Once a year they gather to savour the mountains. Have been doing it for the last ten years in a row. Students, housewives, doctors, property dealers, techies from the south and even the NGO types. Some are regulars but newer addicts join the fold each year to fuel a passion which gets its thrills from skidding on black ice at 15000 ft high Himalayan passes, having a breakdown on a snowy mountain road with not a soul in sight or just hurtling down steep mountain tracks without applying brakes. It's the country's premier motorsport event – the Raid de Himalaya. And,
it's drawing crowds like never before.
So, when I got an opportunity to get a ringside view of what compels ordinary householders to put their life and limb in jeopardy and turn into Xtreme adventure buffs, I joined the gang. Hopped onto the relative safety of a SUV and tracked a motley collection of motor sport enthusiasts, participating, organizing, conducting, rescuing, stewarding, judging or tending to those injured along the trail of the 'Raid', as this unique car rally has come to be called.
Claudia, the sole woman two wheeler driver, taking a flag off at Patsio
But first things first. The Raid does some 2000 kms of racing over 10 days through unbelievably harsh and difficult terrain at a mean elevation of 4000 meters above sea level, crossing 11 high passes including Tanglang la, (5280 metres) the second highest motorable pass in the world, and passes through areas where temperatures are below -10 degrees Celsius even in autumn. From Shimla to Manali, Kaza, Patsio, Leh, Kargil and for the first time Zanskar, the rally routes passed through little known village link roads, hurtled past ancient monasteries and even partook of the Army's hospitality at an army transit camp at Patsio (13,500 ft) for want of any other place to spend the night. So, no wonder really if it is described as one of the world's toughest motoring events, and is the only Indian motor sport event that is listed in the off road rallies calendar of Federation Internationale Motorcyclisme, Geneva among 12 other international events. But that is really not what makes it so special.
It is, for example, in the grit of 29 years old Bhaskar Ramani, a techie from Bangalore. On his first foray into the mountains this avid biker on his WR 450 cc, led in the first seven stages of the rally, beating several hardy north Indian veterans of the Raid. While descending from the snowy heights of Kunzum la, (4590 meters) on the Manali – Leh road, he slipped on a treacherous patch of ice and went over the edge! Close behind was fellow techie Prashant Kumar, who took a similar tumble and both rolled down a steep slope, bikes and all. Prashant came to, some six minutes after he fell, but before the emergency medical team could reach them, the duo got onto their bikes, drove up to the road and re- joined the race. It was only when they reached the Army transit camp at Patsio that evening, (13,500 ft) that they learnt that Bhaskar had a broken rib and hand, while Prashant had a broken finger. Bhaskar had to pull out, but Prashant and his broken finger went on to stand second in the two wheeler category.
Jitendra Bajwa at Patsio
Or, 34 years old, Sanjay Gonkar who runs a restaurant and lodge in Pune, who tells us that as soon as he finishes the rally, he is going back to sign his divorce papers. "My wife does not approve of what she calls a dangerous passion. She wants security, but I know that one just has to lead ones life the way one wants to." Divya and her brother Randeep Miglani have been racing for the last four years in the Xtreme category. She is among the six women drivers who are regular faces at the 'Raid'. Like Shuchi 29 yrs old whose gypsy has toppled twice in the last four years, she broke her hand the first time. This time, she had to drop out after a mechanical fault at Kaza and was heartbroken that she could not finish the rally. A doctor couple the Murad Lalas from Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai, come each year in their Scorpio to test their skills in the Adventure Trial. Diehard enthusiasts like Jitendra Bajwa, a property developer from Meerut made things happen for nine hard up participants. His Godwin Construction Company sponsored nine entries and he himself participated in the Adventure Trial category.
The 'Raid', whose main sponsor for several years has been Maruti Suzuki, runs two independent race formats. The sheer speed version is called X treme in which the hardy Maruti Gypsies mainly participate. But the Adventure Trial which is a 'time speed and distance' version is the event which is really drawing in amateur rally buffs. As Vijay Parmar, president of the Himalayan Motorsports Association (HMS) which organizes the rally each year, puts it, "The craze for the Adventure Trial version is spreading like a virus. We have more entries than we can safely handle. The positive spinoff of this is, that it throws up new talent each year for the more demanding Xtreme version." From just 19 hesitant entries for a four day event in 1999, this year saw a record 135 vehicles participating. At the end of eight days just 73 managed to finish, an indication of the arduous nature of the rally.
The competitive section at Schiling village near Manali
Sakya Abode is one among several tiny guest houses at Kaza, a Buddhist dominated district headquarters in Lahaul Spiti, situated some 12,000 ft above sea level. For the two days that the 'Raid' did its paces in that area, the little guest house became a hub for all those associated with it… the evening bonfire and dinner the best place for participants to swap stories and spare parts. Day four was the halt at the army camp at Patsio. Regulation sleeping bags were issued by the Army, dinner in a tin shed which doubled as a 'langar' and the transit camp's, service bay was a clutter of half opened vehicles, feverishly being serviced by accompanying mechanics till late in the freezing night. And then onwards to the breathtakingly beautiful Indus valley in Ladakh, where many timid southerners venturing for the first time into the higher Himalayas were awestruck by its autumn beauty.
For many like Maheen and Shivani, the two girls from Bhopal it was the culmination of their dreams. Last year the 'Raid' had to be cut short at Patsio because, the passes ahead were snowbound. But this year the duo went not only to Leh but completed the tough Kargil
- Zanskar stretch too and got a finishers trophy. There were winners and losers, breakdowns and heartbreaks. Most will be back next year, even those with broken hearts. For as Sunny Sidhu, a former champion says, "Anyone who comes for the Raid once, will keep coming.