Almost the first thing Sarika Sehrawat tells you when you ask her about riding off the road in the desert is that it is risky. She is not trying to put you off but only warn you about the roller coaster ride a desert rally can culminate in her case it was in 22 stitches on her right hand.
Most rallyists seem to take such endings in their stride. Sunny Sidhu, 35, has participated in the Indian National Rally Championship five times and in the Rally Desert Storm as often. "My car has overturned twice but that's normal. You get used to it after a while and within 30 seconds you are up and driving again," says Sidhu who was a junior national skiing champion till insurgency in Kashmir made him give up the sport and turn to car rallies.
The most memorable and perhaps frustrating experience for Sidhu was the 2006 Rally Desert Storm. "We were leading the rally by 20 minutes till we took a wrong turn and then, as luck would have it, we had a flat and the engine had trouble. We ended up third."
Let's go dune bashing
There is growing interest in the desert rallies now and a lot of youngsters want to take part. "When I started in 2003, there were barely 15 participants but now the organisers have to restrict the number to 50 for the amateur section and 50 for professional because there are so many applicants for the rally," says Sehrawat, one of the few women participants.
The other interesting part of driving through the desert is dune bashing on a 4x4 wheel drive. It is the closest you'll come to a roller coaster ride without going on a roller coaster. And it is more fun because every experience is different.
Out in the wild, with hardly anybody in sight, you have to depend on your own wits to find your way. It's crucial to be completely in sync with your vehicle what it needs and how it behaves to negotiate the journey.
There is one part of the car that you learn to appreciate the most: the seatbelt.
This writer returned with renewed respect for the seatbelt after a desert safari with a couple of friends in Dubai. Because when the vehicle goes down the dune at a 45-degree incline, the humble seatbelt keeps you from hitting your head against the windscreen. Or, when the SUV is tilting sideways at a menacing angle, there is little to keep your body and wits in place than a seatbelt and a prayer.
Before you hit the desert track, you better reduce the air pressure of the tyres. It is also sensible to fix a long staff with a red flag on the bonnet of the car since you do not know what lies beyond the dune a flag will alert other drivers that there is a vehicle in the vicinity. After all, the last thing you want to do on such a terrain is to eyeball another SUV.
But before you begin to have fun, you will have to let go and relax. Nessa McDonald, 44, an expat living in Gurgaon who has been on The Indian Safari Club's desert ride remarks, "Once we decided not to worry about what could happen, the four-wheel drive in the desert was very enjoyable."
Though camel safaris are popular with tourists in the sprawling Thar desert, quite a few tour operators now offer the experience of an off-road jeep ride.
Says Reggi Singh, head of The Indian Safari Club, "For the adventurous few, we customise four-wheel rides to the sand dunes. What's interesting is that we are getting inquiries from Indians from urban areas like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore for such an experience."
Those who have been there know that once you are standing on top of the sand dune, the 360 degree view of the desert is spectacular. And to be far away from any road is an experience itself.
Or, as Palash Doshi, 52, an executive with an MNC who rode the dunes a few years ago in Dubai says, "Just think of it this way - nobody, not even you, will ever ride that road again. The sand dunes keep changing." Come to think of it, that's an interesting way of looking at a unique experience.
All you need to know
The tourist version
If a rally seems to hardcore, get your first taste in the lighter tourist versions available in the Thar Desert. For Costs vary depending on number of people and duration of drive. For more information, see www.thardesertsafari.com or www.vinodesertsafari.com. Approximate cost is Rs 600 per person, per day.
Ready to complete?
Desert Storm is a six-day rally that traverses 2,600 km through Rajasthan and the Gujarat coastline. It has three categories, 4WD and 2WD for pros, 4WD for amateurs and cars for amateurs. For more information, visit www.desertstorm.motorsport.in
You need to be physically fit and be able to take quick decisions. To compete professionally, you'll have to spend on a car (Rs 5.5 lakh) that you'll have to modify (about Rs 2.5 lakh), running costs (Rs 1.5 lakh) and the fees of a service team (Rs 0.5 lakh). Start with small events that require less experience and money, and slowly graduate up