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Travel: Charged up for a trip to Phaltan

Taking an electric car on a road trip can be risky but the 270km drive from Mumbai to scenic Phaltan for fishing and sailing is easy in Audi's e-tron Sportback

Apart from fishing and sailing on the lake, Phaltan offers a window into the history of Maharashtra's smaller kingdoms.
Apart from fishing and sailing on the lake, Phaltan offers a window into the history of Maharashtra's smaller kingdoms. (Rishad Saam Mehta)

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“Where is Phaltan?”

That was often the reaction when I told people I was going to Phaltan. Geographically, it is positioned south-east of Pune and north-east of Satara.

The reason I was headed to this Maharashtrian town last month was that though I had driven the Audi e-tron Sportback before, I had never really put my faith in its battery range and taken it a long way from home. Phaltan, about 270km from Mumbai, was the perfect first road trip foray with this fully electric car.

Also read: Ajanta caves: The secret stories behind the paintings

My friend Phiroze has a plot there on which his father built a lovely stone cottage, next to a tranquil lake. Serving in the Indian Navy, his father, Captain Sohrab Contractor was the first man to represent India in sailing in the 1972 Munich Olympics. In fact, while rifling through old books once I reached Phaltan, Phiroze and I chanced upon Sohrab’s 1972 Olympiad identity card as well as the detailed manual every participant was given for orientation at the Olympic village.

Five of us were en route to Phaltan when we stopped at an HP petrol pump’s fast charger at the expressway plaza just before the ascent to Lonavala. The Audi had just imbibed 18% electrical juice from the battery after a day of driving around in Mumbai and then from the city, down the expressway, to this food plaza.

Charging the car is definitely not plug and play—the first time at least. First, I had to download the Magenta Charge Grid app, create an account, conjure up a password, then scan a QR code and load the in-app wallet with cash. Only then do the electrons get their marching orders. But within about 20 minutes of pulling into the charging bay, I had a fully charged battery.

We still had about 187km left and the car’s battery charge range read 310km. This was computed by the car, taking into consideration my driving style up to that moment, and the going had been pretty flat. I was heavy-footed, however, on the climb up the ghats and the smooth tarmac sections past Shirwal, Lonand and into Phaltan, so I arrived with just 50km of range to spare. But the car’s massive torque and rapid acceleration left grins on the faces of every passenger.

But when I plugged in the car to the cottage’s 15 amp household plug, the e-tron indicated it would take 36.15 hours to get to full charge. Balu mama, the major domo, informed us that there would be load-shedding the day after tomorrow. Anyway, we were there for three nights, so charging anxieties took a back seat.

Like his father, Phiroze too is a keen sailor. As soon as we had unloaded our luggage and stored the food in the fridge, we began assembling the Hobie Cat, a double-hull sailboat with canvas stretched between the hulls and a solitary sail. We loaded it on to the trolley and wheeled it out to the lake, launching it unceremoniously into the water. No breaking bottles. We zig-zagged around the lake at the whim of the wind, sipping on the chilled contents of said bottles. We also managed to get a close look at the painted storks that nest on an island at the far end of the lake, on a tree that spreads its branches like a canopy.

We returned to the shore late afternoon. As dusk fell, we had a visitor at the cottage: Raghunath Raje Naik Nimbalkar, a friend of Phiroze and a member of Phaltan’s erstwhile royal family, the Nimbalkars. Listening to the history of his family, going back to 1244, when the Nimbalkars first arrived in Phaltan, and his fondness for classic American cars helped the hours go by swiftly.

According to Nimbalkar, Phaltan is connected to the Maratha king Shivaji because his wife Saibai, as well as his grandmothers, all called Phaltan home. Shivaji’s daughter, Sakhubai, was married to a Phaltan prince. Relations between the Nimbalkars and Bhosales (Shivaji’s family) stretch across 13 generations.

The next morning, I woke up just before sunrise. I watched the sun come up and then headed down to the lake, to launch a kayak and paddle out to its centre. It was a sublime moment, watching the mist rising in spirals from the lake as the sun grew stronger. There was no wind and the surface of the water was calm and quiet. I could creep up stealthily to the island at the far end of the lake. I got as close as I could to see the nests of the painted storks, with fledglings inside.

By the time I got back, the rest had woken up and one whom I shall call Horatio had eggs and bacon frying in a cast-iron skillet. After breakfast, we headed back to the lake with fishing roads. One of the lad’s wives had sent a curry; it just needed fish to be added and then simmered for a few minutes. But cast after cast yielded nothing, so we drove into town to buy mutton. The mutton here is supposed to be so tender that you can’t have small pieces because they disintegrate. This turned out to be true because the meat was cooked to “falling off the bone” tenderness in just 20 minutes of simmering in the curry.

Sculptures at the Jabareshwar Mahadev Temple in Phaltan, Maharashtra.
Sculptures at the Jabareshwar Mahadev Temple in Phaltan, Maharashtra. (Rishad Saam Mehta)

Phiroze grows sugar-cane, sunflowers, sorghum and pearl millet on his plot, so we helped with the sugar-cane harvest. The Audi e-tron had charged to a range of 226km, so the next morning we left for some sightseeing. In the centre of town is the beautiful Rajwada and Nimbalkar sent his assistant, Patankar, to open the massive doors and let us in. This 17th century palace, formally addressed as the Madhoji Manmohan Rajwada, is a combination of Maratha and British architecture. It has intricately carved pillars, antique furniture, fine china, gorgeous chandeliers, carpets, tapestries, paintings and trophies, all immaculately maintained. I lost count of the number of rooms. My favourite, though, was the façade, with its intricately carved arches, balconies and lions.

A hundred feet south of the Rajwada is another architectural gem: The Jabareshwar Mahadev Temple, carved out of one humongous rock, apparently dates back to 1237. Sadly, not much is known about it. I walked around it, fascinated by the carvings of muscular men and well-proportioned princesses, most of them striking a pose.

We returned to the farm, knowing load-shedding would be under way, but I wasn’t worried. I knew that once the electricity returned, a 12-hour charge would be enough for the Audi to have enough power to get us to Mumbai.

Rishad Saam Mehta is a travel writer and photographer.

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