Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way : The Tribune India

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Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way

As she cruises into her mid-70s, Sudha Mahalingam shows the same drive for road trips that she has nurtured for over 35 years. Back after another memorable outing, she says the joy of carving up your own itinerary & travelling at whim is unmatched

Where there’s  a wheel,  there’s a way

In their most recent trip, the couple had a stopover at Coonoor, a charming hill town near Ooty defined by misty greenery and magic.

IF Charles Lamb were to live in modern times, he would amend his famous quote to say, “The automobile has entered my soul.” It clogs up our cities, sprays carbon into our lungs, turns our environs into a dreadful cacophony of blaring horns, screeching tyres and roaring engines. Yet, few modern inventions have shrunk the planet as the motor car has. Its seductive allure is difficult to resist, especially with Google Maps showing the way.

The writer poses with her husband in Silent Valley, five hours away from Coonoor.

But when was the last time you dropped off Google Maps to explore some uncharted territory? In the past decade, Google has become so omnipresent, its tentacles strangle the entire planet in their monstrous embrace. Yet, a few days ago, I managed to dodge Google Maps to escape to a hidden treasure tucked away in a remote corner of the Western Ghats — Silent Valley, some 400 km from hometurf Bengaluru.

For those of us impulsive and spontaneous travellers, road trips hold an irresistible allure. And monsoons are when you can find accommodation easily without having to book ahead. So, when the unusually harsh and long summer in Bengaluru showed signs of relenting with its first drizzle, husband and I hopped into our car and drove off to Coonoor, a charming hill town near Ooty.

A photograph from Namibia, which was part of their month-long African road trip. Photo by the writer

As we drove from Mysore and entered Bandipur Tiger Reserve, a picturesque stretch of the forest ripe with exotic game, including the striped and spotted variety, a gorgeous downpour started. You are not allowed to stop your car in the reserve, but we did, to enjoy the sheets of rain cascading down the windshield. On several earlier drives through this stretch, we were always rewarded with sightings of elephants, wild bisons, wild boars, an occasional bear with a cub on its back, but this time, we didn’t see any game. Yet, it was the most magical drive through the forest.

From Bandipur, the road leads seamlessly into Mudumalai, the Tamil Nadu side of the tiger reserve. After Mudumalai, you have 36 hairpin bends to ascend before you reach Ooty and drive further into Coonoor, where we stayed for a few days. Slush, mist and magic defined our layover in Coonoor, where we were serenaded by cicadas and frogs all night and day. From Coonoor, we drove to Silent Valley, five hours away. Primordial, serene and silent because of the absence of cicadas, Silent Valley is a dream destination all year round, but during monsoons, it transforms into a paradise, no less. It is truly wild, with some trees donning tulle-like cobwebs, attesting to their antiquity. The ground sprouts multi-coloured mushrooms and toadstools and hides scores of leeches.

The drive from Coonoor to the Silent Valley National Park takes you through the picturesque countryside, watched over by verdant hills. The last 40 kilometres test your skills with their twists and turns through a dark and dense jungle, dark with secrets and promise.

In August 2022, husband and I had undertaken another epic month-long road trip through three countries in Africa — Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Landing in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, we hopped into a 4x4 Nissan Navarra equipped with a tent on its roof, a freezer, stove, tables, chairs, etc. From Windhoek, I drove to Etosha National Park, home to a variety of African game, including lions, leopards, giraffes, ostriches, wildebeest, etc. We had camped in the camping grounds, slept under the tent which opened up when you pulled down the ladder, popped champagne from the fridge, cooked our own meals and watched the glorious African sunset on camping chairs spread out in the desert.

From Etosha, we had driven through the Namib, the planet’s oldest desert. The highlight of this stretch was Sossusvlei, with its seductive sand dunes. From there, we drove along Namibia’s uranium mines to reach the Atlantic coast and its stunning town Swakopmund, where the houses seemed spanking new and the streets were squeaky clean.

We crossed the land border from Namibia into Botswana, where we stayed in a lodge in Chobe National Park and went on safaris several times a day, both on the Chobe river bank and in boats on the river itself, chasing game. After a few days in Chobe, we crossed into Zimbabwe to feast our eyes on the splendid Victoria Falls where the Zambezi dons a rainbow necklace every single day.

Almost every year these past two decades, husband and I have not been able to resist the temptation to take spontaneous driving trips. As I cruise into my mid-seventies, I am advised by my family and friends to take along a driver and to take it easy. But the joy of carving up your own itinerary and the freedom to travel at whim is unmatched. Of course, one has to take certain precautions — like getting your car serviced or checked by a qualified mechanic before setting out, ensuring your FASTag is charged, your car is equipped with a spare tyre, tools, cushions and plenty of water and eats. I try to complete my driving during the day and choose country roads rather than highways.

Where next, I wonder. In our vast country, with varied landscapes, is there a dearth of places to drive to?

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