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We take our trusty Renault KWID to explore the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Maharashtra
The roads were getting narrower and the forest was getting closer as we drove along the edge of the Koyna river during the twilight hours. It was past sunrise but that was doing precious little to help with the darkness that the fog had created around us. That’s precisely when Sachin, our photographer, asked me to stop and let him out for a quick picture. Now, we usually aren’t too perturbed about stopping on an isolated road in pitch black darkness. Call us crazy, but thousands of kilometres of driving the length and breadth of this country has made us so. But this was different. Through the thick blanket of fog, I had seen a sign, not too long ago, that said, “Please stop for animals to pass.” That, along with a conversation I’d had with a local the previous night about the sizeable number of leopards in the Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary ensured that I kept the gear knob on D and my foot on the brake. This, I hoped, wasn’t going to be too long a wait.
I have to admit, I have a soft corner for the Renault KWID to Countryside series. And I have good reason to. These drives often take us to unexplored places in the hinterlands of our country. And more often than not, these places are just a stone’s throw away from our cities. But somehow very few people end up exploring them. This time, we set out to the Koyna Wildlife sanctuary in my trusty long-term KWID without a plan; just a desire to explore as much of the place as possible.
Giving Sachin and me company was Aditya, who was videographing our journey. Now, before we get into how the drive was, a little background is necessary. The Koyna wildlife sanctuary is a natural world heritage site located in the Satara district of Maharashtra. Nestled deep in the Western ghats, it covers an area of more than 420 sq km. The Koyna river that flows through the sanctuary is popular due to the Koyna hydroelectric power plant that has been constructed on it (the largest hydroelectric plant in the country). It also forms the catchment area for the Koyna River, and the Shivsagar reservoir formed by the Koyna dam. As a result, the forests around the region are supplied by water throughout the year. Add to that, the Western ghats that border the region on both sides ensure that rain clouds stay there longer, leading to more rainfall. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most biodiverse regions in the country with a wide variety of flora and fauna.
Starting off from Pune in the wee hours, we gave the traffic a miss and settled into a steady driving rhythm on the highway. The ride, as we are familiar with, remained composed and that composure was particularly useful as we encountered the numerous unexpected potholes on the NH4. Road works going on for the better part of a decade mean that there were a fair share of diversions, which required us to often come down to crawling speeds from highway pace. Thankfully, the brakes on the Kwid did their job commendably, even on wet, slippery roads.
After close to a hundred kilometres, we got off the highway at Wai to head towards Mahabaleshwar enroute to Tapola – our first destination. The usual touristy lot heading to Mahabaleshwar ensured that we found traffic on the narrow roads leading to Panchgani and then to Mahabaleshwar. The AMT transmission with creep function in the KWID ensured that overtaking slow-moving cars was not a problem.
Although Mahabaleshwar does look absolutely stunning in the rains, we were after something different. Driving through the town centre, we soon found ourselves on the road to Tapola. And this is where the drive took on a completely different dimension. The fog that was there in the background all through Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani was now front and centre. The roads now had zero motorists and we proceeded to have one of the most incredible drives I had ever had. Google Maps told us that it would take roughly three quarters of an hour to get there. But we ended up taking twice that partly because of the thick fog and partly because we couldn’t help but stop and stare at the dozens of amazing vantage points that look down onto the valley. All through the way, the handling of the KWID was put to the test by twisty roads and the KWID responded by standing up to the challenge and delivering flawlessly.
The small hamlet that is Tapola sits on the edge of the Shivsagar lake and offers the most majestic views of the region. The locals call Tapola ‘mini Kashmir’ and I can’t fault them. It is stunningly beautiful. We waited till it was almost dusk and decided to give the Mahabaleshwar-Tapola route another go. This time, things were very different. From low we now had zero visibility. We needed a navigator with Google Maps saved on his phone. Sachin took up that role and we slowly, cautiously made our way back to Tapola. “Slight left followed by hairpin on the right.” The music was turned down and Sachin took on the role of a rally navigator sounding off directions like this for the next couple of hours as we gingerly got ourselves back to Mahabaleshwar. The fog lamps on the KWID aided us with their good intensity increasing our visibility.
A conversation with the locals at Tapola the previous night had told us of a route that very few people know about. We wanted to know if there was a way we could take a boat to the east with the KWID to Kaas plateau. And luckily for us, the locals put us in touch with a ferry operator who agreed to take us. Since this wasn’t a regular ferry route, the road leading up to it was lined with huge rocks. But the KWID’s high ground clearance allowed us to tackle them with ease.
On the other side, we found another set of great roads, unexplored and full of deliciously tight corners that we enjoyed driving on. The KWID’s accurate steering and compact proportions allowed us to take those corners with confidence. A dozen or so hairpins later, the Kaas plateau came into view and our timing was perfect. The flowers were in full bloom and as far as the eye could see, the plateau was covered in flowers of all hues. We wanted to stop with the KWID and spend a few moments there. But, the forest department doesn’t allow cars to stop there anymore. Slowly, we eased down to the chaos of Satara city. Our drive was coming to an end but there were some lingering thoughts. Why don’t we do this more often? And to think that we don’t live that far away either! The crew and I pledged to come and explore more of the region in the near future with our trusty KWID for company. Oh, and if you are wondering, we were in fact intercepted by some animals on the way to Tapola. Thankfully, it was a group of monkeys who demanded all our bananas, and we happily obliged.