirms that there was indeed a leak. Repairs finished, we set off in the heat of the afternoon sun. Having breakfasted heavily on eggs and poha, we decide to skip lunch. Guido is pretty sure there’s a road South and East of Murud which would take us to NH17. As the road rises, we get a magnificent view from above of Janjira fort, that Siddi bastion that had defied all human efforts to conquer it, and is only now losing its battle against time. The road rises and swoops down in long curves, before ascending a small slope and passing through another fishing town.
Then civilisation is left behind and it’s a full technical rehearsal for the Mahabaleshwar ghat. Step climbs, hairpin bends, bumpy descents, State Highway 96 has it all. I can feel my confidence growing. SH96 joins NH17 about 45 km before Mahad. Though the road is now wide and mostly straight, I can’t really put pedal to the metal because of the number of trucks and busses on the road. Still, having all those horses pulling for you makes overtaking a pleasure. Besides the wicked joy of seeing an entire busload of people gape as we shriek past.
Just past Mahad, we stop to fuel up. We are more than 24 hours behind schedule and Atul is muttering darkly. He’s missed the best light. Again. But at a pit stop at a lone roadside tea stall, he does manage to get some shots of some ancient Buddhist cave temples on the nearby hillside. He decides that he will salvage something out of the day by driving for a bit. We hit Poladpur, where we leave NH17 and take the road to the foot of the Mahabaleshwar ghat.
The sun is now almost down, and we start the serious climb in the gloaming. We make two stops on the way up, one to watch the last of the sunlight struggle to penetrate the haze causes by dozens of grass fires on the slopes below, another in pitch blackness, just to drink in the silence and the starlight. Atul has surrendered the wheel to me now, and I am enjoying myself hugely. The car makes easy work of the climb, managing all but the steepest gradients in third gear. We reach the top near 9 p.m. The lads at the Visitors’ Tax booth are fascinated with the Chinkara, and assume, seeing Atul’s camera, that we’re one of the three film crews shooting in the vicinity.
Instead of crowded Mahbi, we’re heading for the quieter surroundings of Panchgani. We wend our way through the busy streets and then the quick half hour drive to Panch. I had misread a friend’s directions, and we are soon the star attraction of the bazaar as we try to locate out guesthouse. Several passers-by volunteer contradictory directions, but a phone call later, we get into our rooms, stow away the luggage and head out in search of dinner. Atul has commanded us to be awake at dawn, so we settle down early.
My insomnia rising, I go out and sit in the car. The silence, and the clean air, are balm, but the insects beg to differ, so I duck back in, and, surprise, fall asleep immediately.
Early next morn, we head off to Harrison’s Folly, just out of town. An elongated oblong plateau that pokes far out into the Krishna valley, it is a wonderful alternative to the much larger Tableland above Panch, where the guidebooks insist you should watch the sunrise from, and which is consequently crowded and litter-strewn. In relative solitude, we watch a tandem paraglider attempt to lift off, and take skidding turns to raise dust clouds for Atul’s camera.
At breakfast, we decide that the delays warrant an extra day. While the others wander around the market, I head off to visit friends of my parents. The Wyebrows, after an early retirement, had sold their Navi Mumbai house and now rent an apartment that is a part of the 150-year-old Maidstone Virjee estate, a stately olde worlde property with a magnificent view of the Krishna Valley. As we chat in their verandah, one again I wonder why I continue to live in the city, and once again i make an addition to the list of places I’d rather live in.
After a late lunch, we head back to Mahbi. En route, at the strawberry stalls near Venna Lake Shama tries to charm various shop owners into letting her pluck a few kilos of strawberries, apparently a fantasy she has nurtured since childhood. Winning smiles do not work, however, and she sulks as we drive through the town. Our fan club at the Tourist Tax booth wave indulgently as we head back down slope. While Shama drives the Chinkara behind us, Atul balances precariously on the flatbed of the pickup, with me anchoring him to the vehicle as we sway through the curves by clinging to a rope around his waist. Wild people, these photographers!
We head back to Panch for a late cuppa, and decide to move base to Eco-camp, run by Megan and Andre Savard. Andre is an old paragliding buddy of Guido’s, and their property stretches down the hillside. On a flat area, they have pitched tents for rent with all mod cons (fans, lights and mattresses, loos and baths in a separate block), and a breathtaking view of the valley. Megan tells us that the paragliding fraternity, who have adopted the place as a kind of local HQ, now take off from there, and think nothing of making landings in the entrance flaps of their own tents. I step gingerly back from the drop, my vertigo going into overdrive.
Andre wakes us with filter coffee that would dissolve a teaspoon, and we breakfast with his family before heading off down to Wai. SH72 is easy peasy on this side of the mountain. The roads are getting their pre-monsoon resurfacing and are in much better shape than the Mahbi side. We hit the flat land and zoom through Wai and Surul, where we get on to NH4. After a few kilometres of “normal” highway, the road changes dramatically. Expressway-standard, it is broad and well maintained, and the curves are long and smooth. I callously ignore Atul’s offer to drive and for the first time, I push the speedometer needle above 100 and leave Shama and Guido well behind. When we stop to pay toll, I reflect that it’s the best Rs 11 I have ever contributed to the powers that maintain our roads.
But soon we come to the long stretch before Pune where road widening for the PM’s Golden Quadrilateral is in full swing, and the driveable width narrows to two lanes. The Chinkara grumbles as we get stuck behind a convoy of trucks who refuse to leave enough gaps to overtake. We bypass Pune’s traffic by taking the Katrej turn-off, and join the Mumbai Pune Expressway.
This is the Promised Land. Once more, I floor it, but she is not as responsive this time around. Several Qualises – the ignominy! – pass us. And the engine temperature is rising again. We pull to the side at the toll plaza, and wait for the Bothes to catch up. Again, my inexperience has almost cost them a small fortune. A nut had worked its way loose, and the exhaust pipe was close to falling off. Guido gets to work once more, and refrains from making any remarks about the nut behind the wheel, remarking mildly that I should have stopped when the engine first changed sound.
Chastened, I keep the needle at a demure 80kph till we reach Khopoli. Atul and I need to go west pronto, and the Bothes South to Alibag, to get their new three-seater Chinkara variant ready for its buyer’s visit in two days. So we switch cars, and Atul and i find ourselves feeling out of place within the enclosed cabin and seemingly stilt-high seats of the Nissan. It’s a good vehicle, and we cruise effortlessly at 90, with renewed respect for windshields, but... it’s not a Chinkara.
Oh yes, my 800. I must go pick the old girl up from Alibag one of these days.
Drive - The Information
From Mumbai, head out via Chembur and the Thane Creek Bridge. At Vashi, you have two choices. The straightforward one: stay on the Sion Panvel Road, turn right at Panvel to follow the Goa road (NH17) via Karnala and Pen to Vadkhal Naka (36km from Panvel)
The road less travelled: get through the Vashi Toll Naka, cross the Vashi bypass flyover, and immediately as you come of it, take the exit to the left, that curves underneath to join Palm Beach road. Zoom down the best road in Mumbai and its neighbourhood for 10km, and when you hit the first signal, turn right. The road first crosses Panvel Creek, then the road from Uran to Panvel. You could either go left to Panvel, and then follow the route above, or if you’re in the mood for a little adventure, go straight ahead. The narrow road, in surprisingly good condition, especially considering I haven’t seen it on any map, winds through forested stretches of land, fields, a small ghat, and a few villages. You will pass, at most, one ST bus and a couple of motorcycles en route. The road joins NH17 about 10km short of Pen. From there, head on to Vadkhal.
At Vadkhal, whichever way you chose to get there, you might want to stop and have a chai and its famous vada-pavs. From Vadkhal, you again have two alternatives. Either turn left at the petrol pump and follow the Goa road, NH17, to Poladpur (108km), which means trucks and busses all the way, or continue on South, to Alibag (24km), which is what we did. From Alibag, head on down the beautiful coastal road towards Shrivardhan. You will pass Revdanda, Korlai, Kashid (worth at least a brief stop, if not a halt) and finally, Murud-Janjira (54km from Alibag). We were way behind schedule, with a dicky radiator, so we didn’t carry on down to Shrivardhan as planned. But the essence of a drive trip isn’t the destination, it’s the journey. If you decide to carry on South, you’re in luck if you’re doing the trip on a two-wheeler: you can take the ferry across the creek, otherwise it’s a longish detour inland before you can swing back to the coast.
From Murud (after you’ve filled up on petrol and food), head out South and West, to SH96. The road is demanding, with plenty of slopes and hairpins, and will prime you for the more difficult Mahabaleshwar climb. There’s precious little in the way of service stations or petrol pumps en route, so make sure your vehicle is in good shape before you set out.
SH96 joins NH17 about 45km before Mahad. Pass right on through, and look out for a petrol pump on your right as you leave the town. If you haven’t filled up already, or if there’s any suspicious noises emanating from under the hood, get it checked now. On the way, keep a look out on your left for some ancient Buddhist cave temples carved into the hillside. There’s a roadside chai stall where you could park your car if you’re feeling energetic enough to clamber up to the temples. 20km from Mahad, you come to Poladpur, which is your turn off for Mahabaleshwar.
From Poladpur to Mahabaleshwar, the map swears there’s s straight 42km road. We were in too much of a hurry to check the distance, but I can tell you that that straight line is a lie. The road twists and turns like a snake with an itch. You should try to make sure you get here way before sunset. The climb is something you’d rather do in daylight. There are parts where road maintenance work has narrowed the carriageway considerably, and while the drops are not as dizzying as, for example, the mountain roads of Garwahl, they can be just as fatal. Added hazards are overloaded local jeep taxis who know every curve by heart and drive accordingly, motorbikes saving fuel by driving with their lights off, and city types who haven’t learned to dip their headlights and who want to overtake whether there is place or not.
At Mahabaleshwar, there’s plenty of places to eat and stay, but I recommend heading on through to quieter Panchgani. (18km). We stayed one night at a pretty spartan private guest house, just out of town, run by Mayflower Restaurant (Rs 400 per double room Ph: 02168-242040/70, email: firstname.lastname@example.org ), and moved the second night to Eco-Camp, which has tents with mattresses, fans and lights (Rs 150 per person, ph: 02168-241164, 022-22021409, email: email@example.com). Both places have fantastic views, though at the guesthouse you have to walk down the lane to see anything. There is plenty of other accommodation, though we didn’t have the time to check them out individually. Prices range from a few hundred for a room with a bed and shared loos to a couple of thousand rupees a day that gets you health club, disco, kiddie play area and suchlike thrown in.
In Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, there’s plenty of lovely walks to be had, and for the more atheletic, hikes to the nearby plateaus, horse and camel rides, bicycles to hire, and paragliding. Strawberries are just hitting the market but even if you go off season, Mapro and Mala have outlets that sell jams, crushes and preserves. There’s also mulberries and raspberries and lots of other fruit to bring back home at a fraction of the cost that you’d pay at a Mumbai traffic signal.
For the return trip, you could retrace your steps, or if work demands your quick return to the city, take the longer, but much faster Pune route. Head down from Panchgani via SH72, through Wai to Surul (25km) and then North via the mostly excellent NH4 to Pune (77km). Unless you have a hankering for Shrewesbury biscuits or yearn to visit the German Bakery and the Osho Ashram, you could bypass Pune by taking the Katrej cut off, which joins up with the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. This is one stretch of road you need not worry about getting stranded on. Regular patrols cruise the entire route, there are clearly marked phone kiosks at regular intervals, and the signage is very helpful, telling you at least a kilometre in advance of exits, tunnels, and stopover points. These stopovers have petrol pumps, restaurants and shops, in case you want a quick fill up of body or machine. You can cruise all the way back to Bombay or detour at Kamset (33km, to visit the Bedsa Caves), or make chikki-and-fudge-purchasing halts at Lonavala (50km from Pune) or Khandala (another 5km). 42km from Khandala, and you exit the Expressway just after Panvel, and take the Sion-Panvel road back into the city.
Meals are available at any of the places along the way. The basic travellers’ rule applies: make sure it’s freshly cooked. You might want to carry your own water though. Along the coastal leg of the route, you’re in luck if you’re a seafood fan. Better still, I recommend that you carry a picnic lunch along and stop under the shade of a nice tree or at a deserted beach somewhere far away from the nearest town to devour it.
Neither Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar seem like great foodie places, but there’s as much variety as you’ll find in any Mumbai suburb, from idlis and dosas to Gujarati thalis, via burgers and pizzas and strawberry milkshakes and filter coffees. We did hear of wonderful Parsi food at Prospect Hotel, but we didn’t get the chance to sample it.
Remember that highway driving is a very different prospect from city traffic jams. Average speeds are much higher, and accidents happen frequently, mostly when someone, drunk on the thrill of speed, tries a foolish overtaking manoeuvre. Trucks and busses abound, and while they are more courteous than their reputations would have one believe, you will get the odd roadhog or drunk, so it pays to be careful. My driving school instructor’s first bit of advice to me holds good: drive like everyone else on the road is a ch******.
In the night, particularly, beware of the ones who do not dip their headlights. The instant of blindness after an approaching headlight catches you full in the face can be terrifying. A useful tip: do your best to look down into the beam thrown by your own lights, though it’s difficult to avoid the hypnotic pull of the lights approaching you.
On the ghats: honk (and flash your headlights after dark) before blind curves around shoulders; overtake with extreme caution; and the vehicle going up slope has the right of way.
The climbs are not nearly difficult enough to demand a four-wheel drive, but it wouldn’t hurt. Check fuel levels and any problems with your vehicle in the bigger towns.
The round-trip route we took gives you a taste of everything barring snow-covered passes and deserts, with fabulous scenery, especially on the way out.
You don’t really need a night halt. Panvel-Mahabaleshwar via NH17 is roughly 190km, Panchgani-Panvel via Pune is 215km, and you could cover the length of either route during daylight hours, even at moderate speeds and with frequent halts, especially if you have someone to share the driving with you. But if you have the time and inclination, Kashid or Murud are good places to halt, and perhaps take a dip in the sea. On the way back, you could detour to Khandala or Lonavala before you hit the plains.
Published (in a much-edited version) in Outlook Traveller, in a column called The Drive, April 2004
Tags: Outlook Traveller