"Flying fox on both sides of the road,” Vikram Kapur’s voice crackled on the radio. Fox, flying in Kaziranga? Only deers and the one-horned rhinoceros were busy eating grass a little away from the road. But through the nine-day trip, dancing dolphins and flying foxes kept crackling over the radios which connected the Scorpios, XUVs and the Thar. Flames of curiosity kept rising but the organisers closely guarded the secret of these animal codes, until it was time to fly home. The drive itinerary was simple–Guwahati, Dirang, Tawang, Dirang, Kaziranga, Shillong and back to Guwahati–but the roads were not.
Organised by Mahindra Adventure, an experiential initiative of Mahindra & Mahindra, and executed by motorsport experts under the banner of Xtreme Sports Organisation, the third edition of the Authentic North East 2016 took us through three sister states–the tough terrains of Arunachal Pradesh, the wildernesses of Assam and the jammed roads of Meghalaya–without a hitch. Advance, lead, float, sweep, service and us! A few more days and all of us could have joined the army, the perfectly disciplined driving being quite unusual for Indian roads. Advance with off-roader Kanishk Malick and Ashish Kumar checked out the roads and ensured all arrangements were in place. We followed Lead, the Thar being driven by mountaineer and off-roader Vikram Kapur. Tailing the convoy was Sweep with Tapan Ahuja and engineer-turned-adventure junkie Nikhil Pratap Singh. Our guardian surveillance car was Float with Ruban Grewal who has participated across many rallies, including the tough Raid de Himalaya, and emergency caretaker Dr Manjul Agrawal.
Headlights on, convoy on the left, no fight with other cars, no overtaking, no honking, roll call every time the engines came to life. In between radios kept popping up with chants of demonetisation, quizzes, songs and SUV fundas by Nookala Vinod, senior brand manager, Thar and Adventure Initiatives.
The drive through Arunachal was a dreamscape. Clouds caressed the peaks, embraced the trees, flitted through the valleys. Past smiling adults and children waving out, quick stopovers for snacks at army cantonments and the sun sleeping by 5pm, Dirang was the beginning of exciting bonfire nights and mindblowing live music.
Driving in this state is a challenge for the area is prone to landslides and weather conditions change drastically throughout the year. There is always some part of the road being tarred. But even then the road junkies weren’t bothered for the Mahindra vehicles can take any challenge with ease. The Scorpio is equipped with 2H, 4H and 4L modes which means that if you get stuck anywhere, someone is likely to instruct you on which mode to put the vehicle in and pull it out, thanks to the radios which connected the convoy.
In these mountains lie tales of real life heroes, of soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the 1962 Sino-Indian war and those who guard the mountains now. Memorials and little stones commemorate the bravehearts. Inspiring quotations mark almost every curve. But among the legends is the Jaswantgarh Memorial. Decorated posthumously with the Maha Vir Chakra, Jaswant Singh Rawat, the rifleman soldier of 4 Garhwal Rifles, killed around 300 Chinese soldiers during the 1962 conflict. He was helped by two local women, Sela and Nura. Sela, who lives on as Sela Pass, marking the highest pass in Arunachal at 13,700 feet, was killed in a grenade blast. Nura, the Nuranang area named after her probably, was captured. The Chinese had taken the brave soldier’s head but later returned it. Now we see him as a shining brass bust. The locals believe he guides convoys through rough weather even today and for the army, he lives on.
Nature loves Arunachal, for the spirits of rainbows, waterfalls, lakes and Guru Nanak pulled us to lesser visited spots. Bubbly clouds watched as we tried to capture the rainbow at the Nuranang Waterfall, on the way from Dirang to Tawang, clicking from all angles. Besotted, we wanted to keep basking in the gentle colours, the spray of water sitting lightly over our woollens. But there was a stark blue beauty at Tawang called Shungatser or Madhuri lake which compelled us to take another drive with the white clouds. Actors Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit had danced to the tune of ‘Tanhai Tanhai’ for Koyla (1997) here.
Gentle yaks eyed us , as we crossed more army units and ice-covered rocks. Leafless thin tree trunks in the middle of blue waters and green-brown mountains all around, Shungatser was surreal, born after an earthquake in 1950. The wind was rushing through the valley, ducks cackled, Buddhist prayer flags fluttered and bells tinkled. Young soldiers were busy playing football.
Another surprise in the area was the yellow railing meandering up to a cave, a steep climb of 200 steps I was told. This was the spot where Guru Nanak had stayed enroute Tibet, now a gurudwara where daily prayers are held. The drive to Tawang monastery was even more dreamy.
Known to be the largest monastery in India, it is called the Galden Namgey Lhatse, which in Tibetan means celestial paradise on a clear night. The paradise was ringing with the sound of evening prayers, home to around 450 monks. The sound of drums reverberated, the butter tea sipping ritual was in motion, but our awestruck gaze was on the 18-feet high orange-robed Buddha. Founded by Merak Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1680-1681, as desired by the fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the monastery also houses a museum with Buddhist and Tibetan artefacts. But my eyes stayed put on the photograph of the current Dalai Lama escaping in civilian clothes from Tibet, sometime in the 1950s.
Another treat in Tawang was the evening light and sound show at the War Memorial, memory of lives sacrificed during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Back at the hotel began our daily round of blackjack. I lost many rounds, for it’s about brains and not just the right cards.
Ending our exotic Arunachal drive was the picnic lunch by the river in Sangti valley, near Dirang. Brown rice, chicken, paneer and noodle dishes, local drinks ara (made with maize, can be mistaken for water) and bangchen (rice beer) satiated the roadies. Lazing on the grass, agape at the stories of hunters and treks, light gave way to dusk. The flames of the bonfire rose, a guitar emerged and lyrics of love floated, the magic of the serene shores lasted till bedtime.
But the weather gods surprised us the next morning as we drove once again to Sela Pass. The sun was hiding behind grey clouds, mist rolled in the distance. Closer to Sela Pass, a crisp white layer of snow covered the brown mountains and the temperature had fallen to -2ºC. And just the previous day, yaks had been soaking in the sun. Ah! Nature’s many faces. The drive continued, a little downhill and the sun smiled once again. The clouds were ready to party, sitting on tree tops.
More green, signboards telling us to let animals live and we were on the plain road to Kaziranga. The sun was beaming. A quick lunch at the Eco Camp in Nameri and we zoomed past tea estates and wildlife parks. It was the sight of the one-horned rhinoceros that heralded our entry into the World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park. Home to two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos (around 1,200), here also live birds, herbivores and carnivores such as the elusive tiger.
We woke up to a dewy morning. Birds were busy looking for food, the sun was slowly waking up and roosters called out. The wind through our hair, in an open Gypsy we reached the spot from where the elephant safari was to take us closer to the herbivores. Sitting atop Uttara, the gentle elephant who raised her trunk every time we called out her name, we invaded the jungle. It was breakfast time for the great rhinos, who were busy chomping grass. Herds of swamp deer gazed at us nervously but perhaps the sight of Uttara calmed them. The big-horned wild water buffaloes avoided us, turned their backs and walked into the thickets.
But one hour in the jungle wasn’t enough, and the afternoon ride in the Gypsy took us to another zone where we sighted some amazing birds near the waterbodies, turtles sunning themselves and butterflies fluttering through the shrubs. But the sunset vista of the herbivores grazing in the distance in communal harmony created a magical spell. Dusk was approaching. Closer to the exit gates of the park, the tame elephants were swinging their way back to the shelters after their sunset bath. A sad adieu to rhinoland.
Crossing lush fields and lotus ponds, we zipped past the blooming pink cherry blossom trees to reach an overcrowded Shillong. And were off to Police Bazaar to gorge on the famous momos. But ended up with katori chaat, samosa chaat, chamcham and cutting chai. Then with little room left, we discovered the momos.
The weather gods smiled and we woke up to another lovely morning. This drive was a green treat with a boat ride on the Dawki Lake, situated at the border of India and Bangladesh. It was Friday and tourists on the Bangladesh side were celebrating their holiday a bit too loudly. A short round of the lake where I saw all shades of green and we turned towards the noise. Some dead branches and a boat with an old fisherwoman marked the border. The stomach was growling by now and the convoy rolled to Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village, for lunch.
Sunshine, flowers, bamboo homes and stalls, we were amidst women selling souvenirs. The village has about 90 families who thrive on agriculture and tourism. This quaint fairytale lot is friendly, happy and feeds you fresh home-cooked food and doesn’t bargain or cheat. The do’s and don’ts for the visitors are clearly written on a board and if you throw trash around, you are likely to be shown these.
Dessert was slices of fresh pineapple and kiwis and we were off to the nearby village to see the living root bridges. Rugged peaks, sunny days, blue skies, flirty clouds, green life, herbivores and voila the cars were once again parked in grey and jostling Guwahati. Cinderella forced to come home at the stroke of midnight, little glass slipper left with the three sisters though.
Sitting next to Ruban in the flight back home, I deciphered the animal codes–flying fox was the destination and dancing dolphins was work in progress. “Why don’t you come for the trip to Leh?” he asked. I looked wistfully at the man who has been speeding through the Himalayas all his life. “I will need to get acclimatised,” I replied, but my hands were itching to be on the steering wheel and the feet were looking for the Scorpio’s accelerator.
Guwahati International Airport is well connected with all major cities. AirAsia India, Air India, GoAir, IndiGo, Jet Airways, SpiceJet operate regular flights.
Where to Stay
Radisson Blu Guwahati, (from â‚¹7,999; +91 3617100100, firstname.lastname@example.org);
Norphel Retreat, Dirang (from â‚¹2,500; 07085-499595, email@example.com); Hotel Tashi Ga-Tsel, Tawang (from â‚¹2,500; 9436010602, firstname.lastname@example.org); Resort Borgos, Kaziranga (from â‚¹6,000; 7399041192, email@example.com) Hotel Poinisuk, Shillong, (from â‚¹3,400; 8794726831, firstname.lastname@example.org).
What to See & Do
Mahindra Adventure organises the drive, including sightseeing, cultural evenings, safaris at Dirang, Tawang, Kaziranga and Shillong. You can also explore the places on your own on the free days such as Yak Research Centre in Dirang, Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park, tea estate in Kaziranga and Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures, Shillong. The expedition is suitable for all age groups; we had a range of 6-60 year olds and families in the convoy (mahindraadventure.com).
Keep sipping water as high altitudes cause palpitation, especially when near Sela Pass. Eat the fresh local food. Make sure you are fit to drive long hours, even though there are breaks. Carry sunscreen, layers of clothing, dry snacks and lots of music. The idea is to enjoy the natural surroundings, so do keep them clean. Follow the rules and drive safe.