We have taken the Renault Duster to some challenging places for the ‘Getting High with the Duster’ series. Miles off the tourist trail, we found these seemingly unknown places that were worth the effort of driving through some hard-to-traverse terrain and at times challenging weather. Wonderful stories have come out of the experiences and we have learnt to appreciate Incredible India and all the bounties it has to offer. All through the Renault Duster displayed remarkable ability to just about take on anything that the adventure threw up with great handling, superb comfort, and the amazing practicality helping it in doing so.
But wait. All this time we have been taking on expedition-like roadtrips across the country but have so far neglected our own backyard. Our home base in Pune sits close to the Sahyadri range and there has to be more than one great road leading up to the top of a mountain.
Now, if you have been reading evo India for a while, you’d scoff at the altitudes that we’d get to in the Sahyadris. 3000ft, 4000ft, What!? But this is a different kind of roadtrip. It is less about inhospitable weather, dangerous roads and ‘no fuel station for 365km’ and more about truly getting to know the people that make up the region that we call home. What could be better than a roadrip to the heartlands of the erstwhile Maratha empire?
When the Ed brought up going up to see some of the most prominent forts associated with Shivaji Maharaj, I wasn’t particularly enthused. Yes, we’d have the excellent 4WD Renault Duster to take on the challenge. But no vehicle can actually get to the top of most forts in Maharashtra (they were built to be inaccessible) and eventually we’d all be trekking up a few-hundred steps to reach each one. The ones who know me, know for a fact that I absolutely hate trekking. Ironically though, the Ed put me on it. Knowing the Ed and his sense of humour, I should have seen this coming. But I didn’t. 900km, all around our home-base in Pune and three full days to do it in. Seemed easy peasy, right? It did to me too.
With some help from the office Hulk and trekking aficionado Abhishek we zeroed in to the forts that would be worth going up to. Shivneri, Torna, Rajgad and Raigad. Now all you history buffs out there will notice that these forts are where Shivaji Maharaj spent his time, all in chronological order. For the others, Shivaji Maharaj was born in Shivneri and spent some amount of time in Torna followed by Rajgad before being coronated king in Raigad and eventually passing away in Raigad itself. With the enthusiasm to discover the unknown and hardly traversed parts of Maharashtra around these forts, we set out.
All the forts that we planned to visit for instance were in Pune district itself but I hadn’t ever been to any of them. There were reasons for our lack of experience in visiting these places. Geographically, Pune is surrounded by the mighty Sahyadri mountains and the roads leading to these places aren’t in great shape. A 90km drive to our first destination on the map, Shivneri fort took us more than three hours courtesy the maddening traffic out of the city and some really bad roads
The allure of the perfect sunrise photograph ensured an early start to the day and we were in the town of Shivneri. Now to understand why we drove to Shivneri, we have to delve in to the past a little bit. Chhatrapati Shivaji was born in the fort in the year 1630 (1627 according to some accounts) and it is one of the only prominent forts in Maharashtra that Shivaji never held. His father Shahaji was a powerful Maratha general and controlled the fort for a long amount of time. Our photographer decided that we needed to climb up the stairs to the fort and an hour of huffing and puffing later, we were at the very top. The fort, painstakingly maintained, is worth the trek up and one can see the building where the Maharaj was born.
After his birth, Chhatrapati Shivaji spent time in Shivneri learning from his mother Jijabai about religion and culture, things that he would greatly value and respect in the future. Soon he moved to Pune, where under the tutelage of Dadoji Konddeo, he learnt the military skills that he would need in his military career. At the ripe young age of 16, Shivaji acquired the fort of Torna. The hill fort overlooking the Rajgad fort is historically important and served as the launch pad for the capture of Rajgad. The bounty acquired in Torna was used to redevelop Rajgad into an impenetrable fortress.
We soon drove to Rajgad, a fort where Shivaji Maharaj spent 26 years of his life and was the de-facto capital of the Maratha rule for a considerable amount of time. It seemed like a short drive from Shivneri. But the narrow road leading up to the fort and the traffic with numerous villages on the way made sure that it was anything but. The narrow roads were a non-issue with the Duster though and with its compact dimensions and excellent visibility we had no problem navigating the tight sections leading to Rajgad. This time, the mercury hovering around 40 degree Celsius convinced us to stay at the foothill and interact with the locals whilst putting the climate control in the Duster to good use.
From Torna, it was time to head to probably the most important fort in the Maratha empire back in the day – Raigad. Situated high up in the Sahyadri mountain range, Raigad is one of the most difficult forts to get to. That didn’t stop us driving to it though. Now, to the uninitiated, the Konkan region in Maharashtra is nestled deep in the mountains and is a treat to the eyes especially in the monsoons. In addition to the amazing food, the roads that lead you there have also gained a cult following. Now, I had never driven to the Konkan region and we were in for a surprise when we learned about the tricky roads leading us there.
Around 150km away and a full five hours of driving. That’s what Google Maps told us. Now if you, like us, have travelled the length and breadth of the country, we can forgive you for thinking that the estimate was far off and that we’d probably do the distance in three hours or so. Well, Google was bang on. The roads are downright horrible for the most part. Road works are on in full swing and as a result there is little of what you can call a road. Rocks litter the stretch and often one wrong manoeuver can crack your car’s sump or worse. It is advisable to not get a hatchback on the road. The really bad sections are surprisingly interspersed with amazingly laid tarmac where you can call on all of the Duster’s cornering prowess. And that we did. Wide grins on our faces were however soon replaced with frowns as the off-road-like bits returned. Thankfully, the brakes on the Duster slowed us down with time to spare. The Duster wasn’t too displeased with the roads on offer either and it took everything in its stride allowing us the opportunity to easily overtake some of the slower paced and rather unfortunate hatchbacks that got stuck in the gravel. We could call on the 4WD abilities of the Duster though and it always saved us the blushes.
The bad roads soon eased up and we were met with the Varandha ghat, a set of twisties that put all our weekend adventures in Lavasa and Lonavala to shame. Smooth roads dotted with numerous hairpins and sheer drops on one side and the hill on the other ensure that you have to be precise with your steering inputs. Oh and there’s also the rather haphazard oncoming traffic just to make it a little bit more difficult. The Duster enjoyed the challenges though and the peppy 1.5-litre diesel that our car came with was up to the task of powering out of the tight corners. All it required was a quick downshift on the six-speed manual gearbox. The great handling, needless to say, was a boon. Exactly five hours later we were in Raigad fort and thankfully for us lazy bums, there was a ropeway that led us to the very top without breaking a sweat. Raigad was where Shivaji Maharaj was coronated as king and it is also where he breathed his last. It was for a long time the capital of the Maratha empire.
Now, a lot of you might say that most of this information about Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj can be gleaned from websites online. And yes you are right. But this story isn’t about just the information. There are things that can only be felt in the places where Shivaji Maharaj controlled his empire from. We met two young brothers on a trek to every fort in the empire. And no, they didn’t have the comforts of the Duster with them. When I questioned them about the reason behind them doing so, they remarked that this is the only way to understand their culture. And I agree.
All the forts that we visited are not easily accessible and are thus removed from life just a few kilometres away. Kids here learn about the exploits of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj even before they join school and as they grow up they also embody the same principles and benevolence that the king grew up with. A great number of kids double up as guides to the forts and their voices, full of pride, resonate in the chambers of the Raigad fort. It has been close to 340 years since the king passed away. But his legacy remains. All through the roadtrip, the Duster marched on silently as the enabler in helping us get to learn about a culture right at its heart. Shivaji Maharaj was a hero for millions and still is one. Often times though, the Hero is a silent companion. The Duster is being just that. It accompanies us on adventures and loves being the silent companion who does all the heavy lifting to support our endeavours to learn more about Incredible India.