An early start is an integral part of any road trip, I thought as we headed south from Mangalore’s Mahaveer Circle. As a child, I had hated being woken while it was still dark “to beat the traffic” but this time it had been me pestering fellow travellers Srinivas and Petra to be travel-ready by first light. My motive was simple: to take a morning walk on the golden sands of Ullal Beach in Mangalore while the shadows were still long and the light soft. What better way to prepare for a day on the road than by stretching one’s legs on a beach, while palm trees swayed just metres away? Fortunately, on this route, the sea and palm trees are almost always nearby and stopping intermittently for beach walks is one of the many pleasures of this drive.
Invigorated by the walk, we drove onto National Highway 17 and into Kerala, sweeping over the first of the many bridges along our way. From one of the long road bridges, I noticed a couple of colourful fishing boats moored on the sparkling, sun-kissed water, waiting for their crews and the tide. With my stomach ready for breakfast, I couldn’t help but imagine the succulent Malabar preparations that make use of the fishing crews’ catch. For breakfast, though, we pulled into one of the unpretentious hotels that can be found at regular intervals along the highway in Kerala. I tucked into my first porottas of the trip. They became a daily ritual. Being a foodie, this route offered adequate compensation for us having to experience the aggressive, nerve-jangling driving style that a surprisingly high proportion of road users appear to adopt in Kerala.
At times, the quality of the roads was less than good – very few stretches offered us a chance to put our foot down, turn up the volume on the CD player and cruise – but the fact that we rarely got up to top speed made it all the easier to break the journey on spotting a decent roadside hotel. Chicken fry, chilli fry and ghee roast were just some of the tasty but cholesterol-laden dishes we enjoyed, as comfort food, by the highway. And though hugging the coast meant we had to put up with high humidity each time we stepped out of the air-conditioned car, that was a small price to pay for fresh seafood each evening. We spent longer on the road each day than anticipated. In part that was due to the condition of the roads and the nature of the busy highway traffic but, it has to be said, we did pause at numerous points of interest along the route, some of them unplanned.
One of the great things about Kerala is the number of accessible attractions – historic, religious and cultural – offering weary drivers and their passengers a chance to break their journey and do a spot of sightseeing. This is by no means an easy drive; it’s long, tiring and requires drivers to be constantly alert. However, the countless points of interest that can be visited along the route, plus the food served even in simple restaurants, reward anyone willing to make the effort.
ON THE ROAD
This drive takes you along some busy stretches of road. Shops and restaurants are never difficult to locate, though it makes sense to carry basic provisions and water in the car, in case of emergencies. Tea stalls dot the route with reassuring regularity and many offer the chance to pick up bottled water or cold drinks. The small towns and villages on the way host puncture repair shops, and mechanics and garages can be found in most towns. Many of the petrol stations have restrooms but their standards of cleanliness vary massively. Facilities for women could and should be better. Be ready to halt and ask for directions as road signs are conspicuous by their absence.
Many of the signs that exist are in Malayalam and often not translated into English or Hindi. During our drive, we were often stuck in slow-moving traffic. Erratic driving and risky overtaking procedures were not the rare exceptions that they should have been. Driving at night on this route is, therefore, not at all recommended. Start early to avoid heavy traffic, especially around any of the cities. The drive is mainly on three highways. Pick up NH17 at Mangalore and follow it all the way down to Ernakulam, where it merges with NH47A. NH47A joins with NH47 in Kochi and can be followed all the way to Kanyakumari.
About the author:
Stuart Foster is a feature writer and photographer with a passion for travel and adventure.