Come summer holidays, come summer heat and dust….and the hills beckon. Those childhood memories of cool forest walks, playing under clear blue skies, eating at small roadside shops—it all comes flooding back, and its time to get the agenda ready for a quiet week in a quiet hill station. This is where Ranikhet comes in.
Though I strongly advocate visiting Ranikhet in every month except May and June, I know that for many readers, these are the only two possible months for coming out of the city. When you decide to make a trip and open” India’s Most Visited Website—irctc.com”, and find that there is no chance of getting a train reservation, that is when driving stories, like this one, stride in!
I do believe that the trains are the best option. Ranikhet Express ( board from Gurgaon, Delhi Cant or Old Delhi) and the Anand Vihar Shatabdi are a great way to travel. It all depends on whether early mornings departures irk you, or sleeping in berths and early morning arrivals bog you down. I prefer the night trip and driving up in the cold morning air, watching the mists rise up from Bhimtal lake, eating crisp pakodas for a mid-way snack and reaching home with the whole day in front of me.
However, today is about those times when with dim train options, the decision to drive up looks good. And it is a super drive. You will get a chance to skim over broad smooth highways, drive through forests and fields, sample good food and see small town living at close quarters. Of course, there are the few headaches of potholed sections, some stubborn trucks and sugarcane laden tractors. But that’s a tiny price to pay for the joy of driving away from city lights and smog!
Plan to begin your journey at 5 am, complete your packing at night and be on the road by 5.30 am. This is the best time slot for the driver, when the massive trucks leave the city roads, and the school buses still have to enter the traffic. The bonus reward is all about driving into a splendid sunrise near Hapur, after the city traffic has fallen behind and the cool morning mists are still surrounding the road.
Last month, the dogs and me drove back to Ranikhet in our little Ritz. It was a dream journey and I jotted down distances, time and toll payments on the way. I can describe and share this data with you, so that if you want to visit our hamlet, there will be signposts and directions to guide you.
Before the clock tolls 5 am, I begin driving from South Delhi and realise that driving through the wide empty roads of NOIDA saves me 45 minutes of driving time, makes me avoid 450 trucks near Akshardham and the Ghazipur Mandi, and keeps the frowns off my early morning face. Take the DND flyover, keep following the well marked roads (NH 24 connect), through clean colonies, slumbering small markets and quiet shanties and then reach the Highway after crossing Sector 62. Those 14 kms took 18 minutes of smooth driving with two happy dogs sniffing the morning air.
Highway driving means closing car windows, moving into 5th gear and keeping all senses on the road. Towns, flyovers, trucks, toll gates all pass by and after covering 112 kms in less than 2 hours, we stop at Gajrola for breakfast at 6.30 am (early start at 4.45 am has its advantages). Gajrola has a zillion options for your taste buds. You can toss between Bikanerwala and Macdonald, with Pizza Hut, Café Coffee Day, Tadka and a host of other newbie places. Tradition bound me drives unerringly to the neat Dhaba beside the Petrol Pump. We are welcomed with crisp stuffed Parathas, home-style dahi and achaar, strong coffee and a clean rest-room. It gets all the ticks in my required boxes.
30 minutes breakfast break over, and we drive the next 79 kms of the highway to reach the entrance to Old Rampur city. Its 8.30 am and the old-world charm of Rampur is yet to be crushed by the daily traffic and turmoil. We drive past the old town gates, admire the lovely shaded avenues which flank the road and feel the cool shadows of large mango-groves which line the 38 kms of good road till Suaar.
At 9 am, Suaar is getting its commercial act together. Shutters are opening up, rickshaws are being cleaned and the faithful are emerging from the temples and mosques. It is a tiny, non-descript town like the many towns which one zips past on any Indian highway. But at Suaar, if you continue zipping on the road, be warned—There are 6 kms of lunar surfaced road. No, it’s not a road, it’s a turbulent sea frozen into rocks and sand. 15 minutes of bumping through craters, emerging from pits, watching other vehicles dip and dive past you and wondering if it will ever get better, and then, like an ice-cream on a hot day, appears a smooth grey road at Bajpur.
Bajpur is in the midst of a mixed forest. There are shades of green and brown in the dense foliage, passing scents of flowering branches and busy groups of foraging monkeys. Traffic is scarce and it’s 54 kms of winding roads, peaty smells and little hamlets till we take the plunge into the crowds of Haldwani. The 8kms of busy business areas, shops and bazaars, rickshaws and luxury cars took an hour of slow driving with quick reflexes. Kathgodam, the quiet twin town of Haldwani, is the place to bid farewell to the flat plains and their frantic pace of life. It is 11 am, 6 hours after our departure, and I can now open the windows, allow the dogs to sniff the fresh air and school myself to drive in 3rd gear and use the horn at every twist and turn.
An hour and 15 minutes of driving takes us past the shimmering and serene Bhimtal Lake. The road to Naukuchiyatal snakes up on the other side and vanishes into the town market. We drive past acres of new construction—staff quarters, government departments, management institutes and large nurseries. A tiny road to Sat-taal branches quietly to the left and then we drive through Bhowali, the turning for Nainital, the Anchal Diary depot, a big petrol pump, Garden Estate and Niglat. Names which are now as familiar as the names of the local veggies!
Breaking for lunch at Kainchi Dhaam is a family tradition for decades. Its noon and there is ice-cold nimbu-jal-jeera-soda waiting for me. The dogs get their special rotis and I have aalo parathas with that tasty cucumber-mustard-raita which only the hill folks can prepare. 30 minutes of catching up with the hotel staff and allowing them to take the dogs for a walk, packing some pakodas for tea ( I cannot refuse that offer under any pretext—the staff would be devastated) and listening to the temple bells chiming..and I am ready to drive the last 45 kms to reach home.
I drive through forests and landslide prone roads from Kainchi to Ranikhet. Past Khairna and its crowded bus and taxi stand, past the Kosi River crossing and driving along the gurgling river till the steep mountains take over. Little villages with rose bushes, cows, chubby kids and hard-working women pass by and we cross the final toll gate to enter Ranikhet Cantonment. Past the Military Hospital, the Kumaon Regimental Center, Sadar Bazaar, Gorkha Regiment Lines till the apartments loom up with the backdrop of the mighty Himalayas.
Its 50 minutes past 1 pm and I bring the car to a halt. The guards are waiting with welcoming smiles, Kajal and Tinku-Tiger stand with wagging tails and we emerge from our dusty steed. I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with that pine-scented air and smile. I am home!!
And here’s hoping you have reached Ranikhet too! So where do you stay?! Ah ha—that’s another story . Wait for me to post my favorite places next time.