Thursday, 11 October 2012

Ambassador Tour - One Helluva Trip

Well we did it, we completed our tour of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in a Hindustan Ambassador and I'm alive to tell the story.

Our lovely Amby
Forget parachuting out of planes, base-jumping, skiing off the side of mountains and swimming with sharks.  You don't know what an adrenaline sport is until you've driven a bashed up Ambassador with dodgy gears and brakes down 36 hairpin bends in a row whilst battling with trucks and buses that refuse to stop for anyone.  Sitting in the back of our chauffered car in Mumbai all this time, I had not quite appreciated the kind of heart stopping, nerve wracking and life threatening job our driver has to deal with on a daily basis.  Give that man a pay rise!

But this was an experience never to be forgotten - a truly unique holiday.  Apologies for the very long blog post.


One of the many crazy things your see on Indian roads!
The early evening view that greeted from the balcony of our first night's hotel in Calicut
Eight days of our twelve day holiday was spent driving through 1,200 kms of the most beautiful scenery in India - through the backwaters and tea plantations of Kerala, through the paddy fields of Karnataka and the mountainous Western Ghats which straddles these states.  We drove through rural villages where some people probably hadn't seen a white face since the last Ambassador tour had driven by a year ago, through the slow traffic of bustling towns, up and down mountains, through tiger reserves and across the flat plains of Tamil Nadu. We drove on organised tarmacked roads and we drove on disregarded tracks with more craters than the planet Mars.  At every turn was a different driving experience, a different view, a different flavour.  I loved it.



Tea pickers in the bushes near Munnar
But first we had to get to the point where we (or should I say Mr Jules) could operate a car such as an Ambassador. The first day we arrived at Calicut in Kerala, we had a day off to relax and start to get to know other people arriving to take part on the tour. In the evening, we had a private sit down dinner with all the other participants, Steve (tour leader and charismatic owner of Classic Car Journeys) and his team of organisers and helpers.  It was at this time that we were introduced to the route map and were given an in depth talk about what to expect on Indian roads (man did I feel sorry for anyone who had not previously driven on one!), health and safety, food safety, what was expected from us (road and maintenance 'etiquette'), a short talk on the Ambassador car itself - not the most modern or accessorised car ever built! - and we were then asked to draw a number out of a bag to determine which car we would take on.  Lady Luck picked No. 5 - our car for the duration.  We immediately went outside to have a look at her (I say her, as the organisers refer to the cars as 'old ladies' and they are about right!).  Of course all the cars were the same in reality, some older than others, one or two a colour other than white, but some would definitely have better braking and gears than other and some would definitely be cleaner inside than others. As it turned out, ours was one of the dirtier and less 'brakier' ones.  But this did not deter us.  It would all be part of the fun.
Steve and Dave going through the map on the first night


Sand dredgers on the backwaters at Calicut

The next day we took a slow drive from our hotel to a beach side location where we all stopped for lunch and a paddle and then went on to the bustling town of Calicut.  I wouldn't say she purred along...this is definitely a car with Emphysema. Anyway, the short drive helped us all get used to the mechanics of driving - with no power steering, soft braking, four gears, and no hand brake.  This meant that every time you parked on an incline, you needed a brick to stop you rolling backwards or forwards!  Surprisingly, I could see that most people were taking to the driving like ducks to water.  After getting used to the gears and the steering (this car is like a tank!), Mr Jules got along just fine  although I am sure that our experience of Indian roads helped us a little.


Colourful snack hut on the beach near Calicut
Mental support was plenty.  Dave, who is basically in charge of road safety, is an ex-police traffic officer with years of experience who has attended this tour for the last seven years.  Together with Steve, he gave us the low down every morning. He knows everything there is to know about Indian roads, the mechanics of the Ambassador and Indian driving psyche. He's quite a nature expert too!  We always kicked off the day with a briefing - a quick flick through the route-book to ensure no diversions or changes to the route, what to expect, what scenery and wildlife we might see en-route, how to handle the traffic and particularly pesky buses.  The buses were the most menacing and annoying of all vehicles we encountered.  They zoom past to overtake without regard for you or oncoming traffic, be it on a half made road, a 45 degree hairpin bend or a roadside full of school children. The sheer arrogance of the drivers takes your breath away and you take them on at your own peril - but it all adds to the adrenaline fix.
No 5.  She made it to the top of a mountain
The second day was another fairly gentle introduction to driving but a longish one - a drive from Calicut to the beautiful and famous Keralan city of Cochin.  It gave us a better flavour of driving on the Indian roads whilst getting to grips with the route book (my job which I have to say I did very well, we didn't get lost once!). We arrived at our Cochin hotel without incident (more about hotels on the tour later) but desperate to shower and drink beer.  You are driving at temperatures upwards of 32 degrees with no AC, the windows down and the sun streaming in.  The interior of our car was filthy - I don't think it had ever been washed in its long life and you are sucking in fumes from the traffic ahead the whole time.  By the time I got out of the car each evening, I felt as if I'd been coal mining without a mask for eight hours!  Yes, all part of the fun!


Worker at our hotel in Kumarakom
After a day off to explore Fort Cochin (snapping the famous Chinese fishing nets at sunset and doing some antique shopping in Jew town - I never miss an opportunity!), we had a pleasant 60 km meander from Cochin to Kumarakom in the Backwaters on the fourth day. Half way and desperate for a loo stop, we turned off into a boatyard where we did our pleasantries and then had lunch in an open air boat shaped restaurant.  As we sat there, one other couple turned in, and then another and then two more until there were five Ambassadors sat in the car park.  This amused me as we had all separately gone for the antiseptic option of loo and lunch rather than braving a local style road-side eatery.  As it turned out, the food wasn't that great.


Cochin Fisherman/Pirate
A beautiful sunset to be seen over a Chinese Cochin fishing net
So now for a quick mention of the other people on our tour. A great mix of people, mostly Brits - some who owned an array of fancy classics, some with a little classic car driving experience, some with none whatsoever (including Mr Jules), some who are just there for the ride and a fascinating tour of southern India. There was a variety of ages, backgrounds, personalities and circumstances. There were also several groups of four - with a couple of families with grown up children and two couples who had come together. This is not a holiday for wallflowers, as every breakfast and dinner is eaten with the other participants and it's a good idea to be sociable. I found it was a great opportunity to meet a different set of people and I think we have even made some long term friends (if they answer my emails haha!). 

The next day of driving presented us with a 240 km drive from Kumarakom to Munnar, a hill station
in the Western Ghats and around 8,000 feet above sea level.  This would be our longest day driving yet starting at 8am and ending around 5pm.  A challenge for any driver, I was worried about us both keeping up our concentration (including me, I couldn't afford to get us lost!).  But it was such a beautiful drive through the hills and through tea plantations - a landscape I had never seen before.  Everything was lush and green and dotted with bright orange flame trees and there were colourfully dressed tea-pickers peeking out from in amongst the bushes. As we got higher, the temperature got less and less.  After a few very sticky days in the Amby, this was most welcome.  Eventually we arrived at a hilltop hotel in Munnar and immediately went to find a beer.

Amazing flame tree in amongst the tea-bushes
Colourful gardeners by the side of the road - and their big boss
We didn't drive in convoy with the other participants - we were told to leave at a certain time, after the briefing and then aim to be at the other end by a certain time with your own choice of time and location for lunch stops.  Inevitably you would start with a few people in tow, then the gaps would widen, then people would stop to take photos or for a refreshing road-side chai and other would stop for longer in shops and restaurants.  Steve makes it clear that you shouldn't go 'off piste' as it will make it hard for his team to manage the group if anything goes awry.  I should mention that there is a team of four or five mechanics that drive along with the group the whole time, and who tune the cars every morning before you are even out of bed and who are there to ensure your drive is as comfortable as possible and wash the cars after a dusty drive (ummm....internal car valeting not one of those jobs!).  Despite the age of some of these cars very little went wrong - I think I know of only once case of a fan belt malfunction which was one kilometre from the hotel on the very last day!!  All credit to the team for this.  The day would end with each car joining back up, coming in five or ten minutes after each other.  Every time we were greeted by the organisers, asked to report any issues with the car and then we would be welcomed by hotel staff bearing cold flannels, fragrant garlands and cool drinks.  Lovely!


Early morning pre-drive checks of all vehicles at Munnar by the team of mechanics
The following day was the least favourite day of driving for Mr Jules and I. Another 240 kms to be completed in around eight or nine hours but in the open heat of the plains between Munnar and Coonoor across the border into Tamil Nadu.  The morning started beautifully with a descent down through the tea-plantations but across the plains all we could see were wind farms and coconut trees on a straight and boring road.  It got very warm and uncomfortable but I had to remind myself that part of this experience is its assault course nature. The rough with the smooth.  There wasn't even any bird spotting to be done and wildlife was thin on the ground.  Eventually we got to the place where we would start the ascent to Coonoor.  And the final 60 or so kilometres up a steep incline that was absolute driving hell.  Bend after bend, we chugged up whilst getting trapped behind slow moving construction vehicles (hundreds of them, I thought they must be building a town at the top of this hill!) whilst AT THE SAME TIME, being overtaken by buses that had no regard for anything coming around the hairpin. There were hundreds of young lads in small hatchbacks racing up the hill trying to overtake the buses that were overtaking the trucks...it was like a game of space invaders and we were the aliens.  Eventually we arrived at a nice heritage hotel where our room had fabulous deep marble bath! 

A tea-picker taking her bag of leaves in for weighing
Ooty (Ootacamund), the famous British Hill station was only 20 kms away from Coonoor and that is the drive that we did the next day, giving us a large chunk of the day off to explore the town.  Now Ooty is one of the places I always wanted to visit in India, having seen a documentary on it.  I knew this was where all the military wives fled to during the Raj era when it got too hot in town.  I envisaged charming British architecture, cute bungalows with verandahs and museums showcasing items from the time of British Rule.  I was kind of wrong...the whole town has been Indianised and the main hub is now a fairly unattractive city centre.  The area around our hotel including St Stephen's Church and the old high street containing Mohan's store and Higginbottoms bookshop still had traces of the old charm but the rest was pretty disappointing.  We did take a tuktuk to the Botanical Gardens which was like a mini Kew Gardens (I believe it was the same team that designed it) and I did manage to purchase myself a nice new pashmina in Mohans which cheered me up a bit.  We also had lunch at Fern Hill - a marvellous building where the British would go to entertain themselves in its ballroom and manicured gardens in days of old. 

Fern Hill - a reminder of the British era in Ooty (there were even authentic British rain clouds)
Random photo of a family group of Indian tourists having a day out at the Ooty Botanical Gardens
By this point we are getting near the end of the tour. I am starting to feel nervous about it coming to a close as we are having such a great time and we are really starting to get to know the others. So it's down to us to make the most of the last few days and enjoy everything we see, hear and eat.  But first we have to get down a mountain with 36 steeply inclined hairpins - whilst trying not to shut my eyes.  This was definitely the most scary part of the drive for me.  I don't have a great head for heights and I was not sure how our Ambassador would perform. Especially as Mr Jules had complained about the light brakes the day before and then we had been told at that morning's briefing to expect that the brakes would gradually diminish during the course of the descent!  Apparently there was an art to this which involved not constantly feathering the breaks but coasting along on the engine instead.  I am proud to say that Mr Jules managed this perfectly and after a nerve-wracking hour, we made it down to the bottom in one piece.

The rest of the journey to Mysore was a pleasant drive through wooded nature reserves and lush green post-monsoon paddy fields - a birdwatcher's delight for Mr Jules.  To name but a few, we saw cattle egrets, great egrets, black-headed ibis, black ibis, purple herons, painted storks, an asian openbill and a pelican.  Of course this meant that we had to keep stopping and starting to get the binoculars out but after all his hard work, I decided Mr Jules could have his twitching time. I even got quite into it myself, helping to take shots of newly identified birds which he could then use to look up in his special bird book later. BombayJules even spotted a black shouldered kite all on her own! Earlier that day driving through Mudumalai National Park, we also delighted in seeing elephants with their young ones, chittal deer, a mongoose, grey langur monkeys, Indian wild boar, jungle fowl and peacocks. Absolutely wonderful nature watching from the comfort of a rather dirty car seat.

Elephants with their young in Mudumalai National Park
178 kms on from Ooty found us at the gates of the hotel just oustide Mysore.  A jaw-dropping entrance to an outstandingly beautiful palace building.  I thought we'd taken a wrong turning.  But no, this was Steve's final surprise to his clients.  As we drew up to the portico, I felt like the new Duchess of Cambridge, but then had to remember that I was arriving in a black-with-dirt Amby and not a golden carriage.  But still, it was the closest I had been to such grandeur so I was going to make the most of it! 

Our hotel in Mysore!
You may be wondering why I have not mentioned the hotels we stayed in by name.  This is because Steve does not tell you what the hotels are before you start the tour and you only find out the names once you get the route-book. So I will therefore also not reveal the names, just in case anyone reading this decides to participate on the tour next year.  I wouldn't want to spoil the suprise.  Suffice to say that the hotels are a mixture of beautiful waterside properties, modern corporate (only one), government owned and old colonial style.  They are mostly 4 star, some with great service and food, some with not so great service and food.  90% of the hotels had character and are handpicked by the organisers to ensure decent parking for the 20 vehicles, and provide guests with a very decent standard of overnight stay. I very much liked all the hotels except for the one in Ooty where the service was very bad and the room reminded me of a Butlin's chalet. But again, it was all part of the charm of the tour. It was actually the two government run hotels that I enjoyed the most, including the palace hotel mentioned above.

We had another day off to explore Mysore the following day. For lunch we decided that we were totally curried out and shamefacedly took an auto-rick out of town to the nearest KFC.  I am sorry to say that it was the best Zinger burger I have ever tasted.  Apart from eating junk food, we also took a look around Mysore Palace, the most showy-off building I have ever seen - these Maharajas types spare absolutely no expense and make Buckingham Palace look like a London council block!  We also took a trip via a silk shop or two (or course I bought something, you don't need to ask!) then went back to the hotel to enjoy the swimming and bar facilities.



Mysore Palace - quite understated
Colourful dyes for sale at a market in Mysore
This trip was not just about the driving.  As well as not revealing which hotels you are going to stay at, Steve also does not tell you about all his little surprises.  It was incredible what we were able to pack in, in between bouts of motoring.  There was a sail in a house-boat on the Keralan backwaters, a visit to an elephant sanctuary, there was another beery boat trip in Cochin where we managed to get around it being a 'dry' day (no alcohol but you can drink if you are on the sea) complete with pink-sequinned dance troup, a night time tour to Mysore Palace to see the place being lit up like Harrods on steroids, a wonderful surprise steam train trip from Mettapalayam up to Munnar, a visit to a tea plantation and production line in Munnar, an excursion to a fascinating ancient temple after Ooty, a little magic show by a funny little man who also played a two stringed violin made out of coconut, not to mention our incredible first day send off complete with a nine man Keralan drum band and bejewelled elephant.  Hopefully I will not have ruined the content of next year's tour but I imagine Steve is a man that is always coming up with something new to impress his guests.  These things so made our holiday, the care and attention that Steve and his team gave us was really quite something.


Mysore Palace illuminated - even more understated!
Somnathpur Temple - an ancient and intricately carved wonder


On the mountain steam train to Coonoor
The very last day was a long 220 km drive from Mysore to Calicut.  This was a day that Mr Jules would be very excited about as it trailed through Wayanad Tiger Reserve.  Would we see one?  We had already seen plenty of elephants before on this tour.  We had also seen bonnet macaques, and the afore-mentioned langurs, deer, a mongoose and multitudes of birds.  But it was the tiger we were really interested in and something that got mentioned quite a lot by Steve and his team.  Of course there being only around 1,200 tigers left in the Indian wild it was going to be very unlikely.  Definitely unlikely, it was not to be, we didn't even see an elephant.  We later heard that one our fellow rallyer's Amby was nearly stampeded by an elephant in Wayanad and this was witnessed by others.  Ah well, there's always Bandhavgarth next year!

I shared my Cornetto with a macaque on the way to Mysore.
You should have seen the sugar rush he had after this!
So now the tour comes to a close.  We end up back at the same hotel we started from near Calicut - but this time our room is a wonderful waterside bungalow with a large terrace.  Gorgeous.  We are all in one piece and our car is in almost the same condition as when we left save for a boot that will not close. We are sorry and relieved at the same time that this is the last few moments with our Amby. I didn't even have chance to give her a name.

Were we totally incident free whilst on the road?  Of course every driver on this tour had a few close shaves - either when overtaking lorries when buses are coming full steam ahead at you, or when tuk-tuks pulled out across you without notice or people running across the road without looking.  All 'normal' activity - these things happened to us but nothing came close to touching our car and Mr Jules was skillful in avoiding touching anyone else's vehicle (phew!). For all the criticism of Indian drivers, they have a particular knack for not actually ending up in a bloody accident.  Having said that, we did see a couple of lorries and buses in ditches along the way and there has since been an article in the newspaper about a loaded bus hanging off a mountain in the Nilgiris and the passengers having to creep off the bus before it ended up plunging into a ravine!  The only other thing worth mentioning was that we and a few other drivers did get involved in a sit down demonstration which lasted an our and meant we had to stop our car in a huge line of traffic.  But that was fine because we just went and had lunch - ghobi manchurian with fried rice and two cokes for the princely sum of £2.50.  And very nice it was too!

Oh dear.  Bet it served him right though!
There are so many little experiences on this trip that money can't buy and are probably unique to India.  The amazement on the faces of schoolchildren as 20 Ambies with white faces in them drive by, the requests for photos when you step out of your car, the bewilderment of restaurant staff who have never seen a six foot Englishman step into their establishment before, seeing monkeys sitting on the walls of hairpin bends watching the traffic go by, waving paddy field workers, tea plantation pickers stopping to let you take their photo, villagers washing their hair on the banks of the backwaters, the endless haggling in silk shops, the experimentation with new foods. All the beauty, history and openness of India and its people.  Priceless!

Bath time at the elephant sanctuary - one blissed out nellie.
So, that final evening we share drinks by the pool with our fellow guests, eat dinner, do speeches, hand out prizes and say our goodbyes.  We all come away with (a not too easy to pack) glass trophy and copy of our Amby's number plate.  Again another lovely touch.  I will surely miss some of the great friends we have made over the coming days.

We are told by Steve about the rallies coming up in the next 12 months including an exciting trip in Rajasthan (unfortunately not in Ambies but in vehicles capable of taking on the desert) and nearly booked up jeep tours in Vietnam and the Himalayas.  Will we be tempted?  Watch this space!

Our tour was magnificently organised by Steve and his Classic Car Journeys team Dave, Chris, Prem and Ron. http://www.classiccarjourneys.co.uk/.  It was pricey but worth it. Everything is included except for lunches and fuel (about 4,000 rupees/£50 for diesel over 7 days driving//1175 kilometres).  Look out for Chris on the last night - she's a stunner in that sari ;-)

If you're interested in any of their trips, you can contact them directly by email info@classiccarjourneys.co.uk or by telephone +44 (0) 1458 224109  +44 (0)7831 477746.

I have so many fantastic photos I am not quite sure what to do with them all. Perhaps I will do another posting at some point with just photos.  Thanks for reading...hope you're still awake!

 

16 comments:

  1. I think you should write a book! Sounds like a most amazingly wonderful experience. I absolutely loved reading about your trip and the photographs are fantastic!
    Liz @ Shortbread & Ginger

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    1. Thanks Liz! We really did have a totally awesome time. Thank for the mention on your blog, I've just seen it. How cool is that! x

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  2. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog! Let's share some pics and keep in touch.

    Jo & Steve x

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    1. Hi Jo, missing you already! I would love to send some of the photos I have of you and Steve. In fact the car in my post - the one under the flame tree is your car. I don't have your email address or I can't retrieve it from this message so I will get it from Liz! Hope you're managing to relax post-rally...it was brilliant to meet you and Steve you really kept us all so entertained. I wish you both the best for your future and would be delighted to meet up again some day xx

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  3. brilliant....am quite transported..... i have travelled quite a bit in India and took my mum to visit friends of her's in Ooty a few years ago and then we went up to Goa where my friend lives so have taken tea at Fern Hill and swam at the hotel in Mysore and travelled through the forests of elephants too.......would love to go on one of these road trips!!

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    1. Hey Young at Heart, thanks for reading! It was a wonderful trip I can recommend it - especially to any one menopausal or post menopausal haha! I will write a few more posts about some individual places when I get time. bye for now!

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  4. I signed up to follow this blog and will come back and read more. I love to think of visiting a tea plantation, the spice markets and seeing elephants. I am leaving to go to church but will be back.

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  5. What a great read! And wonderful photos. You have a great touch in bringing the trip alive.
    We are in Shimla with the old folks, and really enjoying it, but we can't wait to do another of Steve's trips.

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  6. Fantastic account Julia - sounds like a wonderful trip. Next stop: Steve's website to see if we can fit in a similar trip before bay arrives...

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  7. Lovely pictures! Seems like a wonderful trip! I am daydreaming about it.

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  8. The car, not the tour
    http://mickyandrani.blogspot.in/2012/10/o-of-india-oct-2012-ambassador-cars.html

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  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  10. I just stumbled into your blog. (found in in blogexpat.com). It's great! I love it.

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    1. Thank you....your's is lovely too....great pictures!

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  11. Hi Jules. We did Steve's Kerala trip in 2009, loved it and did it again in 2010. We'd happily do it again too, but there are many other competing priorities. This is a trip that follows the same route each time, but experiences along the way are different and so it's easily repeatable. I wonder if Will and Lynda were with the group on your journey. They've done it five or six times. Reading your description brought back so many memories.

    We've done several other of Steve's trips - South Africa (no longer on this list), Vietnam (fantastic), Himalayas (awesome, but challenging for people like me without a great head for heights). We were booked for Rajathan this year but illness kept us at home - friends who went on it, after having been on the Kerala trip, said it was terrific and have booked to do the Peru trip in 2014.

    Steve and his team are all fantastic, not least because the organisation of the trips is very good and the backup support is remarkable. We made many friends on each trip and, of course, many people travel with Steve on multiple trips, so joining a new trip can be something of a reunion.

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    1. Hello Lyn, thanks for visiting my blog! Wow you really are a keen rallyer!
      Yes we wanted to do the Rajasthan one and loads of the others too but we will wait until we are back in the UK too. We really did have the best time ever on the Ambassador tour. Yes will and Lynda and their two daughters were on our trip but unfortunately Will was very unwell...I am not sure what the outcome was but I wish that family well. Steve was brilliant on our trip as well as the rest of the team. It was so memorable - even though we live in India. Mr Jules talks about it a lot which is unusual for him! Anyway, I wish you the best for your future exploits and thanks for dropping in! Best wishes BombayJules

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