Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rediscovering Central India

Nawegaon, Pachmarhi, Bhimbetka, Sanchi… Central India was a revelation

Day 1
We set out from Bangalore on the return journey to Manali. The plan was to stretch the 2500 km journey by at least another 1500 km and visit some national parks and explore the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Chattisgarh. We were sure of two things – that we wanted avoid the cities as far as possible and that we use the road trip to discover places that would be inaccessible otherwise. The rest – where we would halt, stay, food, internet access – were all pretty much open ended.

The Gypsy would be adapted as a mini caravan for the six of us – Kaushal, my husband, Deepika, my sister, our three dogs and me. The vehicle had been spruced up and thoroughly worked on by the Mandovi guys in Bangalore and it seemed rid of its perennial problems of overheating, leaking coolant and blank starts. We had loaded it up with food, water, warm wear, cassettes of Kishore and Mohd Rafi, doggie kit, tent, sleeping bags and even a paraglider (just incase Kaushal had an urge to glide enroute).

The drive was mostly monotonous, the weather changing every couple of hours from pleasant to hot. As we entered Andhra, the heat got intense. The minimal insulation in a Gypsy made the inertia of the afternoon heat worse. Thankfully, NH7 that we were on was relatively empty and we were doing good time. By evening we were about 70 km from Hyderabad but the heat had taken its toll and we decided to pull up on the side of the road and go to sleep.

Day 2
All of us awoke geared up to head to Hyderabad. But first, we stopped at one of the highly handy Reliance A1 outlets. Complete with shower stalls and excellent food, they would be our staple stops for the next two days. Then it was time to discover the magnificent Golconda fort. It was the first trip to Hyderabad for all of us and the fort was a great introduction. It numerous levels of architecture and history kept us enthralled for a good five hours. Thankfully, we were spared the famous Hyderabad heat with little spells of rain.

Post the best Andhra meal (in a small obscure restaurant in Old Hyderabad) that any of us had, we started out to the Salarjung Museum. If the weather had been kind to us, the city traffic definitely wasn’t. What was a 45 minute drive took a good three hours and when we reached the museum we had only a couple hours left. The Gypsy loves the open roads and felt awkward in the city traffic and almost reluctant. After rushing through the main gallery, we took our time in the Sculpture and Western sections. The only regret was we didn’t have more time or patience to appreciate the Salarjung.

We couldn’t wait to get back on the highway after the horrendous traffic in Hyderabad and once on it, we desperately wanted to put distance between us and the city. Pretty soon, we were driving past some forest stretches and about 200 km out of Hyderabad, we parked in yet another Reliance bunk for the night.

Day 3
Today we were to head to the cargo hub of the country, Nagpur. Visions of a hot bath and being able to sleep with our legs stretched out had us going without too many stops. We passed a longish ghat section that would tested the Gypsy in the afternoon heat, but Maruti had done the job well and we did not have to worry about overheating.

Nagpur was everything that we had heard – wide roads, lots of greenery and peak hour traffic like the early morning traffic in Delhi or Bangalore. The Gypsy finally felt like it could even adapt to city traffic if it was like Nagpur’s. But we were staying in the city but 30 km out on the banks of the Zipli lake. For the first time since we had set out, the four-wheel of the Gypsy came into play on the unmetalled road. After the incident of the broken shaft on our drive down to Bangalore (see the last issue), the one comfort was that this time around we were close to the city incase it gave problems again.

Day 4,5,6
Much-needed rest days for the next couple of days with walks around the lake and in the forest around the area. Thanks to the almost nonexistent pollution, we caught some excellent bird life – pied kingfishers, woolly-necked stork, wagtails, egrets, ibises. We caught up with work and civilized things like baths and washing, the Gypsy took a break from the daily run of 500 km and the dogs got to stretch their legs running after birds and other dogs.

On the couple of trips that we took into town, our jazzed up Gypsy with fog lights and massive alloys got looks and questions about mileage and how we manage to drive such long distances in a Gypsy.

One excursion from the campsite was interesting though. About an hour out of Nagpur on the Hyderabad road is a private farm of Nikhil Mundle whose family has been associated with community service and education in Nagpur. As a tribute to Shivaji, the Mundle family has constructed miniature models in stone of six of his best forts, accurate to the last detail. The forts are laid out around a 5-storey-high statue of Sant Gyaneshwar. Entry is free but only those who are genuinely interested are allowed inside.

Day 7,8,9
Precisely how remote can it get within a 100 km from a city? We discovered the answer when we decided to visit a national park that few people know about, Nawegaon National Park. To our luck, we were hosted and personally guided by the Patil father and son duo – Narayanrao and Bhimsen – who are singularly responsible for the pristine condition of the wildlife and forests there. The Patil family’s home is a huge old-style wadi with a courtyard complete with rare white palash trees, a peacock and guinea fowl. Compared to forests like Kanha where animals are used to human movement, the wildlife that we got to see at Nawegaon were shy and wary like how they are meant to be.

The forest itself is one of the best, untouched mixed forests of central India. There are no large teak or sal plantations and almost no human intervention in the core areas. We caught a glimpse of a leopard, peafowl and some rare birds – changeable hawk eagle, sarus cranes and steppe eagle. The one drawback of the area is that it is high on the naxal movement map, though in the three days we were in the forest, we didn’t come across one. Like all national parks, only petrol 4x4 vehicles were allowed inside the forest and thankfully our Gypsy was just what was needed. At the end of three days of near isolation from civilsation, we were reluctant to leave, but we had to make our way to Delhi over many more places.

Day 10, 11
Easily the most scenic route till date, over the next two days we drove through some remote tribal settlements, continuous stretches of forests and the unique Satpura table-top hills on our way to the hill station of Pachmarhi and the Satpura National Park. Interestingly, these are areas where we got to see old Rajdoot bikes in sizeable numbers. Some had been tinkered with by the local mechanics that they were hardly recognizable, but most were beautifully maintained. For those who complain that big, old bikes aren’t to be found anywhere must visit the area.

The Pench National Park that is enroute is one of those gaining recent publicity for tiger sighting. As the number of tigers dwindle, there are few forests where their sighting is guaranteed and Pench is one of them. Driving through, you are reminded of what Captain Forsyth, one of the first British explorers in the region, had written about Central India:

Day 12, 13, 14
Pachmarhi was lazy, like it was meant to be. An ideal hill town, it has been made better by the government ban on any new construction. So all you see are old Raj buildings that transport you a century earlier. Having your morning cuppa, soaking in the sun in the garden you cannot be blamed if you feel like an erstwhile gora sahib or memsahib.

We did the customary visits to the caves, but it is really the canyons that are the stars of Pachmarhi. Knowing that some of them are more than a kilometer deep and there are parts where the sun has never penetrated, we wanted to try our hand at canyoneering. Unfortunately, the three days that we had were just not enough.

The Gypsy chose Pachmarhi to have its first and only breakdown – the wiring of the fog lamps had loosened. But to our surprise, Pachmarhi is a Gypsy paradise where it was easily fixed. From ‘95 to ’04, you find Gypsies of all models, colours and modifications. For a change, our Gypsy didn’t stand out like a Jeep on steroids among the sedans and small cars. For that reason alone, Pachmarhi is a must-visit for Gypsy owners.

Day 15
A four hour drive took us back 12,000 years. We visited the amazing Bhimbetika caves, 40 km short of Bhopal. The amazing rock formations with their perfectly preserved early paintings testify man’s transformation from 10,000 BC to 3,000 BC – from a cave-dweller to a civilized being with communal and religious conscious. Later in the day, we headed to another world heritage monument, the Sanchi Stupa.

Built around the time when the last of the Bhimbetka paintings were executed, the Stupa proved the contrast between the two places beautifully. While one had stick figures and horses made of two conjoined triangles, the other had intricate carvings and interlocked blocks that are still an architectural wonder.

Day 16
The Gypsy is happy on two kinds of roads – really good ones like the 4-lane North-South Corridor or the muddy, slushy off-roads. It’s hard suspensions are really evident only on roads that are in between the two, which make up most of our roads. The next day we subjected our spines to some jarring when we drove out very early in the morning to the Udaygiri caves that date back to the Gupta period.

An entire hill with caves where fabulous figures have been chiseled in the rock. Visiting the place at sunrise, it turned out was a great idea since many of the caves are designed such that the first rays of the sun hit the statues. On the downside, we were horrified to see that the village at the base of the hill uses the hill as a community toilet. Men walking with mugs of water in between such magnificent carvings was the worst that we had seen. Is the otherwise vigilant Madhya Pradesh Tourism aware of this, one wonders.

Day 17, 18
After a fortnight of traveling to the most unlikely places, our holiday was coming to an end. We still had 1500 km to go before we reached Manali, but we would be on the main highway leading to Delhi now and there was nothing more to expect other than the Madhav National Park at Shivpuri which, we had heard was a great place for Chinkaras.

We had missed out on Chattisgarh, Kanha and Badhavgarh from our original list but Pachmarhi’s canyons, Bhimbetka’s caves and the virgin forests of Nawegaon had more than made up for it. The Gypsy that had seemed like such a bad idea on our way to Bangalore had been thoroughly well-behaved on our way up. Encouraged, we are now planning our next road trip to Arunach Pradesh.

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