Travelogue: Konkan Konquest, and why the Yeti 4×4 rocks!

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Opener

We did an exhaustive review of the yeti 4×4 more than a year ago, and the unusual looking SUV named after the abominable snow man from the Himalayas, totally blew us away with its all-round performance. Having driven some really expensive SUVs from Germany’s best premium carmakers after that, we were curious whether this relatively cheaper machine could still hold its own and impress us with its capabilities. We decided to take it for another enduring trip, where we wished to load 5 overgrown adults aboard with luggage, put more than 1500 km on the clock, take the beast off the road, blast through the open highways and see how much it managed to enthrall us. The destination chosen was the beautiful Konkan coastal belt – its pristine beaches looking lovely in the early March weather – perfect to mingle some fun with work. With a long weekend in sight, off we went to have a gala time and see how much the Yeti added to the fun quotient.

We started off early in the morning, hitting the road at 6:00 am and managing to get onto the Mumbai Goa highway (NH17) in 40 minutes flat from the Eastern suburbs of Mulund. The entire stretch on the NH17 is undergoing roadwork for converting the currently undivided road into a six lane highway. Plenty of diversions and 120 km on the clock later, we decided to take a quick halt at a roadside dhaba for a breakfast.

Piping hot Misal was being served as the primary attraction, and we couldn’t resist sampling this Marathi specialty. To our surprise, the Misal served at this mufassil roadside joint was much better than what we had expected it to be. Sooner than we could think, we were shoving down big pieces of paavs soaked in the sumptuous Misal curry. It’s a simple dish, the Misal Paav, but simplicity is probably the toughest quality to replicate. The flavor of that cheaply priced Misal, topped by an equally amazing cup of chaay could not be delivered even at a Michelin Star restaurant.

By the time we finished our breakfast, a bunch of traffic policeman had arrived at the dhaba in their duty van, a Toyota Qualis. They were somehow intrigued by the Yeti. Probably they had not seen one before. After examining the exterior and interior thoroughly, one of them approached me and asked the first question you’d expect

‘Kitne kee hai?’
‘18 lakh’, I promptly replied.
Sure as hell, this one had to follow.
‘Kitna deti hai?’
’15-16’ I replied.
‘Mehngee nai hai?’
‘2.0 liter diesel engine hai, same Audi waala, full time 4×4 hai, or do sau pe bhaagti hai’
‘Haan kya?’ He looked again at the interior of the car, this time paying more attention, circled round it once and shook his head in appreciation, but still seemed rather baffled.

Probably he thought I was lying. After all, we Indians have this bad habit of associating value with size. Had a six meter long tin box with engine the size of tea kettle been parked in place of the fabulously specced Yeti, he would probably have found the price justifiable.

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We sped off soon, the Yeti making light work of overtaking on the median-less highway with its spunky mid-range torque and immaculate road manners. We couldn’t carry on much further though, as after roughly 40km we spotted some caves on a hill to our left. I have seen these caves several times on my way to Goa and Chiplun, but have never bothered to stop and have a look. Now since we were on a road-trip with no hard rules or specific destinations on our mind, we decided to go and have a look.

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As you proceed towards these Buddhist caves, you are greeted by a board which shows you, er, nothing. It’s a blank metal board, from which the acrylic informative sheet has been duly peeled off. What a way to start you discovery of a historically important structure.

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The extremely informative board at the entrance of the Gandharva Pale caves

The Gandharva Pale Caves, as these pre-Christ structures are known were built between 150 and 200 BC, more than two thousand years ago. Located at roughly the confluence of the Savitri and Gandhari rivers, the 31 caves are cut flat in the mountain and face east. The erstwhile Buddhist residences located on a hill top are built over three levels, and take about 15 minutes to climb up to.

Once there, you can get inside the shelters painstakingly carved out of solid rock, which also have some stupas and walls with inscriptions in Brahmi script. There are of course other inscriptions added to the mix by our very own folk in Devnagri and English, immortalizing their own and their loved ones’ name with an arrow piercing a heart in the middle.

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Scriptures on the wall in Brahmi

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Omkar and Kiran have been etched forever in history as rascals who dirtied our heritage.

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One of the Stupas lies unattended, half broken at the foothill of the site

Breathtaking as these monuments may be, they are suffering utter neglect of the authorities, and the only reason why they survive today is because they were built strong, and couldn’t be destroyed easily.

To substantiate my point, on my way back, right at the foothills of the monument we found one of the stupas lying on the ground, half burnt, broken and ready to be picked by someone who may have an eye for antiques.

Thoroughly disgusted with the neglected state of our legacy, we moved ahead. There were some very strong crosswinds blowing that day. We could see branches of trees flanking the roads swaying violently. Big bunches of dried leaves were constantly shooting across the road. Some of the lighter, cheaply built cars seen through the windscreen and RVM were visibly perturbed by these strong air currents. I could distinctly notice their pronounced lateral movements and occasional swerving. To the Yeti’s credit, we didn’t feel a thing inside and all the drama was limited to the one being played for us on the outside.

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The beautiful Vashishthi river meanders its way into the Arabian Sea, making for a fabulous view

The road to Chiplun comprises of 3 ghat sections. The biggest of these, on its summit offers an awesome view of the river Vashisthi, on whose banks Chiplun is built. One of the largest rivers in Konkan, the Vashishthi river begins in the Western Ghats and meanders towards the Arabian Sea. The hillock preceding Chiplun offers a fantastic picture of the river in all its winding, languid glory.

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About 5 hours and 270 km later, we had reached Chiplun – one of the biggest towns in the region after Ratnagiri. There is a small restaurant here, with the name Abhishek. The Malwani restaurant with seafood as its specialty has foodies smitten from Mumbai to Goa. People who have eaten here once swear by the earthy, unadulterated taste of the Konkani fare the eatery serves up. We had our fill with some rawa-fried surmai and Bombil, dry mutton, prawn curry, Pomphret curry with Malwani vadas as the bread. This is one of the most authentic places to sample Malwani food, and if you have a thing for tasting all things authentic, then you cannot give this place a miss when you’re traveling to Goa by road.

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Preparing to take on the soft, boggy sand at Guhagar beach’s approach

Fifty km and an hour later, with the clock showing 3:00 pm, we reached Guhagar, a quaint little town blessed with one of the longest beaches in the Konkan region. After lazing on a hammock at a shack sipping coconut water and talking about random things for an hour, we decided to hit the beach. And what better way to test the off-roading capabilities of the Yeti than asking it to make its way through the soft, dry and fluffy beach sand to the firmer, wetter grounds.  According to the shack owner, it was not advisable to take the car to the beach as ‘hardly any’ cars managed to tread the beach’s approach, and it was common to see cars with their tyres lodged in the soft sand. He also duly issued a warning that if the car gets stuck, it will cost us around Rs 1500 to get it towed out.

I didn’t think much of the sand going by the Yeti’s capabilities though. With due caution, even at slow speed, the Yeti simply coasted over the dry, boggy sand without even a hint of the wheels trying to dig in. The fourth generation Haldex 4×4 system works in challenging situations without even letting you know about what it’s quietly doing under the running board.

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The sand became precariously soft beyond a point, after which we decided to turn back. The Yeti didn’t as much as whimper tackling those challenges

We drove the car all the way to the far end of the beach. The sand at the remote end was much softer than at the prime area. We experienced the steering acting wobbly as the wheels dug in, but there never was an instance when the car got bogged down or showed even any hints of getting stuck. The wheels sank a couple of inches in the wet sand, from which point we decided to turn back. All we had to do was turn the wheel and head back. Traction was duly juggled between all four wheels to make sure that we never witnessed a wheelspin.

The evening was spent in the quiet little town, of course, by the sea, with the balmy breeze and chilled beer making our nostalgic talks even more enjoyable.

The next day we had the Koyna Dam in our crosshairs. The largest dam in Maharashtra, which also boasts the highest installed capacity for hydroelectricity generation in the country was sure worth a visit. From what we were told, the road leading up to the big dam was also a driver’s paradise with its well laid out surface and varied twisties. The visual treats to be savored along the way were to come as a bonus.

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Kumbharli Ghats leading up to Koyna dam are a driver’s delight

The road to Koyna turned out to be better than expected. It’s about a 100km drive from Guhagar to Koyna, with immaculate winding uphill roads thrown in good measure. We drove at moderate speeds, soaking in the views offered by the deep valleys, rivulets and the lavish landscapes covered with an unusually thick green coat. We decided to enjoy driving on those pristine roads later, on our way back. After all, the real test of a car’s traction is while going downhill only.

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Upon reaching Koyna Nagar, the village on the fringe of the massive dam, we had to tread our way further upwards to reach the water reservoir. A few kilometers more and we had reached the boating bay, where there was a road leading right into the Koyna waters. We did the honors of taking the Yeti all the way into the water, making for a nice photo op.

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After spending a few quiet moments at a place where the journey of most Koyna tourists would end, we decided to tread further and explore what lay beyond the trodden territory. The road leading upto the periphery of the reservoir seemed to be rather treacherous; paved with medium to large sized stones. This kutcha road clearly hadn’t been used for some time now as made evident by the 2-3 feet long bushes which had sprung out of the road. Any movement on this road would have bent the bushes down, but they were standing erect. We decided to see how long our trusty steed could take us on this difficult surface and marched forth. The Yeti handled the tricky road with ability that surpassed our expectations. Loose gravel, big stones, sharp inclines – the Yeti took all of it and then some in its stride, and got us to the end of the kutcha road which spanned a couple of kilometers in no time. We kept venturing ahead even as the road ended, and the effort paid off by opening up a beautiful vista to us, overlooking the Koyna reservoir in all its glory.

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A beautiful view of the Koyna reservoir. We managed to get this view as the Yeti took us to places where normal cars won’t reach.

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A part of the treacherous way to the spot

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The Koyna dam barrage

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We spent some meditative moments in the quiet of the jungle, and topped the magical experience by clicking some pictures of the Yeti in the wilderness. Satisfied with our little adventure, we headed back to base.

There was a shortcut to reach Chiplun, we were told by the locals, which would cut about 15km from the distance to be traveled. However, after having seen the fantastic roads leading upto Koyna, we were in no mood to relinquish the opportunity to drive down the twisties with some enthusiasm.

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A little fun in the lap of the mountain

Yeti’s steering comes across as relatively light when compared to its more premium contemporaries from Germany. Let the revs build, let it gather some speed, and it tightens up nicely. Not only does it stiffen up nicely with speed, it also communicates with your palms in a fashion which would make many a sporty sedan feel proud. And to be getting that sort of talkativeness from an SUV is absolutely bewildering.

On our way down to the foothills of the twisties, better known as the Kumbharli ghats, we let ourselves loose to a fair degree. And did the Yeti delight us! From the sharp hairpins to the long sweeping curves, and all the varieties in between, the Yeti dazzled us once again, just the way it did when we took it round the windy roads of Panchgani last time.

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The rock ridden road seemingly hadn’t been trodden in months

The steering feel, the nimbleness, the minimal body roll, the sheer predictability of the body behavior, the controllability of the machine even when it’s losing traction – it blows your mind. Over an above that, the fact that the contraption you are driving is a heavy, burly, go-anywhere kind of a thing absolutely baffles you.

That 40 km drive down the Kumbharli Ghat reinstated our faith in the Yeti as an absolutely stunning machine – incredibly underestimated and undersold owing to its seemingly small size and oddball design. I would like to mention here that the Yeti was running with 5 aboard and their luggage even as we blasted down those fantastic twisties, without even once as much as letting us think of the extra weight as a spoiler. Absolutely fantastic!

With some part of the day still with us, we made a quick dash to the little known secret of Konkan. Close to the much known, or rather ill-known (for the Enron fiasco) Dabhol power plant, there is this quiet little hillock surrounded on three sides with sea. The hillock is home to an old, but beautiful fort called the Gopalgad Fort in Anjanvel.  Built over an area of about 7 acres, the Fort served the purpose of keeping a vigil over the nearby creek and protecting the Dabhol port.

The strongly built fort is structurally sound even today, with most of the walls in good condition. There isn’t much to see inside though. You can walk the perimeter of the Fort over it walls though, and a few vantage points offer a spectacular view of the sea. Having changed hands throughout its history, the Fort was expanded by various rulers ever since it was first built by Adil Shah of Bijapur.

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The magnificent  Talkeshwar light house was open to public earlier. Entry has been restricted thanks to people consuming alcohol at the top. What a shame!

Hardly a kilometer from the fort is another beautiful spot to spend a memorable evening. The Talkeshwar light house sits on the edge of a cliff to help the passing ships have some sense of the land close by. A few years ago visitors were allowed to climb all the way to the top of this intriguing structure from where you have a 270 degree view of the Arabian sea. Of late, the entry inside the lighthouse premises has been restricted owing to incidents of people consuming alcohol at the top, one of the watchmen told us.

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Some breathtaking views of the Arabian Sea from the vantage point below the light house.

But that wasn’t something to get worried about. Thanks to the Yeti’s off-roading capabilities, we managed to go down a rather rough and stony terrain to a relatively lower cliff tapering into the sea and in the process, offering a fantastic view of the ocean from its tip. Local authorities have identified the tourist drawing capability of the fantastic spot off late and have constructed a ship-deck like boundary on the perimeter of the cliff for tourists’ safety. A road would also be built all the way to the cliff in due course, but in its current state, no 4×2 vehicle would have managed to reach the point.

A few pictures and a beautiful sunset later, we decided to head off to our base in Guhagar, from where we would embark on the final leg of our journey in the morning.

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The 4×4 system went a long way in helping us get down to the tapering cliff

The day started early, as we had more than 500 km to cover on our way back. We would take the back road from Shringartali, a small town near Guhagar to Ratnagiri and then the NH17 to Poladpur, from where we’d ascend to Mahabaleshwar and back to Mumbai via Pune. After two days of relaxing, soaking in the views and testing the car primarily off the road it was time to test the Yeti for high speed runs.

The distance from Shringartali to Ratnagiri is roughly 90km. The back roads leading you to the district are absolutely beautiful and open some of the most rustic and breathtaking views to you. The well laid out roads span scores of rivulets, a massive river with a huge bridge over it and some absolutely magical views. On some stretches you cannot spot a human for tens of kilometers with lush green jungles extending all the way to the horizon. Sometimes you get to see the tops of a bunch of huts, peeking out from the middle of a forest. There are people living there, in their own pretty world, away from the rumble of the cities, in these picturesque, healthy and serene environs. What we marvel at while sitting in our noisy concrete wonderlands, inhaling poison day in day out is but a farce – a mirage. One passing look at those humble abodes of the villagers makes you despise your urban existence.

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Beautiful hut-tops peeking out of the forests. Enviable life!

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A view of the Dabhol power plant

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Some distance from Anjarle, there is a jetty which can take your car to the other end of the creek, to Bankot

A little less than two hours later, we were in Ratnagiri. With not much time at hand, we made a dash towards the Ratnagiri Fort, better known as the Ratnadurg Fort. Built in the shape of a horse shoe, the fort is surrounded by the Arabian Sea from three sides. Even with its structure still being in fine shape there isn’t much to see inside the fort, except for a Hanuman Mandir, and a light house built on one of its bastions. Built on a cliff, the fort overlooks the bay where the Sastri river meets the Arabian Sea.

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The Ratnadurg fort

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Various vendors populating the path leading to the fort.

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The back road to Ratnagiri from Shrangartali has such scarce traffic that fishermen use the surface to dry their catch.

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The lesser known road to Ratnagiri is peppered with breathtaking views of the sea, small rivers and lush forests

Our day of visit being a Sunday, there was a good crowd at the fort, and there was a small temporary bazaar set up selling everything from cheap cosmetics to toys for small kids. It took us a little more than an hour to get done with the Fort. We had a quick lunch and headed out of the city to hit NH17 to reach Mahabaleshwar, more than 200 km away.

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The Yeti made light work of not just the irritating NH17, but also the sharp ascent to the hill station of Mahabaleshwar. With its big reservoir of torque from as low as 1500 rpm, the Yeti just surges on, doing away with the requirement to shift frequently. Even with some spirited driving and having gone through various driving cycles under full load, the Yeti was still showing an average fuel consumption of close to 15kmpl, which was nothing short of amazing for a full time 4×4 SUV with a 2.0 liter diesel engine loaded with 5 overly fed men and their luggage.

Mahabaleshwar on a Sunday is a nightmare. With heavy influx of tourist traffic, some of the arterial roads are choked to death. Add to that the nuisance created by local authorities stopping every car and charging them green tax, and in the process making the traffic situation even worse. This is the money which is supposed to compensate for the pollution caused by the tourist cars. I wonder how that could ever happen in our supremely corrupt nation.

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Delightful views from one of the viewing points in Mahabaleshwar

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Crowds aplenty at the Table Land

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Para gliding at Panchgani

We were instantly put off by the rampant chaos and disorder throughout the town. After visiting one of the viewing spots, we decided to buzz off and instantly headed towards Pune. We couldn’t, however, resist having a brief stop at Panchgani with the parachutes flying around and offering a fabulous photo opportunity. Ditto for the table land, where we had to turn to click the Yeti with a grand backdrop.

With extremely well built four lane highways welcoming us after Wai village, all the way to Mumbai, the Yeti made an absolute mincemeat of the remaining distance. Even with fair traffic on our way back, with people heading towards Mumbai and Pune after their brief holiday, we managed an impressive Mumbai – Mahabaleshwar time of 4 hours.

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A look back at the memorable trip substantiated why we have always considered the Yeti 4×4 as one of the best vehicles in the sub 20 lakh category. It may look small from the outside, but its surprisingly capacious from the inside. Never did I hear anyone complain about comfort or space even while the occupants were being thrown around from one corner of the car to the other during our ferocious decent from Kumbharli Ghats. We had our grouse against the lack of a USB slot, but the provision for playing music via an SD card made up for the omission.

The build quality, the engine performance, the body behavior and the more than capable off-road gear makes the Yeti my personal choice if I had to keep only one car in my garage. The abominable snowman, like always remains one of my favorite cars across segments. A truely ambidextrous product!

JLR 3S facility in Pune
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