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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Thursday, 17 February 2011

February 17th: East of Raipur in Eastern India

On this day, or thereabouts, in 1973, I was driving from Hyderabad to Calcutta.  This was quite a long trip and took us the best part of four days.  We were determined to try to camp free in the forests as we went whenever possible; this had been very successful in Turkey but we had abandoned the idea for safety's sake in Iran and Afghanistan.  In India we had so far largely tried to stay at places such as PWD rest houses when we were outside the more developed cites where there were tourist bungalows and so on which were used to people who wanted to camp in their cars rather than occupying a room.  There were drawbacks to rest houses: they were well sign-posted but sometimes reluctant to let us stay and this could consume a lot of time for a brief overnight; also if car camping in a more built-up area we could have people staring at us in a circle all the time we were not actually sleeping.

The first day was over the typical Deccan countryside, largely red earth, wooded plateaux and steep escarpments from one level to another, through sparsely populated parts of Andhra Pradesh and into Maharashtra where we found a quiet place for the night.  As we approached Nagpur, the land was more densely populated and the fields richer with orange plantations.  We found we didn't have to go through the centre of the city but there was a sort of ring road.  The country went back to being generally less developed as we drove east into Madhya Pradesh, and although we went past the huge Soviet-built industrial complex of Bhilai, the towns were strikingly poor and deprived.  We planned to camp after Raipur if possible and chose to find a restaurant there to eat so that we could drive on until it was nearly dark.  There was something of the Kwality sort by the main road, so we didn't have to look for the bazaar.  The map showed a fork in the road after Raipur and we chose the more direct road even though the single lane of asphalt stopped at the junction.  The country became immediately more wild, denser forest with fewer, if any, breaks, more mountainous, almost no people, no other traffic.  After an hour or so of slow driving we found an opening off the road, where there was a level clearing, set up the back of the Land-Rover for sleeping and went to bed. 

I was awakened in the night by the distant roar of a truck and a clashing of low gears; the truck took an hour to get to where we were and then another hour for the noise to dim.  Finally I woke at six and peered out to see six or so people, men and women, wearing simple undyed homespun walking slowly round the Land-Rover.  This went on for some time until they were satisfied and moved on.

The highlands lasted a bit longer and then we came to one or two small settlements where the people were mostly wearing homespun again.  At a bridge over a stream leading into another small town the Land-Rover ground to a halt, blocking the road completely.  A spring shackle had broken on the rough road and there was nothing I could do.  It was a picturesque spot but we had not seen a vehicle of any sort since before the fork in the road, apart from hearing the truck in the night.  However within a few minutes a Sikh truck driver pulled up and set to work.  Other vehicles  arrived and also a few pedestrians.  The Sikh was a cheerful sort.  He quickly removed my jack, put one of his own on to support the spring and removed the shackle.  He used the stonework of the bridge as an anvil and hammered the shackle U-bolt back into shape, so that we could secure one side properly and the other at least fitted in the slot.  He saw it as all in a day's work, especially in these remote parts, and all the other drivers were very relieved that it all got sorted easily. He said something about his family being blacksmiths.

We were able to drive very carefully on to the next town where they fitted a lightweight shackle; this lasted another day and a half on better roads on through Orissa until we got a proper one in Calcutta.  This was the only time the Land-Rover got stranded, unable to move in the 30,000 mile round trip.

This eastern part of Madhya Pradesh is now the state of Chhattisgarh, an area characterised by isolated industrialisation exploiting local minerals and tribal people living in the forests.  This area is now the focus of Naxalite attacks, although when I passed through Eastern India the movement was still mainly confined to the area around Naxalbari, near where we crossed from India into Nepal, described here.

View Raipur in a larger map

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