It’s a quiet little town this, Chandigarh, with its squared off blocks and equidistant roundabouts. It has its unique system of numbering which means every local knows exactly which way to head to find an address and every tourist is simply lost in a maze of similar looking blocks of houses and shops. If you ask a resident, it never takes more than fifteen minutes to get anywhere in the city and given the way my weekend turned out, it is more or less true.
Rush hour traffic runs five cars deep at the traffic signal and is a bit of a laugh for us Mumbai folk, although it seems to have the locals worried. However, I particularly like this city because it’s a gateway to the most beloved mountains and consequently has easy access to plenty of trails in the foothills. This is also possibly the reason they seem to produce excellent off-road and rally drivers as a matter of routine. Reigning APRC champion, Gaurav Gill, who had a perfect season last year, calls this city home as does the current Rainforest Challenge (RFC) winner, Gurmeet Virdi.
What does any of this have to do with a weekend of exploring trails? Well, a bunch of enthusiasts – Gerrari Off-Roaders – has come together with the Tourism department of Punjab to put together a couple of days of driving trails on the outskirts of Chandigarh to give SUV owners a taste of what their cars are really about. Gerrari, of course, also happens to be the team Gurmeet is a part of and has been a regular feature at the RFC in Goa over the past three years. They have managed to secure podium finishes in each edition of the event and look to better their performance this year. So, when I received an invite from them, I had to make the trip and check it out for myself.
Come Saturday morning, on a sweltering hot day, the collection of cars that showed up at the start line was pretty impressive. Yes, there were the Thars and Gypsy Kings, but there was an equal measure of Fortuners and V-Crosses too, with a couple of Gurkhas showing up for good measure. Throw in a couple of Pajeros and not to miss a Land Cruiser that made itself present as well. It was, without a doubt, a most impressive coming together of SUVs, one that was led by a Polaris RZR with chief organiser, Kabir Waraich, at the wheel. It wasn’t an ideal day with all the heat, but that wasn’t going to dampen anyone’s spirit, not the ones in their air-conditioned cars anyway.
In fact, it didn’t even deter Navjot Singh Sidhu, Minister of Tourism for Punjab, from making an appearance in his Land Cruiser to flag off the event. A quick speech with his characteristic humour promised support for more such events that would open up the wild country in Punjab for further exploration. We took little time to get off the road and engage four-wheel-drive. It was a dry, sandy river bed for starters with elephant grass surrounding us. It made for a bit of an eerie setting, watching big SUVs disappear behind tall grass in the middle of nowhere. There were, of course, a couple of massive RFC competition vehicles that tagged along, in case anyone needed help along the way.
It was an excruciatingly hot day, but that did not stop me from hopping out of the car to get a better view of the cars tackling particularly soft bits of the trail and occasionally get beached half way through. Despite the dust flying around and the weather which was ready to send your head spinning, no one was complaining, in fact, there were a couple who were willing to push their vehicles even further. With several bottles of water for company, I decided to walk up a particularly steep incline with a few deep ruts in it. Apart from draining me of all my fluids and plastering my face with a fine layer of dirt, it presented a brilliant view of a good looking parking lot down below with a bunch of them trying to make their way up the difficult incline.
Some made it past on their first attempt, while others kept going at it, hoping they would make it with a little more power each time. It is amazing how people who had never been off-road, suddenly discovered that they absolutely love it and are willing to push their hitherto underutilised SUVs to realise their potential. Day one may have been all about dusty trails and incinerating weather, but day two proved to be about picturesque landscapes through shaded canyon trails. The route was opened up especially by the Forest Department for the event and it proved to add a healthy dose of exploration to the equation.
There weren’t as many climbs to deal with, but the surface kept changing from muddy trails to sandy tracts, which made for interesting driving. We did come across a few snakes along the way, which made the spotters refuse to step out of the car to navigate a safe way past boulders, but in the end everyone came through with some help from the marshals from Gerrari. There were even a couple of teams of participants who were hearing and speech impaired and they proved themselves to be fine off-road units as they made their way through the course without a hitch. It is great to see the administration partner effectively with an off-road club to help explore corners that otherwise remain unreachable. While there may be some who will not approve of such exercises, it is for us to prove them wrong. By ensuring that we don’t cause unnecessary chaos and leave the surroundings undisturbed, we can do just that and facilitate more such excursions into the wild.