In December 2022 Lang and Bev set out on a 3,000km drive around Southern India. This is the blog page which will be updated regularly throughout the trip. You are invited to follow along with us on our adventure.
Blue Line: 2019 North East to Burma Border Adventure
Pink Line: 2021 Electric Boat Trip Down the Ganges Survey.
Red Line: 2022 Southern India Expedition
28 Nov 2022
Well, Covid is retreating and the world is returning to normal. Where to next?
After looking at 200 countries and numerous half-planned adventures still in our pipeline we found India calling once again. We have driven many thousands of kilometres and flown light aircraft in India but always in the north. How can we have missed half of one of the world’s most interesting countries?
Driving long distances in India is not easy, in fact, it is so challenging that relatively few Indians undertake thousand kilometre journeys and you can spend weeks on the road without sighting a single foreign driver. With our usual “bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell” approach we devised a 3,000km drive around the whole southern Indian peninsular.
It will require some very long days on poor roads and outrageous video-game traffic. Taking 10 hours to cover 300km has happened to us more than once. But the scenery, history and, most importantly, the people make it all worthwhile. We always say that Indians, no matter how badly off compared to many others, accept their lot in life with a calmness and equanimity never found in the west or even other parts of Asia. Instead of railing against their lot you can see the kids in dirt-poor villages going to school in immaculate uniforms.
The older kids in high school have a vision of where they want to go and in one lifetime India has risen from a colonial fiefdom to one of the technological and manufacturing power-houses in the world – all while remaining a stable free democracy.
Nothing would have happened without people with aspirations and drive, willing to take a risk to create some of the greatest companies in the world. One of these “doers” is Dr Jairam Varadaraj, of ELGi one of the most important compressor manufacturers and innovators in the world. On hearing of our expedition he immediately contacted us and said “This adventure fits well with our philosophy of “Dare to be Unique” and they would like to partner us on the trip.
ELGi Equipments is delighted to support Lang & Bev’s South Indian Expedition #DareToBeUnique
ELGI EQUIPMENTS LIMITED is a global manufacturer of air compressors, with a portfolio of over 400 products that serve a wide variety of applications across multiple industries in over 120 countries.
Founded in 1960, ELGI has earned worldwide accolades over the years for designing customer-centric compressed air solutions that are sustainable and assist its customers in achieving their productivity goals while ensuring a lower total cost of ownership.
ELGI believes in pushing the boundaries every day in its quest to be “Always Better”.
Learn more about ELGi in India (hyperlink underlined to: https://www.elgi.com/in/)
Learn more about ELGI in Australia (hyperlink underlined to: https://www.elgi.com/au/)
As a result we will not only have an adventure but be working with people who can open doors for us. Most importantly we will meet a wide range of people from ELGi workers and management (we are giving talks and meeting ELGi staff and customers along the way – and in Australia) to friends of friends as always in India that result in lifetime association.
We start in Chennai (the old Madras) 07 December returning 27 December. The blogs of our trip will come up as possible every day or so.
30 Nov 22
Today Bill Davis and Stephen Dilworth of ELGi Australia gave us a send-off from their Brisbane branch.
The expedition has started. As usual we suffered the expected airline delay debacles, hotel booking cancelation debacles, airport pick-up debacle. Indian bureaucracy is normally amusing but not at 2.00am after 20 hours on aircraft with kindergarten chairs and hours in airports after multi-hour delays.
Anyhow we were up at 0700 to walk down the slowly waking street to have our compulsory early morning chai from a roadside stall. Normally I would not drink milky tea with a tablespoon of sugar but the spicy flavour sets you right for a day in India.
Eventually the ELGi crew met us for the first day and off we set dressed in very flash black shirts with the company logo. Ashwin took command of the operation.
The first visit was to the huge Hyundai industrial area. All the smaller suppliers have their factories nearby. We were greeted at the SEA Hydrosystems plant and taken in to see a nice operation. They are exclusive producers of hydraulic rams and supply many manufacturers of heavy machinery including several in Australia. The plant was run almost exclusively on air supplied by two ELGi compressors (one still going strong with 40,000 hours on it).
The usual visit to the boardroom with very friendly senior management followed and the discussions about their operations were very interesting , even to Bev. The ELGi team had a good chance to talk to their customers.
Lunchtime and back up the road to an exclusive resort strangely called Queensland. Ashwin did us proud and the food just kept coming. We returned to this lovely spot for a photo shoot later in the day.
Oh well, back to work and we returned to the Hyundai area for a visit to Grupo Antolin, a Spanish company producing car interiors, dashes, roof lining and upholstery. 4 out of 5 cars in the world are at least partly trimmed by their products. The factory grounds were immaculate and the factory floor gleamed like glass.
The entire plant was driven by air from one huge ELGi compressor. Talk about all your eggs in one basket. The compressor needed maintenance but they wanted to press on for another month. I think he ELGi boys worked hard on the Chief Engineer to do sooner maintenance. We were invited for another boardroom session and all the senior staff were very relaxed and very happy to talk about their business – really nice people.
We arrived back at the hotel and chose to eat at the little restaurant down the road. I decided a cold beer would be nice but the owner told me nobody has beer but he could get some if I came with him. Off we set on a decrepit 100cc motor scooter (no helmets) into the seething night traffic. I didn’t fall off because the cold hand of death was on my shoulder holding me on. My arm did connect with a car mirror but no problem as it was spring loaded.
We pulled up outside a hole in the wall covered in steel mesh. People were pushing to get to the serving hole and the boys inside were ripping beer cartons open as fast as they could to hand to the server who was exchanging bottles for cash as fast as he could go.
My mentor asked me what I wanted and I said a cold bottle not out of a box like everybody else (650ml). When I asked how much he said “Fridge! OK 10,000.”
10,000! ($200) I don’t want 10 cartons!
“No, no one bottle 10,000”
“Ridiculous, lets go back that is insane”
“No no 10,000 only 140 rupees ($2.50)” And he held up a bottle. My lack of understanding came into play. The name on the label plainly said “10,000 Beer the best of Tamil Nadu 8% alcohol”
We survived the trip back to the restaurant where Bev was waiting and devoured a great meal and drank our 10,000 beer.
We departed Chennai early in the morning to avoid the traffic and proceeded on the main western highway towards Bengaluru (Bangalore). Although well sign posted and readily navigable by map we are getting lazy and reverted to GPS. Unfortunately Penelope Garmin tried to lead us in circles so our back-up was Google maps which past experience has shown to be far superior in India.
Soon there were alerts saying the main highway was blocked in two places and take the next left. Away we went into the countryside, which was far preferable to highways in any case. We travelled on ever narrower roads, some just dirt tracks, through lovely tropical agricultural country. Coconut plantations, rice crops and numerous small fruit and vegetable farms made a delightful background. We stopped at a large farmers market near a small village to see every type of fruit and vegetable being offered for sale.
A late morning roadside coffee (with two tablespoons of sugar) gave us a pickup to face the rigours of returning to the main highway. This 6 lane road is very smooth and well marked although in Indian traffic, remaining in your own lane is entirely optional. I soon got into the swing of the grand waltz and my clearance distances were wound back from 3 metres Australian roads to half a metre Indian roads. It is actually quite fun once the mental reset happens and it reminds me of my teenage years racing GoKarts. The little Suzuki R has plenty of room but is small enough to get through most impossible gaps. Unfortunately it has the worst automatic gearbox I have ever driven, hesitating and dropping down completely unannounced with all the wrong gearing. I do not think this is a mechanical problem but just hopeless from new.
We found our hotel in Vellore easily and, after booking in, jumped in a Tuktuk to go to the fort. What a fabulous structure 800 years old, 3 kilometre long walls surrounded by a huge moat. Once again Bev gained 3 family groups as close friends as they rushed up to get selfies and group photos of her blonde hair. This has happened all over India on past trips and I would not have thought an old Australian lady would have been such a sought after camera subject. Probably sour grapes as in all our travels nobody has rushed up to take my photo.
Next morning we got away early to go to Bengaluru and drove on a pretty good freeway. The usual traffic polka and regular oncoming tractors, scooters and ox carts on our side of the divide did not upset our progression. Coming in to Bengaluru the traffic got more dense and the dance changed from a waltz to a fast jitterbug (keeping to the historic dance allusions). Arriving at our hotel we found, surprise, surprise, it had been cancelled. Booking.com arrangements are useless in India because although they say pay at the hotel, the hotels send a message to say you must pay or lose your room. Unfortunately they do not take international credit cards or offer Paypal so of course you lose your booking. Anyhow, Bev who always goes to check in, said the owner must have stuttered when Booking.com asked him how many stars and the cancellation was a blessing in disguise. We found a delightful hotel around the corner in this very pretty tree lined city in a very upmarket district cheaper than our original.
That evening we were invited to dinner by Anya D’Souza, Vice President Global Marketing for ELGi. What a feast at the Tandoor Restaurant with a lovely lady. It was fairly late when we returned to the hotel.
This morning we were collected by the ELGi team of Sanjeev Varma and Junaid Shah and taken to one of the largest medical research companies in the world. Much of their operation depends upon air but in this case it must be completely oil free and dry. ELGi has provided them with a state-of-the-art compressor which completely separates the mechanical section requiring lubrication from the compressor section which pumps pure air which is dried and sent to the laboratories. Everything is stainless steel or anodized aluminium.
Once again we were given the opportunity to talk to the staff and have a chat about our Dare to be Unique expedition which was good as few of the younger engineering staff crowded into the office.
Off to a photo shoot at the magnificent Central Building, the centre of the public service. I have never seen a more deniable motto on any building in my life but I consider it a serious contender for the new motto of Canberra in Australia.
We finally returned for another wonderful farewell lunch with the Bengaluru crew before heading west in the morning towards Goa. By what route we know not which way the winds blow!
We decided on an early getaway from Bengaluru and set off in the pouring rain just after first light. There were some difficulties getting out of town with several main routes closed and various back alley rat-runs eventually saw us on the highway west along with every truck in southern India.
We managed to keep momentum up despite being stuck behind trucks 3 wide across the road with one doing 40kmh and the other two doing 41kmh passing him on either side. Having missed our early morning chai we stopped at a roadside stall for a break. It is interesting how boiled milk and sugar can taste so different as every barista has his own chai mix. We have never been disappointed yet.
Wheeling into Davangere, our planned stop, and what to our surprise to find our fourth hotel cancelled, this time for a “fat” wedding. It was still early so we pressed on to Haveri. Google Maps directed us back onto the freeway via a 4 kilometre road route but I spotted a goat track for motorcycles going up the bank onto the highway so the mighty Suzuki was up to the task and sprang up the track onto the main road.
A few adventures along the way with trucks, bikes and some exceptionally crazy drivers saw us roll into Haveri to discover the delightful Shiva Residency Hotel. It was right next door to the Piaggio dealers so I went to have a look at the little Ape (bee in Italian) three wheeler trucks. 650cc of raw power and only $AU6,000. Salesmen are the same all over and when I asked what they can carry with their tuktuk rear axle he said “One ton”. After I had stopped laughing he assured me that the local sugar cane mill carry one and a half tons on theirs. I think he added an extra zero to the factory brochure specifications.
We went for a drive including the small Siddhesuara Temple carved out of solid sandstone 1,000 years ago.
Next morning another early start. It really makes a difference as nothing gets really going until about 0800. Another chai stop and then we launched off the main highway leading to Pune and Mumbai onto a secondary road leading to Goa. By far the nicest drive so far.
Goa is on about the same lattitude north as Cooktown in Australia is south and the mountains of the Western Ghats are clad in jungle. It was a very winding single lane road with far less traffic. We started to pass through very small villages. Lots of monkeys of several varieties sat on the side of the road and in this more backward area the ox drawn carts and bicycles and scooters with huge loads became more common.
There were a couple of toll points just stuck in the jungle along the way but our magic windscreen sticker fired the boom gate every time. I have no idea what the result of all these automatic tolls will be when we return the hire car.
Descending in to Goa we were stopped at a police check point and told that as our hire car had no permit for Goa we had to go to the window and pay. I trotted over and had to wake the clerk for what I presume was his first customer of the day.
He fired up his computer and started pounding the keys and eventually he printed my invoice. I took a glance at it and saw 5 different charges for various taxes, fees and debts and was about to have my usual “discussion” about this when I looked at the bottom line which came to 240 rupees($4). I decided to take it on the chin and try to recover our losses on my next tax return. 3 stamps, one red and two blue and we were away.
I imagine the descent down from the mountains into Goa would have had quite majestic views but unfortunately the smokey haze that has followed us our entire time in India prevented visibility more than a few kilometres. We proceeded to our Hawaii Comforts Hotel which is nestled in a little community right on the beautiful beach at Donapaula.
While in Goa we had a chance to meet our good friend Ravi Kumar’s sister, Sita and her son Vir who invited us to dinner at the Gymkhana Club. Following family tradition both are heavily involved in motor sport. Sita is the Indian chairperson and representative for Women in Motor Sport at the FIA (the international motor sport authority) and Vir is a director of Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India. He is also the chairman for Grass-root motor sport and newly emerging E-sport. Vir brought his newly completed 1939 Vauxhall hot rod from his collection of cars for us to see, what beautiful workmanship!
After a great night with Sita and Vir we arose early so Bev could get the famous Goa sunrise over the water. Great expectations of a clear day after the tropical downpour during the night. It was not to be and the Indian haze hid the horizon.
Bev was delighted to find a terrific mangrove walkway with lots of bird and tree information boards. It was very similar to the walkway near our place in Brisbane where she volunteers with talks to schoolkids.
Oh well, let us go for a drive to Old Goa. What an interesting place! Owned by Portugal for 450 years from Vasco da Gama’s day up until 1961 the old European influence is still very strong. The original settlement with its magnificent churches and buildings is nicely preserved as a museum on the banks of the inlet which once must have been a bustling port.
In the afternoon we managed to meet up with Maneck Contractor and were very impressed to see his progress on the development of the electric boat for our Ganges trip. This trip planned for last year had to be put on hold but Maneck has fired it up again and it should be ready for a proving run early next year, maybe a sea voyage from Mumbai to Goa. The twin electric motor lightweight catamaran is more capable than just a river boat.
We got away early heading south along the coast on fairly busy roads but the expected sea views did not eventuate and the towns turned out to be disappointing with almost no water views, certainly not tourist destinations. We pressed on past our planned stop for a very long day and finished in Mangaluru (Mangalore) a busy industrial city.
Today has been a great improvement. Seeing how uninteresting the coastal road is so far, we decided to head inland to the great historic city of Mysore. Sanjeev Varma, our ELGi host in Bengaluru, had done such a good selling job on his home town that we thought it worth a look.
What a nice drive through the heavily jungle-clad hills with far less traffic. We had a couple of chai and coffee breaks before arriving in Mysore. Mysore lives up to its reputation not only is the traffic free flowing compared to other Indian cities but the wide streets are lined with huge rain-trees giving it a park-like feel. As soon as established at the hotel (they kept our booking here!) we jumped in a tuktuk and headed to one of the wonders of India the very spectacular palace.
It is magnificently maintained with huge grounds dotted with rose gardens, lawns and numerous spectacular minor buildings. We went to have a look inside but I lost interest in handing my shoes in at the door to walk barefoot through the building with 2 million other people. Bev of course refused to be denied and quickly left her shoes and joined the mob. She was constantly stopped for selfies by young and old alike. I suggested she buy a burka but she thinks it a lot of fun as everyone is always laughing and chattering. I am still waiting for anybody to ask for my photo.
About an hour in the huge markets saw the usual negotiations as I headed towards the metal workers and car repair section and she went for the vegetable, flower and spice section.
A nice day ending in a lovely city.
A rather relaxed start today as we are having 3 days in Coimbatore with the ELGi team so it did not matter how late we got in.
We decided to visit the renowned hill station of Ooty that had been recommended by so many people. I suspect many of them had never been there as it did not live up to its reputation and fell well short of the Himalayan hill stations like Darjeeling. Despite some nice features like Botanical Gardens and small lake it was a pretty grubby, crowded place with atrocious roads. The winding drive both up the mountain from the north and back down to Coimbatore was quite spectacular and you could get a feel of the country stuck behind a bus at 40kmh around endless hairpin bends.
As mentioned yesterday, Mysore traffic flows fairly easily on the wide streets and we were soon out of town. We missed the turnoff to Ooty because the bridge at the corner had been closed for what looked like years and no way to get onto the 3 metre wide road we could see beyond the small river. A few helpful advisers sent us back 400 metres to go along a dirt road through a small settlement which actually was the bypass leading to the Ooty road.
Traffic became very scarce as we wound up into light jungle and Savannah covered hills. We soon entered a national park called Mudamalia Tiger Reserve. The one car wide smooth bitumen road wound its way into the park and we saw almost no other traffic. The first sightings were placid herds of lovely spotted Chittal Deer grazing by the roadside. Of course the monkeys were everywhere and there was a danger if you stopped they would be all over the car.
Passing a creek we looked down and there was a large elephant with another further back in the trees. There are numerous signs with pictures of elephants turning cars over and a notice that the Park will not be responsible for any elephant damage or injury. Please do not take selfies with elephants, says the sign. No Tigers but a rare wild boar was on the sighting list.
Up and up we wound into Ooty on a nice very narrow switchback road until we got into town where every road was either dug up with roadworks commenced and not finished two years ago or just naturally potholed. The Botanic Gardens were well worth a visit and beautifully presented and maintained, over 170 years old. The houses on the tea plantations across the valleys from the town are all brightly coloured and look pretty against the green tea bushes.
The descent from Ooty into Coimbatore was a bity of a marathon with seriously busy roads only 1 1/2 lanes wide. The switchbacks were so tight all the trucks and buses had to swing right across the road to get around, resulting in stalemates as the up trucks met the down trucks on the wrong side of the road. Of course all the idiots in cars and motor scooters started packing every space behind, beside and around the two trucks facing each other so neither could back up to allow enough passing space.
The result of all of this was it took us over 4 hours to reach the hotel 148 kilometres away down the mountain. Once on the flat there were several highway diversions. Indian roads are paved with broken promises and there are not hundreds but thousands of major and minor projects and repairs started and never completed. Rough diversions around these works are not maintained and for years the traffic has been bouncing over ever worsening detours. It all just adds to the colour and movement of an Indian road trip.
We have not seen a single foreign driver in two weeks and I think the ELGi motto of Dare to be Unique might have some truth in it for our adventure.
I did not mention our little Maruti Suzuki Wagon R. It is a great size for driving in India. Plenty of room and handles quite well. I think it makes fuel as a tank seems to last forever which is good at 100 rupees ($AU2) per litre. Unfortunately it is the worst gearbox/engine combination I have ever driven. The throttle is obviously fly-by-wire and when you put your foot to the floor to pass, nothing happens – I mean absolutely nothing – until you have sung 3 verses of “Happy Birthday to You”. It eventually gets the message you are asking for some action so instantly the little engine rockets to 5,000 rpm. As it passes 4,000 rpm the gearbox gets he message it should join the party and locks itself in the lowest gear it can find. It valve bounces much too late to propel you in front of the bus you were trying to beat and you are only saved by the driver’s skillful evasive manouevres.
It will get us to the finish but I will certainly tick another vehicle box when renting a car in the future.
Merlin picked us up early to travel to the ELGi school to meet and talk to the kids. We were met by Mr Ganesh the Principal and Mr Mani the Correspondent (Adminstration Manager) and told we were expected by the students.
This school goes back 30 years as a community effort by ELGi and supports the local community, particularly underprivileged children. They have now just moved in to the the most modern facilities, equal or better than anything in Australia, with 1,300 students from Kindergarten through to Year 12. The student appearance is outstanding with immaculate uniforms.
After a tour of the school going in to several classes we went to the library and were met by a select group of older students (all with pre-prepared questions) and gave them a Power Point presentation on some of our adventures and a motivational talk on the ELGi theme of “Dare to be Unique. The questions kept us on our toes and we managed a lively discussion.
After the lecure we gathered in the courtyard for a photo shoot and a lot more face to face talk with the older kids. They are an interested, respectful and well spoken crew who knew more about the world than many Australian kids of the same age. Some of the littlies were presented to us which was quite amusing as they had no idea why they had been taken away from their colouring-in lesson to meet these strange people.
Bev handed out little Koalas and we departed with a great feeling to head to the ELGi foundry and component factory.
What a spectacular operation this is. Sitting on more than 100 rural acres it is an immaculate, modern complex. I had visions of a steel foundry I worked in for a few weeks as kid with its noise, smoke, heat and filth. We were met at the door by Bijumon the Senior Foundry Manager and taken into a very low noise building. You could have eaten your dinner off the floor.
Here they do all the castings for their compressors, electric motors and the dozens of othe items required to complete the product. It is fully automated capable of 750 tons a month and the castings are the result of an assembly line carrying the molds through the ovens to dressing and final painting. The quality control is unbelievable and there is a laboratory doing spectrographic testing on the sand in every mold and the metal in the pour. The casting boxes are only alowed to proceed down the line after the metalurgists give the green light.
Nothing is wasted as the sand is recycled until no more useable and then made into building bricks. We went into the immaculate staff canteen for a very nice lunch – the same as is available to every employee.
We were then taken in hand by Mustakheem Sharieff the DGM and Head of the Air Centre. We walked to the assembly plant – once again a modern, absolutely spotless operation. The various casting and other components come in one door and proceed via a continuous process to the delivery store. All the fine machining of components, particularly the ELGi specialty of air screw rotors, is done here down to micron tolerance. ELGi have now started building their own CNC and computer driven fine machinery which not only is cheaper than the previous European equipment but faster and more accurate. The quality control and production tracking at every point is amazing.
The highlight of the day was visiting the Vocational Training Centre. Here young people, mainly from orphanages and under priveleged surrounding communities 18 years old, both male and female, are enrolled for an intensive 3 year course. The first year is very academic bringing them up to scratch on everything from maths, technical drawing, machine operation, quality control and safety. They then proceed to every machine in use in the factory. Lathe work to trade standard, assembly procedures, fitting, design and operation of every tool. They have numerous simulators to train and test the students.
The final year is mostly on the shop floor in actual production conditions but with continued theory classes. The result is a group of qualified tradespersons with very good theoretical knowledge and unequalled practical training. Although they are valuable employment targets for any company in India, the attrition rate is almost zero and over 90% of the blue-collar workforce stay with ELGi for 20 years.
Today Bala met us at the hotel and we went to ELGi headquarters to meet Dr Jairam Varadaraj. He turned out to be the open astute gentleman we had been told about. We sat for an hour chatting about the company and his aspirations to make it not only the best business he can but being a part of and contributing to the community. A very pleasant morning with a most impressive fellow.
Anya and Bala with the photographic team then brought in reporters from several Indian National Newspapers who seemed quite interested in our travels and the assistance we are getting from ELGi. It will be interesting to see what they say in the paper tomorrow!
A quick trip to the GD car museum – a real beauty with many cars was followed by afternoon tea with Vidyaprakash (Vidy) who had been instrumental in telling Jairam about our trip leading to ELGi support. It was at the 170 year old Coimbatore Club and we were served little sandwiches with the crust cut off exactly the same as the British Club members ate in 1894.
Vidy is very well known in the community and as he is racing driver and a pilot and owns several aircraft we hit it off very well. Back to the hotel ready for the long drive to Kochi on the west coast tomorrow.
Back on air after a few days away from wifi.
We got out of Coimbatore early and set out on the long drive to Kochi. The road was fairly narrow and busy and a lot of towns and settlements really slowed us down. One good thing is the further south we go the more lush the countryside. Quite a few rubber plantations and lots of coconuts with the ever-present rice paddies.
We are amused by small things and notice the change in colour of the tuktuks in each area. Yellow, blue, black or green but they all adhere to the local scheme. We will have to stop using the Thai nickname for them (after the tuk-tuk-tuk of the two stroke motors) and get with the program flagging down motor-rickshaws.
As we got closer to Kochi, Bev started looking for houseboats but as the choice was endless we decided to head for Alappuzha which is the centre of the action. There are hundreds of kilometres of canals going back to the Portuguese and Dutch and several Indian rulers had their own engineering program. The main canals are very wide (about 100 metres) and are surrounded by rice fields and jungle about 2 metres lower. In fact it is a Dutch situation of below sea level. It is very easy to flood the fields from the higher water level.
The entire district relies on water transport and there is a scurry of oversized canoes with little Honda engines with long shaft drive like the more high powered Thai version. Many of these longboats only had paddle power and everybody paddled as mum took the kids to the water-side schools.
We spent the night at a so-so hotel but Bev took the opportunity to have a massage so all was well. Finding a single cabin boat with two crew for two nights we boarded in the morning and set off with the other thousand similar vessels, 90% of which were only on a day trip. The cruise boats just idle along in a big stream at walking pace and you can not hear their engine of choice, the Ashok-Leyland truck motor. The coconut and other palm covered levee banks are very low and you can see into the surrounding fields.
We tied up for a nice 7 course lunch and a sleep in our air-conditioned cabin before heading into the lake then down another canal for the night. Everything was beautiful except the loud speakers in the temple 50 metres away across the channel. 4 hours later the 165db noise finished as I was nearing insanity just as the next door temple started. Bev was a calming influence and after another musical 7 course dinner we retired and fortunately the heavy thatched boat roof reduced the noise to workable levels
Next day we cruised many kilometres along deserted canals, some so narrow the boat brushed the trees. Numerous species of birds abounded, including a flock of around 2,000 ducks being given a swim. We could see them splashing and laughing (do ducks laugh?) blissfully unaware they will be the main act in 2,000 Xmas dinners in 10 days time.
We returned to sleep on-board at the dock in preparation for the early start and 6 hour drive to the highlight of the journey, the most southerly tip of India
A predawn start enabled us to see the fiery red ball as the sun crested the horizon in the fog. Huge stretches of half finished major construction and rough one-way detours led to some amusing incidents as buses met head-on and every other road user packed any spare square millimetre around then preventing progress in any direction.
Eventually Penelope (the same girl who works for Garmin GPS) came up on Google maps and said basically “Let’s get out of here!” Away we went on tiny side roads with far less traffic, seemingly in the completely wrong direction until we landed on the old coast road built long before the Portuguese and Dutch appeared on the scene. What a beaut drive on 4 metre wide winding smooth bitumen totally hedged with jungle and small towns.
After a couple of hours we popped back onto what was a new 6 lane freeway with little traffic – except for the streams of vehicles coming in the opposite direction on our side of the divider because it was too much trouble to drive 300 metres in the correct direction then do a u-turn to cross over and procede to your destination.
Passing ultra-modern delightfully named Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala Miss Google launched us into the back-woods once more to avoid a road blockage and we finally arrived at our destination, Kanniyakumari which is back over the border in Tamil Nadu.
We checked into a hotel and joined the merry throng photographing people, photographing people, photographing something. A clean town, in fact we noted the further south we came the cleaner it got and the quality of the buildings, shops and towns greatly improved.
We turn north again tomorrow.
PS It is now 0630 and for the last hour and a half we have been entertained by the Indian standard 165db speakers right outside our window. This time it is a Christian operation. As it is Xmas it must be a kids service for the main entertainment seems to be flat-voiced 5 year olds tunelessly singing accompanied by flutes and high pitched sitars. Give me the short sharp call to prayer in Cairo or Damascus any day.
We got away late this morning after spending the night in a magnificent restored mansion the Chettinad Heritage. It was a 6 hour drive from the tip but well worth it.
The Chettinad people were initially traders but finished up specializing in big time financing for trading ventures in Ceylon, Malay/Thailand and Indonesia. By the 1700’s they were fabulously wealthy and began building mansions, no expense spared. The area is pretty arid and unappealing but by the time of WW2 there were 10’s of thousands of these mansions spread over 75 villages. Unfortunately upon independence their empires collapsed over night.
Many of the houses are still occupied but mere shadows of their former glory in small dusty-lane villages. A few have been turned into home-stay hotels. Ours was over the top with pillars, polished Italian marble floors, thousands of hand-painted tiles and historic paintings and photos on the walls.
We went for a walk and at the Maharajah’s Palace (also just in a dusty village) we ran across a Bollywood film crew. Of interest to me was the fact they were using a WW2 Army Jeep for the current scene. Out of the aircon bus came the star actress with snivelling toadies carrying umbrellas and surrounding her. I have never understood how these deadbeat actors have gripped the public and the world hangs on their every utterance. All they do is occasionally fill in a couple of hours of your spare time. Up until movies, actors either had a few coins or rotten tomatoes thrown at them.
Anyhow on with the trip. We set off for the former French Colony of Pondicherry. A good drive for the first two hours on a divided road was made interesting by the numerous chicken-runners (including school buses) coming head on our side of the highway divide.
Talking of school buses we passed an area where there must be a public official who has a copy of the Australian Government Employee Obstruction and Obscuration Manual. On the crowded yellow buses the sign “School Bus” had been painted over and on top was “Educational Facility Vehicle”. Such skill in creating worthless change while perpetuating the myth of progress can only have come from Australia.
We now had to cut across from the main Chennai Highway to Pondicherry on the coast. Let us just say it was interesting! Lower economic conditions were evident in the teeming narrow streets of the small towns and villages. On the whole trip we have never seen so many motor scooters jostling for position on the very narrow roads, even outside the towns in the countryside. We think we know what living in a bee-hive is like. We had our first car to car contact here – the occasional scooter rider’s elbow springing a mirror was standard daily fare. An unannounced entry from the side into our crawling stream of traffic resulted in contact but we bounced off with no damage (don’t know about him) and continued to be sucked along in the vortex.
We picked a winner with the S3 Hotel in Pondicherry. Hidden in a leafy suburb 50 metres from a very nice sandy beach and for the first time we have real surf with a good little board break. Unfortunately Indians do not swim and every beach we have visited is packed with people and not one person in over their ankles – even kids.
We have 3 nights here to celebrate Xmas. Bev has brought her home made plum pudding and we are negotiating with the little food cart man out front to boil it for an hour on Xmas morning for us.
This is the final of our Indian trip.
We spent 3 days in Pondicherry over Xmas. It is a nice beachside town with remains of the several centuries of French occupation. In the old French quarter, many of the colonial buildings are still used such as the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), Harbour masters building and police headquarters and they are really impressive with their white paint and lovely gardens. The beach promenade is excellent.
Throughout this area many other colonial era grand houses and gardens are to be seen in streets overhung with huge rain-trees. Having said this, it is nowhere near the “little piece of France” advertised in all the travel brochures and gushing reviews. Everything has reverted to Indian culture. All the French cuisine now has an Indian flavour both literally and figuratively. The famous French pastries are suited to Indian tastes with little of the light recipes and fresh cream (hard to get in a tropical climate). Almost everywhere, including 4- star hotels, we noted the same pastries on the shelf for 3 and 4 days at a time, a practice unheard of in Europe.
Pondicherry is still well worth a visit as in the main area it is much more relaxed. There are very big botanical gardens dating back to 1864, sadly very run down and of course the divine consciousness destination of Auroville which has a huge area and very nicely maintained nature walks. It is a busy place with lots of happy families and the usual smattering of foreign devotees with dreadlocks, sarongs and sandals.
Leaving the outrageously expensive S3 hotel and the 5 hour a day loudspeakers from the temple next door, we headed north along the coast road. What a beautiful string of white sandy beaches with a good surf. Although we have not seen one Indian actually swimming out of their depth on the whole trip, the potential for this strip to be lined with fancy resorts to rival the Mediterranean Coast of Spain or France is huge and only a couple of hours drive from Chennai.
An interesting stop at the hippie destination of Malappuram was worth a look. Lots of little beachfront hotels and guest houses, surf school (for non-swimmers?) and numerous 3-table cafes and souvenir sellers in narrow winding streets down to the beach set the scene.
Without too much drama we arrived back in Chennai to find we could stay at the 5 star Novotel for the same price we had paid for the 2 star hotel in Pondicherry.
We went to the crumbling but spectacular natural history museum where no maintenance has been done since 1947 but what a wonderful collection.
Bev was struggling to complete a gallery without the photo opportunity mob rushing over for the shot of a lifetime.
The Indus Go car rental man has just appeared to collect the might Suzuki WagonR. It did the job, was the right size but I don’t care if I never see one again in my life. Total distance covered 3,642km. Total bill for 28 E-tolls $42.50.
It has been a very interesting trip. We were very fortunate that ELGi saw fit to help us along the way and a better sponsor we could not have asked for. Every single ELGi person we met from marketing, production, management and on the shop floor could not have been more pleasant and helpful.
They certainly added to the enjoyment of our Indian adventure. We must specially thank Balamurugan (Bala) Kalaimani whose constant contact and efficient attention to detail made everything run so smoothly.
If you are looking for a safe, friendly, cheap and endlessly interesting place to go for your next holiday it is hard to go past India.
And lastly, we once more are indebted to our dear friend Ravi Kumar, “The Man Who Makes Things Happen”.
“Dare to be Unique”