The first time I covered the Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Of course, I was warned aplenty of how treacherous it would be with the unforgiving terrain, the biting cold and the lack of sleep. But being young and all that, I chose to scoff at these older folk and take on the Raid anyway. Did I regret it? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I just about made it out alive. No, because it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. And that's what took me back this year - the cars and bikes, the mountains and the kick I got out of pushing myself.
This time I thought I was better prepared for the Raid with warmer clothes, plenty of coffee and enough chocolates to feed a village. However, nothing I could have carried would have prepared me enough to deal with the outcome of this Raid.
The Army team entered nine vehicles this year, and as always their preferred choice of vehicle was the Gypsy
This year, the Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya started from Manali instead of Shimla, with a total of 153 participants taking the start. But unlike last time, when competitors gradually went from the frying pan into the fire, this time they were tossed right into the flames. The first leg of the rally was set to take us from Manali's 6,700ft to Kaza's 12,400ft above sea level in just one day. So, as always with the Raid, it was a very early morning for us as we drove up Rohtang Pass and made it to the start of SS1 at Gramphoo. However, we weren't early enough apparently, as a lot of the Xtreme competitors were there and waiting for the stage to open.
We pulled over to the side and walked down the stage to find a nice spot to set up and soon we saw R Nataraj's TVS RTR 450 FX come charging towards us, with its loud exhaust note echoing across the valley. What we also saw was a decently sized snow storm, clouding up Rohtang and heading slowly towards us. Soon enough, there was snow and it was starting to get rather cold.
Abdul Wahid Tanveer won the Xtreme Motoquad class on his TVS RTR 450 FX
I made my way back up the stage towards where I had parked, only to find a huge pile-up of vehicles, which were all stranded with the Raid blocking the only road leading up to Kaza. Of course, the organisers had all the necessary permissions to do so months in advance. But the general public, in the heat of the moment, simply refused to listen to any logic, and soon there was a huge mob ready to pounce on the officials if they didn't let them through. Fortunately, all the participants had cleared the stage shortly after that and the situation was diffused.
As we made our way through the stage, or rather the public road, I began to realise just how challenging it was. I had met Ashwin Naik, Suresh Rana's navigator, before the stage, and he told me that this was a very rough section. Ha! I drove to Rangdum last year. This road can't be that bad," I scoffed (in my head of course). Oh boy, was I wrong! The further I went, the tougher it seemed to get until I reached Chatru - and then it was just hell on earth. For the next 31km along the Chenab River, all I could see were boulders, boulders and more boulders - most as big as the wheel of my car and some as big as the car itself. It took me a gruelling three hours to navigate through the boulder field without a puncture, until I reached Batal. But that was just the half of it as I had another 31km to the end of the stage at Losar, and then 59km to Kaza. It took us five hours, three black teas and two Maggis before we reached Kaza at one in the morning.
I was rather awestruck to later find out that Abdul Wahid Tanveer, the fastest person in this leg, completed the competitive stage in just 1hr 18m 29s on his TVS RTR 450 FX. Just .04s behind him was Nataraj, while Vishwas S finished with 1hr 31m 50s on the clock. In the Xtreme 4W category, it was Lhakpa Tsering and V Venu Rameshkumar who were leading the pack with 1hr 26m 58s while Suresh Rana and Ashwin Naik, who faced some technical issues with their Grand Vitara, were 56s behind them. In the meantime, the Adventure Trail of the Raid de Himalaya had made its way to Solang Valley where the first leg of the TSD rally had begun. By the end of it, Jagmeet Gill and Chandan Sen were leading rally in their Maruti Suzuki Swift.
Jagmeet Gill and Chandan Sen won the overall title in the TSD rally in a Maruti Suzuki Swift
Fortunately Leg 2 wasn't scheduled to be too early and wasn't held too far from Kaza - there were three competitive stages measuring a total of 107km, with SS2 and SS4 being the same. Of course, by not too early, I mean we were allowed to sleep till 5:30am before we were back on the road and climbing further up into the stage to around 14,000ft above MSL, while the temperature was a biting -3C. As we reached Langza, the sun was just peeping from between the snow-capped mountains, and we were more eagerly waiting for its rays to save us from the cold, than for the stage to start. By the time all competitors had completed the stage, the first few runners - Lhakpa, Rana, Tanveer and Nataraj - had already finished the second stage of the day and were waiting at the start of what was now SS4.
It was an early end to the day with all the stages being completed by late afternoon. Leg 2 gave Rana and Naik the perfect opportunity to make up for the time they lost on Day 1, as they took a 7m lead over Tsering and Rameshkumar. Tanveer, meanwhile, had managed to extend his lead over Nataraj to 3m 40s. The Adventure Trail too had brought the competitors up to Kaza during the day, and I was rather surprised to find that 32 of the 35 competitors had successfully made it through the unforgiving terrain! Gill and Chandan still held the lead with just a 5m 23s penalty, while Ajgar Ali and Mohammed Mustafa in a Vitara Brezza had 8m 35s.
Since Leg 3 was taking us back the same way we came in - through the boulder fields - we decided to leave that afternoon to get a head start on the rally, skip SS5 and catch the competitors in SS6 instead. It was one of those decisions you can only really appreciate once they're complete. Driving through the boulder fields in the dark at midnight was one of the most harrowing driving experiences I've ever had! But once I got past it, I was just glad to have gotten past it once and for all.
With the dhabas at Chatru already full, we were forced to sleep in the car for the rest of the night. To my annoyance though, I had forgotten to switch off the alarm I'd set the previous night at Kaza, and I was up again at 5:30am. Taking it as a sign of some sort, I began driving towards Gramphoo in a very groggy state until I met one of the marshals who was setting up the stage. The second stage for the day from Patseo to Sarchu is cancelled due to army movement," he told me. A bit disappointed that we wouldn't catch some action at Baralacha La, we decided to set up shop a little further away from where we were.
Still a bit dazed by the lack of sleep, I decided to catch some shut-eye, but the next thing I knew, Tanveer blazed past me on the RTR, shortly followed by Nataraj. An hour and several competitors later, the rescue helicopter flew over our heads, and that was the first hint of the things to come. However, I still had no idea about the seriousness of the situation, considering the helicopter had been flying around the previous days too with nothing to report.
Once the stage ended, we made our way towards Koksar, where we met a marshal who gave us the grave news of Subhamoy Paul's death, after he fell off his bike in the boulder fields near Chatru. That night, the officials decided to truncate the Xtreme category out of respect for Paul, and devoted their time towards completing all the formalities necessary to send his body to his family in Kolkata.
Subhamoy Paul, aged 49, died on October 11 during the fifth competitive stage of the 2016 Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya. On a particularly rough section near Chatru, he lost control of his KTM 500 EXC and flew headfirst into a boulder resulting in a fatal impact. Despite the First Response Vehicle arriving immediately and his body being airlifted from the spot within five minutes of the accident, he was declared dead on arrival at the hospital in Manali. Paul was a veteran off-road motorcyclist with nearly 25 years of experience under his helmet in domestic and international circuits. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. He will be missed
However, the Adventure Trial was set to continue as planned. Leg 4 would take competitors on a 341km run from Tabo to Sarchu, where they would camp the night and then head to Keylong for Leg 5. Gill and Chandan were untouchable as they took wins in Leg 4 and 5, while Ali and Mustafa were starting to fall behind. By the end of Leg 6, which took them back to Manali for the finish, Gill and Chandan were a full 7m ahead of the latter. This is Gill's fifth win in a row and the first time a car is winning overall. The winners of the Xtreme category, meanwhile, were based on the results after Leg 3. Tanveer had won the Xtreme Moto-Quad category, while Rana took his 10th win at the Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya.
Suresh Rana won his 10th Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya this year aboard his trusty Grand Vitara
For as long as I can remember, competing in motorsport has always been at the top of my bucket list. But has this Raid changed anything? No! If anything, I've learned to appreciate the sport and its competitors even more. Motorsport is dangerous, and nothing says so louder than the Maruti Suzuki Raid de Himalaya. But looking past that risk and buckling your seat belt, or wearing that helmet anyway... I suppose that's where you find passion and adventure.