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High on Thar

Ray Hutton  | Published: August 26, 2011, 04:24 AM IST

Imagine Genghis Khan leading an army across central Asia on board a Koenigsegg Agera. A little too exotic for his taste, don't you think? How about a Honda Civic Type R then? Not exactly good for his butch, hairy chested image, I'd say. Now put Genghis inside a Mahindra Thar and he'd fit right in. The spartan interiors and solid build would go very well with the ruthless Mongol's persona. Add to that the fact that the Thar in all likelihood wouldn't bat an eyelid while levelling a few villages and you'd have a very happy conqueror.

We did not plan to invade any villages. Nor did we plan to lead an army into war. Halley, Rishaad, Rohit and I were out on a mission - to find the highest tea plantation in the world. We had heard that this estate - Kolukkumalai - was situated amongst the hundreds of tea plantations in Munnar in Kerala. To accomplish our objective, we would travel over 3500km in less than a week over fast motorways, through cities, towns and then villages. Some with good roads, some with bad roads and then some without roads.

As we left Pune it looked like I was the only one excited about driving around the country in a Jeep. Rishaad 'softie' Mody was sceptical about how comfortable the journey would be and Rohit 'silent spy' Chandrashekharan as usual refrained from any comment and just smiled. As for Halley 'android' Prabhakar it was just another day at work for him. Personally I didn't know how anyone could rein in their excitement, but the three stooges were masterful. We were taking the modern reincarnation of the iconic MM540 to the land where Marshals and Commanders outnumbered people with communist sentiments (or at least that's the current flavor in gods own country). It was going to be a coming together of generations.

After a night stop at Bangalore we resumed our journey. But then a visit to Bangalore would have been incomplete without a meal at the famous Cafe Thulp in Koramangala. So we stuffed our faces with burgers, hot dogs, chicken wings and an assortment of milkshakes till we could eat no more. With our stomachs satiated, we got back to the task at hand. We pulled into Kochi late at night thanks in part to our late departure and in part to some rubbish lorry traffic. In Kochi we rendezvoused with our ace photographer, Gaurav 'rice plate' Thombre.

As dawn broke we loaded our luggage into the Thar yet again and set off for Munnar. After we had driven for an hour or so, hunger beckoned once more. I decided to introduce my comrades to the joys of breakfasting in Kerala. A mouth watering meal for five comprising of idiappams, porottas, beef curry and coffee was had for the princely sum of Rs 103! As I said, joys of eating in Kerala. And a lot of joy was shared, ahem.

Now that food was out of our minds, next stop - Munnar. The way Munnar makes its entry is much like switching channels on the television. One second you're in the middle of nowhere on a single carriageway with thick forests on either side, the next you turn around a corner and you're greeted by endless rolling hills covered by lush green tea bushes. And interspersed in between these bushes are streams of clear water that trickle down the hillside in a manner that is unfamiliar to us cityfolk who always seem to be hurrying along.

We kept driving and soon went past a tea factory. The aroma of fresh tea leaves put our minds into a kind of sensory overload. In a good way of course. My only complaint was that this olfactory treat would have been much more amplified had the top been taken down. But taking off the Thar's top proved to be a herculean task and we promptly gave up.

Once we got to our hotel we dumped our stuff and met with our guide, Mathanlal from Jenifer Tours. We had told him we wanted to get to Kolukkumalai on any road but the tarred one. He showed us a trail that had been left unused for several years and as we departed on this particular trail we were joined by our support vehicle. And what do you know? It was a Mahindra Commander. No surprises there I guess.

If this particular trail had been unused for a long time, it certainly looked the part. And the recent rains had made it even worse. A fact that was proven when our support vehicle struggled to get up the first incline. After a couple more failed attempts we decided to leave the Commander behind.

The path we were taking was through the thickest of forests. Both sides were covered in trees as tall as the eye could see. The sunlight filtering through the foliage made light trails that made the whole thing look right out of a movie set in South America's rain forests. The path was layered with dead leaves, dirt, pieces of wood and quite a few large rocks. But of course the Thar's disregard for all kinds of obstacles meant that none of this slowed it down.

A few kilometres in we found a half eaten carcass of wild boar. While we had been hoping to get some pork for dinner, this wasn't what we had in mind. Our guides with all their expertise said that it was fresh kill and that there was a chance the predator was still around. Good thing the Thar moves fast in slush then. We turned around and left in record time. No, we're not a bunch of chickens. We'd just rather eat than be eaten. Chicken is better digested, you see.

Softie and rice plate promptly got down to guide the car and take pictures of the dead boar. What they didn't know was that there was someone in the woods eagerly awaiting their arrival. People say this person is particularly popular in the hilly regions of India and goes by the name of Haemadipsa Sylvestris, we know it as the leech. The sight of both of them running for their lives and clambering on top of the car had us in splits. Once they got over the initial panic, emptied android's deodorant can on themselves in an effort to deter further attacks, and made sure nothing had crawled up to places where they had no business being, they climbed back into the Thar and we left.

The next day we set off to find a route that would not get us eaten. While we were all excited to hit the road again we had no idea what we were in for. The trail we were taking was made by the British for accessing the factories and gardens way back when colonialism was the fad of the season. But as soon as the British left the government forgot about this trail. After years of neglect, what remains is a dirt trail splattered with boulders the size of footballs. And I'm talking about the smaller ones. The trail wound its way up into the hills snaking through tea gardens. Every now and then when the bumping and rolling would stop, we would see women with baskets on their backs picking tea leaves.

After having our organs rearranged over this excellent example of infrastructure development we arrived at a point from where we could see tea gardens rolling down the hill on either side. A little further ahead was a quaint little factory with a green roof and smoke billowing out of its chimneys. Next to it was a big green signboard that proudly proclaimed- 'Welcome to Kolukkumalai tea estate. Home of the world's highest grown orthodox tea. Height 7130ft MSL." I knew there were different kinds of tea, but orthodox tea? That's a first.

As all of us took turns standing next to the signboard and taking pictures, we could finally relate to the great Mongol. We might not have plundered faraway lands or torn the limbs off our enemies, but we did traverse some hostile terrain while getting attacked by wild animals (yes, leeches and bugs do count) and nearly getting eaten by a wild predator (because this sounds cooler than the pack of stray dogs that chased us). More adventure than what most people I know have in a lifetime. I know it's not the best of metaphors, but to our credit we did cover more distance in a week than the Mongols probably travelled in a month. Touche Genghis.

Price (Ex-Delhi)
Starts Rs 17.72 Lakhs
Displacement
1597cc
Transmission
Manual
Max Power(ps)
120
Max Torque(Nm)
300
Mileage
26.8 Kmpl
Price (Ex-Delhi)
Starts Rs 5.22 Lakhs
Displacement
2523cc
Transmission
Manual
Max Power(ps)
107
Max Torque(Nm)
183
Mileage
16 Kmpl

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