A driving holiday in India comes with a fair share of surprises, most of them pleasant—rivers rushing across the road, a spontaneous landslide that might delay you for hours, livestock strolling on the road, and places where the road is replaced by a dirt track. Driving abroad is more predictable, organised and easygoing. If there is any disruption, radio channels will tell drivers about it. There would be large flashing signs warning of possible delays. But more than all this, what might really inhibit you at first is the ridiculousness with which drivers abroad follow rules. Most are courteous, and when they flash their lights, it usually means, ‘I’ll wait, you go ahead’. They stick to their lanes, and the most shocking of all, they actually stop if traffic lights are red! The five drives I write about here—three in India and two overseas—are fabulous trips that you should do behind the wheel of a car, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the Pangi Valley in India and Mpumalanga abroad.
THE SACH PASS AND PANGI VALLEY ROAD TRIP
I’ve done this drive twice, but the first time I rushed through it. The second time around I took my time, because I had a car with slightly lower ground clearance and that was a blessing in disguise because it made the journey even more thrilling.
Not as popular as Himachal Pradesh’s other oft-travelled valleys, the Pangi Valley lies between the magnificent and enigmatic Sach Pass and a town called Udaipur (a namesake of the one in Rajasthan). The staging point for this road trip is Dalhousie in the Dauladhar Range, where our base was Teddy’s Lodge. On the first day, we drove 134 km without much incident except having to fill up the car’s tank using a funnel fashioned from a mineral water bottle since the fuel nozzle was too big for the Audi’s receptacle, and having to rub a wild marijuana leaf on a bee sting.
At Bairagarh, 29 km from Sach Pass, at its base, there is a lovely PWD guesthouse, a perfect stop for the night. Since I wanted to get some photographs, we left early and were treated to stunning views on the ascent. The glaciers and the permanent snow caps soon came into view and even before we hit the summit of the pass, we were driving alongside huge glaciers. Every now and then, we’d hear a thunderous crack telling us that ice was breaking somewhere, and I’d look up in apprehension hoping no skyscraper sized lump was hurtling towards us. The temperature was never more than 2° Celsius, and at times there was snowfall too.
The descent on the other side down to the Pangi Valley was even more spectacular. To soothe our nerves after having traversing that narrow road with all its glaciers, we stopped and brewed ourselves some tea.
For rhe second night halt, we stopped at the PWD bungalow at Killar, about 42 km from the Sach. We could have driven to Udaipur the next day, but we stopped at Cherry, a small village 14 km from Killar. Here we camped on a PWD guest house’s lawns and cooked spicy Goan sausage curry on a wood stove. The only flipside to this drive was that after all this visual overload, the long haul back to Chandigarh and then Delhi was quite mundane by way of scenery.
THE ROAD TO CHANDRA TAL
The enigmatic Moon Lake is a destination by itself and I had often driven past it on my trips to Kaza and Manali. Last summer, I decided to make this lake the destination of a quick weekend dash to the Himalayas.
The staging point for Chandra Tal is Manali, and there are horrendous jams on the way to Rohtang Pass, 50 km north of Manali. So I kicked my fellow travellers awake at 3.30 am and we were off by 4.45—me driving and them cursing. But the result was a drive up Rohtang with non-existent traffic. We had a spectacular view of the sunrise from atop the pass.
The smooth tarmac disappeared after crossing over, but the scenery was a visual overdose. It is because of the slow and hard road to Chandra Tal that it remains pristine. The lake is on an offshoot of the road to Kaza just short of the magnificent Kunsum La Pass, and we got there by mid afternoon and sat by its shores watching the light play tricks on the water, colouring it green, blue and orange. That night, we pitched tents close to the lake, cooked some chicken soup, spicy mutton curry, saffron rice and semolina pudding, using my small but very potent propane canister stove.
The next morning, I woke up to a layer of ice on the tent’s flap and on the car’s windshield. When I started the car to get back to Manali, its display showed the outside temperature at -1.5° C. In India, and this was at the height of summer in the plains!
THE MUGHAL ROAD
When the Mughals retreated in summer to the cool climes of Kashmir, the road from Jammu to Srinagar as we know it now didn’t exist. They took a longer route that ran from Delhi to Lahore and then from Lahore to Gujerat (in modern day Pakistan) and from there over the Pir Ki Gali (a pass) down to Shopian and finally Srinagar.
Today, this road has been resurfaced, renovated and reopened as a sort of historical tourist attraction by Jammu & Kashmir Tourism and it is a great way to drive from Jammu to Srinagar. On my last trip to Kashmir, I decided to drive this road, even though it is longer, because of what I had read about its historical stops.
Starting from Jammu, I drove to Sundarbani, 77 km from Jammu via Akhnoor. Further on, 48 km away, I arrived at Chingas. The Mughal Serai—caravan stop—here is called Chingas for a reason. Mughal Emperor Jehangir died here and his begum Nur Jehan, knowing that turmoil would erupt in the fight for the throne if the news leaked, had his body embalmed and put on an elephant ride back to Lahore as if he were alive. His innards—‘chingas in the local lingo of the time—were buried here.
Close by is also the waterfall Noori Chamb. Jehangir, it is said, had a mirror strategically installed here so that he could slip into repose with his opium- laced hookah and watch Nur Jehan bathe. We looked and found the waterfall hidden away in a crevice. We arrived at Bafliaz next. It is widely believed that Alexander’s beloved horse, Bucephalus, died here after the Battle of the Hydapses against Porus.
The road really opened up after Bafliaz. It was wider but since it is generally ascending the 3,500 metres high Pir ki Gali pass, it got twisty. When we reached, at the highest point of the road, the view was magnificent with the serpentine road below. I stopped here and imagined what it must have been like when the entire Mughal entourage with its bedecked elephants slowly trudged up this route.
A few kilometers ahead from Pir ki Gali, there was a sign for Aliabad Sarai. We ran down to it enthusiastically and huffed and puffed our way back up in the thin mountain air, but it was worth the effort. From here on, it was time to stretch the car’s legs a bit. The stretch of road leading to Shopian was smooth going through idyllic villages. From Shopian, it was another 48 km north to Srinagar.
This route can easily be done in a day. You’re advised to get the driving done before sunset. There are no places to stay en route, so you have to get to Srinagar. Remember to carry all vehicle and personal identification documents.
MPUMALANGA, SOUTH AFRICA
South Africa is known for its stunning Garden Route Drive, but Mpumalanga is its hidden gem. It is the country’s smallest province, and when I was going to Kruger, I hired a car and drove here from Johannesburg. Take the flight and you forsake some of the best driving roads South Africa has to offer. I disregarded all those who discouraged me saying that it is not safe. I drove during daylight, didn’t not stop for strangers, and had a great trip.
I went through the Drakensburg Range, fly-fished at Dullstrom, admired lovely waterfalls near Hazyview, and skinny dipped in natural swimming holes near Sabie. I also sampled some fantastic pancakes at Harrie’s in Graskop. The prize at the end is the Kruger National Park and the Sabie Sands Private Game Reserve.
Driving in the Kruger Park, I sometimes forgot that this was a jungle with wild animals because the road was so wide and it seemed like a normal forested patch that I often drive through in India. But then I would come across elephants and rhinoceroses blocking my road, reminding me that I am in the land of the big five. I was even fortunate to have a lion look into my car. It is about 600 km from Johannesburg to Kruger along this route, and it should be done over 3 days.
When I had a Mini John Cooper Works Special, an absolute driver’s delight, it was really a no-brainer where I should head from London. The roads in West Wales are tantalisingly just right for an enthusiastic hot hatchback.
I drove the 219 km from London to Cardiff, took a break and then headed 148 km west to Saundersfoot, the gateway to the Pembrokshire Coast. From here, a lovely coastal drive led me to the beach of Freshwater West. Its wild and desolate beauty made it an ideal choice for the battles in Ridley Scott’s 2010 movie Robin Hood and as the beach where the elf Dobby is buried in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Heading further north along the Welsh coast, I arrived at St Davids, the smallest city in Britain. Surrounded by the sea on three sides and decorated with colourful traffic islands, this is the birth and burial site of the nation’s patron saint. It’s been a place of pilgrimage for 1,500 years and, as the local baker told me, also a place of plunder by those ‘pesky Vikings’. In most cities I’ve visited, the cathedral is the focal point of the city visible from almost everywhere. At St Davids, it is intentionally hidden in a hollow in the hope that it would not catch the attention of marauding Viking boats sailing by.
I continued north on quaint roads past villages like Fishgaurd known for its Strumble Head lighthouse and Aberaeron, famous for its honey yoghurt ice-cream. The village of Aberaeron is a fishing community with pastel coloured Georgian houses and most restaurants had lobsters on the menu. These were freshly caught by the boats now docked in the harbour. The ongoing heat wave had the local populace out enjoying the warm evening sun. Teenagers were somersaulting into the cool blue water nonchalantly, ignoring the sign that said ‘No Jumping from the Harbour Walls’.
My route then deviated from the coast and headed towards Porthmadog in the Snowdonia National Park. From here, on some local advice, I drove past the pretty village of Beddgelert that is known for riverside walks and stopped at the junction where the A498 meets the A4086 where stood the Pen-y- Gwryd Hotel (PYG). The crumpled and creased topography surrounding it served as a training terrain for the 1953 Everest Team, led by John Hunt and including Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary before their successful ascent of Everest. They used the PYG as a base and five years after the ascent, came back here for a reunion. The signatures of the team are still visible on the ceiling, and the boots that scaled the peak hang from the ceiling of another room.
Sitting under their soles, many would agree that there is no better way to explore Snowdonia than on foot. But looking out at my Mini parked outside, I was inclined to disagree.