Toyota Urban Cruiser road trip to Gandikota | India's Grand Canyon
There's a scene in the movie Into the Wild, where the protagonist paddles down the Colorado river in his kayak. As the river snakes through the part of Arizona where the force of flow has carved the Grand Canyon, it gets extremely rough. The ride, as the waves crash and tumble as the river twists through the canyon is an adventure that brings out the famous line — “If we admit that human life could be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed.” In that spirit of adventure, making no reasonable sense at all, we strapped on our seatbelts in the Toyota Urban Cruiser and drove north from Bangalore in search of our very own Grand Canyon.
It’s a simple start to a road trip I wasn’t prepared to even imagine. The double carriageway NH44 that connects Kashmir to Kanyakumari takes us north for about 90km from the airport. It’s a beautiful highway with well-marked lanes, sparse traffic and no major towns along the way. I set the Urban Cruiser on cruise control all the way to the diversion. But for a few slow moving trucks that required a tap on the brakes, it was one smooth drive until there. First impressions were of a planted SUV. The ride is so sorted to tackle the few undulations on the highway. There we left the national highway behind and drove into the hinterland which included a mix of state highways and connecting roads. As you drive deeper into Andhra Pradesh, leaving the more developed Karnataka behind, you will notice fewer towns, more villages and a lot fewer places to stop along the way and a lot more spice in the food. The internal roads and state highways turned out to be quite smooth though. We could maintain similar speeds after the turn off, mainly due to the planted ride quality of the Urban Cruiser. On these roads, while the surface was mostly smooth, you will encounter some nasty potholes and speed breakers as you approach every village. You will require some quick manoeuvring, some heavy braking and sharp reactions for the occasional animal crossing. The Toyota Urban Cruiser takes this well in its stride, the brakes are progressive and have good bite and the steering has got just the right weight to inspire confidence in corners. The compact SUV has the road manners of vehicles a segment higher. In fact, the minute you sit in the driver’s seat of the SUV, it feels like a proper rugged vehicle built to tackle our roads.
A smooth highway like the NH44 requires no off-roading and has no potholes but we knew there were rough roads in store as we ventured deeper into Andhra Pradesh. After turning off NH44, you drive for another 120-odd kilometres until you hear Google Maps tell you that you are on Tadipatri-Jammalamadugu highway. This final 50km stretch was straight out of a dream. It reminded me of the roads I’d seen at Lake District in the UK. These are some of the finest driving roads there with a landscape fit for fantasy films. That tongue twisting highway in AP is no less, without a single word of exaggeration. Here the 1.5-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine was revving higher as we flew through the fast sweeping corners. It’s got ample power and torque — 103bhp and 138Nm to maintain good pace, and the four-speed auto ’box ensured I was focusing on steering and enjoying the landscape. The pick up is smooth and linear as the Urban Cruiser builds pace, and everytime we brake for a speed breaker or a poor stretch of road, the linear power delivery brings you back up to triple-digit speeds with ease. It’s one of those drives that put a smile on my face that just wouldn’t go away. So far so good, but I was yet to see anything that reminded me of adventure. It’s a lovely drive to the middle of nowhere, that’s all.
The highway reached a small village about 12km before Gandikota. We turned left, passed a few houses and then the landscape dramatically changed. The road dipped and climbed and curled through fields marked by red rock fences, there were no tall trees to obstruct the view and then we climbed a little higher to see a reservoir holding the water of the Penna river in it. It’s a game of hide and seek with the road, every twist revealing something new. The Urban Cruiser is fun to drive on these roads. The SUV makes for an involving drive as you turn in and out of each corner, maintaining good pace and poise on such switchbacks. The wind speed was high as there were no obstructions for hundreds of kilometres on all sides and then we saw a few small hills in the distance with wind mills frantically generating electricity. Still no sign of the gorge or even a road sign that would lead us to what is famously called the Grand Canyon of India.
We saw a fort in the distance. As we inched closer, the red granite stone fort looked like it had spilt over onto the surrounding landscape. The stone is naturally cut in slabs, layers of granite in the foreground that gradually slopes to a steep drop. I saw hatchbacks of a few tourists parked in the distance. We decided to venture further into this rocky landscape. The Urban Cruiser has 198mm of ground clearance and the gearbox has two lower ratios that are ideally used for steep hill climbs or starting up on a gradient; however, the low down torque came in handy on this small bit of off-roading. It helped us inch closer to the edge. The SUV tackles the rough rocky terrain without breaking a sweat. It’s not just the ground clearance, it’s the suspension set up, the build quality and the fact that I’ve got Toyota’s 3 year/1,00,000km warranty to bank on that allows me to venture into places like this without worry. And then we saw it, the gorge in its entirety, a steep drop next to an almost dry river waiting to fill up as the monsoons commence, and an equally steep layered wall on the other side made of the same red granite rock.
You place a picture of Gandikota next to the Grand Canyon in Arizona and you will realise why it adopts the American name. The length of the gorge isn’t as much but a walk to the adjacent fort and a trek up the stack of stones that lead to the edge of the fort reveal the chilling gorge as it bends through the landscape. It’s an intimidating sight when the water levels are low as it shows how deep the gorge is. In the monsoons, the water level would be a lot higher, going by the depth of the gorge. We happened to visit on an overcast day, with the sun occasionally peeping through the clouds. On clearer days when the sun hits the red granite rock, the glow at sunset is even more breathtaking is what we were told. This is a relatively unknown place, even for people from AP. For how beautiful Gandikota is, it’s a surprise that it isn’t a tourist destination. Only a state tourism-run resort and a few camping sites are available to stay the night, which makes it difficult to travel to. No wonder we drove on empty roads to get to this village. The fort has a small settlement inside it and you can drive right in until you reach a temple and a walkway. Back in its glory days, the fort was a power centre for several dynasties. The natural protection this river and gorge provides and the clear line of sight in all directions makes it a perfect location for a walled city. It’s now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.
Driving through the narrow lanes of the fort, the Urban Cruiser proved how easy it was to manoeuvre through such tight streets. You get a good sight line from the height adjustable driver’s seat, the large green house gives a commanding view of the surroundings and the rugged body cladding on the sides of the SUV ensures I’m not panicking at the scraping against a few shrubs on the side of the road. We were a group of friends with more than a weekend’s luggage in the boot and found the trip to be very relaxing. 328 litres of boot space is ample for such a trip, and with the folding rear seats, it can be a whole lot more. Comfortable seats, easy to access Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a quality music system and automatic climate control, the Urban Cruiser also has all the features to make a road trip even more enjoyable. It was a beautiful drive to the middle of nowhere in Andhra Pradesh, until we reached the gorge and then it became an unforgettable drive. It surprises me that Gandikota isn’t more popular. It evokes that feeling of awe you seldom experience in this part of the country. As for the Urban Cruiser, it fit in just as well out there in the hinterland as it does in the urban jungle.