Sunday, October 19, 2014

Feedback: Travelparkz Mysore, Reliable taxi operator

My uncle used to book most of his taxi needs with TravelParkz Mysore. When I needed a car for rent in Mysore, first thing that came to my mind was Travelparkz. I called them on phone and booking was instantly created and confirmed.

This post shares my personal experience with Travelparkz, should be helpful if you're looking for a taxi operator in Mysore.
Travelparkz mysore reportedly have a fleet of over 200 cars, of different types. For a 5 seater like Verito, charges are Rs 9 per km and for Innova/Xylo, Rs 12/km. This is slightly expensive than lesser known operator, but you may not mind this premium in exchange for prompt, reliable service and relatively new cars.

My experience was pretty smooth. Cab arrived on time, was relatively new and very clean. They are driven at modest speed ("Customers should be able to sleep peacefully" is their Mantra), though it meant they took time to catch up with me.

Driver Jagadeesh was pretty good. I drove the scorpio up the Chembra peak in Wayanad, Jagadeesh caught up with his Verito and reached the top, negotiating few bad stretches skilfully. Though he expressed concern that he doesn't want to climb any more peaks next day.

However, one and only concern/complaint I have about them is the interstate permit. I was told Kerala permit will cost Rs 500. At the Kerala border, I was also in queue with the cab driver (usually RTO officials won't let civilians come near the counter and insist only drivers should come-this is of convenience to both them and the driver as there's no one to witness how much exactly exchanged hands. While at the queue, I was told first time entry of a vehicle will be charged extra, second time less etc. All these gyan was proved false. At the counter, Travelparkz 5 seater verito which has already done few trips to Wayanad was charged Rs 200, and my 7 seater self drive scorpio, its first time entry into the state, was also charged Rs 200. Later while settling the bill, driver tried to count Rs 500 as the permit fee, claiming they charge a standard fee for this because they would have paid more for first time visit etc. I countered that these charges will be paid at actuals and for first time visit also I was charged Rs 200. After some hesitation the driver collected this amount at actual. For other customers they would have simply pocketed Rs 300 extra. [Read more about my earlier post on interstate taxi permit mafia]

Also the bill didn't mention the exact amount. When asked, he wrote on top of it and gave.

After returning from 2 day trip to Wayanad, our driver was immediately asked to leave for another trip from their office it seems, without even giving him one night rest. I think this is bad practice from the company. This is common practice during festive season when demand is high. But such continuous driving can result in accidents. Ask them to send a fresh driver if you're booking for long drive. Check if your driver had enough rest when reports. If he appears tired, delay your departure by a few hours and ask the driver to sleep for sometime, this is in your own safety interest.
Verdict: You can book with them, but be careful about interstate permit and bill aspects.

Offroad Part 2: Mud Bogging-Thars and Jeeps negotiating mud

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Mud blogging... sorry bogging was the second challenge at the Terrariders Offroad Adventure I got to experience last Saturday near Pavanjur. [Read Part 1 here]

After clearing the first obstacle, a rock, our convoy headed to second. This one was to cross a stretch of pit covered with muddy water. It wasn't deep enough to sink the suvs and just appeared superficial. As Arka explained what to do, one of the participant promptly asked- "in this situation, who has better advantage? one who crosses first or one who crosses last?"  There was no clear answer to this. Both first and last car crossing the mud path has advantages as well as disadvantages.

As I understand, one who goes first gets the advantage of undisturbed terrain and if he is skilled enough can sail through easily. However, those who go behind gain some benefits too- by observing the vehicle ahead, they can identify spots which may be deeper or having possibility of wheel digging deeper and try to avoid such spots. Also the bed could get hardened a bit after multiple vehicles crossing over it. But on the other hand, if initial vehicles had lots of wheelspin digging deeper and deeper into the mud, vehicles behind will have tougher time negotiating them.

Swamy was the first to cross the mud in his Thar and he did it successfully. Other vehicles followed suit. Few drove in reverse too. Participants were encouraged to try negotiating it in 2 wheel drive itself and engage 4WD only if required.

Watch the video below to witness second part of the offroad for beginners challenge.

Almost all the drivers did well in this round. Even regular street tyres did just well. I feel it wasn't challenging enough. After driving around in straight lines, drivers drove around in a zig zag manner and had fun.

 Nishchal's Mahindra in a faceoff with a Thar...
Once you see your 4x4 get dirty, you feel a sense of fulfillment. These vehicles are meant for purposes like this and using them for just the city drive won't make them justice. The Thars and other SUVs are capable of negotiating muddy stretches much more serious than what we'd tried. The drivers now got their basics right and will feel confident encountering tougher terrains.

Standby for part 3

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Terratigers Offroad Adventure near Chennai-Part1

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When I learnt from Srini about an offroad event happening near Chennai, I pinged the organizer to check if I can join to observe. Kind person that he was, Mr Arka Dutta facilitated my joining the event.  Vishnu, one of the organizers picked me up in his monster ford endeavor and we headed towards a village 80kms from Chennai. During the journey I got some insights into the Palar challenge and Rain forest challenge. We also picked up Srini on the way. [Some early pictures of the event here]

Vishnu told me that many SUV owners are afraid of trying offroading, fearing the possible damage to their pricy vehicles. By subjecting his SUV to extreme advetures, he is aiming to prove a point that SUVs are extremely capable and can negotiate tough obstacles without damaging themselves. While modifications do help, even stock versions are fairly capable. You can drive out a 4x4 SUV straight from showroom to an offroad adventure. Once you learn the capabilities of your vehicle and how to negotiate it in various terrains, the probability of damage starts to drop.

To all the SUV owners out there- if you've bought a 30 lakh SUV paying 1 lakh in insurance every year and using it only for office commute, get out and get dirty. Explore the true potential of your beasts.

Vishnu also said Mahindra Thar has changed 4x4 scene dramatically. [Mahindra Thar Review & Photoshoot ] It is affordable and can be used for offroad without any modifications. Earlier finding a mechanic who can fix/maintain a 4x4 system in a jeep was a challenge- not many people knew whom to approach for such things. Now it can be maintained by a Mahindra showroom.

Terra tigers, headed by Mr Arka (Arkaprava Datta)  have been conducting offroad events for over 10 years now. They frequently conduct events wherein jeep and SUV owners can register and learn offroading.  We assembled at a farm near Pavanjur (Marg Tapovan is somewhere nearby). We saw this aged military truck, which I am told still works. It had too many gear levers- one of which is to operate the winch, which in this vehicle is powered by the engine, unlike battery operated ones in other cars. Mr Arka is reportedly trying to rebuild it. Best wishes to him.

As suspected, most of the participants arrived in their Mahindra Thar 4x4. For many this was the first offroad experience. Soon Mr Arka arrived and the briefing session started. Apparently few new owners didn't knew much about the 4x4 lever in their Thar. The sales person at the showroom never briefed these customers about the 4x4 system properly. "Put it in this place and it will go forward" is what they were told, after defaulting the lever in 2H mode. Arka gave some briefing about the 4H and 4L positions. Another important aspect before offroading is to have a spare key ready. Particularly in an open jeep and while in the woods, if they key is lost it will be a nightmare. Old jeeps can be jumpstarted, but new Mahindra Thar is not that easy to start without a key.

Terratigers team knows the Palar riverbed extensively and they know their way around in the area. Soon we left the farm and started in a convoy to our first obstacle, which was a rock. Mangalore boy Nischal Salian, who is an experienced offroader did the demonstration for the benefit of the audience, by climbing on the rock and getting off it without a scratch. Spotters took positions to guide the drivers and one by one jeep drivers negotiated the rocks. Many got minor scratch on the rear bumper and leaf-spring while trying to get off the rock. I sat inside a Thar as passenger and shot the experience onboard. I was tempted to ask one of them if I can try the same in their jeep, but held back my temptation. Unlike a rented car, this is someone else's personal car- even if they let me drive it reluctantly, it is a bigger risk if the vehicle suffers any damage while in my command. There were no limits to the number of attempts one could try, which is a good thing with Terratigers. One of the main risk in situations like this is the risk of toppling over. Again the mantra of "be as slow as possible, but retain as much speed as necessary" came into effect. Spotters would advise the driver on the right path and to proceed or not and drivers need to follow the instructions. For few who were driving a bit fast, Arka intervened and either advised them to drive carefully or took the driver's seat and demonstrated the right way of handling the obstacle.


Do watch the video below:

Read part 2 here, where the Thars and Jeeps indulge in mud bogging. Standby for Part 3 for rest of the obstacles

Friday, October 17, 2014

Karlad Lake, Wayanad

We took a diversion and went to Karlad lake, Wayanad out of curiosity. Karlad lake is not one of the well known places of interest in Wayanad and is often skipped by many. Since it was 2 kms off the Kalpetta-Manathavadi main road (that's what the board said, actual distance is little more) we went there to check it out.

Karlad lake is large enough to have a quick visit, but as such there aren't any facilities/attractions and the lake isn't maintained well. So if you skip it, you won't miss much. Compared to say Pookud lake, this one is larger, isolated and will suit solitude seekers well.

Some photos and map for reference.

Roads are good. Map below.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

SJ4000 vs GoPro Hero3+: Action camera comparison

For those who wanted to buy a GoPro but felt it is too expensive (Was about 400 USD+ shipping for Hero 3 black edition few months ago when I bought), a Chinese model, SJ4000 which was priced one fourth the price of GoPro was a tempting alternative.  I had a GoPro Hero3 black and got my hands on SJ4000 for a few days earlier this month. I tried comparing these 2 sports action cameras and this post shares my findings.

This comparison is probably irrelevant now, because GoPro has launched a simple version of its camera priced at $129, directly taking on the cheaper rivals. I haven’t tried the new GoPro (called just Hero), so can’t tell if you should buy that or the SJ4000.

Quick findings:
Video quality: I didn’t find any drastical difference in outdoor day time video recordings done in both cameras. SJ4000 gives output in .mov format, while GoPro gives in .mp4. For personal and domestic use, SJ4000’s video quality is adequate. If you’re running a production house or have serious use of the videos, then stick to GoPro.

10 second video was 20MB in SJ4000. In GoPro, it comes to 40MB

Watch the video below: I have shot same subject, first with SJ4000 and next with GoProHero3. I don’t find noticeable difference in the output. (Note that both videos have been processed and uploaded to youtube, during which minor compromise happens on quality. I expect that loss to be proportionate to both videos.)

Photo Quality:
Hero3 takes much better stills- they are wider and have better clarity. As such GoPro is not good enough (compared to DSLR) in capturing colours and light. SJ4000 is a bit worse. But in full day light, difference in photo quality is hard to notice. While GoPro stills cost about 5MB at highest confguration, SJ4000 stills take 1-2MB. This means less storage per pic, which is a good thing, but this comes with a compromise on quality, which is not a good thing if you intend professional usage of the photos

Scorpio: Clicked on GoPro, followed by SJ4000. Notice the missing wide angle in second pic.

At Kanthapara waterfalls, Wayanad- first one is from GoPro- notice the wider coverage

At Phantom rock, Wayanad. First one is from GoPro- notice better light sensing, while the second one clicked from SJ4000 has come darker.

Ease of operation:
SJ4000 is a pain to operate. The buttons are very hard. Some serious pressing is required to operate the camera. Your fingers will ache after sometime. On the other hand, GoPro has so much finesse, operating it is extremely easy. SJ4000 feels like an old Ambassador, while GoPro feels like a Honda City. While GoPro has a mobile app, SJ4000 doesn’t. There’s another variant of SJ4000 which comes with wifi.

SJ4000 comes with a super small live preview and digital zoom. But I find these practically useless. If you want a camera with zoom and live preview, get a handycam. Action cameras are supposed to be operated without much of human intervention. If I have to use my hands to zoom, eyes to preview, then I won’t be free to do my action. GoPro enables live preview through mobile app and some zoom is possible if you shoot in lower resolutions without wide angle.

My GoPro Hero3 batter lasts for about half a day, in an extremely rationed usage (switch off when not in use etc). If I use it continuously, it will drain in couple of hours. However, it has more failproof mechanisms- photos and videos are saved to memory before camera dies due to drained battery. However, on SJ4000, batter lasts for about 40 mins only. If the video is not saved manually before battery dries out, then the video is lost. This can be a big disappointment. Not being able to capture videos long enough is one, losing already shot video because battery went dry while you were doing some adventure is another.

Aftersales support:
Neither of these 2 products have service centres in India. Should it fail, you’re on your own. Some GoPro spares like lens kit can be bought online and you can replace them watching DIY videos on youtube, but otherwise, not much serviceable components inside. Use it while it lasts.

While GoPro atleast has a global website, SJ4000 makers do not seem to have proper presence online. It needs to be bought through various retailers online and we won't know if they are genuine, fake or second hand.

Size: Sj4000 is bigger and bulkier- both camera and its casing. GoPro feels sleek and trendy.

Meanwhile Raju from Techpp writes about another kind ofaction camera from HTC.

Verdict: I do not recommend SJ4000. It is cheaper, takes decent videos, but difficult to operate, has poor battery life and it is unlikely that you’ll return from a trip satisfied with this camera. One and only reason to buy it should be that you can’t afford a better one.  Suggest checking out the new Hero from GoPro which is priced competitively and the successors of SJ4000 to check if they are easier to operate and offer fixes to Sj4000 issues.