AS JOURNALISTS WHO TRAVEL A FAIR bit, we’re faced with a terrible dilemma. More often than not, we’re heading out to regular run-of-the-mill touristy places. Goa, Ladakh, Udaipur, Pondicherry. No problems there. However, occasionally, we come across a vista unsullied by the influx of tourists and all the baggage—both literal and metaphorical—they bring with them. What do we do when we come to such a place? Do we write about it, reveal it to the world and be the first pebble of the landslide of tourists to follow? Or do we clam up, keep it to ourselves and ignore our duties as reporters?
As I write this, I’m in the throes of debating this very dilemma in my head. My mind has been blown more times in the last two days than it has in the last year. The roads, the views, the car I’m driving — all of it has come together and left me with this incredulous expression that I haven’t been able to wipe off my face. I’m not sure if I want to share it. But hey, this is my job and you aren’t picking up the magazine to read about places we’re going to keep secret from you, are you? I don’t want to be out of a job quite yet, so here goes.
Our journey began in Pune two days earlier, behind the wheel of the Tata Hexa. The agenda? Find an epic mountain pass worth driving. Take the Hexa there. Drive. Explore. Drive further. There was no concrete plan, no landmarks to visit, no people to meet. It was just us, the SUV and the open road. Our intensive research was mostly just talking to people who lived in the vicinity. Everyone said Valparai would be worth a visit. Valparai it was, then. The Hexa was more than up for it. The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel engine it shares with the Safari is capable of heaving it along at a fair clip for the 800-odd kilometres. It’s on these really long highway runs that you have enough time to fiddle around with everything inside the SUV.
A neat feature that the Hexa gets is the driving mode dial. Comfort mode limits the Hexa to 320Nm, keeping things manageable in heavy traffic, or when you just want to go about things leisurely. We had no such intentions, and so Dynamic mode it was — with all 400Nm from the Varicor 400 engine. The powerband is narrow, but you get nicely spaced gears to extract the best out of it. It has tremendous presence and other cars simply make way for a Hexa charging down the highway. This SUV-MPV crossover makes for a really comfortable tourer. The seats ate wide and comfortable, the cabin is extremely roomy — not just in terms of headroom or legroom, but in width as well. The finish of the interiors are hard to fault, with soft touch plastics and well-damped buttons and stalks everywhere. The Connect Next infotainment system offers all sorts of connectivity and paired with the JBL speaker system, made sure we were groovin’ all the way from Pune to Bangalore.
Most importantly though, refinement levels are miles above other Tata SUVs it shares its engine with. Ride quality is phenomenal, keeping you isolated from the road’s irregularities as well. The cabin is well insulated from the outside, allowing you to do serious distances without fatigue setting in. Day 2 was what set this road-trip apart from anything I’ve ever been on before. Bangalore to Avinashi (right next to Coimbatore) is another straightforward highway run, after which we turned off towards Valparai Just about 100km on narrow state highways sees us approach the western ghats. That is when the magic begins — you approach the mountains head on. They look prehistoric, like something out of a Jurassic Park set — craggy rock faces speckled with the green of dense forests, peaks shrouded in clouds veiling how high they really are. I could almost imagine a screeching pterodactyl flying out from inside one of the crevices in the surfaces. You get right to the base of the ghat, and enter a gate — to the Anamalai Tiger reserve. A forest guard waves you through. Now you’re properly in the thick of things.
The road is flawless —two lanes of blacktop, perfectly masked out with not a blemish in sight. It flows gently along the base of the mountain, following the contours of the behemoth until it turns sharply on itself. A sign-board by the side of the road says ‘Hair-Pin Bend 1/40’. I knew I was in paradise already. This was the first ti me I was driving the Hexa on any sort of twisty roads. Did it surprise me? Hell, yes. It is rather agile for such a large car. The road demanded spirited driving, and the Hexa kept up with no complaints. The AWD system is rear-wheel focused until it detects slip, and on this tarmac there was none at all, allowing the front wheels to do what they do best — steer.
There is a fair amount of body roll but it never interferes with the experience. Once you’re shimmying and shuffling the steering around, you forget how large a vehicle the Hexa is — it can seat seven comfortably, after all — and just enjoy the road. It heaves itself up the mountain, never feeling sluggish and keeping you entertained. You get more confident with every passing corner, and push it further as the drive progresses. Here, deep in the forest, the JBL system goes off, the windows go down and we lap up the sounds of nature. Every time you come around a bend, you’re greeted with a more spectacular landscape than the last. You’re torn between enjoying the drive and constantly interrupting it to simply take in the sights. The road snakes higher and higher up the mountain, taking you through denser vegetation.
The view of the valley gets blocked out by the thick foliage, appearing in flashes and then vanishing again before you can steal a glance. The cacophony of the animals, birds and cicadas envelopes you. Plenty of ominous signboards announce the presence of elephants, leopards and the lion-tailed macaque (which happens to be endemic to the western ghats of India). At some places, the canopy gets so thick that it cuts out every ray of direct sunlight. This place is properly wild. The magic of this place isn’t done yet, though. Suddenly, you’re through another gate and the landscape changes dramatically. Gone are the dense forests, only to be replaced by lines of neatly pruned tea bushes for as far as the eye can see. The road continues, snaking through the estates and in to the clouds. Tea gardens melt in to coffee estates, and back to tea gardens — this place just doesn’t cease to amaze. The station of Valparai lies smack bang in the middle of these estates, some 40km from the base of the hill where this brilliant road begins.
The best, however, was yet to come. What makes the Hexa so versatile is that it can take you beyond tarmac. A tea estate in the rains means slush is abundant and so is fun. AWD, coupled with a ground clearance of 200mm and torquey engine with a short first gear meant very little can stop a determined Hexa. Slot it in to Rough Road mode to reduce ESP intervention. If you’ve never been to one of these plantations in the monsoons, I highly recommend you do. The unrelenting pitter-patter of the rain on the bushes becomes almost hypnotic, and you can drive those trails for hours without getting bored—just find yourself a big enough estate! There’s the small problem of leeches (I found out the hard way) but a good pair of gumboots should take care of them. Phew, what a day it had been!
Earlier today, we left Valparai before sunrise. The drive back down was haunting. The fog was dense and even with all the Hexa’s lights on, visibility was negligible. We creeped our way down, terrified of coming across a herd of wild elephants but secretly hoping to anyway. No such luck. As we descended from the clouds, things got clearer, the sun began to rise and we did chance upon some other wildlife. A few giant squirrels, a herd of Nilgiri tahrs and a lion-tailed macaque all seemed to be up and about, unaffected by our presence. They don’t call the western ghats an ecological hotspot for nothing. I indulged my inner shutterbug for a while, cranked up the Hexa’s engine and made my way back down. As I write this in my hotel room in Bangalore, I can’t help but replay the past two days in my head over and over again. The mountains, the roads, the views, the plantations, the drive. Ah, the drive. Simply spectacular.