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You gaze up at the mighty mountains. Clouds bow down to them and you no longer feel like you are on firm ground. The air is thin, and it takes a minute for your senses to realise that all this is really happening and not merely an illusion concocted from the remnants of last night’s revelry and today’s altitude-induced delirium. If such are the things you are after, you might already have a bucket list of adventure travel destinations far away from the regular crop of gift-wrapped tourist favourites like the mountain peaks of Switzerland hat Shah Rukh Khan and DDLJ have internalised in every Indian. Those are easy though, you just get on a flight to Zurich and with your terrible skiing skills, tumble and fall down the slopes as you attempt that Facebook cover picture. But seriously, who are you? Kids could do that. And besides it is much more fun when you are on a mountain pass with limited access to everything but the freezing cold that snowfall brings. And photographs? Your fingers might just be too stiff for the camera. But it won’t matter because the images, as Daft Punk says, would be burnt on Random Access Memories anyway.
“Adventure travel is as about riding as it is about stopping to take in the views and smell the flowers; getting to know the places that you go to.”
To get your 2018 holiday plans kick started we spoke to a bunch of pioneers in the adventure travel arena; guys who will make sense of the randomness of adventure travel while planning your itinerary down to the last T. When Harsh Man Rai and Vir Nakai founded Helmet Stories, the only intention was to get like-minded people together and ride off to explore the unexplored – usually passes and valleys that you’re unlikely to have heard of. Now one of the leading biking travel companies Helmet Stories, thanks to Instagram, have gained a cult following among bikes across the world. The bikes, all of them Royal Enfields, are backed up by a team of mechanics and spares that will ensure that any and all breakdowns are swiftly addressed. When asked about why Classics and Himalayans are used, Harsh jokingly adds, “Because you can’t go too fast on them”. Adventure travel is as about riding as it is about stopping to take in the views and smell the flowers; getting to know the places that you go to. The local cuisine has to be sampled and the people, their history and tradition have to understood and appreciated. Would you ever know what it feels like going up the mountains on your Bullet with the icy wind in your hair if all you did was the comfortable Mumbai-Goa ride? Would you know what a luxury piping hot chai is unless you’re camped in a tent on a freezing morning? It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is or how far you are from home, the only thoughts that will cross your mind will be of the place you are in.
When Bertrand D’Souza and his partners at XTLO dreamt up their adventure travel company, they drew from their experiences of travelling the length and breadth of the country putting together stories for Overdrive. And they’re doing things differently which is why their first expedition is to the Himalayas in the winters, when the snow is still blanketing the peaks and passes and the going is as tough as it gets. Driving an Isuzu V-Cross, you will learn how to use snow chains, what a difference 4-Low makes in slippery conditions and where to point your cameras as a Snow Leopard ambles past. If you’re lucky. The magnificence of the snow blanket that stretches everywhere is something that has to be seen to be believed. And once you have done that, you may realise that the raw beauty of the unheard parts in India offer as much as any European destination could. In fact, they are probably much better. Not having to contend with pesky tourists looking for the perfect selfie can be a blessing in itself.
It’s no surprise that many former journalists have taken to adventure travel, like MotoRover’s Piyush Sonsale who organises trips that take you across borders, traversing thousands of kilometres of the unknown. MotoRover offers curated travel experiences across the world, including the Silk Route and on bikes or in cars. But perhaps the best known ex-journo is our own columnist Bijoy Kumar, who set up Mahindra’s Adventure division that have been putting together the finest and best-organised expeditions in the country. Mahindra Adventure’s trips are easily the most accessible when it comes to price and most importantly it doesn’t skimp on any of the luxury. You drive in Mahindra SUVs, have support in the form of a lead and sweep cars and there are even backup drivers in case you get tired. You stay at beautiful hotels in beautiful places. And you are spoilt for choice – snow covered peaks in Spiti, the monasteries of Ladakh, the largely untouched beauty of the North East, Kashmir to Kanyakumari and even tri-nation tours to Bhutan and Nepal. Most recently they drove through Myanmar and all the way to Bangkok. But the guys at Mahindra Adventure sort everything out and then have legendary driving champions like Hari Singh along to take care of you. Knock two off the bucket list!
“There is a thin line between adventure and danger.”
Adventure presents its own dangers and as Tushar Agarwal from Adventures Overland points out, “There is a thin line between adventure and danger.” It is easy to stray over that line when you are on your own. So, while it’s great to be travelling alone and it has its own perks, it simply isn’t a great option for the less than well-travelled lot that are out to experience the world. That’s where adventure travel operators come in. These companies are run by people who have done these trips innumerable times before you and know the places like the back of their hand. So after a day of incredible driving, you don’t have to wander in search of a hotel at night. Nor do you have to worry about the food that you will have. Because cooks ready with great local food will be at your disposal. If things do go wrong, there are mechanics to take care of the problem at hand and rectify it. It is when you are travelling to places like these that you need expert guidance. Even a flat tyre could spell trouble if you are without the right support system. Adventures Overland not only does road trips to Lahaul and Spiti but will get you to drive all the way to London, through eighteen countries and sixteen thousand kilometres, taking in China and Russia along the way. And what’s more, you can even bring your own vehicles to drives that begin in India. We also have to mention Cougar Motorsport who are known for organising the Rain Forest Challenge but built their reputation with their signature Dash events. The invite-only Desert Dash features high-end SUVs driving through Rajasthan in a TSD rally. In the non-competitive Himalayan Dash, participants drive from Shimla and Manali to Srinagar via Leh in luxury SUVs.
Traversing the unknown seems exhilarating. But once you get down to the nitty-gritty of it, it reveals itself to be a daunting task. Making sure that your bike or car can withstand the tough terrain is only one part of the challenge. With places so remote that you won’t find a soul for hundreds of kilometres, it is better to have company. When met with the realisation that something like this could be done both safely and comfortably, a lot of people simply decide to opt for such trips instead of packaged tours that claim to show you the world in 20 days. A mad dash from airport to airport while you spend a substantial chunk of your time in immigration and in flights and trains that don’t really give you the luxury to stop and stare as you pass something beautiful. It is difficult to comprehend how that could be someone’s idea of fun.
“There is no way that you can really get to know the entire world in a lifetime, might as well make an attempt to know the bits you do really well.”
These trips don’t come cheap though, with most costing you at least Rs 10,000 for a day of travel. Such is the demand for such trips, that quite a few of them are sold out a year in advance and understandably so; experiences like these are well worth the premium. Vacations with tight schedules and numerous flights might give you the false sense of having accomplished something. But, have you really? You might just cover a lot of distance like that and if you are among the ones who look at places on the map as conquests, sure, go ahead and do that. However, to really get to know the incredible places and the incredible people that make up the world, you have to take it slow and drive or ride through the places you want to experience. There is no way that you can really get to know the entire world in a lifetime, might as well make an attempt to know the bits you do really well. So, the next time you are planning a trip, will you forego the temptation of a picture perfect vacation in a touristy city for an experience not many will have in their lifetimes?