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Guardians of a galaxy

By: Vinod Nookala
Photography : Mahindra Adventure

The desert. Only those who are well acquainted with it really know that it bears resemblance to no other terrain on Earth. A galaxy unto itself. Stark yet beautiful, barren yet alive, an adventure yet a hazard. The Thar desert or the Great Indian desert is no different. And no one experiences the dichotomies of the desert more than those who guard the sandy border between us and our somewhat antagonistic neighbour ― India’s Border Security Force, or the BSF. Our story begins here.

Last year on the occasion of Republic Day, Madan Choudhary, the man who runs the Mahindra Off-Road Academy in Jaisalmer, set off for the Bablian check post of the BSF, armed to the teeth with sweets. His private mission had the simple objective of making our valorous jawans feel wanted on a momentous day. Mission accomplished, Madan headed back for his own bivouac when he encountered a convoy struggling to get through the sandy terrain with a few of their vehicles stuck. “I always have a recovery vehicle with me when I venture out in this terrain. So I offered my help,” he remembers. All those hours at the Academy had armed Madan with the knowledge of how to get out of sticky situations and he was soon able to help the beleaguered soldiers get moving again. It was a simple gesture from a citizen to the soldiers, but Madan’s techniques had made an impression on the officer of the convoy who suggested that these highly helpful techniques be taught to the soldiers who had to befriend this harsh terrain.

Cut to present day and there I was, smack in the middle of a troop of combat fatigues. An excited group of 60 odd men, two complements of 30 drawn from each of the two BSF headquarters at Jaisalmer, who had made the desert their home. It was a mixed bunch of drivers who had been assigned from the BSF to attend the course that we at Mahindra had decided to call Desert Survivor. Some had tonnes of experience while others were novices and between them they drove everything from a quarter tonne SUV to 5-tonne 4x4 trucks. No, these weren’t ordinary men. How can they be, when they will form India’s first line of defence?

Now the BSF have been using our Mahindra 4x4s for decades, in all kinds of terrain. In fact, the long and deep relationship between the men who bear arms and Mahindra has been documented in detail by automotive journalist and historian Adil Jal Darukhanawala in his book Timeless Mahindra. So lack of familiarity with Mahindra 4x4s would not be much of an issue. Nor would familiarity with terrain be an issue. On the contrary, this was their backyard. Nonetheless, we at Mahindra believe that knowledge, when shared, can only grow. Not to mention our patriotism and our legacy with the men in uniform means that we are forever ready to help them however we can ― in this case by sharing knowledge that we had gained in the rough and tumble world of the Mahindra Off-Road Academy. So there we were in the middle of this bunch of tough drivers-in-uniforms, all set to share what we knew about driving on sand, and to learn from what they know.

Before we dive into the lessons and the progress of our men, we must first tell you a little about the venue itself. Now it is a well-established fact that the men of the Indian Armed Forces ― paramilitary forces such as the BSF included ― are trained in the harshest of terrain and in the most extreme of conditions. This ensures that most of the situations they go through in real life have already been part of the training that they have undergone. Naturally, any workshop with these men in uniform had to preserve that particular aspect of training. It was therefore decided that we would train them near the checkpost at a place called Morar. Here you can find a 48-kilometre stretch where if wind speeds remain higher than 20kmph then the dunes shift and change shape every hour! If you want to train anyone in the art of desert driving there isn’t a single other place in this country that is better suited.

Lesson number one turned out to be in humility, as is often the case when one has left the predictable safety of black top and begun to get the wheels onto the rougher stuff. The references, the surety of surface and therefore traction, everything starts to change in ways one can’t really foretell. The end result is that it hits the driver in his soft underbelly and begins to erode his confidence. As soon as we hit the proper sand tracks, everyone began to realise that Desert Survivor was going to be no pushover of a workshop. A few, particularly among the novices, were visibly shaken when they couldn’t make as much progress as they had expected in the much better equipped and more powerful Scorpio S11 4x4, which gets a 2.2-litre mHawk engine with 140bhp on tap.

Contrary to what many people believe, driving on sand involves a lot more than simply reducing tyre pressures to 18 psi and switching to 4WD Low. To be able to drive successfully on a low traction surface such as sand, understanding of basic physics ― momentum and how it might affect your progress, smoothness with controls and an innate ability to read the surface ― are essential skills. These sons of the soil however were quick to adapt to the power and torque characteristics of the Scorpio S11 4x4, which is higher than the output of the vehicles they were regularly exposed to and were familiar with. Soon enough they were riding the dunes.

They were just about getting the hang of things when we decided to play spoilsports and rob them of their newfound confidence. To make sure that we would be able to teach them all that we ourselves had learnt at the Academy, we introduced certain sharp bends that would break the momentum of the vehicle. Learning to deal with situations where the vehicle’s momentum has to be broken is a very useful skill to have in off-road conditions, and the desert sands are no different. We also presented them with some cross axle situations where one wheel of the axle is dug in while the other wheel is up in the air, thereby also demonstrating maximum wheel articulation. The participants quickly realised that these more powerful Scorpios tended to get into these tricky cross axle situations more easily than the vehicles they were used to since the engine’s grunt also enhanced the vehicle’s ability to dig up more sand. This automatically means the driver has to measure his throttle input continuously when driving on sandy terrain. To be able to deal with such cross axle situations, which may sometimes result in very dramatic wheel articulation, one must also familiarise oneself with the vehicle itself. It is important to know the limit of the vehicle’s suspension system. Wheel placement is equally important in these circumstances and one must learn how to steer the vehicle so that one doesn’t lose traction entirely.

Speaking of wheel placement, it is supremely important to keep the wheels on compacted sand tracks rather than on the loose stuff that lies around. Being able to do this means that you’ll make progress quickly ― a critical need for armed forces that need to move rapidly when out on patrols. The ability to stay within the tracks is achieved by a combination of smooth and correct throttle inputs and intuitive steering inputs. Over correction with the steering wheel without sufficient control on the throttle actually gets you nowhere. The problem is worse when you have access to power steering since the assisted system offers less feedback than an unassisted one. This proved to be quite the challenge for the jawans who were used to unassisted steering systems on their vehicles and were experiencing power assisted steering on sand for the first time in our Scorpios. In the beginning they were all over the place but these men are quick to adapt and began to learn the techniques much quicker than you’d expect.

Finally, if you’re out in the desert you’ve got to acknowledge that at some point you’ll get stuck. Recovery is therefore one of the most crucial lessons that was learnt that day. You’ll never find an off-road curriculum that doesn’t teach you recovery. It really is that important.

To teach these folks how to recover I would first have to get our vehicles stuck. So I stepped into open differential Scorpio S11 4x4 and cross axled it on purpose and managed to get it stuck. My next task was to get the new Thar stuck in a similar situation. This proved much tougher than I had imagined. Never have I had such a difficult time getting something, anything, stuck in loose sand. No matter what I did, the new Thar would come out of every situation easily. The combination of its brake locking differential (BLD) and automatic mechanically locking differential (MLD) is really that incredible.

BLD as a technology applies the vehicle’s brakes several times in a millisecond to transfer the power to the wheels that have better traction. This helps the Thar maintain a steady rate of progress over tough terrain. This assists in faster turn-ins, which in turn helps maintain tighter lines on sandy tracks. When matters get worse, the auto locking differential comes to the rescue, locking the rear diff completely. Thereby making the Thar a super capable off-road vehicle and quite hardcore. Eventually, with no recourse to anything else, I had to beach the Thar on its belly on top of a sand dune to stop its progress. Such is the capability of a powerful short wheelbase SUV with traction control system and a differential lock mechanism working in harmony.

At this point I was quite sure that if off-road driving lessons were to be learnt in a Thar, it would make even a novice look like an expert. That’s new traction control technology for you. An open differential 4x4 SUV with limited wheel travel and no traction control suddenly seemed archaic in comparison, which is what these guys would go back to after the workshop. In that old world, the driver and his skills play a more significant role in maintaining progress and not getting stuck.

With the sun sitting low on the sandy horizon, it was time to bid these men-at-arms-and-wheels good luck and Godspeed. And we did so, with the hope that we have been able to make a small difference in making their lives a little bit easier in this beautiful yet harshest of terrains. After all, they are true desert survivors. Them and the SUV that bears the name of this great desert ― the Thar.

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