Wait a minute. Slow down. Take a pause. Have you ever thought about doing that? Maybe not. With our time-bound, target-chasing, deadline-beating lifestyle, we seem to have lost the idea of living. In the rat race to be the best, we‚Äôve worn ourselves out.¬†Do you remember the last time you saw the sunrise? Did you hear the birds chirp today?¬†Have you stopped to smell the little flower that‚Äôs blooming in your backyard? Do you know what it feels like to touch a tree bark? Ever plucked a berry and tasted it?¬†Our 5 Senses, as we all know, act as a stimulus to our brain. We develop experiences on the basis of what our 5 Senses tell us. And experiences form memories.
Each year, OVERDRIVE sets off on voyages with a group of participants, giving them a chance to experience what we do for a living. So, for 2016, we decided to do something new. We thought of introducing their 5 Senses to something they‚Äôve never experienced before. What also added to the newness were some of the safest vehicles in the world, courtesy Volvo. None of the participants (most of whom had accompanied us on other Live Life in OVERDRIVE trips) had either seen or driven a Volvo before. Their senses were about to experience something different. The route we chalked out was to begin from Panchkula (near Chandigarh) to Prashar Lake and back via Narkanda, Raison and Mandi.¬†We had a pair each of the S60 Cross Country, XC60 and the new XC90 in our fleet. It was quite a sight seeing them parked in the forecourt of the palatial hotel Ramgarh Heritage, the starting point of our journey.
The day before we were set to leave, the participants began arriving. Madhav Suryavanshi, an RTO officer in Pune, exclaimed the moment he saw the Volvos, ‚ÄúThese are very good looking cars! I‚Äôm really looking forward to experiencing them.‚ÄĚ¬†A few others, meanwhile, began looking around the cars, trying to understand the various functions, modes and controls. In facet, Hemant Suthar, an NID graduate from Mumbai, had read the product brochure of each car to get acquainted. The talking point amongst many was the opulent interior of the Volvo XC90. The nine-inch infotainment system, which works pretty much like a tablet, was very intuitive to use. The non-veneered wood, tasteful use of chrome bezels and the Bowers & Wilkins stereo system simply blew them away. Needless to say, the excitement in the air was palpable.
It‚Äôs 7 am on Day One and the morning air was pleasant. After plonking our luggage in the Volvos and the round of customary flag off photos, we set about on the first leg of our journey, Punchkula to Narkanda (164km).¬†Our convoy was led by Vijay Parmar, head, Himalayan Motorsport as we rolled down the smooth and fast Himalayan Expressway. The 27.5km road connects Zirakpur in Punjab to Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh. The Volvos cruised effortlessly and we began making quick progress. The view of the Sivalik Hills and the lovely morning glow of the sun formed a stunning backdrop.
Soon after we got on to the first mountain road section, where the participants got to experience the handling process of the Volvos. The XC90 with its switchable driving modes (Comfort, Off-road, Dynamic, Individual) was the surprise package of the lot. In Dynamic Mode, the gargantuan XC90 felt planted and cornered well, whilst the throttle response sharpened a notch. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm impressed with this SUV‚Äôs capabilities,‚ÄĚ declared Manav Kejriwal, a businessman from Kolkata.
A couple of hours later, we made an impromptu halt near a small river to engage in a bit off off-roading. It was all too easy for the XC90. Turning the beautifully crafted, crystal drive mode selector to Off-Road setting gave it added ground clearance while the air-suspension worked its magic in ironing out the bumps. The XC60 too was unfazed and crossed the river without skipping a beat.
However, everyone was sceptical about the S60 Cross Country making it through. With careful positioning of the wheels and using the incredible 210mm ground clearance, the car trod across, much to the amazement of our participants as well as the locals who‚Äôd stopped by.
As we climbed higher, post Kufri, the beauty of the mountains began unravelling itself. Fresh air began circulating through our system, and a sense of calm began to envelope us. The highlight of that day, for many, was when we stopped by the wayside, gathered in a corner under the shade of a tree and had our lunch. Conversations were punctuated with long gazes into the mountain range that surrounded us.
We continued driving on tarmac for about 20-odd kilometres, before breaking right onto a village road that would take past Theog and Kadog into Narkanda. That was the first off-road section that were chalked out for the participants. The AWD systems in these Volvos made easy work of trudging through the narrow, broken path.¬†The muddy trail was strewn with jagged rocks and one of the S60 Cross Country‚Äôs tyres, as fate would have it, suffered a sidewall cut. As we waited for the support crew to change the wheel, the weather made a dramatic U-turn. Dark clouds enveloped the sunshine and it began raining — such is the unpredictability of the weather in the Himalayas.
A few participants at that point thought that it‚Äôll be difficult to drive in the slush, but the Volvos kept climbing up the mountain road, unperturbed. We rolled into Narkanda by 6:30 pm, a little weary but upbeat nevertheless. Some were gleeful about having driven off-road for the first time in their life.
The next day, as we‚Äôre sipping coffee, the sight of the picturesque valley mesmerised us all. Overlooking the hotel was a verdant mountain, with little houses scattered randomly as far and wide as one could see. In many ways that sight was humbling, said one participant.¬†We set off for the second leg of the journey that‚Äôd see us traverse 183 km to Raison in the Kullu Valley.¬†As we descended down the town of Narkanda, we were greeted by the beautiful Jacaranda blossoms on the trees along the highway. ¬†This purple flower stands out against the landscape, adding a dash of colour that instantly catches the peripheral vision. A few kilometres down the road, we stopped to gorge on fresh red cherries that were being sold at a corner. The taste was so irresistible that we ended up buying a large consignment of cartons.
The drive for the next couple of hours was stress free as smooth tarmac stretched like a ribbon in front of us. The participants too were getting a hang of their Volvos, comfortable in the cosseting environs. The panoramic sunroof in the cars and SUVs, especially the XC90‚Äôs, allowed us to gaze at the azure sky and breathe in the crisp mountain air.¬†As noon approached, we began our ascent to the 3,132m-high Jalori Pass that‚Äôd take us to the Kullu Valley. This treacherous section is also used as a stage during the Raid de Himalaya, and everyone was gobsmacked when Vijay said that rally racers drive through at twice or thrice the speed we were at.
An hour of careful driving and we clambered to the top of the Pass. After a quick lunch stop, we began the descent to Raison via Jibhi, Banjar and Bajaur. As the convoy made its way into the village of Banjar, we were halted by a throng of people, coming at us from the opposite direction, carrying out a procession in praise of a local deity.¬†In its wake was a mega jam as vehicles tried to squeeze through the marketplace.
The going was a little tough for guys in the XC90 — its wide proportions mean there were only centimetres to spare on either side. With the passengers playing spotter, we finally managed to get through the mess after an hour.
A couple of hours later, we joined the Chandigarh-Manali Highway and stopped for the night in Niralaya Raison. That night we gathered around a bonfire, set perfectly on the banks of the gushing Beas river. Conversations were few as everyone listened to the rhythm of the flowing water. ‚ÄúIt invokes inner peace,‚ÄĚ said Anis Shaikh, our resident photographer.
The next day, we set off for Prashar Lake, but a few metres out of the hotel gate, we decided to indulge in a bit off-roading again. The plan was to drive into the shallow end of the river.
The XC90, as usual, led the way, testing the waters for its siblings. The XC60 followed, trailed by the S60, which again was to everybody‚Äôs surprise. It made for a postcard-worthy shot — the three Volvos in the river with the mountains painting the perfect picture of serenity. A treat for our city weary senses!
We also snapped a bunch of rafters floating by, in the same frame as our cars. Happy to get a taste of water crossing and off-roading, our enthusiastic participants were raring for more.
The drive from Raison to the lake in the Kamru Valley was largely uneventful, except for a few places where the road narrowed and oncoming traffic had to be dealt with. However, the final few kilometres before reaching the lake was a sight for sore eyes. Lush green meadows greeted us as we entered the premises of the PWD guest house. This is where we set camp for the night.
While there were a few sleeping tents that had already been erected for the support staff, the participants had to pitch their own tent. It was a competition and the winner stood a chance to receive goodies from Volvo. It was amazing to see people, who barely knew one another three days before, engage and encourage one another. While some got it right, a few others struggled, eventually managing to set up their tents. After the competition, we ventured towards the Prashar Lake, a kilometre from the camp site.
The Prashar Lake lies 49km north of Mandi, situated at 2,730m above the sea level. It is dedicated to the sage Parashar. Now, we did look up the images of the lake on Google, but what lay in front of us when we actually got there left most of us transfixed. It was quite calming to see the still water body, with a grassy, floating island. The evening light with its gentle breeze made one feel like time has simply slowed down. Some resorted to a state of pensive silence.¬†Adjoining the lake is a small temple with a pagoda-like structure which sits at one end of the temple. It‚Äôs made using wood from the pine trees with chiseled, flattened rocks as tiles to cover the roof. At its entrance was a small tea stall, run by the temple priest and his wife. With a nice, hot cup of tea, we gathered around him as he narrated the history of the lake.
The evening brought with it a lovely chill in the air. At camp, a little party began, with the XC60‚Äôs infotainment system blaring out the latest hits. After dinner as most of participants retired for the night, a few bunched up together and gazed at the stars. You could hear a pin drop; it was that quiet. Standing there in silence, they looked like they were catching up with themselves. ‚ÄúIt is one of the most peaceful nights I‚Äôve encountered,‚ÄĚ said Manish, an entrepreneur from Delhi. Umakant VD, a participant from Chennai, nodded his head in agreement.
Day Four and it was time to head to Chandigarh via Mandi and Bilaspur. As the convoy rolled to the plains, there was an unusual silence over the radios we‚Äôd installed in the cars. Some were sad that the journey was coming to an end. The rest, however, were happy to reconnect with themselves. They were quiet as they reflected on the days that‚Äôd gone by. Their senses had registered new feelings, which evoked myriad emotions and a sense of reinvigoration. The Himalayas had played the perfect enchantress. We were all cast in a spell ‚Äď‚Äď ready to live life to the fullest.
Images by Suresh Narayanan and Anis Shaikh