I have always been fascinated by jeeps. When I was growing up, the only jeeps on the roads of Bandra were either army surplus vehicles or those that had been painstakingly reconstructed by enthusiasts, again using old army jeeps.
It was only in the mid nineties that Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd (M&M), an Indian automotive company, started manufacturing and marketing the Mahindra Classic; a jeep that was a classic in every sense of the word. Simple and rugged and an icon of the time.
I fell in love with the Classic and it was right up there on my wish list. However, due to legislative norms that came into effect in 2005, production stopped and for many years the closest one could come to owning a jeep was the Maruti Gypsy.
And whilst several SUVs and MUVs are available in the Indian automobile market, no ‘authentic’ jeep was available commercially till M&M introduced the Thar, a CRDe jeep.
For the uninitiated, a jeep is a four wheel drive (4WD) vehicle that comes into its own on rugged terrain; like climbing hills, driving through cratered terrain or fording streams.
Last weekend, I got an opportunity to finally drive the Thar when I attended a two day Trail Survivor training program at the Mahindra Adventure Off-Road Training Academy at Igatpuri, about 120 kms from Mumbai.
Normally, if one is interested in off roading, you first buy an off roader like the Thar or Mahindra Scorpio or the Tata Safari Storme and then join some group of enthusiasts and learn the techniques. But this can be costly learning curve.
The primary purpose of the Off Road Academy, a part of Mahindra Adventure, is to allow customers of Mahindra to explore the the potential of their off roading vehicles, though other like me can also enroll and learn the basics.
What Mahindra Adventure have done is taken 28 acres of such terrain and set up an off road training track. This picture taken from the 4WD track of the Academy gives you some idea of the terrain of the place.
Here each participant is supplied with a Thar CRDe jeep and taught to off road in a controlled environment , with emphasis on safety and without damaging the vehicle.
We were a batch of four – Abdul, who came in from Bengaluru and Shashank (Doc) were proud owners of Thars and had joined the course to help them realise the full potential of the vehicle whilst Sanjeev drove a Mahindra Scorpio, a SUV and wanted to learn off roading, having already participated in a number of Great Escape Rallies organised by Mahindra Adventure.
Being a novice as regards driving a jeep, I cautioned Manish Sarser from Mahindra Adventure, who was conducting the course, that I would require lots of hand holding to which he responded ‘As long as you can change gears, you will be fine’.
Our session commenced around 2.30 on Saturday afternoon, after lunch at a nearby hotel. Since the course curriculum mentioned a session on 4WD theory, that I thought would shepherded to a classroom to attend a power point presentation.
But we were pleasantly surprised when instead, we were each assigned a Thar and were asked to follow Manish to the 4WD course. And after a brief theory session, with the bonnet of a jeep was raised for demo purposes, we were given helmets and started off roading.
The first obstacle was called Home Run, where we had to drive down a narrow path, with deep ruts, reverse at the bottom and return to the start. As I negotiated this stretch, at one point the Thar appeared to tilt so precariously, I thought that it would topple over. But following Manish’s instructions I made it to the bottom and returned to the top. And the bouncing about I received confirmed the need for the helmet.
After completing the Home Run, we once again drove down the same path, this time a lot more confidently and proceeded to the next obstacle, viz. the Pond Rush. This obstacle required you to drive down a slope, ford a small pond and drive up another slope. And return to the start.
Steering and acceleration were the key to clearing this obstacle. Sanjeev who was the first on the course, got stuck as you can seen in the picture below. So we got a live demo of a rescue operation, with Sanjeev’s Thar having to be winched out.
After Sanjeev was rescued and completed his runs, the rest of us took our turn and I was pleasantly surprised that I could complet my runs without mishap, in near darkness. To put things into perspective, I don’t like driving after dark and managing to negotiate this obstacle using headlight gave my confidence a big boost.
As the rescue operation took a while, for various reasons, the last obstacle for the day, was postponed for day two and we drove 40 kms to the Express Inn at Nashik for the night. Over a real sumptuous a la carte dinner in the hotel’s coffee shop, the four of us had great time with Sanjeev, a born raconteur regaling us with stories of his travels around the world and experiences in the corporate world. We hit the sack only around midnight.
Day two began with a not so great breakfast at the same coffee shop. Guess its the difference between buffet and a la carte. And after checking out of the hotel, we drove to the 4WD course to start tackling the remaining obstacles lined up for us.
The first obstacle we tackled on day two was the one left over from the previous day, viz. Zig Zag Hill, which involved going up a hill, coming down and then retracing the route, in reverse. Somewhere along the path up, there was a patch of wet surface, which ensured that you got bogged down and learn how to extricate your self.
This obstacle was also used to demonstrate the difference between 2WD and 4WD. Manish made us start the climb in 2WD mode and only after we got stuck, shift to 4WD. And boy, the difference is unimaginable.
And for me the biggest takeaway, was doing the hill in reverse. In fact, I did more reversing in the jeep up and down the hill, than I normally do on a flat surface in a car.
After Zig Zag Hill, the next obstacle was the Boneyard, named because the pot holes and steps make it a car breaker. According to Manish, if you dig up the mud, you will find bits and pieces of vehicles that have attempted the obstacle.
Whilst Abdul. Sanjeev and I made it without to much difficulty Doc tried pushing the vehicle to its limits by attempting difficult maneuvers and got thoroughly bogged down.
Having successfully negotiated the Boneyard, we then moved on the Blind Zone that involved going up a 45 degree slope, which meant driving blind for part of the way since you could only see the sky through the windscreen. With the ‘vast’ experience we had already garnered all of us completed this obstacle with elan.
The last obstacle for the day was the Slush Pit that required driving slowly down a steep incline into a pit filled with slush. Seemed quite scary, looking down from the top of the hill but by then my confidence had grown to such an extent that I volunteered to go first.
However, I must confess that sitting in the Thar at the top of the slope, I felt quite nervous. But Manish’s confidence was infectious and precise instructions were sufficient to overcome this obstacle. (Thanks to Dr Shashank Dhuri for this video).
Besides negotiating the various obstacles, we received tips on safety and recovery. Going off roading is a dangerous sport and no attempt was made to downplay this aspect. So there was repeated warning to don a helmet and fasten our seat belts.
And most importantly, not to succumb to peer pressure and attempt obstacles you are not comfortable with. As Manish told us right at the start of the program, ‘off roading is not about spectacular stunts, but getting from point A to point B, without damaging your vehicle’.
Further, since getting stuck is an essential part of off roading, we learned what to do when overcooked (or stuck, in plain English) in mud, water and sand, or when when the jeep gets beached (vehicle resting on its underside and seesawing). The picture shows the Thar on the left that got beached at the top of the Slush Pit.
And when all else fails, the only option is to winch the jeep out. So we had two demos of winching a Thar to safety; one, when Sanjeev was winched out of the pond and the second a simulation with plenty of practical inputs regarding safety and maintenance of the winching equipment.
To take us through the basics of off roading, we could not have had a better pair of instructors in Manish and Rahul Kakar (of Autocar India), who incidentally partner as rally drivers. Both have excellent communication skills and are totally unflappable in any situation. In fact, I had interacted with Manish at the time of enrolling for the program and he allayed my fears of not having the required skills to navigate the Thar.
The entire weekend was most stimulating and I can’t remember having enjoyed myself so much in a long time. Besides the sheer exhilaration of driving through slush, ponds and rocky terrain, what made the weekend even more memorable was the attention to detail as regards the facilities provided..
I am sure that whilst the Academy is treated as a profit centre by M&M, there was no attempt to control costs, say, by rationing the mineral water and cold drinks. Or setting a per person budget at dinner.
So whilst Mahindra Adventure were generous with the budget, a special mention must be made of Abhishek Rahalkar of the Western India Sports Association (WISA) and his team who did an excellent job of taking care of the support functions; handing out the walkie talkies and helmets, ensuring at the same time that we were regularly supplied with snacks, tea, cold drinks and bottled water.
And finally, during the entire program there was no attempt to hard or soft sell the Thar or any other Mahindra vehicle to me. But if, after driving the Thar at Igatrpuri, I decide to buy one that is another matter. 😉
Disclaimer: I paid the fees to attend the course and if you are interested too can sign up. Details of the course can be obtained at the Mahindra Adventure website.