By : RACHNA TYAGI
At a time when it seemed like almost everyone out there was descending on Goa, in droves, I zeroed in on another former Portuguese colony – Diu – which falls under theAdministration of Daman and Diu. Now, because my road trip would involve almost 1800+ kms of serious driving (back and forth), including a stopover in Ahmedabad, the choice of vehicle was an important one. It had to be one that would not just perform brilliantly on our smooth inter-state highways but one capable of deftly handling different kinds of intra-city roads as well as some rugged terrain. For me, the answer seemed pretty straightforward. In fact, ever since I had driven it in Chandigarh, some months back, the Jeep Meridian’s capabilities had kindled a desire in me to take it on a long road trip and so, this drive, served up the perfect opportunity to do both – explore the 2.0-Litre (1956cc) Turbo Diesel 4X4 vehicle and the beach destination better, and at my own pace.
And so, on a sunny Friday morning, with the key jangling in my pocket, and a big grin plastered on my face I got behind the wheel of the Jeep Meridian. When I had mentioned the road trip to S, he jumped at the idea, and as he tossed our duffel bags into the Jeep Meridian’s cavernous 233-litre boot and consigned the snack bag to the second-row passenger seat, I placed our respective thermoses with steaming hot cups of tea into the Jeep Meridian’s cup holders and soon we were headed towards NH48.
The drive from Thane to Ahmedabad was a long one, and as we passed Vapi, Valsad and Navsari we made the most of our tea, barbequed chips, and home-made sandwiches. The well-positioned cup holders held our thermoses just fine and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about any spillage was reassuring. On the highway, watching different vehicles with number plates from different states such as MP, Rajasthan and Gujarat, carrying goods as well as people turned into a fun exercise as the bumper stickers never ceased to amaze us throughout the drive.
After stopping for a late lunch, we headed straight for the world-class NE-1 (National Express - 1), also known as the Ahmedabad-Vadodara Expressway, the one that would take us to Ahmedabad. After driving on it the last time, enroute to the Rann of Kutch, I had fallen in love with it and simply couldn’t resist the lure of driving on it yet again. Unlike last time, when the sun was still up while driving on NE-1, this time around when we hit NE-1, it was late evening and the magnificent highway was beautifully lit up, looking absolutely resplendent, barring one small stretch where it seemed to be enveloped in complete darkness. However, the Jeep Meridian’s LED headlamps did a spectacular job providing terrific lighting on the highway and inside the cabin, the backlit buttons truly dazzled in the darkness, and the whole ambience for those brief moments, felt almost surreal.
After the mandatory border check by the Gujarat cops to check for any prohibited booze being brought into the state, we proceeded towards our hotel, in one of the most bustling areas of Ahmedabad – Navrangpura. The plan was to break journey in Ahmedabad, catch up with a friend over dinner, and get a good night’s rest. Despite driving all day, truth be told, even at 9:00pm, I wasn’t feeling exhausted at all because the mighty Meridian had made the entire journey from Thane to Ahmedabad seem like an absolute breeze. Besides, the next day was an important one as well, as the drive to Diu was almost 370 kms from our hotel in Ahmedabad. So, we calculated that it would take us a little over eight hours to get there via Bhavnagar and so, the best thing to do, we decided was to start off before daybreak to arrive in Diu at a good time and make the most of the evening there. And so, the next morning, at 5:45 am, I found that S has checked out of the hotel and was already waiting for me in the hotel’s car park. Soon after, we topped up the Meridian’s 60 litre fuel tank at a nearby fuel pump, and were on the road again, headed to our destination – Diu.
Since we had left our hotel really early, the breakfast service wasn’t available and so, we chomped on cake slices until I finally stopped driving and decided to take a tea break at a food court around 10:30am. Here, the car park was filled with riders on their superbikes and cars carrying large families packed like sardines; it wasn’t hard to tell that most of them were headed to Somnath. After stretching out and rejuvenating ourselves with a few cups of the famous Masala Chai from Gujarat and some delicious Poha (With a Gujarati twist), we continued towards Diu.
If one really wants to see what India is going to look like in the coming years, I suggest you take a road trip to Diu and see the massive road construction that is going on throughout there, especially on NH51, and if that won’t impress you, little else will. The sheer scale of road construction activity is just unbelievable with every conceivable road construction equipment present there in large numbers to get the job done on a war footing. In fact, when we were driving the Jeep Meridian there, we experienced the most amazing roads and it was just sheer joy to indulge in some pedal-to-metal driving with very sparse traffic. In fact, the only people we saw on some stretches were local villagers who were mostly riding their two wheelers. There were also stretches along the highway where one side was constructed and thrown open to the public whereas the other was still under construction. However, the overall impression I got was that of a major plan that seemed underway to turn Diu into a beautiful sea-side attraction yet again to attract more tourists via its hotel and leisure industry, and why not? Afterall, this 400-year-old Portuguese colony is steeped in rich history.
Driving through the NH51 with warning signs of lions throughout was a truly unusual experience for us. Each time we stopped for pictures, the very thought of a lion on the prowl somewhere close sent a shudder down my spine despite it not looking probable at all. However, from whatever glimpses I could catch from the SUV’s windscreen, the locals seemed to be quite at ease, going about their daily activities coolly, sparing little thought to the warning signs of the lion.
As we drove on and the landscape changed, so did the people’s attire. Nowhere is this more visible than Gujarat and Rajasthan. Because of the heat, you’ll notice that most men, almost always, dress in white, turban included, and as one moves towards the deserts of Rajasthan, while white is also hugely popular there, the attire gets more colourful, so people can also be easily spotted in the sand dunes. Here, in Gujarat, most men were dressed in all-white and some looked so regal that it almost seemed as if they had stepped onto the road after walking the ramp for Shahab Durazi’s latest white collection.
As we drove through Bhavnagar, we came to a crossroad where we spotted the first sign for Diu and boy, did we laugh out aloud! An entrepreneurial mind sure had devised a unique strategy to announce his puncture repair business which entailed hanging a tyre and some pipes on the sign board to indicate that for anyone encountering tyre problems, help was at hand. From here on, the road was just splendid with just unimaginably vast stretches of barren land on both sides which took us right to Diu but not before we crossed a massive toll booth where the Jeep Meridian did attract many appreciative glances.
It was around 3:30pm when we arrived at Diu. After checking out a few hotels, we finally chose one where we were lucky to find rooms that had received a lick of paint and were also clean. We then freshened up and began our exploration of the island. Our first stop was Ghoghla beach and we sure were impressed by its cleanliness. It had been turned into quite an attraction and most visitors before stepping onto the beach clicked pictures to their heart’s content on the concrete section of it which was landscaped beautifully.
Next, we drove past the colourful Portuguese homes and while that was indeed a splash of colour, it wasn’t something we fancied photographing as it appeared ‘kitsch’ to us and so skipping that part, we headed to the decommissioned INS Khukri, which after 32 years of service, was handed over to the Diu administration. Not too far from this is also the INS Khukri Memorial, in honour of the courageous 18 officers and 176 sailors who went down when INS Khukri was torpedoed by a Pakistani submarine during the 1971 war.
After this, we decided to visit some of the churches built by the Portuguese. We got to know that only one was being used for worship while the other two had been converted into a hospital and a museum respectively. So, we headed to St. Paul’s Church which turned out to be a true testament to the Baroque style of architecture. By the time we got here, the evening service had just ended and the last of the Church goers were trickling out. As we stood across the street, taking in the whitewashed Church’s vastness, admiring its front elevation we wondered what it may have looked like in its prime because now, although it wasn’t really crumbling, it clearly was showing its age, thanks to poor maintenance and some amount of decay had already set in. Nevertheless, a stunning sight it was!
After St. Paul’s Church, we headed to the main attraction there – the Diu Fortress, also built by the Portuguese. The fortress is a big draw and besides being a landmark is also one of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin in the world. The fortress offers a commanding view of the Arabian sea but what was really interesting was spotting a few old bronze cannons on the top. Also, the lighthouse looked spectacular from here.
Since, the island of Diu is only 38.8 square kilometers, it doesn’t take long to explore it. Also, the fact that it isn’t crowded like Goa makes it super easy to gain access to most places and really explore. Also, if like us, you have your own set of wheels, it can be done in very little time. (We had immovable deadlines). In fact, driving to Diu took us longer than exploring it, but we’ll say this… take your own time when here and make the most of water sports activities and spend more time exploring the museum. You will definitely not regret it. As for us, it was every bit worth it driving down to see this little island to which Air India, the national carrier, operates a daily flight.
Despite such a long drive, we were still in high spirits by the end of the day. We returned to our hotel to unwind, ordered dinner and decided to leave early the next morning because as S said, “it is a long drive to Ahmedabad.” However, I had other plans.
Next morning, we left at 6:00 and topped up the fuel tank. For the way back, we chose a different route which avoided the under-construction highway that we used while driving to Diu. This route, for the most part, was through a scenic forest with barely any traffic. It was slightly unnerving not seeing anyone on the road but then after several kilometers of driving, we’d pass a village or an occasional tyre repair shop and it was as if the villages were just stirring to life. We continued on this road for almost 185 kms which later brought us to a highway leading to Ahmedabad.
The tinted glass of the Jeep Meridian deserves a special mention for keeping the sun out. It ensured that despite me forgetting to slap on my sun block in the morning, I didn’t have to worry too much about sunburn, and all I ended up with was a mild tan.
I decided to give the stopover at Ahmedabad a miss and continued driving towards NE-1. I drove all the way back to Thane with just two stops. Yes, you read that right. We stopped en route only for a quick lunch at around 2:00pm and to pack some snacks with our tea around 7:00pm which we had while driving, late evening. After that, I drove the Jeep Meridian non-stop and what an absolute delight it turned out to be driving after sunset. Our national highways are where you get to really test the capabilities of a vehicle such as this one and our true-blue SUV did not disappoint. We may not have used all the features of the Jeep Meridian on this road trip which for the most part involved driving on straight roads but we did experience some pretty bad highway stretches where construction work was still being carried out and there the Jeep Meridian, thanks to its ground clearance of 214mm and excellent suspension really shone beautifully winning our hearts.
I knew that the Jeep Meridian was an excellent choice for an SUV but that night, (or should I say morning,) at 1:30 am after dropping S off as I parked the vehicle, I couldn’t help looking at it in a different light. Now, I have over the years, owned as well as driven other American car brands such as Saturn, Chevrolet and Ford but the Jeep Meridian wins my respect for its build quality, refined engine as well as excellent road manners. Few SUVs out there could have performed non-stop on such vast highways with the finesse and the temperament that the Jeep Meridian displayed on this trip. It was a vehicle that was big enough, powerful enough and reliable enough to drive continuously the way I did for almost 1800+ kms without any warning lights or other problems cropping up and that is what lies at the crux of it all. The OEM’s commitment to give users the very best, and in this department, I can confidently say that Jeep certainly did not disappoint. As for me, everything after that was a bit of a blur. After reaching home, I slept like a log only to be woken up the next morning to return the keys of the Jeep Meridian to the company’s driver who had arrived to pick up the SUV.