The Indian summer is getting fiercer every year. Even Mumbai, which for years had equable summer temperatures owing to its seaside location, now goes on slow boil during the summer months. So, when the dark monsoon clouds come rolling in, it is reason to celebrate, and what better way than to take a driving trip and discover the transformation the country undergoes. Brown turns green and the dormant becomes active as you see defiant blades of grass sprouting through cracks of tar on roads. Waterfalls tumble down hillsides that were bare in the summer but are now a million shades of green. Mists that play hide and seek with hilltops lend the land an ethereal look.
Being on the western coast, Maharashtra and Karnataka offer some wonderful spots from which to enjoy the rains—both journey and destination are made for the monsoon season. The drives are relatively easy and the roads quite smooth. Waterfalls dominate this list, since the monsoon swells most rivers and streams, providing beautiful views. If the hills beckon, I am suggesting routes which are a little more challenging, yet best enjoyed at this time of year. In some cases, the roads are only open between July and September. Here are my suggestions for driving holidays that require varying amounts of time and experience but are the best way to enjoy the monsoon at the wheel of your car.
MALSHEJ GHAT, MAHARASHTRA
The monsoon turns the astounding Malshej Ghat, a hill pass, into the biggest and most popular natural water park for residents of Mumbai, Pune, Thane and Nashik. Every nook and cranny of the winding hill road has a waterfall. It is very easy to find your own private waterfall. On weekends, large crowds gather to celebrate the rains and shower in the icy water. Exuberance fills the air. The road becomes one large picnic ground. Tea stalls dish out kadak chai and piping kanda bajjiyas (onion fritters). If you would rather do without the multitudes, visit on a weekday. Should you want to make it an overnight trip, there are a few hotels around Malshej Ghat, but it is prudent to book in advance.
Malshej Ghat is a day trip from Mumbai (131km, 4 hours), Nashik (127km, 3 hours) or Pune (130km, three-and-a-half hours). The road leading to the start of the ghat section is good. The ghat section is smooth too, but there is always the chance of landslides, and in misty conditions, visibility is greatly reduced. Since it is a very popular destination, there is always a great deal of traffic on weekends.
Every inch of the Maharashtra countryside seems painted in shades of green during the monsoon—the Sahyadris are especially spectacular. On the Mumbai-Goa road, a 35km detour from Kudal will take you to Amboli.
My advice would be to go early in the day, before crowds swarm the beautiful hill roads covered in foliage. While the main Amboli waterfall, with its collection of dhabas and tea stalls at its base, is the main attraction, you will see quite a few waterfalls as you drive up. A stop at any of these makes for a great break, while avoiding the crowds.
Amboli's proximity to the Konkan means there are khanalays (eating houses) that serve Konkan seafood (fish fry, curry and solkadhi) as well as missal, ussal pav and bhajjiyas.
Amboli is 500km from Mumbai and to get there early, I would suggest a night halt in Kolhapur, which is 380km, and a 7-hour drive, from Mumbai.
Amboli is 120km (two-and-a-half hours) from Kolhapur, via Kudal. Punch Amboli Waterfalls into Google Maps and it will direct you right to it.
This could be a weekend trip, with Amboli being a day trip from Kolhapur.
The roads are smooth tarmac, though the hill road leading up to Amboli is narrow and you need to be cautious, especially if it is misty and visibility is reduced.
KABINI FOREST, KARNATAKA
Easily accessible from Bengaluru, Mangaluru, Coimbatore or even the northern part of Kerala, the road through the Kabini forest, unlike most national parks, is open year-round. It is lovely to visit between June-October, when the rains set in. The Kabini river is in full flow, the tarmac that runs through the forest like a black satin ribbon is clean and shiny. The dappled rays of the sun filter through the dense forest canopy, giving everyone the opportunity to make art out of photography.
The wildlife sightings are good too—an elephant by the road, a Malabar giant squirrel a flash of orange as it sails between the trees, a leopard hanging out on a branch, spotting you long before you see it, and deer aplenty. The sightings may not be as plentiful as in summer but if you want to see the forest at its best, the monsoon is the best time to head to Kabini.
The Kabini region is about 270km (5 hours) from Bengaluru, 250km (6 hours) from Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) and 140km (4 hours) from Kannur (Kerala).
Plan on spending at least two nights there. There are hotels and resorts for all budgets, most of them open year-round.
The roads are fine except for the odd patch. Give wildlife (especially elephants) space and right of way. Imagine telling your insurance company your car was pushed over by a peeved pachyderm!
CHANDRA TAL, HIMACHAL PRADESH
The Spiti district is home to a striking lake called Chandra Tal that can be visited only from June to mid-October, when the high-altitude roads are accessible.
The drive from the plains to Manali is pretty straightforward and will take an entire day. The number of people in Manali might mortify you, but fret not, you will be moving on quickly.
After a night halt there, head through the Atal Tunnel that runs below Rohtang Pass, exiting into the spectacular district of Lahaul. The change in scenery is noticeable: high mountain peaks and some snow by the side of the road. Once you turn right after exiting the tunnel, a 23km drive will take you to Gramphu. From there, a road snakes away towards Spiti. It is here that waves of incredulity will wash er you.
The smooth tarmac that has been your constant companion from the plains dissipates into dirt but it is a small price to pay. In my opinion, this dirt track from Gramphu towards Chandra Tal is one of our beautiful country’s most scenic drives. The landscape is almost overwhelming in magnitude and scale.
City-block-sized glaciers gouged out huge valleys during the last Ice Age. The Chandra river is frothy and ice blue, quite a contrast to the deep blue sky. Forty-eight kilometres down this road is Batal and a kilometre ahead is the Chacha Chachi Chandra Dhaba run by Bodh Dorjee and wife Hishe Chhomo (superb masala tea here, by the way).
From there, the road bifurcates and a narrow, barely motorable road climbs up towards Chandra Tal, the Moon Lake, at 14,100ft. The other road climbs towards the Kunzum La and Kaza.
Chandra Tal is sublime, a photographer’s delight—the colours of the lake change with the time of day, the clouds in the sky and the force of the wind. When there is no wind, the surface of the lake is like a looking glass. If you do decide to take a swim, be ready for a brain freeze because the water is icy cold.
Campsites are 2km from the lake. You can either carry your own tents or sleep in one of the tents set up there during the season.
If you can spare about five days more, you can carry on towards Kaza and then head back to the plains via Rampur and Shimla. If you are taking a shorter trip, just go back the same way.
It is 312km (8 hours) from Chandigarh to Manali. The road is twisty and has heavy traffic, so start early (5am).
It is 35km from Manali to the north portal of Atal Tunnel (about one-and-a-half hours). From there to Gramphu (23km, 45 minutes) is the last of the tarmac. Thereafter, you will need some experience at the wheel. The 48km from Gramphu to Batal will take about 3 hours. The dirt track from Batal to Chandra Tal is 17km but will take about 2 hours. Watch out, this track has steep climbs with loose gravel and fine sand. Carry a puncture repair kit and an air compressor.
Tented accommodation is available and so is food, but you can also find a secluded camping spot if you are equipped.
BASTAR DISTRICT, CHHATTISGARH
The splendid Bastar district has roads are bordered by tall trees, which cast a beautiful shade in summer and create a lush canopy when the rains arrive. The popular Chitrakote waterfall is a gorgeous sight in the monsoon season. It is formed by the waters of Indravati river pouring over a horseshoe-shaped cliff--the power and speed of the water is awe-inspiring, and the crash as it falls about 95ft into the pool is deafening. When it is safe enough, the locals take tourists out in little wooden boats, as close to the base as possible so that you can feel the spray on your face.
Bastar is also famous for its weekly tribal markets or haats at which you can buy Dhokra bell-metal handicrafts and the famous red-ant pickle. Do try the local mahua liquor, too.
Stay in Jagdalpur town, making it your base to explore Bastar.
Jagdalpur is 300km south on NH30 from Raipur, the state capital. It should take about 6 hours.
Raipur lies on NH53, the arterial west to east National Highway and is 278km (five-and-a-half hours) to the east of Nagpur, Maharashtra, on the same highway.
The road from Raipur to Jagdalpur has some construction activity and is mostly a two-lane highway. Kanker is almost midway, at 141km from Raipur. There is a 5km hill road section 24km after Kanker, just before Keshkal. After this, the road all the way to Jagdalpur is a delight, bordered by forest.
The 37km road from Jagdalpur to Chitrakote is two-lane, with many villages, so drive with caution.
SACH PASS AND PANGI VALLEY, HIMACHAL PRADESH
This drive can only be done from July-September, the monsoon season. The road is inaccessible the rest of the year. I have been on this route four times in the last 10 years and I have never felt a sense of been-there-done-that. The weather and terrain are so dynamic.
Give yourself a minimum of six days for this road trip, which requires a well- prepped car and considerable experience at the wheel. The adventurous bit begins in Dalhousie, 340km from Chandigarh. From Dalhousie, it is about 120km to Bairagarh, which has a PWD guesthouse and can be a night halt if booked in advance. From there, you set off towards the mighty Sach Pass, at 14,482ft. It is best to leave Bairagarh at the break of dawn, to soak in the scenery during the 30km drive. This should take about 2 hours. As the day grows warm, the heat causes parts of the huge glaciers to melt and shift. And the water crossings on the approach and descent swell in volume. The route up to the Sach Pass is more a collection of stones than a road. The first glaciers will come into view a few kilometres short of the summit of the pass; expect the temperature at the top to be around minus 2 degrees Celsius at a time when the plains are sweltering in the 30s and 40s. The drive up the pass and down, though precarious given the dirt and rock track, is wondrous. The path is so narrow it seems that the mountains have parted just enough to make motoring possible. Be cautious. Rocks come down, glaciers crawl, melting ice forms streams that grow in volume as the day gets hotter and change course. It’s the geographical dynamics and dangers that make driving across the Sach such a thrilling experience. The descent into the Pangi Valley is pretty. The landscape is green, a contrast to the grey and rocky one on the Bairagarh side.
From there on, it is a beautiful drive, albeit on unsealed roads, to Tandi on the Keylong-Manali road. Distance-wise, it is just 146km from the summit of the Sach, but take a break at Cherri Bungalow (a PWD guesthouse) and make it to Manali the next day on a longish drive, or take another break at Udaipur or Keylong. If you are not pressed for time, take a left from Udaipur into the Miyan Valley, with stunning views of the Miyan river and snow-capped peaks. There are plenty of places to camp there.
A six-day itinerary would be Chandigarh (or Delhi)-Dalhousie- Bairagarh-Cherri Bungalow-Jispa or Keylong-Manali-Chandigarh (or Delhi).
The roads from Dalhousie to Manali are a mix of hill roads till the Himachal-Punjab border and six-laned highways in the plains.
The distances between the halts from Dalhousie to Manali are not long but unsealed roads mean average speed would be 15-20km per hour.
There are PWD resthouses in Killar, Cherri and Udaipur. There are basic hotels in Killar and Udaipur.
TIPS FOR SAFE MONSOON MOTORING
Here are a few pointers for a safe trip
Hard braking and acceleration on wet roads is an invitation to trouble. Keep one-and-a-half times more distance than you usually would between your car and the car ahead. Dry your shoe soles on the mat and check the pedals have rubber socks on them. Wet soles can slip off bare metal pedals.
Dip those headlights. High beam is both, bad etiquette and dangerous. Watch for potholes and uneven roads; dangerous areas are signal junctions and crossroads. If you can’t slow down in time, release the brakes when you hit the pothole. The suspension will compress fully and the shock of impact will be taken by the tyre and rim, possibly damaging both.
PREPPING YOUR CAR FOR THE MONSOON
CORROSION | It is often found in door hinges, under the flooring carpet, and other places where water accumulates and takes time to dry out. Rubber matting will help. Address the problem before the first rains arrive.
TYRES | Tyres with good treads are essential. If they are worn out, get them changed—it may save your life. Bald or even fairly worn-out tyres reduce grip and traction, reducing steering control, and increase stopping distance.
WIPERS AND WINDSCREEN WASHER | Check wiper blades. The summer tends to dry and stiffen the rubber; replace the blades if needed. The windscreen washer is essential because the grime thrown up by wet roads needs moisture to be wiped away. Check the washer fluid level regularly. Add a pinch of detergent to it. It helps wipe away grime that has dried on the windscreen.
LEAKS | Check minutely for leaks. The rubber weatherstrips on the edges of windscreens, doors and boot, most susceptible to leakage, should be snug. If your windscreen is leaking, get the rubber weatherstrips changed.
ELECTRICALS | Check the electricals thoroughly. All wires and connections should be insulated. Battery terminals must be coated with jelly or Vaseline and have rubber shields.
Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer and photographer.