Category Archives: Dispatches from India

Update – 08 October 2014

Driving from Agra to Jaipur through a backdrop of beautiful cultivation was relaxing as well as stimulating but, arriving in the ‘Pink City’ gave a new impetus to our exploration. We entered through the old gates and the more traditional parts of the city where life goes on unchanged as it has for centuries. Having refreshed and donned local attire we travelled to the main palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur to experience and take part in Elephant polo. And what fun we had! With half a dozen lumbering steeds cavorting across the royal lawns we laughed and enjoyed this unique and unconventional game. Drinks were served while some watched and others took part in trying to overcome their charger’s ungainly gait athwart the field.

Following our fun we were guided through parts of the palace viewing some of the Maharaja’s private collections and furniture. In a particular room when attempting to slightly shift one of a group of chairs for a photograph, Steve was astounded at its weight only to be enlightened that Silver is quite heavy; it must have weighed in excess of 60kg.

Everyone was somewhat sad to be leaving Jaipur the following morning; many have come to the conclusion that Rajasthan has a better climate, and its people more relaxed, smiling and approachable.

We had a short easy drive south to Ranthambore National Park and another Oberoi property; a nice aspect here was to find a pair of elephants with Mahouts offering rides which I believe Vero and Lauren took advantage of. There was the option of a Jeep safari into the park during the afternoon or the following morning before the heat of the day. The advantage of early morning Game-watching during the cooler hours means the wildlife is still moving about and therefore easier to spot. However, I must say the Indians don’t come close to the Africans in their management of tourists and Game Reserves. Thankfully Andy Marshall’s suspension parts had cleared Customs and been delivered to our hotel so that Tim and I could easily replace the parts and put Andrew’s mind at rest before continuing south.

We made our way through a rich green landscape enjoying the harvest of Millet and Pulses bringing us to the main highway from Kota. Stopping to interact with farmers, studying their harvesting equipment and watching how the womenfolk graft has been an eye-opener for me coming from an agricultural background; by the day’s end my wild imagination had accumulated somewhere near a dozen Indian wives!

From here it was a lovely fast, clear, dual lane road all the way to Chittorgarh before twisting through the lanes to the quaint but crumbling castle where we have a break in the journey to submerse ourselves once more in traditional India. The ruling family have presided over the surrounding villages for more than five centuries, the staff are untrained and mostly illiterate but have a willingness to please which can be both irritating and endearing.

Update – 04 October 2014

Again, Tim Foate has spent the ‘Rest’ days under clients’ cars. He luckily spotted a completely parted lower wishbone joint on Jim Carr’s G4 Range Rover Sport. Jim had mentioned a ‘new rattle somewhere underneath’ and upon investigation Tim found the offending parts which required complete disassembly of the front suspension and some careful welding before rebuilding the repaired leg. Brake pads required replacement on more than one car and dear Luis Bustelo had been playing dodgems with the Mahindras’ of the district which necessitated some judicial tweaking of his hired Toyota’s bodywork! It has been very fortunate that we had three nights and two days rest in Shimla because it was not only the vehicles which needed attention. Many were at the extremities of their endurance, the quality and service provided by Wildflower Hall served to rejuvenate their failing stamina.

On exiting the perfect surroundings of the hall and just 20km from the day start was the remains of the ashram made famous by the Beatles. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram is now slowly being consumed by the surrounding forest but several people made a short break to investigate the gardens and what remains of the meditation cells; certainly Simon Dedman and his sister, Anita, are very thorough visitors’ researching every detail of the interesting sights coming into their path.

The road leading south through lovely twisty mountains towards Rishikesh with heavy foliage pressing on the road was a refreshing change after the barren wilderness of the high altitude sections; the only mishap throughout the day was a puncture for Jim Carr. The outstanding mountain retreat we made use of in the hills behind the town was a superb location to celebrate Vero Strucelj’s birthday. We dined on probably the best menu since arriving in India, our hosts made the evening very convivial and comfortable; in truth, it would have been easy to spend more time at this exceptional hideaway.

The day leading further south to Corbett National Park was, in retrospect, too long on twisty roads some of which had suffered substantial monsoon damage. Unfortunately, Simon Dedman had a coming together with one of the tiny Suzuki Marutis’ that locals invariably drive. The tiny car bounced off his sturdy Landcruiser inflicting minimal body damage to the Toyota but concentrating the full force of impact upon a front wheel. Luckily, between the mechanically minded, we got the vehicle driving again by jacking bent suspension away from the wheel and limping the hundred kilometres or so to our next overnight halt. I haven’t heard that anyone spotted a Tiger but wild elephants were seen in the vicinity as we approached the famous national park.

Day 22, the third of October, was a nice drive southwest across Uttar Pradesh through a provincial landscape farmed carefully using Buffalo and Oxen to work the ground. The Dussehra festival is a major Hindu celebration spanning ten days and signifies the victory of good over evil. It’s now in full swing and where we crossed the Ganges at one of the famous tirthas we found people bathing to cleanse their soul and immersing themselves in the holy waters. Later in the day, drawing close to Agra and within striking distance of our hotel, more parades and celebrations filled the streets making progress somewhat convoluted, I think everyone made numerous diversions in an attempt to sidestep the festivities but almost without exception we were delayed an hour or more.

Dawn is the perfect time to visit Agra’s most famous attraction, the Taj Mahal. The orange glow of daybreak rising to silhouette the mausoleum and the relative quiet before the noisy commotion of business starts gives this epitaph to love a most enduring appeal; most become somewhat spellbound and captivated whilst walking over the extensive site.

Temperatures have soared again as we return to lowland India peaking at 41°C and this combined with a high relative humidity has made it uncomfortable out in the midday sun earning the hardworking Tim Foate the new moniker of ‘‘Mad Dog’’!

Update – 30 September 2014

Contact with the outside world has been very intermittent over the last ten days; firstly, because of flooding in the west of Kashmir and an unfolding civil disaster relating to those floods, but also because the very simple accommodation we’ve been using has not had reliable internet connection. Further to that I have found myself involved with more pressing issues relating to road conditions as well as a number of mechanical breakdowns but I must point out, Tim Foate has proved himself a master of breakdowns in the bush with limited resources, time to make repairs and only a very simple toolkit.

Our rest day in Amritsar was used by most to visit the Golden Temple and then later in the day to make the short drive west to the Pakistani border where the comical display of closing the border takes place; the entire display is amateur in the extreme but that may be what makes it such a spectacle.

However, by lunchtime I was fed-up with the conflicting information we were receiving from the flood damaged regions of Kashmir and could contain myself no longer. I asked the ever practical and willing Stephen Friend to join me in a dash north to assess to true situation. We traveled quickly making a short rest in Jammu before pushing on for what turned into a slog over congested roads and tunnels littered with creeping trucks with very little in the way of a planned relief effort. We arrived late and tired at our beautiful hotel which, situated above the town, had not suffered direct contact with the muck and water but was functioning on a restricted power supply. I checked the roads we hoped to use leading east out of the city and was happy to report back that we would be able to revert to our original plans. Lally, had been holding everything together as the face of ‘Jingers Jaunts’ and was therefore elated to pass-on the news that we would enter Kashmir from the south-west as formerly intended.

As crews arrived in the northern city after a good deal more than twelve hours in the car I could see many were extremely stressed and tired. I was glad to have the group safely off the nightmarish roads and recuperating from the unpleasant driving conditions.

From here the views and vistas’ turn truly spellbinding with high passes surrounded by towering majestic peaks on all sides. The first of the high passes, Zoji La, was just over 11,600ft (3552m) before descending towards Kargil and our simple resting place. Traversing these ranges is not undemanding with the constant threat of landslides at this time of year. The ‘Sweep’ crew arrived at one such landslide to find the entire group stranded except for the ‘Admin’ vehicle which had passed through safely a few hours earlier. We must have been held up for a couple of hours which meant our exciting option to cross a very rugged high pass on gravel roads had to be bypassed because daylight was failing with some distance still to be covered.

On the morning of Wednesday 24th September we woke early and everyone was on the road by 07:00 for a shorter day to Leh where we needed to obtain permits for those wanting to drive India’s highest motorable road crossing Khardung La at 17,631ft (5374m). Most of our party made the decision to drive this outstanding road, indeed, I think only one crew preferred to relax in the markets and bazaars’ of the high altitude town of Leh. It’s a full day’s drive and the pass itself, a solitary wind-swept place. Descending into Diskit we ambled through the streets viewed the monastery and gathered for an impromptu ‘smoko’ at a desert camp just outside of the township. With a four hour return drive to Leh and the last check-point closing at 16:30 everyone was keen to get moving and what a good job! As we ascended the pass from the northern side a fresh weather front moved in enveloping the road in a brisk wind containing snow and ice. As common in these situations, it’s all very well to have a 4×4 but you can only travel as far as the last 2×4 blocking the road. Large trucks and tiny cars were skating around, bouncing from side to side, and slithering off the track but we somehow managed to weave a path passed these skidding contraptions to crest the pass where tumbling down towards Leh showed us a better surface while snow fell on the highest point now behind us.

Poor Andy & Shelagh Marshall developed a dramatic leak in one of the bladders supporting the air suspension of their G4 Range Rover Sport. Discussions were held with the only feasible repair in this remote corner of India, to strip the suspension, invert the bladder and apply some form of vulcanising solution to the leak. We were not able to find tyre patches with enough compliance and therefore chose to use polyurethane windscreen sealant. Having let the repair mature overnight, we reassembled the suspension and let the pumps refill the system. Happily it retained air supporting the vehicle as normal but how long our ‘Heath Robinson’ repair will last remains to be seen.

Travelling south from Leh the roads become excruciatingly high and the air pathetically thin. We were all away before 07:00 climbing to over 17,000 feet crossing Tanglang La with a further three passes over 15,000 feet throughout the day. The views and scenery in this region are quite stunning, impossible to describe here, and even the most adept photographer would struggle to capture the majesty and grandeur of these mountains. Jispa is a gaggle of simple buildings with a couple of straightforward hotels where we chose to stay because the high altitude camps, although romantic, are a good deal higher and the thought of everyone sleeping under canvas with the threat of altitude sickness was a concern I didn’t wish to address. Richard Smith decided it was a little to rustic for his tastes so pressed-on to Manali and better accommodation although, personally, I think the risks involved cannot justify that decision.

The next two days took the rest of the group into the remarkable Lahaul ranges and the Spiti valley brushing against the Tibetan border. The scenery here is quite special, a once in a lifetime opportunity for most and far more adventurous than the well trodden tourist path over Rothang La to Manali. Calling these monstrous mountains foothills is an injustice; we spent the day gaping at sheer mountainsides, snow-capped peaks, and gushing blue rivers topped with white foaming spray.

Sorry, but the infamous Hindustan-Tibet Highway, noted as one of the top-ten most dangerous roads in the World, is a puppy by comparison to the roads we had traversed in the preceding days. It makes me realise that marketing is behind every aspect of our modern lives; anything for a good story and a story is exactly what it is!

Lord Kitchener’s Wildflower Hall is such a throwback to colonial times; what an idyllic place to rest after the high roads and thin air of the preceding days. We have three nights sojourn and an opportunity to repair ailing machinery as well as the chance to recuperate before beginning south once more into the heart of this vibrant land.

Update – 21 September 2014

Jaisalmer is the archetypal desert city with mile upon mile of sand giving everything a mellowed yellow hue. Our very cool and comfortable hotel made a lovely base for a well-earned first rest day. The frenetic roads and myriad scenarios encountered throughout any day certainly make for healthy appetites and good sleep patterns.

Both Lally and I spent the day looking more closely at the continuing civil emergency in Kashmir with Lally putting plans in place to accommodate clients at alternative hostelries while I utilised the time writing instructions and notes on the planned changes to routes and road conditions ahead.

Most customers spent the day enjoying the desert climate, taking excursions, or exploring the hilltop fort with its many shops and bazaars. During the evening, as the heat began to dissipate I guided everyone west into the desert for entertainment and a meal under the stars. Jim Carr and I attempted to scale one or two of the dunes but our Land Rovers made very little impression on the bottomless morass of fine desert sand. Richard Smith supposed this might be a Land Rover failing but he too could make no headway in the equivalent Toyota.

On leaving Jaisalmer in a northward direction we began to feel more of the true desert with its dry atmosphere and temperatures in excess of 40ºC. I received a call from our focussed and conscientious photographer, Steve Bradley, who found himself detained by the local constabulary in one of the ‘outback’ villages on route. On arrival in the village, I could see a considerable gathering of people around the Police Station. I made my way through the throng, along alleyways and corridors to find Steve perched on a plastic chair in the police chief’s office. ‘’Hell, am I glad to see you!’’ were his first words. Then ensued hours of smiling, mumbling sentences in our respective languages, and the production of any kind of paperwork we thought might impress our hosts. Truthfully, I think they were really only interested in these strange Westerners’ in bright orange T shirts driving bright orange cars, and eventually, once the novelty had lost its original shine, we managed to shake hands and part with a little mock bow to authority. From there we made our way to our last desert night-halt in Bikaner at the quaint but slightly ‘down at heel’ palace of the Maharaja.

The Shekawati region boasts some beautiful private mansions of yesteryear and several crews spent time exploring some of the frescoes and artwork adorning these crumbling grandiose homes before finding the lovely ‘Haveli’ hotel where we were to stay for the night; a beautiful hotel situated in the midst of a simple Indian village with only dirt roads, adobe dwellings as well as some of these fine, but dilapidated stately homes.

Day 8, the 19th of September dawned clear and bright, everyone made an early start for the long drive north to Amritsar hoping for an uneventful day. Today, it was Lauren Havell sitting at the wrong side of a police officer’s desk. For some reason, a majority of the population is taking a fascination in Lauren. Most are happy with a snap on their iphone or a few simple words but what an opportunity if you happen to be the local police commissioner! She was showered with offers of chai and mineral water, graced with interviews from all and sundry, then proffered a tour of the ‘station’.

At the end of our rest day most crews made the effort to travel west of Amritsar to watch the comical display of the border closing ceremony between India and Pakistan which takes place every evening.

In relation to the continuing natural disaster in Kashmir, Lally and I are still working hard at reorganising the route with plans to get us back on our original schedule from Leh onwards although I am very tempted to jump in the truck and drive non-stop to Srinagar to look at the true situation on the ground and see whether we can maintain our foremost option. We have found it so very hard to get reliable information with suppliers and hosts in region giving us extremely different pictures of the unfolding state of affairs.

Update – 18 September 2014

At 09:00 on the tenth of September a slightly nervous Jingers addressed an assembled gathering of clients and staff welcoming them to India apprehensive to break the news of planned changes before we had even left Mumbai. Thankfully, we have a realistic group who had been watching the unfolding disaster in Kashmir and who understand the dire situation there; we will need to adjust our schedule as more reliable information filters through. I had also made the decision to leave Mumbai immediately after the briefing to personally check on the additional flooding conditions in Vadodara where we were due to stay for our first overnight on the road. This meant both Stephen Friend and myself would miss the welcome dinner, arranged for that evening at one of Mumbai’s top culinary establishments’, driving eight hours north to assess the damage and reroute the group to another hotel for their first night on the road. We arrived in a city halved by the flood waters; one half dry, the other quite obviously suffering the after effects of water thirty plus feet above normal levels.

In the early light of Friday September 11, Tim and Terry set-up ‘START’ banners and flags in front of the Gateway of India for the official waving-off of ‘Jingers Jaunts – An Indian Escapade’ and although I could not be there I was happy to be working on the first obstacle placed in our path. To smoothly exit one of the planet’s most densely populated conurbations needs planning, and the key issue here is timing; all vehicles were underway travelling north just after 07:00. The first day was spent getting clear of Mumbai and its associated satellite cities, good modern 3 and 4 lane highways proved an excellent means of doing this with some leeway given to the occasional motorcycle, camel, or trumpeting Tata making use of the wrong carriageway.

I was glad to be reunited with our group at the alternative accommodation we had sourced, the staff and management at our ‘new’ hotel were true Indian hosts making our short stay extremely comfortable and relaxing. From those who had experienced their first day on Indian roads I received very positive reports and admiring comments that such a system of road etiquette could possibly work, all done with good manners and little frustration.

Day two dawned dry! Something everyone had been praying for. Our route continued north on secondary roads passing smaller towns and finding interesting rural landscapes. The country is exceedingly green at this time of year with the monsoon just finished and all life still drinking deeply from the plentiful moisture. During the middle of the day an ageing private castle with its own car collection, just two or three kilometres off route, was available for a lunch halt. The quiet setting against its own private lake with peacocks strutting on the lawns made a nice break from the crush of humanity elsewhere. Later in the day we joined a modern highway with frequent tolls to efficiently bring us to Udaipur and our exquisite hotel. Lake Palace sitting serenely amid Lake Pichola has charm, perfect service and comfort rarely seen outside India. With every sort of spa and massage treatment available, many took advantage of some pampering attention.

The following morning we all made concerted efforts to leave the palace; most would have easily immersed themselves in the quality, service and splendour for a further day, at least. We passed Kumbhalgarh, an outstanding Mewar fort, on our way north; with more than 35km of towering walls surrounding the fortification, not surprisingly, it was only besieged once in its entire history.

A few customers are still becoming familiar with the GPS system which requires monitoring, but everyone has enjoyed the rural roads and sites that we have offered; these are simple, grassroot localities that most travellers don’t get to experience. I am glad several crews took the opportunity to visit Rohet Garh, to learn of the distinction of the Marwari horse, and to enjoy the special surroundings and its little known place in history.

Arriving in Jodhpur, weaving through the chaotic streets, turning into the palace grounds before trumpets announce your arrival at the red carpet leading to the main welcome atrium is an experience I could enjoy time and again. Just when you thought service cannot improve, grandeur cannot be surpassed, and comfort has a limit; this property proves us wrong. I defy anyone who claims any hotel in the world improves on what Umaid Bhawan Palace has to offer, this setting is truly exceptional.

Before leaving the city, Mehrangarh Fort perched majestically above the indigo blue homes of its inhabitants tells the story of a fierce past and a formidable fighting force. Rural roads then led us to Osiyan and its famous temples before bearing further west into drier landscapes of the Thar Desert. Just west of the Jaisalmer located in peaceful desert surroundings a small top quality hotel with all the comforts was our home for the next two nights. We ate at one long table, everyone mixing, laughing and recounting what in the future may seem improbable tales. At one point we sat betting on the ambient temperature, it would have been nine O’clock at night. The thermometer proved Simon Dedman correct with a guess of 31 centigrade.

Update – 12 September 2014

I flew into Mumbai on the last day of August to encourage the Indian Authorities to swiftly release our vehicles. The G4 Land Rover support vehicle shipped from New Zealand arrived prior to the main shipment from Europe and was therefore a little further through the clearance procedure. A drive across the chaotic sprawl of Bombay is always time consuming, so the fifty kilometres to Nava Sheva port where our vehicles must be processed took more than two hours. I then spent the day waiting, signing my name innumerable times, waiting some more, walking from warehouse to warehouse, waiting a little more, signing again with still no glimpse of any ‘Tangiers Orange’ to raise my hopes. Finally, I was informed it would be ready for collection the next day which although aggravating was progress.

Sure enough, by close of business the following day I was duly reunited with our trusty Defender. I had also managed to gain access to the rest of the vehicles which for one reason or another could not be ‘unstuffed’ without fettling. Luckily, most issues were resolved during the afternoon ready for inspections and the next tick of the box. In due course, the remaining vehicles from Europe were released and moved to a warehouse outside the bonded area. All in all I have been very happy with our agents dealing with the process of temporary importation.

Lally and I spent the next days organising set-up of local SIM cards, the welcome dinner and the start ceremony, as well as a multitude of other mundane tasks related to the start of the event. However, just when we thought we had all details sorted, news started to break of the chaos and carnage in Jammu and Kashmir. I could immediately see that the worst hit areas are directly in the path of our intended route. The flooding has created some huge landslides and caused many bridges to collapse. We are keeping a very close eye on the developing emergency and have begun to put alternative plans in place. Lally has tentatively booked hotels enabling us to bypass the flood stricken regions but still let us reach Ladakh and the high passes of Tanglang and Khardung.

As soon as all crews had arrived in Mumbai we got everyone out of bed early to be transferred to the port for collection of vehicles. Only one vehicle managed to misbehave; Jim Carr’s lovely G4 Range Rover Sport decided to have suspension maladies and seeing that it is computer-controlled air suspension there appeared very little we could practically do here. However Tim, our capable mechanic, spent time bypassing some of the controlling accessories, testing various circuits, and managed to persuade the beast to respond.

Just when we thought everything was finally in place, flooding in the northern sections coped with, all vehicles running, and the welcome dinner to enjoy… news arrives of more flooding but, this time just 500 kilometres’ north inundating the city where we have our first overnight! With rivers bursting banks and dams on breaking point the authorities had no choice but to open spillways thus pouring more water onto an already sodden estuary.