Everyone needs a break. If you are planning a vacation, you'd love to know about the places I have visited recently as part of the fifth edition of 'Drive to Discover 5', organized by Honda exclusively for the media to experience the quality, comfort and maneuverability of the Honda cars, and also to explore different parts of our country.
For me, the road trip started from Kottayam. The flag off for the rally was from Coimabatore and I decided to get there by road. The route map drawn from Coimbatore was via Ootty, Masinagudi, Muthumalai, Bandipur, Nagerhole, Madikeri/Coorg, Bailakuppe, and from there to Bangalore via Seringapatam, Channapatna (Toys Town) and Mysore. As I said earlier, it was intended more as a trip for exploring the regions. The schedule was planned in such a way that we were to reach Bandipur, halt for the night at the National park, explore the park and neighbourhood attractions and head towards the Scotland of the East—Madikeri also known as Coorg the next day morning.
During this trip, we covered planes, valleys, hill stations, a number of national parks that are also tiger reserves and protected sanctuaries.
It's summer vacation time for your kids, and it's off season time in most of the tourist hotels mentioned here, but they are still in good and welcoming mode and offer you with the best deals if you are willing to try for a good bargain. So this is just the right time to avail those pending leaves from work and spend quality time with your family or friends.
This year Honda provided the teams with Mobilio, the stylish 7-seater MPV. There were 11 media professionals from various automobile publications and online portals including myself. We were provided 5 cars, a mix of 1.5Li-VTEC petrol and 1.5Li-DTEC diesel. With three people in each Mobilio, the journey was officially flagged off by Honda officials from Coimbatore.
Coming out of the hotel, the Mobilios stood lined up on race course road and we (my team) volunteered to lead the convoy. With the assistance of inbuilt GPS navigation of Mobilio that comes with a 15.7cm screen, we easily got out of Coimbatore city to take the road that lead to Mettupalayam, located at north of the city of Coimbatore. It is located at the foothills of Nilgiri, and the Ghat roads to Ooty started from there. The Mobilios pulled over here for a pit stop.
The only rack and pinion railway in Asia is operated from Mettupalayam to Ooty which is called the 'Ooty Train'. The experience of travelling in this train, which climbs the hill slowly, is awesome and you need to find some time to experience it if you are a first time traveller! If you are not driving, you can ask the driver to drop you at the railway station and pick you back from Ooty. It is a little time consuming and if you are not travelling in a group, you can experience the same by boarding the train from Coonoor that is on the way to Ooty from here. But for sure, you will not get bored if you travel the entire stretch on this train that offers a spectacular view of the Nilgiri terrain.
Nilgiri and 36 Hairpin
I forgot to mention this—though this event is a rally of sorts, we didn't need to stick to any definite plans or roads. As the name 'Drive to Discover' suggests, the team was allowed to take decisions that offered more freedom to discover more with a Mobilio.
The young media team with the most stylish 7-seaters didn't take much time to make decisions nor did the fiery Mobilios, and we climbed the ghat roads with elan. We were driving the Petrol 1.5iVTEC, which is very peppy from the outside but also comfortingly silent; inside the cabin, we won't feel as if the motor is on. On our way, we stopped at two points to click some photos. Honda Mobilio looked prettier amidst the tea plantations. The weather was good; it was neither too cold, nor was the summer heat upon us. It was a bandh day in Tamil Nadu, but we didn't felt anything amiss in Coimbatore city or on the way up till there. But in the town of Ooty, shops remained closed, although a few restaurants were open to cater to the needs of the tourists. The important thing to note here was, there was no obstruction on roads anywhere, whereas in Kerala, we unabashedly celebrate a hartal day as a public holiday and protesters leave no stones unturned to hinder public life.
As per the suggestions that came in, we drove into a hotel with ample parking space that also had good reviews online—Hotel Nahar Nilgiris. It was considered one of the oldest restaurants in town. Simple and unpretentious, the restaurant has its own charm and attractiveness. Much preferred by the locals for its vegetarian as well as south Indian food, it also provides a few varieties in vegetarian dishes.
After food, we decided not to spend much time in Ooty since most of us had spent quality time there before. So we decided to take the route via Kallatty, which has 36 hairpin bends, through the forests to Mangala village in Bandipur national Park, where the convey was to halt for the night. Another reason to take that route was to enjoy the beauty and wildness of the stretch before sunset.
The Mobilios descended the hill road and covered 36 hairpin bends with ease without making it painful for the driver. Drivers need to take much care on this road. At every nook and corner, signboards were placed asking the drivers to be on second gear showing speed limits. It's a good, marked road with convex mirrors placed at all the curves to know the incoming traffic. After climbing up and down, when we finally reached Mudumalai tiger reserves, all the 5 Mobilios stopped for a few clicks and to get a good whiff of nature.
From here, the tarmac is narrow and we need to give way very carefully for incoming vehicles to avoid punctures or any other damage that will keep us stranded for hours or even a whole day to get support, as the area is only inhabited by wildlife. We were the last on this stretch and reached Theppakad junction covering Masinagudi on the same route and joined NH67, Coimbatore-Ooty-Gundulpet Highway.
We were driving slowly with eyes on either side of the road hoping to spot some wildlife. Masinagudi is the right place for travellers to camp if you plan to be in the vicinity. Here, your will get accommodation in the form of jungle lodges, resorts etc. Theppakadu junction is a hub of activities managed by Tamil Nadu forest department. The department offers jungle safaris through Mudumalai's well charted mud-tracks that lead to waterholes, where exciting animal activity can be watched. But we need to park our vehicles and opt for jeep or open van services operated by the forest department.
We headed towards Bandipur where we are camped for the day. A Safari was planned for next day morning in Bandipur. While we moved slowly along Highway 67 that runs through a dense forest, we spotted an elephant herd, deers, peacocks, and an Indian Gaur-like monkeys called Bonnet Macaque.
Tropical moist-deciduous vegetation towards the western part of the sanctuary gives way to dry-deciduous and thron-scrub along the east. This change also indicated that we were entering Karnataka on NH 67 and it wasn't long before we crossed the border.
As mentioned earlier, we need to be extra careful while driving on these terrains. Speed breakers or animals may suddenly appear in front of your vehicles. Bad luck struck one of the Mobilios—a speeding SUV forced to get the vehicle off the tarmac and the sharp edges of the road punctured the two tyres on the left side of the vehicle.
The convoy was back on the road after 15 minutes and reached the halting point for the day. Riding the Mobilio over speed brakers or humbs were comfortable and we arrived at the destination as refreshed as we had been at the start of the journey.
The Serai Bandipur, a resort that extends into the forest, is a property promoted by the Coffee Day company. It is a resort where you'll see shy deers peering through your window, wild squirrels darting across, stunning birds swooping around and sometimes we can even listen to the call of the wild elephants from afar.
The hotel staff welcomed us with much pleasure. While enjoying our welcome drink, the manager of the property explained to us, details regarding the activities on offer. We came to a consensus and decided on a pool side party and an early morning safari.
Safari at Bandipur
We all met in the wee hours of the morning at around 5.30 am at the restaurant. While waiting for the safari jeep, we had some morning refreshments (coffee/tea) and some preferred fresh lime juice to get over the previous night's party hangover. We left the resort and headed towards the jungle.
Even if we had the safari arranged for us by the hotel or resort, the entry to the park was allowed only in the minibuses, jeeps, gypsy vans of the reserve or on the back of an elephant. There are two trips, in the morning and in the evening, costing around Rs 300 (for Indian travellers) and Rs 1100 (for foreign tourists). Sight seeing or the safari is a must-do activity for those who visit these national parks. Once back at the resort after 2 hours of safari, it was time to cruise to the next location.
100ps1.5L i-DTEC Diesel Engine
Around 11am the next morning, we all gathered at the reception and planned to head towards Coorg via Nagarhole national park, another tiger reserve. The team shuffled the Mobilio's we were riding and it was time for us to take on the 100ps 1.5L i-DTEC diesel engine. The engine offered a powerful and thrilling ride. In a couple of minutes, the convey had covered Melkamanahalli, the border between the reserve and human inhabited area. 1.5 diesel cruised well and the 200km torque of the Honda Mobilio's diesel engine proved to be of high calibre providing an overall good driving experience.
The engine unit comes with same level of tuning as the engine that drives the Honda city. The gearbox ratio is a bit higher, which has only made the driving of the diesel motor a much better experience. On board meters show an average mileage of 16-17kpl, which is not bad for a 7-seater. At some parts of the stretch, we cruised when the speed limit touched three digit numbers and the reasonably powerful motor was doing very well for us. The well-weighed steering wheel helped us navigate easily on both narrow and tough roads as well as on highways.
Nagarhole National Park
Our next destination was Madikeri—the Scotland of India and head quarters of the district of Kodagu (Coorg), where we decided to settle for the night and spend the next day. Quick decisions were taken to cover Nagarhole national park on the route to Madikeri. The road through Nagarhole national park is quite bad and narrow, but the journey was worth it. This is counted as one of the best wildlife parks in India. Unlike the routes travelled via other parks of the Nilgiri biosphere, traffic is minimal on this route.
Movement of vehicles is restricted from 6:00pm to 6:00am every day and the gate remains closed on either side of the entry to the forest. Two wheelers, three wheelers and good vehicles are not permitted inside the park. The park inhabits large populace of elephants and bison. It also hosts a variety of animal species along with approximately 250 species of birds. A safari facility similar to the one in Bandipur is operated by the forest department here as well.
The mobilios moved swiftly and exited the park after a stop at the forest check post to complete the exit procedures. The roads towards Madikeri were so good that was made even more beautiful with coffee and cardamon plantations on either side. The people of Coorg have kept their district very clean, and we don't see the roads littered or dirty. We reached destination by the convoy and checked in to the property of Taj, where the team was set to be camping.
The next day we spent enjoying the beauty of Coorg and visiting the coffee plantation of one of our friends. We thoroughly enjoyed the 180 acre living rainforest property of Taj.
We started the journey next day morning towards Bangalore—our final destination. On the way, we visited Harangi reservoir and Bylakuppe, one among the many Tibetan settlements in India. This place has number of monasteries and temples in Tibetan-Buddhist traditions. As suggested by one of the 'Coorgi' friends, we stopped at Potala Kitchen, a Tibetan restaurant for breakfast. The experience and taste of food was awesome, a must visit place if you are taking this route; their specialties—delicious chicken momos and lemon ginger tea just cannot be missed.
We hit back on the highway that lead us to Bangalore via Seringapatam, Channapatna (Toys Town) and Mysore. We reached our final destination within a few hours' drive and handed over the vehicles to the Honda staff present there.
The drive was an actual test for the Honda Mobilios that proved its drive factor to be good. It offers good comfort for its drivers, which is again a huge plus. Both diesel and petrol motors are good and the whole experience depends upon your personal preference, whether you love a petrol driven beast or a high torque diesel machine.