Archive for May, 2010

“If you see a tiger at Ranthambhore you’ll be lucky,” were the words we heard from a lot of people, before we left for our holiday. Now whether that was supposed to be sarcasm or sheer honesty, I don’t know. But with the dwindling numbers of tigers being hotly debated, we wouldn’t be surprised if there was a bit of both in that comment.

I was hoping and praying that the visit to Ranthambhore would not be a repeat of the one to Dandeli Tiger Reserve where we didn’t spot one big cat and had to be satisfied with deer and bison! So when we set off from Chittorgarh that morning, it was with a silent prayer! Once we reached the highway, we were on our way to Kota from where we would be driving to Sawai Madhopur, which hosts the Ranthambhore wildlife sanctuary, another home to the fast dwindling species of the striped cat.

On the highway, what we realised once we had gone a little over 100 kms was that we had not spotted a petrol pump since we left Chittorgarh. I guess we never realised that because we were once again on a dream of a road, all the way to the outskirts of Kota. Off the NH 76, once we were on the outskirts of Kota, we travelled on a dirt road for around 15 kms till we reached Kota town from where we took the road to Sawai Madhopur.

After checking in to RTDC’s Vinayak, a quick lunch and a siesta we were driven to the Ranthambhore Wildlife Sanctuary, where we hoped to see the elusive tiger. After a fruitless search of over an hour, during which I nodded off, we landed up at a watering hole. Suddenly there was a hush, because just 15 feet away from us was this magnificent striped cat, lolling in the pond. It looked at us and then turned its face away disdainfully. Our Canter moved closer to the animal and we were worried it might walk off, but it stayed put. For close to 20 minutes we were clicking away.

Then it emerged from the water, gave us another look and sauntered off into the thicket, marked its territory by raising it hind leg (!) and disappeared. It was then that everyone broke into excited chatter. When there are just 1400 odd tigers left in the country and around 38 in Ranthambhore, we considered ourselves lucky to have spotted one. Before we left we were to see one more, but not so up close.

But as far the tigers go, once was never enough and the next morning we set off again. This time there were a lot of fresh pugmarks our forest guide saw but no tiger. I decided I had had enough, so stayed back in the hotel. My wife and son set off again in the afternoon for some more tiger spotting. They got lucky, because in another zone, across the lake, a tigress oblivious to the humans observing her, was playfully slapping a monkey around! They saw a herd of deer too.

But tigers are not all that we experienced. There’s a hotel in Sawai Madhopur which gave us the creeps. The night before we left Sawai, we decided to have dinner out and drove to the hotel. The gates of the hotel were closed and when we were allowed in, we had to drive in pitch darkness towards the hotel. On the way we saw a Nilgai running alongside our car and got quite excited.

As we drove up the winding road, I saw the silhouette of the hotel and it sent a shiver down my spine. It reminded me of Norman Bates’ Motel in Psycho. It was enveloped in darkness, and there were no lights outside or in the hotel. We pushed our way into the Reception area, and stood there also in the dark waiting for someone to greet us. Someone was talking on the phone in a room and he just stared at us, refusing to get up. Then we saw a tired looking, old man come shuffling along to meet us.

“Do you have a restaurant?” we asked and were shown a room again enveloped in darkness.
“Can we get something to eat?” was our next question.
“If you order the food, we’ll make it,” said the old man very mournfully as he advanced toward us.
We turned and fled.
“You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave…”


Back at our hotel, we narrated our experience to the manager and he laughed loudly. He told us about a friend of his who wanted to celebrate his wedding anniversary at ‘Bates Motel’. The manager tried his best to dissuade the friend but the chap was adamant. So he booked a room. The friend and his wife checked in one evening and were out of there in 30 minutes flat, terrified of the dark, and the absence of any guests. Of course, during season time, you wouldn’t find a room here or in any of the hole-in-the-wall ‘hotels’ we saw in this little town.

No tigers, but lots of monkeying around...

The hotel manager told us another interesting story about how tourism was the only means of survival for the people of this town. According to him there were more Maruti Gypsys in Sawai Madhopur than at an Army Command post! The villagers competed with each to buy these vehicles, not realising that fewer vehicles meant more trips to the Sanctuary for each of them and more business. Since the government did not allow more than 20 vehicles at one time into the jungle and each trip took three hours, most of the guides could only make two trips a day. So, the 150 odd vehicles usually had to wait for more three to four days before getting a second chance to take tourists into the sanctuary. Since most of the vehicles had been purchased on loans so, unknown to outsiders, a majority of the guides were living a hand-to-mouth existence.

During the off season they struggled to make ends meet and to make up for their losses, they charged exorbitantly during season time. Since these safaris were booked online these guides blocked the seats and literally sold them on the black market for anything from Rs 1000/- upwards depending on the demand. Hotels chains like the Oberois, where guests paid almost Rs 50,000 a day would have to shell out a whopping amount for the safaris. Interestingly enough, we were told that off season was the perfect time to see tigers! We paid Rs 4500/- for three trips into the Sanctuary during off season, so I guess we were lucky!

Interestingly, this misconception also helped them when it came to finding a suitable match for their sons! Outsiders seeing four Gypsys parked outside a house thought the family must be really rich and readily gave their daughters in marriage! Reality struck home later, but by then it was too late. Mixing with the rich tourists – both Indian and foreigners – also made these guides look at life through rose-tinted glasses – which, in the long run hit them hard.

It was an eye-opener for us on how these forest guides survived the cut throat competition. We left Ranthambhore the next day for Ajmer.

So, after a night’s rest, we set off from Vadodara for Chittorgarh via Ahmedabad and Udaipur, on the second leg of our holiday. Not as long as the one from Pune to Vadodara, but still 476 kms. We had no idea what the roads would be like, so before leaving we asked the receptionist, who told us that the roads were very good.

Leaving Vadodara at sunrise...

We left the hotel at 6.10 am and reached the expressway exactly 17 minutes later, after following the very precise directions from the security guard at the hotel entrance — “Go straight out of the gate, turn right at T junction, take third left turn and go straight till you reach the Expressway to Ahmedabad.”

And the receptionist back at the hotel, wasn’t just making up a tall story about the roads. Having driven on the Pune-Mumbai e-way, we were looking forward to a similar experience but the drive on the Vadodara-Ahmedabad quite simply took my breath away. It was till then the best stretch of road we had driven on. Once we cleared the Toll Post, it was one long, smooth stretch with no exits every few metres, no diversions, and even more surprisingly, no ‘U’ turns. There were just two exits for Nadiad and Anand.

We were sailing along so comfortably that we missed the exit for Udaipur, and landed up at the Toll Post at Ahmedabad! With no way to go back we were forced to drive through Ahmedabad and lost 75 minutes in which we covered just 27 kms. In normal circumstances we would have covered at least 70 kms in that time. But as luck would have it, we crawled through Ahmedabad through stretches of road under construction, got caught in a jam at a level crossing and had a terrible time in the traffic.

Since we were stuck, we decided to stop for tea at a restaurant with a kitchen that had seen better days. It was tepid tea, but what the hell – tea is tea! Finally at around 9.15 am we reached the intersection, from where we would take the NH 8 to Himmatnagar and then to Udaipur.

At the gates of Rajasthan

Once again, what struck us was the smooth road. And that continued all the way to Himmatnagar. After driving 180 kms we reached Himmatnagar, from where we continued to Ratanpur which is on the cusp of Gujarat and Rajasthan. As we reached Udaipur we took a right towards Chittorgarh. The left turn entered Udaipur town. We would be back there later, from another route.

This was the worst stretch we had encountered so far, but mercifully just 11 kms. It was bumpy, potholed and narrow till we reached the intersection that brought us on NH 76. Once we were on it, the road staged a miraculous recovery. I thought we had seen it all on the e-ways, but this stretch was another engineering marvel.

Just before we reached Chittorgarh we came to a point on the road where we just stopped and gaped. Right in front of us was a maze of elevated roads crisscrossing the desert. One road went to Mumbai, the other to Jaipur and the third to Kota and I think we just lost count. We had to take a left turn at NH 76 and drive down a small road to Chittorgarh, a little town with a big history. We reached RTDC’s Hotel Panna at exactly 1.30 pm. and would have reached at least an hour earlier had we not missed the Udaipur exit on the expressway!

At Rani Padmini's fort, feeding the monkeys, which carefully picked the nuts they wanted to eat!

Since we were there just for a night, we rushed off to see Rani Padmini’s fort. We were shown the 13-km long fort situated atop the hill by an extremely polite guide. The kid gave us a pretty good recount of history and by 6 pm we were back in the hotel.
Next: Ranthambhore…and the tiger trail.

Our Swift LXI which has taken us around the country the past three years, without a single niggle or even a puncture!

It’s been one helluva ‘driveathon’ these last three years! It’s been amazing in terms of places visited, driving on the highways, and still so much to see of this fabulous country. And I think the state of the roads, generally, have improved so much, and that driving is now a much more pleasurable experience. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to afford it anymore, so this was special.

Originally, we had planned on driving to Leh, but were dissuaded by some friends who said that our Swift could get stuck in the snow on the highway due to its low ground clearance. And then I was also told it would take us a month, which I thought was a bit much. So from the peaks we were down the plains and decided to drive around Rajasthan and Gujarat, visit Mt. Abu and Ranthambhore specifically. In the end, we did a lot more.

The good thing about going by car is that every town you stop along the way becomes a tourist attraction and you change the route at a whim – which is what we did! So we visited Udaipur, Ajmer, Vadodara, Chittorgarh along with Sawai Madhopur and Mt. Abu. And then on a whim, while returning via Gujarat we drove off to Junagadh and the Gir Lion Sanctuary at Sasan!

It was scorching and I have the sunburn to prove it! But I guess once we realised we had to do it, we did. Three days in Ranthambhore, searching for tigers, two days in Gir enjoying the sight of lion clubs wrestling each other, getting conned in Pushkar, revelling in the history of Chittorgarh and Haldi Ghati, which was the only bright spot of our stopover at Udaipur.
The day before we set off the sky was overcast and there were rains. I prayed for such weather the next day, because I love driving in the rains. But no such luck. We left Pune on Sunday, May 2, at 6.10 am (54600), on the first leg of our holiday, to Vadodara.

HV Kumar, motor enthusiast, avid traveller and today, probably, the last word on roads and routes around the country, had told me to leave early because we would find it easier to get out of Mumbai in the morning. We reached the expressway in 25 minutes from our home in Wanowrie and left the Expressway by We were driving a little slowly because we were following Kumar’s route plan that he had sent us.

By 9.30 am we had reached the Toll Post on the Eastern Express Highway and out of Thane (54803- 203 kms). Our first halt was at Kamat’s, which was about 23 kms from the Toll Post (10.15 am), for a quick breakfast. In case any of you Richie Richs think Kamat is a tad downmarket for your tastes, there is a Silver Mines Food Court a few kms up the road on the left. I can’t say much about the food because we didn’t stop there.

So, we were off again and since this was National Highway 8, there was nothing much to do except keep the foot on the accelerator and watch out for the occasional dog or cow popping out from behind the bushes on the divider and the Toll Tax gates! Incidentally Maharashtra has the highest toll taxes.

We reached the Gujarat check post at 11.10 am (54896) and as we were passing through Vapi guess what greeted our eyes – a McDonald’s outlet in the Empress Mall! The road was good and so were the accidents we saw in large numbers. There was a Wagon R that was precariously perched atop the divider and another that didn’t have a front, because it was sitting where the backseat ought to have been. You can guess where the backseat was.

We went off NH 8 (55155) before we reached Vadodara city and drove into town through the outskirts. It was a slightly circular route and 10 kms later we were at Hotel President in the heart of town at Kala Ghoda, where, thanks to Ananya Mehta, a colleague at SIMC, we got a room at a good discount!

So it was 585 kms covered in roughly 9 hours from Pune to Vadodara. Since it was just a night halt we didn’t do much except rest till evening and take a stroll in the vicinity.

Next: Driving to Chittorgarh – II

When I am on the highway I drive in mortal fear of crashing my car into a cow that will suddenly pop out of the greenery on the roadside! But more of that later!

What the four-lane highways and six-lane e-ways have done is that they have produced a breed of speed freaks that care neither for their own health or that of their fellow motorists. On Friday, while on our way back from Vadodara after holidaying in Rajasthan and Gujarat, I witnessed quite a few speed freaks, on the highways and the Mumbai-Pune E-way, and one bizarre crash, which left all of us quite shaken.

Just as we passed Bharuch, where we had been stuck in a traffic jam for 2.30 hrs and managed to crawl just 7 kms in that time, because of an accident on a bridge, we witnessed one more. Most of the motorists were driving at a moderate speed because of a diversion. Just about ten metres ahead of us, a jeep packed with people, which was probably the only vehicle which was speeding, tried to overtake a truck, just at the point where the diversion ended and we would be switching to the correct lane.

I still can’t figure what made the idiot driving the jeep overtake the truck at this juncture, because it was a matter of a few metres more, but he did and this is what happened next. The left wheel of the jeep crashed into the right wheel cover of the truck. The jeep was dragged a few metres. The truck swerved to the right. The jeep also swerved to the right but at an angle of 90 degrees and simultaneously turned a cartwheel, while crashing to the ground. And all this couldn’t have taken more than 3 to 4 seconds.

I saw a man lying inert on the ground a few feet from the jeep, and two people sticking out of the window lifelessly. Whether the man on the ground flew out of the windscreen or was an innocent pedestrian, I am not sure. As my fellow motorists and I stopped our vehicles and rushed towards the smashed jeep, we saw some sign of life inside. Someone pushed the door open and climbed out.

Sandwiched between two lanes of trucks on NH 8 as we wait for the traffic jam to clear at Bharuch

As we drove away a few minutes later we were all talking about the accident, but I think it left us all pretty shaken. I don’t think I went over 80 kpmh for a long time after that!

Now coming to cows…We (the bovine and I) have a strange relationship. Twice before I’ve had to take the car to the service station, when we were in Lucknow, after having hit a cow head-on! You probably think I’m crazy, but I assure I’m not. The road dividers in Lucknow are not just simple pieces of stone. They are miniature gardens about 2 feet from the ground and 3 feet wide, and in the heat, I guess there is no cooler place for bovines to rest.

So twice before, I’ve had the misfortune of seeing a bovine suddenly stepping down from the ‘garden’ onto the road just a few feet from me. In those few seconds, I have had the usual two options – avoid the bovine and hit a human or hit the bovine and hope to escape injury to myself. I’ve chosen to do the latter and have got away so far with a smashed car.

On the highway, soon after we left Udaipur on our way to Junagadh, we had another experience with a bovine. We must have been doing 100 kmph, and as we took a curve, just around 10-15 metres away in front of a cow stepped leisurely on the road from the greenery on the divider and started to cross the road. Thankfully, it didn’t stop, so we sped past without a mishap, but I don’t think I would have been writing this blog, had it suddenly changed direction. Amen!!
Till the next one…

The man who drove us around in Udaipur told us a few interesting things about the royals in Udaipur and about the place in general – and none of it was complimentary. While speaking about the present royals, he snapped, “All blood suckers, especially the old man. If it was left to him, he would charge everyone money for just standing outside his palace!” he said a lot more, which I can’t repeat here.

So, as we walked around the City Palace, those words kept ringing in my ears! Incidentally, we paid 130 bucks to get in; another 50 bucks for the car park and was told I would have to pay another 200 just to take the camera in. I drew the line at that and was helped along by the friendly driver who said, there was nothing worth photographing inside, because all the antiques had been moved to the hotel, which had been carved out of a part of the palace. And he was right. The place was like any government museum and not worth the visit.

In complete contrast was the memorial of Maharana Pratap and his horse Chetak. The driver told us another story as we drove to Haldi Ghati, the scene of one of the most famous battles in Indian history between Maharana Pratap and Man Singh, a Rajput who sold his soul to Akbar. While successive governments over the last decade played politics over Maharana Pratap, a school teacher begged banks for a loan to fulfil his dream. One village bank finally gave him Rs 50 lakhs and this teacher launched the project – a memorial to the Maharana.

If you go to Udaipur, drive down to Haldi Ghati and see the memorial – a handiwork of love and devotion – constructed in three years and still coming up. My reason for mentioning this memorial is because not even 30 metres away is a wall that lies incomplete in spite of having been started a decade ago – a symbol of the dirty politics being played out between two successive State governments. And we were taught this lesson in school that Maharana Pratap belonged to India.

Frankly, considering its rich heritage and history, Udaipur is wasting away. The place is supposed to be a Lake City and yet the natural lakes are going dry and don’t even supply water to the city. Strangely enough the lake that supplies water to the city is manmade! And while the people cry out for water, the politicians engage in one-upmanship.

It’s a bit like the roads that we drove around on since we started our holiday. We all know that the roads underwent a dramatic change when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. Sadly at a lot of places we found patchwork and incomplete highways. It is almost as if the Congress Government’s playing cussed and would rather not do anything because it would end up in someone other than the Gandhi -Nehru clan getting credit. The Congress government should know that whether they complete the highway projects or not, it will always be known as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s dream project. And there’s not a damn thing they can do about it!

There had been governments before Vajpayee’s but no one bothered to bring India closer to its people. Look at how long it took them to make the Pune-Mumbai expressway one of the finest stretches in the country. Last week, as we drove to Chittorgarh, I couldn’t help marvelling at the expressway between Vadodara and Ahmedabad. In the last three years, I have driven around the good, bad and the terrible roads in this country, so this stretch was, I thought till then, the best road I had driven on in India.

So should I be thanking Atal Bihari Vajpayee for the state of Indian roads? Let’s be honest, if it had not been for him I don’t think a lot of (not too adventurous) middle class Indians like me would ever have ventured out to see the country by road.

Then there was Ajmer and Pushkar, which are a conman’s dream location. When we left for the Ajmer dargah we were told to leave everything, but the clothes we had on, behind in our room. By everything we were told it meant wallet, handbags, watches, rings, mobiles, necklace just anything. so that’s how we went.

At Pushkar, of course, it was a different story. From the toll gate to the temple every attempt was made to fleece us by extremely polite guides who were hand-in-glove with the so called Brahmin priests. They tried to wheedle us out of Rs 11,000 till they ran into another Brahmin – my wife – who knows a thing or two about saving and making money! They tried really hard, but gave up!

Before we left Pune on May 2, I hoped we would encounter some decently constructed roads that we could drive on without having to feel we were on an obstacle course. Except for the stretch between Sawai Madhopur and Ajmer, it’s been a pleasure driving in Gujarat and Rajasthan. We reached Udaipur driving on a four-lane highway in quick time. Let’s hope it stays that way. We leave for the Gir Lion Sanctuary tomorrow. After watching a tiger from just ten feet away at Ranthambhore, I am hoping the lions too will give us something more to remember this holiday.