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Five ultimate road trips (and which car to take them in!)

An auto writer lists out his favourite drives in dream machines to drool over.

brunch Updated: Oct 15, 2016 19:40 IST
Spiti

The stunning landscape at Queenstown, New Zealand. (Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta)

I begin with a disclaimer: This is not a definitive list of the five best road trips in the world. It would take many lifetimes of travel to make an authoritative list like that. It is however a collection of five of my favourite road trips from India and around the world.

The crazy winter adventure to Spiti

If you’re looking for some hardcore, and I mean really chill-your-bones-and-freeze-the-skin-off-your-face kind of hard-core winter adventure, then head to the Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh between December and March.

Spiti in Himachal Pradesh is snow-bound and offers great treks as well

The road to Spiti is not very high, so though it snows, it doesn’t get snow-logged. But temperatures go down to -30 degrees and there are places where the road and the mountainside are so white, they merge, so you have to be cautious.

The Buddhist temple of Dhanker Gompa in Spiti

This road trip goes from Shimla to Kaza via Rampur, Rekong Peo, Jangi and Tabo. You can break journey at Rampur, Pooh, Tabo and Kaza. To make things more adventurous, visit the homestay in the village of Kibber where the temperatures indoors hover around -5 degrees. Go for a snow walk and try to spot the snow leopard that’s often seen here. It warrants repeating, this is an extreme winter trip and it can go awfully wrong if you are not well-prepared and extremely careful.

The car: Few cars available in India can handle extremes like these as well as the Toyota Fortuner. It turned out to be the ideal choice.

The Bavarian and Austrian Alps

I was on a business trip in Germany with a three-day weekend between meetings. The weather was fabulous and since the Alps are just a short distance from Munich, a road trip seemed a good idea. Elite Rent-a-car, specialising in super experiential driving trips, assured me that they had just the weekend package I was looking for. And it included a gleaming red Ferrari California.

The town of Kitzbuhel on the trip across the Bavarian and Austrian Alps.

The main purpose of this weekend trip was not to sightsee or walk quiet wooded trails. Rather, my intention was to spend as much time with the car as possible, ears ringing with its exhaust howl and nostrils filled with the scent of burnt gasoline and rubber.

I put that Ferrari through its paces on the Autobahns in Bavaria and on the twisty alpine roads in the Tyrol region of Austria. After fun-filled kilometres at the wheel, I stopped at Kitzbuhel for the night. The next day I pointed the nose of the Ferrari towards Munich going flat out past three stunning lakes – Achensee, Sylvenstiensee and Walchensee.

I don’t think my pulse ever fell below 160bpm that entire weekend.

The red Ferrari California that the writer drove for his road trip in Germany

New Zealand’s South Island

This roadtrip that goes from Christchurch to Kaikoura to Arthur’s Pass to Franz Joseph to Queenstown to Milford Sound to Mount Cook National Park and back to Christchurch is one of my favourites. The 2,300km distance may seem daunting, but here the drives are the destination. Thoroughly therapeutic and beautiful, it would be a sin not to explore this island at the wheel of a car.

Kaikoura is where you watch 20m-long whales just 10 feet away and get some of the best lobsters in the world. Hike a glacier at Franz Joseph, marvel at deep blue lakes around Queenstown and take an overnight cruise on the emerald green waters of Milford Sound.

The car: I had Toyota RAV4 which was fun, but any car that you feel is fun to drive will do. A convertible is even better.

Over the Sach Pass to the Pangi Valley

This is probably Himachal’s best kept secret and the shortest road from Manali to Kashmir or the Chamba Valley. A walking track for years, it has recently been widened to accommodate vehicular traffic. Be warned that this road is not for the fainthearted. It goes from Dalhousie to Bairagarh to the Sach Pass to Killar to Cherri to Udaipur (yes there is an Udaipur in Himachal too) and finally over the Rohtang to descend into Manali.

You need to be prepared to camp if the PWD guesthouses at Bairagarh, Killar or Cherri have no rooms to spare. The chowkidars will let you camp on the spacious lawns. They will also give you access to washrooms and a changing room. Rooms when available are usually `500 or so.

The Sach Pass is the highlight of this trip and you should leave Bairagarh early and take your time crossing it as the views are fabulous. The descent into the Pangi Valley is a beautiful drive and once you get to Udaipur, 55km from Cherri, take a detour and the road to the Miyan Valley. Drive this road for 20km and camp at Urghos, a very pretty village.

The car: The Audi Q5 2.0 TDI was the car I used, though I would have preferred the version with the 3-litre engine. This car made it through without any great difficulty.

Through South Africa’s Mpumalanga province

South Africa is known for its stunning Garden Route Drive, but Mpumalanga is its hidden gem. It is South Africa’s smallest province and, rather than flying from Johannesburg to Kruger National Park like most visitors do, I opted to drive. I found it perfectly safe. The highlights of this scenic drive are traversing the Drakensburg Range, the fantastic fly fishing at Dullstrom, lovely waterfalls and natural swimming holes near Sabie, some lip-smacking pancakes at Harrie’s pancakes in Graskop and – the prize at the end – the Kruger National Park and the Sabie Sands Private Game Reserve.

A rhino makes a perfect picture at the Kruger National Park, South Africa

Driving in the Kruger Park I would tend to forget that I was in a place inhabited by wild animals because it looked so much like driving through a forested region in India. But suddenly I would come across a huge elephant or a rhino blocking the road instead of a harmless cow and happily realise where I was. I was even fortunate to have a lion look into my car.

It is about 600km from Johannesburg to Kruger along this route and the trip can be done over three days.

The car: I hired a Hyundai i20 for this drive and it was perfect for the roads.

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From HT Brunch, October 16, 2016

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