With self-drive rentals finally beginning to crop up in India’s cities, could India be the next great road trip destination of the world? Vanessa Able took to the roads of India in a tiny Tata Nano, what she found out makes for one of the most unusual holidays India can offer.
To be fair, India’s probably not the first country you’d associate with a self-drive holiday. Apart from a few hardened motorcyclists who traverse the country on homegrown classic Enfields, most travellers taking on the highways around India are doing so in the good care of a professional driver.
But for a road-trip fanatic like myself, the idea of being driven severely detracts from the romance of an epic burn. So I packed a GPS, and more random stuff than I needed (who cared? I had a car…) and set off on a 10,000 km loop around India, starting and ending in Mumbai. My route first took me south, through
Goa, Bangalore and the hills of the Nilgiris, before hitting Kerala’s epic coastline. I turned up again at Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent and followed the east coast through the former French Union Territory of Pondicherry to Chennai, through Hyderabad and eventually to Kolkata in West Bengal. Where things began to heat up.When the mercury hit 47ºC in Varanasi and I was incapacitated, lying in wet towels under a fan, I had some serious doubts as to whether I could continue the journey in such heat without the car combusting. So I took my cue from local tradition and headed further uphill to the foothills of the Himalayas for some respite in former colonial towns like Nainital and Shimla as well as the spiritual hubs of Rishikesh and Dharamsala. My route then dipped down to Delhi through Punjab and three months later, I was back in Mumbai, where I started.
I won’t mince words: driving in India is unlike driving anywhere else in the world. It’s not for the fainthearted. From the outset, you’re up against traffic that’s not only often thick and intense (especially in big cities) but also features a cast of characters you might not have previously shared the roads with: cows, elephants, camels and bullocks as well as three-wheelers, hand-drawn carts, and jugaads, vehicles made at home or in the village using only spare parts and improvised mechanics.
The roads themselves are widely diverse. It turns out that the category National Highway can denote anything from a smooth, manicured dual carriageway to a potholed dirt track punctuated every ten kilometres by a village. As a result, stops were frequent and even short journeys could take hours. It was a frustration I slowly learned to enjoy, as were other challenges of the trip like trying to decipher signs written in local dialect, keeping errant primates at bay and negotiating the herds of livestock that swarmed the car to make quite challenging road blocks.
I returned home a different kind of driver. I was more opportunistic – stopping at red lights, heeding signs and waiting patiently in line suddenly seemed so formal – as well as several decibels more audible. I had learned to replace my indicators as well as many other traditionally silent signals with a good loud parp of the horn. This, as per the famous Indian road mantra that followed me all the way around the country on the back of the thousands of lorries whose farty posteriors I was always trying to dodge: Horn OK Please. And then some.
Vanessa Able is a writer and author her book about her adventurous road trip in India, Never Mind the Bullocks, (published by Nicholas Brealey) is available now on Amazon.