There were close to 25 Mahindra Adventure cars that were in a convoy travelling from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. By the time the convoy reached the midway point - Goa - all the participants already seemed like a rather tight-knit family. After all, they did drive halfway across the country together, sharing adventures and stories. I on the other hand was to begin my journey from Goa and finish with the rest in Kanyakumari.
The day I landed in Goa was their first break after nine days of driving. However, instead of catching up on some sleep, everyone was busy running around the place, partying and eating all the seafood they could find. And the fact that everyone had to be on the road by 8.30am certainly didn't stop the bunch from pulling a late nighter.
Surprisingly, the next morning everyone was up on time, and after a short briefing we were set to hit the road. Vinay Thomas, from Mahindra Adventure, asked me which car I'd like to drive - a Scorpio, a Thar or the blue Bolero Stinger. For the uninitiated, the Stinger is a project from Mahindra's customisation division, which chopped up a regular Bolero and made it look a lot more badass. While the Scorpio or the Thar would have been the better car to drive halfway across country, my colleague from another magazine and I decided otherwise.
Before you conclude that all my decisions in life are illogical, let me explain. You see, I was a bit disappointed that I couldn't make it for the entire trip, starting from Kashmir. The way I saw it, if I was doing this, I was going to do it right - no easy way out. Besides, driving a Scorpio in convoy can get a bit drab because of the speed restrictions. In a Bolero, however, I'd have to constantly work the car to keep it going even at 80kmph.
The enormous statue of Lord Shiva at the Murudeshwar Temple was quite astonishing
So with the Stinger all packed, we set off to Mangalore in the heavy rain with Ashwin Naik leading. In case you're wondering, that's the same Ashwin Naik who co-drives with Amittrajit Ghosh in the Mahindra Adventure Rally team. En route, we stopped at Karwar for some delicious seafood before we continued towards Murudeshwar Temple for a quick break. This temple is famous for having the second largest statue of Lord Shiva (or Murudeshwara) in the world. It was quite astounding seeing this giant statue atop a hill which is almost completely surrounded by the sea. From the same hill I noticed a line of white SUVs crawling out of the parking lot and then it hit me - they were leaving us behind! My colleague and I ran to the Bolero and caught up with them just in time for roll call over the radio - the blue Stinger is rolling."
By the time we got to Mangalore, it was pitch dark and we turned off of the highway and headed deep into the Pilikula Biological Park. We finally reached the halt for the night - River Roost Resort - where we're welcomed by a troop of tiger dancers. The dance was rather intense and had all the participants in a trance right there in the parking lot.
The next morning, it was a quick breakfast and briefing after which, we were back on the road towards Masinagudi. The entire convoy was quite excited about this leg because it would take them through Coorg. The drive up the ghats was beautiful and the Bolero was a real charmer. Sure, there wasn't that rush of power you'd get in the Scorpio or Thar, but there's just something about a good old-fashioned DI engine that makes the drive really relaxing.
A couple of hours later we were at Madikeri, pigging out on Coorgi food and sipping on some of the finest coffee in the country. Although everyone wanted to stay just a bit longer, we had a long way to go and were ushered back into our cars. Like the Bolero, there's a certain old-school charm to Coorg that simply enchants you.
It was during the second half of the journey that I realised Musa Shariff (Gaurav Gill's co-driver) was in the convoy too. Naik and Musa were on their way to the first round of the Indian National Rally Championship in Coimbatore.
After a scenic drive past green fields and villages, we finally reached the Bandipur Wildlife Reserve by nightfall. On our way up through the reserve, we spotted several elephants and a few bison before we reached the Jungle Hut resort.
The resort is run by Vikram Mathias, an ex-rally driver, who strictly warned us not to go wandering alone at night because of how close we were to the wildlife sanctuary. In fact, close is an understatement because the resort literally ends where the sanctuary begins. To make matters worse, there are no fences to stop any animals from entering the property. Fortunately, despite the several rumours (or so I'd like to call them) of a leopard sighting in the area, everyone was back in convoy the next day, safe and sound.
The Doddabetta peak near Ooty was completely shrouded in dense mist
The journey for the day was quite short and took us to Coimbatore via Ooty. Since we had plenty of time once we reached Ooty, we visited a local tea factory, drove up to the highest mountain in the Nilgiris - Doddabetta - and finally drove down to Coimbatore via Kothagiri. Before entering Coimbatore, the entire convoy tanked up, checked tyre pressures and ensured that the vehicles were in top shape for the final leg of journey. After all, no one wanted any mishaps after 14 days of smooth sailing.
As we drove into the hotel's parking lot, we were welcomed by the entire Mahindra Adventure rally team along with three rally-spec Super XUV500s. While the team was certainly happy to see us, they seemed relieved to have Musa and Ashwin back in one piece for the rally, which was scheduled for the next day.
We had to wake up even earlier the next morning, so we could be on the road by 7.00am. The idea was to get to Kanyakumari in time for sunset. So with all the final 'goodbyes' and 'good lucks' to Musa and Ashwin, we were back behind the wheel. Since most of our drive was on a lovely dual carriageway with scarce traffic and we had a deadline, the convoy's speed had gone up. Now while most of them were happy in their Scorpios and XUV500s, I wasn't.
There're beautiful sunflower fields along the road towards Mysore
The problem wasn't keeping the Bolero at 100kmph - it was getting there. Every time I managed to see 95kmph, the entire convoy would be asked to slow down to 70kmph for photographs. While all the other drivers would simply have to step on the throttle to get back to 100kmph, I had to shift down, jab the throttle, ensure I keep momentum and wait patiently till it picked up the pace.
However, we finally managed to get to land's end by sunset, except there was no sunset to see. The sky was overcast and the sun was barely visible. But that was certainly not enough to bring down anyone's mood. They had driven across the country successfully, and there was nothing that could take away that special feeling. While I hadn't done even half of what the others did, I still felt rather proud. Perhaps it was just the general mood. Or perhaps it was the Stinger. Was it the most comfortable car for this road trip? Certainly not! Did I regret picking it, though? Certainly not!