Catching a ‘plane in Kutch (Gujarat)

AIR TRAVELLERS CAN FLY to the former Kingdom of Kutch (Kachchh), now part of Gujarat, by two routes. There is a scheduled flight between Ahmedabad and Bhuj, and another between Mumbai and Kandla, whose airport is close to Anjar.

Kandla, was developed as a seaport on the early 1950s at the instigation of a member of the by then former royal family of Kutch. It lies on the coast of Kutch southeast of Karachi, a port that was incorporated into Pakistan in 1947, and northwest of Mumbai. It is now the largest port in India when measured by the volume of cargo handled there.

Cattle on the road

From Mandvi to Kandla Airport is 95 Km by road. We set off from Mandvi three hours before our flight to Mumbai was due to depart from Kandla. Our hosts, who use the airport frequently, told us that on average the road journey is 1 ½ hours. For the first hour of our journey, the highway was almost devoid of traffic. Along the way, we frequently switched lanes because heavy vehicles often move slowly along the outside lane without giving way to faster vehicles. We wove our way between slower vehicles, constantly overtaking and ‘undertaking’. Then after speeding along steadily, we headed towards a static queue of heavy lorries.

QuIck as a flash, our driver made a three point turn and we drove in the opposite direction tobthe rest of the traffic until we reached a gap in the central divider of the dual carriageway. We were not alone in making this manoeuvre. There were even some of the heavy goods vehicles making cumbersome manoeuvres to head away from the traffic jam. We continued our journey on the wrong side of the divider until we reached a turn off that allowed us to go under the highway and back into the correct lane.

Soon, we encountered another jam. A transporter carrying a tank as wide as one side of the motorway was inching its way onto the main road. Our driver took us off the road onto a dirt track, but this was also blocked. Another u-turn and we drove beneath the highway to a narrow, poorly tarmacced road that ran parallel to the highway. This led to a bridge beneath the main thoroughfare to reach another narrow lane that ran alongside the part of the highway running towards Kandla.

This lane offered other obstructions including large trucks and a herd of slow moving cattle. We squeezed past them and eventually rejoined the highway.

Meanwhile, the time was ticking away, and we wondered whether we would miss our flight. My spirits rose when we turned off the highway and on to a road leading to the airport. Soon, my hopes were dashed. We encountered yet another jam. However, our skilful driver managed weave his way between them. Soon, we arrived in front of the tiny airport terminal building.

Kandla Airport is primarily a military air base. Passengers use it for the one flight a day to and from Mumbai. When we disembarked there a few years ago, we walked from the aircraft to a shelter, where passengers’ check-in baggage was ready to be retrieved.

The check-in and security check is carried out in a part of a small room, the rest of which is part of the departure lounge (with a snacks stall). This hall leads to another room with seating. It is here that the departure gate is located. This simple departure lounge reminded me of Venice’s Marco Polo Airport as it was in the early 1960s.

We boarded the Spicejet two engined propellor plane after walking across the apron. The aircraft (a Q400 made by the Bombadier Company) has its own retractable staircase that we used to enter and later leave the ‘plane. After an uneventful flight lasting 1 hour and 15 minutes, we disembarked at Mumbai.

We were lucky only to have arrived a few minutes later than the scheduled time. Only three days earlier, my wife’ cousin’s flight from Mumbai to Kandla was delayed by almost 5 hours because of a technical problem discovered on the ‘plane minutes before it was due to take off. We were also fortunate because our quick-witted driver skilfully reduced the time spent stuck at significantly awful traffic jams.

Rules of the road

As in the UK, Japan, South Africa, and Ireland, the rule in India is that one drives on the left side of the road. The steering wheel in four (or more) wheeled vehicles is on the right side of the car, truck, bus etc. In the case of two or three wheeled vehicles, the driver is centrally located. So far so good.

Although the driving on the left rule exists in India, it is regularly ignored.

Unless there is an un-crossable median barrier, turning right is often done as follows in India. The driver eases his or her vehicle into the stream of traffic on the right (I.e. wrong) side of the road into which the turn is being made. With a sea of vehicles approaching in the opposite direction, the driver drifts carefully towards the middle of the road, and then joins the lanes of traffic moving in the same direction as his or her vehicle. Sounds hazardous, does it not?

If you are travelling in an autorickshaw, your driver will often drive down a one way street in the wrong direction in order to make the trip shorter.

On the dual carriageway highway, things get more exciting. The highway provides an opportunity to speed up. But beware; it is not uncommon to come across trucks and other vehicles driving in the wrong direction towards the traffic speeding in the correct direction. Once, I asked a professional driver about this. He told me that it was quite normal for this to happen. By driving down the incorrect lane, a driver can avoid having to travel in the direction opposite to that in which he wishes to travel in order to make a U-turn. That seems quite reasonable but rather dangerous. It is just as dangerous as the herdsmen who choose to move flocks of goats and other animals along the traffic filled lanes of a highway.

Whereas a driver in the UK would be startled by any of the above, Indian drivers take these curious practices in their stride. They expect the unexpected and understand that the rules of the road are, like rules in general, made to be broken.