The still-dark sky is keeping the hazards of the mountain road hidden. A purplish glow silhouettes the peaks making them seem alive and moody. Our cab driver is worried about the trickling streams, especially the ‘pagal nala’, so called because it floods on a whim.
We had left the lush surroundings of Manali well behind and were heading deeper into the mountain territory. The second, and possibly the most perilous, leg of the Maruti-Suzuki Raid de Himalaya was upon us.
Of men and mountains
‘Great things are done when men and mountains meet,’ William Blake, the English poet, wrote. We were about to find out.
The Himalayan Raid, the cross-country rally that ran from Shimla to Leh from October 6-11, is designed to test man and machine against the might of the mountains. While Rohtang was only on the transport stage of the second leg, what lay ahead was even more punishing.
With the organisers set on giving the media a ‘real’ experience, we took the same route as the Raid. The stretch from Gramphoo to Losar, the fourth special stage, was made up mostly of a narrow, crumbling trail comprising broken stone and loose mud in the main and snaking around the endless mountain range.
Not a blade of grass broke through to suggest that the land supported life; it could be the moon or Mordor for all we knew. As the day progressed, the sun beat down relentlessly. We traveled till the bones rattled, the head spun and stomach went queasy. But while our cars barely touched the speed of 40 km/h, the competitors screeched past these posts as fast as they could.
“Even though you have to go fast, you need to keep a cool head,” says Suresh Rana, who claimed his ninth Raid title (for cars) this time. “Coming from Manali, I think I have an advantage physically over my competitors and know how to manoeuvre on these roads.”
Coming from Manali, he also respects the mountains more than most. “You have to,” he says. “You have the respect every turn it throws up.”
The stunning, but grim, landscape followed us most of the way. Brief patches of tarmac, especially the 40-km flat expanse of the More Plains, providing some relief.
Battle for survival
One of the two Indian off-road rallies to be listed by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), what makes the Raid so difficult, and hence compelling for the participants, is the high rate of attrition. Of the 70 cars and bikes that entered this year, only 24 finished.
Suchi Thakur, one of the few women taking up the gauntlet, believes the key to finishing is “not to be stupid.”
“The terrain is really challenging,” says the Mumbai girl, who was competing for the eighth time. “You have to take each day as it comes, each stage as it comes and not push your vehicle unreasonably.”
But it’s not just the machines that need to be handled with care. The low temperatures and high altitudes have a way of sapping energy from the body and mind.
A veteran steward informs us that even the marshals have a high dropout rate. “We lose at least 20 to 25 % men past Manali,” he says.
For, Helmut Frauwallner, the 55-year-old Austrian biker who led the pack from day one and won, this edition was about visiting past demons and surviving them.
“I do about three to four cross-country rallies a year, but last year’s Raid was the toughest of my life,” he recalls. “It began in New Delhi itself when I had an upset stomach and just followed all the way through. I suffered with the altitude and the weather; everything was falling apart. I was happy just to complete it.”
Frauwallner had still finished second to India’s CS Santosh, who conquered the Raid in his debut year in 2012.
This time though, Santosh, 30, could not finish the rally as a flat tyre at the start of the third leg derailed his campaign.
In his absence, Stephan Rausch, who holds a corporate day job, finished second. But not without facing a moment of truth.
The Raid took on the Wari La (5250m) and Khardung La (5602m), the highest motorable roads in the world, on the last day. Bad weather had jinxed the leg in the previous years, and it was only the second time in the event’s 15-year history that Raid had traversed them.
A fresh layer of snow spread on the Wari La, plunging the temperature under zero degree Celsius and making the track slippery.
“It was almost game over at Wari La,” says Rausch. “There was complete lack of oxygen, I could hardly breathe. Times like that are very tricky because you are a few second away from giving up. And you don’t want that to happen on the last day.”
Lack of competition
While the mountains remain the biggest adversary, the challenge was somewhat undermined by a lack of competition.
All the cars in the Xtreme category were a Maruti Suzuki make even as their Indian competitors, most notably the Mahindras that made an appearance last year, decided to skip the event.
“I did miss a few of them, especially Sunny Sidhu, this year,” said Rana, who drove to victory in his Grand Vitara. “You need to test yourself against the best and drivers like him push you further.”
Both Rana and Frauwallner won by massive margins. While Frauwallner had almost an hour’s lead over Rausch, Rana was almost 25 minutes ahead of his closest rival Sanjay Agarwal.
Frauwallner’s manager, Stefan Rosner, says that the Raid had a massive following in Austria and among the rallying community in Europe. Does that mean the event will see more international names in the coming years?
“I don’t know about that,” he says. “They would love the challenge. But the biggest hurdle is getting their cars and bikes through customs in India. The Delhi airport is the first special stage of the Raid!”
In the six days, the rally route took us through villages with a population of 120, crossed small metal bridges named ‘Twing Twing’, touched down on the highest permanent settlement in the world ‘Komic’ and the highest army camp in the world: Pang. It’s a far out, lost world.
Most of the people we encounter are doing the last bit of business, waiting for the rally to pass so that they can pack up their little shops and tents for winter and head for more hospitable climes.
The Raid disturbs the peace of the monk country for a brief while before the mountains reclaim their land.