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Travel - Call of the Highways

A first-person account of a car journey from Delhi to Kottayam-a distance of about 3,000 kilometres-in five days.

Driving has always been my first love. I have always thought of driving through the country, shooting pictures at will, absorbing the different cultures of the people and tasting various foods. So when Bobby Mathew, a dear friend and general manager of Worldwide Adventures India (Private) Limited asked me if I would be interested in driving down with him to Kottayam in south Kerala in his Santro, it was an offer too tempting to resist.

The distance from Delhi to Kottayam is roughly 3,000 kilometres, and I figured out that if we could log 600 kilometers a day, it would take us about five days to reach our destination. We decided to take the western route till Goa and then hit the picturesque Konkan coast route to reach Kerala.

Delhi to Ahmedabad

The golden rule while going on a long drive is to start early, and therefore we left Delhi at four in the morning on the first day with Bobby at the wheel. We took National Highway (NH) 8 which starts from Dhaula Kuan in Delhi and goes right up to Mumbra near Mumbai. The four-laned road from Delhi to Jaipur is ideal for driving, and tearing down NH-8 at 130 kilometres per hour, we passed Neemrana (famous for its fort) at six. We reached Jaipur after an hour, and had our morning cup of tea against the backdrop of the Amer Fort, which looked beautiful basking in the early rays of the sun. After a small cursory check of the car, we were back on the road. Our next stop was an impressive highway hotel called Jo-Hukam, about 100 kilometres from Jaipur and 20 kilometres from a place called Dudu. The nicely landscaped hotel was an ideal place for breakfast. We feasted ourselves on delicious paranthas and tea and stretched our legs on the well laid out lawns.

I took to the wheel from here. We zipped past Ajmer at 11:05 in the forenoon. The Dargah of Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti is the only thing worth mentioning about this place. The fuel gauge in our car warned us that we were running out of petrol. We filled the tank at Beawar in Rajasthan. With the sun beating down, we did not stop anywhere till Udaipur at 3:30 in the afternoon. We had a moderate lunch-while driving for such long distances, it is advisable to drink lots of fluids and avoid heavy meals as it makes one lethargic-at Sasural Restaurant and relaxed for about half an hour. Driving continuously, we reached Ratanpur on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border and took a tea break for about 20 minutes at seven in the evening. By now, the weather had cooled and we lifted the bonnet of the car to let the nice breeze give respite to the engine.

Just after entering Gujarat, we filled the petrol tank for the second time at Himmatnagar. We reached Ahmedabad at nine in the night and checked into Hotel Taj Residency Ummed. The refreshing bath and a lavish dinner recharged our batteries. We had logged 915 kilometres, crossed four railway gates and paid toll in three places. The progress was more than satisfactory-we had exceeded our 600 kilometre per day limit. We felt satisfied and went to bed.

Ahmedabad to Manor

The next morning, we left Taj Residency at 9:20 after an elaborate buffet breakfast and paid the price for not starting early. We got stuck in the office-hour traffic. As a result, we could log only 31 kilometres in the first hour. We passed Anand (the headquarters of Amul India) at 11:20 and could not resist having our fill of delicious ice-creams which were as cheap as Rs 4 for a large scoop. The urge to drink tea made us stop at a wayside restaurant in Vadodara at 12:15 in the afternoon. The tea was as sweet as the ice-cream we had eaten in Anand, and I wondered how diabetics in Gujarat managed.

From here onwards, traffic became dense. After passing through several railway gates, we reached Navsari at 3:00 in the afternoon and stopped for lunch at Hotel Sai Kripa. We reached Bhilad, near the border of Gujarat-Maharashtra, at 7:30 in the evening. We halted for light snacks and tea at a nice little dhaba. I noticed top-of-the-range cars whizzing past us and came to know that they were headed for Selvas (capital of Dadra & Nagar Haveli), the union territory where petrol is very cheap and alcohol is freely available. Gujarat, being a dry state, Selvas is the watering hole for all Gujaratis where they can also get a full tank of gas at a subsidised rate.

We entered Maharashtra at Talasari. The winding roads from Talasari demanded that we drive slowly and carefully. We reached Manor at 9:45 in the night and checked into a small resort called Rosy Resort Manor. After a simple vegetarian meal, we hit the bed. The score on day two was well below average-only 471 kilometres after crossing nine railway gates and paying toll at four places.

Manor to Panjim

We did not want to repeat the mistake in Ahmedabad and left Manor at 6:00 in the morning after a quick cup of tea. The road from Manor to Godhbandar is smooth and we clocked 55 kilometres in just 40 minutes, with Bobby testing our Santro on speed. But our joy was short-lived as the ghat section of the Satmala Hill range just after Chena slowed us down from 120 kilometres per hour to 30 kilometres per hour until Kasarvadavati. The poor mobile network in Maharashtra disappointed us. There was no signal even on the outskirts of Thane which is so close to Mumbai.

People tend to get confused at Majiwada, just after Thane. One has to take a left on the Thane-Bhiwandi bypass, keep going straight and take another left from Mumbra Toll checkpost for Panvel. We had breakfast at Panvel at 8:30 a.m. in an open-air restaurant overlooking the hills. The odometer reading stood exactly at 1,500 kilometres-we had covered half the distance. From here, the route was so scenic and pleasing that Bobby had a tough time, stopping at every turn on the road for me to take photographs. The Konkan coast is known for its small uninhabited beaches and dilapidated forts. The drive from here to Goa is beautiful as the road lies between the railway track and the sea. It was only 9:00 in the morning and the natural waterfalls dotting the landscape looked like pearls falling out of the rocks as the rays of the sun hit them at an angle.

We reached Poladpur at 11:40 a.m. and stopped for a nice cup of ginger tea at a restaurant. One can go to Mahabaleshwar (only 38 kilometres from here), a quaint and popular hill station with its cool climate. From here, the roads are slippery and the ghat section with a tough gradient extend right up till Khed.

We had some coconut water at Chiplun at 1:00 in the afternoon. Our next refilling of petrol was at Ratnagiri Bypass at 2:45 p.m. and we stopped for lunch. After a well-deserved break, we drove past the small hamlets of Lanja, Oni and Kunkavali with the setting sun bathing the coastal landscape in golden light till we reached the border of Maharashtra-Goa at Patradevi at 7:30 in the evening. We halted for 20 minutes and had light snacks and tea. At about 8.30, we reached Panjim in Goa and checked into Hotel Marriott on Miramar beach. This wonderfully landscaped five-star hotel with its friendly front-office staff was like a tonic for our tired souls. The icing on the cake was our sea-facing room which overlooked the Arabian Sea. The full moon in all its glory was casting a beautiful play of light on the watery landscape silhouetting a solitary boatman and I whipped out my Nikon to capture the scene.

We had ordered dinner and could not wait to dig into the Goan cuisine. We ended our four-course meal with a dessert known as dodol which was in total contrast to the sweets we had tasted in Gujarat. After a small but refreshing walk, we came back to our room. We had done 630 kilometers for the day and paid toll in three places.

Panjim to Calicut

After a cup of tea, we were out of our room by 6:00 in the morning. After driving through states as ethnic and rural as Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, this place was a welcome change for us. The nine-yard saris of Marathi women gave way to skirts, and the earthy cuisine was replaced by the spicy and mouth-watering sea food. The laidback Maharashtrians were a total contrast to the flamboyant and fun-loving Goans. The rising sun was making the sea look bright red and I quickly took a few shots from the lobby before leaving. Miramar Beach in Panaji is a quiet beach but a popular site for Goa’s food and music festival.

We left at 9:15 a.m. and stopped at Canacona, an hour and a half later, to buy some wine and rum. Goa is a state where alcohol is the cheapest. I bought a couple of bottles of feni (the local Goan drink), which were as cheap as Rs 40 for 750 ml. One must obtain a permit to take them out of the state as there may be checks on the border.

We reached the Goa-Karnataka border at 11:15 in the forenoon and had another refill of the tank at Karwar, about half and hour away. The sleepy port town of Karwar reflected the mood of the people in this place. Karwar is very picturesque as the foothills of the Western Ghats come right up till the coast. I was told by the petrol pump attendant that lots of foreigners come to this place to take some spectacular photographs from the bridge over the river. We drove past the small coastal towns of Kumta, Honavar and Bhatkal before stopping for lunch at Udipi. Masala dosa was the perfect choice which according to legend was created here.

We heaved a loud sigh of relief and excitement as we entered Kerala at 5:00 in the evening and halted for tea and snacks at a small kiosk. By now, we had logged 2,400 kilometres and were only 600 kilometres away from Kottayam. We passed Kasargode at 5:30 p.m. and Kannur at 7:45 p.m. which is my hometown. Kannur has, only one thing of significance-the Parrisinikadavu Temple which is 16 kilometres north-east on the Kannur-Mysore highway. After driving for another nine kilometres, we reached Mahe at 8:45 in the night. The fuel gauge had already started warning us that we were running out of petrol, but I was adamant that the next re-filing would be at Mahe as petrol is the cheapest here than anywhere else in the country. This independent colony of Kerala reminded us of Goa with its wine shops and easy-going culture. At 10.15 p.m. we reached Kozhikode and checked into hotel Taj Residency. After a nice bath and dinner, we hit the bed. We had logged 630 kilometres, crossed 10 railway gates and paid toll in three places. As our destination, Kottayam was only 300 kilometres away, we could afford to get up late the next morning

Kozhikode to Kottayam

After breakfast, we left Taj Residency at 10:30 am. The brakes of the car were not as hard as we had wanted them to be, and we stopped at a Hyundai service station for repairs. Our next halt for tea was at Kottakkal, a place known for its Ayurvedic healing centres. We drove past Kuttipuram at 1:20 p.m. And from the bridge, I took some photographs of the river called Bharatapuzha (literally meaning Indian river) which is at its widest here. We spent 20 minutes at the Guruvayoor Temple near Thrissur at 2:30 in the afternoon. This is one of Kerala’s holiest and most revered temples. I offered money in all the bhandarams (donation boxes).

We again hit the road with the sun at its rudest and stopped for cold drinks at a place called Thottakattukara near Alwaye where NH-17 ends and NH-47 starts. At 3:30 in the afternoon, we halted for lunch at hotel Sarovaram on Ernakulam Bypass. This artistic motel on the highway looked like some old-style Kerala architectural bungalow. We freshened up and had a sumptuous lunch till 4:30 p.m. and decided not to stop till we reached home. We drove past Chertala at 5:00 and Alappuzha at 5:35 in the evening. This pleasant and easy-going market-town is known as the Venice of India. Wherever you turn your head, you see only water. The famous annual Kerala boat race is held here in August on the Vembanad Lake and is watched by thousands of spectators.

From here on, our speed fell to 40 kilometre per hour as I kept clicking some fabulous scenes which only this place could offer. We reached Aranmula near Kottayam at 7 in the evening and were warmly greeted by Bobby’s parents. We had logged only 311 kilometres and paid toll in three places.

We had successfully completed the journey. Both Bobby and I kissed the Santro, which stood by us without even a flat tyre. We gave each other a nice hug and went to bed with the feeling that India is such a wonderful and diverse country.