Since setting out from Koteswar on 11th Jan I had averaged over 19 hours per day of driving time. Yesterday had been the longest day. Little did I know, when I set out from Yanam at 5 am, that this day would be even more difficult than the previous day. Just as I was driving out of Yanam I noticed a small tea shop doing business. I decided on early breakfast and had what was placed before me with chutney. It tasted okay, but I could not fathom what it was. It was made of rice flour, I made out. Two glasses of hot tea and I was fully alert. That lasted only a while. Shortly after, I was overcome by sleep and I settled for a power nap. It lasted more than 30 minutes. Despite all the stoppages I got to Visakhapatnam by 9.30 am. I had done the 200 kms in 3 hours. The drive was superb all the way up to Visakhapatnam. Thulasi had come to a pre-appointed place on the highway, from where he piloted me to his house.
As soon as we parked Thulasi asked a boy to wash the car and we went to his flat. The cold bath, after spending two days in the car, was refreshing and relaxing. I got ready quickly and then got introduced leisurely to the neighbor’s in the flat opposite. Farooq, had business related to the port and he had many interesting stories to recollect. His wife had made parattas, stuffed and plain. Two large ones went down effortlessly despite the breakfast at Yanam. The achar was delicious too. Their daughter had read a part of my book and thought it good. Many photos and teas later I left for Baleswar. That’s where I was headed, but considering the backlog, Gopal Mohanty, the Chief Operations Manager, South Eastern Railway, arranged the GH of Paradip Phosphates Limited. That arrangement was finalized by G.D. Brahma, the Chief Operations Manager, East Coast Railway. Later events of the day proved how crucial the arrangement was.
In the heat of parking in Thulasi’s apartment complex and leaving after the short rest I forgot to check the fuel gauge. When I was on the NH5, the gauge showed near empty, with no fuel station in sight. Panic gripped first and then subsided when I thought that the worst that could happen is for Thulasi to get me a can of fuel, with consequent delay. I switched off the AC and involuntarily I started praying (it’s funny how you remember Him when you are in trouble!). After some time I spotted a fuel station. I drove in and was told that it is closed for calibration. I asked for 5 litres, but was politely turned away. However, they assured me that another fuel station would come up within the next 5 kms. That reassured me. Soon I filled up and drove away as fast as I could to gain time on the excellent highway.
The next check point was Arasavalli, Srikakulam. The streets were crowded. Fortunately I got a place to park in the city centre and noticed a medical shop. The two youngsters in the Med Plus outlet were eager to hear more of the trip, particularly the young girl. After the attestation they wished me luck to complete the schedule in time. I reached Ichchapur by 2 pm and could find none to attest the log sheet. I pulled over and captured the GPS tracker data as documentation of the visit. At Chhatrapur I decided to visit the railway station. I parked and walked to the SM’s office, reached by the road over bridge. As soon as I entered the office the Station Master stood up. When I introduced myself he said that he stood up only because he had recognized me. I had worked in Khurda Road railway division in 1988. I felt flattered about the incident.
It was dark by the time I reached Puri railway station. Another flattering experience awaited me there. When I reached the SMs office, one of the three persons in the room stood up and asked me to sit down. When I introduced myself, the person who had offered me his seat told me that he had worked as my SM when I was in Khurda. He further told the others that I was a fair and honest officer! My work done, I drove to Konark. The Sun Temple Hotel was extensively advertised on the way. When I reached there I found the facilities rather basic. The owner of the hotel told me to spend the night there for the roads ahead were not good for night driving. I resolved to drive on further as I was only 110 kms away from Paradip and it was only 7.45 pm.
The 110 kms drive from Konark to Paradip via Kakatapur and Jagatsinghapur consumed the next 6 hours. The road was entirely through villages. Nothing could be seen on either side of the small road, but at times the headlight picked up paddy fields and irrigation canals. It took me an hour to reach Kakatapur from Konark – 19 kms. The village temple was busy. All else was closed. The Maa Mangala temple of the village has an interesting story attached to the installation of the deity in the temple. The deity also plays an important part in the legend of Lord Jagannath. I had to depend on GPS tracker data for attestation. Fortunately the Idea Cellular SIM was active.
I reached Jagatsinghapur by 10.45 pm after driving 46 kms in 2 hours. The village road was deserted and I had no one to seek any help from. I kept driving through the village and noticed a light at a distance. As I neared it I saw it was a shop and had a car parked in front of it! A person was cleaning the shop and two others were stepping out of it. They were vigorously chewing Pan and I stopped by them to ask for directions. The stop lasted 15 minutes. One of them, Umesh Sahoo, claimed to be an influential member of the village. He became interested in my mission and took ten minutes to explain why he was the most suited to attest the log sheet! I left after exchanging telephone numbers to connect up later. He promised to visit me in Kerala.
I had only 50 kms to go before reaching Paradip, as per my calculation. But the drive from Jagatsinghapur to Paradip went on and on and is one that will be etched in my memory for many years. As soon as the village was behind me a thick blanket of fog descended from nowhere. It came so suddenly that I braked and stopped. I put my hand outside the window and saw it disappear from sight. The headlights of the car were useless. It could not penetrate the wall of fog. I took out my LED torch and tried if the visibility would improve. It did, very marginally. I kept driving – left hand on the steering wheel and the right outside the window focusing the torch on the road in front. Progress, if one can call it that, was so slow that I could have walked faster. After almost 45 minutes of the experience I caught the headlights of a vehicle coming up fast behind me. I took a calculated risk, for I could not fathom the width of the road, and moved to one side. The Sumo overtook me and I decided to tail it. The Suma had powerful fog lamps and for the first time in many hours I drove fast behind the Sumo. After some distance, the Sumo took a turn to the right and I followed it. Immediately it stopped and the driver came out to ask me where I was going. When I mentioned my destination as Paradip he asked me to go back to the point where he had turned right. I was to take the left turn. He told me that the highway to Paradip was only 10 kms from that point. That was poor consolation, for I was once again all to myself. I reversed and proceeded as instructed with the torch once again my guide. At the junction, as if by a miracle, I found four auto rickshaws and their drivers. They confirmed the road to the highway. I asked if one of them could guide me to the highway and promised them good compensation. They said that the fog was too thick and the journey was risky! I reached what looked like the highway in the next half hour. The fog was still very dense. But at least the road was broad and well surfaced. Some relief. I had not gone much on the highway when I saw a person frantically waving me down. I stopped and the person begged to be given a lift to his village 18 kms away. I told him that I could not, considering that I was on a solo drive to establish a record. He begged and said, “Sahib, main is dhund main mar jaoonga (Sir, I will die in this fog)”. That settled it. Record or no record, I could not leave a man so helpless in the night. I rearranged the luggage in the car and made him comfortable in the front seat. He was shivering and had been exposed to the cold. He identified himself as V.K. Das working in the office of the District Education Officer in Jagatsinghapur. Since he worked late that day he had missed the bus he took to his village every day and the fog added to his misery. Das knew the route and we made slow progress even on the highway. Sometime later I caught the headlights of a speeding vehicle in the rear view mirror. As it passed me I tailed it and drove fast. After a while the Scorpio slowed down and waved me ahead. I pulled abreast and explained my predicament. The Scorpio had three occupants. They agreed to pilot me to Paradip. They first stopped at Das’ village and one of them occupied the seat vacated by Das in my car. As we were moving to Paradip he asked me if I was familiar with the territory. When I said I was not he told me that the place was notorious for small dacoities. He advised me not to stop on these roads under any circumstances. The Scorpio piloted me right up to the main gate of Paradip Phosphates Limited (PPL) after a short delay at a level crossing gate. I thanked the occupants of the Scorpio and approached the security at the PPL gate. They were taken aback to get a visitor at 2 am. After convincing them that I was booked to stay in the GH I was permitted to go ahead.
When I reached the GH I breathed easy for the first time in many hours. The caretaker was a kind man and did not seem to be bothered by the disturbance so late in the night. He told me that the register entries could be done in the morning. I asked for tea at 5.30 am and retired to my room. The day was 21 hours long and I had progressed only 830 kms. However, as per the original schedule I had only 350 kms to drive on the last day. Hence, even adding the backlog of 240 kms at Paradip I had to do less than 600 kms on the final day. I went to bed excited and happy thinking of the impending success of the Coastal Expedition. I had thus far done 166 hours from the start and traveled 6235 kms – just 600 kms more. Somewhere along the route I had picked up extra kilometers to travel!