Jhansi, Shivpura, Bhopal, Hyderabad, Bengaluru to Tuticroin Tues 21 June – Friday 1 July 2011
On Tuesday 21st June we finally left Delhi at long last, driving past the Sydney opera house look- alike Baha'i house of worship on the way out. NB: Before we go we must mention a great charity we ran into in our final days in Delhi. Khoi is an NGO which finances the education of some of India's many street kids in Delhi. We met them and they invited us to come and see their organization, sadly just as we were leaving -maybe next time. To find out more about the great work these guys are doing see their site at www.delkhoj.blogspot.com or www.khojfoundation.org.
It was such a relief to finally leave the smoggy city behind and thankfully the temperature soon dropped. We still hadn't been able to get a firm answer from anyone in Tuticorin re: whether we'd be able to get on the car ferry, but as ever we had plans B & C lined up. The best case scenario (A) was that we and the car get on the ferry direct to Colombo from Tuticorin, the 2nd that we get on the passenger ferry but the car be shipped in a container -thus it would have to be crated and loaded on and off by crane - the 3rd option that the ferry wasn't yet going (despite newspaper stories there still seemed to be some doubt about this) so we would ship the car by container, then catch the bus (10 hours) to Chennai and then fly to Colombo. Any which way there was a long journey of over 3,900km through the guts of India first!
First night we stayed at Jhansi in Madhya Pradesh (MP). This small town boasts a good fort allegedly but we didn't really see it, as by the time we got here rain was falling in a solid curtain, the monsoon had definitely kicked in. We spent a slightly damp night camping at the police station. They were really kind and welcoming, which made up in part for the dire weather. On the road again we had been enjoying the good old police road signs which pop up all over India "Be alert accidents hurt" and "Caution and care make accidents rare" being typical examples. You certainly need it here -we had some severely scary experiences with trucks and buses -crowded with passengers they just pull out in front of you without looking forcing a few emergency stops. Just crazy!
Next day we drove on towards Nagpur in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. We asked advice and plotted out our route -via Sagar - hoping to get to Nagpur or thereabouts by nightfall. Sadly it was not to be -the rains had been falling steadily all night and the water levels had risen. Just 11km short of Sagar we came to a place where the rivers were uncrossable. This was a junction of 2 rivers very fast flowing and whilst the big trucks were getting through for smaller jeeps it was just too dangerous we could have been swept away.
So -frustratingly -around we turned. We met up with a jeep load of road engineers trying to get to a meeting in Sagar. Very kindly they let us follow them as they tried in total 3 alternative routes, but it was the same everywhere - risen rivers, sometimes blocked by collapsed trucks. Eventually we both gave up, they jettisoned their meeting and headed home and we returned all the way we'd some to Jhansi, an 800km detour. Bloody annoying!
Just so we wouldn't feel we'd achieved nothing we drove on a further 90 km to camp that night at Shivpuri -the alternative route going on via Bhopal which with the benefit of hindsight we should have taken in the first place! Never mind.
We stayed at the government hotels (the MPTDC here in MP) as we have throughout India. The old summer capital of one of the Mughal rulers this was a really pretty spot near to a few national parks. Actually MP in general looked well worth exploring. We've not really got around to touring here and we felt we should return when not in a rush. Our friends Kush and Divya organize custom made tours of the area if anyone's interested -see the front page of our site for contact details. The hotel management were very kind and let us park for no charge. Still pouring with rain so we were pretty soggy by now!
Amazingly the MP tourism department have introduced caravans to India! As we travel around India people are often fascinated by this mode of travel and, unless they've been o/s are really blown away by the concept of mobile homes, and often say they wish they could get one in India. Well…in MP you can! They have beautiful luxury campervans complete with fold down bed, loo and shower, flat screen TV and driver all part of the package. Far more luxurious than how we travel! You can use them throughout MP and camp (as we do) at the government hotel for no charge! The charge is 20 rupees per km and of course other charges for the driver etc -but it seemed pretty reasonable. We were really pleased to see this in India -details on their website www.mptourism.com
We actually saw one stopped on the road the next day and had a really funny role reversal -where we approached an India family (and guide and driver) to ask to look at their vehicle. Maybe they'll be all over India in a few years.
Next night's destination was Bhopal the capital city of MP. Sadly the only reason we'd heard of this city before was due to the disaster in 1984, when 40 tonnes of poisonous gas leaked from a US owned chemical plant here, causing mass deaths and ongoing medical problems to the poor residents. Getting any justice has been a slow arduous process. Residents in the poorer slum areas near the plant still don't have adequate water and poisonings due to drinking unclean water still happen. See this site to find out more www.bhopal.org Anyway despite this terrible association Bhopal was a lovely city. Set on 2 large lakes it has a wealthy glamorous vibe with a modern new city and an old one alive with ancient monuments. Again we didn't do it justice but had a good night's sleep at the Pradesh Residency MPTDC. MP is so easy for parking spots - wish it was always like that!
Next morning we drove on south. After about 50km we saw a sign for a world heritage site just off the highway so pulled over for a break. We only ended up here due to the flooded rivers, and as has happened before we were so pleased our plans had gone awry. Bhimbetka comprises a group of around 600 cave shelters containing some of the oldest and best quality prehistoric paintings in the world. Whereas in Europe you'd no doubt queue for hours to see this we just wandered around in the rain! The paintings range from 12,000 years old and show animals, hunting and farming scenes and religious festivals. Being made from natural pigment the colours were remarkably well preserved, one of the most impressive things we've seen on the trip to date and highly recommended, all the more because we never even intended to see it!
We had a local guide, who though he had no English was able to point out the best paintings so we could whizz round as we didn't really have long enough to do this fascinating area justice. Incredible.
After all this excitement it was back on the highway for us! It was incredibly easy to navigate here- it was just "go straight". In total we drove on 8 different highways -after Nagpur it was Highway 7 all the way down. A bit boring and you could be on auto pilot if it weren't for the "Incredible India" factor like herds of cows meandering the highway and trucks speeding towards you on the wrong side of the road! That night we camped just short of Nagpur at an India Oil petrol station.
We were getting really tired and when 2 petrol stations said no, we just insisted for the third! All the truckies stay here so we're hardly a problem; I think they're just scared of being responsible for tourists. Anyway we slept well and the truckies were very friendly and welcoming, bringing us chai the next day. We went to sleep parked on our own and woke up in the middle of a sea of lorries which had to be shuffled around to let us out!
Heading to Hyderabad our next destination in Andhra Pradesh (AP) we really felt we were going south. The writing changed - no Hindi here most people speak Telugu which in its written form looks really like Burmese. The humidity was going up, there was a tropical feel in the air and the food had become very southern too.
So, at small service stations we tucked into good south Indian coffee (it's not really popular in the north and coffee is often pretty dire) idlis (rice cakes) dosas (rice flour crepes) or uttappams a rice flour pancake. The people look different too very smiley white teeth and darker skins, and the ladies often have jasmine entwined in their long hair. It's a bit more laid back than the north and the people are very friendly.
We broke the long drive up by pulling over a few times, once to get the car greased underneath by a roadside team, and once to buy mangoes. These were in season and being sold on the roadside everywhere. We bought a bag with about 8 from the man in our picture for 50 rupees (just over one dollar) Truly organic -best we'd ever tasted!
We also saw a few wind turbines -or parts thereof -which reminded us how prolific they are down south, and a couple of salt farms very like the ones we saw in Thailand earlier on in the trip.
By mid afternoon we reached Hyderabad, capital city of AP. Again no time to really experience this city but from our brief visit it came across as a wealthy city aka Cyberbad and like Bangalore/Bengaluru a big IT centre and so very prosperous.
We drove through the atmospheric old city -very Islamic with lots of twisty little roads -not great for our car! Hyderabad was once a big centre of Muslim culture and has a sizeable Muslim population.
On the way out we stopped to see the Charminar, Hyderabad's major landmark. Built by a Muslim leader in the late 16th century to commemorate the founding of the city this is an impressive 4 towered structure, 56 m high and 30 m wide, with a mosque on the 2nd floor. It is lit up in a kaleidoscope of changing colours at night -very effective.
Surrounding it is the Laad Bazaar a huge meandering bizarre selling perfume fabric, spices -all sorts really. After a quick look we headed down the road where we camped that night at one of the Road Toll bridges which are pretty numerous on this highway. It was actually Andrew's birthday -but it got a bit lost in the driving frenzy and wasn't really celebrated. Andrew promised himself (and me!) a nice lunch out in SL!
Next stop was Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore - why do they change the names so often?) Another wealthy IT centre, it is more western than any other Indian cities we've visited i.e.) girls in jeans, a real pub culture, lots of western restaurants etc It was STILL raining and we admitted defeat and took a hotel room as it is very tricky parking in such busy cities. The Hotel Ajantha was a perfectly good budget hotel, which at 980 rupees (around $20) seemed pricey to us though it seemed to be the norm here. Pricier than Delhi anyway!
Next morning we were off to Anu Solar a company we'd found on the internet to see if our ongoing fridge problems were linked to our solar panel. They were a bit thrown by us but very helpful, and exhaustive tests showed that the panel was fine. The problems seems to be a drop in amps as the power goes from the battery to the fridge. Andrew is going to redo the wiring when we hit Sri Lanka so hope that works. Still an ongoing saga! Big thanks to Mr. Joseph and staff at Anu Solar for going out of their way to help us for no charge, we really appreciated it.
Whilst driving around the city we generated a lot of attention -they're really interested in the whole caravan thing here. - and we met many nice people. One was Mr. Thomas. An IT professional he is also an accomplished hockey player and in his spare time he runs a charity which teaches street kids hockey thus helping generate leadership skills and team spirit etc See his site for more about the great work he does at www.jfha.in On that note though, we really noticed how few street kids/beggars there are here. We only saw one in our 2 days in the city, in Delhi say, we were inundated every time we pulled up at traffic lights. Hopefully it's that the affluence here has filtered down, not just that the police go hard against beggars and drive them on!
Next day we left Bengaluru by early afternoon and once more camped at a service station on the good old Highway 7, for a good night's sleep before our final big push. We set off early and stopped at the temple city of Madurai. We stayed here when we first got to India -I looked back at our old website and found that for once I hadn't noted where we stayed and couldn't for the life of me remember! Anyway it wasn't at the posh Taj Garden Retreat Hotel on the outskirts of the city where we stopped for a great (if pricey) lunch. An ex colonial mansion it had beautiful landscaped gardens and a great view down over the city.
The last stretch of road after we finally turned off Highway 7 (onto 7A) was a bit rough but we finally got to India's southern most port of Tuticorin as darkness fell. Not easy to find a park here -we asked at the 2 hotels in town with any parking space but were knocked back -so once more we headed back to the highway and camped at good old Indian Oil. What a journey!
Big thanks go to Maxxis our tyre sponsor -not one puncture all the way down!
So -finally it was D-Day and we headed out to the port, still not knowing what was happening with the ferry. As we arrived the passenger ferry had just come in from Colombo, so at least we knew that it was running- which was very welcome as after all that driving the last thing we felt like was back tracking by bus! We got hold of a port official and asked if we could bring the car. He said no immediately, as we need special permission from the authorities in Chennai -which was exactly what our carnet is so we flourished it at him. He was still not keen and looking for excuses but for once luck was on our side as Mr. Gopal one of the senior managers from Flemingo Liners was down from Mumbai and he got involved. He made several calls and once he realized we had the right paperwork, he really fought our corner. We were there all day going from customs to the traffic authorities departments and back. Finally it was agreed we would be the first car to cross by ferry since the 1970s!! Whooppeee you've got to be lucky sometimes!
So by 5pm it was agreed we'd be back by 10am next morning Friday 1st July and we'd be sailing (car too) the high seas by 6pm!!! The price for shipping the car was 19,000 Indian rps (around $425 USD or $393 Oz -gotta love that exchange rate!) This was about the same as shipping in a container ….but we had a guarantee that that was all inclusive and we'd have no baksheesh to pay, and none of the hassle loading into containers and off the other end, always a minefield.
So we headed back to Tuticorin where we got the car (filthy from its travels) washed and filled up our drinking water tank and got over the shock of realizing we were leaving the next day! We'd arranged to stay again at the same petrol station and went to eat at the same hotel as the night before one that had refused letting us camp. They had suffered a real change of heart and wanted us to stay for some reason. This is a really Christian area and when Indians find Jesus they REALLY find him! E.g. "sing to praise the lord with me brother" a passerby shouted at us! We were flagged down 3 times by "believers" who wanted us to stay with them. All very bizarre it's all or nothing on the camping front, either they're clamouring for us or no one wants us!
We headed back to the petrol station for a quiet night still hardly believing our luck. Next day we were there at 10am and there we stayed for a looonnng time! We never got chance to be lonely though and always had a crowd interested in what we were doing! Lovely friendly people the Tamils.
So really big thanks to all at Flemingo Liners especially Mr. Gopal and Mr. Vishal who ran around and really helped us all day. We had one very scary moment when customs suddenly announced that we couldn't board without the original carnet showing our first entry into India when we shipped to Chennai in March 2009. The previous day customs had confirmed that our present carnet was sufficient documentation -but suddenly this switch around! This expired carnet was now back in Australia, as we'd done the right thing and sent it back when we got the new one. It was Friday night 5.30pm Australian time but we frantically called Peppina at the AAA Canberra and her assistant Joanna rushed around to get a copy of this document faxed over to us before leaving. Of course after all this no one wanted to see it …typical! GOK what that was all about …after a bribe maybe?? -Vishal being so onside with us really helped!
Finally at 6.15pm we were the last to board but we made it on! A word of warning BE IN PLENTY OF TIME FOR THE FERRY! We met 2 European girls who had come all the way down from Kerala by bus. Arriving at 1.30pm they were told they'd missed the 12pm cut off to buy tickets and so had to turn round and go back the way they'd come, or wait for the next ferry on Tuesday. We felt really sorry for them. So, either book ahead via an agent or get there early. We daresay booking by internet will become possible as the service goes on.
We only took an economy cabin for 2254 rupees each, but very kindly we were upgraded to a suite so we had a very comfortable journey over. The seas must have been rough as all our stuff was strewn around the cabin next morning but we slept through it!
The ship -Scotia Prince - was formerly an American cruise ship with 1,250 capacity and a big duty free section, a disco floor and a casino complete with one armed bandits though none of these were operational yet. We had dinner (all meals are included in the ticket price ) and then Vishal treated us to a beer or 3-no wonder we slept well! Thanks so much to all at Flemingo Liners for making this possible -please see their site on www.flemingoliners.com for details of their services.
The parking area was immense -a huge football field (300 tonnes cargo capacity) and we were the only car on it! Next morning we docked at 7am ish after breakfast. As mentioned we'd really gone round in circles whilst in Delhi, trying to contact the right people about the ferry though frustratingly we never got anywhere. When we were ready to dock the very friendly SL customs guy came on and said he knew all about us from my email. "Oh I never replied to you" he said "I knew we'd never done that so I just deleted it." At least he was honest!
Like bureaucrats everywhere they're so scared to make a new decision you need someone in charge who'll be happy to take the fall if it goes wrong ( Mr. Gopal made just such a promise to one of the customs guys -what did he think could go wrong??) Hopefully we have paved the way for all those after us to have an easier time!
We cleared customs, got our immigration stamps and finally at 10am on Saturday 2nd July we were driving the streets of Colombo - actually 5 days ahead of the last day of our Indian visa. A record for us!