TOYOTA RIVER DRIVE
In the fourth edition of our River Drive series, we work our way up from Allahabad on the eve of the Maha Kumbh towards Gangotri along the Ganga. This time in the hot-selling Fortuner
Gangotri in winter? We just had to go anyway for that’s the only way to discover the story of the Ganga as it flows up from Prayagraj
THE SECTION OF THE NH 7 CONNECTING Rishikesh and Devprayag is absolutely horrid. A paced-up road widening project has left the existing patch of tarmac with a million potholes, uneven surfaces and gravel along the length and breadth of the road. Truly, till the time that the road project is completed it’s an ‘all pain and little gain’ situation. I saw vehicles struggle to get past. And then there was our Toyota Fortuner 4x4, surging past the traffic with dominance. It was unstoppable and indifferent to the bad roads as we headed north and up the Himalayas along the tumultuous Ganga. We reached Devprayag covering a distance of 75km in just under two hours. And welcoming us was the breathtaking sight of the Bhagirathi-Alaknanda confluence. From here on, the Bhagirathi becomes the Ganga.
Last month we drove the wonderfully calm and sophisticated Toyota Corolla Altis all the way from South Bengal where the Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal to the Triveni Sangam in Allahabad where she swells with the tribute of the Yamuna. This month, we start our journey from that same confluence and head to the Himalayas, tracing her route as we attempt to reach Gangotri. At 3,415m (11,204ft) above mean sea level, it is where the road ends. If you wish to continue to the very spot where the Ganga emerges from under the Gangotri Glacier, you will need to walk the last treacherous 18km to Gaumukh. Gangotri is also well above the snow line, so trying to get there without 4WD is asking for trouble. In fact there is so much of the white stuff at Gangotri that the Ganga temple in fact is actually moved down south to a placed called Mukhba in winter.
With the Toyota Fortuner 4x4, with all its go anywhere abilities and Toyota’s legendary reliability, as our choice of wheels we were sorted at least on that count.
Three days before we reached Devprayag however we were at Allahabad, now Prayagraj, on the eve of the Maha Kumbh that happens once every dozen years. I had been here just a few weeks ago but now teeming with millions of devotees, pilgrims, tourists, photographers, security personnel and what have you, the city was unrecognisable. Also, somewhat disorienting from the sheer number of tent cities that had sprung up like mushrooms to accommodate the 15 crore human souls who had descended on the Sangam City in search of salvation.
Legend tells us that 2,000 years ago, when the gods and demons fought for a pot of Amrut (nectar of immortality) for 12 years, four drops fell at Ujjain, Nashik, Haridwar and Prayagraj where we were battling traffic and a burgeoning human sea.
Thankfully, half the battle is won by the Fortuner’s sheer size and presence, while the other half you don’t really care about because you’re too damn comfortable in that spacious and well-appointed cabin. Besides, when the roads were blocked off we just drove on to the sandbank as we headed for the confluence for our photo op.
Photo done, we were keen to get out of Prayagraj, before it got any more crowded and were soon on the highway to Kanpur. At Kanpur we discovered a shocking reality. In spite of all the worshipping and religious and cultural significance of the river, The Leather City of the World – Kanpur, dumps millions of litres of polluting effluents into the Ganga each year. So acute is the problem, a local we met told us that tanneries and meat factories are forced by the government to shut down for the duration of the Kumbh. Hopefully, with increasing awareness about the detrimental environmental impact, development authorities will realise sooner than later that conservation is needed through the year.
The following day we reached Haridwar after a 650km journey. We passed through the brilliant Agra-Lucknow expressway when happy snapper Rohit became sleepy snapper Rohit and had one of his best, and probably longest, naps on the drive. While we already knew that the Fortuner was super comfortable, Rohit’s gentle snores announced to the world, more us actually, that we were right. At the same time the 175bhp and 420Nm from that 2.8-litre turbo-diesel ensured uninterrupted power supply for our purposeful mile munching.
As soon as we reached Haridwar, we visited the Har ki Pauri ghat. It’s believed that Lord Shiva released the Ganga from the locks of his hair at this spot. The name as a matter of fact literally translates into ‘Lord Shiva’s footsteps’. Those not interested in the mythology will find solace in the fact that the Ganga exits the rough Himalayan region at this spot and enters the plains.
The next morning, we were to meet a bunch of adventure driven Toyota Fortuner customers in Dehradun. So off we went, covering the 51km in just about an hour to rendezvous with assistant ed Aninda. A quick session on Better Driving and Off-roading followed post which we, and the customers, headed to Maldevta, a small town on the banks of the Song river, a tributary of the Ganga. Its dried-up river bed makes for an excellent off-roading venue and a perfect place to flaunt the Fortuner’s off-roading prowess. A leftward nosedive onto our trail was tricky and required spotting. Easing its way through this rocky patch, our convoy of Fortuners then crossed the river which was filled with slippery rocks, pebbles and plenty of large stones. With 4WD high mode switched on, our convoy crossed the river and also eased through the sandy trail on the
opposite side. “I always wanted a strong 4X4 SUV and the Toyota Fortuner is a perfect choice,” said R K Joshi, a captain in the merchant navy and a fan of big and stylish SUVs like the Fortuner.
After a night spent in Rishikesh, here we were in Devprayag. Standing there at the water’s edge it is hard to imagine the wide and placid river of the plains that I had seen last month as this, a roaring jumping tide of water rushing down the Himalayas. I could have stood there for hours, but a word of caution. Winter is just about peaking and temperatures fall drastically after sundown. So if you have no great desire to form a new glacier at Devprayag, it’s best to head to the safety of Uttarkashi, the next big town where you will find decent accommodation.
With the mercury plummeting, we couldn’t be more thankful for the Fortuner’s excellent climate control that kept us toasty. Before we reached Uttarkashi however, there was one more stop. The massive dam at Tehri. The dam’s reservoir spans a massive 52sq km while the dam itself is the largest, tallest and the highest in India. From then on there would be nothing but treacherous narrow roads maintained by the brave souls of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO).
At 1,165m (4,436ft) above mean sea level, it’s at Uttarkashi that things begin to get really interesting The first thing that shocked us
hardy adventurers was the sheer devotion of the people who live in this town literally named Kashi (another name for Varanasi) of the North. Our hotel receptionist, for instance, left us gobsmacked as he went off to take a dip in the freezing Bhagirathi. It was seven in the morning, the outside temperature was -2 degrees Celsius, we were dying for a cup of hot tea but no. The man had to have his dip first! Priorities I tell you.
Admiring the man’s fortitude, and shivering from the cold like a bunch of epileptics, we clambered into the familiar cosiness of our Fortuner. Today was going to be the big day when we would make the final climb to Gangotri. We had driven the SUV on seamless highways, taken it off-roading and bashed the bad roads of the NH 7 with all its eagerness. But now it was time to drive it on snow!
Soon enough, we found ourselves in 4H with traction disappearing faster than smoke on a windy day. But the Fortuner inspires so much of confidence that my initial gingerness gave way to a cautious but confident style. The tyres gripped hard and the heft of the SUV helped attain more traction, crushing snow, black-ice, pebbles, whatever came beneath, progressing with poise and authority. We even helped a few unfortunate souls who had brought their front-wheel drive hatchbacks on these snow-covered roads.
Our smooth and steady progress however came to a grinding, or perhaps crunching, halt at Harsil. Eighty kilometres north of Uttarkashi, at 7,860ft (2,620m) the gods decided that we would go no further. With massive snowfall having blocked the road ahead, the Indian Army and its BRO refused to let us carry on. So there we were, less than 20km from our destination, with Gangotri almost shimmering like a tantalising haze in our imagination, having literally run out of road. A classic case of man proposes, god disposes. But it does give me another great reason to come back here, don’t you think? ⌧
Above: Flaunting the go-anyhwere attitude onthe dry riverbed of the Song river. Facing page,top: The BhagirathiAlaknanda confluence in Devprayag. Centre, left:Comfy ergonomics means Vishal didn’t need breaks.Right: Have Fortuner, will hit trails. Bottom left Glimpse of the world’s largest temporary tent city. Right: Fortunermeets Tehri dam
Above: Fun in a Fortuner is when you’re flat out on a dirt trail. Bottom: Har kiPauri ghat in Haridwar, where Lord Shiva released the Ganga from the locks of his hair. Facing page: The Fortuner basks in the reflected glory of its off-road prowess
Above, top to bottom: Assistant ed Aninda’s session on Better Driving; quick photo opp with Captain Samaresh Singh, dealer principal of Trust Toyota, Dehradun, before flag off; Fortuner owners learn to make their own road