The story started off with the arrival, to unbridled joy in the office, of the bright, red, shiny long-term Thar. A week later with my car out for another shoot, I had no option but to take the Thar for a mundane, but necessary, drive through Pune city. That’s when I realised what auto journos mean when they say ‘puts a smile on your face’. I spent all day driving across the city, took to the ’gram to tell the boys in the office to keep their grubby paws off the Thar, and I suppose all that gushing gave Sirish the bright idea to get me to experience what the Thar can really do.
Three weeks later, we are at the Mahindra Adventure Academy where Ryan hands me a helmet and an indemnity form, and welcomes me to the Level 2 off-road course. Huh? What? Me? “You’re the auto journo, not me,” I yell at Sirish. “Shouldn’t I do Level 1?” I squeak at Ryan. “That’s too easy,” the two reply and promptly march off.
Thank god for Manish Sarser, lead instructor at the Academy, and also a past auto-journo. Half the size of the Sheriff but radiating twice the authority, he finds higher ground and eases us all in. I won’t bore you with how the Thar’s 4x4 system works save to say that Manish’s theory course does put things I’ve read in magazines into proper context. And then as the sun sets behind the lush green hills, Manish rounds up the session with a quick round of introductions, “I’m here against my wishes,” I grumble under my breath, and we are off on the Trail Survivor course. Oh, did I mention that the course starts in the pitch dark? Fun.
Trail 1: Home run
“Don’t worry it’s easy,” says Ryan, reassuring me with his presence, and also his sheer girth that will serve as a lovely airbag if I were to topple the Thar. It’s nothing short of terrifying for a noob like me. Ryan, a virtue of patience compared to the grumble pot sitting next to me, reminds me to ease off the clutch and let the Thar do everything.
The obstacle is a 15-foot drop, don’t ask me what angle, and then the track goes round a bend and up a short slope. I get to the drop, my front wheels are on the edge, the boys say let go, I let go. The brain wants to do the opposite but I trust the programme. It works. We are crawling down the incline, at what seems like walking — and thus, safe! — pace. So this is what low-ratio hill descent is all about. A bit of gas to climb out of the ditch, watch the spotter direct me round the bend, and we are out. Phew! Can I go home now?
Trail 2: Zig zag
Manish tells us that we need to walk the trail to understand terrain so we know how to drive it. When to crawl, when to gas, where not to brake, spot the ruts and so on. It sounds easy enough. But it’s a whole other story from behind the wheel. Besides, the editor isn’t an enthusiast of any physical activity and grabs me a cup of tea while the others diligently march behind Captain Manish up the hill.
Now, while we have driven up here in our new Thar the instructors urge us to drive their older generation Thars. “The trails are way too easy in the new Thar,” they say. “And I don’t want my Thar to get scratched,” adds Sirish. So it is a stick shift, proper mud-terrain tyres, and a bit of wrestling for me as I go up the steep incline not letting off the gas at all, pretty pleased that we go up in one shot despite all the slipping and sliding.
Then there’s a straight patch to crawl over ruts and ditches, and a 90-degree turn and slope going all the way back down. I know in my head not to brake but inadvertently I stand on them and stall on the slope, and my mind goes blank. To the extent I forget how to drive, asking Sirish if I should press the clutch and brake to start the Thar. Captain Patience repeats for the hundredth time, “Fear is the absence of knowledge.” If he wasn’t wearing a helmet I would have punched him in the face. Fear does not mean physical violence won’t be administered, I remind him. Deep breath. Start the Thar. Ease off the clutch. Let it trundle back down. Why was I so terrified?
Trail 3: One tree hill
While we wait for the others to finish the second course, Ryan points at the next one. In the darkness, I see the silhouette of a tree high up in the distance. We have to get way up there and naturally come all the way down. What pleasure do these boys get in doing this?
We drive through the underbrush. Manish is there explaining the mechanics of the next trail, telling us exactly where we need to gas, crawl, inch and what not. It’s a steep incline and we have to zig zag our way up, not letting up on the gas, mindful of the rocks and stones. Build and use the momentum. Easy-peasy!
Except, what goes up must come down. And there’s a twist to this trail. There’s a ditch that your right front wheel must be put in to while coming down. And at that point you will have the rear left wheel up in the air like a doggie marking its territory. We watch the demo. Pin drop silence. Everyone is a bit nervous about this one. Coming up the trail is fine, but then you have to position your wheels just right to inch into the ditch, here using both the clutch and the brake.
I jump into the Thar to go first. No point seeing others fluff this test and stressing myself out. If Manish says I can do it, I can do it. I gas it up the slope but lose a bit of traction and slide down. No matter, says Manish. Reverse, give more gas, “When in doubt give gas!” shouts Mr-No-Patience-Whatsoever next to me. Build more momentum. Gas! Gas! Gas! Watch out for the stones and ruts and I’m up! Part one done and dusted.
Manish is waiting at the decline. He tells me to stop. Now start inching, slowly, a few adjustments on the steering at Manish’s directions, feel the front right wheel going down-down-down, and the left rear comes up-up-up. We’re rocking! No, I mean the car is literally rocking. Inch in and inch out, feel the rear wheel come back down, and crawl down the slope. I’m home free! What a rush! With night driving over we repair to the hotel. This is turning out to be quite the weekend.
Trail 4: Pond rush
Day 2 dawns bright and sunny, Ryan murdering the buffet table, me with a new found confidence in myself and a tonne more in the Thar. And with Sirish right by my side. I remind myself that these fellows do this for fun! Haven’t they heard of a spa?
The day starts off with driving through a pond and then going up a slope. We’re told to do this without 4x4 to see how difficult — and impossible — it is, and the difference the 4WD hardware makes in sticky situations. Getting a seat of the pants feel and understanding what the Thar is doing is the aim of this course.
I go through the pond without a hitch, steady on the throttle, not letting up, and we’re through. Now building momentum to go up the slope, I try a couple of times but slide back down, the rear wheels spinning aimlessly. Then shifting in to 4WD, I immediately feel the traction, a bit of gas and I’m up and out in a jiffy. What a difference! And now that I’ve had the time to process all the information fed to me over the past day, instead of blindly following orders, I now understand what the Thar’s doing. I’m thinking more about the mechanics of the Thar and the lessons Manish has given us at the start of the day are being put to practice. Trails 5 and 6 are similar lessons in reinforcing where to gas, where to let go, crawl and inch. And then we come to Trail 7.
Trail 7: M for Mahindra
So far, we have been driving on dirt. Now we have to crawl over rock. Dirt trails are forgiving but rocks, as you know, don’t offer much cushioning. We could break the Thar warns Manish. Ryan tells me this course is a part of the trails used for the Mahindra off-roading trophy. This time round I diligently walk the trail. It’s a rock face and the trail traces an M on the surface. We’re given a demo. It looks tough! The Thar grunting and sliding about. We’re told to be careful, to avoid hitting the bottom.
I get the older shuddery Thar for this trail and I’m feeling a little out of sorts. Deep breath and go. Gas it, slide down, gas it, slide down again. In my head I’d picked a line to go on but that doesn’t seem to be working. A bit to the left, gas-gas-gas-gas… don’t let up, don’t let up, tweak the line a bit and up I go! Now inch-inch-inch to the drop, angle the wheel just right and crawl down the first arch. Reach down, make a U-turn and gas-gas-gas it up the second arch. And she moves effortlessly. It dawns on me that the Thar will go anywhere!
Trail 8: Spotters
At the final trail of the day, the lesson to be learnt is spotting. Using hand signals to guide the driver to help him/her navigate terrain they can’t see from behind the wheel. Manish teaches us the various hand signals. We’re going to drive through a rocky stream with bunds and crests, put the front right wheel in a ditch and the left one on a mound of rocks, all at the same time! Just when I was relaxing and having a bit of fun, I’m terrified all over again.
Manish demonstrates. And at one point he’s almost horizontal in the driver’s seat with the left rear wheel bobbing in the air. There’s a collective gasp! I’m not doing this, is my first instinct. I wait for all the others to go. I watch them manage fine. Sirish eggs me on, he’s going to be right by my side and it’s the last one!
I keep my eyes on my spotter and follow his instructions to the T. Clutch-brake-clutch-brake, inch in to the ditch, and out of it. The point where I’m horizontal and suspended with one wheel in a ditch and the other in the air is where Sirish calls out to the photographer… take a picture quickly! We made it!
A complete noob, I would never have done this of my own free will. But the team at Mahindra Adventure really do know what they are doing, they’re patient, they know how to have fun, they instil so much confidence, and you end up learning so much about the Thar. It has also made me a better driver — I noticed that when I drove back to Mumbai, I was so much more confident on the highway.
Not only did I survive the Trail Survivor course, this new-found knowledge has conquered my fear.