In our quest to find great driv­ing moun­tain passes, we may have just chanced upon the best of them all


We take the Tata Hexa on a road less trav­elled

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

The 2.2-litre turbo-diesel en­gine it shares with the Sa­fari is ca­pa­ble of heav­ing it along at a fair clip

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.

Get­ting here from our evo In­dia base­camp in Pune is a two day af­fair. Day 1 was a hard­core high­way run — down NH4 straight to Ban­ga­lore. 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 SUVMPV crossover makes for a re­ally com­fort­able tourer. The seats are 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 Con­nec­tNext 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 marked 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 time 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

hill 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

What makes the Hexa so ver­sa­tile is that it can take you be­yond tar­mac

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.L

Left: The Hexa might seat seven but with 4x4, it can tackle all kinds of ter­rain with ease

Right: When in ele­phant coun­try, watch out for pachy­derms. Be­low: Com­mand­ing SUV-like driv­ing po­si­tion makes the Hexa a joy to drive on high­ways

Right: Mul­ti­ple driv­ing modes, a unique fea­ture, in­cludes a Rough Road set­ting that re­duces ESP in­ter­ven­tion

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