There is a thrill that comes with going out early in the day. When loading bags and checking maps while others sleep, there is a calm anticipation, a subdued sense of purpose. We traveled in May when it was scorching; our white car turned brown and we left a trail of dust in two districts. It was nice to leave Mumbai behind.
A road with chirping birds and bougainvillea-covered farm gates took us to Raigad District, where the beaches begin. If you imagine what some parts can look like in winter, with the road running along the sea and fishing boats bobbing in the wind, we have made solemn commitments to return in better weather. No two beaches here are the same. If you like the sea, you can enjoy the variations in the environment, the sand and the trees, even the feeling of soaking. However, they are not unspoiled: tourists often drop in Mumbai for noisy revelry. The popular spots can be pricey, but driving between them gives a glimpse of villages with women carrying pots, fish spread out to dry, roosters in a foul mood, children digging diligently, old men in Marathi hats looking around and no one who in a hurry.
We tried to stray from the main roads. Villagers, perhaps not to offend us, gave us directions, even if they weren’t sure, by saying “right” or “left” as if flipping a coin, and in the parched bushes the car spun like a car after a curve. sleepy, indecisive beetle. We did find some good, green walking trails, with butterflies winking in the sun, mangoes that had fallen to the ground, and insects in war shells patrolling their tree grass. The hills were a relief. Driving to Mahabaleshwar in the late afternoon wondered how the blazing heat could so casually turn into wind, cloudy skies, thunder and lightning. We caught what may have been the first rains of the year in the area.
The towns themselves, especially Mahabaleshwar, have been devastated by tourism and can be jarring to drive around; what we enjoyed more was riding in the Krishna River Valley, through relatively small towns, and finding quiet places. Along the coast and in the hills there are countless places where you can lie on the grass, read, play the guitar.
It would be interesting to look for cozy, unfamiliar places that are not big enough to be destinations, such as a strip of sand between the beach towns or, in the hills, ledges of rocks along the main road. If you wander a bit from the well known spots you will probably find this one. A word of warning: some tourists arrive at these places expecting to see something tangible, some sort of show, and are then unsure what to make of it. This route is more for casual travelers who want fresh air, a river to dangle their legs in, the feeling of a road under tires, the hiss of the sea, and humming a tune with the windows rolled down.
ON THE ROAD
The two main highways on this route, NH17 and the Mumbai-PuneExpressway, drive. The other main roads were pleasant to drive on and we didn’t see too many ghosts of overturned vehicles. The back roads are usually bad. Our car, a Tata Indigo, took a beating on our impulsive detours. Something harder like a Qualis or a Scorpio would have been ideal. Some of the stretches, especially in the ghat sections, can be dangerous in the monsoon when roads deteriorate. Boulder piles and bare roots protruding from slopes remind us that small landslides have happened before. At hill stations, the narrow roads leading to popular monsoon ‘points’ can get rough. The NH17 connects Mumbai to Goa and is always busy. The road starts from Vadkhal Naka Junction. The stretch from Alibaug to Murud is a pleasure to drive on, but be aware of the many intersections, which are well signposted. After Alibaug, there are very few mechanics and gas pumps on this stretch, until Murud. Like the rest of this route, it’s best done during the day. After Murud, there are several ways to get to Satara District where the two hill stations are.
For the drive to Mahabaleshwar, we passed through Roha and the industrial Mahad-Poladpur belt. There are at least three roads that take you from Murud to Roha; we opted for a shortcut that had recently been built. It is a quiet drive through a densely forested ghat with almost no traffic, but the road is deserted and broken into pieces and best avoided in the monsoons. It’s a smooth ride on the dual carriageway between Roha and Kolad, while the Kundalika River lingers merrily beside it. There are also petrol pumps and car garages, and before continuing on to Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani, it might be a good idea to charge and check your tires. Mahabaleshwar itself is choked with traffic; Saturday night is the worst kind of driving job in the summer. Panchgani has steep narrow roads but less cars so it’s not that bad. This circuit involves driving through NH4, which is a difficult highway. We slogged through a noisy, honking mess of traffic, passed through Pune and got on the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.
If you want to stop in Pune, remember that after all the stress of the highway, you will have to deal with the city traffic. The Expressway is a relief, but don’t get carried away and start speeding; there are occasionally overturned trucks. Tire bursts are common at high speeds on this stretch. There are a few toll gates along the way; the charge is between Rs 10 and Rs 15, and the waiting time at each is minimal.