Trip Meter

Bombay 0 - NH3 - Thane - Asangaon - Igatpuri - Ghoti - NASHIK 175 - SULA VINEYARDS - Nashik 200 - NH50 - Sangamner - SH44 - Akole 305 - Rajur - BHANDARDARA 355 - Asangaon - NH3 - Bombay 550.

[Numbers beside the place are trip meter readings in km at that point. Places in bold indicate sight-seeing destinations.]


Highlights

  1. Hiking up to Pandav Leni - the Hinayana Buddhist caves built between 1st century BC to 12th century AD on the outskirts of Nashik
  2. Scrubbing an elephant on the banks of Godavari in Nashik
  3. Wine tasting at Sula Vineyards
  4. Driving through the Sahyadri hills around Bhandardara
  5. Rowing a boat in the Arthur lake behind Wilson dam
Scrubbing an elephant on the banks of Godavari

Getting out of bed at 3.30 am on a Saturday is only slightly easier than solving a three variable quadratic equation without pen and paper while watching M S Dhoni chase 36 runs in 18 balls in a T20 match. Let's admit it - it's tough. Navendu and I had planned a weekend drive to Nashik the previous night; and dragging my feet out of the bed was half the trip done.

It was still very dark when we took the Eastern Express Highway out of the city and picked up the NH3. Navendu took the wheel while I slumped in the other seat. Orange reflectors on the edge of the road blinked like fireflies and the tar glistened like midnight black sky while all-night RJ played Mohammed Rafi on his radio channel. The newly built four-lane highway was a delight (except for some stretches which were still under construction) and I was glad India finally woke up to the fact that we needed to invest in good roadways.

As soft morning light broke the dawn, NH3 made its way through the villages bordering the city and then wound its way up the Western ghats. It peaked at Igatpuri before starting a mild descent on to the edge of Deccan plateau. We reached the outskirts of Nashik at around 8 am. A stout green hill beside the road was sliced along the middle by a thin brown line - the Pandav Leni (or Pandav caves). The rock-cut caves were a series of Hinayana Buddhist chaityas and viharas, chiseled out between 1st century BC and 12th century AD; though how the legend of Pandavas got associated with the caves is uncertain to me. We did a short but steep 20-minute hike from the foot of the hill to reach the caves. Below us was spread the sprawl of Nashik - morning light bouncing off the farms, factories and unstructured neighborhoods. We were one of the few visitors around; either no one visited these caves or no one visited these caves at 9 am on a Saturday.

Our next stop was the Godavari river. We crossed a bridge in the city and made a left turn along the river banks. The stream could barely qualify for a river - a thin polluted trickle made its way between piles of garbage. Concrete slabs were being laid out on banks, almost transforming the river into a canal. Several slum dwellers had camped on the banks; their political affliations reflected in the flags that flew out of their shanties. Around the main ghats were many colorful temples devoted to Ram, Hanuman and other deities. The temple town of Nashik is an important seat of Hindu religion. It got its name from the episode of Ramayana where Laxman cuts the nose (nasika) off Raavan's sister Surpanakha. Today, it attracts several thousand Hindu pilgrims every year and also hosts the Ardh Kumbh Mela.

A mahout and his helper were bathing an elephant on the ghats. Now contrary to what New York Times may think, an elephant is still a rare sight on Indian roads. An elephant in leisure is rarer. The pachyderm was in town, along with camels, horses and other animals, for the religious shows around temple evenings. Laxmi was from the Goregoan Film Studios in Bombay and was a star of several movies, most recently opposite Salman Khan in Veer. The mahout was a deligent worker and scrubbed every inch of Laxmi's thick gray skin with a pumice stone while his helper splashed buckets of water to wash away the muck. We asked if we could help.

"You will get drenched," he warned us.

We started with the pumice stone on Laxmi's side. It was like scrubbing a thick and dirty faded leather sheet that moved a bit. Inspite of our vigorous activity, Laxmi barely acknowledged our presence.

"Scrub her harder. She should enjoy her bath. Right now she doesn't even know you exist," the mahout pushed us. It was hard work.


Wine tasting at Sula Vineyards

Around noon, we made it to the Sula Vineyards outside Nashik. The harvest season (Jan-Mar) was over and the 30 acre farm was either dry or pruned. A factory tour promised to take us through the wine making process at Sula. We tagged along with a small group - sunglasses perched on their heads, dressed in summer clothes, hands tied behind - that leisurely strolled behind a guide. The guide took us to where it all began. Baskets of grapes were thrown into an Italian-made destemming machine that pumped out the juice at the other end and discarded the trash.

"During the harvest season, our visitors can crush the grapes with their feet," our guide informed us. His t-shirt front had a cute couple stomping grapes in a barrel. The line below read: My first crush. "Of course we don't use that juice to make our wine."

We then walked into the primary fermentation chamber where, amid large cylindrical tanks and a strong aroma of rotten grapes, our guide threw a few chemical processes and numbers at us. We were then led straight to the the tasting room. (Huh? What did I blink-and-miss? I thought this was a wine making tour!) The tasting room had six house wines on offer - a sparking rose Sula Brut (2007), a white Dindori Reserve (2009), another white Sula Chenin Blanc (2009), a rose Blush Zinfandel (2009), a red Zinfandel (2008), and a dessert Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (2009).

Our guide, now turned host, insisted that we smell the plums, feel the oaky flavor, breathe the woody fragrance, taste the tinge of lime, enjoy the freshness of berries, so on and so forth, in the wines. Each time, I nodded solemnly, gave the fluid a swirl, saw the tears trickling down the bulb, and swigged it in a gulp. "Hmm. That wasn't half as bad as I imagined."

It was nice to see that the Sula Vineyards property had been developed with visitors in mind. It was a nice modern factory, a good spot for weekenders and potentially a good party / event place in winters. The property sported two decent restaurants - Little Italy and Kareems. We settled for biryanis - vegetarian for Navendu and mutton for me - at Kareems for lunch before winding up.


Driving through the Sahyadri hills

Sometimes good decisions just happen. For example, driving in scorching afternoon heat that day, we decided to make a detour and drive to Bhandardara; and then head back to Bombay from there. It was a good decision and it just happened. We took the NH50 which joined Nashik to Pune. Dusty ochre-brown fields on either sides of the road simmered in the summer heat. Our car rolled through the slight curves and gradients of a mostly flat plateau. At Sangamner, we made an acute right turn to leave the NH50 and pick up SH44. At Akole, around the 300 km mark in our drive, we exchanged seats and I got behind the wheel.

SH44 was beautiful. We were driving through fields of sugarcane, paddy and wheat. Onions crops, cauliflower farms and tomato gardens. Rivers that flowed under low narrow railing-less bridges. Small villages with conical roofs that resembled hamlets out of Robin Hood movies.

As the ascent of Sahyadris began, villages and farms thinned down. Farmers gave way to herders. The road was a gray dusty ribbon that clawed its way up the hills with sinusoidal turns. Lack of any traffic made the curves a driving pleasure. At 4 pm, the sun was a much paler version of its former self - an orange disc descending into a pale pink sky. Driving westwards seemed like we were heading straight into the sun.

Arthur lake in the back waters of Bhandardara was a water reservoir nestled high in the hills, contained by Wilson dam on one side and hills on the others. The guy who took us boating in the lake understood little or no Hindi and had a canned answer to all our questions.

"Is there fish in this lake?"

"Ho,"

"Crocodiles?"

"Ho,"

I didn't check with him if there were any sharks in Wilson lake, but I am positive his answer would have been a prompt "Ho". After sunset, we set out from Bhandardara towards Bombay. Two white figures glimmered ahead of us on in the fading twilight. They turned out to be Jain nuns - travelers of an extreme backpacking kind - walking towards who-knows-where with all their worldly belongings heaped on their backs. The charming SH44 merged with NH3 at Asangoan, after which it was just a matter of stepping on the gas to get back to Bombay.

The Bombay - Nashik - Bhandardara loop has the all the ingredients of being a classic weekend gateaway from Bombay. No second thoughts about that. Ever since I relocated from Delhi to Bombay in early 2008, I moaned the lack of good weekend gateways out of the city. Turns out, I never looked hard enough.




Tags: Drive, India