“Should I even be doing this?” was the first thought that popped up in mind after I volunteered to help my friend in moving from Delhi to Lonavala. It all sounds too nice to get behind the wheel and drive off with no concern about when you will arrive but this being India, there is always a hint of uncertainty to it. Partly because I don’t drive frequently and partly because while I have driven long distances in the past on multiple occasions, everytime in the passenger seat, I had someone who was better than me behind the wheel and possibly better in handling any situations that may arise. To top that up, most of the long-ish roadtrips I had done never had a tight timeline. Get somewhere, spend an evening, set off again has always been the broader plan. This wasn’t a roadtrip. This was more of an extended errand.
Nevertheless, there comes a time when you grow sick of pretending and need a grown up reality check. There was no better option as my friend who was shifting was learning quickly but still wasn’t good enough to drive on the mad Indian highways. Booking the car with a transport agency was another option but I had heard far too many horror stories to even recommend it to anyone but my enemies. So work was (almost) wrapped up, laundry done, backpacks loaded and I was all set for the journey that lay ahead.
Thursday, the night before we were supposed to set off, I tried to get as much sleep as possible and ended up sleeping for just three hours. I don’t know how people manage to oversleep before their trips because that is virtually impossible for me. Anyway, we managed to set off around 6 AM from Hauz Khas in Delhi and thanks to the nice wide roads, we were hovering close to Jaipur by the breakfast time. On the passenger side, my friend slightly overestimated the job in hand and along with her luggage, she was carrying enough food to eliminate the malnutrition problem in some countries.
The car was doing pretty well too. It was a 1.5 litre naturally aspirated manual Ford EcoSport with around 1000 kms on ODO. As it was practically new and we had close to 1500 kms to cover, I was being gentle with my right foot. Even then, 120 kmph was effortless and by the time we took our breakfast halt some 400 kms ahead, the console was showing an average of over 80 kmph. The abundance of diesel cars over the past few years have spoiled us. There is always plenty of torque available so you can be a sloth and just quickly upshift into fifth(or sixth) and keep cruising. A petrol car instead expects you to behave like you should. Do things right and it will reward you with smiles.
The roads kept getting better as we continued to make our progress in Rajasthan. The density of trucks dropped considerably after crossing Jaipur. The road was equally good while serving up better views of mountains. High speed curves were everywhere. If we had more time in hand, this would have been a three day trip with loads of photographs and route through the cities of Rajasthan rather than around them but time is something we had to run against as I was supposed to get back to the daily rut two days later.
And while this post is becoming more about roads only, they turn from good to “Holy fuck, why I am I driving here for the first time” after Ajmer. That is exactly the kind of road you picture when someone mentions Rajasthan. It is not a divided road. Neither is the road very wide. And yet it was the best section of road throughout the journey. The scenery is all a bit warm with large rocks and a darker shade of soil while the road beautifully curves into the distance before disappearing into a crest. The traffic is thin and tarmac grippy. It is easy to get carried away but somehow I managed to ease off the throttle every now and then. We had a long way to go and abusing the hell out of the car wasn’t a good idea.
Petrol pumps were rare sight on that section of road. Something I realised only when the indicated range on the console dropped below 90 kms. The first petrol pump we found wouldn’t accept cards and, thanks to demonetisation, cash wasn’t available in abundance. Another 30 kilometres and we found a pump which did. While paying, the pump manager starting shooting questions about the car and telling us how petrol cars are costly to run. I couldn’t resist spending an extra minute and doing some quick maths to prove how stupidly wrong he was. I could see a relatively new, locally registered Nissan Terrano parked right behind and he was probably trying to justify burning down the extra cash on a lesser car.
Anyway, off again and by the time we were passing the next mildly populated town, the sun was really starting to poke me in the eyes. So at 4 PM, we decided to pause for our lunch and also figure out our halt for the night. First option was to drive another 130 kms and get a hotel in Udaipur to get a good night’s sleep to start fresh the next morning. The other plan, albeit slightly optimistic, was to continue driving after the dark and stop in Vadodara, still close to 500 kms away. This way we would cover close to 1,000 kms in the day and would only have close to 600 kms of driving for the next day allowing us to start late.
Arguments were made, hotels were searched, calls to hotels were made to find one with parking in campus (because the car was brimmed with luggage) but all signs were against driving to Vadodara. It also didn’t make much sense as we would have been on the road till midnight. So we decided that we will reach Udaipur quickly, have our dinner and retire for the night so that we can set off early the next morning. Rest of the drive till Udaipur was pretty much uneventful. The usual traffic of trucks and local cars started to appear as we neared the city but it was still fairly light compared to what we are used to dealing with. Reached the hotel, wrapped up work and off to bed.
The wake up call at 4 AM was rather annoying but I managed to drag myself out of the bed anyway. By 5:30, we were waiting for the valet to get the car so that we can get going again. We were not very deep inside the city and were back on the highway within the next 20-25 minutes. My friend on my left extended her arm to grab her bag of many things and we were munching on shitload of sweets in the name of keeping us energised. We were trying to reach Vadodara before breakfast time and while an average speed of over 85 kph might seem a bit optimistic, the nice roads saw us making good progress. The average speed indicator which I reset while leaving was hovering north of 90 kph while I was grinning like a madman on those sweeping corners.
The road from Ajmer to Udaipur was the kind of road you would want to drive a fast and stiff car on. This was the kind of road where you would want to have a powerful naked motorcycle or maybe even a laid back cruiser. Get to a comfortable speed and lean into the wide corners while looking at the exit from behind your shades. ‘All apologies’ from Nirvana comes to mind when I try to think of a suitable soundtrack for the moment. At 6 AM on a December morning though, shades might not be a very good idea. From whatever I could see while focussing hard on spotting dogs in the dark, the mountainous scenery was good and there were some spots where you would just want to stare and soak in all you can.
First stop was before we turned from NH8 to a state highway after entering Gujarat. A roadside dhaba that served tea in what looked like cups from the kitchen sets some kids used to play with and we had a nice dog for company. But there was not much time to spend and we were off again shortly after. The roads continue to be as excellent as you would expect in Gujarat. The state highway was good enough to put the national highways in north to shame. However, while making the roads, someone clearly forgot to put away money for the paint to mark the speedbreakers.
The second day was more about covering the maximum distance and actually reaching Lonavala before dark. Partly because I hate driving in the dark and partly because the whole Mumbai is driving towards Lonavala on Fridays and Saturdays.
The progress started to slow as we were inching closer to Maharashtra. While the roads were wide and pretty much boring straight, they were full of trucks. Just like anywhere else, they are spread all over the lanes and you are left with no option but to be the idiot who keeps switches lanes to go fast. By the time we reached Vapi, we had been through a massive traffic jam, dealt with stupid drivers on tollbooths, dealt with the swarm of trucks and been overtaken by an orange Tata Nano. After what it felt like a decade of driving in traffic, we decided to stop for lunch at Parsi da Dhaba. Apparently, it is quite a famous spot for Mumbaikars for their weekend rides and drives like we have Murthal for Delhi. It is known for the Parsi food which I wasn’t familiar with so I just went with whatever my friend and the waiter decided for me. The place is nice, food pretty good and the experience was only spoiled by a loud family of four sitting on the next table. I am still not able to understand what is it with young parents and their kids. When I was a kid, just a stern look was enough to get me back to my spot in a public place.
Roads got clearer again and we were welcomed by beautiful hills and green landscapes. By the way the family of seemingly illiterate folks drove away in a BMW 520d. Damn. The sun was right in the windscreen by then and I was afraid of all the traffic we will encounter while going around Mumbai to reach the Mumbai-Pune expressway. I wasn’t disappointed. The traffic was a disaster. Roads non-existent. I don’t know how people survive here with their cars. Flyovers are a joke. Half of the Delhi would give up driving if they had to deal with such narrow roads on a daily basis and this is probably one of the reasons why people in Mumbai don’t buy as many cars.
After negotiating the traffic and barely lit roads, we reached the expressway which wasn’t anything like I remembered it. From five years back, I remember it to be one amazing road with light traffic and beautiful curves. Now however, it felt like DND on a Friday evening. To make it worse, there were trucks and buses all around. Even the little halt we took right after the tollbooth felt like an oversold tourist destination in itself.
Taking the exit for Lonavala was another gruelling task. A few kms before the exit is a superb left corner on the expressway which you would love on a normal day. But this wasn’t a normal day and the road wasn’t hosting normal drivers. It took us 20 minutes just to go around that bend because apparently half the drivers don’t know how to hold a line. This of course is something I deal with on a daily basis when I am on motorcycle and people unknowingly switch lanes in turns.
Didn’t take us long after that. We were in Lonavala, traffic was light and Google Maps decided to mess with us for the first time in almost 1600 kms but it was all okay because we were near and the road (or the lack of it) we were on gave a sense of adventure to it. Some lights in distance, sound of water running from left, massive altitude changes, loads of gravel. It was fun but quite clear that it could not be the right path. But it was the kind of route where you would want to continue driving as Radiohead plays in background. Few phone calls however put us back on the right path and some signs and IDs later, I was enjoying the excellent hospitality of navy officers at their base.
While this might be like a weekend drive for many, it was slightly out of my comfort zone. Motorcycles are good. Motorcycles are what I have grown up on and even riding one down to Delhi from Hyderabad didn’t feel like a big deal. On motorcycles, you are free and don’t have the liability of anyone else. That wasn’t the case here. I was supposed to be the voice of sense and wisdom, something I am not quite acquainted with. More than anything, it gave a slight nudge to go even further now and another brand new Ford waits at home exactly for that.
If you liked this story, please sign up for weekly newsletter ‘Shift’. Don’t be left out as the transportation space shifts in front of you (No, I won’t try to sell you anything in your mailbox).