The Western Ghats is a huge mountain range running 1,600km across the backbone of India.
It is so colossal it blocks the rainfall to the east during monsoon. It forms the catchment area of 40% of all rivers of India and the average elevation is around 1,200m. With this in mind my advice is thus: do not hire a taxi driver with no map and little knowledge of the back roads to take you from Cochin to Madurai. Ignore my advice and you might just find yourself on one hell of a white-knuckle, off-road, 13 hour fairground trip from hell.
The idea was simple. Take National Highway 49 from Cochin in Kerala to Madurai in Tamil Nadu, a straight line heading east that connects these two great cities. Sounds easy, yes? Well, within 20 minutes of leaving the marina we had an accident. Our driver had decided to overtake a lorry that was overtaking a car that was overtaking a rickshaw that was overtaking a cyclist that was overtaking a cow… you get the picture. Bang! The lorry took out the wing-mirror as it squeezed us into the central reservation; we almost went through the windscreen when our driver slammed on the brakes. After parking the car in the middle of the road to stop the lorry (and the entire traffic flow of northern Cochin) the driver angrily shook his fist and shouted at the lorry driver because, of course, it was the lorry driver’s fault. Not a good sign.
We continued. By now we should have been heading east but we appeared to be driving north. After an hour of driving in this direction we phoned our travel agent who explained that going north was quicker, something about a tourist visa and that it avoided difficult mountain roads… blah blah blah. It sounded like a crock o’ shite but we ran with it anyway. (Don’t ask me why I put a picture of a tractor in amongst that story because the tractor had nothing to do with the accident. It was happily pootling along 150 miles up the road but I’m sure our driver could have found a way of blaming him for the accident too.)
We stopped for some breakfast at a vegetarian restaurant and discovered the joys of uttapam, a popular rice pancake made with onion, carrots, tomato and chillies. Feeling positive and with stomachs satiated we continued on our way.
The palm-fringed highway was lined with kaleidoscopic temples, a 20m laughing Buddah and many churches, each segregated by hundreds of hoardings displaying advertisements that looked like they were plucked from 1975. Tubby, moustached actors were the heroes in bullet-dodging flicks whilst demure young ladies advertised the wares of the regional silk houses.
After a few hours I figured we should, by now, be heading eastwards. Somewhere deep in the middle of nowhere our flustered driver got out of the car and asked directions. Bemused old ladies, working men and curious children stopped and stared at the strange white people in the small car.
Our driver returned looking deflated: we were horrified to learn that our proposed route had been shut off for one reason or another. We started up some back-roads instead, our taxi driver stopping at every junction to ask a local farmer in which way he should be pointing his nose. Needless to say we got lost.
After seven hours, when we should have been arriving in Madurai, we were still west of the Ghats. Realising we were going to be rather late we embraced the fact our day was destined to be spent on the road and decided to go via the old hill station of Kodaikanal. Why not? It sounded like a rather splendid place.
Kodaikanal sits atop the mountain range, up through a multitude of hairpin bends, ascends over 2,100m through the clouds and over the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu somewhere into the distant abyss. At the time of making the decision to head to Kodaikanal we lacked the luxury of this significant information.
Approximately 5pm we were slap bang on top of the Ghats, with over 30km still to go to our new destination; thirty kilometres across mountain road is a very long way indeed.
We stopped in a small village and stepped out the car, taking in a sharp breath of cold mountain air. Our driver nonchalantly wandered over to the chaiwallah’s stool to buy some sweet tea, hoping that his blasé performance would disguise the fact he did not have a clue as to where we were.
Our patience, having stayed with us since eight in the morning, was starting to recede. Taking the driver to one side and fixing eye contact I asked him where we were. The mumbled response appeared to confirm my worst suspicions and so I asked him directly. “Where are we, exactly?”.
Now, it is fair to say that some Indians are adept at skirting the truth. It’s something about losing face and a few Indians I’ve met, rather than admit to not knowing the answer, opt to make one up. If, for example, one is lost and asks a local “Is the market down this road?”, they’ll nod in agreement even if they haven’t a clue as to where the market is. I have this theory that the famous Indian head-wobble was invented to look like the person is saying both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to a question. It is a polite and diplomatic way of saying “I dunno”. There is a simple solution to this problem: ask a direct question.
“Where are we, exactly?”, I repeated.
“We are heading towards Kodaikanal.”
“OK, well that signpost” I replied, pointing to a patchy road sign made up of arrows and numbers that didn’t quite add up, “suggests that Kodaikanal is 2km away in the other direction.”
“That is not right. Kodaikanal is 32km away”, and he pointed vaguely towards the next mountain range across from the deep valley that divided us and it.
“So why does that signpost say it is 2km away?”
“It is not right.”
“Well why would they have put it there?”
And so it went on. As the temperature in the late afternoon dropped, so my temperature rose. A 4×4 Jeep, which had emerged from a narrow slipway covered by foliage next to the tea stall, trundled past. I asked our driver to confirm with the chaiwallah in which direction we should be heading.
Finally we lost faith in our driver and after a few deliberate obscenities to illustrate out disgust at his navigational skills we made the decision to scrap Kodaikanal. It sounded too complicated and by now we’d spent nine hours on the road. We decided to head straight to our original destination, Madurai.
The chaiwallah had suggested a shortcut, somewhere in the direction the Jeep had come from. We angrily hopped back into the car, buckled our seatbelts and prepared ourselves for some off-road action.
Around the first corner we dropped down into a small, dirty ravine where the road had been washed away by the rains. Up the other side we got stuck behind two old men slowly pushing a cow up the middle of the road. This required some technical clutch-control but unfortunately Saji, driver of our crappy old-lady’s Renault, had two left feet and stalled the car on the one-in-three incline. The cow in front quickly disappeared as our car rolled back down the hill.
The next two hours were spent like this, with steep hairpin bends being taken in third gear as the front wheels skipped and danced over loose rubble. Liz and I silently urged our driver to drop down into first gear as we approached a corner, but it was the same every time. Approach in third, turn the corner, stall.
It went on like this for many miles. Our stoicism wore away as quickly as the conditions of the roads. We passed no other vehicle but would occasionally spot a lonesome goat-herder, traversing a hill aiming for nowhere in particular, for the last building we had seen was the chaiwallah’s some miles back. Fortunately we were heading downhill as I really did not believe our crappy saloon could have done the same roads going up, but I couldn’t get rid of that feeling that we were going to hit a dead-end. Or get a puncture.
We watched in desperation as the sun started to dip behind a distant mountain and we continued around single-track hairpins with sheer drops of hundreds of metres just a few feet from our door.
I don’t scare easily but I’ll admit to being frightened just a couple of times that afternoon, for our driver drove like a twat.