Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Gypsy, three dogs and me… on a journey from Manali to Bangalore

I have always believed that traveling, like climbing, is more about with whom you do it rather than the act itself. A month ago, I took a long drive, the longest that I have attempted so far – from Manali to Bangalore. And for company I had my three dogs and my Maruti Gypsy.

Maybe I should start from the beginning. Both my wife, Indu and I are from Bangalore but we live in Manali, me running treks and climbs in the Himalayas, she freelance writing from home. Winter is a time when snowfall lays siege and Manali goes on a holiday. We decided to drive down to Bangalore but due to various miscalculations I had to leave earlier while she and our dogs would join me 10 days later. Technically, Indu was to drive down to Delhi along with a hired driver (driving and managing 3 hyper canines is a master juggling act for her, she says) from where I would take over the driving myself while she flew down to Bangalore to house-sit.

They left at 6 PM on a Saturday evening. By 8 PM I had got the first call saying that there seemed some trouble with the 4WD in the Gypsy – it kept shifting from 2WD to 4WD on its own. Call it foolhardiness or plain being adamant, we decided that she could continue and get a mechanic to look at it at the next big town. Only, on a Saturday evening in winters, there are few people about, let alone mechanics. But the drive continued for nearly 250 km, with them stopping every few km to shift the gear lever back to 2WD. Then at 2.30 in the morning I got a call saying the shaft of the Gypsy had finally snapped and they were effectively stranded on a highway in Punjab.

For the next 8 hours my wife and I led parallel lives, guessing what the other was upto. Maruti had MOS vans in Ropar or Roopnagar as they call it now. But that was unavailable till about 8 in the morning. So the driver and she did the only thing they could – pushed back the seats and went to sleep.

Finally, at 7.30 AM, while I was on the flight to Delhi, she managed to track down the Maruti Service Station in Ropar and request them for a MOS van to tow them in. Then began our attempts to get the Gypsy repaired. Now, we have learnt from our experience that even though the Gypsy is a great vehicle – very few mechanics, even genuine Maruti dealers, have the spare parts for it. As I arrived in Delhi, our search for the parts that needed replacing began. Ropar didn’t have it and nor did it seem to be there in Chandigarh just 40 km away. It was a Sunday and there would be few shops in Delhi open where I could get it. After five auto rides between Kashmiri Gate, Karol Bagh, Naraina and Okhla I finally managed to get the parts, but it was past 2 PM and my family was camping out at the Maruti Service Station in Ropar. When I finally managed to reach there it was well past 9 PM, but the good guys from Maruti had decided to stay back and get our Gypsy in shape for our drive to Bangalore.

Then began the second leg of our drive, first to Delhi to drop off Indu and then to a dhaba on the Mathura road to catch some much-needed sleep after spending much of the night on the road. After about three hours, I set out and drove past Agra, Gwalior and finally reached Shivpuri by 7 in the evening. Thankfully, the roads were great and the vehicle seemed to be behaving itself.

I spend the night in a small lodge while the doggies stayed in the Gypsy, guarding it and scaring away anyone who ventured within a few feet. The previous day’s drive had been peaceful, I was confident and made plans to reach Bangalore in a marathon drive over two days. But my optimism was a little premature because a hundred kilometers out of Shivpuri the Gypsy gave up on me, this time with a broken oil seal in the rear wheel. Not that I couldn’t continue driving, I just couldn’t safely go past 40 kmph on a highway where even decrepit lorries were hitting a good 70 or 80 kmph. The next 350 km were the most frustrating till I reached Indore. With the oil seal broken, the oil had leaked into the break drum and for a good 120 km, the brakes were iffy and I remember driving the entire time hoping I didn’t have to apply them suddenly. What would normally have taken about 6 or 7 hours between Shivpuri and Indore, had taken me a good 12 hours.

Once again, it was a Maruti Service Station that played host letting me camp out on their lawn for the night. New bearings were required and that could be done only in the morning. Thankfully, Madhya Pradesh seemed to be quite Gypsy friendly and the service station had the spares I needed. The next morning while waiting for the Gypsy to get done, I met Bittu Tiwari, one of the more colourful characters I have come across. A giant of a man with trademark UP accent and heavy gold jewellery, he was quite taken with my dogs (he himself had about six, he said). During our conversation, he confidently told me, “Aapko bandhook rakhni chahiye. Agar chahiye to mujhe bata dijiye.” Had me wondering for a bit there if it was actually necessary or even that easy to acquire one. I chose not to pursue it and after a few more pleasantries, we split and to my surprise Mr Tiwari did not own a Grand Vitara or even a SX4. He was driving a tiny white Zen, much unlike his own girth.

I finally managed to get the Gypsy only by 3 PM. Most of the day had gone and I still had a good 1500 km to go before I reached home. I was itching to get going, preferably with few stops. But first my stomach demanded attention and I stopped for the best biryani I have ever had at a tiny restaurant in Indore called Krishna Restaurant. A highly recommended place for anyone veggie but likes his biryanis.

A marathon drive over the next 11 hours brought me close to Ellora near Aurangabad. I was sleep-deprived and didn’t have the enthusiasm to find a hotel. I decided to park on the side of the highway and sleep in the Gypsy with my dogs. The next day was earlier scheduled for me to spend a few hours visiting Ellora. But as I approached the town I saw four buses full of kids and family tourists – not an ideal company to take in the beautiful caves. I decided to not stop and continue past Aurangabad.

Day three was a good day. I went past Aurangabad, Dhule Sholapur and finally entered Karnataka. Phew! I was eager to start speaking in Kannada again to assure myself that I was nearly home. But Bijapur being on the Maharashtra border, had most people replying in Hindi. I was eager to get past Bijapur and catch some sleep. Bangalore was 524 km away and I intended to sleep in my bed the next day.

I started early the next morning but for someone in a hurry to get home, the roads were extremely bad. Or maybe it was the Gypsy that takes on every pothole eagerly, with no consideration for the driver. Past Hospet the road got great. It was part of the Golden Quadrilateral and I gave myself another 5 hours to reach home. Once again, my optimism was bang on time because that is the exact moment my Gypsy had a short circuit and started smoking from the hood. I stopped immediately and started wondering if the only way to get to Bangalore was to get the Gypsy towed.

I was cursing myself for being optimistic too easily, the Gypsy for timing its breakdowns with my optimism and the entire what-seemed-foolhardy plan. A few minutes and a couple of cigarettes later I decided to attempt a little electrical maintenance on my own. The grounding wire had burnt out. But thankfully the guys at Maruti had left a little extra wire on one end that I could cut out and replace the damaged bit.

After that, thankfully it was a smooth drive all the way to Tumkur, 40 km before Bangalore where Indu and two friends had come to receive me and the doggies. When I finally reached home, I had been on the go over the length of the country for five whole days in a battered old Gypsy with only one night on a bed, one at the Maruti Service Station in Indore and two in the Gypsy. I had come past some of the most beautiful landscape in Madhya Pradesh and one of the harshest in Maharashtra. I had literally driven past the history of India from Agra to Gwalior to Ellora to Badami and Pattadakal. I had driven with three dogs for company and for the first time in my life, realized what great company they make.

Even with all the breakdowns, I have to accept, they were among the best five days and I can’t wait to get back on the road to drive back to Manali. We have planned a different route over Chattisgarh and lots of national parks in Madhya Pradesh. We want to take it slowly this time around – over a good 15 days before we reach home turf.