Toyota Fortuner: Road not taken

Words by Aninda Sardar

Well, it wasn’t really a case of two roads diverging in a yellow wood but more like us plotting a specific path along the Konkan coast of Maharashtra. If you look at a map, you’ll see that practically half of India is a peninsula – locked on three sides by oceans and seas. To the east you have the gorgeous Coromandel coast butting its head with the tempestuous waters of the Bay of Bengal. To the south you have Kanyakumari, where the waters of three seas collide, and to the west we have the magnificent Malabar and Konkan coasts. The Konkan alone stretches for 720km covering Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, and is dotted with roads that are rarely driven on. It’s an open invite to road trip crazy folk like us to head out and explore this coast that has attracted traders, preachers, and invaders since time immemorial.

But, as with all ideas that seem great, there was a catch. The trouble with rarely explored roads is that there is little information about their condition. You have got to be prepared for all sorts of eventualities. Therefore, if explore you must, then you also need a vehicle that is sturdy, reliable and with genuine go-anywhere abilities. For us, the vehicle in question had to be the Toyota Fortuner 4×4 Automatic.

Quite apart from the fact that we have driven the Fortuner in numerous conditions across varied terrain and declared it India’s top SUV at the Times Auto Awards, which was conducted with evo India, the Toyota Fortuner is a genuinely capable SUV. It has a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine that produces 174bhp and 450Nm of max torque. So concerns about power are quickly laid to rest. The fact that we had chosen the one with a 6-speed auto with shift lock, added convenience into the mix. Most importantly, the Fortuner boasts genuine off-road credentials with its shift-on-the-fly 4×4 system with both high and low ratios, short overhangs, downhill assist control and active traction control. Not to forget a 182mm of ground clearance, 29.1-degree angle of approach and 25.1-degree angle of departure. You know, just in case.

Our first task was to get to the Konkan coast. As we travelled westwards, four-laned highways soon gave way to well surfaced but narrow roads and eventually passably surfaced narrow roads. Our first stop would be Anjarle but to get there, we had to take a ferry at Bhagamandala. Beyond that, the road is pitiful – sometimes ridden with potholes that mushroom everywhere post the monsoon showers, and sometimes so narrow that I can practically reach out to the people inside their homes.

Anjarle is part of a set of beaches, the most famous of which is Velas, where turtles come to breed each year. Having remained largely unknown for decades, this fact is finally getting its share of limelight with the first ever Turtle Festival of India having been organised in 2016. Of course at this time of the year there were no turtles to be seen for they only come towards the end of January and early February. Nonetheless, the beach is practically a virgin one with none of the usual touristy clamour. Walk along the sand, dip your feet in the water, gaze out onto the serenity created by the incessant waves of the Arabian sea. Anjarle weaves its own magic around the people who visit.

From Anjarle the road starts to climb up the mountains. Konkan is separated from the Indian mainland by the ridge like mountains of the Western ghats to its immediate east. As a result, any exploration along the coast traces a sinusoidal curve – you go up, down and then back up again. Just a few kilometres from Anjarle, the road becomes a broken and patchily surfaced road to a graded road to a mountain trail. Thankfully, with the rugged Fortuner at our disposal, we just plough on. At times through narrow leafy avenues with the foliage brushing the dust off the SUV, and at other times along cliff tops with spectacular views of a coastline where an incredible lushness gives way to sands unchurned by unwanted humans being lapped by the white froth of breakers. The views lend fresh perspective – we are the unwanted humans.

Sobered by the thought, we quickly move on. The integrated sat-nav that has been guiding us through these densely forested mountains tells us that the distance to our next stop, Harnai, is not more than 20km. But thanks to the condition of the road, the going is slow. Even in the Fortuner. A lesser car would have given up. The same sat-nav does the math and tells us we will take nearly two hours. We plod on, bouncing our way down one hill only to bounce our way up another. Harnai was once a proud guardian of ancient trade routes frequented by mariners. The mighty Suvarnadurg (Golden fortress) stands on a small island just off the coast, casting its watchful eye over a sea where none but fisherfolk venture anymore. On the mainland, the ruined Kanakdurg and Goa fort (no link to the state of Goa), provide additional cover against aggression from the landward side.

From thereon, we headed off to Dapoli via the twin beach towns of Murud – not to be confused with the more famous Murud-Janjira – Karde. Murud turns out to be a shanty town that is quickly giving way to ‘beach resorts’. Some are little more than homestays while some of the upcoming ones could well be of the expensive kind that will offer luxury beach holidays in the future. The road connecting Murud with nearby Karde and then on to Dapoli, runs right along the beach. Surprisingly, it is well surfaced, possibly the result of traffic being sparse more than anything else but we couldn’t care less, for the view was nothing short of stunning. Besides, after being jostled around inside the Fortuner since we got off the main roads, this was a welcome relief. So much so that we parked by the side of the road for a while, pumped up the volume on the 7.0 infotainment system and watched the sky turn pinkish orange as the sun prepared to go down before storm clouds gathered and blotted it out. By the time we got going the ominous grey of an approaching storm was thrown in stark relief by the intermittent purple streaks of lightning over the Arabian sea. It was kind of magical, kind of awe inspiring and even a little frightening.

An hour later, we were at Dapoli preparing to hole up for the night at the Fern Samali resort. We had started at four in the morning and after more than 13 hours of driving I wasn’t quite fatigued. Well, certainly not as much as I had expected to be. I put it down to the comfort offered by the Fortuner’s cabin. The seats are plush and offer genuine support while at the same time allowing one the space to move around a bit. Then of course there’s that wonderful suspension setup that isolates the passengers from practically all the rough stuff under those 18-inch wheels shod with grippy Bridgestone Dueler tyres.

The following morning, after a good night’s sleep we headed for Dabhol from where we would catch yet another ferry, this time across the Vashishti river, and then make our way to the beach of Guhaghar. But along the route we were told to take a detour through the village of Burondi. A mere 10km away from Dapoli and on top of an unmarked hill just above the village, there is a 21-feet tall giant fibre glass statue of Lord Parshuram. The very same Parshuram who is mentioned in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata. While that may be of interest to a history and myth buff like me, what is sure to interest every traveller is the stunning view you get of the Konkan coast from the top of the hill.

Dabhol, like Harnai, was once a major trading outpost and there are visible remains of its prosperous past scattered throughout the town. The ferry crossing across the river was done without hassle and turned out to be extremely relaxing. In fact, if the rest of India could function with the same punctuality and efficiency as the two men manning the ticket counters at the jetty, life would indeed be simpler and better. Lost in such ruminations I barely noticed that our journey was over. A resounding thud of the ferry’s iron gangplank hitting the pier shook me out of my reverie.

The road to Guhaghar is well surfaced and with little traffic so we made it in double quick time with the Fortuner’s powerful motor providing the necessary propulsion. The beach here is extremely peaceful on a Monday afternoon but there are obvious signs of the prevalence of tourism. The 20 odd shacks that serve delectable Konkani cuisine is evidence that this is a popular hangout. About 15km away we are told that there is a lighthouse. Curious, we drove up. The lighthouse was locked and visitors are only allowed on weekends.

Disappointed, we turned back only to notice a small dirt trail. With the confidence accorded by the Fortuner’s go-anywhere abilities we ventured into the unknown. It led to an unnamed cliff top of astonishing beauty. A beauty that wouldn’t be out of place in the mythical tales of Homer’s epic Odyssey.

At land’s end, we stopped and reflected. We had explored but a small part of the Konkan and had seen beaches of virgin sands and sea fortresses. We met friendly fishermen and ate wonderful food. We saw statues and cliff tops. But at the end, what of the road that ran along the coast? We realised that the coastal road was largely a myth – still under construction in many places and to be constructed in most places. And the Konkan? She didn’t disappoint, for her beauty is indeed mythical.

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