Driving the Land Rover Discovery Sport to the Escape Road in Vattavada
The sun had set when we reached the forest department check post of Pampadum Shola national park driving our Land Rover Discovery Sport. No vehicle is allowed to cross in to the Koviloor road once the sun sets, unless you’re staying on the other side of the forest road. As night falls elephants, tigers, bison and leopards come out to play, mist blankets the landscape and the cold warns you to keep your wits about you. We are headed for a log cabin on the other side of the forest, climbing further up from Munnar to a village called Vattavada. The guard lets us enter the forest with a stern warning to not stop our Land Rover Discovery Sport or use its excellent high projection beam through that short stretch. I love it when there’s some hostility in the air, it brings out your sharpest instincts, you notice every detail and you focus so hard on the task ahead that driving a few kilometres at moderate speed feels like an achievement.
Exploring India’s Rubicon in the Land Rover Discovery Sport, click here for full story
To the ‘escape road’ in Land Rover Discovery Sport
The check post is at a strategic location with two routes, a tarmac one turning left into the forest to Vattavada and a broken trail heading straight up. No one notices the latter and you aren’t allowed to drive there anymore so it’s of no real importance to anyone. But I’ve been reading about Japanese WW II stories in the past month, as you will notice from a few stories in these winter months at evo India, and the story of this closed road is another one of those classics. South India may not have seen any WW II action but the Brits were prepared for a Japanese invasion in South India and, hilariously, were scared enough to build a road through the forest of Kerala and Tamil Nadu to drive straight from Munnar to Cochin, hop on to a ship at the port and run to the queen. It was unashamedly called the ‘escape road’.
At the highest road in South India Land Rover Discovery Sport
This escape road at its highest point was 8140 feet above sea level, the highest road in India south of the Himalayas, and was at its treacherous best even back then. For the soldiers to rest during this 230km road from Kodai to Cochin (it’s 300km now as the escape route is shut), transit camps were built every 15km. One apparently still exists near the Berijam lake on this escape route. While this road has been shut for a decade and a half, Vattavada is almost as high up and the trails near this village are excellent viewing points to the mountain that the escape road ran across. Every road that leaves the bitumen behind is a 4×4 trail in and around the tea estates of Kerala but there are a few such routes in Vattavada that could well be almost as high up as the Escape road.
Punch of the Land Rover Discovery Sport
I was banking on the Land Rover Discovery Sport’s robust underbody protection to take on the mounds between the rutted trails. While these are hardened soil tracks with grass growth on its spine, the occasional rock does appear. A little bit of slip and slide of the Land Rover Discovery Sport was a part of the game but traction is always there to find as the mud and ruts mode of the Discovery Sport controls torque to absolute precision and activates hill-hold so you don’t go sliding back down a slope. As long as the throttle application is gentle, there are no surprises. We had the petrol Land Rover Discovery Sport on this trip with the smooth and strong 2-litre Ingenium engine. Its 237bhp and 340Nm on tap and light 4-cylinder rumble makes the Sport a charming SUV for our roads, but it’s even nicer when the roads end and the trails start. I can’t remember the last time I went off-roading in a petrol SUV and had enough torque to actually enjoy the rough stuff. That makes the Disco Sport special. It’s a soft-roader with a deep desire to get dirty, one wheel in the air, nose tilted to bend in to the trail and tail up like a dog’s playful bow. The trails take you down tea valleys and forests and climb up to the top where dramatic views of the layers of mountains around Vattavada are as captivating as it can get. The greens have multiple shades and the sky makes the colours and clouds dance to its tunes. Migratory birds make it their winter home when the Himalayas are covered in snow and wild animals stroll around the village quite often as human interaction with them is still quite minimal.
High up here, as we manage the Land Rover Discovery Sport over trails that require proper rock crawling and axle articulation cred, it gives a little bit of an understanding about the crazy escape road the Britons built. The 4x4s in those days were light and nimble and could somehow manage to climb up trails that only guys on foot would otherwise attempt. A transit camp every 15km speaks about how tough it was to crawl through these parts, and to assume the Japs were crazy enough to invade the south of India and then put their army through this challenge seems quite silly in hindsight.
What’s crazier is that there is this village settlement right on the outskirts of the Escape road. They’re largely self-sufficient, soaked in natural beauty, thriving with all the modern luxuries of a cell connection (only BSNL), dish television, a handful of homestays and a hotel, tarmac road access in most parts, even a massive Tata Tea plantation — yet is nicely tucked in the mountains for the regular tourist to not find it. Vattavada is on Google Maps and you will find plenty of addresses on the map in this village to go to, but even Google tricks you into taking the long tiring route through tea gardens so that you’d most likely give up half way and return to the easy resorts of Munnar. When technology wants to keep this place a secret, so must you. We are travellers and explorers, not tourists, and it’s our responsibility to care of the places we go to so that the experiences we share are handed out to the right guys out there. I am also a writer with a story to tell so it seems like I’m in a Catch 22 situation here. I’ll stick to keeping some of it a secret hoping you will hold on to the rest of it when you return from Vattavada.
Words by Anand Mohan