The southern reaches of the Western Ghats are as lush as they come during the monsoons. One has to be wary while walking through the undergrowth lest leeches stick onto them. These bloodsuckers have mastered the art of wriggling through full-length socks and jeans, as I discovered to my horror. Unsurprisingly, hotels in the region keep salt handy. A towel dipped in salt water helps dispose of leeches quickly, because if you’re not careful, you will end up with an entire colony of them on your feet, arms and torso.
But to reduce this part of the world to a leech-infested quagmire would be extremely inaccurate. With their remarkable flora and fauna, the Western Ghats make for the most biodiverse region on the Indian subcontinent. And the proof of this diversity was evident when we walked into V.G. Spices, a small shop nestled in the town of Kushalnagar near Madikeri in Southern Karnataka’s Kodagu district.
Shop-owner Sunil Shetty had a vast offering, and everything in his little spice shop was sourced either from his own estate or those within a 50-kilometre radius. The variety of peppercorns, cloves and cardamom on offer was stunning, and Shetty was one heck of a salesman. He made me try and taste different types of peppercorns, cloves, and cinnamon bark while trying to palm off some local homemade wine, which he said—with a wink—was ‘non-alcoholic’.
Well, my driving companion and I did end up buying all sorts of spices from Shetty, including a delightfully aromatic ‘pork masala’ mix, but we had to skip the wine. After all, we were driving on the 11th edition of Honda Cars India’s ‘Drive To Discover’, travelling from Bengaluru to Kochi but not down the national highways cutting through the ghats. Instead, we were zipping through smaller state highways, including the Karnataka-Kerala border at the town of Kutta.
A drive to remember
Driving past plantations rich with the aroma of cloves, pepper and coffee, as well as around large tiger reserves such as Nagarhole, Bandipur and Mudumalai, this was a superb drive. Well, other than the road surface, which at times resembled a moonscape, and for which the tyres on our Honda Amaze and City sedans had to pay a price. On the way out of a small town called Channarayapatna, off the Bengaluru-Hassan highway, we stopped for lunch and ate the most fantastic Mutton Ghee Roast. But the Honda City I was driving had its left front tyre swallowed by a crater and well, the old adage ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ doesn’t work well when you have six grown men trying to change a puncture—it is, in fact, faster.
But the interesting thing was that in parts, we had the most amazing road surfaces. Like when driving past the coffee and cinnamon estates near the state border, we found the kind of roads that encourage one to ‘put the pedal to the metal’. While it was great fun in the manual cars—which I purposely ensured I was driving—people on the automatics did complain a bit as Honda’s automatics aren’t really adept for the rally stage-type driving that we were indulging in. But then, as we crested a hill, the smooth surface just vanished and again transformed into a moonscape.
The Honda experience
That said, on the whole, road surfaces were quite bearable, although it did make one appreciate why Indians have fallen in love with Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs). The fifth-generation Honda City, however, does have impressive ground clearance and such potholes would have killed tyres on ‘solid’ SUVs as well. Takuya Tsumura, Honda Cars India’s chief executive who arrived in the country a few months ago, admitted to me that without an SUV in the line-up (the CRV was withdrawn a couple of years ago), Honda needs something. “But we are coming with an SUV soon,” he said. While he did not give any timeline, this new SUV, which is believed to be a Creta-sized vehicle, is expected to go on sale in the next 6-8 months.
Honda has been selling cars in India for over 25 years, but consistent sales success has been hard to come by until now. Why would any new product change Honda’s fortunes? Tsumura said that this new SUV and many more products from the Japanese carmaker stable will henceforth have a large proportion of electrification, including hybrids. The Honda City e:HEV, which I reviewed a few months ago, also tagged along on this trip. On both open roads and insanely crowded coastal highways like the NH-66 in Kerala, where dodging speeding buses will send shivers down the spines of any driver, the hybrid delivered between 21-24 km per litre of petrol. With stricter emission norms and fleet-wide average fuel efficiency rules kicking in soon across India, Honda might finally have an ace up its sleeve.
God’s own country
But this beautiful drive through picturesque parts of India was truly enjoyable. Our hotel in the town of Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad district near the location where Tipu Sultan’s forces were defeated by the East India Company, overlooked paddy fields and coconut palms. It was a reminder that Kerala isn’t just about beaches. And compliments to all the chefs, because the food across both southern Karnataka and northern Kerala was stupendous—from the pork in Madikeri to the Thalassery Biryani, which can easily enter and win the biryani sweepstakes on social media (Twitter spats over biryani are, after all, almost as bad as Twitter spats over mangoes). The vegetarian options, too, were as amazing as the fish and meat fare.
And this was also a reminder that at the end of the day, with five-and-a-half million kilometres of roads, you can only truly see this vast and beautiful country through a road trip. I know that for many, many people reading this, Wayanad is nothing but the constituency represented by Rahul Gandhi, but I must admit after visiting the district that it has so much more to offer.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)