It's when I'm piloting the big black Mahindra Adventure Thar with the word 'Lead' stickered onto it that it occurs to me that the participants on the Mahindra Adventure Authentic North East expedition certainly are terrific multitaskers. Of the 35 car convoy that comprises 70 odd people, there appear to be a sizeable portion who can manage to chuck their SUVs into corners, take in the scenery, overtake that dratted truck that's slowing them down, all the while carrying on a conversation on the radio with the rest of the convoy. I, as I discover, am nowhere near as capable. To begin with, the vibrations in the Thar mean the gear stick plays hard-to-get with me most of the time. And then there's the fact that just hanging onto the steering wheel, even when the Thar is going in a straight line, is like trying to battle with a bucking bronco. And every time I press the brakes, the rear of the Thar does something you'd otherwise only see the waist of a highly skilled Brazilian lambada dancer achieve.
Snow capped mountains in Arunachal
You see the adventure crazy lot at err, Mahindra Adventure decided that their Thar, that's quite used to mountain-goating its way over almost anything in sight, could do with a little bit more. So out went the leaf-springs at the back, and in came coils, bigger tyres and racing seats. It's like a circus performer... on stilts... who drank some of druid Getafix's magic potion... and then somehow transformed into the Incredible Hulk. No wonder then, that on our way from Kaziranga to Kohima, the Thar turned heads. Oh, and you could hear it approaching ages before you could see it. On some level I suppose the Thar's mighty roar was a rather apt announcement that the convoy was coming through. And what an impressive convoy it was - orange and white liveried Rextons, XUV5oos and Scorpios, with two Getaway pick-ups full of spares for company. Thirty-five go off on an adventure - it sounded quite like the title of an Enid Blyton story!
The mood at the Kohima War Cemetary was aptly sombre
While I'd only managed to join the convoy for the second leg of their journey, catching up with them in Kaziranga, the participants had started out from Guwahati. The first day of the journey took them from Guwahati to Dirang, then onto Tawang the second day and from there to Bomdila on the third day. It was, as some participants would later tell me, a terrific three days. The roads wound through the mountains, the scenery went from verdant greens to icy whites, and the weather changed all through. Standing by a bonfire in Kaziranga, warming our frozen hands, one participant said to me that what stood out for him had been the driving. Not just the landscape that they drove past, but instead the sheer joy of tackling corners in the way that they managed to. I'm not used to driving in the hills, much less taking corners at the speeds we managed to take them at. It was safe and fun all at once," he said with a happy grin.
Clear skies in Kaziranga - the scenery along the way was ever-changing
The journey from Kaziranga, where the participants had been fortunate enough to spend a day exploring, to Kohima was one that I was particularly happy about. To begin with I'd managed to get my hands on the aforementioned Thar. Then there was the sheer pleasure of being on the road in a convoy, taking in the changing scenery. As we passed from one form of landscape to the next, I couldn't help but think that it was a reflection of the sheer diversity of our large and beautiful country. Something that was reflected even in the convoy that we were travelling in. It was a varied bunch, as diverse and interesting as can be. And it wasn't just that people had come down from various corners of the country to be a part of this drive, there were people all the way from Dubai and the United Kingdom too!
From the nice flat roads that led from Kaziranga to Dimapur, to the winding mountain roads that led from Dimapur to Kohima - the driving was pleasant. And then there was the orderly, but incredibly dense city traffic of Kohima to contend with. Like several other cities in India, Kohima too has its quirks. The fact that the sun rises so early means people live their lives between 4am and 4pm before retreating indoors once dark. The traffic can be a challenge to contend with, as some of the participants found although it did little to bother a Bombay dweller like me. But after the happiness and bonhomie of the day's driving, it was a rather sombre party that retired for the night. We'd spent some time at the Kohima War Memorial that is dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Kohima of the Second World War. For me it was a place to remember a time to forget. And also a place to say a silent thanks to the men and women who tirelessly strive for our safety and well-being.
Mawlynnong is Asia's cleanest village
The next day's drive went back down the winding roads of Kohima, past Dimapur, into Guwahati, and then began the climb to Shillong. Given that a very broad highway is being constructed here, there were sections of the road that were a little challenging to tackle - the usual going around the bend to find a truck's headlights staring you in the face. Cue screeching brakes and swerving left! Fortunately for me I'd managed to cabbage the keys of one of the service Getaways, fully loaded down with spares, and it was as planted a vehicle as one could get to throw around mountain corners. It had been a long day of driving, with stops for breakfast, lunch, chai and shopping for the famous bhut jholokia pickle that is so popular in that part of the country. And so it was a rather tired lot that went to bed that night.
The rest day at Shillong allowed the participants the chance to head wherever they wanted to. Some chose to go to Cherrapunji, some decided to stay in Shillong and discover the many wonders of Meghalaya's capital, and others (including the Mahindra Adventure team comprising Venkatesh KS and Manish Sarser, along with the terrific XSO team led by Raj and Veissali Kapoor and co) went driving to Mawlynnong, Asia's cleanest village. To say that it was spotless would be an understatement. And in retrospect one feels rather guilty that we took a fleet of SUVs into its clean environs. But if it makes things a little better, we didn't litter, and we all came out of the place better for having visited it. A little something to learn along each stretch of the journey, then.
Of course, it was with some amount of disdain that I strapped myself into the seat of the Getaway the following morning. On the one hand I was tempted to just slow right down and prolong the journey as much as I could, on the other hand I was rather pleased to step on the throttle and keep up with the convoy (after my first stint behind the wheel I'd been determined not to let the Sweep Car catch sight of me!). But there was still the sense of sorrow that the journey was coming to an end.
A convoy that's nearly a kilometre long - now that's quite a sight!
As were those fiery bhut jholokia chillies that are so famous in the North East and Mawlynnong's living root bridge
As we travelled back down the hill, descending from the Land of Clouds into the plains of Guwahati, the magic of the journey seemed to fade. The scenic beauty gave way to straight roads, broad highways and traffic jams. A true sign that we were somehow back to the mundane and maudlin. But even as I climbed out the car at the Radisson in Guwahati where the journey ended, I managed to spot a silver lining. I caught sight of people who'd never met each other before the journey laughing and talking together, seemingly firm friends for life. Somehow it really did seem like the spirit of the journey would live on long after the cars were parked, the ignitions switched off and the engines and tyres cooled. Which really is what journeys and adventures are all about. Onto the next one then.
Images by Jatin Lodaya