The driver switches off the engine and signals for us to be quiet. The guide has his hands cupped behind his ears and is listening out for something. While we can’t see anything through the thick sal forest that covers the Kanha National Park, the jungle is alive with sounds; the mewing of a peacock, the screech of an eagle, the staccato cough of a langur, the bark of a deer. The guide whispers pointing to the left, “The tiger is headed that way”. Somebody had once said, ‘When the tiger walks, the jungle talks’. And if can you interpret the jungle talk, like our guide can, you have a better chance of catching a sight of this elusive and majestic cat. The driver starts up the motor and drives the safari vehicle we are sitting in a few feet down the road, which is where we expect the tiger to show up. But today the tiger has other plans and retreats deeper into the jungle rather than come out on the road. This trip to Kanha began with a contest nearly a month ago.
The GLAdventure Contest promised a three- day driving holiday to six people, from Nagpur to Kanha. Not only would they be staying at the plush Banjaar Tola resort in Kanha, but they would also get to drive there in the recently launched Mercedes-Benz GLA. It was difficult to choose from the numerous entries that poured in, but finally six people were chosen and flown to Nagpur on April 10, 2015. And that’s where this story actually begins.
Waiting for them are two gleaming GLAs and a 300km drive to Kanha. But before the drive could officially begin, the participants were driven to the Mercedes-Benz dealership, Auto Hangar, for a quick briefing and light refreshments.
Post the warm welcome at Auto Hangar, Nagpur, the drive was ready for an official flag-off. And what better place to flag-off the GLAdventure drive, than at the very centre of India — the Zero Mile Stone. This sandstone pillar was erected by the British to mark road distances. This important monument stands neglected today, but still is an apt starting point for a road trip.
A quick flag-off by Mercedes-Benz officials, and we are on our way, scything through the city traffic which soon disappears on the rear view mirror. The road to Kanha stitches together fantastic four-lane highways, narrow rural roads, enticing ghat sections and some rutted stretches that can test a car’s suspension to the limit.
“The GLA is a great car in the city. It’s quick and responsive. It’s also stable, and planted. I was driving the petrol and it was a hoot to drive on the ghat roads.” - Nikunj Vora CEO, Mapro Garden
Nikunj Vora, one of the contest winners is a car nut. This soft-spoken businessman is one of the first to jump behind the wheel of a GLA. Within the first couple of kilometres, he is impressed by the rev-happy and responsive engine. He has a garage of cars that include a Passat, an E-Class and a Range Rover but he is not satisfied with stock cars, as good as they may be. Modifying cars is something that this 32-year old loves doing, apart from his love of driving. He clocks up more miles on his odo in a month than most people do in a year. Sharing driving duty with him is Sharman Shah, 40-year-old owner of a retail chain and a modified 300bhp Laura.
“The drive really lived up its name of GLAdventure. I was not really expecting anything, even close to what it turned out to be. It was a superb experience. Driving the GLA was really fun, once I got used to the SUVs dynamics.” - Sharman Shah, retail business owner
This car enthusiast, Sharman, is no stranger to powerful cars either, having secured second place in the recent Valley Run. Once behind the wheel of the GLA, he finds the car’s power rather addictive. With these two highly experienced drivers behind the wheel, the convoy quickly gobbles up the kilometres as hungrily as a fighter jet. While the GLAs excel on good roads, it’s where the road ends that they most impress. They clamber and power through every obstacle while the passengers remain blissfully cocooned in elegant comfort.
It’s late afternoon by the time we reach the Gateway Hotel at Gondia, after a 170km drive where there’s lunch to welcome the travellers. As we head out after lunch, another contest winner, Mamata Desai, decides to take the wheel of the GLA. Unlike the other car nuts, this 44-year-old effervescent lady is not a car person. She is happy driving in the city, but is happier being driven around. But she is happiest when she is in a forest, with her camera.
“I don’t drive an automatic, but quickly got used to the automatic gearbox of the GLA. It’s so easy to drive. In fact, I’d say it’s more a driver’s car. I prefer to be driven around than to drive. But my next car will be an automatic.” - Mamata Desai, wildlife photographer
This wildlife photographer is as passionate about wildlife as our readers are about cars. Used to a manual shift, Mamata takes a few minutes to get used to the GLAs automatic gearbox and is soon merrily cruising through Madhya Pradesh’s vast landscape. She remarks that the GLA’s auto box makes driving really simple, and decides to switch over to an auto when she purchases her next car.
It’s dark, and night has fallen by the time we reach Taj’s Banjaar Tola tented resort by the banks of the Banjaar River. While everyone has enjoyed the drive down, it’s the tiger safaris that they are looking forward to.
While most people go to Kanha National Park to see the majestic tiger, this place offers more to the visitor that just the endangered cat. So the second day began with an early morning nature walk along with Taj’s resident naturalist, Ashish, who bought to life the magic of the various birds and plants in the region. Naturally, everyone perked up to the Mahua flower which is the base for the intoxicating local brew, but is also used to make chapatis and kheer. And eaten raw has a sweet taste, as Dr Ankush Agnihotri confirmed.
“I am six foot five and I was surprised how easily my frame fit into the GLA with four more people in the car. That counts for something." - Dr Ankush Agnihotri, Ophthalmologist
This six-foot five ophthalmologist, who drives an E-Class and a Q7 was worried about fitting into the GLA, but was comfortable despite the car’s more modest exterior dimensions. With his quirky sense of humour, quick repartee and guitar, this 29-year old doctor is the unofficial DJ and compère of the group. But even he is left speechless when we see a table loaded with coffee, tea and cookies laid out in the middle of the nowhere, by the resort. Sipping piping hot coffee, nibbling a pug-mark shaped cookie in the jungle by the river, we asked if it could get any better than this.
“I think the car is a pleasure to drive. Loved the car’s suspension system, and also the brakes. Had been waiting a long time for this car. It doesn’t disappoint.” - Devendra Chawla, group president, Future Group
In fact, it was so perfect that Devendra Chawla another contest winner started getting the blues. This 42-year old Group President of a retail conglomerate had taken time off from his hectic schedule to take a quick rejuvenating break. This was an experience he wished that he could share with his family, specially his son who loved the outdoors and wildlife. So far into the trip, but the best was yet to come.
“A comfortable and good car. Enjoyable 300km drive. Fantastic property at Kanha. Lots of learning about local flora and fauna. Saw a tiger. Met a bunch of great people. What more do you want?” - Abhishek Krishnan, pilot, Boeing 777
30-year old Abhishek Krishnan lusts after everything with wheels. And he is used to controlling machines travelling at over 900kph. That’s why he rides a Harley Sportster for fun and flies a Boeing 777 for even more fun. Though there are many driving experiences on his bucket list, and a wildlife safari is not. But even he gets infected with the excitement of the wilderness as we head into the jungle for the safari. And that’s where the story begins.
As we swallow our disappointment at the missed tiger sighting, another park jeep rolls up to us and informs us that a tiger has been spotted at a nearby pond. With vehicle speeds severely monitored, our driver can’t drive us to the spot fast enough. Five minutes, three minutes, two minutes, 30 seconds, 10 seconds — a magnificent male is sitting in a pool of water to beat the heat. And perhaps to soothe the wounds on his face, probably inflicted during a fight with another male for territory. Oblivious to the clicks of the shutters and the whispers of the tourists a few hundred feet away, this apex predator sits there reminding us of William Blake’s immortal lines.
‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?’