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Published: September 1st 2010
Driving from Nandan farms of Sindhudurg in Maharashtra to Castle Bera near Pali in Rajasthan was an interesting journey of 5 days... not that a non-stop drive should take that long.. we planned it that way.
We first drove 380kms to Prabha's sister's place in Pune to do some laundry and relax for 2 days... and the drive on the Amboli Ghats was a delight. Being a part of the Deccan plateau and the western ghats whole area was beautiful and apparently it receives the highest rainfall in the western ghats.
We then drove to Nashik, relatively a short drive of 220kms, to visit the Mahindra Xylo plant - to see the place where our car was born. The road was being four laned in parts and so the drive took us almost 6 hours. The Ghat section just before Sangamner was very beautiful.
The visit to the Mahindra Xylo factory was very enlightening and we learnt that some 600 (colour, specifications and export special) variants of the Xylo and Scorpio are manufactured on the same conveyor belt. One brown Xylo rolls out... and right behind it is a white Scorpio... the precision with which the people work
here is amazing.
Also the engineers at Mahindra have modified the software that drives the imported robots making them more efficient and as a result every 4 and half minutes one of these amazing vehicles comes off the conveyor belt.
We had the evening free so we took a trip to the Sula Vineyard. Got a look at the place were some of the best wines in india are made and got to taste a great wine made by their master winemaker Kerry Damskey called RaSa (named after Sula founder Rajeev Samant). Incidentally Rasa in sanskrit means juice or essence.
Sunset on the balcony with a beautiful view of the vineyards and the Gangapur lake in the distance made a great day even more romantic.
The next day we were off to Ahmedabad. The 500km drive took about 9 hours, but the beautiful part was that the roads improved tremendously as soon as we crossed the border from Maharashtra... almost instantly. At Valsad we joined the Golden Quadrilateral and then the road got even better... but the real treat was still to come...
It was too bloody hot to get out of the car and even
think of eating lunch - so we decided to get some food from a dhaba parcelled and eat it in the car - hopefully under a tree if we could find one. The dhaba we found was just outside Surat and as I went in to order I noticed that it was run by some Muslims... and interestingly served pure vegetarian food.
I wonder if Chief Minister Narendra Modi had succeeded in converting Muslims to vegetarians or was it just business economics that had determined that the demand for non-veg food was not great in these areas.
When we reached Vadodra (Baroda) my hands started to itch... could not wait to drive on National Express-way #1 - the best road in the country.
We have driven on this road a couple of times before and each time the experience had been really great - total adrenaline rush. On this 100km stretch an average speed of 120+ was easily achievable - average speed... not top speed!
But when we entered Amdavad (Ahmedabad) we were in for a rude shock. The cops stopped us and insisted that to drive in Amdavad, or anywhere in Gujrat for that matter, we should
have a 'patti' on our headlight and if we did not have that we should pay a fine of 200 bucks. We tried explaining to them that we were tourists and we would be out of the city the next morning... no luck.
Finally we told him that we would get the great 'patti' (a anti-glare sticker on the right headlight) if he could point us to the closest sticker shop... and the enterprising cop Mr. H R Solanki pulled the 'patti' (sticker) out of a concealed pocket in this shirt and stuck it on our car... not before he collected 200 bucks for it.
Consoling ourselves that the 'speed-money' 200 bucks was worth it, because we hoped that, for the next 24 hrs that we were going the spend in Gujarat, we were not going to waste time arguing with cops.
Getting to Bera from Ahmedabad was a challenge in itself... normal everyday Gujratis would know that the best road to get here (from Ahmedabad) was the Mount Abu Road (via Mehsana-Sidhpur-Palanpur).
But we South Indians like us did not have any idea... we took the GQ (Golden Quadrilateral - NH 8) route and half
way (at Himatnagar) had to deviate to the Ambaji road (SH 9) - consequently we got to drive thru a nice bit of rural Gujarat and Rajasthan, via Idar, Ambaji and Abu Road where we hit the nicely 4-laned NH 14.
Ambaji, as the name suggests is a 'holi place' and had all the ingredients of religious town... crowds of devotees, taxis and touts... but this also meant that we got some great food - a full fledged Gujrati Thali... theplas, kadi and kichdi included.
With the sun overhear scorching away at a merry 48+ deg we were headed to our sixth Mahindra Homestays destination, Castle Bera.
After coming to the four lane Highway near Mount Abu, we cut off to SH 62 at Pindwara. Ask for the road to Binani cement factory and follow it for about 40 kms and you will reach Bera.
Baljeet, the cheerful owner of Castle Bera, and his brother have inherited this ancient heritage property known as “The Rawala”. Baljeet has air conditioned 5 rooms in his part of the castle and invites people “to experience the royal life in rural Rajasthan”.
Castle Bera has been playing host to
“royalty, dignitaries from foreign countries and world renowned photographers” for a long time now... and as a homestay for 2-3 years now... but we were the first to come there from Mahindra Homestays.
Baljeet Singh is so detached, by choice, from the world here... he rarely watches the news... he probably reads the newspaper only for the cartoons. His only contact with the outside world is his cell phone.
But, how can one do business like this we ask him... “my son-in-law in Bangalore, reads and replies to my emails... so I get a call every time that there is a booking - works well for me!”
We reached Castle Bera after our drive thru rural Rajastan... filled with goats/sheep and shepherds with their brightly coloured turbans, at about 4pm and after a quick wash and some great chai... were off on our first drive - at that point we did not know it was a wildlife safari.
This safari was not in the middle of a reserve forest or anything... no wildlife warden... no permissions... no red-tape. The entire area is “revenue land - basically, agricultural land that may not be used for industrial or residential
Castle Bera is near the Jawai bandh (Dam). Built by Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur the dam covers an area of 500 sq. km and is the biggest dam in western Rajasthan.
This place is really in the middle of nowhere... the nearest town is probably Pali - some 30 kms away.
The safari started off with pleasantries and chatter as we drove thru the village... everyone in the village was getting up from their work... bowing, saluting our dear Baljeet Singh... and because we were in the same jeep with him, made us feel like royalty too!
The safari itself started with a fair amount of dirt-tracking and off-roading... and we got very excited with the few peacocks and peahens we saw flying as they tried to cross the road... Baljeet was not impressed... he was nonchalantly nodding his head... hmmmmm!!!
As we stopped next to a rocky hillock we realised why... the place was infested with peacocks and peahens... hundreds of them... all trying to walk up the hillside... to get to the peak... only to glide down... what a sight - felt like we were watching a scene from Jurassic Park!
The best part of the safari was yet to come... the man who was seated in the back of our jeep pulled out a searchlight and in 5 minutes pointed to a small pair of glowing eyes... a leopard. In the course of the next hour and half we watched open mouthed as the leopard yawned, stretched, walked... straight... towards us... coming close to 10 feet of our jeep!
Baljeet Singh’s regular safaris in this area have prevented poaching to a great extent. “They all know that I drive these roads almost everyday and any hanky-panky will not go un-noticed”, he said.
The next day, morning and evening safaris were just as exciting... flying Peacocks, herds of Nilgai, Pelicans, Crocodile, Geese, Storks, Robins, Cranes... and the usual spotted deer.
Interestingly, the Nilgai (blue-cow in Hindi) is not a cow/bull, but actually an antelope, the biggest in Asia. For some reason the locals believe it is a “distant cousin of the holy cow” and that has helped in conservation. Good for us!
Another interesting feature was the landscape itself - though these hills are a part of the Aravali range we could not help but notice that the smooth
shape of the rocks looked like they were ‘carved’ by ocean currents. 15 minutes on Google and I found that there were enough theories and scientific proof that the entire Thar desert was believed to have been under water - during the Jurassic era. We had seen very similar caves near Bhopal, Madhyapradesh on our trip to Bhimbatika a few years ago.
Back at Castle Bera we were treated like royalty all the time... the rooms were plush, comfortable and well air conditioned... our large bathroom even had a fresco painting on the ceiling. Because we were there in the middle of summer when the average afternoon temperature was 49 Deg plus... we left the A/C “on” at all times on Baljeet's advice.
All the rooms were decorated with memorabilia and pictures from all over... of royalty... and everyone is related to everyone. When we stand in front of a picture (among the hundreds that dote the walls) we are introduced to everyone - “His Higness of Somewhere... or His Highness’ brother... or the present His Highness’ father....”.
I truly can’t remember the details of the interlinked family tree but I can tell you one thing... somehow
they are all realated to (or decendents from) the one-and-only Maharana Pratap.
The food at Castle Bera was simple and royal... though we decided to have vegetarian food for most of our stay we were cajoled by Baljeet to “taste the local chicken - not the fake broiler chicken that you get in your cities... this is really tasty” - and he was right - it was the non-veg equivalent of organic vegetables!
Armed with precise directions from Baljeet, on how to get to Delhi (en route to our next stay at The Hive, Nainital) we head out to brave the heat of Rajasthan.
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