Riders thrive by heading off to uncharted destinations. Riding to new destinations is more exciting than going on a blind date. It is a dopamine-filled activity that promises thrills of unfamiliar roads leading to unknown places. It had been a while since I last went on such a ride and I was looking for a place that not only involved hard riding but also an exhilaration of wildlife. After some deliberations over a couple of beer meetings, Stanley and I decided to make a heading to Dajipur Bison Sanctuary near Kolhapur. Stanley had been my fellow rider through many rides over the last few years and thus was a natural choice for this trip. One thumb rule we follow while picking a destination is that the riding distance should not be less than 200 kms from home and not more than 500 kms for a 3 day trip. This makes for not just good riding but also offers reasonable time to relax and explore what the destination has to offer. Dajipur fitted this criterion with one-way riding distance of approximately 480 kms from Mumbai. Also a bison park as a destination is not a run-of-the-mill locale that everyone rides to. As with any ride, we planned the itinerary in detail to be clear about the routes to take while riding in and riding out of the destination. Generally, we prefer to choose a different route while riding back since it makes for a new trip in itself.
Day 1: Mumbai-Pune-Kolhapur-Dajipur
We kicked off a couple of days before Christmas on our respective Royal Enfield Thunderbirds. The cold winter morning numbed us as we hit NH4 (Mumbai-Pune highway) at 6:30 am on our bikes. Nevertheless, it only served to warm up our riding spirit. The experience of being on a highway is liberating and humbling at the same time. One may be well geared and road-worthy but there are many forces on the road that can work against you, like the traffic, the weather, the terrain, and not to forget the invasive truck drivers coming from the opposite direction. Fortunately, most of the national highways in Maharashtra except NH 17 have opposing lanes separated by dividers.
Khandala served as our breakfast break. Here we ran into two bullet riders. Stanley instantly befriended one of them who revealed to us that they were on a southern odyssey covering Bangalore, Ooty, Pondy, and back. We couldn’t help but feel that our trip was like going to a neighbourhood grocery shop as compared to them. We ascended our bullets and within a couple of hours were dragging a smoke at Pune. From here we continued on NH4 towards the city known for its spicy food and ubiquitous ‘Patil’ surname- Kolhapur. Many times on the highway, we were overtaken by local bikers who had no helmets or eye glasses on them. I felt as if Stanley and I were dressed in suit & tie at a nude party considering our repertoire of protective gear. It was a long ride to Kolhapur with an hour spent on lunch and bio breaks. By 4:30 in the evening we were sipping tea at a street-side joint on Kolhapur’s arterial Station road. Odometer reading: 399.5 kms. After a brief chat with the tea vendor, we realised that we still had 70 odd kms of ride ahead of us with the winter sun sinking fast in the horizon.
Radhanagari is the last major town before Dajipur and is the most popular place to ask for directions while going to Dajipur. We quickly refilled our fuel tanks and commenced on the last leg of our ride to Dajipur. I knew in my heart that this would be the most thrilling part of the day. Negotiating the unruly Kolhapur traffic and ‘work-in-progress’ downtown roads, we finally hit state highway-SH 116. Like any other state highway, this is a two-lane road with unpredictable bad patches and unannounced animal movement. Since this was the first time we were riding on this road, not knowing what lay ahead, it was crucial for us to maintain our aggressive pace to reach the destination at a friendly hour. Asking for directions on country roads after sunset is quite a task.
Throughout the ride, the sight of Radhanagari milestones kept us at ease. SH 116 is the chief road that connects Kolhapur to NH 17, which is the Mumbai-Goa highway and thus has a decent amount of traffic. As it turned dark our headlights came to life and it became more difficult to see and avoid the potholes. However our progress was better than we expected and by 7:30 pm we were just 5 kms away from Dajipur. This called for a break and we pulled over on a small bridge over a village pond by the road. The moon glistened across the dark landscape and the sight was absolutely spectacular. Smoking it up in the feeble glow of our bullet tail lights was like a celebration of sorts. Finally five minutes before 8:00 p.m., we reached our hotel. Odometer reading: 484 kms.
It was actually an inconspicuous holiday home by the roadside with a modest verandah and a compact lobby. The hotel was located within a cluster comprising a few roofed village houses, a grocery shop, and a bus stop that stretched less than half a kilometre end-to-end. The attendant at the hotel told us that they didn’t serve dinner and we would have to make it to a dhaba a kilometre away.
So, we set out on foot in the pitch black night towards the dhaba on the dark highway with just having learnt from someone that a buffalo was killed by a tiger atop a hill adjacent to the highway a few days back. The dhaba was a quintessential countryside truckers’ paradise. However, the spicy chicken dish that we ordered, made in authentic Kolhapuri masala, made our palates fall in love with it. We were sure to come here again. After more than twelve hours of riding on the clock and digesting our rustic dinner we finally called it a day at 10 p.m. by crashing into our stodgy prince-sized bed.
Day 2: Dajipur
Next day, we rose early to a Sunday morning sun. The freshness of the countryside air was rejuvenating to our city lungs. The attendant at the hotel treated us to a scrumptious breakfast and multiple cups of hot tea. Soaking in the winter sun and chatting away to glory, we didn’t realize when the sun passed midway through the sky. We scrambled to freshen up and set off on our Bullets to explore the Dajipur bison reserve.
There is a manned entry check point very close to the hotel off the highway. Here we paid the entry fee and were about to leave when the policeman on duty ridiculed us for going to the sanctuary in the afternoon sun and on our boisterous Bullets. We still pushed on. The main gate to the reserve is just a few single digit kilometres away from this checkpoint. However, the road that leads to it is no cakewalk. It is a rock-strewn earth track with a steep gradient– a complete off-roading experience. Stanley and I had to rev up our 350cc engines and push the torque real hard at times while maintaining a fine balance between the clutch and the accelerator.
An old man stood guard at the main entry gate of the bison reserve. He appeared flummoxed on seeing us as if we had lost our way to the reserve. Two bikers on roaring Bullets must have been a least expected sight for him. After speaking to him we realised that the main watch tower was atop a hillock nineteen kilometres inside through a serpentine and steep earthy road just like the one we had taken to reach this point. He told us that it would be foolish to ride all the way to the tower at that time of the day with noisy bikes which would scare away any animals in the vicinity. Also, the return being the same distance back, it would be very difficult to make it to the main gate before 6 pm– the closing time. Guests to the reserve generally hire a local taxi and leave very early in the morning to return by two or three in the afternoon whereas we were trying to make an entry into the park at that time. With anticipated disappointment, we turned back. Fortunately, the road back offered not only a picturesque view of the Dajipur Talao- a reservoir created by the Radhanagari dam but also some great photo opportunities at a local monastery and surrounding fields. Finally, roving around Dajipur, we reached the hotel by sunset. Soon it was time for dinner and I was excited like a small kid to walk a kilometre on the dark highway back to the dhabba from last evening. It would be an understatement if I said the culinary experience outmatched the previous days’. We were more lavish in our ordering as this was to be our last opportunity here unless fate was kind enough to get us back to this part of the world- A highly unlikely scenario for foreseeable future. We called it a day after packing our bags for the next day’s ride back to Mumbai.
Day 3: Dajipur-Phonda-Nandgoan (NH17) – Mumbai
It was 5:30 in the morning and I was standing outside the hotel enjoying the quietude of the village and the highway. Dawn was still almost an hour away and the star-studded sky looked simply marvellous. I was anticipating a long day of riding. We left at 6:15 and started our ride on SH 116 through the ghats leading to Phonda- a major town after Dajipur. We passed acres of fields, sleepy villages, and tortuous photogenic roads enveloped in crisp early morning fog. We stuck to SH 116 post Phonda and rode till we intercepted the Mumbai-Goa highway (NH17) at Nandgaon at 8 am
We were 380 kilometres from Panvel with not less than 8 hours of hard riding in front of us. After a quick breakfast at a highway restaurant, we set about on our Thunderbirds. Riding on the Mumbai-Goa highway had always been exciting to me given the two lanes without the divider, sudden curves, intermittent ghats and the old-school overtaking by barging into the opposite lane (no sarcasm). Following the ‘man-in-the-mirror’ principle we rode through the highway as a tag team. The power and torque provided to me by my Royal Enfield Thunderbird made me fall in love with it, again.
Lunch and tank re-fill was at Chiplun just past noon. Though it was December, the sun was unrelenting on the highway and we thought it would be wise to take breaks after every couple of hours of riding. It was only by 6 in the evening that we reached Stanley’s house at Panvel. After a brief chat about our ride and a departing high-five to my chum, I set out on the dreariest route of my thrilling 3 day ride. I was headed back to my home in the suburbs of Mumbai wading through the city traffic and numerous signals. After having ridden fast and smooth on the highway, riding in the city feels like a slap on your face. A couple of hours after Panvel, I finally rolled into my parking lot. I had completed 14 eventful hours on the road. My odometer clocked 993.5 kilometres and the dust and the grime of all that mileage was imprinted not only on my Bullet but also on my face.