The climb up to Sela
The climb up to Sela

Exploring Arunachal Pradesh on the SOUL Mountain Trail

SOUL Mountain Trail

Flags flutter enthusiastically on the narrow steel bridge, the strong wind blowing prayers and spreading happiness. Beneath us a stream gushes, glacial melt heading for the Kameng river that will eventually feed the mighty Brahmaputra. Gravel crunches under our feet and birds chirp away in the Kiwi bushes nearby. Perched high on the hill is our hotel and to the left is a trail that heads along the river – a track to test the off-roading ability of the Tata Hexas and Safari Stormes we’ve driven up in. Rocks, water fording, some gooey mud, it’s all there, yet the SUVs are silent, everybody is silent.

It’s 15 years since I drove up to Arunachal and the more things change the more they remain the same. Garbage is conspicuous by its absence. People are always smiling. The kids have the rosiest cheeks you will ever see. Monasteries loom atop craggy mountains, looking for all the world like they’re about to slide off. The good folk at the BRO remain busy with clearing the landslides that pepper the roads. Oncoming traffic is occasional and courteous. Everybody is happy, those prayer flags working as advertised. We’re soaking in surroundings that are unspoilt and unsoiled by man’s relentless quest for what we call progress. And all of it can be Instagrammed! There’s full 4G network to let forth a barrage of self-righteous hashtags.

The convoy of Tata SUVs

Welcome to the second Drive With SOUL adventure where this month we’re heading up to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh with a group of Tata Motors SUV owners behind the wheel of 11 Hexas and 2 Safari Stormes. All these guys, save one, are Safari owners and this is the first time they’re getting behind the wheel of the Hexa – and that’s where I come in, to conduct a live off-road workshop putting into practice all that we talked about in our Tame The Terrain YouTube series with our long term test Hexa. “Rough Road mode everybody”, I holler over the gurgling of the stream. “Take it easy over the rocks, follow the track of the vehicle in front, keep an eye out for the spotter.” We’re heading to Tawang the next day and the last thing we want to do is bump sumps on rocks. Shouldn’t have worried though, most of these guys have been on SOUL drives in the past, have done their fair share of off-roading and find the going easy enough with the Hexa. Good thing that, my job is done. Time now to really enjoy Arunachal.

The SOUL community

SOUL started off as the Safari Owners United League and has now expanded to become the official owners club for all of Tata Motors’ SUVs, the Safari Storme and Hexa and in the days to come the H5X SUV that was the star of the recent Auto Expo. SOUL now stands for SUV Owners United League and with the increasing number of Hexas on the roads increase Tata Motors has been putting a lot of focus on this community as well as drive activities. Over the past few months over 25 have been organised all across the country with the iconic drives being big-ticket events going to remote and really exotic parts of the country. These drives are open to all SOUL members that now number over 10,000 active members and with increasing penetration of Tata SUVs the brand is well on the way to regaining the top spot in this segment. And in a departure from norm where participants drive down in their own vehicles, because of the remoteness of the North East, Tata Motors provided participants (including us!) with vehicles. Not that we’d have grumbled to drive down in our own Hexa.

Dirang in Arunachal

We’re staying in this little village that nobody outside of the motorsport community has ever heard of. Dirang has a population of 6000. There’s a sports stadium, a monastery built ten years ago when the Dalai Lama visited and a small helipad for the Army base. It’s so sleepy it is practically horizontal. The biggest event happens every second year when a bunch of hardcore rallyists descend for the Arunachal Festival of Speed. And that’s that. The village goes back to sleep. You want to get anything done you have to backtrack to Bombdila, two hours away. You want to buy a car or bike, you backtrack a day’s drive to Assam. Dirang sits in a little valley South of the Sela Pass, gateway to Tawang. And there is still snow up on Sela. These are places that don’t pop up on anybody’s radar and that’s the whole point behind the SOUL drives – discovering untrampled trails.

A word about the Tata Hexa

Over the past year we’ve driven all across the country in our Hexa – the hills of Tamil Nadu, the mountain passes of Ladakh, fording rivers in the Spiti valley, dune bashing in Rajasthan and tackling snow on the Rohtang Pass – and it’s an SUV that I’ve come to know quite intimately. Its strong motor makes for quick and relaxed progress, Dynamic mode noticeably bumps up the torque and response, the JBL stereo provides strong notes and most of all, the excellent ride quality makes short work of poor roads. This is a big advantage as we climb the passes because even though the BRO are working overtime, landslides are so frequent that broken roads are a constant companion. It’s no problem for the Hexa. Over three days we drove from Guwahati to Bhalukpong on the Assam-Arunachal border, then to Dirang and finally across the Sela pass to Tawang where we took a day’s break to visit the monastery before heading back the same way. Not strenuous drives by any stretch but the whole point of these SOUL adventures is to get people to explore remote, unheard of parts of the country with enough time to chill. Or Instagram it all (you’d be surprised by how good the mobile network is!).

The SOUL members

Drives such as these are all about making new friends and this SOUL group were quite a hardy enthusiastic bunch. “We have no expectations, we’ve all got an open mind, but this drive has blown me away,” said Ajay Mittal, a Safari owner whose wife enjoyed driving the Hexa so much he had to hand over driving duties. Imroz Baig who is a regular on almost all the SOUL drives was among the first to sign up and at the briefing volunteered to be the sweep car. Paul Poonen had only just taken delivery of his Safari Storme in Coimbatore and decided to stick with the Safari for this drive too. Rajesh Shah, a Hexa owner, was so surprised with the Hexa’s ability on the terrain we encountered that he has put his name down for an H5X, whenever it’s launched. Sraban Chakroborty was so keen on being on the drive he drove up from Howrah in his own Hexa after all the slots got filled up. Chandrashekar Joshi told me he’d decided to upgrade to a Hexa instead of the luxury car he’s been planning to buy. Of course you expect owners to say good things about their vehicles but Hisham Raja who had no previous experience with any Tata Motors product was grinning like a puppy after splashing around in the river. The lucky bloke won our #DriveWithSOUL and #JetSetEvo contest, bagging a fully-paid drive on the Mountain Trail along with tickets on the Jet Airways network, and remarked, “Tata Motors does make the best SUVs!”.

On the flight back home, on Jet Airways that have just ramped up their connectivity to the North East with flights even from Pune, I read in the papers about off-beat destinations getting popular. Kazakhstan or some such. And I did a face-palm. The thing is, we Indians are travelling all over the world but we haven’t even scratched the surface of what our own country has to offer. If only I had a dime for the number of times I’ve heard about a summer break planned to Europe, to beat the heat. Now what if I told you that even in April, Arunachal is cold! While the rest of the country is reeling under the scorching heat there is still snow on the Sela pass and our Hexa’s temperature read-out showed two degrees. Dirang was a pleasant 18 degrees, requiring a light jacket for the cool breeze. And did I mention the fresh mountain air. God, I’d forgotten what fresh mountain air smelt like. You will not believe the rejuvenating effect just a couple of days in the mountains can have on your body. And top it all there’s that strangely spiritual effect that prayer flags have on you, a calming relaxing effect to leave the stresses of the city far behind.

The North East experience

The opportunity to experience all this is why drives such as SOUL Mountain Trail are so popular. The North East is remote and that’s putting it mildly. You don’t get self-drive cars to drive up to Tawang. Even if you did it’s a long, long drive. The remoteness is the reason why these beautiful places don’t figure on the radar (for good or bad I’m struggling to decide) and that’s why this drive (open only to Tata SUV owners) was sold out within three days of registrations being thrown open. You get the opportunity to drive with a group of like-minded enthusiasts, behind the wheel of an SUV so well-suited to these conditions, with service backup, and with everything planned out including off-road sessions. No wonder if there was another thing all the participants were unanimous about it was that they’d be signing up for the next SOUL drive to Ladakh in August. Add my name to the list!

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