The original plan for the day was to drive up to Rudraprayag. The distance from Mussoorie is less than 225 km but in mountainous terrain that would mean double the distance and more than double the time. I checked out of the hotel and left Mussoorie without having breakfast. Normally I munch on what I have in the car and do not stop en route to even have a cup of tea. This day I felt very relaxed as the distance was not onerous and I expected to be in Rudraprayag by evening. The only thing was that I would have to find out a place to stay overnight in Rudraprayag. With extra time expected to be available I did not bother too much about it. Breaking with tradition I stopped at Dhanolti for two cups of tea, and that too very leisurely, moving around to take pictures and enjoying the small place coming to life.
Thereafter I enjoyed the scenic drive right through to one of the highest dams in the world, the multi-purpose Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi River. The Dam serves to irrigate, provide municipal drinking water and generates 1000 MW hydroelectric power. The dam has generated its own share of environmental concerns as it is located within a fragile eco system. The drive over the Dam is truly an awesome experience. I was stopped at one of the security posts of the Dam and asked if I knew how to get out of the dam area on the route to Srinagar. When I said I did not, the friendly security person stopped a motorcyclist and requested him to guide me through the many turns and by-lanes along the way. I had to forgo many photo opportunities because of the security restriction of stopping vehicles along the route as well as photography. Moreover, I had to keep pace with my pilot!
In less than two hours from admiring the Dam I reached Srinagar city, which is often times mistaken with the city of the same name in J&K. Srinagar town is located on the banks of the majestic Alaknanda River, one of the two headstreams of the River Ganges. It is the largest city in the Garhwal Hills and was the capital of the Garhwal Kingdom in the 16th century. It was also under Gorkha rule for a while in the 19th century. The city is presently a dustbowl with cluttered concrete construction and large vehicle population. It is the transit location for Rishikesh, Karnaprayag and Rudraprayag. I moved through the city by 11.30 am and had just 50 odd km to go for Rudraprayag. The road from Rishikesh, for nearly 100 km, had been through mountainous terrain. I was happy with the progress I had made the day and decided to negotiate the last stretch for the day taking in the views of the River as much as possible. It is truly a sight to behold. The fractured phyllite rocks provided a superb backdrop to the blue green waters of the River.
The road beyond Srinagar consisted of sharp winding turns. I was comfortable taking them because the roads were mostly paved and broad at the turns. I was less than 30 km short of my destination for the day when disaster struck. I was negotiating a steep winding right hand curve. From a distance to the curve I noticed that small round rocks had rolled from the hill and was at the left extreme side of the road. The River was to my left and the hill to the right. To avoid skidding on the round rocks I took the curve a bit inside and expected to negotiate the curve comfortably. Unfortunately, a jeep taxi full of passengers, coming in the opposite direction also took a wide turn to avoid similar rocks. The impact of the side collision was so heavy I thought I would lose control of the steering. If I did I would have gone down a gorge with less than nil chances of survival. Later I learnt that a few days back, at the same spot, a car had gone down with two in it. Both died and the car was not retrieved. It would be most appropriate to say that the car stopped by itself within a few feet of the gorge face. Even before getting down from the car I knew that the damage would be severe. I could not even open the door properly because the impact had slightly jammed the door. The major impact was on the rear right side door and footboard. The jeep also stopped and the passengers got down. Fortunately they were not aggressive. The accident had happened because of drivers of both the vehicles. That much was accepted. After a while the jeep driver, who originally demanded compensation, dropped that claim. I got into the car to try and restart it. It wouldn’t. That is when I realised that the propeller had disengaged and the hand brake had become ineffective. I called up Kairali Ford in Cochin and was told to get in touch with the Ford On Road service through the toll free number. The response was very encouraging and they promised to have a flat truck in place within a few hours to take the car to Haldwani, where they would try to repair the car. However, the towing service would cost me Rs. 22,ooo, they said.
Keen to find if I could locate a towing truck in Srinagar I asked the passengers if I would be able to find some assistance in the city. A couple of them were very sure I could. So I took my computer bag, locked the car and got into the jeep that just had a bent bumper from the accident. Within a short while of reaching Srinagar city I knew that I would not be able to find any assistance there. I hurriedly finished a chicken rice lunch and took a bus back to the accident spot where I decided to wait for the flat truck that would take the car to Haldwani. I was shocked when I reached the accident spot. The car had been moved and the left side front window had been broken in. A madman was sitting in the rear passenger seat eating the food and drinking orange juice that was in the car. He was also stuffing warm clothes that he had foraged from the suitcase in the car. I chased him out of the car and surveyed the damage. Glass shrapnel was everywhere. The window had been smashed using a brick. Food and drink had been violated. To my chagrin I discovered that the Samsung notepad, GoPro Camera, Samsung phone, batteries and chargers had all been stolen from the car. Vandalism had cost me over Rs 1 lakh. I do not know how I maintained my cool. The sun was beating down mercilessly. I tried as best as I could to clean out the glass shrapnel. In the process I hurt myself and needed many bandages to arrest bleeding.
By 7 pm the flat truck arrived and the driver expertlywinched the car on to the truck. I had to sit in the car since the window was open. The driver decided to take the Dehra Dun route to Haldwani instead of via Karnaprayag. It was strange sitting in the car and being driven around in a truck, felt miserable for the Champion. I was more or less sure that the expedition would end because of the accident; the damages were so extensive. But I was determined to keep going if the repair could be dome in quick time.
Sometime into the drive it started raining. Since the car window was open rain water started splashing in. I requested the driver for assistance and he gave me a huge tarpaulin. I managed to secure it in such a way as to prevent water from entering the car. But, the tarpaulin stank so much that I almost gagged on puke. A slept a couple of hours, exhausted from the day’s happening. I was woken up at what looked like a check post. The police guys wanted to see papers. I told them about the reason why my car is on the flat truck. They were convinced but still wanted money from the driver, who took Rs 100 from me and we continued on the journey. I dozed off again and woke up when I realised that the truck had stopped.
The driver of the truck came to me and asked if I wanted a hotel room to rest. I enquired if we had reached Haldwani and was told that we were at Dehra Dun! He said that another driver would take over the wheels at 9 am! I was aghast. I had hoped to be at the repair centre by 9 am so that the down time could be minimised. I tore into the Ford On Road service team and made enough ruckus for them to offer repair of the car in Dehra Dun! They said that the Bhagat Ford station would open at 9 am and that they would attend to it there. In the meanwhile the car was transhipped on to another flat truck. And I continued my wait in the car.
Right through the expedition I had been following up with my contact in Nepal about the volatile situation there. The news emanating from Nepal not very encouraging, where the Army has been called out to stop the violence that has enveloped the country. My contact said that the Mahendranagar entry is not possible since vehicular traffic had been banned. I dozed off yet again wondering what the next few days had in store for me.