At autoX, we’ve reached 100 issues by constantly pushing the boundaries. So, to celebrate our century, we decided to push the boundaries that little bit more… here’s an account of a ‘non-stop’ journey from Delhi to Kanyakumari, and back! The challenge was to cover almost 6,000 kilometres in under 100 hours. So, did we do it?
As many of our other hare-brained ideas, this one too came about casually in conversation after a long, intense day of driving. In the upper reaches of Himachal Pradesh, as the temperature dipped well below freezing, we found ourselves in a house that was clearly not designed for inhabitants in the middle of winter. Perhaps it was brain freeze – or the exact opposite – either way, Dhruv posed the question, “How much distance can we cover in 100-hours non-stop?
At first, we just thought the cold was beginning to get to him. But then we realised that our upcoming March issue was to be our 100th. And so we got down to it. Unlike my fantasy list of the 38-cars that I want to own, this actually seemed achievable – driving 100-hours straight that is. Yes, we would be stretched to the skin of our teeth. But therein lay the appeal – the human endurance needed to pull off something at this scale.
So, before we knew it – despite the fatigue and the cold – we had spent over two hours discussing the idea, planning possible routes and destinations to see just how we could execute this mammoth drive (or the driver, for that matter, if we didn’t meet our target).
Heading for lands-end – the absolute tip of the subcontinent – seemed like the obvious thing to do. But one-way is too easy. A round trip would be roughly 6,000 kilometres. And if we averaged 60km/h – which seemed reasonable considering our road conditions – it would take exactly 100 hours to complete. If you’re lucky! It would also allow us to gauge the conditions of our highways – the North-South corridor specifically. It would, of course, be a true test of endurance for any modern automobile. So, it was settled then.
The format of the drive, we realised from the outset, was going to have to be like a relay race – keeping in mind the physical limitations when driving for extended periods of time. So, the plan formulated was thus – we would be divided into three teams. Team 1 would start from India Gate in Delhi and drive straight to Nagpur, a distance of over 1,000 kilometres. Team 2 would fly to Nagpur, and take over driving duties till Bangalore – covering another 1,000-plus kilometres. Team 3, meanwhile, will drive straight to Kanyakumari and head back to Bangalore – covering almost 1,500 kilometres. Team 2 and 1 will wait for the car’s return before heading back to their original destinations.
The third leg would be the longest, but Bangalore is the only airport in the region that’s easily accessible straight from Delhi. And so the last leg, which would require around 18-hours of non-stop driving, would test the endurance of the drivers to the absolute limit. But that’s the point, isn’t it? And it’s funny that the topic of endurance comes up once again, right after my return from the 24 Hours of Dubai endurance race. While at the Dubai Autodrome, covering the race, I personally witnessed what racing drivers go through competing for a period of 24 hours. Obviously, our driving conditions aren’t as demanding as what the racers face, but anyone who has driven on our highways knows just how demanding they can be. As mentioned before, we’d have to average over 60km/h while making sure that to avoid any untoward incidents – while keeping fatigue at bay of course. Sure, it sounds easy. But, trust me, saying you can drive for 12 hours straight is one thing – and doing it is another.
We had to choose the route wisely, of course, but we had a bigger problem. Our readers will know that we’re pretty fanatical about photography – we’ve certainly got plenty of feedback from you good folks about the visual appeal of the magazine. And so we needed to figure out how to get the visuals we would need to do this feature justice – after all, we wouldn’t be able to race for 100-hours and shoot at the same time. And so we decided on a reconnaissance trip. This would allow us not only to get our shooting and filming done, but also enable us to identify the right route and mark out the bad stretches – to ensure that we prevail over the challenge. We don’t take things lightly, as you can see.
So, Jared and I set out one fine morning, and spent the next four days on the road – before ending up in Kochi, and handing the car over to be transported back to Delhi for the real race. The final route was to be as follows: Delhi – Agra – Gwalior – Jhansi – Sagar – Nagpur – Anantapur – Hyderabad – Bangalore – Hosur – Salem – Madurai – Kanyakumari. And back!
The biggest question, however, was – what would be our steed of choice for this mammoth task? After all, the journey presented a bevy of challenges – for both the driver and the car. Both would have to face bad roads, but still offer enough performance to be able to cruise at high speeds for extended periods of time, have unquestionable reliability throughout the arduous 6,000 kilometre journey, and, of course, offer enough comfort for the occupants to survive their long stints. Most of all, though, it would have to be fun to drive – there was no way we were about to spend 100-hours in a car that was dull and boring. Well, one of our ‘Best of 2014’ winners immediately sprung to mind. The Audi A3 2.0 TDI offers the perfect combination of performance and efficiency that would allow us to maintain high average speeds without having to stop for fuel too often. When a tankful gives you a range of over 500 kilometres, it saves a lot of time in refuelling over a long journey like this.
Secondly, its excellent dual-clutch gearbox meant that constantly changing gears wouldn’t be an issue on long stretches. Thirdly, we’ve enjoyed being behind the wheel every time we’ve driven it. And, of course, the class-leading interiors and excellent sound system with Bluetooth connectivity meant that spending long hours in the car wasn’t a chore. We did need to add a few extra accessories, though, since the A3 doesn’t have any USB ports. Other than that it was perfect, however. Fortunately, Audi was more than willing to take up the challenge and provided us with a car in no time.
And so we delved straight into preparation mode. The road book was readied, equipment was prepared (tool kit, spare wheels, hydraulic jack, air pump, etc.), hotels and flights booked, and a full briefing done listing our the do’s and don’t for the entire team – the main one being not to run over the many nonchalant pedestrians, cattle, and varied forms of motorised transport on our national highways.
As always, of course, there were some last minute niggles on the day we were to begin – so much so that if I had any hair left on my head, I would have grown bald by pulling it out. Small mercies I suppose. At any rate, the pressure was mounting. It’s true what they say about the best-laid plans. Eventually, we started out many hours behind schedule (which risked sending the whole itinerary out of whack), and finally departed from India Gate at 8pm on the dot on Friday the 13th – fancy that!
We weren’t making much progress though, because we were instantly swallowed up by Delhi traffic. It wasn’t until we got to the Yamuna Expressway that we finally took off. I was doing the first stint, and was very relieved to finally put pedal to metal and make some real progress. Things were now beginning to look good – the car was behaving perfectly, and I was on the finest highway in the country. And I had time to make up.
The Yamuna Expressway is so straight, and so flat, though, that after ten minutes, boredom sets in. The silver lining of the late start, thankfully, was that we would be hitting Agra late at night – so would be able to fly through the home of the Taj. At about 11pm, we exited Agra and made our way further South on some decidedly less impressive roads.
A funny thing is, once you exit Agra and head towards the border of Uttar Pradesh, the state you cross into is not Madhya Pradesh – as you would expect – but Rajasthan for a small stretch. And it just so happens that this stretch, which we crossed at the witching hour, was what’s known as the ‘Chambal’ belt.
Chambal was once a hotbed for dacoits. Some of the most famous personalities from Chambal are the likes of Daaku Man Singh, or, more recently, Phoolan Devi and Paan Singh Tomar – both of whom have been made it all the way to the silver screen. Well, their stories have anyway.
Honestly, even though this region is largely threat-free now, it was still quite eerie driving though in the dead of night. Let’s just say I was pretty pleased the A3 didn’t decide to throw a tantrum on this stretch. Soon, we were crossing Gwalior and heading towards Jhansi. On the way, you cross a truly magnificent 17th century palace, known as the Bir Singh Palace in Datia district of MP. Situated on a hill on the outskirts of Datia, this seven-storey palace was constructed by Maharaja Bir Singh Deo in 1614, and is clearly visible from the highway. It makes for quite an imposing sight. In fact, according to the Archaeological Survey of India, the palace is regarded to be one of the finest examples of domestic architecture in the country – made entirely out of stone and brick. And while we didn’t have enough time to explore it in detail, you can catch its magnificence in our picture in front of the lake (taken previously in the day).
After this, we encountered the worst stretch of road yet. The road after Datia to Jhansi seems to have been undergoing expansion for years now – as is the case with most road projects in India. As a result, we had to make our way through a maze of unmarked diversions – with no road-lights whatsoever. Eventually, after suffering a tortured journey of an hour-and-a-half, we finally hit the turn-off before Jhansi city towards Sagar.
The roads finally improved once we hit NH26, ten kilometres after the turn off. This newly built four-lane portion of the North-South corridor is a brilliant piece of road. Before we knew it, it was dawn and we were only a hundred-odd kilometres from our first destination – Nagpur. As we looked at our predicted driving times – we had estimated 15-hours from Delhi to Nagpur on a conservative basis – we had made up three hours in the first stint alone.
As the sun rose, we passed through another broken stretch for about 50 kilometres – on the periphery of the Pench National Park. Eventually, we made it to the hotel in Nagpur at 8:30am. Just over twelve hours of driving, and we had been able to make up time by driving through the night and avoiding traffic. It was time for me to get some rest, but my co-driver, Divyanshu, would have a slightly tougher time. Arup was forced to opt out of the drive at the last minute, and so Divyanshu had to take his place in the second stint as well. He was to drive, now through the rest of the day, with Shahwar all the way to Bangalore. Fortunately, he had gotten some shuteye in the passenger seat so far – I still wasn’t the least bit envious though.
As I explored the inside of my eyelids, my colleagues headed out in bright sunlight on a lovely morning. But, as they crossed Nagpur and headed on towards Adilabad, they hit the most dreaded stretch of the journey – a section between Jam and Adilabad. In fact, for forty kilometres there’s virtually no road at all – you simply go from one pothole to the next. An hour into the struggle though, this broken stretch turns into one of the finest highways of the trip – NH7 between Adilabad and Bangalore – which is a scintillating piece of road. One can press on during this stretch, and really enjoy the high-speed stability of the A3.
Dhruv and Ashish were already stationed at Bangalore, and were eagerly following the progress of Shahwar and Divyanshu through the GPS tracking device that we had fitted to the car. The quest for sunrise at Kanyakumari is looking tricky though, despite both Team 1 and Team 2 making up time – the delay at the start is simply proving too difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, at midnight on the 15th, Dhruv and Ashish set off for what is the longest leg of the journey.
Fortunately, at this late hour, Bangalore traffic doesn’t prove to be too much of an obstacle – however, the road from here till Madurai is a busy highway, with a number of toll booths and a lot of slow-moving truck traffic. They make difficult progress till first-light, driving through the night on winding roads that are completely unfamiliar to them. Once the light improves, though, they’re also faced with beautiful roads that have very little traffic all the way to Kanyakumari. And so, 37-hours after we first set off, Team 3 is finally facing the Lakshadweep Sea. The 100-hour target is firmly in sight.
As they start the return leg of their journey, I’m relaxing in my hotel room in Nagpur, tracking their progress on the GPS tracker, and getting prepared for the final leg of the drive – which I’ll be doing alone since Divyanshu will have been in the car through the night once more. Things are going smoothly for Team 3, fortunately, as they enjoy the return leg in the day far more. The landscape around the coast is quite beautiful, and they can’t resist stopping for pictures on occasion. But we can afford to do that now, since we’re well on schedule for a victorious conclusion to this challenge.
The two teams meet at Bangalore airport at 6pm on Sunday. Dhruv and Ashish head back to Delhi, while Shahwar and Divyanshu get ready for another night on the road. Having covered this stretch in the day before, they have a good idea of what lies ahead of them. In the middle of the night, they even stop for a leisurely dinner (or early breakfast, how ever you look at it), and make it back to Nagpur by 9am the next morning.
Having prepared with a few (not too many, of course) beers over the past couple of days, I jump back into the car feeling pretty good. The A3 is looking no worse for wear. This car just keeps going-and-going – not even a single errant warning light troubled us during the entire journey.
So, at about 10am, I commence the final leg with the goal firmly in sight. As I get settled in, the pace quickens. It’s nice and bright, and I’m covering ground at a pretty quick rate. I can afford to stop for a bite at Sagar, which is referred to as the ‘Heart of India’ since its located at the absolute centre of the country. As I’m having a quiet lunch I see three college kids drawn to the car. It’s not unusual, since a nicely stickered bright-red A3 garners a lot of attention wherever it goes. Of course, the obvious happens, and the trio stop for a selfie with the car. As I slowly trudge my way back to the car to continue my journey, one of them refers to me as ‘uncle.’ Now, I may have lost some hair, but a college going kid referring to me as uncle is a new one. I let it pass, now is not the time to go into Hulk mode – I have many more miles to go. My time will come – you better watch out kid, I’ll be back!
On the road again, progress is swift and before 6pm I’ve already reached Jhansi – and I manage to cross the dreaded stretch to Gwalior in sunlight. I stop for a final tank of fuel, and clean the windshield for the umpteenth time, before I head towards the finish. Not before I spend half-an-hour getting lost in Agra though – not hard to do I assure you. I hit the Yamuna Expressway eventually, 73 hours after we first started this journey, and it looks like we’re in for an epic finish – as long as I don’t cock it up in the last 200-odd kilometres.
Soon enough, I enter Delhi and head towards India Gate. The anticipation is now building, with a lot of people keeping an eye on the final leg of what’s been a unforgettable journey. Social media has been our conscience, and we’ve been posting constant updates right from zero hour (even before that in fact). Now, I’m expecting a grand ceremony at the finishing point – with Dhruv and the rest of the team giving me a big welcome, replete with cheerleaders and champagne. Instead, what I get is a bunch of Delhi Police cops badgering me about why I’m taking pictures of a car in front of India Gate at midnight. I’m told that the cheerleaders took a wrong turn, and reached another gate instead. Ya, right!
I’m just glad that we didn’t make any wrong turns en route. It took a moment to sink in, but I soon realise that we’ve successfully completed our target of driving from Delhi to Kanyakumari and back in record time. In fact, we nailed it and did much better than anyone expected with an overall time of under 76 hours – while the actual driving time was just over 66 hours. So, having crossed 9 states, over 80 toll plazas, covering 5,600 kilometres, the target was well and truly achieved. And I couldn’t possibly finish without mentioning the performance of the A3. It really turned out to be the perfect car for the job. Not one person had anything remotely negative to say about this car. We could have wished for better steering feel and steering mounted gear-shift paddles, but that apart the performance, efficiency, comfort, solidity and reliability of the A3 was truly impressive. It’s a great car to spend time in, and I have to mention just how comfortable the seats are – even after spending over 18-hours straight in the car, my colleagues and I were in excellent shape (well, as good shape as we were before anyway).
The only troubling thought now is this – what can we possibly do to top this?
- By the Numbers
Total time taken: 76 hours
Number of States entered: 9
Tolls crossed: 80 (value: Rs.6,200)
Fuel filled: 480 litres (value:Rs.25,500)
Total distance covered: 5,578kms
Video: 100-Hour Challenge: Delhi-Kanyakumari-Delhi