Two gems

Soon, India and bad roads will not be synonymous, as these great drives show.

Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: February 7, 2010

Mumbai-Chiplun-Madgao-Mangalore-Kozhikode-Cochin-Alleppey on National Highway 17 and 47.
The car: Mahindra Scorpio
Date: May 2006

This drive came about as a bizarre plot by my friends to hold me to a promise. Which, in turn, was because of Anand Mahindra, who, when he launched the then "new look" Scorpio, had told me to take the car for a month and go on a long drive. And while most of us would have laughed this off, when I told my friends this after a night of hedonistic madness, they, unfortunately, remembered it after the Johnnie Walker wore off the next morning. Some phone calls and a plea for leave later, we set off at four in the morning from Mumbai's Khar-Danda area and made our way through the Western Ghats down to Goa.

I have driven on National Highway 17 between Panvel and Panjim a few times and every single time it has a way of scaring the living daylights out of you. This time it was thanks to a multitude of Volvo buses on the (then) narrow road. The Scorpio itself is a great car as long as you don't go fast.

At speed it becomes a handful—there is a lovely stretch of straight road near Ratnagiri near the Maharashtra-Goa border, which is great. Though by then, you probably are sick after the twists and turns of Chiplun. One of the best and most beautiful stretches of coastal road in India is in Udupi district, where the sea meets the road, which, in turn, meets the backwaters. I'm not kidding when I tell you that a narrow strip of tarmac separates sea water from fresh water. Words can't describe the beauty of the Karnataka coastline— people rave about Goa and Kerala, but some of the most amazing beaches are between these two states.

Not that Kerala does not have its surprises. The best part of driving yourself is that you can stop anywhere, make diversions and the only penalty you pay is a slight delay and the cost of fuel. South of Kannur in northern Kerala is the beach of Muzhipallangad—on which one can drive. Well, no one stopped us from riding the surf. It may not have been the smartest thing to do though, but it was great fun.

Driving in Kerala, though, is a bit of a pain until you get near Cochin, with local bus drivers being complete maniacs. Which is why I also persuaded my friends to take a detour to the famous Guruvayoor temple to pray for our well-being. Around Cochin, you hit the fabulous four-lane NH 47, which makes Kerala with its coconut trees (pierced every so often by a cellphone tower) zoom past you.

The Scorpio's decent audio system played The Cranberries song Dreams as we pulled into the backwaters near Alleppey. The drive was a dream, and I wish I had 14 days to vanish today.

New Delhi-Jodhpur-Khimsar-Pushkar on National Highway 8, 14, 112 and 65.
The car: Volkswagen Passat
Date: November 2008

The Delhi-Jaipur highway, an old favourite, has deteriorated to a great degree, but the superb six-lane road between Jaipur and Kishangarh gives an idea of what roads should be like in India. Coupled with an excellent sedan like the Passat, this road has all the attributes of an autobahn. The stretch between Kishangarh and Ajmer is best forgotten, but the road before that makes your mouth water— if that is your thing. That said, even the (then) fresh tarmac of the road between Bar and Jodhpur was excellent. With virtually no traffic other than the occasional camel, it seems like someone used a black marker on the desert.

NH 65, that you take to reach the fantastic heritage property at Khimsar north of Jodhpur, is another such road. Rajasthan, thanks to its relatively sparse population, has roads far, far less chaotic than almost anywhere else in India. The only problem is that you miss some twists and turns on the roads— but after Khimsar, you can carry on north till Nagaur before you head off to Pushkar on NH 65. It's a beautiful road, though the tourist-town traffic makes it a bit difficult.

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