Allow me to start with a vote of thanks to the weather gods. You see, the Malshej Ghat we intend to go to is best experienced in the monsoons. The rains just make the road, and the thick green cover surrounding it, come alive. Unfortunately, we’re in the heart of November and make our peace with the fact that it’s going to be a sunny day. But, come the day of the drive, the formerly clear skies are now chock-o-block with clouds hanging low in many of the famed 50 shades of grey. The power of positive thinking can seriously do wonders!
That it’s going to rain only reaffirms our choice of vehicle. Unsure about the condition of the roads leading up to Malshej Ghat, we decide to play it safe and make the drive in an SUV. Of course, since Land Rover has earned its stars making the best of these, it’s the ideal partner of choice. With us today is the rather attractive Range Rover Sport that’s got a smooth 288bhp, 3.0-litre V6 diesel under its squared-out bonnet.
But before we get a chance to really put the Sport in its name to the test, we have to first make best use of its capabilities as an off-roader. That’s because the road leading up to Malshej via Shahapur on NH3 is, to put it mildly, terrible. It’s filled with craters, making it a place more suited to a Lunar Rover than the Range Rover we’ve turned up in. Still, the Rangie doesn’t wince and rolls along as if smoothening bad roads is second nature to it. Come to think of it, it is. Still, as we learn on the return leg, we’d have fared much better had we approached the Malshej road from the denser trafficked albeit smoother way through Kalyan.
Anyway, things improve as we reach Murbad. The town’s buzzing with activity, but local folk do stop to take a long, hard look at the big, black SUV we’re in. But we have a date to keep with the ghat roads and turn on to NH222 without any delay. Almost on cue, the heavens open up. Nikon-man Ashley is happy, and not before long, I realise why. The intimidating, cloud-covered hills in the backdrop and the smooth tarmac in the foreground make for a frame he’s not going to pass on. I can sense he’s going to have
a field day.
And I’m not wrong. The even light, the beautiful scenery and the brown grass-lined roads make frequent photo stops the order of the day. Thankfully, for me that is, the rain picks up and has Ashley belt up in the passenger’s seat. Finally, I get to open up the Sport. I’ll have to admit, prior to this drive, I hadn’t driven this generation of the aluminium-bodied Range Rover Sport. So the benefits of its near-400kg weight reduction are a revelation to me. For something that still weighs over two tonnes and is not particularly aerodynamic, the Sport picks up speed as if it’s being blown forward by a thunderous tail wind. And I’m talking of the relatively humdrum turbo-diesel here. I can’t even imagine how fast the 5.0-litre supercharged petrol Sport is. It’s really amazing what modern engines and gearboxes can make hulking SUVs do.
Fast as the Sport proves to be on the straights, it’s also surprisingly fun when the ghats start in earnest. It’s here that the road changes character and has everything from elevation changes, to cambered corners and even a few tight hairpins. Save for a few landslide prone spots, it’s also fantastically surfaced 99 percent of the way. Perfect. As for the car, it feels lighter than I’d imagined it to be, showing a very un-SUV-like poise around these corners. It rolls, for sure, but still manages to feel anything but lazy. The adaptive air suspension almost seems to have a map of these roads pre-programmed into its software. A more communicative steering and less pitching on hard braking would definitely add to the driving experience, but I think I’m asking for too much. As is, the Sport still has us smile as it vaults us from one corner to the next.
With every few metres of altitude gained, the scenery also gets more spectacular. The roads are cut out of cliff-faced mountains of the Sahyadri range, so there’s a wall of rock on one side and vertigo-inducing drops on the other. There’s much to see enroute, but we don’t feel the need to stop at the designated view points — the Sport’s large windows, typical of all Land Rovers, make it well suited for sightseeing on the move.
While at it, I also make another important observation about the two-laned route. And that is, how free from traffic it is. I’m sure it’s a different story in the monsoons, but on what should have been a tourist-unfriendly sunny day, there are not too many cars on the road. The thin traffic is mainly made up of state buses piloted by drivers with varying levels of obedience to modern day niceties as lane driving. But at one of our photo stops, we are also passed by a 15-bike strong crew of motorcyclists from Mumbai. Trust bikers to know where all the good roads are. We catch up with them to learn they are headed to the Shivneri Fort (better known as Chatrapati Shivaji’s birth place) a lot further down the road. We, on the other hand, choose to end the drive with a halt for lunch at the MTDC resort at the top of the climb. The food doesn’t quite hit the spot, but the sheer serenity of the place and the panoramic views it offers, do.
Looking into the distance, we also spot a few mud paths just calling out to us. We are in a Range Rover after all, and the outing would be incomplete without some amount of off-roading thrown into the plan. So, with the air suspension raised to its highest and the Terrain Response system switched to Mud, we set off to explore the unknown. But without intending to discredit the Rangie, I find it so overly capable over the slush paths we’re on that I’m a bit frustrated that my intervention is limited to just steering and throttle inputs. Talk of first-world problems.
Back on the road, we choose to cruise down the descent at a relaxed, almost lazy pace. It’s here that the engine’s quietness and general silence in the Sport’s cabin make it feel most like the luxury SUV it is. Both Ashley and I nod in appreciation of the Range Rover’s rounded personality. But it’s the serpentine route that leaves the bigger impression. Smoothly paved and with enough twists and turns to keep you engaged, it’s a road that seems tailor-made for a blast up in a sportscar. Yes, it’s that good. The best bit is, it’s not too long a drive from Mumbai, provided you plan for an early departure. But I’ll end with a word of advice. Keep the weather gods happy and pray for a bit of rain!
There are two ways to approach Murbad, which is the starting point of the drive. You could come via Shahapur or through Kalyan. While the route through Kalyan can get busy, it’s far better surfaced and is the one we’d recommend. After Murbad, traffic on the NH222 towards Malshej Ghat thins out, but this is only a two-laner, so exercise caution near the villages that dot the roads and keep an eye out for unruly two-wheelers. The surface is smooth at most places on the approximately 55km long stretch that will lead you to the MTDC resort at Malshej Ghat.
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