Posts Tagged ‘Sawai Madhopur’


Reading about the assault on the Pune couple by highway robbers on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, makes me wonder how we can all forget the basic rules of driving on the highway. I am sorry if I sound unsympathetic (I am not, because I too use the highways and e-ways), but I really don’t understand why people must stop in the dead of night on lonely highways and expressways for any reason, except for a breakdown or an emergency that needs immediate attention.

This is not the first time that such an incident has happened on the Mumbai-Pune expressway and definitely won’t be the last. It is notorious for such incidents and the cops are helpless because they are just not equipped to deal with them – be they robberies or accidents. This gentleman stopped across the road from where a petrol pump was, which must be a good 50 metres away from where his car was parked. As kids we were taught by our parents to go to the loo and carry a bottle of water or some biscuits with us before setting off on a bus or car journey. How is it, that as parents we forget that cardinal rule?

There is no point blaming lack of lights on the highway or the cops for not doing their jobs. I read in some newspaper that someone asked for lights on the highway! Where was the last time you saw lights on the highways, except when the highway approaches city limits? It’s a ridiculous suggestion. As for the presence of cops, they can’t be everywhere. So why take chances? Unless you’re literally dying of thirst or your bladder is about to empty itself in your pants, can’t a bottle of water or a toilet break wait till you get to a food mall or a petrol pump?

Secondly, the Indian traffic police for all the hard work it does, is incapable of doing its job efficiently because it is drastically under-manned, poorly equipped and badly trained on how to react in an emergency. In the event of an accident it is the medical services that should land up first, not the police. In India it is usually the cops who do, and they inform the medical services. Even we, as we are conditioned to do, call the police first and the hospital next. An accident victim’s life is more important, the investigations come later.

Whenever I travel long distance with the family we keep at least a dozen bottles of water in the car. It became a necessity because we used to travel with our son who was then six or seven. Now he is 17 but we still follow that practice. Even on the expressway, two bottles of water are always in the car.

DNA, Pune has done a story in today’s edition on the front page where they have pointed out the dangerous spots on the expressway! Oh really? Just five such spots? Are the highway robbers going to keep to those spots only? I think we need to learn as drivers that we need to stop only at designated spots like petrol pumps or food malls, not anywhere in the blue yonder. I often see people stopping their vehicles on a lonely stretch on the highway to relieve themselves and my first reaction is ‘what an idiot, can’t he wait?’

Let’s accept it, we are not in Europe, where we may stop and even take a nap on the lay-bye and still be safe, or wait for a breakdown van to pick us up. Sure, our highways are not infested with monsters who prey on innocent travellers, but while our roads might have improved dramatically in the last decade or so, the mentality of the people has remained unchanged – be they law-abiding citizens or highway robbers!

I remember, before one of my drives to Gujarat and Rajasthan in 2009, I spoke to HV Kumar, a passionate motoring enthusiast and a gentleman who runs a forum on Facebook and websites where he posts updates of the traffic situation on the highways. I always do because I trust the man with my life and that of my family, even more than I do myself. He has over 10,000 members on his Forum and he can tell you about any road anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice, so extensive is his network of friends and motoring enthusiasts who keep him and the forum updated every minute.

We had driven from Pune to Chittorgarh and I remember talking to him about the roads in MP and while he praised the state of the roads there, he also told me to top the tank at before we left from there because he said there would be no petrol pumps for long stretches. He was right, because the first one we saw was around 150 kms after we left Chittorgarh. We were on our way to Sawai Madhopur. For miles we saw nothing, not even a village or people. We saw just barren land and nothing else and I remember thinking, what could happen if we were stuck in the middle of this place for some godforsaken reason. Since then, I have never stopped on the highways, not matter what the reason!

While doing a story in 2011 when I worked with an auto magazine, on the excessive speeds on the Mumbai-Pune expressway, I interviewed the Highways SP. He told me that it was virtually impossible to man the entire 97 kms of the expressway because one, he did not have the manpower and two, because he did not have the infrastructure. Incidentally, he told me then that they had just two speed-guns, on either end of the expressway. They actually had six, but four were under repairs. They needed at least a dozen more. I don’t think the situation has changed at all, since then.

The photographer and I also decided to check on the safety aspects on the expressway. Remember the phones that dot the expressway, which you can supposedly use during an emergency? They are a nice publicity vehicle for the phone company that installed them, but as far as their use is concerned, they are worthless pieces of junk. I say worthless, because sometimes even junk has its uses. We inspected every phone along the e-way and none of them worked. So every time the government talks of improving the infrastructure on the highways, I want to ask them why they don’t improve the system that already exists.

The rest of the world is monitoring traffic through satellites and even more advanced systems but we are still in the bullock cart age. No amount of high-speed expressways will help if our mentality and driving habits do not change. Apart from the speed freaks that we run into on the highways and the expressways, there is always the fear of running into unsavoury elements in the dead of night. Stopping on the highway for any other reason except a breakdown is asking for trouble.

Whether the police reached on time or whether the IRB personnel were asleep on the job, is all really irrelevant, when you are under attack. All that doesn’t matter when you or a family member is lying there bleeding to death, knifed by some hoodlum. No harm in being a little extra cautious, is there? All one is trying to say is that it’s really up to us to protect ourselves and our families from such incidents. Automobile magazines don’t care about such issues, at least they did not when I worked there. The best place for such issues to be highlighted would be blogs and driving forums. Will they take it up on a war footing?

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“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.