Last year, roughly about this time, I received a frantic call from Jalpaiguri. A friend of a friend was desperately looking for a driver for a road trip and our mutual contact had suggested I would be interested. Sure, my instant reaction to a whiff of adventure even before learning the details. Don’t tell me more, my next quip, after he hard sells the idea with the suggestion of an all-expenses-paid benefit. I would be a fool to look this gift horse in the mouth. Just tell me where and when, I excitedly enquired. His response left me gob-smacked. He wanted me to play driver to his navigator for a car rally from Siliguri in West Bengal, through Assam, and finishing (if at all) in Thimpu, with night halts at Pheuntsholing and Gelephu in Bhutan.
Nothing could have prepared me for this. I was no rally driver, I protested. I had never even raced the road hogs on highways, for god’s sakes! I wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do. But now, he was not taking no for an answer. He told me I would be fine as long as I could drive long distances and change a flat tire. Plus, he had been the previous year and it was a fairly tame route. Images of modified vehicles roaring along non-existent roads immediately sprung to mind. Worse still, images of modified vehicles roaring off non-existent roads sprung to mind. Not good.
Over the next few days, Sanjib, my navigator-apparent called religiously to help me tide over my misgivings. And also to give me a quick tutorial on the various rallying formats, insisting that TSD (Time, Speed, Distance) was a breeze compared to the rest. Eventually, expectedly, temptation over-ruled apprehension. And so, come February this year, I found myself touching down at the Bagdogra airport for the greatest adventure ever: as participant No. 25 of the 3rd Indo-Bhutan Friendship Rally.
The following day was devoted to document scrutiny, registration activities, safety checks and acquainting with other participants. An estimated fifteen out of the thirty-odd were serious contenders with an eye on the jackpot. Some were in it for the thrill and others rank amateurs such as yours truly. Sanjib was also essentially looking to hone his navigational skills before going pro. Awaiting our chance to prove ourselves rally-worthy, we affixed stickers with our names, blood groups and those of sponsors on the car. Soon after, a quick review of my revving up and hand-braking ability and we were through.
Day 1: An early morning flag-off found us roaring away through vast tea gardens overcome with lethargy, tiny doaar hamlets coming awake, boulder-ridden paths and wide river beds. Suffice it to say, we did not sight a single tarred road. A sandy smokescreen blinded us as we entered the dense Salugara Forest. It would cause our first mishap. Trying to overtake another participant, I drove hard onto a large tree stump. The car stalled with its front tires suspended in the air. We lost a half hour on that leg as we had to wait for a service car to assist us.
Later, I nearly lost control on the grassy embankment as we raced towards the Teesta barrage and onto Mathabhanga through the jungles of Lataguri. We made up for lost time by cutting short our halt for lunch near the splendid Cooch Behar palace. But our luck ran out soon enough. The axle broke, just as I cleared a dry river bed, bang in the middle of a path through the Chillapata forest. This time it was a massive break-down and would cost us dearly. That my co-driver was fuming was putting it mildly.
The winners of last year’s competition, Thinlay Wangchuk and Ankit Aggarwal, were hot on our heels. Stopping long enough to help us move our car out of the way, they zoomed off. (They would win this one too, yet continue to blame me good naturedly for not being able to better their timing). We were eventually towed to the nearest check post, then onto Pheuntsholing through the Hashimara Air Force Bass; out of harm’s way, else we would have been elephant feed, we were told. It certainly gave a whole new definition to the phrase ‘tame road trip’!
Day 2: All the participants lined up once again for an early morning start. Technically, we were out of the reckoning but chose to complete the rally for the fun factor. We re-entered India through neighouring Jaigaon, heading towards the Rajabhatkhawa forest and into Assam via Barobisa. But before that we would have to navigate our way through the very, very sandy River Pasakha. As we descended into the river bed, a hilarious sight greeted us. Numerous participants had managed to sink all four tires into the bed. Trying to circumvent what I thought was the danger zone, I soon found myself in the same boat. The more we revved, the deeper we settled.
Our only hope was No.30, the all-women team of Choki Tshomo and Kesang Dorjee from Bhutan, who were driving a powerful Hilux. One by one, they would play saviour to all of us novices, without a thought to the consequences. We will be forever beholden to them for choosing a sturdy rope instead of the male escort that the rulebook suggested. Lunch at Kokrajhar in Assam was followed by an uneventful drive to Gelephu, given that we traversed through Bodo Autonomous Territory, on barely-there roads. The day ended with an evening of fine food, song and dance.
Day 3: The day-long drive to Thimpu was made mishap-free via amazingly picturesque, sparsely populated countryside. Leaving behind the fresh, gurgling waters of the lazily meandering Sankos and Punakhang rivers. Along lushly forested giddy curves with tell-tale signs of snow as we ascended to the Dorchulakha pass at over ten thousand feet, marked by a cluster of chortens (stupas). Sections of this superbly maintained road were reminiscent of drives to Shimla and Manali. The pass accorded some breathless moments not least because it was bitterly cold. The descent into Thimpu was made under an hour where we were welcomed by traditional refreshments, salty tea and sweet rice, before being directed to our hotels.
Here are some more indelible images from that adventure.