The Earth shook as the 100-odd car convoy of the seventh Raid de Himalaya entered the stunning Kashmir valley for a ceremonial finish at Srinagar. It actually did! And when we ran out of our trembling Suzuki
Swift to the safety of an open space, we didn’t realise the trauma the deadly quake was etching on the face of thousands not so far away.
People woke up that Saturday morning only to fall victim to roofs that collapsed on them. I guess it is only right to pay our respects to those who lost their lives and a generation that will grow up without their dear ones next to them before we start this comparatively silly story.
One rider – this story is about the reliability trial part of the Raid, which is essentially a much tougher and more dangerous version of your average Lion’s Club treasure hunt – yet it won’t do justice to the ‘X-treme’ side of the event where the real daredevils in cars and on motorcycles brave sickening altitudes in an all-out rally. However, you might have already read about the extreme event in the previous pages.
The beginningI have a love-hate relationship with this part of the Raid. This involves rescheduling all your activities for eleven days, sorting out paper work, travelling to Delhi to pick up your car, driving to Shimla for the scrutiny, applying the decals, going through the briefing and finally, lining-up for the start. Since the only thing fixed in my calendar 12 months in advance is the Raid-de-Himalaya, the first part comes easily. This was my third event in a row and that meant I was very good with paper work. I had Param booked – he navigated me last year – to join me this year as well and he landed up just in time.
With two weeks to go we were informed by Maruti Suzuki, who generously part-sponsor auto magazine teams by providing the cars, that we would be blooding the Indian-made Swift into the harsh world of rallying. Sure, the Swift has a wild cousin in the Junior World Rally Championship, but the Indian version is a lovingly built, good looking machine that is best at commuting and the occasional family holiday. And it looked a bit too low for rally duty. But it is a new car and we were excited at the prospect of driving it into the mountains. Organisers had banned the use of GPS this year, but a rally computer was allowed. We shipped one into Motorcraft, a Maruti service station run efficiently by Jayesh Desai (JD to most of us) who would prepare the Swift for the event. Alas, the rally comp didn’t work since the Swift had an electric pick up and we couldn’t find a reliable probe for the same. Confused? So were we.
The Reliability Trial is meant for stock cars and the only mods allowed included installing a sump and fuel tank guard and an additional spare tyre. Suspension lifts were allowed, but we decided against tampering with the stock suspension system. Late on 28th September afternoon, our bright red Swift rolled out of Motorcraft and we pointed its rounded nose towards Shimla. We were off. Shimla was at its pleasant best – a nice nip in the air and the silence occasionally broken by a precision-tuned roar that can only emanate from a rally car or two in anger. Scrutiny was easy for us, but I did manage to embarrass myself as I knocked down a fire extinguisher on my way in. We cross-checked our odometer against the ‘rally km’ which the organisers had laid out since TSD (time, speed, distance) navigation now depended on our odo more than anything else. Emergency rations were procured (read lots of orange juice and chocolate that we would start consuming from day one), snow chains were tried on (mandatory this year after last year’s fiasco where two-wheel drivers had to be abandoned following heavy snowfall) and we were ready to rally.
Reliability trial cars, the slowest of the bunch, were flagged off after extreme cars and motorcycles. Our Swift must have made a pretty picture as we rolled out of Peterhoff Hotel, Shimla. The first destination was Manali, not via the touristy national highway, but through 311 arduous km that saw the cars passing through Jalori La, a mountain pass at 10,000 ft. We were, as usual, getting to grips with the event and TSD calculations yet managing to have a decent run.
Behind us there was total chaos as a bunch of cars took an alternative route which was supposed to be taken only on explicit instructions from the organisers. Those who took that route drove like maniacs trying to maintain insane speeds and wondering why they didn’t get any time controls on the way. There were crashes too – one Bolero retired and one Army Gypsy suffered severe front end damage.
The organisers, thankfully, were in a good mood and that meant those who took the wrong route (and missed five controls in the process) were allowed to compete the next day. Day one saw Team Motoring running third behind the Esteem of Ashok and Moosa and the other Swift manned by Sirish and Bertie (Team Overdrive). Not bad, we thought – Moosa was on his 100th rally as a navigator and Sirish had won the first ever reliability trial two years back. Day two saw cars going over Rohtang pass and veering off the Manali-Leh highway towards Kaza and Tabo through Spiti valley and up the dreaded Kunzum La. The run up to Kunzum La was bad, but the mountain pass proved absolutely treacherous. Imagine a giant heap of gravel with narrow pathways carved around it and you get the picture. One set of locked wheels or a slide meant an appointment with the maker Himself. Period.
We thanked Him and the ABS-equipped Swift as we blasted through the ridges and valleys with the magnificent mountains providing heavenly backdrops. Approaching Losar village, we saw the Overdrive Swift parked around a bend. ‘Is that a TC?’ I asked Param as the 14-inch wheels came to a perfect halt. ‘No, more like an overturned Gypsy’, said Param as he jumped out of the car.
There was indeed an X-treme Gypsy on its roof. Thankfully, Divya Miglani and her navigator were absolutely all right, but we, as in four or five reliability trial teams, decided to have a fair of sorts and helped tip the Gypsy back on rubber. Valuable time lost indeed, but we were better off than our friends from Overdrive who picked up a puncture just short of Losar village. The puncture would cost them dear. You see, Sirish and Bertie were running second and they had no reason to stop to help – but that is Raid spirit for you, damn the puncture that followed.
A boring yawn of an afternoon saw us through some super-slow-motion driving (28 kph average speed so that we could take in the scenery, perhaps). Kaza passed by, a small town with a fuel station and nothing more. We soon reached Tabo, our base camp for the next two days. Tabo has the oldest Buddhist monastery in India and has a population of just about 250 people. People lived in caves till very recently before they came down to live in the valley.
Today they cultivate bright red apples, drink yak milk and never worry about whether they have electricity or not. Brilliant accommodation provided by organisers meant good food and a clean bed after a tough day’s drive. We were still running third and sleep came effortlessly.
Day three was short and sweet. According to me this was the best rally terrain I have ever driven. The turn off near Sichlling (Lingti-Dhankar) took us through a special stage that demanded absolute concentration. It was a narrow mule track with sharp edged stones and we were getting into our element. We started the stage two minutes behind thanks to a mess-up at the time control and had the Overdrive Swift breathing down our neck. Then we heard an explosion – our rear left tyre had blown!
Amazingly the car still had control as the tubeless tyres deflated gradually. We had a quarter of the stage to finish and there was no way we were going to stop and repair a puncture and lose time. And guess what, at the end of the day we checked the time chart to find that we were the quickest through the stage, despite running a puncture. If that is not ego boosting, nothing else is, right? What followed in the next stage was a pit-stop that saw Param at his best – an eight and half minute tyre change! At that altitude, it can suck life clean out of your lungs and my navigator coughed continuously as we ripped down a relatively slow (downhill) stage – the organisers wanted us to take it easy – to make up time. We made up six out of the eight and a half minutes that we had lost. We patted our backs and drove to Gyu where a mummy greeted us (hey, don’t miss him, he looks very different from his Egyptian namesakes!) and back to Tabo. We had the least penalties for the day (ask Lance Armstrong how big a stage victory is and he will tell you!) though we were still running third.
Day four was disaster day, as far as we were concerned. The day would end at the cold army base at Patseo with us struggling to remain in the rally, let alone challenging for the lead. You see, the day started with just ten minutes separating us from the leaders Moosa-Ashok and Joshi driving a Bolero. We were about to backtrack to the Manali-Leh road and that presented us with a golden chance to catch up with the leading pack. So we were in assault mode and threw caution to the wind as we chucked the Swift around Kunzum La.
The conversation inside our car went like this... ‘If we can catch up say five minutes, we have a good chance at winning the rally...’ ‘Maybe one of the leaders will have a puncture...’ ‘Maybe we should be a bit more cautious...’ The Swift was running brilliantly and once we crossed Kunzum La, an easier (still terribly rocky) stretch of tarmac awaited. As we realised, overconfidence can do a lot of damage to your prospects.
A sharp left-right combination and I had a semi-aviating Swift land in a little stream that ran across the road. I was always crossing these streams easily... only this time there was a large rock hiding just beneath the surface. A sickening thud and we heard that nasty noise of air escaping tubeless, hapless tyres.
This time there was no way we could continue driving – it was the front right that blew. We had carried two spares and the second one now went on. We had two options – go easy and nurse the car to Leh the next day and eventually finish, or go berserk and try to keep our position and risk another puncture which would mean instant elimination. We really wanted to go to Leh and then to Kargil and then to Srinagar. We decided that we could still take third-in-class if we finished peacefully. Patseo felt colder than ever before, but we were still in the race. Day five tested our patience on some of the awesome mountain tops. Controlled aggression is a nice thing to talk about but having to go slow when you know that you can actually fly is a sad prospect. But again, we didn’t want another puncture. We lost three minutes at Baralachla, were on time at Nakee La, messed up our calculations at More Plains (Param was very good everywhere else), went terribly fast to Tanglang La (17,000 ft plus) only to encounter no time controls at the top, had to go slow on the descent only to find the time control at the bottom... it was such a bad day that we were really wondering whether we would hold on to our third spot.
Beautiful red mountains on either side of a brilliantly paved road took us to Ladakh and we were glad to be still in the reckoning at Leh. The rally took a breather at Leh – we had lots of food while the Swift got a new set of tyres and dampers. And we were really charged up to do well on what would be the final competitive leg to Kargil.
And oh boy, was Param smart with the calculator. We aggregated just 2.5 minutes of penalties for the entire day as a spruced up Swift ate up perfectly formed tarmac. The view through the windows were literally
out of the world – a moonscape on the left, formations that resembled sleeping giant rhinos on the right, the famous Lamayuru monastery... For the first time in the Raid I wanted to be on a motorcycle. Maybe BSM’s very own Thunderclap cafe racer. Some day I will return on a motorcycle, I promised myself.
There was no change in positions – Ashok and Moosa were the clear and deserving winners followed by Joshi who took the first spot amongst SUVs – an amazing achievement for a diesel-powered vehicle to outclass the petrol Gypsys.
Team Overdrive who had put in a splendid run from Patseo to Leh finished second amongst cars and we were behind them. Suchi ‘wound up’ Thakur and Sid ‘happy’ Loyal were brilliant company through the raid and their feat of finishing the event in a Maruti 800 was commendable. Neeraj Vohra and his young wife entered the Raid as honeymooners and walked way with a fifth place overall – not bad at all. Kargil was no match to the image the war had created in my mind. Sure, it looked like a town frozen in time and one that is ruled under gun point. Which, I am sure it is.
An early morning start (how about 2.45 am?) saw the Raid convoy head towards Srinagar for the formal finish. I slept as Param got behind the wheel and safely took us through Zoji La and on to the plains. It was a magnificent sight, waking up in the passenger seat and seeing the Kashmir valley and of course, India unfold ahead of us. We were proud of finishing the Raid all right, but what gave me the goosebumps was seeing stunningly beautiful Kashmir in its glorious morning might.
May there be peace and quiet in the valley.
BSM thanks Maruti Suzuki Motorsports and especially Shashi Kapoor for supporting our entry and providing a brand new Swift for the Raid. It was the first time the Swift was given a motorsport outing outside JWRC and it proved its worth by coming second and third in class.
Our thanks also to the organisers of the Raid and the tireless marshals who put together a near-flawless event. We have left out names of some of our fellow participants only due to lack of space – please bear with us!
Planning to run to Leh? It makes sense to invest roughly ten grand in a proper winter-spec motorcycle jacket. It’ll be warm, waterproof and take care of when you fall (er... you will. I took four minor spills...). Ditto lined, waterproof motorcycle pants (my next purchase). However, if you can’t afford the pants, buy plastic knee guards and plan on layering four or more thin layers to keep warm.
Knee length, waterproof shoes are crucial. Gum boots do seem to work if all else fails. If the feet stay dry, the miles will fly. My boots weren’t waterproof, but Carabin’s Rain Shoes (see review at bsmotoring.com) kept my socks from getting seriously wet.
Finally, get two pairs of good, warm gloves; one for backup. Add some thin (under-) and thick (over-) gloves for waterproofing and warmth.And remember, stay dry.