Getting High with Renault Duster: Exploring Bikaner

Getting High with Renault Duster: Exploring Bikaner

The Rathores ruled the lands of Rajasthan for centuries. And while in power, they built enormous palaces on the desert sands – palaces that to this day have stood tall against the vagaries of time. Unknown to people who aren’t into motorsport, the city of Bikaner, in the middle of the Thar desert, is also home to desert rallies. It is where we Indians go to live out our Dakar dreams and aspirations. Now while the Desert Storm is the most famous among the desert rallies in India, it isn’t the only one. This month, I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to chase the rally, drive the same sand stages, have some fun of my own. I needed a vehicle that could take the crew and me in comfort from Delhi, tackle the highways with speed and ease, and then tackle sand dunes with equal speed and ease. Most of all I did not want to get stuck, be a laughing stock of the competitors that we journalists judge so critically. “Take the Duster AWD,” said the ed without blinking.

Taking the Renault Duster to the Ultimate Desert Challenge

And so we found ourselves at the three-day long Ultimate Desert Challenge. The plan was to visit the famous palaces of Rajasthan and get a taste of how difficult the rally is, all behind the wheel of the Renault Duster AWD. Over the last six years since its launch, it has garnered a cult following with the Gang of Dusters. Small wonder then, that it is one of evo India’s favourites. After all, we have taken it all over the country, through the most extreme terrain, to the most exotic (and difficult to access) locations. It really hits the nail on the head when it comes to tackling a challenge like the one we are faced with today.

“Getting to Bikaner is a breeze with highways sporting the smoothest layer of tarmac, with either big dunes or a sand trail on either side”

Bikaner was named Jangladesh (Jungle-desh which means barren wilderness) in the 15th century. This barren land, got its current name in 1488 when Rao Bika established the city of Bikaner. By Indian standards it is a smallish city. But, it has beautiful palaces, and a haunted haveli or two. And like all places in Rajasthan, you must not miss out on the lip-smacking lal mass. Getting to Bikaner is a breeze with highways sporting the smoothest layer of tarmac, with either big dunes or a sand trail on either side, and with the six-speed box, the drive in the Duster was both effortless and very economical, with the big 475-litre boot swallowing all of Sachin’s camera gear.

First though, we had to chase those rally cars and that is no joke. We could not use the tracks cordoned off for the rally cars and hence had to make our own way, over even more treacherous tracks, and station ourselves at high vantage points to get all the action. We later realised that we were on top of the biggest dune. However, the torquey 1.5-litre motor and the AWD system gave the duster the grip and composure needed to make the ascent easy.

Some dune bashing with Renault Duster

For the second stage, we headed off to the village of Udat. While the clock kept ticking, we sped off to find a suitable dune to bash (just for kicks) before we headed out to soak in some sights. Nobody has ever explored this vast barren land, so it was a picture-perfect sight. There were small dunes that, much to our delight, knobby tyres hadn’t murdered. Not particularly satisfied with the small dunes, we wanted to head to Shiv Bari for some proper sand dunes. We put the Duster into the already existing tyre trails. We punched it hard, one cog after the other, leaving a huge cloud of dust behind the SUV. Experimenting with the drive modes was easy and added another dimension to what was at first the simple pleasure of kicking up some dirt. We turned the drive selector dial to 2WD to enhance wheelspin, and the 245Nm of torque was enough for the hooligan in me. The Duster handled the trails very well, almost as if it was made for this sole purpose. Once in all-wheel drive, its capabilities went up another 60 per cent. This meant I was able to glide the dunes if not outright climb them.

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It was an hour’s drive from Udat to the city which meant we would reach civilisation only by evening. We hoped there would be light and kept on the highway, doing good speeds to reach this one spot in the heart of Bikaner that we browsed for on the web. And we were adamant that we wouldn’t leave without exploring the mesmerising Rampuria Havelis. Commissioned by the Maharaja of Bikaner, these havelis were built back in the 15th century. An epitome of grandeur, they were home to the wealthy merchant households. The base of the havelis was built using red sandstone sourced from the Dulmera stone mines, some 35km from Bikaner. The walls of the havelis featured intricately chiselled exteriors showcasing the artistry that prevailed during that era. The Duster in its Cayenne orange paintjob made for a lovely contrast with the mint-green wood panels of the Havelis.

“To go down a slope on any terrain, one would have to abide with the 4×4 rule of thirds. No foot on the clutch and no brakes. While scary at first, it turned out to be a truly fun exercise.”

The following morning, we were to head 6.1km east of our camp to another attraction that is relatively abandoned. Devi Kund is a royal crematorium with beautifully sculpted cenotaphs popularly called the chhatris. Each of them erected at the spot where the rulers of the Bikaji dynasty were cremated. The architecture was straight out of a fairy-tale. One such cenotaph of Maharaja Anup Singh showcases the best artwork and stands with the support of 16 decorated pillars. Like this cenotaph, Renault has built the Duster on a very strong platform, a sturdy monocoque chassis with muscular sculpted lines along its body.

The dunes however were still on the list. Once we got there, we immediately parked up at what was the start point of the second stage. Hard on the gas, the 1.5-litre motor was at its peak, easily charging to the top. Getting down the dune though was a tricky affair as the mouth of the slope was not visible. To go down a slope on any terrain, one would have to abide with the 4×4 rule of thirds. No foot on the clutch and no brakes. While scary at first, it turned out to be a truly fun exercise. Situated in the city, was another architectural wonder spanning almost six hectares. It was originally known as the Chintamani and was abandoned by its ruling family in the 20th century. Walking around, each part sported differently-styled architecture which takes you back in time. You’ll almost feel like it has transported you to a bygone era.

Wrapping it up

As the sun went down over the dunes and the marshals called it a day. The sun had cast its beautiful amber glow on the Duster and us. And, in that moment, I knew something I hadn’t known for the duration of the entire weekend. The Duster had allowed us the opportunity to create an adventure with the things that we wanted the most – dune bashing and the incredible sights of Rajasthan. In doing so, we had for ourselves a truly bespoke experience. Isn’t that the greatest luxury in the world? Sure we weren’t hob-nobbing with royalty. But we did something pretty damn close to what they would have done back in the day. In that very moment, it seemed that the sun, dressed up in the most beautiful of hues, was shining just for us.

The Rathores and the Mughals have left behind legacies that will stand the test of time. The Renault Duster has been around for only six years. But in this short span of time, it has carved a place for itself in the hearts of enthusiasts everywhere. The bespoke experiences that it is helping create, means it is truly on its way towards a legacy of its own.

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