Duster Border Challenge to Munabao
The Duster All-Wheel drive, the Thar desert, biting dust storms, racing a camel and the Munabao station. That’s the short of this story, but what happened in the end was something completely unexpected. You see, Rajasthan has a number of places close to the border like Jaisalmer and Bikaner, but they’ve been done to bits, haven’t they? Not Munabao.
Now you may ask, why Munabao? Well, apart from being the closest village to the Pakistan border, Munabao is also an international station.
The Thar Express, the only train that runs between India and Pakistan stops here before it heads off to Zero Point station in Khokhrapar in Pakistan. The Thar Express leaves from Bhagat Ki Kothi in Jodhpur at night and reaches Munabao in the morning. The passengers get off the train, get their documents in order, their passports stamped, and after all the formalities are taken care of, the train leaves Munabao and crosses over in to Pakistan.
Like the Thar Express, our journey begins in Jodhpur, a city known for its Rajput valour and cultural heritage. The blue painted houses around Mehrangarh fort have given Jodhpur the sobriquet of “Blue City”. Jaipur is called the ‘Pink City’ because of the extensive use of pink stone in buildings and it is ironic that all this pink stone comes from Jodhpur! Anyway, enough of trivia – we set out from Jodhpur and made our way to the outskirts of the city. The plan is to head to Barmer for the night and it is about 320km away via NH 112.
The road to Barmer was straight as an arrow and smooth as a baby’s cheek. The 1.5-litre K9K diesel engine makes a good 108bhp and 249Nm of torque and was impressive on the open road. Step on the gas and it moves with a vigour that belies its modest power output. I love that it is so stable at speed and doesn’t feel like a boat-on-wheels. It is planted and can cruise comfortably at high speeds (I mean 80kmph, wink!).
Gaurav begins referring to me as the ‘local boy’ and wants to know which wild animals we may spot along the way. I tell him about the chinkara, nilgai and of course, the camels. The nilgai belong to the deer family and get their name because of their close resemblance to cows and their bluish grey coat. Chinkaras and camels are easy to spot, but spotting nilgai can be slightly more challenging. From then on began the hunt to look for and shoot wild animals (with the camera of course). Gaurav spots a herd of baby chinkaras and we stop by the side of the road, take a few pictures and carry on. After driving for a couple of hours, the craving for laal maas – a specially prepared mutton dish in red gravy crept upon us. We stopped by a roadside dhaba at Doodhwa and before the menu could be given, we asked for laal maas and roti. To our dismay, this was a vegetarian place. The delicious garam rotis with aloo mutter ki sabzi abated our disappointment and while paying the bill I asked the owner where we could get laal-maas. What he said next took me by surprise. He said Jodhpur and the surrounding districts are dominated by the Marwaris and they are vegetarian, so it is difficult to find non-vegetarian food. And true to that, throughout the trip, we couldn’t satiate our craving.
Before I say anything else, I must mention the AC in the Duster. The temperature outside was bloody hot, so much so that Gaurav decided to take a break from shooting. Thin as he is, the sun was burning his bones. But inside the car the AC worked its charm. So we carried along the straight road and suddenly I heard Gaurav shout, “Stop! Stop!”. Startled, I thought something was the matter, but then he pointed out to a herd of camels sitting by the roadside. He jumped out of the car and asked me to inch forward to get a closer shot. Subsequently, I got used to Gaurav’s signature “Stop! Stop!” cry. Every time we crossed a camel or a chinkara, Gaurav would shout out. After a while it became “Chodo yaar, we have enough.” After driving further down the road, I turned to see Gaurav glued to the window. “Nilgai dikh gaya!” Check! We had completed our list. The only one left was a leopard, but that was asking too much.
It was around five in the evening when we entered Barmer city. Searching for a hotel to stay the night was not a debatable issue because there was only one hotel – Kailash International. We spent the rest of the evening charting out a route to get to Munabao from Barmer. We spoke to a few locals and figured out a route plan on paper. They also told us that ‘gaadi station tak jaa sakthi hai’. We would just have to show our identification proof. They also told us to fill fuel because there are no villages, fuel stations or dhabas along the way, and the road was bad, so much so that at some places, there would be no road at all. So with everything figured out and sorted, we retired to bed. I was so tired, that the next morning when I woke up, Gaurav told me when I snore, I sound like a tractor engine.
We left Barmer in the wee hours of the morning and headed to Munabao. Before the sun could rise, we had left the borders of Barmer city behind and found ourselves driving parallel to the train tracks – the only sign that we were, literally, on the right track to Munabao station. True enough the road was narrow and riddled with pot holes, but thanks to the brilliant suspension setup, the Duster sportingly took everything in its stride without letting go of its line. There was nothing in sight for miles together in that vast desert except for a few army trucks passing by and the narrow road cutting through it. After driving for about 180km, the road suddenly disappeared into dusty trail marks left by the army trucks. The last 20km to Munabao was a veritable wade through the sand. I changed over to 4WD and made a run for the border (I just wanted to say that). The fully loaded Duster AWD tackled the sand pretty easily without getting stuck. Slowly and steadily powering our way through, we made it up to the Border Security checkpost. I got out of the car and could still see the trail of dust I had left behind to get here. Finally, we made it to the border. Pakistan was just a stone’s throw away. As I turned towards the checkpost, I found myself staring down the barrel of a gun. I was taken aback. Before I could say anything the jawan pointed us in the direction we had come from and said “niklo”. I got back into the car and calmly asked him ‘kya hua sir’.
Whilst I had been disturbing Gaurav’s sleep with my snoring, a group of ten Pakistanis had decided to disturb our national security and crossed the border from Bikaner, and were nowhere to be found. Overnight, all border checkposts were on high alert and the manhunt was still in progress. The jawans wouldn’t let us even wait at the checkpost. After using all my oratory skills to explain why we were here, he let us take one picture of the car near the checkpost. Nevertheless, we made it to our destination and thankfully without all guns blazing.