Across the city, many proud owners of vehicles like the Mahindra Thar, Toyota Fortuner and their older cousins like the Willi and Gypsy King, are prepping their cars as you read this. Tomorrow, they will be heading out with their spouses and children, along the ECR to Kuvathur, where a different kind of weekend getaway is in store for them. Coming from varied backgrounds — from IT professionals to doctors and architects — they get together once in two months for what they call SUV Off-road Excursions. But before you start picturing an SUV picnic by the beach, hear this — they spend two days pushing their machines to the limit and learning to tame terrain that some of you would not even imagine getting your vehicle into.
In the beginning
It all started with Jeep Thrills, a Yahoo group by Anjan Kariappa along with Arkaprava Datta and a few other friends back in 2005. Initially a platform where like-minded individuals discussed and exchanged notes on their passions – their Jeeps and Gypsies – it now has over 2,100 people from across India talking about all things ‘off road’. “By 2007 we started using the Team BHP platform to interact with off-roaders from across the country,” says Datta, who saw the potential for the sport of off-roading and started the Palar Challenge in 2006. Today, the Palar Challenge is a benchmark for off-roading competitions in India, with participants coming in not only from across the country, but Sri Lanka as well. Both the success of the Palar Challenge, and the number of people showing interest in their online group prompted Datta to start the SUV Off-road Excursions last December. “It is about spreading the awareness and interest in off-roading as much as possible,” says Datta. And what better way to reach out to people than by providing a platform where they can experience and learn the sport hands on along with their friends and families too.
Completion not competition
“Sand, snow, slush and mountain terrain are the four types of terrain that off-roaders should learn to master,” says Bijoy Kumar, the chief of adventure activities at M&M, Mumbai. He recommends Wayanad and Goa during the monsoons for slush, Jaisalmer for its sand dunes the rocky terrain one would find across Maharashtra. “SUV Excursions puts people through rough terrain under controlled conditions,” says Amardeep Devadason from RR Donelley, who has been off-roading for about three years now. “Even first timers are getting into it because all the obstacles are tested for safety before the event,” he adds. Organised by Datta and his team under the name Terra Tigers, these excursions are usually over a two-day weekend, with day one featuring obstacles and terrain for first timers and beginners, and day two for more advanced drivers and four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles only. “We try to master tasks – climbing steep inclines, driving through water and slush, etc,” says Vellore-based Balaji G, a regular participant in the excursions, reiterating what all the participants and the organisers seem to be stressing on — “It is not a competition.” Besides, the Palar Challenge provides enough fight for those with sufficient skill. “It is like a never-ending but interesting learning sphere,” the 46-year-old who is just back after participating in the 3,000 odd kilometer-long Tri National off road event, points out. “The camaraderie that participants share is great.” With people helping each other navigate terrain and master new skills, peppered with sufficient breaks for refreshments, the atmosphere is one of energy, excitement and fun, we are told.
Manoj Sharma, the owner of city-based chemicals company Triveni, who is also a regular participant at the event says, “The excursion is for soft off-roading and completely safe for families. It is a great alternative to malls and movies and sometimes we have to camp out too so it makes for a lot of family bonding.” Priya Sharma, a homemakker who drives a Mahindra Scorpio at the Excur-sions, recalls the first time she tried her hand at off-roading. “I was climbing up a hill of rocks and it was the scariest thing. But I was thrilled when I completed it.” She finds off-roading to be stimulating and ‘involving a lot of thinking’. “A lot of ladies come to drive or accompany their families,” she adds.
Datta elaborates on the safety saying that in addition to the obstacles being easier and more suited to SUV’s, all the drivers are taken through demos and one-on-one training. And while a ratio of one Marshall to seven vehicles is considered safe, they make sure that there is one Marshall for every two vehicles. And in case of emergency, most of the Marshalls who are not just experts on driving the terrain are also qualified in advanced first aid. After all, no ambulances can access the terrain where the excursions happen, though hospitals are within a vicinity of 20 kilometers. On the other hand, the Palar Challenge has strict safety criteria as the terrain is tougher and risks greater, with few obstacles so tough that just one or two drivers manage to complete them. Roll cages, three-point seatbelts and shoes, are all mandatory to participate in the challenge.
More for less
Besides the interest in learning to drive new terrain, another reason that people are drawn to off-roading as opposed to track or other forms of motor sport, is the lesser investment involved. In addition to lesser fuel being consumed, there is also lower maintenance required after soft off-roading. No doubt those trying more serious and tougher terrain will incur higher maintenance costs, but they are still much lower in comparison to other motor sports. Raghav Rangarajam, the owner of Ignite, a garage just a few meters before the ECR checkpost, is one of the go-to tuners and modifiers of SUVs in the city. He feels that the Mahindra Thar has been a catalyst in the growing interest in off-roading. “Previously people used to pick up disposed army vehicles and restore them for off-roading. This used to take months and a lot of investment. But with vehicles like the Thar, people can get their vehicle off-road ready in a matter of days,” he points out, adding that availability of accessories and spares for the new vehicles has also taken it to new heights.
Terra Tigers’ next excursion for SUV owners takes place over this weekend. Cost: Rs 1,500 onwards per person. Details: 9840066657
— Ryan Peppin (email@example.com)
(Pics: Shiba Prasad Sahu)