The international Indo-Burmese boundary passed right through the middle of the Chief Angh’s residence in Longwa without a care for logical propriety or diplomatic correctness. On either side of the gatepost, alongside the national flags, were scrawled in chalk ‘Nagaland, India’ and ‘Sagaing, Myanmar.’ This wasn’t the first instance in recent times that we were wandering beyond boundaries. My mind flashed past the events of the past week.
It’s not everyday that your airport pick up happens to be a mean self-drive. As our offroading crew landed at Dimapur for an extreme overland expedition across Nagaland, an armada of seven Mahindra Thars had already been shipped from Mumbai and waited in readiness. It was perhaps the last time we would see them in gleaming mint condition, as team leaders Nidhi Salgame and recently retired Col Satty Malik of Wander Beyond Boundaries (WBB) welcomed us, with automobile technician Sushil Guleria in tow.
After introductions and a briefing, we were assigned our respective rides. I was in ‘8048’ teamed up with Reedaiy Pal, a young millennial half my age who drove a Thar back home in Delhi. Nidhi in her black ‘Thor’ was the ‘lead’, Sushil brought up the rear as the ‘sweep’, while Satty was the ‘float’ in between. Badri Baldawa, an adventure veteran in his 70s, had hiked up to Annapurna Base Camp and Everest Base Camp, besides a snow drive to Russia and Mumbai-to-London in 72 days with wife Pushpa for company. Satish Kannan, with his share of RV adventures in the US, was travelling with his two teenagers. Ravi Dasgupta and Santosh Ojha were driving enthusiasts, though Ojha was using a manual drive for the first time. Also from Mumbai were last minute additions Pankaj Varma, and Milind Kale—a young photographer. And two feisty sisters Raj and Vimla who proved that age was just a number. It was the strangest assemblage of oddballs.
“It’s like ‘Big Boss of the Outdoors’ Nidhi,” I joked.
Each vehicle came with its stash of emergency snacks, a 20L water can, notebooks, T-shirts that said “It’s not the road we conquer, but ourselves” and a handy multi-toolkit from Coleman, courtesy Adventure Gears. A quick lunch at Dimapur, and we were off on the drive to Kohima. The dusty NH29 seemed no less than an offroad, and it took us four hours to cover 70 kilometres. In Nagaland, the time-distance correlation can be so off, you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re travelling through a wormhole in Interstellar.
By nightfall, we were laboring up the steep incline to Razhu Pru, a heritage homestay done up in typical Naga décor.
The next day was dedicated to extensive prep. Nidhi was an offroading pioneer of sorts. In December 2016, she undertook India’s first overland solo trip to the Pole of Cold (in Northern Siberia).
In April 2018, she drove from Delhi to Mustang (Nepal) braving the most formidable roads in the Himalaya, part of the world’s first crew of five women drivers to reach Lo Manthang. In December 2018, she drove along the LoC. With several offroad training programmes under her belt, Nidhi took us through the basics of emergency first response, four-wheel driving and tyre care while Satty briefed us on the history of Nagaland and its insurgent past.
Overlanding has been around since the 1960s and journeying from Europe to Asia was the ultimate adventure. Extreme overlanding involves an element of uncertainty in terrain, food, culture, stay and a dynamic environment, so boundaries are constantly broken at multiple levels.
The idea behind WBB was to curate challenging journeys that embody the supremacy of the human spirit and create a community of drivers who use offroad skills to negotiate extreme terrain. The essence was to unleash one’s inner potential and push boundaries as drivers and individuals, ‘wandering beyond boundaries’ both outside and within.
We went over the route map and what to expect in terms of frugal facilities and inclement weather. The convoy had to be maintained at all costs. Nidhi underlined the inherent uncertainty about when we reach while Satty was pragmatic about connectivity—“Don’t expect 4G, but there will be G!” Team roles were apportioned and Reedaiy and I shouldered the responsibility of F&B. With only half a day at our disposal, we paid our respects at the Kohima War Memorial and stocked up on provisions. Nagaland is a dry state but there are unnamed places to wet one’s whistle with zutho (local rice beer). Canisters were procured and local advice was heeded—‘fill only half a can’, ‘don’t screw the lid tight’, or ‘wedge in a few matchsticks to let the gas escape’.
Thus fortified, we were ready for our 2.30am wake-up call. Tyre pressures and oil gauges were checked, we formed a morning circle for a prayer, and before Kohima’s roosters could hit their snooze button, we were off on the 280-kilometre run to Shilloi, the largest lake in Nagaland.
Driving past Kisama, we turned off from Kigwema, hit our first 4WD section and maintained a fair clip to our breakfast stop at Chakhabama. The road skirted the Manipur border to the south, with significant army presence all along. Crossing Pfutsero—at 2133.6m the highest altitude town in Nagaland—we made a stop at historic Jessami, the site of a great WWII battle.
Beyond Meluri, at Akhegwo, the village headman Nienthso had arranged a lovely local lunch of rice, dal, chicken curry, fish, boiled lai sak (mustard leaves), silip patta (salad) and papad.
The last 80 kilometres took us five hours and by the time we wound past Weziho to Shilloi Resort, we had been driving 17 hours straight. With no running water or electricity, the word ‘resort’ was more a mission statement but we were too tired to care. A bonfire to warm us, a brilliant night sky above and common carp from the lake to feed us; it wasn’t too bad.
The next morning, we soaked in our dramatic location, encircled by the Patkai range with the lake shimmering below. Shaped like a giant foot, the tectonic lake was originally called Lütsam, literally ‘still water’ in the Lürathüra dialect. As per local legend, the goddess of the lake came from Myanmar in the form of a serpent and chose this as her resting place. The present name Shilloi was derived from ‘shilow,’ meaning ‘protected’. The remote location added to its pristine nature.
Besides swimming and boating, one could fish for carp, silverfish, rohu and katla. Time permitting, one can visit the Myanmar border town of Leshi or scale Saramati, the highest peak in Nagaland.
The proximity to Myanmar was advantageous—like procuring a case of Dagon Light lager ‘brewed and canned in Myanmar’. Beer connoisseurs describe it as ‘wet cardboard and cheap wet tobacco with a metallic aftertaste’ though it’s unbelievable how less finicky one gets under dire circumstances. We drove past hillsides bearing traces of jhum (slash and burn) cultivation, the hills of Myanmar to our right, and across the Tizü river bridge. After lunch near Mutingkhong Baptist Church, we continued on the gruelling drive to Tsatongse Memorial Guest House at Kiphire. Every day, no matter how tired we were or how late we reached, Nidhi would convene her circle for a round of ‘appreciation’ and ‘space’, where team members shared whatever was on their minds. It was cathartic.
Under the watchful eye of matriarch Pilongla, an efficient team of women stirred up delicious beans and smoked pork in Kiphire. The meat was tough and the fat chunky, so F&B decided to cube and flambé it with the remaining rum to pack for lunch with fried rice. Beyond Kiphire, the entire mountainside and the road had been washed off, forcing us to descend to the river. However, we encountered another roadblock as local villagers had dug two massive culverts to channel rainwater. The team got to work—long sturdy logs were bunched together to form a makeshift bridge, stones and other reinforcements were jammed below. Two vehicles did a tightrope act and went ahead to check the route.
There were four tricky river crossings and one narrow section where the road was washed off, so vehicles had to literally crawl at a 45-degree angle with two wheels on the embankment. As luck would have it, the fourth vehicle overturned and Satty exhibited great skill to appreciation’winch it out. Sushil, the quiet Pahadi from Kangra, expertly dismantled the vehicle, dried out the parts and, showing a nifty trick using my deo spray, got the engine to start. Meanwhile, some cooled off in the stream and Reedaiy kept the spirits up with his music.
However, it was Satty’s turn to get stuck in the river and after being double winched out to safety, he barely made the treacherous crossing. Daylight was seeping fast and local Naga men pitched in to widen the mud path, jamming logs as support by the river’s slippery edge as the last of the vehicles made the subsequent river crossings.
The next morning, I explored the town hall, the clock tower with its circular shelter, vibrant Naga street art and Tuensang market where bhut jolokia chillis, local greens and mud crabs were being sold. After breakfast, we headed for Mon via Tobu and Ukha. At Rice Hotel Changkhong,
I took over the kitchen to rustle up egg curry and salad, while the family gladly played host and supplemented the rice-dal meal with pickled fish and steamed beans. It was publicly voted as the best lunch of the trip.
This was Konyak territory, home of the feared headhunting tribe with full-body. From our base Teihpha Cottage, a homestay in Mon run by a tough-as-nails ‘aunty’, we drove three hours for a day trip to Longwa on the Myanmar border. We stopped en route to pick up dry bamboo and a red spiky fruit that resembled a litchi on steroids. It had to be twisted open and was so tangy, our attempts to eat it drew much laughter from the vendors. We finally rolled in to Longwa, where the house of the Chief Angh, ceremonial head of local Konyak tribes, occupied the loftiest perch.
Tiptoeing down the imaginary international border, we marvelled at its façade, richly decorated in wooden carvings as we stepped into a large hall lined with mithun heads. A long passageway with rooms on either side led to a spacious kitchen where the Angh, Tonyei Phawang, smoked his opium pipe. His eyes bore the glaze of recently fired ceramic pottery. The interpreter explained that the village dated back to the 16th century; the Angh had sixty wives in the past, with jurisdiction on both sides of the border.
We shared a meal and picked up masks, beaded chains and other wares from locals who had set up stalls outside. Bidding goodbye to Myanmar, we stepped back into India. The next morning, we met for our final circle and drove via Tizit, crossing over to Assam for our flights out of Dibrugarh. The odometer read 966 kilometres in nine days, but it felt as if the imprint would last a lifetime. A quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes in our notebooks caught my eye: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”