You can feel it, the seasons changing. There is a nip in the air and you can feel it sapping the moisture from your skin. To quote a popular TV series,‘winter is coming’. But, as peculiar as things are around the Western Ghats, day temperatures still soar well past thirty degree Celsius while night temperatures plummet to half that.
Peculiarities aren’t restricted to the climate though. Up here, around Naneghat, the mountains have eroded to form strange projections poking out, a waterfall comes into being during the monsoon and flows upwards, and, although vegetation isn’t dense, it supports a whole range of fauna. There are snakes coiled up and waiting under short shrubs, deer and wild boar run free, while the number of birds and insects that you come across is staggering, not to forget the foxes howling in the distance. Precisely the reason we are here, helping Adwait, a zoologist with Resqink Association for Wildlife Welfare, conduct a survey of the area. Although it has recently received protected status, it has been recognised to be important enough for further studies to be conducted.
Perfect job for the Isuzu D -Max V-Cross; the coolest take on a pick-up truck in Indian market, at the moment. This is, of course, the four-wheel-drive, twin-cab version that you can buy and register as a personal vehicle and pack away for an adventure, wherever you please. We loaded it up for a weekend of wildlife spotting, complete with camping gear, outdoorsy chairs with camo print on them and a couple of warm jackets.
Apart from this,I packed in another essential, a little notebook to jot down important bits of information while both my companions packed in rather large telephoto lenses for the trip, you know, the kind that makes you feel rather inadequate. Most importantly though, we packed in good manners; first of all, to impress our zoologist guest, and, secondly, to not make complete a**es of ourselves in the forest.
To get to Naneghat though, we had to get through roughly 200km of highways, which varied between the express way and narrow single-lane roads that finally disintegrated into village roads that were barely a car wide. The V-Cross fortunately managed to deal with all of it with ease. The express way stint was dispatched in quick time thanks to its excellent road manners and the strong 2.5-litre diesel motor that makes 134 horses and 320Nm of twist force, with a well-matched five-speed manual gearbox.
Cruising at triple-digit speeds is effortless and there is enough grunt from pretty low-down in the rev range. The engineers at Isuzu have been particularly successful at minimising turbo-lag with the variable geometry turbocharger and you appreciate this the most on steep inclines. It proves to be very useful at quick overtaking manoeuvres too, especially on the narrower highways.
Although you have a fair amount of torque early in the rev range, it peaks at just under 2000rpm and you can feel a clear surge forward. Ride quality also remains surprisingly good. The V-Cross manages to soak up pretty much everything, especially at the front with its independent setup. The rear is set up for a full load in the bay, and runs leaf springs.
But, despite this, it manages to ride pretty well, apart from the times I miscalculated the height of the occasional speedbreaker and sent our gear flying up from the flat bed. Fortunately, both the zoologist, who was sitting in the back and the gear managed to land back safely each time, more or less unharmed.
It was a fairly long drive to Naneghat, but despite the four-hour journey, all three of us were in good shape and ready for our first walk around the forest. This was largely thanks to the massive cabin in the V-Cross, which allows for comfortable seating even in the second row, something few twin-cab pick-ups can boast.
The idea of a walk was pleasant, but then engaging four-wheel-drive and going over the rocky terrain, closer to the fringe of the forest seemed like a better idea, especially with all the equipment in tow. Adwait seemed to agree as well, a change from his usual hike up t he mountain side to get to the Naneghat forest area.
Fortunately, dry season had properly set in and there was little to watch out for apart from the jagged features sticking out of the rocky bed that lined the trail. While high ratio worked fine for the terrain, there were a couple of occasions where we needed to move slower to maintain maximum clearance, especially with the side steps attached. Shift to low-ratio on the four-wheel-drive system, and the V-Cross turns into a perfect rock crawler, gently moving over every obstacle in its way and being quiet about it too.
While I was busy concentrating on the trail, Adwait managed to spot a few different birds and some butterflies. More often than not, I would miss what he was pointing at, but some, like the Crested Lark, were less ruffled and allowed us a good look at its spiky head. Others, like the Pond Heron were busy skimming through the muck to find its prey and couldn’t be bothered by our presence either.
Of course, the fact that the Isuzu’s motor is fairly refined helped as well. Further into the trail, we got to a sort of ledge, which in other months hosts a ‘reverse waterfall’, one that flies back up because of the strong gusts of wind that get funnelled in to the mountain side, thanks to its peculiar design. The water may have dried out, but the view remained superbly jaw-dropping and it wasn’t difficult to see why the water gets thrown back up once you get close to the edge. The V-Cross had ferried us, and all our equipment, till within a few feet of this ledge, which would serve as our campsite. But, for the final bit, the side steps did not allow enough clearance to get past a couple of the bigger rocks.
As the temperatures plummeted through the night and the wind picked up, we began wondering whether we should’ve rather spent the night in the comfortable seats inside the Isuzu with our windows rolled up. Possibly with some music playing off the Bluetooth enabled system, since that was all that our cell phones were good for. Network had been left far behind.
However, we did manage to get through the night and woke up bright and early for a little hike around the forest. Adwait told us about leopards in the area and how it wasn’t uncommon to come across Sambar Deer or even Wild Boar. As exciting as it sounded, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to meeting any of these creatures face to face, that too on foot. Before long, the sun was going through its motions, changing the colour of the sky shade by shade and I suggested that we return to the car and drive around. Only so we could cover a greater area, nothing to do with my trembling insides. Really. Leopards, gah.
As we drove out of the trail to head toward a lake nearby, to spot some birds, the zoologist stopped us in our tracks and approached a tall shrub slowly. He had managed to spot a perfectly camouflaged Bamboo Pit Viper and insisted on getting us to take a closer look. Very green, not a good sign as far as the general theory of bright colours equal more poison. Onwards then, to put a bit more distance between the snake and us. The V-Cross’s motor seemed to appreciate the thick morning air as it gathered pace rapidly and helped carry us away down toward the waterfront. The slight broken pieces of tarmac were dispensed without the slightest bit of bother and we were on our way.
It took a few attempts and a couple of tricky U-turns with the massively long V-Cross to finally make it to the lakeside and by the time we did, the sun had sailed high up into the sky and the water had turned a brilliant blue. The flat bed turned into an ideal vantage point for us now as we found a bund to park on. It was easy to stand around and hop onto the wheel arches for a bit of extra elevation.
The two photographers got to serious work, pulling out their respective telephoto lenses, while I put on my hat and sank into an armchair on the bed. I put pen on paper and quietly took down notes about a certain Serpent Eagle circling about us, scoping out its next meal. But all the while, I was counting down the hours before I could get back behind the wheel and take off for another spin or explore another trail.
While they played with their long lenses, the V-Cross filled in to take care of my flagging morale because apart from being a superbly put-together machine, it is also extremely cool and can do wonders for the way you feel. And that itself is reason enough to absolutely love this car.
Engine: 2499cc, 4cyl, diesel
Transmission: 5M, 4WD
Top speed: 160kph
Kerb weight: 1905kg
Bottom line: The most fun and capable pick-up on sale. Drives well, is comfortable and extremely capable, too.