If there is one thing I love as much as cars, itβs music. And I mean real music, from the good olβ days when a song had actual musical instruments, sensible lyrics and no Auto-Tune! So when I heard that Yngwie Malmsteen (one of the greatest guitarists in the world, in case you didnβt know) was going to headline at the Orange Festival in Dambuk, I had to get there somehow! But Bert wasnβt going to just let me saunter off from the office for a week when there was a ton of work to do for the year-end issue. Thatβs when I had a light-bulb moment. Why not bring him along β on work, of course. Considering our work was to drive cars, it made it all the more easy to get him on board.
If we were to get out of the office for that long, we needed something big planned β something bigger than just one car or one segment. So just to be safe, we picked eight cars from three segments β the Maruti Vitara Brezza, Mahindra TUV300, and Ford EcoSport from the sub-four metre segment; the Hyundai Creta, Honda BR-V and Nissan Terrano representing the premium crossovers; and to make things more interesting, we also added two compact crossovers β the Hyundai i20 Active and the Fiat Avventura Urban Cross. Why all these cars, then? Because these already popular crossovers are only growing in strength, and it was time to put them to the test and find out how tough these pseudo-SUVs really are.
The only issue, however, was convincing the manufacturers to give us their cars. The trouble here was that a Google search of the Orange Festival and Dambuk mostly resulted in images of a stranded bus that had tried crossing a river and trucks making their way across a rocky riverbed liberally sprinkled with boulders the size of watermelons. In no ways are we putting our cars through that kind of terrain, they said.
So we lied. A big fat one, at that! We showed them images of the fantastic Asian Highway 1 and the NH15 and cajoled them into believing that the roads are smooth, well paved and built by the BRO. And so they reluctantly agreed. Well, we werenβt completely lying. We were just, as Iβd like to call it, not telling the whole truth. The road till Pasighat and the village of Siluk was fabulously paved. But only till there. Getting till Dambuk, well thatβs a whole other story.
We ran through our checklist. Cars? Check. Challenging terrain? Check. Exotic location? Check. Malmsteen… I mean, storyline? Check, check. And last of all, we need a baseline one which to work all our tests. Since each car is mechanically different from one another, we needed a common thread that binds them together and lends a neutral and homogenous aspect to the tests. This is where tyres play a crucial role. CEAT Tyres in the last few years have been growing from strength to strength, thanks to better quality tyres that are equal to any other brand in the market. We needed durable, reliable and tough tyres that could handle the bashing, and CEAT Tyres have proved to be just what we needed in the past. We roped them in to give us that uniformity. So we fit every crossover with a fresh set of treads from CEAT Tyres. So safety? Check!
We began our 660km journey from Guwahati in Assam rather late and considering it gets pitch dark in the North East by 5 pm, we halted at Tezpur just after crossing the Brahmaputra River. The next morning we were back on the road by 4 am, and the next thing you knew, the sun was peeping out from the horizon. I think itβs high time India is split into two time zones! It was a spectacular sight watching it cast its light on the morning mist hanging low over the paddy fields. And I had a spectacular feeling with my windows rolled down and the song, βGoing Up The Countryβ by Canned Heat blaring from the speakers. Itβs this special feeling that I get when, as Canned Heat says, βIβm goinβ to some place; Iβve never been before.β
By the time we crossed over into Arunachal Pradesh and reached Pasighat, it was around 4.30 pm and almost dark. With a local lady warning us that all weβd find ahead was jungle, we tanked up and hit got back on the road. We had around two hours of driving to do, and the route from Pasighat was an empty, well-paved ghat section. Just when it seemed like the drive was finally getting over, roughly 45km ahead the highway just disappeared into a broken, single-lane road for a couple of kilometres. Soon we reached a boom barrier blocking the road. To the right was an eerie-looking dirt road going downhill and disappearing into the woods. It looked like the kind of road you shouldnβt be driving down at night, but we had no other choice. Since I was a little ahead of the convoy, I was alone too. I put on my brave face and continued onward into the darkness until the forest opened up to the vast open space of dry, rocky riverbed.
After about an hour of being bounced around in the car, I began to wonder if I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Fortunately, I saw two motorcycles heading towards me. As I stuck my head out of the window and tried to flag them down, I saw what looked like deer antlers tied to the back of bike. For some reason I thought it was an animal head trophy like the ones you find at old resorts in the jungle, and continued waving at him and asking him for directions to Dambuk. He half-heartedly nodded in the direction I was pointing at and continued onward. Only then did I see that it was the head of a killed deer, still dripping blood. I immediately shoved my head back into the car and rolled my window up when the second motorcycle, carrying the rest of the deer β skinned and all β passed by. I quietly drove till the end of the riverbed, which wasnβt very far off and decided to wait till the rest of the convoy caught up. Passing those hunters made it clear we were deep into the wilds of Arunachal Pradesh! Fortunately, the rest werenβt too far behind and Dambuk wasnβt too far ahead. We got there in time for dinner and were soon out cold in our cosy tents.
The next morning was an early one β or as early as our bodies would allow, at least. The sun revealed our beautiful campsite placed right next to the Dibang River, with mountains on one side and what seemed like endless flatland on the other. We set off towards the riverbed we came through to find a place to shoot photographs, when one of us β I wonβt say who (cough Alan cough) β got a bit over ambitious and tried to venture into the shallow water in the TUV300. The sand and stones were so loose that as soon as the car entered the water, its tyre were half sunken in. Nothing we did could get the car out. Fortunately though, there was an off-road competition being held along with the Orange Festival. We managed to convince one of the marshals to come help us out with his 4X4 Maruti Gypsy. The surface was so loose that even the Gypsy began digging itself in when he tried pulling with a tow rope. It was starting to get late and we were worried weβd miss the one thing we came all this way to see β Malmsteen. Fortunately, the Gypsy was also equipped with a winch that slowly but effortlessly pulled the TUV out. We were free and we immediately went back to catch the concert.
The venue had a lovely setting with the stage and stalls set on a paddy field surround by hills dotted with orange orchards. While we waited for the show to start, we found ourselves some delicious food β pork, chicken, chow mein and rice β prepared with that unique flavour that I can only describe as North Eastern.
Eventually, the man of the hour emerged and immediately there was a quite a big crowd around the stage. In fact, even the chief minister of the state, Pema Khandu, was there just for the show. There isnβt much else I can say to describe the show other than it being spectacular or amazing or mind-blowing. And even that doesnβt do it justice. I never thought Iβd be this happy to see a bare-chested man in a leather jacket and leather pants performing live on stage. Malmsteen is a thoroughbred old-school rock and roll musician right from the way he walks, talks and shreds his guitar. For someone who never thought heβd see an old-school performance like that, it was a real privilege to be there. He even played some BB King, which personally, was my favourite part of his show.
Post the awesomeness that is Malmsteen, we headed back to camp both fulfilled and yet wanting more. We spent another day around the beautiful campsite and headed to the festival for the final night where we ate some more excellent local food and watched the local bands perform. It was time to head back to Guwahati the next day and with the festival over, I could focus all my attention on the other half of my story β the cars.